“She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.” – Rev. 12:2

“I’m working a lot more,” says Don LeBlanc, who cleans everything from operating theaters to patient wards during his usual 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift. “Now, it’s sometimes 10 hours or 12 hours [per day].” https://www.marketwatch.com/

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. — Charles Dickens in a Tale of Two Cities

One cannot extol enough the many people in diverse professions, circumstances and states of life who are presently living lives of great sacrifice and hardship now. People who, faced with fear and enormous obstacles, maintain a firm will to sustain hope, to defend life and to maintain good order in the face of the great forces of chaos that threaten us.

Though I never wish to idealize or romanticize people, these days of crisis have called us all to a new greatness — a greatness that for some involves risky work and exhausting hours, for others means dealing with job loss, illness or death, while others are challenged with suffering feelings of helplessness, isolation, loneliness or anxiety, even as they muster acts of courage and trust in God’s mysterious providence.

So many people’s lives of prayer — certainly my own — have turned away from more self-absorbed musings on their own spiritual lives, needs or personal fulfillment, and outward toward the needs and welfare of others. This reminds me of what a priest said several years ago in a retreat I was on:

The saints are quite unanimous: a premier sign of holiness is when your thoughts are populated more by considerations of the welfare of others than of your own, and in that you find your greatest freedom and joy. Certainly if we examine the prayer life of Jesus, as in John 17 or on the cross, this was His whole prayer’s concern: us and our salvation. And what preoccupies His mind now that He’s in heaven? Hebrews 7:25 gives a stunning answer, “He lives forever to make intercession for us.”

In the ancient pattern of God’s redeeming providence, these days of dark travail are ripe for transforming our wailing world into a labor and delivery room, from which a new era of saints can now be born. So it might be good for leaders within the churches, amid the scurrying, to heed the words of St. John Paul II, watch carefully and take note(s)…

…The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history.

Particular Churches especially should be attentive to recognizing among their members men and women of those Churches who have given witness to holiness, in everyday secular conditions and the conjugal state, and who can be an example for others, so that, if the case calls for it, the Churches might propose them to be beatified and canonized.

Homely Holiness

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. — St. John Paul II

I met him first in 1998. He has large calloused hands, dirty fingernails and speaks with a southern twang. He’s been fixing cars since he was a kid, under his dad’s tutelage. He works days, nights and weekends to keep his small business open, and the enormous commitment has cost him a lot in life. Not all good, he admits. But, he once said, “it put food on the family table and a roof over our heads,” as he points to the photographs of his sons and wife pinned to the cork board behind the cash register. He runs an honest business, and you know when you bring your car to him for repair you’ll get all the information you need to decide what’s best for your budget. He’d give you the shirt off his back, remembers everyone’s name, treats his customers like family. He loves to ask me questions about Catholicism whenever I come by, tells me about his struggle to “remember God during the day.” On the wall in the garage is a framed quote: “We abide by the Golden Rule here.”

I met her first in 1995. For about ten years before we met, she had worked for the Catholic Church in a full time ministry that focused on coordinating among several parishes an organized outreach to nursing homes and to the home bound. Her goal, she said, was to make certain the elderly who were without the personal touch of family or friends would have someone to love and advocate for them, and who would allow them to find nourishment for their faith. She finally retired about six years ago, though she continues to serve on a voluntary basis. She always felt a special calling to accompany the elderly who were dying. This, she believed, was her “call within a call” — to be a presence of compassion for people at the end of life. She has shared with me, over the years we have known each other, dozens of stories recounting the ways Jesus has used her to work deathbed miracles of healing, forgiveness, family reconciliation and acceptance of death.

Both have confided to me their inner demons, and both have variously confessed these demons have been their greatest life teachers. As my dad loved to say, “No one can be saved without humility. But you have two choices: Practice it willingly, or God will strip everything from you and teach you. Though most usually take the second, I highly recommend the first.”

I live very far away from both these people now, but, by coincidence, spoke with each of them over the last two weeks. Two very different people from very different backgrounds, but the effect they each have on me is always the same. They leave me lifted, hopeful, filled with a renewed desire to be a better man. I feel more human. As a member of my wife’s choir puts it, “they ooze goodness.” Not Pollyanna goodness, but goodness wrought amid the thorns and thistles of life. People like them, to me, stand among the hidden “pillars of the world” whose greatness is in being unsung, quiet, sans the glitter of memorial plaques and applause. Homely is the holiness I personally find most compelling.

There are so many of these I have come to know. I try to touch the hems of their garments when I am with them.

My wife has long said to me that the people she is most inspired by in life are those who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning people who lack self-knowledge or a strong sense of self or who evince a spiritual low self-esteem. Rather these, she says, are self-less, less self, who very naturally shift the center of gravity to others. In the words of St. Paul, those who “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but humbly count others more important than [themselves]” (Philippians 2:3).

St. John of the Cross and Mr Rogers

Happy feast of St. John of the Cross, that saint of the luminous night.

At the core of St. John’s teaching is that God — especially by our prayerful consent in daily silence — mercifully comes into our distracted, neurotic, insecure, addiction-ridden, ego-driven lives and gradually dismantles — purges — the tangled mess of our compulsive narcissism in order to free us and make us ever-more capable of receiving divine love.

God does this heart and brain surgery, St. John says, both by means of infused mystical grace and through the painful grinding and sifting of graces embedded in our daily responses to all that life throws at us. Our grace-drenched choices to live in love in the midst of an always imperfect world forges us into the image and likeness of Jesus Crucified. This is what St. John is getting at in this my favorite quote from him:

…engrave this truth on your heart … you have not come to the monastery [or marriage, priesthood, a parish, a job, etc.] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building.

Thus you should understand that those who are in the monastery are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you.

You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter the religious life for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering the religious state, you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

What power there is in the conviction that the primary discernment of God’s will in our lives is not whether we should take this or that path (e.g. a state in life or career). Rather, the primary discernment is, how am I to best submit myself to the Master’s chiseling Hand in every moment, wherever and with whomever I find myself.

In other words, the universal and founding vocation is the vocation to Christ-love, all-ways. The rest is commentary.

St. John contends that only when we are capable of receiving divine love from the lowliest, roughest and most hidden of places are we truly empowered to give love in those places. And the capacity to love in the lowliest, roughest and most hidden of places is the end game of salvation. St. John:

A la tarde te examinarán en el amor; aprende a amar como Dios quiere ser amado y deja tu condición, “When evening comes, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.”

As I was watching an interview of Mr. Rogers late last night, I was deeply moved by his description of his own life disciplines that reveal to me the secret of his extraordinary loving character. I have it queued here to the place in the interview, and this segment lasts just over 5 minutes.

A Hidden Life

Again, I would like to strongly encourage you to see the movie about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter that comes out in theaters this weekend and next weekend. It is very intense, but very powerful.

My wife and I saw it at a film festival already, but I will refrain from commenting on specifics to avoid any spoilers. But I will say that, if I could choose a tagline for the movie, it would be that of St. John Paul II: “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.”

Conception

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” — Genesis 18:12

In honor of today’s solemn feast of the Virgin Mary’s sinless conception, I will simply honor the beauty of the sexual act of marital union her elderly parents, Sts. Joachim and Anna, engaged in to bring about that blessed conception. To not reflect on and honor — or even mention — the beauty of that human and conjugal act in honoring a conception is unthinkable. And, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker said,

What does it matter? Well, it matters because marriage is blessed and the marriage union is sacred. If God uses this most natural and basic human action – sexual intercourse – to fulfill his work in the world, then all marriage is sacred and the marriage bed is not to be defiled.

In the Christian East, allusion to this sexual act is the image that captures the mystery of Our Lady’s holy conception best. The Russian icon I include below, from the 16th century, shows, as Orthodox priest Fr. Joseph Gleason says, “saints Joachim and Anna near their bed, preparing to conceive the Blessed Virgin Mary. These saints had sex with each other, and there is no hint of shame. It was a pure, holy, and blessed event.”