Baptism in the Lord

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[re-post from 2017 in honor of the Baptism of the Lord, which opened the way for your Baptism]

The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God. ― Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar 

Recently, I was talking with a man I know who was not able to go to daily Mass that day, as he had some heavy family and work commitments. He said because he couldn’t go he felt “spiritually empty and sad.” When I asked him why he said, “Because I didn’t get my daily dose of grace.”

Now, the Church certainly commends daily Mass as a worthy practice, and my wife and I are personal beneficiaries of its benefits when we are able to go. And would that more Catholics struggled with his desire and sadness!

However…

Seeing Mass as a “fill” at the divine gas station for otherwise empty souls is deeply mistaken. Such a view overly externalizes sacramental grace and can alienate us from attending to the immensity of what is already now within. The grounding truth of Sacramental life is that within each baptized Christian, who lives the life of grace, flows a limitless and unsealed the fountain of upwelling divine life. The Eucharist  “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism.”

When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I kept hundreds of pages of handwritten notes on everything I read. When I wrote this entry in 2006, I had just finished an article on the stunning absence in St. John’s works of any significant reference of the role of the Eucharist in the mystical life. Here’s what I wrote:

Especially considering the Council of Trent’s looming emphasis, in the mid-late 16th century, on the role of the Eucharist in Christian piety, John’s near silence is really astounding. Quite different from Teresa, but very much in keeping with various strands of medieval mystical traditions that emphasize cultivating what has already been received in baptism. For John, All is already within, awaiting our consent to burn away all resistance and divinize the spirit and flesh.

For John…

…Baptism has awakened the Kingdom of God within, and the King enthroned on the peak-less Mountain awaits our permission to wage war and conquer.

…the Sower has planted in the soul a seed of divine life poised to germinate, to grow into a cosmic Tree of Life that will fill and move heaven and earth, offering healing leaves and life-giving fruit for the world.

…Baptism unsealed within a hidden infinite fountain of living water, the upwelling eternally proceeding Spirit whom I come to see flows from the Father and Son…all of which happens within me at every moment.

…Baptism made my body a Temple of the Trinity, Who unite themselves to me via three divine portals, i.e. the theological virtues of faith (intellect), hope (memory) and charity (will), each of which uniquely make me capable of knowing God, remembering God and loving God, with God.

…Baptism mystically [hiddenly] plunges me into Jesus’ death and resurrection, overthrowing the reign of sin and death in me…and thus in the entire created order.

…Baptism effects in me eternal re-birth from God, in “God from God.”

…Baptism  marks me indelibly with Christ’s priesthood, empowering me to co-offer my crucified body with His to the Father, and to love with the very love of the crucified God

…Baptism makes me a new creation, and through me makes all creation new.

…Baptism reveals the regenerated heart as the nexus of matter and spirit, if we permit it to be.

It was not lost on John that his experience of transforming union with God, which he describes in his poem One Dark Night, happened during the nine months he spent in solitary confinement, deprived of Mass, Communion, sacramental Confession, even his Breviary. All he had in his dark latrine-turned-prison-cell was the living, upwelling, infinite inner Well, once unsealed by Baptism, from which sprang divine life, light and love.

In the first seven or so centuries of Christianity, daily Mass only very slowly evolved as a common practice, originating in monastic contexts. Sunday was, from ancient days, understood to be the weekly Eucharistic event, the organizing center of time. The other six days of the week were for drawing Water at the inner Well to water the deserts around, by prayer and work, the gathering of sacrificial material from a life of fidelity to Christ, for the solemn Eucharistic offering of Sunday’s “little Easter.” The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life.

All this to say, if you love daily Mass but can’t attend because you are unable, remember you are far from empty. My God! Within you, at this moment, flow eternity’s “rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:38), “rivers of fire” (Dn. 7:10). Within you dwell the greatest mysteries of heaven and earth, of God and man.

I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. — Eph. 4:1-6

Let me conclude one of St. John of the Cross’s rare references to the Eucharist, in which the living Waters flowing within meet the living Waters flowing from the Eucharist. I imagine him experiencing this profound hidden confluence during those nine months of ex-communicated isolation.

Mama Caterina da Siena

For this great feast of St. Catherine of Siena, I thought I would quote one of my favorite passages from her work, The Dialogue, which is her mystical dialogue with God the Father.

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God related to Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.

From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect and that you have been drinking from your vessel outside of the fountain, even though your love was drawn from me. But it is because your love for me is imperfect that you show it so imperfectly to those you love with a spiritual love.

Merciful eyes

Yep, a post.

Last night my wife and I watched The Original Image, an exceptional documentary on the history of the original painting commissioned by St. Faustina’s spiritual director, Blessed Father Michael Sopocko, to depict her vision of Jesus. I recommend it highly: www.originaldivinemercy.com

I wanted to share one simple insight the documentary gave me into the image’s unique departure from iconographic orthodoxy — its portrayal of the risen Jesus’ eyes looking not directly ahead, but downward. Why this change?

Evidently, St. Faustina explained that the Lord wished by this subtle departure to communicate that He, in His risen state, retains His downward gaze from the Cross. That insight made my heart skip a beat.

Beneath Him from the Cross, of course, were His mother, the faithful women and John. But also present, and far more vast, was the great throng of cursing, angry, fearful, confused, hateful, cowardly, cruel, blaspheming, ridiculing men and women. All of these Jesus looked down on as He died, not with hatred or self-pity, but with steadfast love.

All I could think of in this regard was Mark 10:21’s description of Jesus’ countenance toward the rich young man who turned away: He de Iēsous emblepsas auto ēgapēsen auton, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Look up, now, into those eyes…

Faustina’s subtle visionary-artistic shift is to me a fresh rendering of Romans 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” As I thought on this last night, laying outside on the front lawn with my son watching a violent thunderstorm approach, I drew into my mind’s eye the Prodigal Son story and rewrote Romans a bit: “God proves his love for us that while we were still wallowing about in mud and slop among the swine, Christ looked down at us with unfathomable love.”

St. Maximos the Confessor, come to my aid:

Those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for He longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

May we allow His eyes, His downward gaze from the Cross to bathe us today with God’s lavish, limitless and longing love. His forever mercy. And may we, standing under that gaze always, then be empowered to bear that same countenance toward the faithful and the unfaithful, the virtuous and the vile, the great saints and the great sinners. Amen.

Kindly Light, online

In the digital environment, too, where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail, we are called to attentive discernment. Let us recall in this regard that Elijah recognized the voice of God not in the great and strong wind, not in the earthquake or the fire, but in “a still, small voice” (1 Kg 19:11-12). We need to trust in the fact that the basic human desire to love and to be loved, and to find meaning and truth, keeps our contemporaries ever open to what Blessed Cardinal Newman called the “kindly light” of faith. — Pope Benedict XVI

The kindly light. What a magnificent phrase Newman coined to express the spirit of the Christian who refracts the splendor of divine Light into the darkness. How desperately the digital world needs such kindly polished prisms these days.

What the Pope argues here is that the universal human desire for love, meaning and truth finds in the digital world a privileged forum for the discovery of Love, Truth and Meaning incarnate, Jesus Christ, in the words and witness of those who bear His Name. For the Christian, every word, every action, every image contains the potential to influence for good or ill, to reveal or conceal God, to consecrate or desecrate digital space. I think here of Matthew 12:36:

I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.

This reminds of a colorful story from the life of that fool for Christ, St. Philip Neri, who once offered a woman a creative penance for her sin of spreading malicious gossip. He instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the church bell-tower, rip it open, and scatter the feathers into the open air. Then he asked her to come down from the bell-tower after she had emptied the pillow of its contents and collect all the feathers that had dispersed throughout the town. The impossibility of completing this penance is, he said, a parable of the irretrievable damage she inflicts on others each time she chooses to spread gossip.

I find a simple way to judge my impact on the world under my influence is to examine whether or not my words and deeds appear to cultivate and communicate the fruits of the Holy Spirit:

Love
Joy
Peace
Patience
Kindness
Goodness
Gentleness
Faith
Modesty
Self-control
Chastity

When I served with the Missionaries of Charity, we would pray this prayer written by St. John Henry Newman every day. It remains in me as a perpetual examination of conscience, and seems a fitting conclusion to these scattered thoughts…

Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with Your Spirit and Life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of Yours.

Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel Your presence in our souls.
Let them look up, and see no longer us, but only Jesus!

Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as You shine,
so to shine as to be a light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be ours.
It will be You, shining on others through us.

Let us thus praise You in the way You love best, by shining on those around us.
Let us preach You without preaching, not by words but by example,
by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear for You.

Amen.

 

“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.”