Risen to play

Resurrection (Noli me tangere) by Giotto, 1304 Taken from http://vultus.stblogs.org

Re-post from 2014

As I read today’s Gospel, which includes the “hide and seek” interchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, I could not help but see in it a beautiful and playful innocence. All of the resurrection appearances elicit sheer surprise and joy, spontaneous expressions of affection and astounded amazement, or sometimes a disoriented fear. These make me think that somehow God is childlike wonder and that, like any good parent, He delights to see how we respond to His deeds of surpassing love.

Last week, as I sat in the pew with my family waiting for Holy Thursday Mass to begin, my youngest daughter was looking at the Triduum readings and asked me why Jesus always seemed so solemn in the Gospels. I said, “Well, He’s not always solemn.” But she replied, “Yeah, ok. How many people begin sentences with, ‘Amen, Amen’? Who speaks like that?” I tried explaining as best I could the meaning of the “Amen, Amen,” and then used some of Fr. James Martin’s examples in his book Between Heaven and Mirth to argue that of course Jesus had a lighter side and a sense of humor. But my examples of first century Semitic humor in the Gospels just didn’t cut it. She said:

Maybe, but I guess I mean you don’t ever hear that Jesus had fun — except of course when he was a kid. You don’t hear anything like, “And Jesus went out and played with his disciples.”

It took all my power to not burst out laughing. Not because I thought her point was silly, but because it was so deep and jarring and rang true that I nearly exploded. She said it with such sincerity that it made my heart hurt. It also formed a new and surprising insight in my mind about what a “playful Jesus” could even mean in the Gospels. Last night I was thinking of her question, and reflected on all of the resurrection appearances. I got a vivid sense that the Risen Jesus, with His sudden appearances and disappearances, must have been filled to overflowing with the thrill of God’s eternal childhood. That was fully revealed only in the humanity in Jesus — especially His Risen humanity, which was free from the shadow of death. In those appearances and disappearances we see that God’s original desire to joyfully play with man in Eden. He can’t even wait until sunrise, in case they might catch Him. It seems that on Easter morning Proverbs 8:30-31, which speaks of God’s Wisdom personified (which is identified with Jesus in John 1:1, 14), went from a mere metaphor to stark reality. Proverbs 8:30-31:

I was with him in the beginning forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times. Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus only when He says her name. How awesome is that! Imagine the love in His voice when He spoke her name. Then in response she calls Him Rabbouni, which means “my little Rabbi.” Then, like a small child, Mary wraps her arms tightly around Jesus, as if to say: “Don’t leave! Stay and play!” But Jesus tells her to not cling to Him because he has not yet ascended to the Father. I don’t hear in His voice here a solemn or kill-joy scolding. Rather, I hear an excited voice saying: “Not yet! Just wait till you get to the New Garden I am going to prepare for us. There we will play and dance and laugh in sheer joy for unending ages with ‘my Father and your Father.'”

That’s an interpretation I would never have come to without my daughter having first taught me that night in the pew. I have grown old in sin, but am graced again and again through my children to see the world afresh through a child’s eyes (Matt 18:3).

I will leave you with a quote from David Bentley Hart that sprang to mind as I wrote this reflection, and leave with you a song which is about Mary Magdalene encountering the Risen Jesus.

The quote:

To see the world in the Christian way — which, as I say in the book, requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter — is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality (I almost sound Kierkegaardian when I say it that way). But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. I’m waxing quite Eastern here, I know, But that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.

The song:

St. Enemy


On January 25, the Conversion of St. Paul, I had one of those insights that, when you get it, makes you suddenly see everything a bit differently. It’s an insight that I already had, in a sense, known before, but had never seen this specific set of connections. Orthodox theologian Fr. John Behr says that theology is the act of discovering in the “matrix of the Scriptures” the unifying light that shines from the cross and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what this insight was for me. I wrote it down in my journal right after I read the account from Acts 9:1-19 of Saul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. If you can take the time, look up the Scripture passages I include. Here’s my journal entry:

Years ago I had this insight: The first written Scriptures of the New Testament were written at the command of Pontius Pilate: “What I have written (gegrapha) I have written (gegrapha)” (John 19:22). The fullness of Truth first written in mock, public revelation made known first as the rationale for the execution of God: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” written in the sacred and secular languares of Jew and Gentile. That’s the word for Scripture, graphḗ — like Matthew 4:10,  “for it is written (gegraptai).” Now I see something here, something new in new wineskins. My God, the first Scriptures of the new covenant were written by a Gentile, and an enemy. Inscribed into the heart of the Gospel, into the heartbeat of the Word and His life-giving Tree, is the new commandment of enemy-love that tears down all dividing walls and reconciles all things by the Lamb’s bloodshed (Col. 1:20). No wonder the chief priests objected: “Do not write (graphe), ‘The King of the Jews’…” (John 19:21). How could such a thing be the completion, the “it is finished” (John 19:30) of the sacred Scriptures? Again amazed: in this new covenant, this strange new economy, even men whose expedient ethic intends an innocent death can all at once be unwittingly revealing the Gospel of the enemy-loving God of mercy (John 11:49-51; Gen. 50:20), who is “above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). All! This is the heart of the mystery of mercy. My God.

How equally marvelous that Jesus chose Saul, an enemy (Acts 9:4), to proclaim the Gospel of agápē-love and mercy to the nations (cf 1 Tim. 1:16); to serve as the ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20) whose core mission would be to effect Jesus’ own work of tearing down the walls of hostility that stood between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:14). How wonderful that God chose a blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13) to serve as a vessel of inspiration for nearly half the New Testament; a murderer (Acts 9:1) to proclaim the Gospel of life. St. Paul’s revolutionary encounter with the Risen Jesus seared in his mind the mind of the enemy-loving Christ (cf Phil. 2:5-11), and equipped him in a singular way to be the preacher of the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). This love of enemy (Rom. 12:20-21) was spoken from and embodied on the Cross (Luke 23:24; Gal 3:13). The cross emboldened Paul to express the most radical expression of selfless love found anywhere in Scripture. These words always make me shudder.  Speaking of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus as he once had, Paul said in Romans 9:3:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.

May Christ make me always gratefully aware that I also am equally an enemy-made-friend by Christ’s mercy (Romans 5:10)! O Lord, fill me with the courage to live daily by that same mercy toward others, to abide by that same mercy within which I at every moment live and move and have my being. Amen.

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28

The Fearless Cross

The well-known poem of St. Teresa of Jesus, Nada te turbe, “Let nothing disturb you,” is a masterpiece of literature in its simplicity, density, symmetry and rhythm.

Nada te turbe, nada te espante todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda, la paciencia todo lo alcanza,
quien a Dios tiene nada le falta sólo Dios basta.
Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you;
all things pass, God does not change;
patience attains all; one who has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

We even have an original autograph of the text written in Teresa’s own handwriting in the margin of her breviary:

This brief text is an existentially rich and poetic meditation on Christian faith and hope. Theologically speaking, the formal object of faith and hope is God, revealed in Jesus Christ, who alone is the origin and end of all things (Revelation 1:8; 22:13) and who alone is the immovable standard by which all change is judged. One who trusts this God amid life’s chaos, violence and storms discovers a counter-intuitively provident God. Why do I say counter-intuitively? Because God has fully revealed His provident care in a shockingly unlikely place: the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

This God reveals Himself to be both present and active above all in life’s darkest realms, seemingly farthest away from the reach of His omnipotent power. On the Cross, God reveals His omnipotence in impotence, His wisdom in folly, His love in the midst of hatred, His order in the midst of chaos, His life in the dungeon of death, heaven even in the bowels of hell. God does not promise a life free from disturbing or fearful circumstances, but provides an anchor sunk deep into the stormy abyss. Sinking your anchor into the crucified God brings stabilitas, “stability” to the center of your soul. This paradoxical stability in the midst of the earthquake, anchor in the midst of the storm is hauntingly extolled in this ancient Carthusian motto:

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The cross is steady while the world whirls.”

Nada te turbe is not a prayer (since it is not addressed to God), but is a theological meditation providing the basis for praying with trust in the midst of the “terrors of the night” (Psalm 91:5). We trust not because we wishfully think away negative reality with positive thoughts, but because the God in whom we trust has dealt decisively with all reality in Jesus Christ, transforming the tomb into a womb, the desert into a place of springs, the cursèd tree into the Tree of Life, the night into a presage of the immortal Dawn. There in the tomb, in the desert, on the tree and in the night we meet Him as God-with-us, fashioning through, with and in us a new heavens and new earth.

Colleen Nixon sang a gorgeous rendition of Teresa’s meditation, and appended to it a prayer that asks God to “consume us” by His grace, especially as we consume His life-giving death in the Eucharistic banquet. Colleen chose a fitting coda to St Teresa’s words, as by it we are invited not to flee from reality into wishful fantasy, but rather to plunge into the heart of God’s confrontation with the darkness in the slain Lamb. Are you ready to be thus consumed unto trust?

Here’s Colleen:

Fortuna encounter

“St. Francis preaching to the birds,” c. 1336. Giotto di Bondone

There are a few priests I have met in my life who have a “fool for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10) spirit, characteristic of saints like John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Philip Neri and Seraphim of Sarov. There’s something untamed (mōroi) about their spirit, though they are fully grounded in reality. Their missions and personalities hold paradoxes, like St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “sober intoxication.” Their off-beat love is doled out with unequaled equality toward both God and humanity, heaven and earth, spirit and mud, time and eternity, angels and birds, the itty and the infinite. They have unshakable joy but can drink to the dregs bitter sorrow without losing hope. They are free of inhibition yet entirely obedient. They are “wholly other” yet too close for comfort. They crack you up and then use that loosened space to let God in. They disorient us to reorient us in-sync with God. They tear down dividing walls by straddling the margins, drawing the edges into the middle, sending the middlers out to the edges (Ephesians 2:14). Fools grab our attention, only to then self-obviate Christ-ward. Their elusiveness discloses their borrowed light. The spontaneity of their love is a sign of divine Wisdom’s playful providence, summed up in the Resurrection (cf Proverbs 8:31; John 20:14-16). They show us that other-worldliness is merely a step-back from this world in order to Shabbat with God, so-loving with His Son the ruins of this very good world, re-creating with the Spirit of the Risen Re-Creator (cf Genesis 2:2; John 3:16, 20:27). Holy fools are friends of the Bridegroom, servants of the wedding of heaven and earth, ministers of the Easter Exutet, which exclaims: “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.”

These “fools” are what all the Baptized are ordinarily called to be, but in extremis, “in the extreme.”

As I said, I’ve known a number of priests that fall into this category. Just to name three: Fr. Michael Champagne, CJC (Lafayette, LA), Msgr. C. Slade Crawford (Pensacola, FL) and Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR (New York City). Here I’d like to pause on Fr. Stan for a moment. I have followed his work for 20 years, but I met him for the first time last week at a novena-mission held at St. Ann’s parish in Metairie, LA. He preached a novena of morning-evening talks (18 separate talks!) in honor of St. Ann, whom he referred to as “the mother of the Mother.” Meeting him for me wasn’t an encounter as much as it was an event. He “happened” to me. Grace in your face. He’s a man of wildly diverse gifts: an inner city street evangelist who uses to good effect his edgy New York personality, street smarts, theological wisdom, diverse range of musical styles, poetry, philosophy, mysticism, story-telling, humor and a very earthy appreciation for the good things of life.  He’s an author and a brilliant musician, ranging from hip hop to jazz/blues to sacred music. And he’s amazing on the 6-string. My kids love his music. As I listened to him, I could only think of this line from Pope Benedict:

If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

Let me share with you three Fr. Stan videos. First, I asked him to allow me to record a message for my NealObstat readers. As my older brother said when he watched the video, I was giddy. I told Fr. Stan nothing other than the name of my blog, but I must say what he said in 54 seconds caught brilliantly the core message I work to forefront in all my teaching. Second, I recorded the last song he sang on the last night of the novena. Two musicians, who were at the mission, played with him, though with no practice beforehand. It was nuts! Sorry for the homemade quality of the video, but it does get better after the first 30 seconds. Some other time I will share with you the message he gave my children. Finally, I include my kids’ favorite song of his, about suffering. If you wish to listen, enjoy them all.

Heaven, earth and colonizing

Fr. Michael Champagne. i.vimeocdn.com

I taught an adult faith formation class recently, and I asked them what “being saved” meant. Lots of good answers, mostly revolving around “getting to heaven.” I then talked about what it means in the New Testament and in Catholic tradition to “be saved.” I said something like this (cobbled together here from my notes and memory), which, at the end, you will likely feel sorry for those poor folks (and yourselves) subject to such a lengthy monologue. I began with a quote from Anglican biblical scholar, NT Wright, that I had brought with me:

“We could cope — the world could cope — with a Jesus who ultimately remains a wonderful idea inside his disciples’ minds and hearts. The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb, who inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one.” Being saved for Christians does not primarily mean receiving a “get out of jail free card,” a gratuitous release from God’s just punishments in Hell. It’s far more. Being saved for Catholic Christians means allowing God to stoop down to salve us, to put healing oil on our wounds, to pick us up off the ground where we lay bloody and beaten, and bring us into what Pope Francis calls the “Field Hospital” of the Church. There God does brain and heart surgery on us to align our thinking and loving with the thinking and loving of His Son, who is Himself the one and only “man fully alive.” Being saved means being made well as God sees “well.” But not just for ourselves. We are made well so we can exit [Ite! Go!] the Field Hospital and go out onto the dangerous highways and byways that lead to Jericho and rescue others felled by human malice or life’s misfortunes. Let’s read the Good Samaritan story now [Luke 10:25-37] to see what Jesus means by salvation …

You know, there’s this amazing priest in Lafayette, Louisiana that I nearly idolize — Fr. Michael Champagne — who for the Year of Mercy bought an ambulance and ‘tricked it out’ to serve as a portable Confessional, to bring God’s mercy out into the highways and byways of a broken world [see here]. This is what every Christian is called to do in their own way, wherever they are: saving others by giving mercy precisely because they’ve been saved by mercy. We pray in the Our Father that we ourselves will become “earth as in heaven.” Heaven isn’t just a state of being we “get to” one day, it’s what we are called to become now in this world. St. Paul tells us that our bodies are “temples of the Spirit” [1 Cor. 6:19]. In Judaism, a Temple is where heaven meets earth, where the borderlands between the two nearly collapse and heaven overwhelms earth, claiming it for itself. At Mass, we quote the Seraphim who sang in front of Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6:3): “Heaven and earth are full of your glory!” AND! Isaiah was in the Jerusalem Temple when he heard this hymn, and where he was standing — the Holy of holies — the borderlands were dangerously thin. In speaking of our body, Paul uses the Greek word naos, which means we are the Holy of holines now …

Think here also of the holy Eucharist. That’s really what transubstantiation means. We Christians, by means of our “saved” lives, gather, like ex-leper Naaman the Syrian [2 Kings 5:17], a portion of the “substance” of this world and carry it to God in worship as bread and wine. The bread and wine at Mass represent earth claimed for heaven by our heavenly lives on earth, and we give it back to be claimed by God for heaven. Claimed=consecrated. And note we don’t call the Eucharistic change neosubstantiation, as if we’re swapping the neo-new substance of the Risen Jesus out in place of an old, discarded world. No! It’s trans-, which means change, carry across, take up into, even metabolize this creation into the new creation … Look, there is no mistaking why Jesus commands us to eat the transubstantiated eucharistic Food and Drink: So we, and the world we have claimed by our God-claimed lives, can be metabolized, taken up, carried across or passed-over into the new creation in the Risen Jesus. Do you feel the mind-blowing here? …

But really, what does heaven look like when it arrives here? Is it some ethereal glowing light or celestial music? The Our Father tells us clearly that heaven is where God’s will is done, and when God’s will is done things look really, really good. In Jesus’ ministry, as all those healings and liberations were happening, and there we began to see around Jesus what it looks like when God’s will breaks into our God-rejecting, fallen world. This is super-good stuff! St. Paul says that “the kingdom of God [which is where God’s will is done] is not a matter of food and drink but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Righteousness [which means doing justice God’s way], peace, joy, service, upbuilding. All sounds fabulous to me! So this is what being saved looks like and means. Not simply “going to heaven” but becoming heaven. Read Romans 12 tonight — there St. Paul says to offer your bodies to God, and then describes what that looks like in practice. The new creation is very practical, making of the heavenly minded the most earthly good.

The whole moral life for Christians is really about being human God’s way, which is what Christ is, and “being in Christ” really means giving Him permission to re-create us that way by means of grace Sacraments and prayer; means letting the Master Craftsman carve us into a crucifix … We are to, as NT Wright says again, “colonize earth with heaven,” and not just wait for a post-mortem heaven when we finally get to leave this crappy world behind and bid it good riddance … 1 John 5:13 tells us, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” Not will have, but do have eternal life now. The rest of the Letter of John tells us what that means, what it looks like; and it means, of course, to love others God’s way, now. Today is the day of salvation. To love like God, with the very love of God in your heart, is to make God present in the world. And when God’s present, He consecrates everything around Him. He can’t help it. God always brings heaven along with Him when he is welcomed. Mother Teresa said that a saint (who’s the supremely ‘saved’ person) is “someone in whose presence it’s easy to believe in God.” … A Latin hymn says it so beautifully: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est, “Where charity and love are, there is God.” So next time someone asks you if you’ve been saved, take inventory of how much of your earth has been claimed by heaven … Echo Belinda Carlisle and make heaven a place on earth, where love comes first…

I then shared a story I had read that day about the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Jeffrey Tucker, who is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, spied Scalia one day after Mass engaging in heaven’s colonizing work. I will leave you with his example to ponder and imitate:

It was a spring afternoon some years ago, and he was attending church services, sitting in a back pew, holding his prayer book in his hands. The Mass had ended and most people had gone. He was still saying prayers, alone in the back pew.

He finally got up and began to walk out. There were no reporters, nobody watching. There was only a woman who had been attending the same services. She had no idea who he was. I was a bystander, and I’m certain he didn’t know I was there.

What was a bit unusual about this woman: she had lashing sores on her face and hands. They were open sores. There was some disease, and not just physically. She behaved strangely, a troubled person that you meet in large cities and quickly walk away from. A person to avoid and certainly never touch.

For whatever reason, she walked up to Justice Scalia, who was alone. He took her hands, though they were full of sores. She leaned in to say something, and she began to cry.

He held her face next to his, and she talked beneath her tears that were now streaming down his suit. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t try to get away. He just held her while she spoke. This lasted for perhaps more than 5 minutes. He closed his eyes while she spoke, gripping her back with his hand.

He didn’t recoil. He stood there with conviction. And love.

Quiet desperation, part II

…Then we all knelt together as the celebrant prayed the Roman Canon:

…we, your servants and your holy people,
offer to your glorious majesty
from the gifts that you have given us,
this pure victim,
this holy victim,
this spotless victim,
the holy Bread of eternal life
and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

I thought after these words prayed in the aftermath of Consecration: Did anyone hear this? Among us now is a victimized God, the risen Jesus, and He’s just devastated this creation by making it pass-over into the new creation in that bread and wine! He’s inviting us to heap on Him our burdens so He can re-create them as well. But He makes all things new so gently, “like the dew fall.” Here we heap our heavy burdens on Him, and He makes them light. He is immaculate, yet became filthy. Holy, yet made sin. Joyful, yet shared our sorrows. All “for us men and for our salvation…” Do we know that He treasures our unkempt offerings — gathered in quiet desperation — as the most precious of gifts? Are we aware that Jesus is inviting us to co-offer ourselves with His broken Body and spilled Blood to the Father? Do we see this Mass as the fulcrum of life’s deepest meaning, where resignation becomes hope and desperation becomes prayer? The God of the Mass is not ethereal but earthy, not saccharine but sacramental, not distant but dirty. Our holy Communion is with Jesus, God-with-us, stooping down at every moment to save, redeem, heal, restore, strengthen, enlighten, purge, raise up and fill us with every good. He loved us into existence, and does so again at every new moment, and at Mass more than anywhere He asks to receive the entirety of our life’s reality so He can make it His own. He wants everything.

Now it’s Communion. “…enter under my roof…” How absurd it really is: God chooses bodily ingestion as the way to effect our supremely intimate Communion with Him? Madness! What an unconditional and staggering affirmation of God’s desire to enter even every messy detail of our bodily life, from the lowest digestive secretions to the highest spiritual aspirations. Or really is low-high there appropriate? “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14).

Aside: I recall here my dogmatics professor in grad school once describing the Gnostic heretical rejection of this orthodox Christian doctrine of God-becoming-flesh as a natural instinct — a “theological yuck factor” — for those who find the material/fleshy world less than good or beautiful (which btw is the double meaning of the Greek in the LXX of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν, “very good/beautiful”). “For Gnostics,” he said, “the idea that God would condescend to assume the basest bodily functions and raise them to divine dignity was utterly disgusting.” But, he continued, for those who believe that God created those bodily functions and stamped them with His image, and believe that God drew humanity out of a swamp teeming with life, the Incarnation was supremely sublime.

On the way out of Mass, a woman near me muttered to someone next to her: “…I know, we have to go visit her now, but damn I hate going to that Godforsaken place. So depressing.”

I went to my car and drove away. What did we miss? Ite, missa est. Go, be sent.

The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught. — Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB

Quiet desperation, part I

This is a selection from my journal back in early 2012. Stream of consciousness, and somewhat long (hence split in 2 parts):


I love the Thoreau quote that for whatever reason I think of more than once a week. It captures something grittily true about my experience of people and of life. The older I get, the more I see its penetrating truth.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

Once I get beyond the first moments of superficiality in a conversation with someone, and set sail into their world with open ended questions, succeeded by a pause long enough afterward to actually listen, so often the quiet desperation begins to speak. Right on this point, a priest colleague here in Des Moines made some phenomenal points just last week over lunch.

Hearing Confessions keeps me very aware that life is hard for people. And trying to be a good Catholic makes it harder, because you cut against so much of the cultural grain. Once I started to hear Confessions after I was Ordained, my idea of what I should preach about totally changed. I went from lofty to realistic. I really try to think out of the world of God’s people. I try to listen to God’s Word, preparing my homily, by listening to people close-up throughout the week. That’s Jesus-preaching, right? Speaks directly to the people’s real world experiences. It’s a marvelous thought to realize God only finished revealing Himself totally after He entered our world and lived our human life with us. Only then He was able to speak not just as “the God of eternal bliss,” but as the man of sorrows.

When I’m at Mass, I sometimes look around during the Offertory and imagine what each person’s story might be — the stories of hopes, dreams, joys, successes as well as the stories of pain, loss, struggle, heartbreak, fear, sadness, estrangement, addiction, disappointment. I imagine these people somehow wonder, as they sit in the pews: What does God have to do with life outside this church? I know some of their stories, but most I don’t.

Last Sunday…

The family in front of me, I know their struggle to make ends meet. Two small children, two jobs. The husband works 60 hours in a 6-day week as an EMT and goes to school at night trying to get certified as a paramedic. Comes home around 11:00 p.m. and gets up at 4:00 a.m. to do it all again. The wife is a nurse.

To my right in the pew is a man I know who suffers from alcohol addiction. He hates it, but his friends are drinkers and he finds himself trapped in a cycle. He lives alone and is terribly lonely. A history of broken relationships, a family torn by division. He cares for his elderly mom who lives a block away, and she worries about him. He and I spent some time together a little while ago talking at his dining room table and he showed me a crumpled prayer card he prays every day. A St. Jude novena.

Across the aisle from me is a woman whose husband won’t go to church, and he makes it difficult at home for her trying to raise their children in the faith. She has all the kids in the pew, and she always kneels in front of Our Lady’s statue after every Mass. I wonder what she says?

About 5 pews behind me is a married woman who’s been tempted to infidelity. She’s tortured by guilt and confusion.

Way in the back near the south entrance to the church is a couple in their 60’s with their severely disabled son in his 20’s. He makes loud noises throughout Mass, and they seem embarrassed.

One of the lectors suffers from bouts of severe depression, and the usher at the west entrance — always smiling — has a wife at home with advanced dementia. He invited my wife and me to visit her. How beautiful to see how he spoke to her with such love. She seemed to not know who he was, but she was sweet.

Then coming in during the Gospel was a young mother of many — always late, for obvious reasons. Maybe too many children to handle, she says on darker days. She’s a remarkable woman who bears a heavy load in life. Her husband is a bit, let’s say, in his own world and talks to people after Mass while she corrals her scattered brood. She says complains to God at times about why He gave her so many children. I wonder if I should tell her having babies isn’t just God’s doing? How arrogant of me.

The cantor sang the psalm verse: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.”

The woman in front of me was reading the bulletin during the psalm. She seemed interested in the upcoming parish bazaar flyer insert.