Calluses and dusty prayer

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A truly humble person ought to be ashamed to resent whatever is said or done against him; for it is the greatest shame in the world to see that our Creator bears so many insults from His creatures, and that we resent even a little word that is contradictory. – St. Teresa of Avila

My spiritual director back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was the most important mentor I have had in my life. He walked me through the “valley of the shadow of death,” and helped me discover hope. And he was a saintly priest who exemplified charity and humility in the most amazing ways.

He was a parish priest whose first love was being a pastor. Part of his priestly ministry in the latter years of his life was to take into his rectory priests who had grown bitter or burned out, and love them back to life. * Every morning, when I would stay overnight at his rectory, I would see him already praying in the tiny rectory chapel at 5:00 a.m. Often he would be holding the parish directory, which he kept next to his Breviary to pray for his parishioners by name. * It was his personal philosophy to not own a car that was better than those owned by his poorest parishioners. * I was with him once when he got pulled over by a cop for speeding. The officer offered to waive his traffic violation ticket when he noticed he was a priest. He said, “No, I’m a priest not a prince. Why should I get any perks my people do not?” I think the cop got choked up. He followed through with that philosophy through on everything. * He would wander around the neighborhoods of his parish territory several mornings a week and enter bars, clothing stores, restaurants, car repair shops — the haunts of his people — and speak with them, joke with them, bless them, hear their confessions on the spot or gently ask them why they have not been at church recently. Long before Catholics Come Home, he was already in the streets seeking the strays. * Once he said to me about his own prayer life, devoid of sweetness, “Tom, I have eaten dust in my prayer for 20 years. But [he said with a wry smile] it’s my own fault. I pray each day that God give me the grace ‘to give and not to count the cost,’ and He answered my prayer. Be ready when you ask for a grace to receive it.”

Though his prayer may have been bitter, the fruits born in his life and ministry were sweeter than honey. What a marvelous and mysterious exchange love effects! Long before Pope Francis, he was a missionary of mercy. It was all a wonder to see.

I would write down his aphorisms in my journal to pray on later. So many! Each was like open heart surgery. Let me share four today that were on humility.

Remember Tom that once you think you’re humble, you’ve lost it. Humility forgets it’s even there.

The best litmus test of humility is how you take criticism. Yes, you’re so humble, Tom, when everyone praises you, likes you, affirms you. Yes, you deflect those things. But if you are honest, you know you secretly feed on them. But the moment someone criticizes you, disapproves of your behavior or opinion, you throw up walls, protests. You’ll know you’re humble when praise and blame are both equally welcome. In the mean time, make your lack of humility a cause for humility!

When I came to my parish here, the secretary, who had been here for over 20 years, gave me this advice: “Father, let the people know no job is to low for you and you’ll have their trust. Let them see you clean toilets now and again.” There’s a terrible clerical saying — “These hands were made for chalices not calluses.” But Jesus, His hands would have been hard and worn.

Whenever anyone compliments you on any one of your gifts or talents, say to yourself: “How much God must love them to give me these gifts.” Because it’s not about you, Tom.

Santa Caterina da Siena

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century. wikimedia.org

You, eternal Trinity, are the craftsman; and I your handiwork have come to know that you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son. — St. Catherine’s Dialogue #167

St. Catherine of Siena’s feast is today! She is a very special saint for me, and for several of my lay Dominican friends. Let me share just one little nugget of her golden wisdom today.

Her spiritual director, Bl. Raymond of Capua, recounted a vision of Christ that Catherine had when she was at prayer. Jesus asked her, “Do you know daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have happiness in your grasp.” Then the Lord continued, “You are she-who-is-not, I AM HE WHO IS.”

Stark.

To acknowledge the radical contingency of being, that all of us at every moment absolutely depend on God for existence, is to have in place a firm foundation. If such is my vision, I must always live in a fundamental posture of grateful receptivity before God, aware at every moment that all is gift. And because the Giver of the gift is love in His deepest essence, love must come to define my life as the only fitting response. This also establishes in us the profound humility of a steward, makes the practice of prayer entirely natural, and reveals the Sacraments to be life-giving fountains from which HE WHO IS raises she-who-is-not up into His new creation. There, in a world conceived by the Heart of God, she even comes to share in His beginning-less eternity and limitless love.

As Pope Benedict XVI said:

Like St. Catherine, every believer must feel the need to be conformed with the sentiments of the heart of Christ to love God and his neighbour as Christ himself loves. And we can all let our hearts be transformed and learn to love like Christ in a familiarity with him that is nourished by prayer, by meditation on the Word of God and by the sacraments, above all by receiving Holy Communion frequently and with devotion.

After her vision of Christ, St. Catherine continued with a prayer that captures powerfully the beauty of this “HE WHO IS/she who is not” dialectic. May the prayer of St. Catherine become ours this day.

And you, high eternal Trinity, acted as if you were drunk with love, infatuated with your creature. When you saw that this tree could bear no fruit, but the fruit of death because it was cut off from you who are life, you came to rescue with the same love with which you created it. You engrafted your divinity into the dead tree of our humanity. What drove you to this to give back life to this creature of yours that had so insulted you? Only love. And was it enough for your charity to have effected such a union with your creatures? No. So you, eternal Word, watered this tree with your own Blood. Thanks, thanks to you, most high eternal Father, for revealing this truth – madly in love as you are with your creature.

Lay Saint!

Today I thought I would simply, and without additional commentary, share with you two strangely related insights found in two different emails sent to me by two different friends.

The first, sent to me by a friend in New Orleans Tuesday afternoon, recounted a remarkable little story. The second, sent to me later Tuesday night, contained a series of excerpts from a letter Pope Francis wrote very recently to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

I thought the coincidence of time and theme was good enough reason to post them together. I will refrain from commentary as they speak for themselves.

Email #1:

I sat outside today at Rue De La Course studying for my Scripture final exam. I was approached by a homeless gentleman seeking money and we struck up a conversation. His name was Ronnie, he was weathered and obviously living on the streets but had a joyful countenance about him. He noticed I was reading “Jesus the Bridegroom” so the conversation went in the direction of Christ and his love for us.

Ronnie shared with me that for 2 1/2 years he studied at the Baptist seminary because he thought God was calling him to be a pastor. Towards the end of his time there he heard God say to him, “Ronnie, (we talk like that because we are good friends) I called you to study here not to become a pastor but to go out into the world and reach those that only you can reach. I have given you gifts, you are street wise and can work with your hands. It is there that I am sending you to teach them about me”.

Lay Saint! What a great witness he was for me and for so many!

Yea God!!! So cool!!

Email #2:

I remember the famous expression [of St. John Paul II]: ‘It is the hour of the laity,’ but it seems that the clock has stopped.

Clericalism brings about a homogenization of the layperson, treating as ‘mandatory’ limits to his or her diverse initiatives and efforts, and I would dare to say, the audacity necessary to bring the Good News of the Gospel to all places of social and overall political activity.

Clericalism, far from giving impulse to diverse contributions and proposals, turns off, little by little, the prophetic fire from which the entire Church is called to give testimony in the heart of its peoples. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belongs to all the people of God and not only an elect or illuminated few.

What does it mean for us pastors the fact that laypeople are working in public life? It means finding the way to encourage them, to accompany them and to stimulate all the attempts and efforts they are already doing to keep alive hope and faith in a world full of contradictions, especially for the poorest.

It is not the pastor who must say to the layperson that which they must do and say; he or she knows more and better than us. It is not for the pastor to decide what the faithful must say in their diverse settings.

Priests often fall into the temptation to think that the committed layperson is he or she who works for the Church or in things of the parish or the diocese, and we have reflected little on how to accompany a baptized person in their public and daily life. Without realizing it, we have created a lay elite believing that only those who work in things of priests are committed laypersons; and we have forgotten, neglected the believer that many times has their hope burned away in the daily fight to live the faith.

These are situations that clericalism cannot see, because it is more worried with dominating spaces than creating processes. We must then recognize the layperson for their reality, for their identity.

It is illogical, and even impossible, to think that we as pastors should have the monopoly on solutions for the many challenges that modern life presents to us. On the contrary, we must remain at the side of our people, accompanying them in their work and stimulating that capable imagination of responding to current problems.

Our role, our joy, the joy of the pastor, is truly in the helping and the stimulating. Laypeople are a part of the Holy Faithful People of God and therefore are protagonists of the Church and the world; we are called to serve them, not them to serve us.

The Law of Love

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I remember the day when I first heard love defined. I always imagined it was one of those fuzzy things that evaded definition.

It happened in my moral theology class. The professor, as I recalled in my journal, was responding to this question from a student: “In what sense can morality be said to be the science and art of love? The moral law seems too cold for love.” He replied by making a number of points about love:

Love means to consistently will and otherwise choose the true good of another, and morality specifies what the good is and how best to bring it about. Aquinas says it this way, “An act of love always tends toward two things: to the good that one wills, and to the person for whom one wills it; since to love a person is to wish that person good.” Law, which is the concrete expression of the demands of justice, grounds and guards love, and points the way “beyond” for love to go, since love always goes beyond justice, though never against it … To “love your neighbor as yourself” means you see their flourishing as your own. So St. Paul’s commands us in Romans 12, “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” and then tells us in 1 Corinthians 12, “If one member of Christ’s Body suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” And the Jews have a saying, “If you save one life you save the whole world” — because everyone’s salvation demands the salvation of all … But fulfilling the command to love God is somewhat different. It cannot mean willing and choosing His fulfillment, as He is purely actualized fulfillment. He always is everything He can be. Rather, to love God can only mean loving what God loves, willing what He wills. Which is, of course, the fulfillment of our neighbor, which brings us back full circle to the two commandments Jesus tells us are two halves of a whole.

I was absolutely ecstatic to have such conceptual clarity, and so much seemed to suddenly make sense. The connection between love and the moral law, love of neighbor and self, and love of God — all part of a symphonic unity. Christians must reclaim the word love so it does not remain simply an empty cipher susceptible to any meaning given it, and they must put it into action in their lives to show just how beautiful it is.

He went on to add an additional insight on love. He said, “The Second Vatican Council, under the influence of Karol Wojtyła, further enriched our understanding of love. He said that love is not simply the detached willing another’s good, external to ourselves, but the offering of the very gift of self to another.” Then he quoted Gaudium et Spes #24, adding that Wojtyła likely was a major inspiration behind its language:

For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

Then he quoted 1 Thess. 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves [tas heautōn psychas], because you had become very dear to us.” That’s the essential meaning of communion and covenant: an exchange of selves offered in love sealed by a promise of trusting fidelity. It’s why marriage — as I often say — is the foundation of all social and ecclesial life, and the primordial icon of neighbor love in extremis, “in its most extreme form.” Society and the Church flourish only when marriage, and the family life built on it, flourishes.

Back in January a friend came to visit us from out of town for a few days and she showed us this 9 minute movie that knocked our socks off. It captures in such a moving way the heart of what Aquinas and Wojtyła convey with such abstract precision. I posted it the other day, but just in case you did not watch it before, I encourage you to watch it now. Again, it’s about 9 minutes long:

Never to make a change

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The fifth: In time of desolation never to make a change; but to be firm and constant in the resolutions and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation, or in the determination in which he was in the preceding consolation. Because, as in consolation it is rather the good spirit who guides and counsels us, so in desolation it is the bad, with whose counsels we cannot take a course to decide rightly. — St. Ignatius of Loyola

I have found over the years that the majority of bad decisions I have made were made in the midst of “desolation” – confusion, fear, depression, anxiety. It’s so incredibly tempting to shift course when darkness comes, because when you find yourself in a state of desolation there arises deep within an almost compulsive need to break free from its grip and seek immediate relief. In that frame of mind you easily succumb to the fantasy that everything will be better if you just change direction.

Ignatius’ counsel is clear: do not to change course on well-discerned decisions you have made previously until the storms of confusion pass and you have a restored sense of peace and clarity within which you can think clearly. A healthy human spirit and/or the Holy Spirit produce a sense of inner freedom and peace, while an unhealthy human spirit and/or an Evil spirit conjure a sense of inner compulsion and turmoil.

So many bad decisions can be avoided by keeping firm to this Rule.

I thought of all this when I heard Phillip Phillips’ song Home the other day. The refrain captures the spirit of Rule Five wonderfully. The last lines of the refrain remind us that in the midst of our desolation, when we feel lost and homeless, we need to seek out those safe spaces in our lives that are our “homes,” where peace, trust, hope and all the fruits of the Spirit abide. There we can think aright and can become aware of the fact that God never leaves us alone. Indeed, He who descended into hell can make even the darkest places in our life, those places from which we would rather flee, our “home.”

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Here’s the song:

Annunciation of the Lord

Coptic Egyptian icon of the Annunciation. stanthonycocpa.org

Today is the delayed Feast of the Annunciation. To honor Our Lady, I will share a poem I wrote a few years ago. I titled it by the Aramaic word for mother, Imma. Below the poem is an Eastern Hymn, O Virgin Pure. May you be filled with the joy of God her Savior this day.

O Imma

O rejoice! you who gave Eternity birth
O rejoice! Ark fashioned in virgin earth
O rejoice! All-awash in mercy’s tide
freely flowing from the open Side
of a timeless Future crashing in
to stay the hand of Adam’s sin.

Your womb, O Chalice most pure,
now bears for us our heavenly Cure:
Heaven come down, the Lover of Man
has made you Bearer of His saving plan.

Plead for us this day, death’s hour, always
to the deathless One, the Ancient of days
whom you came to know so dear, so near,
kissing His face, sweeping His needful tear.

Look now on Him who bowed down low
to visit us with weal, not woe,
and wrap us in garments of eternal light
to put death’s dread darkness to flight.

O Earth’s Shrine of God Above,
O Graced Giver of the God of love,
O Seat of Wisdom who first taught
the Hearer of prayer to pray as He ought:
to you we raise our hymn of joy,
Rejoice! O Woman without alloy
for today, in you, all creation God has saved;
in you, O Word-in-Flesh engraved. Amen.

+ + + +

O Virgin Pure:

O virgin pure, immaculate: O lady Theotokos
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O fleece bedewed with every grace, O virgin, queen and mother
O rejoice, bride unwedded
More radiant than the rays of sun and higher than the heavens
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O joy of virgins choruses superior to angels
O rejoice, bride unwedded
More bright than the firmament and purer than the sun’s light
O rejoice, bride unwedded
More holy than the multitude of all the heav’nly armies
O rejoice, bride unwedded

O ever-virgin Mary, of all the world, the Lady
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O bride all-pure, immaculate: O lady Panagia
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O Mary bride and queen of all, the cause of our rejoicing
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O humble maiden, gracious queen, supremely holy Mother
O rejoice, bride unwedded
More honored than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious
O rejoice, bride unwedded
Beyond bodiless Seraphim, transcending the angelic thrones
O rejoice, bride unwedded

Rejoice, the song of Cherubim; Rejoice, the hymn of angels
O rejoice, bride unwedded
Rejoice, the ode of Seraphim; the joy of the archangels
O rejoice, bride unwedded
Rejoice, O peace and happiness and haven of salvation
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O sacred chamber of the Word; the bud of incorruption
O rejoice, bride unwedded
Rejoice delightful Paradise of blessed life eternal
O rejoice, bride unwedded
Rejoice, O sacred tree of life and font of immortality
O rejoice, bride unwedded

I supplicate you, Lady now, I fervently entreat you
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O queen of all I earnestly implore and seek your favor
O rejoice, bride unwedded
O gracious maiden spotless one, O lady Panagia
O rejoice, bride unwedded
I call upon you ardently: O holy, hallowed temple
O rejoice, bride unwedded
Assist me and deliver me protect me from the enemy
O rejoice, bride unwedded
And make me an inheritor of blessed life eternal
O rejoice, bride unwedded

Athiest Dialogues

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Dr. Turner at the 2016 Notre Dame Seminary Aquinas lecture

The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas Aquinas into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains. — Denys Turner

I am a great fan of Denys Turner, who teaches at Yale University. He gave me invaluable feedback on my dissertation back in 2007, and helped me to see the ways that St. John of the Cross utilized the apophatic tradition to critique both popular piety and the charismatic renewal (alumbrados) that swept the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century.  The “apophatic tradition,” from the Greek word apophasis, meaning “un-saying,” is a philosophical-theological methodological means of coming to knowledge of God by way of saying what God is not rather than by means of affirming what God is. St. Augustine famously expressed this Christian form of agnosticism thus: “If you comprehend, it is not God. If you are able to comprehend, it is because you mistook something else for God. If you almost comprehend, it is again because you allowed your own thoughts to deceive you.” Though Christian theologians affirm we can come to a real, true and saving knowledge of God, who has indeed revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, they likewise affirm that God infinitely exceeds all of the limits of finite human (and angelic) knowing.

Along with their careful qualifiers to all affirmations about the nature of God, apophatic thinkers also like to employ flourishes of paradoxical metaphors (God is a “dazzling darkness” or “silent speech”) or excessive superlatives (God is above/supra-, beyond/trans-). They also oscillate between linguistic reserve (saying as little as possible) and linguistic excess (saying far more than they should) to facilitate the mind’s openness to God’s limitlessness. In other words, apophatic authors are literary strategists who aim to deconstruct our childishly opaque conceptual idols and transform them into mature and translucent icons open to the living God (1 Cor 13:11-12).

Here’s a sample of an apophatic text written by the highly influential 6th century Syrian apophatic theologian (psuedo)Denys the Areopagate:

Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, opinion, reason or understanding; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is He standing, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is He science nor truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness; nor is He spirit according to our understanding, nor filiation, nor paternity; nor anything else known to us or to any other beings of the things that are or the things that are not; neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.

Okay, let me stop here and share with you two gems from Denys Turner.

Dr. Turner is a very careful thinker and has in the last 20 years made important contributions to the dialogue between atheism and Christianity, especially in his 2004 book: Faith, Reason and the Existence of God. Like Fr. Frederick Copleston, Fr. Henri de Lubac and David Bentley Hart, Turner is a great example of how a Christian thinker can find in atheist critiques of Christian belief an important path to deeper and more honest reflection. Here’s a 14 minute clip of Turner’s dialogue with British atheist, Jonathan Miller. If I may encourage you, persevere to the end:

Second, Dr. Turner came to our seminary in January to give a lecture on St. Thomas Aquinas’ apophatic theology:  ‘One with God as to the Unknown:’ Thomas and the Pseudo-Denys on the Darkness of God. It was one of the highlights of my academic career to meet him, hear him lecture on Aquinas and (!) talk about St. John of the Cross’ apophatic mysticism over a Guinness. Could I possibly restrain my hyperbole over this last point? Absolutely, unquestionably not. I am very happy to say we recorded his lecture and if you are interested here it is for your podcast-able listening pleasure. Click here.