St. Sudan

Photo of St. Josephine Bakhita

Repost from February 2012 (with video at end)

Wednesday [February 8] was the feast of Sudanese St. Josephine Bakhita.  She was born in Darfur, Sudan and was kidnapped at the age of seven, sold into slavery and was given the Arabic name Bakhita, which means fortunate. She was brutally treated and re-sold several times, but in 1883 an Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan bought her, brought her back to Italy and eventually freed her. She then went on to become a Canossian Sister. If you have not read a book on her life, or seen the movie you must change that ASAP. Pope Benedict XVI also offered a remarkable meditation on her in Spe Salvi 3. The amazing Refugee Ministry Coordinator, Sr. Pat Scherer at St. Ambrose Cathedral here in Iowa, lovingly introduced me and my family to St. Bakhita. I am grateful especially that Sr. Pat attuned us to Bakhita’s lively, very personal and active presence among the communion of saints. Seek her intercession out a few times, and you will see what I mean.

I would like to share a Bakhita quote, taken from her latter years, that embodies her truly stunning insight into the deepest meaning of Christ-charity, caritas, agápē.  Her life and words in many ways embody the history of Israel, freed by God from the cruel yoke of slavery in Egypt that they might make known to all the world the great compassion of the true God who desires to rescue all slaves from oppression. Bakhita said:

If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today… The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone…we must be compassionate!

During her final agony, she re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more then once she begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains… they are heavy!”

St. Bakhita, from the Land of Freedom where you’ve crossed over Jordan, loosen the chains that still bind us today.

Let me honor her with this gorgeous rendering of Deep River, an African slave song that was a cry to God and a yearning for freedom:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.

A broken Sacrament

I had a profound experience today visiting Fr. “E.J.” Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha. I really don’t know how to express the power of what it represents other than using the word “love.” If you ever are able to visit it, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Among other things, Boys Town reunites children with their families, finds children foster homes and, most remarkable of all to me, provides in the Town a family environment for boys (and girls) with nowhere else to turn.

But today I just wanted to share one thing. While I was there on my pilgrimage for about five hours, I had an overwhelming and almost disconcerting awareness of the presence of fatherhood. I don’t know how else to explain it. Of course, the looming presence of the charism of Servant of God Fr. Flanagan was no doubt a part of that sense. But there was an even deeper sense that this fatherly presence transcended Fr. Flanagan, and the many other fatherly figures that I met throughout the day. There was a tangible sense of God the Father’s nearness to these grounds. But there was a particular moment when this was so overwhelming that I almost felt like asking the people around me if they also noticed. It was in Fr. Flanagan’s house. There was a painting there depicting him fishing with one of the Boys Town boys. Here it is:


Here’s what I later wrote in my journal about the awareness of I had of the Father’s presence:

I cried as I looked at this — quintessential fatherhood. The expressive faces. The unforced intimacy. The intentional wastefulness and uselessness of the time spent together — with love alone to justify. Such waste confirms dignity, worth, value. Steady, strong, selfless. You can’t see it in my photo, but with Fr. Flanagan’s crossed feet and the boy’s playing feet, both look like boys. Beneath God the Father, both are truly sons, and brothers. But together, side by side, they are father and son. It’s just amazing. I felt God the Father’s presence very powerfully, like a Sacrament somewhere nearby had accidentally broken open, allowed more of the Kingdom in than usual. Intimations, tiny inklings of what His unbounded love must be like. I kept thinking of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Even as I wanted to ask others if they sensed it, this presence made it hard for me to speak to anyone. I feared I would burst into sobs. All good, though. An unsought grace. May it bear fruit in my life. Deo gratias.

What’s a Saint?

Repost 2012

When I gave an “adult education” talk not long ago at a parish in New Orleans, I asked the participants to write out for me the definition of a saint before I gave them my own.

Whence the Saint?

I read through them all, and immediately noticed a pattern. While they all offered beautiful and accurate descriptions of virtuous behavior, not a single one mentioned that holiness has anything to do with God.

Now, I am not saying that they would not have brought in a more God-centered view if I had posed the question differently, but it speaks to what I believe is a pervasive view of Christian life among Catholics: that being a nice/good person is holiness, that holiness is what we do, and that heaven is what we get for what we do.

The rest of the night I affirmed their lovely and noble insights, but attempted to re-plant their insights into the Heart of Christ where all of the best of human striving is “caught up into divine love,” as Vatican II says it. I talked of sin, grace, sacraments, virtue and prayer, and argued that falling headlong into Christ is God’s way to God. And that means having a personal relationship with Him is for Catholics a sine qua non. I used stories of saints — especially St. Augustine– who found their vices healed, their virtues kindled and discovered profound meaning in life by loving Jesus. I shared this famous excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Even after all that, their faces seemed puzzled at my high emphasis on the need for Catholics to cultivate a relationship with Jesus. One said, “This sounds kinda Protestant,” and another said, “I’ve worked in Church ministries for 20 years and it’s just never occurred to me to have a relationship or friendship with Jesus.”

I was flummoxed. Then I decided to recount the story of an RCIA Candidate I knew in Florida back in the late 1990s — and that finally elicited from one of them an “aha” moment.

This RCIA seeker, from a Protestant background, had been struggling with a number of core Church teachings (e.g. contraception, Marian doctrine). I would spend lots of time with her outside the RCIA evenings dishing out the best rational apologetics I knew. Sometimes for a full hour afterward. She was smart! I was convinced I could argue her into the profession of faith.

But I was humbled to the dust one evening when she pulled me aside after class to share with me a profound experience of Jesus she had had that week while she was driving in her car, and just cried out in frustration: “Jesus, I just don’t get it! If you want me to be Catholic you have to help me out here.”  She said, “Suddenly I felt His overwhelming presence in the car, a presence of unimaginably tender love … as soon as I found myself in love with Christ, everything suddenly made sense. But I am not exactly sure why.’

I thought to myself, “Oh, yes, Jesus. Right. Good point.”

At once I recalled a comment the late, great Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown had made in a lecture I heard him give in Burlington, Vermont back in 1990. He said:

Christianity, unlike any other religion, stands or falls on one central conviction: to be saved, you must love the Founder who first loved you…only when Christianity has prioritized this conviction has it flourished.

Years later I shared this comment with a non-Christian colleague at Florida State. He said, “Hmm. Well, you’re a Christian. You got Christ in your name. Seems self-evident to me.”

I’m just slow.

Let me share with you Matt Maher’s musical setting of that great Augustine’s prayer:

St. Ignatius, Pebbles and Bam Bam

Re-post from 2012

He did not consider nor did he stop to examine this difference until one day his eyes were partially opened and he began to wonder at this difference and to reflect upon it. From experience he knew that some thoughts left him desolate while others made him consoled, and little by little he came to perceive the different spirits that were moving him; one coming from the devil, the other coming from God (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiography, no. 8).

For those of you who, like me, found the Flinstones to be a cartoon-staple as a child, you’ll appreciate this.

For whatever reason, a tune from one of the episodes popped into my head today. It was the episode where Pebbles and Bam Bam get to sing at the Hollyrock Palace. I played it for my kids on youtube this morning at breakfast, and they (mostly) loved it. Every day at breakfast I play random songs and sing, to try to bring some levity to the morning. As I listened to the words, which I had not heard since the 1970s, I realized that the author of that song must have been a thoroughly Ignatian thinker. No, really, seriously. I tried to explain that to one of my sons, but he objected that I had a knack for ruining perfectly good things by overthinking them. I could not deny it.

Okay, to speak Iggy-speak, their song, Let the Sun Shine In, talks about shooing away shadowy diabolic desolation by clinging to luminous divine consolations given through prayer. Too awesome.

Below are the lyrics, but listen here for yourself:

Mommy told me something a little girl should know
It’s all about the Devil and I’ve learned to hate him so
She says he causes trouble when you let him in the room
He will never ever leave you if your heart is filled with gloom

So, let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Smilers never lose and frowners never win
So, let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in

When you are unhappy, the Devil wears a grin
But oh, he starts a-running when the light comes pouring in
I know he’ll be unhappy ’cause I’ll never wear a frown
Maybe if we keep on smiling he’ll get tired of hangin’ around

If I forget to say my prayers the Devil jumps with glee
But he feels so awful, awful, when he sees me on my knees
So if you’re full of trouble and you never seem to win
Just open up your heart and let the sun shine in

So, let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Smilers never lose and frowners never win
So, let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in

4:00 a.m.

February 8, 2015

Journal entry


At an inner city New Orleans parish today.

After Mass an elderly black woman comes up to me and speaks with me.

“Good morning, young man. Are you a visitor?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“So nice to have you here. And your children. Not many families left in church these days.”


“I’m Edna, nice to meet you.”

“Tom, nice to meet you as well.”

“Tom, do you need anything prayed for? I’m part of a prayer chain. We get on the phone every morning, starting at 4:00 a.m.. We get on the phone and we pray together for the intentions folks give us. So many things to pray for! My own family’s enough to keep me busy 24/7. You got that? There’s always trouble out there. Trouble. What’s wrong with this young generation? Lord have mercy.”

“Wow. That’s really remarkable you pray every day at 4:00 a.m.”

“But son, don’t think it’s remarkable. It’s not. It’s just what the Lord wants. He wants us to turn to Him in trouble, to lift up our voices for others. Early in the morning, the Bible says, we must rise and lift our hands in praise and petition. Don’t you think that’s what we supposed to do?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Yes, Lord. Yes, we rely on His grace. Mercy, Lord. We rely on your mercies. Everlasting, Jesus. Your kindness is everlasting. Isn’t He awesome? Yes! Now what you need prayin’ for?”

“My family, my job. . .”

“Oh, yes, Lord. Lord, hear your son Tom. His family, God, his family needs your blessings. Take his beautiful children in your loving arms. Help him be the father you made him to be, God. The husband his wife deserves. And Jesus, make him a godly man in his work. Hard workin’, honest, just, like St. Joseph. Keep him in gainful employ, O Father. . .Okay, now I’ll be praying for you with my prayer team tomorrow morning. Alright?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Alright. Amen. You’re welcome. It’s why we’re here, right? To rely on each other. To lean on one another. To rely on Jesus. [she starts singing…] Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus. . .[she sang the whole thing]”

“Wow, Edna, I want your faith.”

“No, son, you want your faith. We each got our special way of loving God. Be the man you’re made to be. God bless you.”

She made the sign of the cross on my forehead and walked off.

Wow. Listen to what she sang for me:

In Summary…

This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”

Theology of Bodily Pain

“Dear Celine, sweet echo of my soul! If you knew my misery! Oh! If you knew… Holiness does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, in feeling them! … It consists in suffering and in suffering everything. Holiness! It has to be conquered at the point of the sword, one has to suffer, one has to agonize!” — St. Therese of Lisieux

Re-post from 2013 in honor of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Martyr

I shared in a post the other day some of the insights had I gained from Dr. Veronica Rolf’s book, Julian’s Gospel, that I read over Christmastime. It’s a scholarly book about the 15th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Reading this book made me re-appreciate the incredibly rich and unique theological vision of this solitary hermit. Most people who have heard of Julian would associate her with her highly popularized saying, “All will be well in all manner of being well.” What is usually not noted is that for Julian this affirmation of “ultimate wellness” refers to the end of history when Christ will return in glory to shepherd his people into the New Creation and bring evil to a final Final Judgement.

What really struck me as I read Rolf’s book was Julian’s sharp emphasis on the theologically positive meaning of bodily suffering. For Julian, and for her Christian contemporaries, bodily suffering was seen as a privileged — even the highest — means of entering into intimate communion with Christ.

Let’s take a moment to think about this astonishing affirmation together.   

Holy Communion

In the Christian spiritual tradition, the path to union with God is an irreducibly rich reality that embraces every aspect of human life. Some spiritual authors have emphasized the primacy of intellectual communion with Christ (e.g. knowledge of God in faith), others free will (e.g. love of God through the virtues), while others emphasize affectivity (e.g. spiritual feelings of longing for God or compunction over sins). Still others emphasized the primacy of devotion to the Liturgy and Sacraments. That said, within the Catholic spiritual tradition it is bodily suffering that plays a privileged role in opening us to intimate union with God. Whether it be the martyr’s pains or the agonies of  those who suffer from chronic pain or the hardships of the penitent or the countless daily discomforts that attend life, physical pain offers the faithful a singularly graced opportunity to commune with the suffering of God in Jesus Christ Crucified. 

The Visitation

Theologically speaking, every aspect of Christ’s human life opens up for humanity a fresh portal into the mystery of God’s limitless love. God clothed himself in human frailty in order to achieve a union in love with each human person. From the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, God’s Son made every detail of human life capax Dei, “capable of God.” Conception, gestation and birth; childhood and adulthood; marriage and family life; eating and drinking; manual labor and study; art and play; weariness and sleep; boating and fishing; growing angry and grieving; feeling joy and laughing; being tempted and afraid — all of these human realities were taken up by God in Jesus. Absolutely everything of the human experience of life, in Jesus, is shot through with God. Even sin (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). But above all, it is in the violent Passion of Christ — in its every detail — that the veil between God and humanity is torn open and we are granted unfettered access to the deepest mysteries of God.

Because the Passion of Jesus stands at the center of God’s saving plan, Christians have understood that bodily communion with Christ’s own pains are rife with spiritual power. Wonderfully subverting the twisted logic of sin and death, God transforms — through sacrificial love — that which is worst into what is best. In Christ, victimized Lambs defeat victimizing Dragons, and the inglorious specter of human suffering unveils a vision of divine glory. The suffering bodies of those joined to Christ in Baptism are made earthen vessels of celestial glory. For medieval Christians like Julian, this theological vision transformed physical suffering into a veritable “liturgy of the body,” as St. Paul’s admonishes us in Romans 12:1:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

For saints like the stigmatized Francis of Assisi, Christ’s violent Passion was a nuptial event of divine-human communion. The Cross was the supreme moment of Christ’s self-emptying love for his Bride, the Church; his consummatum est. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, drawing from this tradition, refers to Christ’s cross as “our marriage bed.”

There was a powerful awareness in the middle ages that the Holy Eucharist — the “wedding feast of the Lamb” — wholly contained the Passion of Christ, and to receive the Sacraments of Christ’s Body and Blood was to receive the wound-bearing Risen Christ.

Fr. Aidan Nichols, in his book Epiphany, offers a vivid description of this link between the Eucharistic liturgy and the details of Christ’s Passion:

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the “aversio” of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy.

Our suffering, united to Christ’s suffering opened out to us in the sacramental Liturgy (especially the Mass), becomes a co-redemptive self-offering that deepens our union with Jesus and brings life to the world. To embrace bodily pain in the economy of divine love is to embrace God in Christ — or, rather, to be embraced by God in Christ. This is the spiritual power hidden in the Morning Offering prayer:

O Jesus,
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer You my prayers, works,
joys and sufferings
of this day for all the intentions
of Your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
throughout the world…

St. Francis of Assisi’s vision of Christ, Francisco Ribalta, c. 1620. Taken from

That said, orthodox traditions of redemptive suffering never consider pain as a good in itself, and do not require that Christians accept suffering that can be legitimately avoided. Neither does our tradition not bind us to heroism in embracing suffering that can be avoided. Heroism, while always an option that can be chosen in response to one’s personal vocation, is never strictly required of anyone. In addition, Christians also confess that palliative acts of mercy to relieve human suffering are equally essential to a holistic understanding of salvation.

What the tradition we speak of here does affirm, though, is the wildly hopeful Good News. Life inevitably brings to us bodily sufferings, and a fully-lived Christian life brings with it its own hardships. The Good News? All of these can become not merely privations of health or well-being, but sacrificial offerings and experiences of profound intimacy with our crucified and risen Savior. On the Cross and from the empty Tomb Jesus secures for us a good greater than we could have ever imagined: nothing in life, no matter how bad, if given to Him, is wasted.

The act of faith opens to you this vision of bodily suffering, allowing you to see and experience the world in this way. Julian, who begged God to allow her to taste Christ’s bodily sufferings in her own body, wrote later that the terrible bodily illness she suffered opened to her the grace of “oneing in suffering love with God.” In other words, her pain became an instance of sacramental communion with the God’s supreme act of love for humanity on the Cross.

This vision of faith is radically foreign and strange to the eyes of a modernity that sees in bodily suffering only a meaningless enemy to be eradicated. But this insight bears within it faith’s most radiant mystery: the saving meaning of human suffering. It infuses ultimate meaning into a universal human experience, revealing to us that indeed God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

I will leave you with a quote and a musical piece. The quote was written by a Deacon, now deceased, whom I had the privilege of coming to know in Iowa. He was suffering the last stages of a painful terminal illness when he wrote these words to his children, and copied to me.  The musical piece is by Mozart, and is his musical setting for the liturgical text, Ave Verum Corpus, which reveals in only a few lines the exquisite beauty of the suffering that abides in God’s human love.

United with the cross of Christ, we are gifted with the blessing of sharing in His cross and participating in our own sanctification…