Unsung heroes

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).

This month I heard three stories that I had to share here. People like these, and countless others, are among the sweetest fruits of the Incarnation. I told a seminarian the other day that one of his gravest duties as a priest will be to notice the hidden greatness in such people, and encourage them.

The first story I was not able to get permission to recount, but it seemed general enough to share without compromising privacy. The second and third I did ask permission to share.

My wife met a man recently who is in his 70’s. He told her all about his wife. She has Parkinson’s and he cares for her at home. He said it’s a 24/7 commitment, but that’s “what I signed up for when I said ‘I do’”. He apologized to Patti after about 30 minutes of talking. “I’m sorry, I know you have to go. Thank you for listening.”

Early this month I met a woman who has a teenage son. Her boyfriend left her soon after the baby was born and since then she’s never married. “It’s been a hard 14 years. I came back to my faith soon after we broke up. Someone introduced me to Theology of the Body and I decided then to not have sex outside of marriage. To wait. But every man I have met since then has not wanted to wait, so here I am still single. I’m just like, really dude? But I won’t compromise. I trust God knows what He’s doing and my son is the most important thing in my life. I want him to see I am serious about my faith. Pray for me.”

Last week I spoke to a woman whose mother still lives alone in her house, but is at the point where she will no longer be able to remain independent. Her mom’s in her early 80’s. The woman said she is the only one of her siblings who still speaks to her mom, so she carries all the burden. She herself has a full time job and children both in college and still at home. Her mom is stubborn and does not express gratitude, but complains about everything. “I know it’s the dementia. She used to be sweet. But it’s hard to deal with every day. I struggle with anger and guilt. But I try not to show it to her. Mostly my husband has to listen to my frustration. Poor guy.” I told her I’d email her this quote from Jewish author Dennis Prager that I posted once before in this blog. She emailed me after receiving it: “What a relief that quote gives me. Thanks a bunch. Pray for me.”

Here’s the quote:

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than the $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!

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One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no “job” for the “graduate” to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries. — Deacon James Keating

I met with some colleagues yesterday to discuss lay faith formation. You know, my same ole’ trope. Here’s my journal entry from last night. A collage of thoughts:

Every diocese, and every parish and Catholic institution in every diocese, should communicate unambiguously that their best energies are in service to lay Catholics called to live and move and have their being in the world, doing their secular things, and learning how to do them God’s way. In service to helping the lay faithful discover, embrace and carry out their noble secular vocations. Their best energies in service to the work of formation, catechesis, preaching, cultivating small faith communities, etc. All geared toward adequately resourcing those 99% of Catholics not called to church ministry but called to be salt, light and leaven in the lay apostolate. All geared toward illumining the specificities of people’s professional lives; the specificities of their life as faithful citizens in the ordinary, local, day to day worlds they inhabit; the specificities of their married/family lives; the specificities of their engagement with culture.

Those called and gifted for church ministry, ordained or not, need to be all about the specificities of these secular missionaries, experts in the actual details of the real people they are called to serve in the parish, school, nursing home, hospital, etc. under their care.

I remember when a reader of this blog 2 years ago wrote me and begged the church for this:

I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christian at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful, from “do good and avoid evil” to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionnaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

I desire nothing more in my work as a theologian-catechist than to detonate this “lay apostolate” teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the midst of the ecclesiastical scene of America. I feel I am inept before such an immense task! I want to kiss the feet of those who are sent out into the world to live there, love there, work there, play there, witness there, struggle there, suffer there in order to bring every aspect of the secular life they inhabit into contact with the re-creating power of the living God.

The aggressiveness of anti-religious secularism begs for an equally impassioned religious secularism, an unleashing of the secular genius of the laity that does not withdraw into safe-zone ministries or world-renouncing enclaves insulated from society and culture, but a laity that boldly exits every Mass with a re-enkindled sense of their world-enhancing mission to imbue all-things-secular with the very earthy love of God.

In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

Those of us who are Baptized are living temples (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), bearing within the fullness of a God who longs to take delight in His creation. As His image, we were created to be the locus of His delight in creation, the nexus of His love, the fire of His justice, the channel of His peace, the overflow of His mercy, a prism for the light of His Face to shine gloriously on all things He has made (Revelation 4:3). Man’s vocation is to reveal to all creation that His love for her transcends her finite longings. It is astonishing to think that it was by becoming man (John 1:14) that God chose to purify, reconcile (Isaiah 11:6-9), elevate, espouse (Isaiah 62:4) and reveal to all creation her final destiny of transfiguration in a New Creation where God will be all in all. The Incarnation was not just about us, but about the whole cosmos He entrusted to our care to cultivate and lift back to Him transformed and consecrated by means of our priestly hands (Romans 8:18-30; 12:1).

How God loves all He has made (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)!

St. Maximus says it beautifully:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence 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.

To be Love

Therese playing St Joan of Arc. catholichousehold.com

I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr; as if I could never satisfy the needs of my nature without performing, for Your sake, every kind of heroic action at once. I feel as if I’d got the cour­age to be a Crusader, a Pontifical Zouave, dy­ing on the battlefield in defence of the Church. And at the same time I want to be a priest; how lovingly I’d carry You in my hands when you came down from heaven at my call; how lovingly I’d bestow You on men’s souls! And yet, with all this desire to be a priest, I’ve nothing but admiration and envy for the humility of St. Francis; I’d willingly imitate him in refusing the honour of the priesthood.

I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!

Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!” — St. Thérèse of Lisieux

There was a woman in New England who was a real mentor to me back in the late 1980’s. She was married, had four adult children and, as I recall, several grandchildren. She worked for a parish as a pastoral minister, coordinating the outreach works of the parish to the bereaved, poor, sick and elderly. She dedicated most of her own time to visiting the homebound and bringing them Holy Communion. She had such a heart of compassion and was super intelligent. We’d hold a theology discussion for hours. She also worked with the diocese in offering encouragement and prayer support to priests who were in a difficult spot — maybe feeling isolated, depressed or struggling with alcohol.

One time she and I were talking about women and priesthood. She shared with me a remarkable perspective that I wrote in my journal and will replicate here. Though I can no longer obtain her permission, I am certain she would not mind my sharing it. I’ll change my journal and call her Jean. The insight seems so basic and simple, which is why it’s so profound. I’m so grateful I journaled all these years!

Jean and I talked for almost two hours about women and priesthood. Fascinating! She said that back in the 70’s she’d gotten caught up into the woman-priest movement. She told me that she felt that seeing so many women feel the call to be priests was just too strong an evidence that God was indeed calling. But she also felt a desire to be faithful to the church’s teaching. She loves the church so much. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

But in the early 1980’s she came across “Story of a Soul” and suddenly had her whole worldview shaken. She read the part where Thérèse says she feels all of these callings in her, but feels terribly limited by her one life and feels all the tensions of frustration. Something like that. But then, Jean said, Thérèse comes to this remarkable realization that her feeling called to vocations she is not called to is really an overflow of the “more excellent way” of Love Jesus had planted in her. That her attraction to all of these callings was like a reverberation of restless Love, which is the soul and fire and compelling force of every vocation.

Jean realized, she said, that the Love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” also WANTS all things, and so includes in its scope everything. If it’s really divine Love, that is, since God’s Love is catholic. And those who feel called to a vocation they cannot live aren’t being called by God to break the system He’s set up, but to remind those who feel so-called that their REAL vocation is not “this or that,” but is EVERYTHING: to Love.

Jean said that’s the real purpose of every vocation, and wherever you find yourself, even if you’re confined to a small POW cell, you can live an infinite vocation if you Love there. Jean said she suddenly saw that if she lives Love in her life, she will in effect be living out every vocation since it is Love that pulses through the whole Body of Christ. Each member of the Body who gives him or herself over to loving in their own small plot of life unleashes God’s Love on the whole Body and so on all vocations. She said that’s why 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are back-to-back chapters. I’ll have to read them again with this in mind.

She ended our conversation by saying she realized after her epiphany that the feeling of being called to priesthood was indeed a call that, in her case, was to teach priests how to love; to support them in their call to love; and help them see, by her prayer with and for them, that Jesus loves them so much that He called them to be among His closest friends and confidants. BUT if they don’t live in that place first, they go into bad places and will never be able to fulfill their own call to be His Love beating in the heart of the Church.

What Thérèse has, I want: “O little Mother, I don’t love one thing more than another; I could not say like our holy Mother St. Teresa: ‘I die because I cannot die.’ What God prefers and chooses for me, that is what pleases me more.”

St. Thérèse, pray for us.

An alternative to anger

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This is a homily delivered by retired Archbishop of New Orleans, Alfred Hughes, on Sunday, June 5 at the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans. It was a masterpiece and so I asked him if I could post it here. He graciously agreed and then worked hard to turn his handwritten notes into this complete text.

He offers here a vision of faith-in-action that has the power to change our downward devolution into a culture of anger and division into an upward evolution toward a civilization of justice and charity.

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Tenth Sunday of Year – C

Michelangelo has captured in sculpture what has to be the most poignant moment in history: the widowed Mary, trying to cradle her crucified Son, after his body had been taken down from the cross. It is called the Pietà. (faithful devotion) Today’s Sacred Scripture focuses on two experiences of widowed mothers’ facing the death of their sons. Elijah was staying in the home of a pagan widow in Sarepta. Her son became deathly ill. He was given up for dead. Elijah restored him to full health.

In the Gospel, Jesus encountered the widow of Naim whose son had died earlier in the day and was about to be buried according to Jewish law before sun-down. Jesus intervened and with a word restored her son to life and to his mother.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that our country is like a widow who has lost a son? Our country, often symbolized by the woman depicted in the Statue of Liberty, seems to be widowed, cut off from our founding fathers. And now her children seem to have lost the life, liberty and happiness which that marriage once promised.

Our leading politicians have tapped into an angry reaction. And so we are led to believe that is the best we can do. Perhaps, we need to turn to angels of light rather than those of darkness. I propose today the inspiring memory of a New Orleanian woman, a widow who lost a child and provides an alternative vision. I speak of Margaret Haughery. She was born Margaret Gaffney in County Leitrim Ireland in 1813. At five years of age, her parents embarked on a perilous six month ocean voyage to America in the hope of escaping the dire poverty in which they lived.

They arrived in Baltimore in 1818. Within four years she lost both her parents to yellow fever.

As an orphan, she never received any formal education. She could not read or write. At twenty-one she married a sickly Irish man, named Charles Haughery. They moved to New Orleans in the hope that the southern climate would be more favorable to his health. But within a year, she lost bother her husband and her new born child, Frances. This plunged her into depression.

Margaret’s parish priest urged her to consider volunteering at an orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity, in addition to her work as a laundress in a hotel, to help counteract her depression. She quickly fell in love with the orphans. But she realized that the orphans and even the sisters often went without milk and bread for sustenance.

Margaret gave up her job as a laundress and with her meager savings bought a cow, and then a second. She began a dairy that provided milk for the orphans. She would peddle her milk from a cart to cover her costs and give the rest to the orphanage.

As her business grew, she made enough money to buy a bakery. Then she began to sell both milk and bread so that she could have enough to supply her orphans with free milk and bread. This illiterate woman became a successful entrepreneur in order to feed her beloved orphans.
Not only did she feed the children at St. Vincent’s Orphanage, but she founded four orphanages of her own to take care of the children orphaned by the Civil War and the yellow fever plague which ensued thereafter. The despised Northern General Butler, who oversaw Reconstruction in New Orleans, allowed only one person free access to the city: Margaret Haughery.

When she died on February 9, 1882, Margaret, Mother of New Orleans’ orphans received a state funeral, presided over by Archbishop Perché. This simple woman, who owned only two dresses, one for work and one for Sunday, left all she had to the orphans of New Orleans, black or white, Jewish, Protestant or Catholic.

Yes, there is an alternative to anger: strong, creative love, resistant to darkness and open to the light. Margaret Haughery was an heroic woman who let the light of Christ shine through her.

Isn’t that our call – yours and mine?

O New Miriam

“Miriam: The Joy of the Lord is My Strength” by Kathleen Izzo. lightstreamweb.com

The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister,
took up a tambourine,
and all the women followed her with tambourines,
dancing,
while Miriam took up from them the refrain:
“Sing to Yahweh,
for he has covered himself in glory,
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
Yah is my strength and my song,
to him I owe my deliverance.
He is my God and I shall praise him,
my father’s God and I shall extol him.” — Ex. 15:20-21, 2

Last December 8th I prayed over the book of Exodus, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s namesake, Miriam. I was especially struck by the resonances in chapter 15 between Miriam’s tambourine-thumping song and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The theme of a “reversal of fortunes,” with the mighty falling and the slaves rising, structures both songs. In fact, in the Magnificat Mary refers to herself as a doulēs (Lk. 1:48). At a biblical conference in Vermont I attended back in 1989, Fr. Raymond Brown said that we usually see Luke 1:48’s doulēs translated as “handmaiden” or “lowly servant.” But the Greek, he said, is far more intense and is better translated “female slave” — so it might read more accurately, “because he has looked upon the humiliation [tapeinōsin] of his female slave.”

The echoing of the slave-rescue in Exodus by Mary in her Magnificat is clear, as it is in so many other parts of the four Gospels. For the Jews, the Exodus is the defining event of salvation history that reveals the essence of God’s identity as Go’el, the liberator of slaves. The Exodus also serves as our core-paradigm for understanding the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, which transpires on during the great Exodus feast of Passover. Just think of Luke’s description of the exchange between Moses, Elijah and Jesus in the Transfiguration (9:31):

And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus (exodon) that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

This “Mary as the New Miriam” insight is certainly not new. Back in the 8th century, for example, Benedictine Abbot Autpert Ambrose alludes to it:

Mary may now play on her instruments,
the Mother strike the cymbals with swift fingers.
The joyful choruses may sound out
and songs alternate with sweet harmonies.
Hear, then, how she sings,
she who leads our chorus.
For she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

During my prayerful reading of Exodus on December 8th, I also made new (for me) connections between the Red Sea rescue and the Immaculate Conception — especially the fact that Miriam’s song is sung on the “far side” of rescue, on the east bank of the Sea after the slave-drivers of Egypt have been destroyed and Miriam is now free to lead the Redeemed in a joyful song of worship. In the language of typology, it was there, I thought, where Mary was conceived, on the east bank of the Sea parted by the breath of the Spirit.

God is indeed her Savior from the womb, which is a marvelous emblem of the sheer gratuity of God’s merciful gift of salvation that both she and the fleeing Israelite slaves received. From the very foundations of her rescue, like the Israelites on the east bank of the Sea, the soul-spirit (psychē-pneuma) of “Full-of-Grace” proclaims and rejoices in her song of victory. The Church’s teaching is that God radically saved Mary in the first moment of her existence as a sign of hope for all humanity. In Christ, the New Moses, all of humanity is called to be unchained, freed, liberated from the oppression of sin and death so that we might worship (Ex. 5:1) and, having been made God’s covenanted people, live the heart-inscribed Law of charity in our sojourn to the land of promise. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium #68 expresses this eloquently:

In the interim just as the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, as a sign of sure hope and solace to the people of God during its sojourn on earth.

So I wrote a poem. In it I tried to capture a tiny bit of this typology.

I also include below the poem my favorite contemporary setting to the Magnificat, by Leon Roberts.

So, for what it’s worth…

O new Miriam, God-smile
conceived far east of river Nile
on the lee side of a slave’s rescue,
wholly soaked in morning Dew.

You, our sister, are a hymn of praise
magnifying the warrior God, we raise
a new song of joy, lifted on High
to the Glory filling both earth and sky;
to Yah, from whom all waters flood,
all-mingled with His crimson Blood;
all-splattered on dead-hammered Bark
— ah! that most unlikely Ark —
making all bitter waters sweet
like honey sprung from finest Wheat.

O new Miriam, our Orient of Hope,
sing for us your victory trope
of a God robed in human Flesh;
a Son, omnipotent in the crèche;
Walk us, we pray, thru Passover night
toward the blazing Dawn of unconquered
and conquering Light.
Amen. Alleluia!

Unrequited love

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Re-post

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:32-36).

I was speaking last Fall with a woman whose husband had abandoned her without warning. He left her with grave health issues and in a state of financial hardship. She is also a woman of faith and has been so most of her adult life.

She begged me to encourage seminarians to make certain their parishes have a ministry of outreach to the divorced. She said the aftermath of divorce is a time of terrible vulnerability when the divorced man or woman is poised to make either something really good out of it, or something really bad. Without guidance from the Church, she said, it’s very hard to make changes for the better as a Catholic. It’s much easier to make poor or stupid choices with long term damaging effects that make the practice of faith much harder. She also asked me to share with seminarians a few things she has learned over the previous two and a half years since her husband left her. Among many of the things she asked me to share, there was one insight that blew my mind. As I wrote out her words below, I can see how poorly I am conveying the power and beauty of her words. You see, my sentences contain none of the tears, pained facial expressions or passion she communicated as she spoke. But little is better than nothing, so here is what I have.

We were talking at this point about her insights into the above passage from Luke’s Gospel which, she said, was the passage her pastor gave her to pray on as he walked with her through the grief and anger and hurt.

…I used to think I lived those words when I put up with annoying in-laws or prayed for Al-Qaeda terrorists to convert to Jesus. Now I realize I had no clue. You can’t possibly know what it means to truly love someone *like that* until they no longer love you. But even more, not until you find yourself faced with someone who has done you harm and rejected your offers of love and poured poison in your medicine. These last years have felt like held my heart in my hand and he repeatedly slapped it down to the ground, laughing all the while at what a fool I was to trust him. Loving someone like that takes me beyond anything I have ever faced or imagined I could suffer. Sometimes I feel like I’m dying.

I believe I was terribly wronged by my husband, I was the victim. That’s the truth. But I’m not sinless by any stretch, nor was I totally innocent in the failure of our marriage. But it’s made me think so much about Jesus as an entirely innocent victim, whose love was and is and will be abused and rejected and mocked all the time. The rejection of pure and innocent love is a pain you can’t possibly understand unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Just imagine the pain of God at our rejection. It never really moved me before now. It was nice and Hallmark kinda touching, but let me tell you now it does move me. It’s totally crazy. It’s so much of my prayer life now.

I know for certain I’ve found at this point in my life a new calling and life mission from God. My vocation of marriage has turned into a vocation to love my husband faithfully the rest of my life, without his knowing or caring that I do. Without his reciprocating and with his rejection. My prayer every day is, “Christ give me your strength to love my husband as my sacrament until death. To pray for his well-being, his salvation.” My resolve is that his evil actions won’t kill my ability to love, but make it greater. But I could never do that alone. Without Jesus, I would only hate him. No Jesus, no way.

God the Father spoke to St. Catherine of Siena, as recorded in her Dialogue, words that echo the depth of power in this woman’s lived witness. I will leave you with them:

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.

He came Down, from heaven

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[as often is the case, I embedded a video here which cannot be viewed in emailed version]

I had a conversation with someone last summer about their son with Down Syndrome. They live in a large city in the U.S. and they shared with me the difficulties they’ve had finding any significant assistance in the public school system for children with Down Syndrome. While there were many offerings for children with Autism, there was almost nothing available for their son. They puzzled and agonized for a long time.

By chance they found out about a pediatrician who specializes in working with Down children. During their first appointment, they mentioned to the doctor their frustrations with finding public or private school support for their son. The doctor said to them very bluntly, “The reason is clear and tragic: most Down Syndrome children never see the light of day.” The stats are clear: most children with Down Syndrome are aborted after their genetic abnormality is discovered through prenatal testing. “When he said it,” the father said, “I felt nauseous. I thought of my son. What a beautiful gift he is. How helpless he is. He’s taught my wife and me the meaning of sacrificial love. Special needs children remind us of what it really means to be human.”

David Bentley Hart has a remarkable reflection on the vision of humanity Christianity “invented.” It’s a vision of life so extraordinary that God had to break into history and reveal it to us in Jesus, shattering our hardened hearts. It can be said that the whole economy of salvation exists to bring this vision into the world. The Church, which is a God-knit community of re-created men and women, exists to build a new culture amid the ruins of the old, a culture in which the destruction of the disadvantaged or disabled would be absolutely inconceivable. Hart:

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection-resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence-is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?