Pillars of the World

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[This is my last post in this little series written on retreat. It may take a bit for me to get writing again. Blessings and Happy 4th of July!]

I just met a man the other day who teaches up North at an inner city all-boys high school. It sits right in middle of the most dangerous neighborhood in the city, a neighborhood filled with gang violence. The man himself is a character, quick-witted and very sharp. He was telling me the story after story about the boys he teaches, how difficult their lives are. It’s really unreal. Most of them are from lower income, single mother homes with dads nowhere in sight. Most of these young men, he said, in the absence of a strong positive male role model will inevitably wind up in a gang, addicted to heroine, in prison; and will probably be dead within 5 years. Within the strictures of public school, he tries to share his faith with these boys and encourage them to find a way out of their neighborhood and go to college. Many of the Hispanic boys have Catholic mothers, but the mothers are too afraid to take their boys to church by way of public transportation (the only way to get them there) as that’s frequently how these boys get picked up – i.e. kidnapped – by the gangs. He said lots of these boys really want to find God, do the right and go to church, but they don’t see how it’s possible.

So this man does all he can to give them devotions to pray on their own that can, as he said, “act in the place of Mass.” The Divine Mercy Chaplet is especially successful, he said, and lots of the boys will tell him they pray it every night; or pray, “Jesus, I trust in you” before sporting events or tests. He mentors them after school, using tutoring and coaching as an “in” to get their trust so he can give them wisdom on life. Some of the boys have gone on to college and escaped that world, but many or most have ended up in a gang. A number of them, dead. He said, “Man, if I could find other teachers willing to band together and bring faith to these kids, we could make a difference. I don’t care if they’re  Catholic or Protestant. It’s tough to find people wiling to put their faith out there. But I’m telling you these boys just need God in their life to get enough hope to escape that world of violence and become something more than the gangs have to offer. They want to feel like they belong, and that’s what church is supposed to give them. I’m always asking the saints to pray for these boys and I pray a decade of the rosary every day. It’s hard, though. It’s an uphill battle. They got the deck stacked again them at every point. I’ll tell you, if we had a tough Irish priest who could walk into this school and speak to these boys every day, it’d be a game changer. One strong father figure who represents God and ‘Bam!’ They’d be sold.”

Reminds me of Tattoos on the Heart.

By the way, that is the lay apostolate in full throttle.

His last comment reminded me of a real-life priest I was close to many years ago. He was an inner city priest whose parish was lower-middle class blue collar. He was affectionately called the “Street Padre” around his parish as he often wandered the streets during the daytime visiting apartments, shops, bars, restaurants and such to connect face to face with the people who lived within his parish boundaries. He would ask how a man’s sick wife was doing, query another man about why he’d been away from church for a few months, offer a blessing to a pregnant woman or hear a young man’s confession on the spot. This boy told the priest with brazen pride he’d been sleeping around and Father said, “Time for confession.” I walked away.

In fact, this young man – 16 years old – eventually got caught up in a drug ring and disappeared for quite a stretch of time. His mother would come to this priest in tears asking for his help. Eventually, the boy was found beat up badly and eaten away by the drugs. This priest stayed with him right to the end in the hospice, speaking into his ear right until the boy died. It was heart breaking, but the beauty of this Street Padre’s fatherly love was overwhelming. And although he was not able to save this boy from the dark world of drug violence, he was able to bring hope to the boy at the end, and to the mother. This priest confided in me once that for years upon years his personal prayer life had been like “eating dust,” dry and emotionally unrewarding. But, he said, “it gave me great strength for my work.” He said he knew it was God’s built-in gift to his priesthood so he could sacrifice for his people. When he was first ordained he traveled to Ars, France, the town of St. John Vianney, and asked God to make him a good parish priest who wants nothing more than “to remain in a parish to the very end.” It’s the one place where, he said, “you can make the soil of the graveyard a reliquary. And that’s my vocation.”

Hidden saints. Pillars of the world.

Slowly

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There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work. — Pope Benedict XVI

More conversation with the monk. I asked for advice on various topics and he gave it. We meandered around in the several times we met. I felt so blessed to be able to learn from him. Here are some fragments I meditatively wrote down later (which means I took his insights and expressed them in my own language).

Remember, Jesus always said ‘yes’ to the Father but He knew how to say ‘no’ to people’s demands. He received endless requests, but He was focused on His limited mission from the Father. Everything had to serve the mission. Walk around a tiny, backwater outpost of the Roman empire for 3 years, choose and entrust your whole work to 12 confused companions, visit villages to teach and work miracles, end up brutally executed. You have to determine your limits in achieving your mission and submit to them. Those who transgress their limits rarely stay long in a position. They skip around, starting new projects while previous ones fall into disrepair or vanish. They get exhausted, frustrated, bitter, angry, resentful and blame. And their’s blame to go around. But they refused to say ‘no’ so they pay the price.

In monastic life we take a vow of stability because we know it’s easy to get the “itch” to move on when things get tough. But we are very careful to make sure we don’t break our limits. We work hard, but the work is reasonable. Work is paced, not frantic. We move slowly but intently and consistently. When the bells ring for prayer, we stop what we are doing and pray. I know from the people who come here who are in ministry, who come to recover from burnout, that often it’s from the absurd responsibilities put on them — that they say ‘yes’ to — that cannot be sustained. Sometimes in the monastic literature this is called dissipation — the over-extension of ourselves into too many things, leaving us weary, unfocused, confused and subject to many temptations.

Even Jesus, being God in the flesh, was limited by His self-emptying in becoming man and could only accomplish limited good in His earthly life. How many sick, possessed, desperate, dying people longed for His touch? He knew that if He did well what He was sent to do, in the hands of the Father it would accomplish limitless good. The resurrection didn’t leave behind all of His life’s words and deeds, but filled them with immortality so that we can access them now sacramentally. It’s why St. Ignatius says that when we enter into a Gospel scene with prayerful imagination, we can experience the same grace those in the Gospel stories did. Jesus forgave the sinful woman, delivered the possessed man once, healed the hemorrhaging woman. But what He did for them He did, in God’s eternity, for all like them.

For Ignatius, the Gospel stories aren’t just nice memoirs that make us aware of how amazing Jesus was. Those stories, as God’s inspired Word, are themselves sacramental, are portals that grant us access to the same grace and encounter with Jesus. It’s quite amazing that the Catechism [1116] makes this connection by linking the story of Jesus’ healing the hemorrhaging woman to the seven sacraments: “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving.” This is no mere metaphor, but in a sense in the sacraments we, when we join that woman’s act of bold faith in Jesus, participate in that out-flowing of divine power she drew out of Him by touching the hem of His garment with faith.

But which of the people in the Gospel who encountered Jesus had any idea that their life in that moment was to become a point of access to God for all future (and past!) generations? Their limited, insignificant, nondescript lives God has used as living descriptions of His power to save in every age, giving their lives unlimited significance. Peter, the woman at the well, the Centurion, the Gerasene demoniac, the Syro-Phoenician woman. Or even Abraham, David, Moses, Bathsheba. All of them become permanent fixtures of grace in God’s masterful economy.

The even bigger point to me is this is also really the case with each of us. We call it the “communion of saints.” Our lives, everything we endure and achieve through our faith in Jesus has enduring significance far far beyond our tiny lives. It’s why saints become “patron saints” as some real event or personal characteristic of their lives has made of them a portal of divine grace for the rest of humanity. Each of us, if we are who God made us to be, opens a fresh spring of living water into the world that others can drink from. It’s why becoming a saint is the most effective form of ministry possible, as only saints can water the world with the divine Spirit. St. Therese demonstrates this so well, you don’t have to live long or achieve visibly impressive things to flood the world with God. Just learn to love God and neighbor well — peacefully not frantically — in your tiny place and leave the rest to Him.

It’s much easier to sleep at night that way.

Saint of Joy

St. Philip stepping on a Cardinal hat

Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri, 16th century Italian reformer-priest who was known for his joy, sense of humor and offbeat spirit. Philip, patron saint of comedians, demonstrates wonderfully how sanctity preserves and amplifies, even as it purifies, the unique character of each person’s personality. I have always loved this saint and begged for a double-portion of his spirit.

He is the saint known for telling jokes in the confessional to break the tension, throwing picnics in the middle of the street between visits to churches, breaking out into silly children’s songs in the presence of stuffy cardinals, shaving off half his beard before a meeting with a wealthy Roman family, walking out of the Confessional laughing uncontrollably, kicking balls through the streets of Rome dressed in his cassock as he skipped and sang with his followers, carrying bouquets of flowers and distributing them as he went along, intentionally mispronouncing Latin words in the Mass in the presence of a gravely serious scholar-bishop, making a priest in his Order who took himself too seriously sing a dirge at a wedding breakfast, wearing red jerseys over his black cassock, giving out crazy penances (e.g. to a priest known for eloquence, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon) and tossing around like a frisbee the cardinal hat offered him by the Pope.

Thank God we have this saint!

But what made this man a saint and not simply a cut-up was his deep humility and his intense love for God and people. His humor was never used to knock down, cut or wound, but to build up and wake up a sleepy church. To thaw out the Frozen Chosen. He was a Fool for Christ whose prophetic mission was to remind the faithful that joy, as Fr. Chardin once said, is the infallible sign of the presence of God and the premier indication that your spiritual life is in good order. His jovial manner was lived in service to lifting hearts and leading others into a place of light, hope and conversion to the Gospel of joy. Above all, he wanted to free the Roman clergy from the shackles of cynicism, ladder climbing and dour seriousness that confuses solemnity with somberness.

Once while he was praying on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1544 a globe of fire appeared in front of him and entered his mouth. Afterwards, he felt his heart swell in his chest — without pain — and was so overwhelmed by an intense feeling of love for God that he fell to the ground yelling, “Enough, enough, Lord! I can bear no more!” It became immediately apparent to him that the superabundance of joy that filled him was meant to be given away, shared with all he would meet along the way. He had been commissioned to be “drunk with love” (Acts 2:13-15!) by the God whose love is joy, to permit divine joy to break into a world grown old, bitter, tired and angry in sin.

Philip the priest-saint is an electric sign to clergy. How desperately we need deacons and priests and bishops and popes who ingest Fire and are filled with joy, whose lives — uniquely — cry out to both church and world: Sursum corda! “Lift up your hearts!”

In the words of Pope Benedict addressing his fellow clergy:

It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.

Let us sing!

Jubilate Deo omni terra (shout joyfully to God all the earth).
Servite Domino in laetitia (serve the Lord in gladness).
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!
Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia!

Mother’s Day 2017

Statue at Castelpetroso. pinimg.com

To be a mother is a great treasure. Mothers in their unconditional and sacrificial love for their children are the antidote to individualism; they are the greatest enemies against war. — Pope Francis

Happy Mother’s Day!

For today’s reflection, I will not claim to pronounce my wisdom on motherhood but only share the witness of a few mothers I admire immensely.

I was sitting at lunch the other day at work and someone asked, “Who are the moms you admire most that you know personally?” Without hesitation I said, “My wife, my mom, my sister.” Later that night, I thought of a running list of others whom I have known over the years. Too many to recall. That night I wrote a rambling reflection in my journal:

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These women I think of here as I write — so many I have known! — are women with biological children, adopted children, foster moms and moms with ‘spiritual children’ whom they have taken into their care, their love, their attention, their heart, their prayer.These women, wildly diverse in so many ways, demonstrate the strength of tenderness and the ferocity of selfless love. They are each flawed and fall, grow weary and faint. No idealizing here. How many of them I have listened to share with me their own sense of failure and lament bitterly their own sins and failings. Suffer under the weight of inner trials and tortures of the mind. Yet each of them is, somehow, by indefinable grace, undaunted by their own fissures and fractures, making even of these channels of grace for others. Just like the song says: “I get knocked down, but I get up again; You are never gonna keep me down.”

Their very biorhythms are written in the language of life-giving sacrifice, of love that carries the weak, feeds the hungry, gives a home to the homeless. These women are nurturing and demanding, protective and encouraging. They inspire trust yet worry, demand their children get enough rest yet exhaust themselves, empty themselves out in order to fill, delay gratification to make sure needs get met. As with their bodies, their minds and hearts are always turned toward the well-being of their children. Circadian rhythms inscribed in waking love. They don’t seek accolades for the thousand duties they perform every day, but dole them out when appropriate to encourage their children in virtue. Their need to be liked by their children is superseded by their steely resolve to wade into the thickets of relentless resistance to raise virtuous children — the unsung martyrdom of tough love. Indeed, they undergo the trials and agony of gestation, labor and delivery throughout the entire span of each child’s life, and beyond.

Archbishop Romero’s words beautifully describe these women:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
When I was 4 years old, my mom tells me, she was pulling me in a wagon and when she turned back to me and smiled, I said to her: “I love to look at your face.” Mothers are living sacraments of God’s highest attribute — His tender compassion, raham. In her face, the primal vision of God after birth. In her face, God renounces invisibility, refuses to hide His beauty and discloses His most secret countenance. There we are meant to rest. Psalm 131:2:
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul.

When Patti had her first miscarriage, she suffered in body and in spirit in ways I cannot even hope to express worthily in language. All women who have suffered this – or the death of a child at any age — know this well. 2 Cor. 2:12: “I heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” No facile words of piety can dull the pain of death in the womb, but can only make it redemptive. She cried out to God as she miscarried in a way, with a depth that I could never fathom. Only receive and echo. I know that this depth of prayer is reserved to mothers. Even Jesus, as New Adam, needed His Mother by the Cross, New Eve, to “fill out” His suffering and perfect His prayer of compassionate love crying out to the Father.

When Patti wailed aloud with heaving sobs, “Why?” … I could not speak, could not breathe, could not ease her pain, not fix. Could only accompany. I grabbed hold of the tassel of her prayer, I am saved in her childbirth. She labored our child into Life, the universe shook.

On her merits, womb of His merits, all my hope rests.

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I asked four women I know to text me in a sentence or two what they love most about motherhood. I’ll let them have the last word:
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Thank you for asking: To be not only an intimate witness to life unfolding, but to the Holy Spirit manifesting in a unique way in each child. It’s breathtaking, and incredibly humbling.
Or:
Purest joy.
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Hmmmm. I could say it’s picking out the chocolate in their Halloween bags to save them from themselves… It’s hard to put into words; for me, it’s being given the ineffable gift of a human being who is part of yourself and at the same time completely other and God’s and witnessing them becoming the sons and daughters the Lord loved them in to being to become, because of my being their mother and in spite of that too!
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Being a mother is empowering in a way that no other thing in my life has allowed, empowering in the sense of “tikkun olam” – fixing the world on a the physical ground level. It is like the individual transformation that includes training and intuition, to find a lost child in a store and gather them to restore them to their mother (not creepy but motherhood); to tell any teenager, mine or random, “what are you thinking, that will kill you?!?” (not a meddler, but a mother); to tell young college students “is that worth losing your integrity over?” (not a moralist but a mother); to fuss over tired men & women who show up in my home-with food and rest (not a seductress, but a mother). It is not to say that these things cannot be done by women who aren’t mothers, but I can get to the business quickly without explaining while someone else simply says, “no worries, she’s a mom.” And that says it all.
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I suppose one of the best parts of being a mother for me is being able to love so completely such amazing human beings and know that I had a part in their creation and formation. I am in awe of my children! Such sweetness, such glimpses of God himself, is so beautiful to experience as a mother.
Awesome.

“O Mad lover!” — St. Catherine of Siena, to God

“Love transforms one into what one loves.” — St. Catherine of Siena

On St. Catherine’s feast I could think of nothing better than to talk about love, and give it some real content.

I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. There is a woman I know who has a special needs child, now in his 30’s. He has quite a number of serious disabilities, but she has never once in all the 30+ years I have known her complained about the challenges he brings into her life. And they are many. One specific issue her son deals with is chronic insomnia, two to three times a month, which keeps him awake for three-night stretches. And he is terrified of being alone at night. So she stays up with him for all of those nights for each stretch, whenever they happen; at times convenient, and not convenient.

Every month. It’s just astonishing. And because she works during the day, she can’t nap.

She’s been doing this for about 28 years at this point.

Once I praised her for her selfless dedication in these stretches. She immediately rebuffed my compliment and said,

No, he’s the champ. Not me. He’s the one who suffers. I just get to walk with him. And I also need to say that I believe if I’m ever saved, you know, ever get to heaven, it’ll be because of him. He taught me how to love. Before he came into my world I was so self-centered, but never realized it. He pulled me out of myself and taught me to love. And he is pure love. A canonized saint in your house. Not bad.

Salvation, the God-given and neighbor-driven gift of the capacity to love. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange once said that the premier sign of holiness is when your thoughts are populated more with considerations of the welfare of others than your own welfare. Vatican II defined holiness as the “perfection of charity,” with “charity” being code language in theology for “loving with the same love with which God loved us in Christ hanging from the cross.” And the Gospels are clear: on the cross Jesus was all about everyone else.

My spiritual director once said to me in Confession, after Lent was over (and he gave me a brutal Lenten penance):

You’ll know your growing in holiness when you naturally seek out unpleasant people because you believe in your bones they have the greater claim on your love. And then when you do it all with cheer, without complaint, you’ll know you’ve reached the highest heights. Though on second thought you probably won’t know that then, because when you arrive that far you’ve finally forgotten about yourself.

Luke 6:27-36

Look around you. There is an army of people out there waiting for you to give them permission to pull you out of yourself, to school you in charity. In them God calls to you: “Do you love me?” All genuine Christian spirituality is in the first and final analysis an answer to that question given to the unpleasant milling around you.

Stay awake and keep watch with them for a while.

Are you saved?

Good Samaritan

Future priests, love the laity!

Yesterday was the last day of a class on the Laity that I co-taught this semester with a colleague. The course was offered to seminarians in their last year of seminary formation. Most of them are deacons now. It was a great privilege. These are truly remarkable men, let me tell you.

I thought I would share with you here today my concluding remarks that I offered during the last 15 minutes of the final class. These comments capture a bit of my vision for the work of priestly formation. For those who read here, this is all familar material (some verbatim from posts).

Pray for them, that they will be priest-saints. Amen.

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Brothers, we have come to the end of our journey of exploring divine revelation together. What a thrill it has been to engage in that quest with you! I wrote a few thoughts out this morning – the overflow of my heart toward you. Cor ad cor loquitur.

It has been a great honor to co-teach this course with Dr. Daniella [Zsupan-Jerome], whose love for human culture, and the ways faith can elevate, purify and enrich that culture, has stretched and fertilized my imagination and deepened my understanding. Her love for catechesis, liturgy, sacramental life finds a wonderful harmony and expression in the way she teaches, writes, relates, prays and, yes, bears her child [she is ~7 months pregnant]. Christ is among us in you, Dr. D, in the uniqueness of your own feminine and scholarly genius.

This class was created to offer you a chance to reflect in a sustained way on the heartbeat of your mission: to be humble fathers and gentle shepherds who feed and do not feed off of the sheep. Your mission to inspire the laity to live holiness in the states and stations of life to which God calls them. To preach to them the word in its fullness, to be urgent in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, and exhort and be unfailing in patience and in teaching. The lay faithful are hungry to know that their baptism has wrought in them a great thing, a new creation, a sharing in the divinizing energies of the risen God-Man; that their Confirmation has empowered them with all the fullness of the Spirit; that the Eucharist offers them a treasury in which all their daily sacrificial offerings can be transubstantiated and offered up for the life of the world; that all the Sacraments invest their lives with mind-blowing Mystery, with tender Power, with costly Mercy, with aromatic Charity, with every good gift from above, coming down from the Father of lights. The lay faithful are hungry to know that being “in Christ” makes of their life a living, ceaseless, world-consecrating liturgy that detonates new Pentecosts everywhere they bear with them the dying and rising of Jesus in their bodies. Everywhere they live Eucharistic-ly, scattering the logos spermatikoi, the “seeds of the word” everywhere they find themselves.

Brothers, cultivate vibrant faith communities as you are able [with your widow’s mite or mustard seed]. Cultivate places where the communion of faith, hope and love creates fertile, cultivated soil in which the seeds of the word can germinate and sink deep roots and fruit in a vibrant sense of evangelizing mission. Parishes that are schools of prayer, spiritual hostels of hospitality, field hospitals for the wounded to find salve, shrines of Sacramental life, gardens of catechesis, a habitat for poor-weary humanity where Alms are stored in immense barns in plenty supply for wise distribution in time of famine, where the gifts of the Spirit are known and placed in service to Christ’s Body, where neighborhoods nearby remark of your parish: see how they love one another!

Those lay faithful who come to co-work with you, to serve in ministry and collaborate in the up-building of Christ’s Body – help them discern, honor them, nourish their faith, challenge them, respect them, allow them to flourish in placing their gifts in harmony with the whole community. You are a Conductor of a symphony, no matter how modest, that takes its keynote from Christ and makes its own the song of the Bride: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus and save your people!

Those lay faithful who are called by God to live immersed in the world, to be bound up with temporal realities, secular professions, civic and social and family life, must be encouraged to see God in all things. They should hear preaching that announces the Good News that God, who so-loved the world that He gave us His only Son, continues to love the world each day, in each moment through the lay faithful who are His Body in the world.

God’s people should be exposed to a rich conception of vocation that inspires some to be passionate about pursuing the way of perfection in priesthood and consecrated life, wholly dedicated to the “goods of religion.” WHILE you inspire others, called by God to be wholly dedicated to all-thing secular, temporal and worldly, to become passionate about discovering their way of perfection as married, single, single parents, divorced, annulled and remarried, widows and widowers, fathers and mothers, childless couples, lawyers, stockbrokers, janitors, fashion designers, actors, business men and women, doctors, maids, school teachers, janitors, principals, bankers, musicians, factory workers, gunnery sergeants, librarians, machine shop workers, architects, prison guards, manual laborers, accountants, nurses, CEO’s, physicists, counselors, police officers, mechanics, electricians, engineers, secretaries, carpet cleaners, the disabled, homebound elderly or bartenders. And so many more.

Beg the Spirit to lead you to love the secular genius of your faithful people. Fr. Anthony, whom I have mentioned to you before, once spent a whole day, while I was visiting him, in the factory adjacent to his parish so he could understand better many of his parishioners’ daily work lives. He took me with him. One of the men in the factory pulled me aside and said: “Now that’s a great man.” However, had he heard the man say that of him, he would have immediately rebutted the man’s claim by saying (as he often did), “No, you’re the great man. I just look great with these clerics on.”

“Love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).

The laity need apocalyptic preachers who tear open the veils and reveal the Mystery hidden in history; preachers who will help Christ’s faithful see an ordinary world shot through with the glory of God. They need to see a world — unveiled by you! — where simple acts of kindness sustain the world; where simply picking up pins with love (to use the stunning example St. Therese gives us) redeems the whole cosmos because it saves a soul. They need to know that changing the world one diaper at a time, one smile at a time, one act of honesty at a time, one day at a time is possible because they are a kingdom of priests, a guild of prophets, a community of royal servants. God has fashioned the faithful to be His temples where time and eternity intersect; His treasure-laden stewards who leaven, salt and enlighten the world with the Fire they stole at Baptism from the human Heart of God.

Be sure to mark all the exits of your parish church with a fire escape sign, just to remind your people that their mission is to cast Fire on the earth and so consecrate it to God.

You, brothers, need to make real for God’s people Pope Francis’ words in Amoris laetita that I began this course with:

“Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.”

No mess or frailty or fault or foible can detract from authentic Christian mysticism, precisely because our mysticism emerges out of the bloody, broken, chaotic mess of the Passion. Remember, brothers, the Passion did something absolutely astonishing: it brought the Holy of Holies outside the walls of the Holy City, outside the Temple, paraded through tangles of shouting, bartering, laughing, callous, cursing humanity. In Jesus, God bore holiness out along a dusty road leading far beyond the godforsaken highways and byways of a lost and barren world. He forsakes nothing, casts away no one. God sojourned from the sanctuary out into St. Elsewhere, which is precisely where each of you will be heading after Ordination.

Please, I beg you, proclaim from your pulpits: All of God’s people, from greatest to least, have equal access to the fullness of the riches God has given us in Christ. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen

Divine ecology, writing and seed-casting

Sunset during the Willwoods Gala cocktail hour — “Tom, look, you need to get a picture of that and write a Blog on it!” I love challenges.

[Another busy week this week so probably no posts till the Triduum.]

I have no idea where this entry will go. Enjoy the ride…

Saturday night, my wife and I were invited to attend the Willwoods Sixteenth Annual Gala. Willwoods is a NOLA Catholic ministry that serves, among other things, the work of strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.

Patti and I love events like this because it’s kind of a “who’s who” in the world of NOLA Catholic culture on-the-move, with laity and clergy who invest their energy and love and faith into a unique aspect of Catholic life. Aided by an open bar, we had lots of lively conversations with a number of people, some of whom we had never met, but now are connected with — which is our favorite part. As I sat early Sunday morning reflecting on that night and the conversations we had had with quite a number of people, I began to think of the way many those people have reshaped me, my worldview, my marriage and my family’s life.

How marvelous is the interconnectedness of humanity! How astounding it is that we, as persons made for each other, are wholly defined by our relationships — for better or for ill. Many of the people I knew at the Gala I would consider people who strive for holiness, who have labored strenuously to permit God’s grace to shape their lives and, through them, influence the lives of those they interact with every day.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a priest I know, whom I quoted in yesterday’s post. He’s a remarkable man who has an unusual depth of compassion. By that I mean that he possesses a sustained and genuine interest in entering into others’ worlds and allowing them to enter into his. Not to simply accomplish some useful goal, or as a superficial formality, but in order to allow a meaningful human relationship to emerge. It is only, he believes, within such authentic human encounters that Christ can truly enter and reveal His life-enriching glory. It is a marvel to behold the fruits of his approach in others’ lives, mine included. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear said of him is: “He is so caring.” 

Such an approach to life and ministry takes discipline, intentionality and repeated acts of patient love. It comes with a high price tag. You might say his approach lacks a certain product-oriented “efficiency” which demands many — or even most — relationships be functional and goal-oriented. But from what I have seen and heard, the resulting quality-over-quantity “product” he produces bears the sweetest and most enduring of fruits on which alone — he would argue — genuine Christian community can be built.

It certainly was Jesus’ methodology.

As we sat together eating our meatless salads on a Lenten Friday, he asked me to describe the process that goes into my writing posts for this blog. “Where do the insights come from?” Here is roughly what I said:

The vast majority of posts begin with something I read, a conversation I have, a sunset I watch, a billboard I see, an insight that appears while I pray in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Something about this or that experience I have in a particular moment sparks something in me, like a flash of light, which then somehow gets caught up, in my mind, into the matrix of Christ — with it casting light on Him or Him casting light on it.

Then I will feel compelled to jot down the essence of whatever insight I’ve had on a receipt in my wallet, or speak a voice-to-text sent to my email address, or ask my wife if she wouldn’t mind pausing our evening conversation for three minutes while I type an explosive idea I just had into my blog drafts. Bless her heart, she’s so patient with her manic husband.

I have hundreds of drafts sitting in my wordpress account, waiting for me to have time on my hands and a Muse stirring in my imagination.

The amazing thing about writing, for me, is that when these insights detonate inside and I write them, they come alive inside of me. Like, really alive. The whole of my perspective is altered, shifted, expanded, troubled, deepened, stretched, inhabited by something new, something living, something vital that, once released into my thought-world, continues to work on everything I see and do and hear and touch and taste and reflect on and love and pray.

It’s like the ideas I get are living, not simply dead facts or bits of data added to a mental fact sheet. They trouble the waters of my mind until everything else adjusts to their presence. Which is why I love the song, “Wade in the Water,” which captures the “feel” of what goes on inside me as I theologically reflect on some wierd thing that caught me by surprise.

But I’ve noticed that it’s really only when I take these new insights and write them in my blog, or weave them into a talk or lecture I will be giving, that they come alive and begin to reshape the way I see and experience everything. They can’t just sit there, or they vanish. It’s only when I *intend* to give them away that they seem to have the power to re-define the way I see everything. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is information added to my worldview, while faith is information, set in motion by love, that reshapes and defines my whole worldview; becomes bit by bit the way I see everything — others, yourself, the world, God. “I believe” means “I see.”

But it’s really when I take the new knowledge into my prayer-time that, like activated charcoal, purfies and enriches and affects everything else, in a strange way, resetting the the whole mess of my inner life.

That’s really quite odd sounding, isn’t it? It sounds odd as I never articulate this. Thank you for asking the question and listening so carefully.

After I finished sharing this, he shared with me a metaphor that floored me. In brief, it went something like this (I will do grave injustice to it here trying to sum it as his phrasing was so succinct and brilliant):

The image that comes to mind as you speak is of an ecosystem, with your intellectual thought being almost like an ecology of the mind. An inner culture. Ecosystems have a certain delicate balance in which each organism adapts to its native environment and learns to cohabit with other organisms in a vital interdependence and network of life which allows all to thrive in an organic web. But when a new organism is introduced, everything gets troubled, disrupted, and needs to realign and re-adapt to the demands of the newcomer introduced. And vice versa. The ecosystem needs to adapt itself and change to move toward a new equilibrium in which everything becomes different, even if only slightly.

This seems to be what you’re describing here. What you allow into yourself, through your senses or in prayer, finds an already established inner-ecology, Tom’s unique personal ecosystem with its worldview that then trustingly yet discerningly welcomes in various new organisms, i.e. a new face, a new idea, a new smell or sight or taste; or divine life. Everything then has to adjust. And it’s all alive, as you say.

And then when you write, it’s then that you actively reorganize your ecosystem to make a fitting place for the new living principles, whatever they might be. Like dreams do at night, defragmenting and reorganizing new information, writing does for you. [Tom: Which makes me a daydream believer? Us: haha] Maybe some new things you’ve taken in have to be chewed up and digested, while others must be expelled or others embraced, while still yet others — like divine grace — well, you have to allow them to consume and digest your ideas, feelings, desires; your soul and spirit … or even the whole of you. Like the Shema commands. So when you consume the Eucharist, as St Augustine says, Christ consumes you; metabolizes you; adapts you to His divine-human ecosystem. The whole Church is this adapted ecosystem, expressed and given birth to in those real symbols of theandric [God-man] biodiversity: Christ in the Sacraments. Saints are the embodyment of the whole Church in its radical adaptation of human life to God-life. Or maybe the other way around, too, if we believe St Irenaeus. [He was speaking of the Catechism #53: “St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure”]

At the heart of your inner culture, Tom, your inner ecology — constituted by your own free act of faith — is the gift of divine love, the indwelling Spirit that is itself the womb of the ecclesial Supernatural Organism, with its own force and vitality and blows-where-it-will purposes. It gets into everything like leaven spreading resurrection through dough. All of which you welcome whenever you pray. Prayer exposes your inner ecology to that of Jesus, joins them.

So whatever enters into you throughout the day encounters not only “Tom,” but God active and living and sorting things out within you. Christ within is busy at work re-creating in you a new creation; a new Ecology; a new Garden. Holiness. Only then, through such saints, can He extend His divine-human culture and ecology into the various ecosystems around you and effect new changes in others’ lives and in the whole material world you inhabit. That’s holiness, and its progress is slow, uneven, filled with setbacks, death and rebirth.

In this line of thought, that means the Cross embodies the event of God introducing Himself into a human ecosystem that has organized itself against, and to the exclusion of, His life. While His love compels Him to risk entry and deadly rejection in our hostile ecosystem, even while He remains long enough (to the end of time!) for that living system to gradually adapt itself to His presence and organize its life around and in and with His life. The Cross is the symbol of God’s willingness to pay an immense cost in order to enter our world and achieve a symbiosis with us. Divinization by hominization. Restructuring our micro and macro cultures according to the omnipotent principle of divine-human love. Jesus. He is the ecosystem of God introduced into the ecosystems of creation, through the consent of a Virgin who welcomes God into our world. 

Something like that.

I said: “What just happened?”

We went off in stunned silence to retire for the night. He showed me where the tea was for the morning. My heart was on fire with this new metaphor. And I could not get out of my mind that night a chilling scene from the movie, Risen, that contains a dialogue between a blind woman and the Roman tribune, Clavius, who is trying to crush the new “Jesus is risen” movement. They are discussing her claim to have encountered the risen Jesus. Listen:

Hopefully in ten years I will have a better way to explain its power.