Never to make a change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the song:

Annunciation of the Lord

Coptic Egyptian icon of the Annunciation.

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

O Imma

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + +

O Virgin Pure:

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

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

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

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

Athiest Dialogues


Dr. Turner at the 2016 Notre Dame Seminary Aquinas lecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risen to play

Resurrection (Noli me tangere) by Giotto, 1304 Taken from

Re-post from 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The quote:

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

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

The song:

St. Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fearless Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Colleen:

Fortuna encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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