Hopko-isms, Part I


I was re-listening to a recorded lecture I had by Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko the other night to fill my late night insomnia with some light. The next morning, with great relish, I typed out the quotes I found most powerful. I’ll break it into 2 parts. Put on your seat belts, crash helmets and enjoy:

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We enter into communion with God through love, which means love for all around us without exception, and especially our enemies and those who hate us. Until we are ready to love with very love with which God has loved us in Jesus — who is the Son of his love — by the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts, we will never know God. If you allow God’s love to penetrate into the marrow of your bones, you’ll get a fire in your bones and then you can love with his love. Pray every day like a baby bird, wide-mouthed begging, full of absolute trust, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. St. Seraphim says that the whole spiritual life is acquiring the Holy Spirit. Ask. Seek. Knock. God can’t resist expectant, trusting, persevering faith.

Be aware! Consolation precedes crucifixions, exaltation precedes humiliations, divinization precedes degradation. That’s St. Isaac the Syrian. And this is the good news! Good because the cross of Jesus ensured that everything life throws at us can become a rung in the ladder to Paradise. God turns our downfall into our rising. Orthodoxy is paradoxy. Kenosis is theosis.

The holy Fathers say you should always pray to God about everything, so when what you seek does not happen you’ll know it’s not God’s will. But if you don’t pray you won’t know that it’s not God’s will, as there are some things God will not grant unless they’re sought in prayer. So not getting things we ask for is a big part of the story. But there’s always some grace seething in God’s answer, even if it seems it’s unbearable; if it seems things are crazy — they’re not crazy — well, actually, you can say that God is crazy as far as this world’s logic is concerned. The cross is a scandal and absurdity and madness — moronic! — but for us who have faith in Christ crucified and risen, at the Father’s right hand with open wounds, he is the power and wisdom of God. But you have to give yourself over to it for it to happen, you can hold nothing back. When you finally give in to him, that’s when his power unleashes. That’s what Jesus meant when he said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” So then Paul goes on in first Corinthians to boast of all the catastrophes of his ministry — these are the emblems of success.  Remember? He says [1 Cor. 11:23-27], “I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” How about putting that on your C.V.? See here, God’s success story!

The holy Scriptures — what can I say? We have to read them, contemplate them and put them into practice more than we breathe. It’s terrible that we like spirituality books, read books on theology and the saints and holy Fathers, but we don’t even know the holy Scriptures. That’s not right! All of the holy Fathers say everything in the Christian life has its foundation on the canonized Scriptures of the Church. St. John Chrysostom said that every cause of discord in Church comes from ignorance of Scripture and the irresponsible way men are made priests and bishops. He said that. Really. A constant theme among the great spiritual authors of the monastic tradition — like St Ignatius Brianchaninov — is trying to convince the monks to read the Scriptures. They’re too often more interested in reading books on spirituality or mysticism or deification than they are in reading holy Scripture. The holy Fathers all say: “This should not be! Repent! Scripture should be your primary love. This only is God’s inspired Word” There’s even a canon in the seventh Ecumenical Council that says a man should not be consecrated bishop if he cannot recite the 150 psalms from memory. Otherwise how can you teach the faith if you don’t know it by heart? The holy Scriptures should be our first love.

I know people who say, “Oh, yes Father Tom, we love to come to church because it makes us feel good, feel uplifted.” Well, okay, sometimes God consoles us in church in times of our affliction. Okay. But we go to church to get lacerated. I mean, if you see a church with a sign that says, “Come for soothing, upbeat, happy worship,” sue them for malpractice. First you have to be brought through the fire. You have to just stand there in church and let God’s purifying fire burn through you. Don’t look around and think critical thoughts, judging people’s outfits or the priest’s liturgical purity or how good you think his sermon was. Let God burn you through, let the Word of God pierce and cut through you and scrub clean your filthy mind and heart. Say, “I am ready to change, O God.” Or better, pray like the publican, with his head bowed low as the Pharisee up front babbles on about all the mistakes of his flawed neighbors — “O God, thank you for not making me like these idiots.” Rather, pray: “O God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Remember your baptism in the church was a plunge into Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, not into self-improvement and healing. For us healing means: die and rise. Our festal meal consists of a broken Body and spilled Blood. It’s a pledge, when we eat the Flesh and drink the Blood, a consent to the same dying and rising happening to us, giving us the chance to love God and our enemies. Give it all over, let it all go, renounce yourself and be ready to be hated by all for him. Immerse yourself again and again and again into the Divine Liturgy which plants us firmly on Golgotha.


St. Sudan

Photo of St. Josephine Bakhita

Repost from February 2012 (with video at end)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A broken Sacrament

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

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


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

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

What’s a Saint?


Repost 2012

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

Whence the Saint?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m just slow.

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

St. Ignatius, Pebbles and Bam Bam


Re-post from 2012

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

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

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

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

Below are the lyrics, but listen here for yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

4:00 a.m.

February 8, 2015

Journal entry


At an inner city New Orleans parish today.

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

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

“Yes, Ma’am.”

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


“I’m Edna, nice to meet you.”

“Tom, nice to meet you as well.”

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

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

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

“Yes, I do.”

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

“My family, my job. . .”

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

“Yes, thank you.”

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

“Wow, Edna, I want your faith.”

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

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

Wow. Listen to what she sang for me:

In Summary…


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

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

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

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

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

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

Keep teaching me from afar!

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

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

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

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