He came Down, from heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Fire

Pentecost is near. The Spirit is readying Paradise to empty its contents into the whole of creation; to mine the limitless Treasury burning in the risen Body of Jesus and expend Christ’s entirety (pleroma) on a humble group of Jews hidden in a locked room of Jerusalem. How marvelous that God always chooses to spend His riches on the poor and to be magnified in the lowly.

Two Pentecostal gifts for you today. First, there’s a powerful international initiative of prayer for the Spirit to come afresh on the Church with power on the eve of Pentecost. NOLA residents are invited especially to join in a marvelous prayer Vigil the eve of Pentecost at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, LA. Saturday evening from 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Over 300 groups around the world have registered to host their own Vigil events on May 14, as well as over 250 people registered so far for the event in Kenner. See this video by Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, whose hyperbole is turned to good effect:

Second, 11th century Byzantine saint, St Symeon the New Theologian, who is revered in the Eastern Church for his teaching on the Spirit, wrote a lovely prayer to the Spirit and a poetic reflection on the effects of His coming. The last lines, as Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky once said, should make all theologians exercise great reserve in claiming the title “theologian” or speaking of the mysteries of faith too easily. Fr Tom Hopko said that the world-class Orthodox liturgical theologian, Fr Alexander Schmemann, would quietly go into the chapel after teaching — usually late at night — and pray to be made worthy to speak of such mysteries. May all of us retain that sense of awe when we speak of God, and pray that we might experience for ourselves the mysteries we think and speak on. Come Holy Spirit!

St. Symeon:

Come true light
Come eternal life
Come hidden mystery
Come nameless treasure.
Come ineffable deed
Come inconceivable person
Come endless bliss
Come un-setting sun
Come untarnishing crown
Come purple of our great King and God
Come crystal belt studded with gems
Come unapproachable sandal
Come royal purple and right hand of the King
Come you whom my poor soul has longed for, and longs for still
I give you thanks that you have become one single spirit with me.

God heard my cries
And from unimaginable heights he stooped down
And looked upon me.
Once more he had pity on me and allowed me to see
The One who was invisible to all,
A much as human kind can bear.
Seeing him I was astounded,
Me who was locked up in my tiny house of bone,
All surrounded by darkness…
I saw him in the midst of my tiny house,
So quickly had he entered in, complete,
Uniting himself to me inexpressibly
Joining himself to me inexpressibly
Suffusing himself in me unconfusedly,
Just as fire can permeate iron,
Or light shine through crystal.
So it was he made me become like fire itself;
Revealing himself to me as Light.

What point is there in trying to explain all of this to you,
Or trying to make you understand it all?
If you yourself have not felt it by personal experience,
You will be unable to know it.

If you have not discerned that the eye of your mind has been opened,
And that it has seen the light;
If you have not perceived the sweetness of the Godhead;
If you have not been personally enlightened by the Holy Spirit;
If you have not sensed that your heart has been cleansed
And has shone with luminous reflections;
If, contrary to all expectation, you have not discovered the Christ within yourself;
If you have not been stupefied, at your vision of the divine beauty;
Then tell me – how is it that you dare to make any statement at all about God?

Calluses and dusty prayer

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A truly humble person ought to be ashamed to resent whatever is said or done against him; for it is the greatest shame in the world to see that our Creator bears so many insults from His creatures, and that we resent even a little word that is contradictory. – St. Teresa of Avila

My spiritual director back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was the most important mentor I have had in my life. He walked me through the “valley of the shadow of death,” and helped me discover hope. And he was a saintly priest who exemplified charity and humility in the most amazing ways.

He was a parish priest whose first love was being a pastor. Part of his priestly ministry in the latter years of his life was to take into his rectory priests who had grown bitter or burned out, and love them back to life. * Every morning, when I would stay overnight at his rectory, I would see him already praying in the tiny rectory chapel at 5:00 a.m. Often he would be holding the parish directory, which he kept next to his Breviary to pray for his parishioners by name. * It was his personal philosophy to not own a car that was better than those owned by his poorest parishioners. * I was with him once when he got pulled over by a cop for speeding. The officer offered to waive his traffic violation ticket when he noticed he was a priest. He said, “No, I’m a priest not a prince. Why should I get any perks my people do not?” I think the cop got choked up. He followed through with that philosophy through on everything. * He would wander around the neighborhoods of his parish territory several mornings a week and enter bars, clothing stores, restaurants, car repair shops — the haunts of his people — and speak with them, joke with them, bless them, hear their confessions on the spot or gently ask them why they have not been at church recently. Long before Catholics Come Home, he was already in the streets seeking the strays. * Once he said to me about his own prayer life, devoid of sweetness, “Tom, I have eaten dust in my prayer for 20 years. But [he said with a wry smile] it’s my own fault. I pray each day that God give me the grace ‘to give and not to count the cost,’ and He answered my prayer. Be ready when you ask for a grace to receive it.”

Though his prayer may have been bitter, the fruits born in his life and ministry were sweeter than honey. What a marvelous and mysterious exchange love effects! Long before Pope Francis, he was a missionary of mercy. It was all a wonder to see.

I would write down his aphorisms in my journal to pray on later. So many! Each was like open heart surgery. Let me share four today that were on humility.

Remember Tom that once you think you’re humble, you’ve lost it. Humility forgets it’s even there.

The best litmus test of humility is how you take criticism. Yes, you’re so humble, Tom, when everyone praises you, likes you, affirms you. Yes, you deflect those things. But if you are honest, you know you secretly feed on them. But the moment someone criticizes you, disapproves of your behavior or opinion, you throw up walls, protests. You’ll know you’re humble when praise and blame are both equally welcome. In the mean time, make your lack of humility a cause for humility!

When I came to my parish here, the secretary, who had been here for over 20 years, gave me this advice: “Father, let the people know no job is to low for you and you’ll have their trust. Let them see you clean toilets now and again.” There’s a terrible clerical saying — “These hands were made for chalices not calluses.” But Jesus, His hands would have been hard and worn.

Whenever anyone compliments you on any one of your gifts or talents, say to yourself: “How much God must love them to give me these gifts.” Because it’s not about you, Tom.

Santa Caterina da Siena

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century. wikimedia.org

You, eternal Trinity, are the craftsman; and I your handiwork have come to know that you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son. — St. Catherine’s Dialogue #167

St. Catherine of Siena’s feast is today! She is a very special saint for me, and for several of my lay Dominican friends. Let me share just one little nugget of her golden wisdom today.

Her spiritual director, Bl. Raymond of Capua, recounted a vision of Christ that Catherine had when she was at prayer. Jesus asked her, “Do you know daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have happiness in your grasp.” Then the Lord continued, “You are she-who-is-not, I AM HE WHO IS.”

Stark.

To acknowledge the radical contingency of being, that all of us at every moment absolutely depend on God for existence, is to have in place a firm foundation. If such is my vision, I must always live in a fundamental posture of grateful receptivity before God, aware at every moment that all is gift. And because the Giver of the gift is love in His deepest essence, love must come to define my life as the only fitting response. This also establishes in us the profound humility of a steward, makes the practice of prayer entirely natural, and reveals the Sacraments to be life-giving fountains from which HE WHO IS raises she-who-is-not up into His new creation. There, in a world conceived by the Heart of God, she even comes to share in His beginning-less eternity and limitless love.

As Pope Benedict XVI said:

Like St. Catherine, every believer must feel the need to be conformed with the sentiments of the heart of Christ to love God and his neighbour as Christ himself loves. And we can all let our hearts be transformed and learn to love like Christ in a familiarity with him that is nourished by prayer, by meditation on the Word of God and by the sacraments, above all by receiving Holy Communion frequently and with devotion.

After her vision of Christ, St. Catherine continued with a prayer that captures powerfully the beauty of this “HE WHO IS/she who is not” dialectic. May the prayer of St. Catherine become ours this day.

And you, high eternal Trinity, acted as if you were drunk with love, infatuated with your creature. When you saw that this tree could bear no fruit, but the fruit of death because it was cut off from you who are life, you came to rescue with the same love with which you created it. You engrafted your divinity into the dead tree of our humanity. What drove you to this to give back life to this creature of yours that had so insulted you? Only love. And was it enough for your charity to have effected such a union with your creatures? No. So you, eternal Word, watered this tree with your own Blood. Thanks, thanks to you, most high eternal Father, for revealing this truth – madly in love as you are with your creature.

Lay Saint!

Today I thought I would simply, and without additional commentary, share with you two strangely related insights found in two different emails sent to me by two different friends.

The first, sent to me by a friend in New Orleans Tuesday afternoon, recounted a remarkable little story. The second, sent to me later Tuesday night, contained a series of excerpts from a letter Pope Francis wrote very recently to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

I thought the coincidence of time and theme was good enough reason to post them together. I will refrain from commentary as they speak for themselves.

Email #1:

I sat outside today at Rue De La Course studying for my Scripture final exam. I was approached by a homeless gentleman seeking money and we struck up a conversation. His name was Ronnie, he was weathered and obviously living on the streets but had a joyful countenance about him. He noticed I was reading “Jesus the Bridegroom” so the conversation went in the direction of Christ and his love for us.

Ronnie shared with me that for 2 1/2 years he studied at the Baptist seminary because he thought God was calling him to be a pastor. Towards the end of his time there he heard God say to him, “Ronnie, (we talk like that because we are good friends) I called you to study here not to become a pastor but to go out into the world and reach those that only you can reach. I have given you gifts, you are street wise and can work with your hands. It is there that I am sending you to teach them about me”.

Lay Saint! What a great witness he was for me and for so many!

Yea God!!! So cool!!

Email #2:

I remember the famous expression [of St. John Paul II]: ‘It is the hour of the laity,’ but it seems that the clock has stopped.

Clericalism brings about a homogenization of the layperson, treating as ‘mandatory’ limits to his or her diverse initiatives and efforts, and I would dare to say, the audacity necessary to bring the Good News of the Gospel to all places of social and overall political activity.

Clericalism, far from giving impulse to diverse contributions and proposals, turns off, little by little, the prophetic fire from which the entire Church is called to give testimony in the heart of its peoples. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belongs to all the people of God and not only an elect or illuminated few.

What does it mean for us pastors the fact that laypeople are working in public life? It means finding the way to encourage them, to accompany them and to stimulate all the attempts and efforts they are already doing to keep alive hope and faith in a world full of contradictions, especially for the poorest.

It is not the pastor who must say to the layperson that which they must do and say; he or she knows more and better than us. It is not for the pastor to decide what the faithful must say in their diverse settings.

Priests often fall into the temptation to think that the committed layperson is he or she who works for the Church or in things of the parish or the diocese, and we have reflected little on how to accompany a baptized person in their public and daily life. Without realizing it, we have created a lay elite believing that only those who work in things of priests are committed laypersons; and we have forgotten, neglected the believer that many times has their hope burned away in the daily fight to live the faith.

These are situations that clericalism cannot see, because it is more worried with dominating spaces than creating processes. We must then recognize the layperson for their reality, for their identity.

It is illogical, and even impossible, to think that we as pastors should have the monopoly on solutions for the many challenges that modern life presents to us. On the contrary, we must remain at the side of our people, accompanying them in their work and stimulating that capable imagination of responding to current problems.

Our role, our joy, the joy of the pastor, is truly in the helping and the stimulating. Laypeople are a part of the Holy Faithful People of God and therefore are protagonists of the Church and the world; we are called to serve them, not them to serve us.

The Law of Love

love-01

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I remember the day when I first heard love defined. I always imagined it was one of those fuzzy things that evaded definition.

It happened in my moral theology class. The professor, as I recalled in my journal, was responding to this question from a student: “In what sense can morality be said to be the science and art of love? The moral law seems too cold for love.” He replied by making a number of points about love:

Love means to consistently will and otherwise choose the true good of another, and morality specifies what the good is and how best to bring it about. Aquinas says it this way, “An act of love always tends toward two things: to the good that one wills, and to the person for whom one wills it; since to love a person is to wish that person good.” Law, which is the concrete expression of the demands of justice, grounds and guards love, and points the way “beyond” for love to go, since love always goes beyond justice, though never against it … To “love your neighbor as yourself” means you see their flourishing as your own. So St. Paul’s commands us in Romans 12, “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” and then tells us in 1 Corinthians 12, “If one member of Christ’s Body suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” And the Jews have a saying, “If you save one life you save the whole world” — because everyone’s salvation demands the salvation of all … But fulfilling the command to love God is somewhat different. It cannot mean willing and choosing His fulfillment, as He is purely actualized fulfillment. He always is everything He can be. Rather, to love God can only mean loving what God loves, willing what He wills. Which is, of course, the fulfillment of our neighbor, which brings us back full circle to the two commandments Jesus tells us are two halves of a whole.

I was absolutely ecstatic to have such conceptual clarity, and so much seemed to suddenly make sense. The connection between love and the moral law, love of neighbor and self, and love of God — all part of a symphonic unity. Christians must reclaim the word love so it does not remain simply an empty cipher susceptible to any meaning given it, and they must put it into action in their lives to show just how beautiful it is.

He went on to add an additional insight on love. He said, “The Second Vatican Council, under the influence of Karol Wojtyła, further enriched our understanding of love. He said that love is not simply the detached willing another’s good, external to ourselves, but the offering of the very gift of self to another.” Then he quoted Gaudium et Spes #24, adding that Wojtyła likely was a major inspiration behind its language:

For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

Then he quoted 1 Thess. 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves [tas heautōn psychas], because you had become very dear to us.” That’s the essential meaning of communion and covenant: an exchange of selves offered in love sealed by a promise of trusting fidelity. It’s why marriage — as I often say — is the foundation of all social and ecclesial life, and the primordial icon of neighbor love in extremis, “in its most extreme form.” Society and the Church flourish only when marriage, and the family life built on it, flourishes.

Back in January a friend came to visit us from out of town for a few days and she showed us this 9 minute movie that knocked our socks off. It captures in such a moving way the heart of what Aquinas and Wojtyła convey with such abstract precision. I posted it the other day, but just in case you did not watch it before, I encourage you to watch it now. Again, it’s about 9 minutes long:

Never to make a change

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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: