You have so many defects

“If you have so many defects, why are you surprised to find defects in others?” ― St. Josemaría Escrivá

My grandfather once wrote me in a letter titled, “What is a Great Man?”,

…Great men never gossip to harm another’s name and reputation. You may speak about someone in their absence, but only if you are prepared to tell them to their face the same. Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t like, and then happily pass it along. Just be aware that anyone worthy of respect will immediately lose respect for you when you gossip to them…

Why do we find such relish in passing on news of another’s failure, malice, idiocy? Is it because it makes us feel superior, distracts attention from our issues, feeds our envy or soothes our own insecurities? Or maybe it creates a sense of belonging with others because we seem to share a common loathing of some person or group? I have always found that the best litmus test for how out of touch I am with my own crap is how freely I engage in gossip about others’ crap.

Jesus directly confronted this deep-seated human tendency in the Sermon on the Mount, and prescribed the remedy:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Know thyself! Self-knowledge, explored under the light of divine grace, has unlimited potential to make us humble, compassionate and patient with others’ faults and failings. I am riddled with faults and failings, sins and vices, and when I find myself dealt with mercifully by the God who forgives and forgets, and does not gossip about me behind my back, I beg Him for the chance to practice the same toward the most irritating or offensive person I can find.

For people of faith, the premier path to such self-knowledge is prayerful reflection on one’s own life and actions in the light of the commandments, and in the light of Christ and His teaching. Christ alone reveals to us who we were made to be and does not simply canonize our mediocrity. And if you ask Him in prayer to be honest with you about you as you examine/examen your life? Well, let’s just say He loves answering that prayer.

But another indispensable path to self-knowledge is an honest and trustworthy friend, parent, sibling, spouse, mentor, confidante with whom you can be brutally honest about yourself, and to whom you grant full permission to be brutally honest right back atcha. By my lonesome, I have an unlimited capacity for self-deception and rationalization, and an even better knack for finding people who will aid and abet me in realizing this delusive capacity.

Praying the litany of humility is good, if dangerous, but even better is allowing flesh-and-blood others to lead me to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth that is real humility.

How often do you say to a trusted other, “Be totally honest, what do I need to be aware of, work on, deal with, face?” And then listen non-defensively and act proactively? When you do, please pray for that honest person whom you so desperately need, and thank God for them. And then pay it forward, with love, confidence and courage. The world will be better for it.

Goods are meant for everyone

Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone — Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Back around the year 2000, I went to a lecture series by Anglican biblical scholar, Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey. It was on the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. During the second lecture, he discussed Jesus’ radical teachings on riches, poverty and generosity to the poor by reflecting on 14:12-13:

[Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

During his reflections, I wrote down copious notes, and later mixed them with my own insights that his talks inspired. This is an excerpt from my journal:

+ + +

As he was speaking about this text from Luke, Dr. Bailey incidentally mentioned, “I was talking to a Catholic priest in Lebanon who said, ‘You know, Ken, you can talk to people about how faith impacts politics or macro-economics, and they may get hot under the collar. But you can still be on speaking terms later. But talk about the demands faith makes on their sex life or personal wallets? My Lord! You’ll find yourself stepping on landmines and may not survive…'”

“Yet,” Bailey said,  “when Jesus met Zaccaeus He, in a room full of other tax collectors and sinners, zeroed in on Zaccaeus’ overstuffed money bag. But notice Zaccaeus’ response: ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ THIS is salvation, Jesus says, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’ In Luke it’s overwhelmingly clear that ‘being saved’ looks like wealth being transformed into justice and alms.”

Bailey further noted, “One of the most important functions of the earliest monastic communities in Egypt and Syria was to offer Christians living in the world a radical witness as to what economics might look like if Jesus laid hold of it. By their voluntary poverty, monks were to keep before the whole Church a sustained critique of lavish lifestyles, of possessiveness or envy or greed. Monks showed the joy of riches is found only in their potential to enrich many.”

Then he quoted the description of the early Christian community in Acts 2:44-45:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

“And,” he added, “if you look at church history, when the monks get rich, the whole Church suffers loss.”

Then he said,

This Lukan logic has always been present at the heart of the Eucharistic Offertory, when the bread, wine and a tithe of alms are brought forward to the Altar of Sacrifice. One’s 10% tithe was never meant to be God’s “cut” of your wealth, leaving you the other 90% to do with as you please. No! Just like the bread and wine, the tithe signified handing over of all of one’s possessions and wealth, placing everything at the feet of Christ’s whole Body as a service of worship.

Yes, you can’t serve God and mammon precisely because the ‘and’ reveals each as a mutually exclusive competitor — some for God’s ends, but the rest for my own. However, you can serve God with mammon when you acknowledge all of it belongs to God, and so all of it belongs to your neighbors. Which are one and the same thing for Jesus.

Our life mission then becomes prudently placing all we have at the service of others, for the glory of God. The God of Jesus, that is, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ (2 Cor. 8:9).

At the end of his riff, Dr. Bailey noted,

For the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, the principle sign of salvation is detachment from riches. A detachment that opens one to generosity animated by love for the apple of God’s eye: the poor, orphan, widow, all who live at the margins of life.

But for Jesus, salvation is not simply frugality. Misers are the most frugal of all. Salvation means a frugality that enriches generosity because it is inspired by love. Which is why Christians should regularly subject their wallets, and the wallet culture they inhabit, to a regular Gospel audit.

I’m off to Confession now….[end of journal entry]

Eating with God

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord — John 21:12

This is such a stunning scene in context of St. John’s Gospel. Breakfast being served by the now risen Jesus, only days after his horrific execution. God-made-Cook wishes to eat with his friends, with food he has prepared. The surreal transcendence of this scene is reminiscent of Moses and his companions’ dizzying experience in Exodus 24:9-11, as they were summoned up Mount Sinai to dine with God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel … they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”

This same God, who pitched his tent with Israel by becoming flesh (John 1:14), and pledged that he would feed us with his own flesh and blood (John 6:52ff), tells us in Revelation 3:24,

Behold! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

God desires intimacy with us, and again and again in Scripture it is the covenant family meal that stands at the center of that call to intimacy. Indeed, the meal perfectly frames an intimacy that is at once vertical and horizontal, bringing God close to us, and us close to each other. In middle eastern culture, the meal reigns supreme as a sign of friendship, of encounter, of trust, of love’s willingness to share life and waste time with others. As Jennifer Grant once commented,

I have a friend who lived for several years in the Middle East, in Baghdad and Dubai. He is currently at seminary, preparing to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Last summer, as the two of us ate crusty bread and double-cream blue cheese, and drank glasses of good pinot noir, he told me that eating together, or “breaking bread,” is considered an act of worship for his Muslim friends. In the Middle East, he said, people who are merely acquaintances do not “grab lunch” together. Eating together is too intimate an act to be shared with strangers. It is too important. It is holy somehow.

This “eucharistic” view of eating and drinking, which stands at the heart of Scripture, must be seen as defining for people of faith. It should shape a Christian-inspired culture that wishes to welcome God’s ongoing desire to extend his tent-pitching Incarnation and divinize the whole of creation — through us. In every meal, humans, who are the priests of nature, ingest the created order and raise it up, as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, to God — and, in Christ, with God.

I remember when I worked at a Jewish nursing home in Connecticut back in 1989, a resident named Golda once said to me, “You know when you Catholics went all wrong? When you stopped your meatless Fridays. See, when you take God out of the kitchen and dining room, everything falls apart. It’s why we Jews are so fixated on kosher laws. It keeps us always mindful that God is in food.”

It’s why family meals are a non-negotiable for those who wish to mesh their family with divinity. It’s also why, when people want to speak with me about matters of significance, I prefer not my sterile office, but the coffee shop, the brewery, or a dining room table.

Beautiful Feet

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy,
and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said,
“Greetings!”
And they came to him, took hold of his feet,
and worshiped him.  — Matt. 28:8-9

Fear and great joy. Ran. Greetings! Took hold of his feet, and worshiped.

What a scene! Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary,” after seeing the angels and hearing their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, sped off only to be stopped “suddenly” by Jesus greeting them. Imagine how disorienting this all must have been for them. And their reaction? To seize hold of his feet!

How tender, how human, how intimate.

The verb “to seize” used here was used in only one other place in the Gospel of Matthew: in the Garden of Gethsemane when, after Judas’ betrayal, the Temple guards seized Jesus to take him off for trial and execution (26:50).

How lovely that now Jesus’ feet, forever bearing wounds opened by betrayal, are seized by joyful love from these faithful women who never fled during the Passion (cf Matt 27:55-56). It is most fitting that they, who had come to the tomb to honor Jesus’ dead body, are the first to worship him as Risen.

Isaiah 52:7 rings through these messengers of the Messenger:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Those feet are worthy of worship, for

he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his wounds we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

The feet of a God who came to wash his creatures’ feet, symbols of God’s extreme humility and tender love. Let us become like this Most Low God whom we worship.

Being-taken

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

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.

One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,

The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As Godbeing-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.

My God.

God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.

What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.

About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.

That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” — Rom. 12:21

anglocatholicfire.files.wordpress.com

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. — Shakespeare

During these days of trial in the church and the world, when the failures of humanity seem to tower, it is now, above all, that Christians must show to the world “the quality of mercy.”

Mercy is not the absence of justice, it is the fusion of justice and love. Mercy is what love becomes when it meets injustice. Mercy is not soft or weak, but is infinitely more fierce and costly than justice alone. Justice alone condemns and contains, rages and seeks the punishment of the evildoer in order to bring justice the wronged. But justice wed to love for the persecuting, reviling, evildoing, hating, cursing enemy seeks restoration, redemption and remedy for both victimizer and victim.

But mercy is infinitely more extreme than just “seeking” these things.

In Jesus the fusion of love and justice compels Him to embrace the Father’s command to identity with the innocent victim and the guilty victimizer, to bear their burdens that both might be saved. In the Passion He drank our poison to become our antidote. This is what made Him sweat blood and bargain with the Father in the Garden of Agony (Mk. 14:36). This:

For he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

From the Cross, wholly identified with all innocent victims, Jesus pleads for the victimizers:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. — Lk. 23:24

In fact, He identified with evildoers in the most radical sense imaginable:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Cor. 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — Gal. 3:13

St. Paul, having himself become Christ (Gal. 2:20), embraces this same terrible logic of mercy in response to his (Jewish) people’s rejection of the Messiah:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. — Rom 9:3

In a most stunning passage from Pope Benedict, we see this explosive tension between justice and love erupts within God as a war:

God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

We who are in Christ, who have fallen deep into the paschal waters of Baptism, who dare sign ourselves with the Cross, who ingest the Food and Drink born of this war internal to God, must evince, must live out this same ethos of mercy. Seventy times seven times a day.

Whenever we embody this crazed love of our extremist God, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

The world outside of Christ either condemns or canonizes evil, but Christians carry evil — and evildoers — on their backs as a Cross (Lk. 9:23), by every means possible. By prayer and reparative penance, by fasting, by forgiveness, by alms or by charity-drenched fraternal correction. And in a million other merciful ways.

In fact, if we resolve to be tough and fierce in the face of evil as disciples of the Christ, with heroic courage, we must don those most fearsome weapons of the Cross that alone cause hell to shudder in terror. These were the same weapons with which the dead Christ harrowed hell’s infernal abyss. These are the weapons by which martyrs conquer evil.

Are we courageous enough to wield these weapons in these dark times? Let’s dare…

…as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, to clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

Praying the Psalms, from nature to sacrament

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. ― G.K. Chesterton

This weekend I offered a retreat on prayer for a community of permanent deacons and their wives. What a faithful group of people, true servants of the servants of God. It was filled with many unexpected graces for me!

Among those graces, I received a deeper insight into the beauty and power of the psalms. In fact yesterday two friends, both within a short amount of time of each other, sent me a text/email sharing desperate situations they both were facing. After reading these, I went into the chapel to wait for the Vigil Mass to begin and opened by happenstance to Psalm 69. I started praying it slowly, for them. It was overwhelmingly clear to me 69:2-3 & 14 was what the Spirit wanted to pray in me for each of them:

Save me, O God, for the waters
have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep,
where there is no foothold.
I have entered the waters of the deep,
where the flood overwhelms me.

But I pray to you, O LORD,
for a time of your favor.
In your great mercy, answer me, O God,
with your salvation that never fails.

I had asked those on retreat during one of my talks to pray in their quiet time with a favorite psalm. To pray with it very slowly, asking the Spirit to open the psalm’s meaning afresh for them. In particular, I asked them to ask the Holy Spirit to open to them something of the spirit and intention of the original Jewish author of the psalm, what he had in his heart when he wrote it.

Later that evening, a number of the retreatants shared with me their experience in praying thus with their psalm — so remarkable. Wow. One in particular stood out to me, so I asked him if I could share his words in my teaching. He agreed.

I had played a sung version of psalm 104 during one of my talks, and so he said he decided to use that psalm since he loved the music that went along with it. He told me,

I have prayed the psalms [in the Breviary] for years and years, but when I opened myself up to what you recommended it was like fireworks. A whole new meaning opened to me. So deep.

Here’s what happened. As I walked through the fields around the monastery praying aloud the psalm’s words, I felt the whole world around me suddenly transform from nature to a sacrament. You know what I mean? It become transparent. God was all around me, playing in the world He had made — it was chilling. Gave me chills.

I say He was playing, but He was also powerful beyond all words. I sensed the whole universe being held up by His power, yet there He was playing around me — in the wind, on the clouds, with the birds. I could hear inside me that music from the video you showed, and I swear, He was dancing to it.

It sounds loony now that I am saying it out loud to you, but during that stretch of time it was so real. Scary, almost.