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.

I rely on the Word

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”

 

The Childlike

I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will — Matt. 11:25-27

These words from yesterday’s Gospel at Mass continue to stir inside of me. Jesus spoke these words of prayer to the Father right after having excoriated the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, who refused to “repent” (11:20) in the face of His many deeds of power. In a moment, Jesus shifts from grief and anger to a prayer of praise to the Father for His gracious providential will. What a contrast!

They had not “repented” – metenoēsan — which means they refused to have a “change of mind.” Because that is the real goal of Jesus’ miracles and ministry, cognitive therapy; to invite us to a radical change of mind that accords with the mind of God.

We often think of the word “repent” as a mere moral exhortation, i.e. cease doing evil and learn to do good. While that is a core element of repentance, its main thrust is to invite a deep paradigm shift in the way we see everything, i.e. to acquire the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). As the Emerson said,

Sow a thought, reap an action;
sow an act, reap a habit;
sow a habit, reap a character;
sow a character, reap a destiny.

Jesus’ frustration with Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum is that His miracles failed to produce their desired effect, which is to blow open minds so they could be reformed in the divine image. The Latin word miraculum, deriving from the root word mirari, which means “wonder, astonishment, amazement,”  conveys this point well. Miracles, authored by Truth incarnate, are meant to “blow our settled categories” and incite wonder, making us susceptible to change. Wonder, a gift of the Spirit, is the beginning of any quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Note, from this perspective, miracles are not dazzling tricks of a magician meant to amaze spectators at God’s power to violate the laws of nature He Himself established. Rather, they are extraordinary displays of the final meaning of creation, the ultimate (and so “ordinary”) mission of human life, i.e. to feed the hungry, cure the sick, free the oppressed, forgive sin, and so on. In other words, each miracle contains a divine-human deed and an implicit command of mercy. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they manifest their God-destined fulfillment in the new creation that Jesus came to inaugurate by re-founding this creation on the law of cruciform love.

You might say that miracles are “performed” so that their recipients and witnesses will be dazzled into wonder sufficiently to embrace “these things” of the Gospel (see Matt. 5-7) and then perform the truth each miracle contains and signifies.

And so we return to Jesus’ praise to the Father for the fact that only the “childlike” are able to see, embrace and perform the wondrous beauty of this new creation’s law of merciful love. In fact, the word Jesus uses to describe these childlike is nēpiois, which is better translated “infants.” Wow! Why? Because only infants, who are wonder incarnate, are entirely disposed to being (re)formed by the newness of the world they see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Only infants open up in absolute trust to their mother and father to faithfully interpret the world for them.

In the face of the dawning of a new creation, inscribed in Blood with the law of the Gospel, we need to become infants again and surrender ourselves in absolute trust to the revelation of our re-creating Father, and of His only-begotten Son who entered this world first as an infant.

Teach me, O Christ, to repent, to think anew in wonder at the mystery of merciful love you revealed on the Cross; to live that love out to the full in trust and in that way lead all to their final destiny when you will be All in All. Amen.

For us men and for our salvation…

“Something that is yours forever is never precious” ― Chaim Potok

On Saturday, I taught a class on Sacred Scripture at the seminary. Part of the day I spent sharing with the students the immensity and complexity of the history of Israel’s journey from Abram to Jesus that gave us the “Old Testament,” and especially focused on the enormous hardships and suffering Israel endured “for us men and for our salvation” so that we would have privileged access to God’s self-revelation in His inspired Word.

I also mentioned at one point how this should shape in us a sense of reverence and gratitude every time we receive, ponder, pray, teach the words of Scripture, realizing that these words we hear in the Liturgy or read in the Bible were inscribed on parchment at great cost to both God and God’s People.

Throughout the evening after that class, and into the day on Sunday, I was overwhelmed by this awareness. By chance, my Mom asked yesterday if we could watch Fiddler on the Roof, one of our family’s favorite musicals. When we got to the scene near the end of the film, when the Jews in Anatevka are forced out of their homes into exile, my inner sense of awe and gratitude reached a fever pitch. I immediately thought of the Orthodox Jewish Rabbi I worked with in Hartford back in the 1980’s, whom I have quoted here before. He once said to me, when I asked him what it meant to him to be part of God’s chosen people,

Some chosen-ness! Disasters, enslavements, exiles, genocides, forever wandering the earth like our father Abraham. This is the terrible and blessed burden of being chosen, of making known His holiness among the nations. Baruch Hashem.

Baruch Hashem means, “Blessed is the Name (of G-d).”

He also added, “I will say, if you Christians are right that Jesus is the Messiah, his fate certainly fits the Jewish mold well. God asks us always, like our father Abraham, to leave everything behind whenever He asks it of us. To place whatever He gives, back into His Hands. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]. Only then can we be free to shine the light of Torah wherever we find ourselves.”

Last night I wrote in my journal, “The handing on of God’s Torah, His Word to the world requires of His covenant people that they be willing, in the final analysis, to let go of absolutely everything else except for fidelity to Him. Only what we are willing to surrender, to let go of, to give away becomes His revelation. And only what is given away is received forever in the Age to Come.”

“I try to stay away from all secular music.”

[this tom tome is a re-post from 2014]

The world is in itself secular. — Pope Paul VI

The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs. — Vatican II

“I try to stay away from all secular music.” I overheard this comment over lunch during a retreat I gave, as the people sitting at the table next to me were talking about how difficult it is to live in such a “secular world.”

My interest was piqued, so I said to the woman who made the comment, “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, but can I ask you a question?” She said, “Sure.” “What do you mean by secular music?” She replied, “Oh, I just mean all of the godless music out there. You know, the trashy music about sex and violence.” I said, “So secular music to you really means music that promotes immorality?” She said, “Yeah, I guess. But also music that’s about worldly things and not about God.”

I decided to press it further. “This is really helpful. I love to learn from other people’s perspectives. Do you mind if I ask more questions?” She seemed open. “So do you think that for music to be good or worthy to listen to it has to mention God?” She said, “Well, not really. I guess my problem is focusing on the world and the secular, and not on spiritual things.” I continued, “Do you think the world has a spiritual value?” “Yes, if it’s connected to God.” I replied, “What does it mean to you for the world to be connected to God?”

At this point I was worried she was becoming uncomfortable with my inquisition, and everyone else at her table stayed silent. But after a few moments, she said, “If you use the things of the world to do God’s will, that seems like it would be somewhat spiritual.” I replied, “That makes sense. So going back to your original comment about secular music. What does the word secular mean to you?” She said, “Godless. Worldly.”

That was it. The words “secular” and “worldly” were for her both entirely pejorative terms. So, I thought to myself, how can one possibly speak about the positive value of this life on its own terms? What word do we use?

I pressed her further, “Okay, so fair enough. Then if you were asked by someone who was not Christian, what word would you as a Christian use to describe the goodness of this life now that you live in? You know, the world that includes things like money, the natural environment, social and political institutions, science, art, business, human love, suffering, tragedy, and so on. If you can’t use the words worldly or secular, what would you say?”

She paused and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can find a word. Maybe creation?” Then she said, “What word would you use?” I said, “World and secular.” We all laughed. I continued, “Here’s the thing, secular and world are words that Christianity treasures in its vocabulary. ‘Secular’ comes from the Latin saecula, which simple means ‘age’ or ‘epoch,’ and refers to the realm of time and space we presently inhabit in this world, in contrast to the realm of eternity, which is called the saecula saeculorum, the ‘ages upon ages’ that never end. For Christians, God is the creator of the saecula, the secular time-bound age we live in, and the saecula saeculorum, the endless Age to Come. So secular and world are in a sense synonymous. So to be secular and worldly are the way God intended us to be.”

She seemed puzzled, and said, “Then why does the Bible tell us that the world is against God or that we shouldn’t be worldly?” I replied, “Because the Bible uses ‘world’ in several senses. First, it is the ‘very good’ world Genesis describes, created by God out of love in the beginning. Second, world is used to describe creation in rebellion against God, which is what you described when you said ‘worldly’ in a negative way. And third, world is a description of creation as the ‘theater of redemption,’ as loved by a God who wants to redeem and heal it from its rebellion. As in John 3:16’s famous ‘For God so loved the world that he gave…'” I continued, “So we have to be careful not to conflate all the meanings of the word ‘world’ into the Second negative sense only. That would be a disservice to God’s view of things, ignoring two-thirds of the Bible’s meaning.”

At this point, the woman said, “Please, join us at our table.” I sat down and we continued our lively exchange. I said, “Okay, so can I rephrase your original comment about music?” She said with a chuckle, “Sure. Why not!” “Okay, so what you really meant to say was, ‘I try to stay away from all music in rebellion against God.'” Everyone laughed. She said, “Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth!” I went on, “But music that is about anything in God’s good world — about humanity’s attempt to make sense of that secular world in all its complexity, or about the drama of evil and the struggle to find redemption — these worldly themes would be okay to enjoy as a Christian? Or even to write and perform such music as a Christian?” She said, “Yup, I guess so.”

“So,” I concluded, “you do enjoy secular music!” She and all her companions all laughed and she said, “Yes! Guilty as charged.”

Then the woman said, “So why does the word secular just sound so bad? Get such a bad rap?” I replied, “Because in the last several centuries, western culture has come to define the secular without any reference to God, as a closed system that is not open to transcendence; not open to an understanding of the world as filled with God’s presence and action and glory. God was seen as a threat to the world’s autonomy, in some ways because certain prominent strands of Christianity tended to treat the world as hopelessly corrupt, condemned by God. Or as a mere thing to be used, subordinated to the really important things: religion, spirituality, God. I like to say, when Christians feel the need to debase the world to exalt God, or debase the material to exalt the spiritual, the world feels the opposing need to debase God and the spiritual in order to exalt the world and the material.”

I continued, “And inasmuch as Christianity privileges the negative Second Sense of world, beats up on the secular world or trivializes the importance of this life in the grand scheme of things, Christianity promotes and emboldens the very atheistic secularism it abhors. A Christianity that highlights rejection of the world as hopelessly tainted, or as alien to what is truly spiritual feeds atheistic secularism. And a Christianity that idealizes ‘fleeing the world’ into a totally ‘religious bubble’ as the highest expression of what it means to be Christian, makes those 99% of people called by God to immerse themselves fully in the secular world feel they have to choose between God and the world. Between being spiritual and being secular.”

The woman said, “Never thought of it that way.” I replied, “Think about it, if your best option is to at least mildly disdain the secular world in order to fully love God, those who feel the innate and powerful mission to give themselves to the secular world will be left with little choice. Of course there’s much more to the story, but that’s an important part.”

“So,” I concluded, “we people of faith who live in the world have to love the world even more than our atheist secular neighbors. But we have to love it the ways God does, in accord with His commandments and the law of love. And we have to realize that sharing in God’s love for a broken world looks like the cross. But the point is we must be lovers of His beautiful, broken world. So we really have to get our language clear on this or we just continue to feed the ever-deepening divide that has tragically divorced faith from life in the secular world.”

If I had had my Vatican II texts with me, I would have concluded with this:

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his secular duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.

“Tom, God doesn’t need you.”

[re-post 2014]

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. — Acts 17:24-25

“It’s okay, Tom, God doesn’t need you.” I remember my spiritual director, back in 1990, saying this to me. What a relief I felt.

I had been overwhelmed by various relationships in my life back then, as so many of the people in my life were intensely needy and were relying on me for more than I could give. I was resentful, drained, and I had not yet mastered the art of saying no. It seemed there was no one around me who did not need something from me, no one who was just ‘there’ for me without an attached demand of some sort. At least that was my worn-down perception.

After that spiritual direction session, he asked me to pray with John 4:4-42, the story of the Woman at the Well, and write in my journal as I prayed. I did. It was such a beautiful epiphany.

I read, “A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’” I wrote, “Hell. Even God needs something from me. Literally no one who just is there for me. Need, need, need, take, take, take. No end.”

I read on, “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?'” I wrote, “For me, it would read, ‘How is it that you, a God, who have all, ask for something from me, a creature, who has nothing without you? Cut me a break.'”

I read further, “Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’” I wrote, “My God, this is it. He asks, but He asks only what He gives already. He is always first and always the Giver. The Giver of life, of living water.”

I could feel physically the weight lift, the healing oil run down my soul within as I heard these words come alive. I even felt, in a strange way, my feet being washed by Him. “Let me do this,” I sensed Him say.

I read even further, “Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’”

I wrote, “I am looking for water from human wells, in vain. But He gives without limit, lavishly, everlastingly. If only I will drink. If only I will pray, receiving praying, bringing my scorching thirst to Him fully trusting He is God-for-me. He did not create me to sate His own needs, but to sate mine. His need is to fill me, and for me to do the same for others from His abundance. Which is what she did: ‘Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.’ She ran to all the needy people because she was filled to overflowing by the Overflowing, and so she could give from her poverty His limitless surplus.”

I then thought of a quote from St. Augustine I had recently come across in my moral theology class, “Lord command what you will and grant what you command!” I wrote, “Lord, you need me. But your need is for me to receive from you All, so I can give All. Graciously give to me from your All, you who are the All in All. You don’t need me to fill your needs, but to need your Fill. Fill me! Overfill me! Lord, teach me to pray!”

I always return to that moment when I am empty, overwhelmed, feel siphoned and drained. I return to Isaiah 55:1:

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

Amen.

An entirely new way of being human.

[re-post 2015]

“Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.” — St. Maximus the Confessor

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. in their hospice, one of the AIDS patients we served once said to one of the Sisters, “Where do you people come from?”

She had been overwhelmed by the new “economy” she experienced at Gift of Peace, which, in her words, “spit in the face of the law of the street — ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.” She said, “All my life, anytime anyone did anything nice for me, they always wanted something back. You didn’t give unless you wanted to take. This is the first place I’ve been where they do something nice, but don’t want something back.”

She was especially amazed that the Sisters and volunteers were able to ignore her initial expressions of bitter ingratitude and anger, and continue to care for her with kindness and patience.

After I heard her observation, I meditated on just how radical the implications of what she said were if that “economy” was lived out in every detail of Christian life. What a strange form of justice would emerge! To this effect, Jesus’ words in Luke 6:34-36 are indeed mind-bending:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It seems, then, that Jesus touts mercy as the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mercy, which is love encountering evil, brokenness, sin, death, and overcoming it.

Where might we even start implementing such an impossible demand? Well, by actively letting go of the need to be thanked, acknowledged or praised for the good we do. By working on refining our intention — the why of your action — from “what’s in it for me, on my terms” to “what is for God’s greater glory,” while trusting in the supremacy of God’s manner, in the End, of rewarding good and dealing with evil.

Sounds lofty and glorious in speech, but translating it into everyday actions is an entirely different experience. Brutally hard, as the present economy is infected by the logic of sin.

In service to purifying their intention, St. John of the Cross counseled his fellow Religious to frequently seek out opportunities to do kindnesses to those notorious for ingratitude. Why? Yes, to help purify their intention, shifting the center of gravity from the needy ego to the God-neighbor.

But also it was to imitate God in offering the unworthy and ungrateful an opportunity to discover in us a new way of being human, pattered after God’s economy of salvation. In other words, by imitating God in this way, we offer others the invitation to be saved.

By looking at us, they can say: “Oh, that’s why I would want to be saved! To be like him, like her!”

Or, even better, maybe I could say that by choosing to do good to those who cannot, or will not do good to us in return, we allow ourselves to be saved by the merciful Father.

And being saved means being made capable of loving as God loves, with God’s love, plain and simple.

While we will always find reasonable reasons for not acting in such a way to this or that nasty, ungrateful person, faith challenges us to risk each day a new way of seeing the world, a new way of acting toward others that makes mercy the new normal. The cognitive dissonance this risk  causes should remind us that mercy is indeed as odd a form of justice as a crucified God is an odd manner of wielding divine omnipotence.

The woman at Gift of Peace ended up being baptized. Why? She said, “if your Jesus is anything like these women, I want to know Him.”

Yeah, that.