Give me wonder, O Lord

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Re-post from 2014

The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that existence is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is overflowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences. — Joseph Pieper

Someone asked me recently, “What’s most important to you as a theologian? What’s your non-negotiable?” My spontaneous response was, “Wonder!” They replied, “What does that mean?” I proposed an answer of sorts, but here’s what I jotted down later on my journal:

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For me, theological wonder is permitting faith to get the mind stuck in amazement, surprise, marvel and openness to the unexpected answers found in a life shot through with the divine. Answers that set the mind off-balance, i.e. re-calibrating answers.

In wonder there’s also an astonished gratitude over the sheer gratuitousness, the undeserved gifted-ness of everything. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, I experience myself as “being thrown” into existence. I was not, I never asked to be, but then found myself suddenly here. I am. I always find my “first person” vantage completely mind-blowing: what does it mean that I am me and not another? I used to think of this beginning at the age of 7 or 8 — it was my first taste of this mystery’s conundrum that leaves your “why am I me?” faced with no better answer than, “Gift.”

My favorite philosophical question is closely related, “Why there is something rather than nothing at all?” None of this world had to be, but here it is. Wow.

Existence is a ceaseless wellspring of fresh insight. Every day is as freshly new into existence as the light that followed the words, “Let there be…”

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird

Wonder allows you to return to this “first” moment, which is not “back then” but now. If you allow yourself to receive existence as a new gift in every moment, it will regularly re-set the limits of your constricted horizons. I need a poem here to help me. Per Letters to the Exiles, Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of your Longing”:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Wonder is giving over your hand to God.

Theological wonder also requires and gives birth to humility. The first stance of everything is not grasping and dominating and doing, but absolute receptivity. I am in every moment receiving from God the act of being. And, by humility, I know how much I don’t know. I know that I never, in any final sense, will arrive at the end of knowledge. There’s always more, a surplus of meaning to be sought after. This gives rise in me not to shame or despair or frustration, but to hunger and thirst. Desire. Love.

Knowledge without love is data, knowledge with love is wisdom. By wisdom I see how love coheres all that I know. By wisdom we can see that everything is a gift of love given for the good of all. The universal destination of goods. “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). All I am and have is meant for the good of all. I contemplate in order to share the fruits of contemplation. I am bright so I might enlighten. I learn in order to teach and give all I’ve learned away. Wonder makes the teacher’s greatest joy not being called wise but making wise.

I want to remain restless, unfinished. Though I wish to be grounded firmly on the rock of truth, I never want to ossify. I desire certitude, not hubris. While certitude confidently raises up its wide-rimmed chalice to be overfilled, hubris builds up roundabout itself an impenetrable fortress to remain safe.

I long to remain open to learning from anything and anyone, without prejudice. I aspire to listen closely, to look closely, carefully, with discernment. I hope to greet in each new day the feast of Epiphany; to live in a perpetual wow, imprisoned there, permitting faith to inflict serial shock on my mind. Leading me up a Mountain that admits of no zenith, Christ.

Faith-drenched minds seek what keeps all our liturgical orations so hesitant to “wrap it all up” — their codas are fearful of ending: in saecula saeculorum, “unto the ages of ages.” St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the verb epektasis as a refusal to punctuate the quest into mystery. Epektasis means something like “upward striving.” Mountain climbing with Moses. St. Paul uses a form of this verb in Philippians:

Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark (3:13).

How thrilling.

Theology boils up from within the open Heart of the God-Man, gushing out into all faith-disposed minds. Boiling faith inhabits understanding, stretching its present borderlands.

Faith stays in me the surge of sardonic cynicism that can so easily overtake Church-insiders (like me) who are well aware just how terribly awful baptized humanity (like me) can be. A theologian is preserved from cynicism only in the childlike mind of Christ. Guileless. His wonder poured from the cursèd Cross and filled the bowels of Hell, where He descended. He could not but preach God’s ebulliant [from the Latin ebullire “to boil over”] Gospel of joy and hope to Hell’s prisoners (Lk. 4:18; 1 Pet. 3:19).

So we get Christ-minded saints like Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in hell, and do not despair.” And we get Popes like Benedict XVI:

Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

Theologians are called to offer their living witness of hope in the midst of the Church. Their life should shout:

The farther you sink into the mind of Christ, the better, more joyful, more loving and hope-filled human being you become.

May it be so for me and all of us called to be theologians. Amen.

Confirmed in Fire

Coptic Egyptian icon of Pentecost. squarespace.com

Re-post from 2013

On the Feast of Pentecost, I thought I would offer a simple reflection on the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Do you know when you were Confirmed? If not, contact the parish where you were Confirmed and they will tell you. It’s a revered practice in our tradition to honor the anniversary of sacramental celebrations — baptism, holy communion, marriage, holy orders.

Today’s Solemn Feast concludes the Easter season and is, in real sense, the memorial feast of your Confirmation. Catechism #1302:

It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

Confirmation is a sacrament of Pentecost, as the whole mystery that unfolded Pentecost morning in Jerusalem mystically irrupts (not erupts) in your body and soul through the conferral of Sacred Chrism on your forehead. Chrism is sacramental oil, and in the Eastern Churches it is revered with a piety akin to that connected with the Eucharistic presence. Once in my Dad’s Orthodox parish some Chrism was spilled on the ground and the priest bowed down to the ground to worship Christ present there as the Deacon cleaned it up with sacred linens. I was in awe!

I attended a Confirmation eight years ago, and the Archbishop gave a really dynamic extemporaneous homily offered to about 70 teen confirmandi. I later that night jotted down as much as i could recall from memory. Here’s a portion of what I wrote:

If God gave to your eyes right now the ability to see the spiritual world, you would see this church enveloped in wind and flame. Why? Well, at this very moment the Holy Spirit is eagerly awaiting for you to receive Him, to ignite the kindling wood of your faith. Only through you can He set the world on fire!

You all have faith, right? [he walked over to individuals and asked four or five this question, much to their chagrin!] If not, tell me now. This isn’t magic. Like all the Sacraments, this is a Sacrament of faith. You gotta have faith! Faith means you believe in a talking God, a God who reveals Himself and wants to talk with you, personally, individually. Whenever you pick the Bible up to read with faith, it’s alive! He’ll talk to you in those words.

And faith means God has something to say that requires action. You gotta do your faith. Get out there and show you believe, show what belief looks like in real life. In fact, I believe that our faith only grows when we do. When you step out in faith and talk about Jesus. When you step out in faith and forgive an offense. When you step put in faith and put yourself second and others first. When you step out in faith and don’t get drunk, tell dirty jokes, sleep with that boy, take those drugs. Step out in faith when you make time to pray every day, even when it’s really hard to pray and really easy to do something else.

And faith means we cling to God when things go south. We trust Him absolutely, in the best and the darkest of times, to be with us. Faith really means something when it’s all we have, when all our props and crutches fail. We have to have a tough faith in a world of doubt and unbelief! Am I wrong?

And let me just say, anyone who says faith is a crutch doesn’t know what faith is. A crutch to do what? Deny yourself, pick up your cross and do good in the face of every temptation to not do good? If I’m going to choose a crutch, that’s not the one I would choose!

Those cowardly disciples came out of that Upper Room on Pentecost, Spirit-filled and hearts burning, filled with trust. Filled with fearless courage, joy and enthusiasm. They ran out into the streets of Jerusalem like madmen! They ran out to tell some crazy news to the same people who had shouted only weeks before: Crucify him! Crucify him! There they were telling these Passover pilgrims, to their faces: this Jesus you crucified is now King of kings and the highest Lord of all creation. What?

Jesus thrust his disciples out into a place of dissonance and confusion so they could bring out into the world the Spirit’s harmony. Jesus sent them out as a demolition crew tearing down the tower of Babel by speaking in all tongues the faith of Jesus. This is all coming to you in a few minutes when you get Confirmed. Are you ready? You’re squirming now, aren’t you? How do I get out of here?

You see, Jesus is not leaving you orphans, not leaving you to face this all alone. He’s sending His Spirit to fire you up, give you courage, firmness in your faith — Con-firm-ation, right? Be ready tonight to break open those church doors when this Mass is over. Get ready to rush out into the world to shout, by your words and actions, the word of the Cross and tell everyone you meet by the way you speak and act: Christ is the meaning and measure of life! He’s the best Way to be human!

Jesus shows us what it means to be human. You don’t abuse the gift of sexuality, you don’t lie or cheat or steal and kill. You enjoy life in moderation, stay free of addictions, live lives of sacrifice to make others’ lives better. People will accuse you of being drunk, of having lost your mind, but you’ll know that you haven’t lost your mind. No! You’ve gained the mind of Jesus! You want to know who you are? Look at Him! Jesus is our looking glass: He reflects back to us what we’re supposed to look like, who we’re supposed to be. And when we look at Him, all those other facsimiles out there look dark, distorted, shattered and plain old crazy.

Confirmation is conformation of the mind and heart to Jesus. Not just thinking like Jesus, but letting Jesus think his thoughts in you. That’s prayer! You need to allow Him in to think with you about things. He’s a friend. You see, He’s alive! And that’s the Holy Spirit’s entire mission statement: opening YOUR minds to Jesus’ mind. Pray every day.

As Pope John Paul so often said to us, do not be afraid to be different, to put out into the deep, to be a sign of contradiction, to surprise your peers and parents with a new way of thinking. Revolutionary. It may cause an uncomfortable stir now and again, an uproar, laughter or snickering, but that’s the stuff saints and martyrs are made of. That’s the stuff your own patron saint was made of. That’s the stuff God wants YOU to be made of. Are you ready for the challenge? I can’t hear you! Are you ready….?

Come Holy Spirit:

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?

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:

Pater Noster

Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. yourspiritualtruth.files.wordpress.com

The other day I happened on a very moving setting of the Our Father done by St. Vladimir’s Seminary choir. It was at the end of a long day at work, full of difficulties, and listening to it brought a profound sense of consolation. Before leaving work, I wrote down some thoughts in my journal on the meaning this prayer evoked in me at that moment. Here’s an excerpt:

Jesus gave the Our Father right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. St. Matthew’s masterful recapitulating of the Mount Sinai revelation of God’s will for worship, like a hyper-compressed, in nuce and perfected Book of Leviticus. Leviticus prepared for the Temple worship of Zion from whence would come the Temple prayer-book, the 150 Psalms — which are also hyper-compressed in the Our Father. Jesus’ model prayer also sums up the whole Gospel. It’s a neutron star. St. Augustine said it well:

Run through all the words of the holy prayers [in Scripture], and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Our Father is also an extended consent to God’s action. But Jesus does not have us say “yes” to just any abstract or impersonal Deity. No! It’s addressed to a Father, and Jesus makes it clear that Father looks, acts, sounds just like Him. John 14:9, Jesus is the Father’s great exegete, interpreter, mouthpiece, as in John 1:18’s exēgēsato. By heading His new prayer with Father, or in keeping with His dialect, Abba, everything else said in this prayer to God is meant to be prayed in the key of trust and love. It’s no coincidence that the only example of Jesus using Abba is in Mark 14:36’s agony in the Garden, the moment in His life when the provident God seemed least Abba-like. Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6 remind us that the Holy Spirit gives us Jesus’ own “crying out” relationship to the Father — especially in our Gardens of agony.

God is addressed in St. Matthew as a Father “in heaven,” a Jewish circumlocution employed to preserve the irresolvable tension between God’s extreme otherness and extreme nearness. He is, after all, the Terror of Isaac (Genesis 31:42) and Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14) who attracts (Ex. 3:3) and repels (Ex. 3:5). We must keep in mind, every time we pray these words, that we are being very daring. The Orthodox liturgical preface the Lord’s Prayer says it this way: “And grant, O Lord, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call upon you the Heavenly God as Father and to say…” St. John also captured this tension in Rev 1:17-18 when the Risen Jesus revealed Himself:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

While the Lord’s prayer is a consent to the Heavenly Father’s action, by consent we don’t mean resignation to God’s omnipotent manipulation of our actions. This form of consent, rather, is a deeply involved and entirely free consent that allows God uninhibited reign within our lives, allowing Him to co-define the meaning of our freedom. That’s what we do, for example, in marriage. My “I do” allowed Patti to become part of the shaping of my whole life, opening up the possibility for us to cooperate and give birth to something genuinely novel: a synergy of two-in-one-flesh. When we say Yes to God, He becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without our Yes, no Emmanuel. Mary is the perfect icon of what is true for all of us, for only when she said Yes was the Word made flesh and God became Emmanuel. When God is our Emmanuel, we pray like this:

That is why I love your commands
more than finest gold,
why I rule my life by your precepts,
and hate false ways. — Psalm 119:127-28

In the Our Father’s first three petitions, the verbs used are in a form scholars call a “divine passive” (passive aorist imperative) form. As I gather (I am no linguist), this verb form indicates (1) the primary actor is God; (2) we are entreating God, in an imperative (command) form, to act; and (3) we are the primary recipients of His action.

Just think of it! Listen to the boldness of these verbs. Jesus gave us permission to issue God commands to act. How remarkable! We say: “God, do this!” But what is it we command God to do? Hagiasthētō to onoma sou means, “let your Name be holy”, elthetō hē basileia sou means, “let your kingdom come” and genēthētō to thelēma means, “let your will be done.” Really, all three of these mean essentially the same thing — Eternal God, be who you are toward us, do your thing in us, through us, with us. “On earth as in heaven.” In heaven God’s will is sovereign, and now on earth we grant Him permission to reign as King.

Then the next four petitionary verbs in the Our Father continue with the same posture of receptivity before God. But now there’s a much more specific focus to these begging-imperatives for God to act: Give us! Forgive us! Lead us not! Deliver us! Like the prayer to the divine shepherd in Psalm 23, these four petitions presuppose a God who provide us with a superabundant feast in the presence of our enemies (whom we also forgive with God!). After we ask Him to feed us, we implore Him to redeem us from ourselves and then from our foes, whom we forgive. What?

Note also that, in light of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we know well that the actualization of this Prayer’s seven petitions is accomplished by means of us! We are to bring Kingdom-goods to haters by renouncing anger, lust, divorce, lying, retaliation, judgment, anxiety; and by practicing love for enemies, forgiveness, blessing, almsgiving, prayer, fasting and the Golden Rule. All these are requisite elements of the reconciled and reconciling community of God’s Kingdom come. And they are the direct effect of praying those seven petitions to our Father. Yikes! The use of “our” emphasizes the extension of God’s fatherhood to all humanity: weeds and wheat, friends and enemies, good and evil, saints and sinners (Matt 5:44-45).

Totally wild…the “our/us/we” is perfectly realized only in Jesus whose “catholic” humanity is humanity’s “Our” in the most mind-blowing way: He is the new Adam in whom all of humanity is recapitulated. The “total” Christ, both Head and Body, is both God and man, Bridegroom and Bride, Creator and Creation all reconciled into one new Mystical Person (Col. 1; Eph 1; Eph 5; Gal 3:28). Jesus is the posture of God toward fallen humanity (John 3:16) and the posture of fallen humanity toward God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

More amazing. The very One who teaches us this prayer is Himself the Name above all names, the Kingdom in person, the doer of the Father’s will, the Giver and Gift of our super-substantial (epiousion) Bread, the Pardoner and the Pardoning of all debts, the Liberated Liberator who yields us not to temptation and delivers us from all evil. In fact, Jesus is the Father’s Response to every one of these seven petitions.

Mind blown.

When I pray, I must be fully ready to accept the implications of all seven petitions. What am I saying? I am giving permission for God to act with uninhibited freedom to inaugurate in me — in us — His in-breaking Kingdom. I am saying, “Father, eradicate at will anything in me that impedes the coming of the Kingdom of your Son into this world, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.”

All that packed into a prayer that takes less than a minute to verbalize.

Next time you pray the prayer Jesus gave us, mean it.

Now join me in praying with the St. Vladimir Seminary choir:

Poetry of a royal priesthood

Sunrise over Jerusalem. omsi.edu

We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity—not all of them but many—ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path. This moment in history cries out for mature, intelligent, zealous and faithful lay leaders in an urgent way. Priests and bishops cannot do the work of laypeople. That’s not what Christ called us to do. It’s not what the Church formed us to do. Our role as clergy in bringing Jesus Christ to the world, and the world to Jesus Christ, flows through you lay men and women who hear the Word of God; who love the Church for the truth she teaches; and then bring that Catholic witness into society to change it and sanctify it in Christ’s name. Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matter eternally. Laypeople, not clergy, have the task of evangelizing the secular world, and only you can do it as God intended. So never be embarrassed by your baptism. Never be afraid of the consequences of your faith. Take pride in your Catholic identity for the blessing and mandate it is. Act on it. Share it with others. — Pope Francis

As an addendum to my laity posts the last few days, I would like to share a poem I wrote the morning after the final exam in my Spirituality of the Laity class back in 2013. I wrote it sitting outside our home, watching the sun rise in the east.

The poem tells the divine backstory of the laity’s call to “consecrate the world to God.” This story runs from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21, from creation to the end of the ages.

So, for what it’s worth:

God-breathed clay,
entwining Image, two-in-one,
flesh God-pressed, marked
by a threefold King:
a daughter, a son.

Both made to lift low Higher
and call down immaterial Fire:
the Father’s very own God from God
falling down in Spirit co-breathed:
Their lovely Life-giver, as yet un-grieved.

But Lo! Lament!
Their kindled earthen-vessel fire
fell down far into wreched mire.
But Love unquenced, unthwarted,
became a crazed Bridegroom,
and adulterous love he courted

By descending far too far,
fleshy dark and deathly low
into our mad and raving folly,
falling beneath our vicious blow.

Behold!
Graying is our slain-God,
bled dry of His immortal Blood;
lying cold, asleep in a wicked grave
while His weeping bride cries:
Save!
Arise unchained, my Love, and unchain us all.

All-drenching Flesh, Risen! Soak us
out of Your gaping, wounded Side
and drain forth Your whole Spirit-tide
seaming for us a heavenly-earth,
our nuptial chamber, our bath of rebirth!

And so it was, the Eighth Day dawned
With Love spreading far-wide, deluging,
drowning mortal death; our Refuging
within His sacred Wounds’ outpouring Flood
whetting our parched, lifeless bones:
O God, breathe Your flesh-knitting Breath
And roll away our heavy stones!

Why, oh why all this?

Love alone.

Your soiled Bride washed now, purely wed,
embraced and swept up God-ward
into one sacrificial Flesh: Take. Eat.
Become My Food that feeds
Scatter my life-giving Seeds.
It is I who fill the starving with Bread,
I who inebriate the joyless dead,
Turning them drunk in self-forgetful love;
Making of their earth a new heaven above.

O Jesus, stone-shattering God-quake
of sudden all things new do make:
God-kneaded, Christ-infested
earthly heaven, heavenly earth
born again in watery second birth
where Old passes out into New
ever-so quietly as a morning dew
onto our open, uplifted laboring hands
that join the work of angelic bands
whose Opus is no more than to sing:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
to the re-creating majestic King!

To the Fashioner of that World to Come,
who built His City of our tired clay, let us sing!
Tears and labor, love for neighbor now bring
to His tearless Banquet, this Feast without alloy,
of love and justice burning with peerless joy
torn from the Heart of a God who gives without measure;
a God whose joy is ever the Other’s good-pleasure;
the God who gave us hope of one unending Day
where at last we can join, forever,
in Their thrice unending child’s play.
Amen.

Lay Geniuses, Part III

wikimedia.org

[Alas, the third and final installment! Apologies for any and all grammatical issues as I had no time to edit]

There are two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world. By practicing honesty in all their dealings they attract all to the love of the true and the good, and finally to the Church and to Christ. They fulfill their mission by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hopes of all people, thus quietly preparing others for the workings of saving grace. — Christifidelis laici

When my wife and I lived in Brandon, Florida, we came to know a man who lived in central Florida and was very involved in an inner city outreach to youth who had run away from home to join street gangs. He had reverted to his Catholic faith about five years before we met him. He worked for a fairly large consulting firm and was married with three children. He said to me that before his personal conversion, he was like most guys his age: worked hard, played hard, drank hard and was willing to cut moral corners when it served his interests. He shared with me his remarkable faith journey story, and gave me permission to share a few parts of that story in my teaching work. I will share a small portion of one of those stories here because it so perfectly illustrates my point. I’ll call him Simon.

Only days after his life-changing spiritual awakening, Simon was at work. It was break-time and, as was the custom at the end of a weekend, his male co-workers gathered to talk about their weekend adventures. “The day had come,” he said, “when, even though I knew I was a different man inside, I now had to call up the courage to go public and face the heat.” His co-worker buddies began to engage in what was previously his favorite part of this Monday morning tradition: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories”, i.e. they would each take turns sharing explicit details of sexual experiences with hook-ups, girlfriends or even their wives. He said it was a combination of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked. Then he said a simple prayer to himself, “Help me God.” He decided in that moment that, instead of condemning the practice, he would just tell a story about his wife to honor her. Nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly. One guy said, “What the hell man. That’s a f-ing downer. What’s up with that?” He said he tried to (very awkwardly) share his recent experience of God. A few of the guys responded with mild ridicule and a few “Jesus-freak” comments. But one of the guys came up afterward and asked him in private, “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?” That coworker eventually became Catholic. Soon after this experience, the Monday morning group stopped meeting. And over two or so years, the influence of these two men brought about a culture change within the firm.

It’s dangerous to speak the mind of God into the City of Man, especially in our post-Christian culture that has declared the Christ and His Church to be mentally ill. But Christians are martyrs at heart and, in their finer moments, have always been the world’s greatest risk-takers — willing to chance being labeled by the world as a fool in order to lead that world back to God. All the gifts of grace and nature, of Sacraments and Scripture, of Religious and clergy are at the service of birthing Christian men and women who live their faith on the front lines, outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing Christ into culture. For these secular saints, holiness emerges from their wholehearted and Christ-minded engagement in civic life, culture, business, economics, education, politics, science, technology, the armed forces, agriculture, marriage and family life. These serve as the altar on which they offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God for the life of the world (Rom. 12:1).

The Church needs secular saints whose vibrant life of prayer, participation in the Sacraments and in the Church’s communal life throws them back out into the secular world as their native place of flourishing. We need secular saints ready to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world, saints who flip over every bushel basket to expose the light of Christ in the darkness. We especially need young people falling deeply in love with Jesus, who find their hearts burning to be the social, political and cultural movers and shakers. The Church’s evangelizing strategy has always been to send out culture-making “creative minorities” who are capable of effecting local transformations that feed into broader cultural revolutions. In the past, most of these have been clergy and Religious. But now the Church, kindled by the Spirit, says with special urgency to the lay faithful: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) by “doing the world” God’s way with that genius that is specifically yours.

The Church’s sacred ministers must help lay men and women in this vocational discernment and encourage them to persevere in their very challenging secular mission. These laity must come to see that their mysticism is not world-fleeing but thoroughly incarnational, wrapped up in God’s self-emptying entry into the ordinary world of family and culture, trade work and play. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings.” These words of the Council set out a spiritual vision for the lay faithful that they might be fully aware that, for them, union with Christ comes about by means of their radical solidarity with the world.

Only a laity invested with this vision of the spiritual life can possibly serve as wellsprings of a new culture and civilization. Only secular saints can give rise to new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salesmen, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors and nurses, new digital evangelizers, each of whom excel in their respective field while being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

To be a secular mystic
is to see the intimate bond
between the board room and the indwelling Trinity;
between the bedroom and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
between taking out the trash on Wednesday morning
and taking up the Offertory on Sunday morning;
between harvesting grapes and thumbing rosary beads;
between tailgate parties and the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Without this vision,
one will never discover the way of perfection
in real life,
wherein God lurks in the dust and in the fire.
Secular mystics
must embrace this inextricable bond
if they are to see the glory that fills heaven and earth.
Here abides a most extraordinary truth:
in Christ God made the most
mundane, secular, worldly activities
His own; divinized them
and rendered all of them capax Dei,
“capable of God.”
Learning to love the world with the God
who so loves the world
is the key to lay sanctity.

Secular geniuses set the world free to be itself. The Church must be fiercely dedicated to inspiring the lay faithful become these secular mystics, to become Christ’s Body speaking all languages, living in all states of life, mastering all cultures. These world-wise Catholics stand ready to dialogue with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to promote this absurd idea that the really serious, converted and faithful Catholic must dwell in sacristies and sanctuaries, always doing religious things, and are only really “working for God” if they are doing ministry. When we indiscriminately encourage the lay faithful to abandon their worldly careers, secular interests, secular ties or, most terrifying of all, their marital and family priorities, we renounce the mission of the Church given by Jesus. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries and religious practices are always to be seen as servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way.

Let me end this obscenely long reflection with a final story.

I had a conversation with a young Catholic student at Florida State University that he graciously allowed me to pass on. He once mentioned to me that after his conversion to Christ he felt guilty and dirty every time he did anything that wasn’t religious or churchy. He said:

I feel like I always have to be doing church stuff to feel like I’m close to God. I mean, I totally enjoy all those things, but I feel schizophrenic. I feel like every time I do something outside of the religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with my non-religious friends or talk about sports or other secular stuff I feel like I’m somehow settling for less. I mean even if I’m not really doing anything wrong I still feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it. It feels like religious and secular things are oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff. It’s like life after a bad divorce. Everything seems tainted by the split.

I told him that his previous lifestyle that involved sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had saddled him with a long and hard journey ahead. Fusing faith with a dis-integrated moral character is hard work, and I told him he’d have to endure lots of purifying grace from God that would require years of persevering struggle. But I also told him that is what would make him a great saint! But I also told him that if he continued to embrace this divided worldview he would always feel caught in an unresolvable conflict, and that if he remained stuck there too long he would be mightily tempted to abandon the faith, to become lukewarm or try to hide from the world and isolate. He went on to finish his pre-med work and is now in medical school. And he has persevered, thanks be to God.

19th century English Poet Charles Swinburne famously decried what he saw as a bloodless, world-hating Christian vision of life, saying of Christ:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…

We must belie that accusation and become artists who reveal the infinite colors God has given to the world. We must be the apologia for Pope Benedict’s words, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” We Catholics go to Mass, pray the rosary, go on pilgrimages, spend holy hours in church, become involved in ministries, talk about God just as we read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, go to a movie, feed the hungry, play cards with our kids, tinker with the car, go hunting, play pool, cultivate excellence in our professions, learn to dance, enjoy sports, read a good novel, make love to our spouse and sip a glass of Chianti with a friend while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter. And all the while talking about the world. All these things precisely because we are called to be holy, and make the world so, too.

It all matters, as Steven reminds us: