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



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.

Graying is our slain-God,
bled dry of His immortal Blood;
lying cold, asleep in a wicked grave
while His weeping bride cries:
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.

Lay Geniuses, Part III


[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:

Lay Geniuses, Part II


“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe in anything much at all down on your head.” — Flannery O’Connor

I have worked within the institutional church for 26 years. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by devout secular-career Catholics over the years, “I wish I could work for God like you do.” Before reading John Paul II’s magna carta on the lay vocation, Christifidelis laici, I would probably have agreed with them at some level. I may have subconsciously thought I was in possession of a real luxury to do God-stuff most of the time. In fact, I vividly recall an encounter where this tension came up in an assaulting way.

I came to know a Catholic gentleman who was a professor at Florida State. When I met him, he had only recently come back to the faith after attending a men’s retreat at a friend’s invitation. He expressed to me one day over a cup of coffee his painful feeling of regret that he was trapped in a worldly job at a secular university. He grieved the fact that, because of his busy work and family obligations, he could not get more involved in parish activities and ministries and prayer groups. One day over lunch he told me that he really envied my job, getting to work “so close to God” every day. I recall stumbling for a reply to assuage his sadness, and said something like, “God will reward your sacrifices.” I think I also managed to protest my unworthiness to serve God in the way I was able to as a church employee. At least that was a start.

Later that same year (1996 or so) I happened on Christifidelis laici. I read it through in one sitting. I recall being so captivated by its message. After I finished reading it, I wrote in my journal for about two hours. I wrote, “How did I miss this? How did this not come up in my graduate degree work? This is revolutionary.” The next week I decided to write that FSU professor a letter. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to him:

…I’m writing to finish our conversation the day we met for coffee. I was of no help to you that day, but I think I have something worthwhile to say to you today…

… Yes it’s a privilege to work for the church as a layman. I try to never take it for granted. It’s a grave gift and responsibility! But you have to know our Pope’s teaching is that it is I who am the abnormal layman seeking holiness by doing church work. A blessed abnormality, but abnormality nonetheless. I am the exception, not the rule. You are the rule, not the exception. The universal call of the laity is to become saints by consecrating the world to God by living and working within it. Like leaven kneaded into dough, or like a soul needs a body, the secular world needs you.

…And my vocational abnormality exists for one purpose: to serve your vocational normality. I am set apart to serve you who are sent out. Your calling and mission in the world is the essential reason priests, Religious and laity like myself are “set apart” from the secular world. We are set apart not because we are an elite class, better and holier. We are set apart so that we might serve you. Set apart to inspire, encourage, educate, pray for and support your calling to be in the world, in your family, consecrating the whole of it from the inside out. If monks and nuns are called to consecrate their lives to God by renouncing this world to remind us laity that earth was made for heaven, we laity are called by God to live our lives immersed in this world to remind Religious that heaven is made of earth consecrated by our lives.

…As a man with a secular career, who is a married with a family, you are an exemplar of who and what the laity are called by God to be in their highest and noblest manifestation. As a Catholic layman you are on the front lines of the Church, struggling to bring light to darkness, joy to sorrow, truth to falsehood, faith to a faithless world in order to lift it back to God in thanksgiving. When you are away from parish activities you are not simply absent, but sent. You are church wherever you are, drawing close to Christ in the world and drawing Him close to the world …

He called me the day he got my letter and said, “Tom, you cannot imagine what you did for me. I feel like an enormous weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders, or like scales have fallen from my tear drenched eyes…”

The laity are first and foremost to be fully engaged citizens of this world, serving as an outpost of the City of God in the City of Man. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium put this forcefully:

The laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.

In fact, the Council continues, failing to be a faithful citizen of the temporal world is eternally risky business:

This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. 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 lay faithful who neglect their temporal duties, neglect their duties toward neighbor and even God, and jeopardize their eternal salvation.

Last summer I had a long chat with a priest I know who is a college campus chaplain. We were discussing the trend among younger on-fire, orthodox Catholics to dissociate themselves from secular life. I wrote down in my journal some of my insights from that conversation– here’s a snippet:

… Being insulated in church circles is much safer, less conflict. Especially for those who’ve had sudden conversions to Christ after having lived lives of moral wreckage. Obviously it’s important to be rooted in a strong faith community, and living the faith in a culture that grows in hostility toward religion is a serious challenge. These young men and women are suddenly thrown out there as signs of contradiction. There’s loads of dissonance between the song you’re singing and the ones others are singing. Being called to love our broken world God’s way is a really crucifixion; like living in the Colosseum and choosing during every moment of your years-long martyrdom to joyfully love the jeering crowds and your heartless executioners because you want them all to join you in the Kingdom. Being a faithful layperson promises a life of sustained tension, living between furious opposites. But Chesterton told us tension is precisely the point of our mission: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

Working and living outside the sanctuary safe-zone as sojourners at home in the world is fraught with ambiguities and ragged edges. The church, especially its catechists and pastors and preachers need to let the church be herself toward the lay faithful. She’s good Mother and good mothers make home a safe place come to, rest, be renewed and encouraged. But they also know their children were born to do out into the world. Mothers help children see the home as a Missal (misspelling intended) that launches children out the door to become world-consecrating saints. The church shouts out to her children at the end of every Mass: Go, be sent!

Archbishop Sheen caught this great mystery of the lay vocation with his characteristically vivid images:

The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap, at the crossroads where there were three languages written upon the Cross. Yes, they were Hebrew, Latin and Greek, but they could just as well have been English, Bantu or African. It would make no difference. He placed Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers. He was there to extend pardon to them. This is the vocation of the laity: to go out into the midst of the world and make Christ known.


Lay Geniuses, Part I

Someone requested that I re-post this Post from 2012/2014. It was my first attempt on this blog to formulate my theological thoughts on the lay vocation.


This post began with the plan to share a few brief thoughts, but as you’ll see my meandering mind got the best of me. It will take 3 parts to finish this 3550 word piece.

“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium 31

I was listening recently to an interview on Catholic radio featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and passionate faith in Christ. It was a beautiful and moving story. This sudden roundabout eventually led him to quit his highly successful job as an executive in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods. It was indeed inspiring, and I admired the man for his courage. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself, well, really furious. After the man recounted for the interviewer the moment he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and begin selling religious goods, the interviewer said:

That’s a really inspiring story. How good it is for our listeners to hear about someone who had the courage to abandon his worldly career, like St. Matthew, in order to serve God and his holy Church. We need more people like you out there.

I quite literally yelled aloud in the car: “Oh, yeah! As opposed to all those really uninspiring people who choose to remain in their secular career to serve God and his holy Church. What about all the Zacchaeuses of the world Jesus left where he found them? You know, Zacchaeus, the guy who after his Jesus revolution became a righteous tax collector [Luke 19:1-10]? This sure is bad news for the vast majority of Catholic laity who are stuck in the world of their secular careers.”

As the red light turned green, I turned to my left and smiled with some embarrassment at the man in the car next to me who was watching me shout and gesture.

There’s so much to say about all this. Let me get didactic and begin with a clarification of terms.

The word “world” gets a bad rap among us Christians. When we think of “the world” or of “worldly people” we think of colluding with all that is compromised by anti-God values. But the Bible is a bit more nuanced in its view. In the Scriptures, the term “the world” (in Greek, ho kosmos) is used in three different ways. First, to begin with the negative sense, “the world” refers to all things in creation which are opposed to God. This world is against God and His ways. Second — and this is the most fundamental sense — “the world” refers to creation as made good by God in the beginning. This is creation as God intended it to be. But it is the third sense that is, for my purposes, the richest sense. It combines elements from the first two senses. Here “the world” is creation, fallen away from God, that has become a “theater of redemption” loved by God in the midst of its rebellion. God’s saving plan, brought to perfection in Christ, has transformed the fallen world from ruins into a new and restored creation born from the womb of an empty tomb. This third sense of “world” is the white hot core of the lay vocation: to raise up from the midst of the world’s ruins a new cosmic Temple built on the foundation of the Body of the risen Christ (Eph 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5).

Then there’s the word “secular” — another pariah adjective in devout Catholic circles. In fact, my daughter said to me very recently when she was talking about the “secular” genre of music: “What does the word secular mean, anyway? It sounds bad when I say a song is secular.” The word “secular,” like the phrase “temporal order,” is used in Church documents as a synonym for this present world. It comes from the Latin word saecula, which means “the present age” or “era.” Hence, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum is traditionally translated in the Glory be as “world without end”, while in the Eastern Church it is generally translated, “unto the ages of ages.” The word secular generally refers to this present order of existence we live in, to be distinguished from the Age to Come of God’s eternity or heaven. Like the adjective “worldly,” the word “secular” has come to refer in common Catholic usage almost exclusively to an atheistic and hostile ideology bent on eradicating God and religion from public life. “Secularism” seeks to create a world with a low ceiling, sealed off from all transcendent meaning and values.

In this post I will employ the much more theologically rich and nuanced meanings of secular and worldly.

In addition to the three senses I mentioned above, secular/world/temporal refers to that which is not explicitly religious, sacred or churchy. “Religious stuff” includes things like church institutional structures and ministries, liturgical worship, sacraments, theological language or acts of piety. Those “good of religion” are things directly related to the virtue of religion. This is an important distinction, though I am only giving a very general sense of it here. I want to emphasize that my distinguishing between secular and religious realities is not intended to separate them like oil and water, but rather I distinguish in order to rightly relate them and preserve their distinctiveness. With this distinction in mind, secular can be said to refer not to what is irreligious — which implies disdain or hostility toward faith — but to what is non-religious. To use a whimsical example, a Sazerac is a temporal/worldly/secular good, while Sacraments are religious/sacred/churchy goods. 

Here’s my crucial point: For a person of faith, there’s tons to talk about, think about and do that is not religious, but is still very good and very much a part of being a fully alive Christian. For Catholics, the “goods of religion” and “secular goods” are each understood to possess a certain rightful autonomy relative to one another. Though distinct, each is meant to relate to, complement and mutually enrich the other. Catholics reject the idea that “the secular” should be absorbed into the religious or that “the religious” should be absorbed into the secular. They also reject the distinctively modern view that religious and secular dimensions of life are unrelated, insulated or opposed to each other; or that “the religious” should be private and domesticated and “the secular” public and dominant.

These distinctions are what Pope Paul VI was thinking of when he said:

Here is the answer; and here is the new concept, of great importance in the practical field, the Church agrees to recognize the world as such, that is, free, autonomous, sovereign, and in a certain sense, self-sufficient. She does not try to make it an instrument for her religious purposes, far less for power of the temporal order. The Church also admits a certain emancipation for her faithful of the Catholic laity, when they act in the domain of temporal reality. She attributes to them freedom of action and a responsibility of their own, and she trusts them.  The Catholic layman should be perfect citizen of the world, a positive and constructive element, a person worthy of esteem and trust, a person who loves society and his country.

These heady distinctions remind me of humorous story that a friend of mine once shared with me. After she had given a talk at a women’s prayer group, offering some reflections on Marian spirituality, several of the women attending gathered around her afterward and excitedly began to talk about various Marian apparitions, healing priests, miraculous images, etc. My no-nonsense friend, a bit overwhelmed by this gush of piety, said: “Can we just talk about the weather?” The air grew still and everyone awkwardly walked away.

Returning to the radio show interview.

Now, it may be this businessman on the radio show rightly judged after his radical conversion that he was unable to maintain his Christian integrity in the context of the morally compromised business practices he had established in the years prior to his conversion. That’s not my judgment to make. What I reacted so strongly against was the underlying message in the tone of the interviewer’s comments, that implied secular careers were less radical and constituted a form of “settling for less.” On the other hand, explicitly religious, ministerial or maybe even non-profit careers came out on top as a higher, purer and more-radical Christian way for lay men and women.

Over the last 25 years of working in the Church, I’ve witnessed this mindset alive and well, especially in conversations that invoke the word “vocation” or “calling.” I have found this view to be especially seductive among young people who have had life-altering conversion experiences. When they come to faith, they suddenly experience within themselves how much they have internalized modernity’s chasm between faith and life, God and the world, sacred and secular. They sense that Christ’s radical calling to follow Him into holiness requires them to abandon the world and choose a non-secular vocational path. There’s a gentleman I know who spoke to me once at great length about the Catholic college he sent his children to. He loved the college but had this to say about its effect on students:

My wife and I — and many other parents we know — sent our children to the [University of St. Fiction] hoping they would be formed into our nation’s future business leaders, politicians, economists, lawyers, doctors, architects. But they came out with theology degrees. Came out aimless, unsure of what to do with their lives. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.

Yes, it’s extremely important to affirm the passionate zeal informing young people’s willingness to dedicate their life primarily to the “goods of religion.” Indeed, for those called to priesthood, consecrated life or lay ecclesial ministry (like myself), that zeal represents an authentic dimension and sign of a religious-goods vocation. However, these are not the vocations of the vast majority of the lay faithful called to dedicate their personal vocations to the secular world. This point and distinction must be made eminently clear by Church’s leaders and teachers of the faith! The decision to dedicate one’s life to a secular career and to a life fully immersed in the world is an eminently noble path to the perfection of holiness that flows from the very Heart of God.

These false dichotomies — radical religious vs. settling secularists — imply that being a really spiritual person requires those laity called to live out their “secular genius” in the world to face an option crisis: God or the world? Such false dilemmas can serve to pressure those who desire holiness to seek escape from their secular careers, their involvement in public civic life or in secular culture in order to live in some sacristy, or engage in as many overtly religious activities as possible. In this way they minimize the contaminating character of secular interests. In such an otherworldly Catholic culture, church mice are seen as the real champions of Jesus, the truly radical witnesses of discipleship who live lives akin to clergy or monks. Thus seen, the “worldly” lay faithful who must drive the engines of a secular world look out on these world-fleeing spiritual elites and, with either a guilt-ridden longing or a cynical disdain, say: “If that’s what being holy means, I’m out.”