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.”

Athiest Dialogues


Dr. Turner at the 2016 Notre Dame Seminary Aquinas lecture

The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas Aquinas into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains. — Denys Turner

I am a great fan of Denys Turner, who teaches at Yale University. He gave me invaluable feedback on my dissertation back in 2007, and helped me to see the ways that St. John of the Cross utilized the apophatic tradition to critique both popular piety and the charismatic renewal (alumbrados) that swept the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century.  The “apophatic tradition,” from the Greek word apophasis, meaning “un-saying,” is a philosophical-theological methodological means of coming to knowledge of God by way of saying what God is not rather than by means of affirming what God is. St. Augustine famously expressed this Christian form of agnosticism thus: “If you comprehend, it is not God. If you are able to comprehend, it is because you mistook something else for God. If you almost comprehend, it is again because you allowed your own thoughts to deceive you.” Though Christian theologians affirm we can come to a real, true and saving knowledge of God, who has indeed revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, they likewise affirm that God infinitely exceeds all of the limits of finite human (and angelic) knowing.

Along with their careful qualifiers to all affirmations about the nature of God, apophatic thinkers also like to employ flourishes of paradoxical metaphors (God is a “dazzling darkness” or “silent speech”) or excessive superlatives (God is above/supra-, beyond/trans-). They also oscillate between linguistic reserve (saying as little as possible) and linguistic excess (saying far more than they should) to facilitate the mind’s openness to God’s limitlessness. In other words, apophatic authors are literary strategists who aim to deconstruct our childishly opaque conceptual idols and transform them into mature and translucent icons open to the living God (1 Cor 13:11-12).

Here’s a sample of an apophatic text written by the highly influential 6th century Syrian apophatic theologian (psuedo)Denys the Areopagate:

Again, ascending yet higher, we maintain that He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has He imagination, opinion, reason or understanding; nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; neither is He standing, nor moving, nor at rest; neither has He power nor is power, nor is light; neither does He live nor is He life; neither is He essence, nor eternity nor time; nor is He subject to intelligible contact; nor is He science nor truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom; neither one nor oneness, nor godhead nor goodness; nor is He spirit according to our understanding, nor filiation, nor paternity; nor anything else known to us or to any other beings of the things that are or the things that are not; neither does anything that is know Him as He is; nor does He know existing things according to existing knowledge; neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as the all-perfect and unique Cause of all things transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.

Okay, let me stop here and share with you two gems from Denys Turner.

Dr. Turner is a very careful thinker and has in the last 20 years made important contributions to the dialogue between atheism and Christianity, especially in his 2004 book: Faith, Reason and the Existence of God. Like Fr. Frederick Copleston, Fr. Henri de Lubac and David Bentley Hart, Turner is a great example of how a Christian thinker can find in atheist critiques of Christian belief an important path to deeper and more honest reflection. Here’s a 14 minute clip of Turner’s dialogue with British atheist, Jonathan Miller. If I may encourage you, persevere to the end:

Second, Dr. Turner came to our seminary in January to give a lecture on St. Thomas Aquinas’ apophatic theology:  ‘One with God as to the Unknown:’ Thomas and the Pseudo-Denys on the Darkness of God. It was one of the highlights of my academic career to meet him, hear him lecture on Aquinas and (!) talk about St. John of the Cross’ apophatic mysticism over a Guinness. Could I possibly restrain my hyperbole over this last point? Absolutely, unquestionably not. I am very happy to say we recorded his lecture and if you are interested here it is for your podcast-able listening pleasure. Click here.

Consecrating and consecrated

I had an insight while I was teaching a few weeks ago (on the lay vocation) and it blew my mind. I shared it with a friend afterward and he said, “Write it down as soon as you can.” So I did. I will share it with you on this Holy Thursday. It is actually not really a new insight, just a new vantage on a previous insight.

That evening I was teaching on paragraph #34 in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which says this:

The supreme and eternal Priest, Christ Jesus, since he wills to continue his witness and service also through the laity, vivifies them in this Spirit and increasingly urges them on to every good and perfect work.

For besides intimately linking them to His life and His mission, He also gives them a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

This passage links in a stunning way the Eucharistic Sacrifice to the ordinary lives of men and women who live in the world, and go about gathering the “material” of their spiritual sacrifices, which are accepted by God and joined to the sacrifice of His Son by the Holy Spirit. “Pray, brethren, that your sacrifice and mine may be acceptable to God the almighty Father…” This work of “gathering” material for the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Council tells us, is an act of secular consecration that necessarily precedes the sacred consecration in the Mass. The lay faithful, who were made priests in Baptism, gather each day the fragments of what they have consecrated by means of their faith-full lives, and gather those fragments together at the Offertory as bread, wine and alms.

With that very basic background, let me share the insight that kindled a little fire in my mind. Here is what I sent myself as a voice-to-text email the night I had this insight. It’s a string of messy sentences, but I will leave it as it was from my phone (correcting bizarre v2t spellings!). Sorry it rambles:

Teaching tonight about the link between the two consecrations–liturgy of Daily Life and liturgy of Eucharist. There is a profound connection, and fiery analogy between the transubstantiation of the bread and wine effected under the force of Christ’s words of selfless and self-sacrificing charity AND the consecration of the world to God by the lay faithful, which is ALSO effected under the force of their Christlike lives that speak His Word of self sacrificing love and call down the Spirit poured out into their hearts at Baptism. In the liturgy of the Eucharist the bread and wine receive a new substance: the merciful Christ’s risen Body and Blood. In the liturgy of Daily Life the secular world receives a new form: the mercy of Christ. Parallel liturgies going on, one feeding into the other: Life into Eucharist and Eucharist into Life. My God.

So I was thinking in class teaching today: in Latin theology it’s the Words of Institution that bring about the transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood — “this is my Body broken for you…my Blood spilled out for you”. It’s very specific. How can I say this? The Christ made present in Mass at the consecration is very specific in His mode of presence: Present at the apogee of His selfless outpouring, the most concentrated moment His life-giving merciful love for fallen humanity: this my self-sacrificing Body and Blood for you. The Eucharist is not a “generic” Jesus presence, but Jesus in-the-midst-of-offering-His-life-in-love presence. And there is no mistake He changes bread and wine. Yes because it’s Passover, but also because God is a feeding God who lives and loves to give joy to humanity [Psalm 146:7; 104:15].

So this is amazing: the Eucharistic transformation at Mass is a paradigm, a model, a source, an exemplary sign of the Way [John 14:6] the lay faithful, in their secular contexts of life, are supposed to consecrate the world to God in Christ: building a culture of mercy, a civilization of selfless and sacrificial and merciful love for fallen humanity, feeding the hundry and giving joy to the downcast. Consecration, which means to “make holy,” does what holiness is, and holiness is of course the “perfection of charity” which is perfectly modeled in Jesus’ sacrificial death. The laity in the world love like Jesus does in the Passion, which is what the Last Supper really is. The Meal of that sacrificial-love-in-action. The Truth of the Way of Life that Christ revealed to us AND gave to us at the Last Supper, epitomized in the Words of Institution, IS the very specific meaning and sructure of how we are to “consecrate the world.” It’s the consecratory pattern (taxis/ordo) after which we are to build a culture of life and civilization of love [neat typology for this: Exodus 24:8-12; 25:40]. No accident that “love one another AS I have loved you” is said at the Last Supper in the midst of Eucharistic Consecration [John 17:17].

The new transubstantiated substance that remains in the aftermath the re-creating Consecration is also to be the new substance of the culture we are to be building. It’s why He commands us to eat and drink before He says: Go! The Real Presence is the Real Blueprint and source and cause and goal of all our world-consecrating strivings after-Mass. Empowered in our baptismal priesthood, we are lay missionaries who go out into the world as its soul, threatenig to love that world into new life. We are a praying laity who call the Spirit down everywhere we go in hope that every quark of time and space will be redeemed in that “eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” I’m thinking: Catholic Social Teaching really is in the deepest sense the specific application of this Eucharistic paradigm to the whole social order. If we say: how do I apply Eucharistic logic to business or economics or the arts or war or sex or medicine? CST! For the laity CST is their new “Way of Perfection” to transforming and transformative union with Christ the Lover of Mankind. Teresa of Avila gave her nuns a contemplative’s Way, the Church has given the secular lay geniuses their Way.

When the priest says, “Go! Be Sent!” he really means, “Continue in your lives the substance-changing liturgical work you have seen and heard and ingested today. Gather more grain for bread and grapes for wine, grind them down by your labors, bake bread and ferment wine by your charity and return again with all you have gathered to offer it here so we can send it up  on High to store as Treasure in Heaven for the life of the world and the glory of the God who made heaven and earth to be filled with His glory.” So when St John Paul says “Christian marriage is in itself a liturgical action glorifying God” this what he means, that marriage is a great work of preparing material for the Kingdom. My God!

I know a woman who has a Down Syndrome son who is also severely disabled. He suffers from chronic insomnia, and regularly has sleepless bouts that stretch for three days in a row. And he’s afraid of the dark, so she stays up with him for that whole stretch of time and then works during the day. She’s been doing this for 24 years. Never complains. Whenever I compliment her, she deflects it by saying: “He’s the champ, not me.” And one time she added, “If I’m ever saved when I die, it will be because of him. He pulled me out of my selfishness and taught me to love. He’s the champ.” Well, the whole world is saved by her Christ-like love, is consecrated. Between mother and son, their daily “sleepless” sacrifices of love given and received are so vast — I imagine — that were they physical and not spiritual things they could not be contained by a thousand worlds. Such a beautiful love, a beauty that saves the world.

I leave you with an image of the Consecration of the Eucharistic Liturgy to capture the union of the two liturgies into one. The faithful, Christ’s Body, are anxiously watching as their offerings are being accepted, consecrated and taken up into the Kingdom:


Costly Mercy


A friend wrote me back in January and asked me to respond to a question a student of his had about mercy. The student wondered if mercy was really a “cheap” way out of sin, as being forgiven seems just too quick and easy. Here was my email back:

Mercy, like grace (xáris), is an undeserved favor. As you say, creation itself is an act of sheer mercy: a pure, gratuitous gift of existence given by I AM to that which was not. What more gratuitous act could one imagine than drawing something from nothing? And mercy, which is an aspect of love, always places every undeserved favor in service to the being and well-being of another. If love means willing the good of another, mercy, which is love encountering evil and overcoming it, means willing the good of a crippled other — crippled by some evil, whether self-inflicted or other-inflicted.

Mercy is always free, but, once accepted, is never cheap. Think of the one who receives mercy! When they own the gift, they are beset by the inner dynamism and telos [goal] of mercy: the radical eradication of evil — by “radical” here I mean whatever’s related to the radix, “root” of things. Mercy does not overlook, but uproots evil. Mercy is always costly — that is, when it is permitted to be what it is. Caution! Danger! when it achieves its end, as the wholesale eradication of evil demands total conversion from that evil…which is always costly to the addict-sinner.

St John of the Cross in the Ascent-Dark Night describes in existential detail the excruciating process of purification that God leads us through when we say Yes to mercy. He gives us His mercy in order to heal sin and its disorienting effects, making us capax Caritatis, “capable of Charity,” i.e. of receiving and giving God’s selfless love revealed fully in the open-sided corpse of Christ. {Cool fun fact. The word ‘orientation’ comes from the Latin word oriens, which means East. In Christian symoblism, the East is Christ, the rising Sun. So being disoriented is losing your proper eastward focus, which is sin. Christ came to reorient the disoriented toward the Orient from on High!}

More. Jesus reveals fully on the Cross that mercy is also always costly to the giver of mercy. God created a world out of nothing and gave it a stunning and risky gift: Freedom. Freedom to receive the gift offered…or reject the gift. Love requires freedom. What a costly risk to God! On the Cross He owned every implication of that risk and its attendant costs — according to the economy of good-of-other love, for the good of humanity. Ian Boyd said: “Unless we affirm that God takes genuine risks, we will not be able to acknowledge that the world is a war zone while also holding that this war is not God’s will.” And though the war is not God’s (affirmative) will, He enters the war and succumbs to becoming the war’s final Victim.

Again, in regard to sin, mercy is remissive not permissive, meaning it effects the remission of sins not permission to sin. It pardons evils in order to remove them, wash them away (like Psalm 51’s māhāh, “wipe away” sins; or kabbəsênî, “wash away” sins), in order that the communion of love, ruptured by sin, might be restored and estranged parties be reconciled. As love is myopic in its pusuit of becoming one (Gen. 2:24/John 17:22), mercy is myopic in its mission to heal all division (and saving marriage, ground of all unity, is always mercy’s first and greatest work). Mercy overcomes evil by restoring the one harmed by evil, by their own free consent, to their originally God-intended goodness. I love the image dear to St. Gregory Nazianzen, that sin mucks up the divine image with dirt and filth, while mercy washes it clean with divine Blood so that it might become a polished mirror that reflects God’s lovely brilliance through our life of virtue.

But there’s even more! Another cost tagged to mercy. The one who receives mercy must in turn expend it. You must now pause and read the great parable of Matthew 18:21-35! While it’s true that you can’t give what you don’t have, it’s equally true that you can’t have what you don’t give. That’s theo-logic. And because our very existence itself is already overflowing with mercy, you ALWAYS have mercy to expend. Mother Teresa said when she came to Gift of Peace hospice in D.C. while I was there: “If you have no hope, find another who has no hope, give them hope and you will find hope.” St. Gregory Naz again tells us that we can know when mercy has been rightly received into our souls when we find ourselves cheerfully practice almsgiving to the ungrateful poor and joyfully do profligate good to our nasty neighbor. Then we know we look just like God, who rains down His gifts on the undeserving and wicked. Remember that Matthew 5:45 makes this point in the midst of the hardest words of the Sermon on the Mount — when He says all that awful stuff about loving enemies and persecutors.

{Fun fact #2: “Almsgiving” comes from the Latin alemosyna, which comes from the Greek eleemosyne, which stems from the Greek root noun, eleos, which we translate in Scripture as mercy. Like Kyrie eleison. So alms-giving is mercy-giving, returning to God, by way of the poor and undeserving and ungrateful, the selfsame mercy we received (see Matthew 5:7; 10:8).}

Oh, then there’s forgiving mercy. Hard as nails. Think about it: the Our Father contains that insanely stunning conditional clause that should make us forgiven-folks tremble, tremble, tremble: “Forgive us our trespasses hōs kai [also as] we forgive those who trespass against us.” Maybe better to render it: forgive us in the measure we forgive others (stop! Read Matthew 7:2 now). Yikes! Just in case you missed that shocking development in Jewish forms of prayer (where else can you find this unequivocal demand of mercy to forgive without measure? Except maybe by intimations here and there, like in Jonah’s call to rejoice in the repentance of Israel’s horror-inspiring enemy, Assyria!), just in case you missed His bomb, 2b detonated on the Cross (Luke 23:34), Jesus ends the Our Father with these words:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Nothing cheap there. And there are many other examples of this in New Testament.
Free, yes, cheap, never. At least not if it’s the Full Gospel you are talking about. Mother Teresa got this freeing cost:

I once picked up a woman from a garbage dump and she was burning with fever; she was in her last days and her only lament was: ‘My son did this to me.’ I begged her: You must forgive your son. In a moment of madness, when he was not himself, he did a thing he regrets. Be a mother to him, forgive him. It took me a long time to help her say: ‘I forgive my son.’ Just before she died in my arms, she was able to say that with a real forgiveness. She was not concerned that she was dying. The breaking of the heart was that her son did not want her. This is something you and I can understand.

A last meditation:

In Jesus, the tenting God-with us, the Word-made-flesh (John 1:14), the Ancient of Days, was finally given chance to absolutely and unambiguously reveal Himself — to show all His cards. The New Testament is unanimous that He did this precisely on the Cross. There He revealed the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). Summed up with neutron star density by St. John: “God is love.” More! There was revealed an even more mysterious truth on the Cross: when overwhelmed by the fiercest possible rejection — Eternal Life put to death! — love turns not into destructive wrath, but into mercy. Into love encountering, pursuing, alluring (see Hosea 2:14!) and overwhelming fallen humanity with an absolutely undeserved offer to be reconciled, restored and healed.

Here is the deepest secret of Christianity, its wildest mystery and its hardest truth: mercy is the justice of the Kingdom. Mercy is not supererogatory. Rather, to employ the language of justice, it is the Christian “ought,” “must,” “shalt.” Mercy is the sine qua non, the choice a disciple of Christ must make if s/he is to belong to Christ and inherit the Kingdom born from the gushing mercy of the Cross. When life grows dark, betrayals shatter or lies entangle, it is only then Christians are at last permitted to be who they are — members of the Body of a Samaritan God (Luke 10:25-37). Flesh of Christ’s Flesh not in word only, but in-deed. For the Christian, God is not simply a sublime object of our curious, detached contemplative admiration.No! He is a turbulent Font of paschal waters who awaits our baptismal choice to plunge down deep into the infinite abyss of living waters surging from the torn open Heart of the wholly-expended Christ.

This is off the chart mystery. 3rd century A.D. Church theologian Tertullian said it this way (with Latin included because it sounds so beautiful):

Crucifixus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est;
et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est;
et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.

The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

Impossible mercy! Impossible love! Pope Benedict caught this paradox-ridden mystery in God — in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est #10:

It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

And @ 84 years old, St. Ignatius of Antioch “got” pricy mercy — way back in 108 A.D.! — as he wrote in a letter to the Roman Christians on the way to his own martyrdom in Rome:

…Fire, cross, struggles with wild animals, having my bones dislocated, having them mangle my body, crunch my flesh between their teeth, cruel tortures inflicted by the devil—let it all come upon me, if only I make my way to Jesus Christ! I would rather die, and come to Jesus, than be king over the entire earth. I seek the One who died for us all. I love the One who rose again for the sake of all of us. The birth pangs have begun. Do not get in the way of my coming to real life. Permit me to be an imitator of the sufferings of my God … by martyrdom I may indeed become the disciple of Him “who gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God”…

Doesn’t sound cheap to me.

Does that help?

Austin the Baptist


Austin Ashcraft and his godson, Finnian Leonidas Swope

Austin Ashcraft is a dear friend, and will no doubt be unconformable with this laudatory post. Too bad, Austin.

Austin teaches theology, philosophy and coaches football at St. Paul’s all boys high school in Covington, Louisiana and is a vibrant example of what pedagogy looks like when it is overcome by these words of St. John Paul II (they also serve as his email tagline): “Man cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Austin sees relational ministry, which is all about evoking and provoking the gift of self, as the soul of authentic education. Only in the context of trust and love is a teacher capable of touching both the mind and the heart of a student. My own children, who love Austin, call him “Austin the Baptist” because of his off-beat, super-engaging style and off-balance joy. To me, his style embodies Pope Francis’ approach to the New Evangelization: young energy, heart for the poor and outcast, faith and reason in tandem, culturally savvy, lover of Jesus, funny and fun, light and deep, rooted in prayer, aware of his sinfulness but far more aware of mercy.

Austin gave a talk to high school teachers recently that I recorded. In it he speaks about how to engage high school youth with the Gospel of Jesus in a way that respects their freedom, but also challenges them to encounter the living Truth that frees. It was called “The Adventure of Truth: Redefining Freedom in Theological Education.” It’s about 30 minutes long. If you have teenage kids, will have them soon or teach teens, this will give you some good insights.

Excuse my annoying loud laughter and the sounds of my note taking during the recording. Listen here if you’re interested:

De-mystifying discernment, part III

This last post is a “scraps” post — a few leftover thoughts relevant to what I am hoping to say. Let me recommend one book here on vocation and discernment that is applicable to a wide spectrum of people: Personal Vocation by Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw. Okay, here we go:

At the end of the retreat, I sat alone for about twenty minutes and wrote down a collection of insights that had been collecting in my margins as he spoke, and during Mass. Here are a few:

He made this powerful point that I am struggling to recall. It was something vaguely like this: Those who seek extra-ordinary means (visions, locutions, mystical signs) from God as the ordinary means of discerning His action and will open themselves up, the Mystical Doctor tells us, to diabolical delusions. Satan is incapable of mimicking fidelity to God’s general will (like live a life of fidelity, selfless charity, obedience, humility –generally living by faith-formed reason) and can’t mime the ordinary means of accessing grace (like prayer, Sacraments). But he can mimic extra-ordinary signs and wonders, mystical signs in order to subtly lead us away, by his art and craft as the angel of light, from God’s general will. Those who attach to the extra-ordinary eventually detach from the ordinary. Hence, Jesus says to those who performed exorcisms, signs and wonders, but were simultaneously unfaithful to His general will: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (all of Mt 7:21-24 makes this point powerfully). The extra-ordinary always has one purpose: to lead back to the ordinary that’s being ignored. It’s always an “extra.” It’s instructive to realize the Great Teresa said that the reason God showered so many extra-ordinary “favors” on her was because she was weak and slow and her Order had abandoned the ordinary path of perfection.

… The clearest clues to God’s design for our vocation and mission are the gifts we possess and the purified desires of our heart. God inscribes His will into our gifts, and then beckons to our free will to unwrap those gifts and give them away. Because every gift exists for others’ well being, and sanctifies us only when they are expended thus. Gifts are only an indirect compliment to us, a direct compliment to others. Also with vocation and mission — always “and” because we are called only to be sent. The vocation makes us feel loved by name (and we are!), but the mission makes others feel loved by name (and they are!) … All vocations-missions are local, limited, as only Christ had a universal vocation-mission. The plotted space of your mission is bracketed by your own limits, and perfection is in embracing the limits unlimitedly. More! God has so arranged things that those with the tiniest, even unseen plots are greatest in the Kingdom (1 Cor. 12:22-23). Those who feel they can do little, move little, contribute little, who feel they are functionally useless in a utilitarian world, when they consecrate their limits to Christ transfixed, paralyzed on Golgotha, have their field of reach stretched into the infinite. From her bed of pain, St. Therese was — and still is — transforming lives. The graced “roses” she said she would send from heaven all flowed from the tight confines of her fidelity in an obscure convent and on a sickbed struggling to breathe

… Most are called to consecrate the world in the world in secular apostolates, many are called to labor in the church’s vineyard in sacred ministries to build up Christ’s Body. And all ministries exist to serve the apostolate, those sent into the world to consecrate culture, politics, economics, business, science, medicine, agriculture, banking, IT, media, real estate, et alia. The world-loving laity are to be creative, co-creative with God to give rise to a new culture, a colorful culture, a joyful, peaceful, just, beautiful, song-filled, generous, love-ridden culture that will extend, unleash, reveal Christ’s new creation into this creation. Christians should be tearing the veil of the cosmic Temple every day to let the eighth day’s eternal light into places where darkness holds sway. Every act of virtue, every prayer, every moment of repentance, every downward-calling of the Spirit and every upward-offering of our Christ-bound body widens the tear and extends His Eucharistic reign … We need new architects of this new culture and civilization who “see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40) — on the mountain of Sinai, on the mountain of the Beatitudes, on the mountain of Tabor and on the mountain of Golgotha. Amen.



Last year I wrote a post on discernment in St. John of the Cross. I looked at a letter John had written in response to a request from his Religious superior, Doria, to investigate the claims of a Discalced Carmelite nun who asserted she had received extraordinary spiritual gifts and revelations. I wrote that post as a critical commentary on certain “inner healing” movements in the Catholic Church whose members have made astonishing and reckless claims to serve as mediums and diviners of God’s grace and will and words to vulnerable people who long to experience God’s presence. I thought sharing this brief section of that post would be a fitting way to conclude my thoughts on discernment:

In the letter, John reviewed the steps of his investigation and shared his judgment that the nun’s claim to gifts of a supernatural origin was a false claim. Among the signs of error, he noted four prominent issues:

First, she had mucha golosina de apetito, “a very greedy appetite” for extraordinary experiences. Being attached to extraordinary experiences is, for John, an wide-open door to deception. Second, she was overly confident in the truth of her interior experiences and was averse to submitting them to the judgment of others. “She has too much confidence,” he said “and too little caution about erring internally, which is not the sign of a good spirit. Everything she says about ‘she said to God and God said to her’ seems so much nonsense [parece disparate].” Third, she lacked discretion and was overly eager to speak about her extraordinary experiences and convince others of their goodness and truth. Even worse, John said, she was eager for more such experiences. Finally, and most telling for John, she was very resistant to his investigation into of her claims. Humility, he said, is infallibly the fruit of authentic spiritual experiences rightly received. When the humble “receive great favors” they are always eager to submit their claims to others’ scrutiny. As Jesus says in John 3:20, the humble are anxious to be exposed to the light of faith and sound reason.

At the end of his letter, John recommended to Doria a “test” for this nun. She must not write about or publicize these experiences any longer or even speak about them with her confessor. He recommended Doria pruébenla en el ejercicio de las virtudes a secas, mayormente en el desprecio, humildad y obediencia, “test her harshly in the exercise of the virtues, particularly in self-contempt, humility and obedience.” He also added that “the tests must be good ones because there is no devil who will not suffer anything for the sake of his honor.” “Such humility,” he added, is the safe road and on it no one will ever be deceived, for “these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.”

De-mystifying discernment, part II

If God has one right choice in everything you do, then you can’t draw any line. That means that God wants you to know which room to clean first, the kitchen or the bedroom, and which dish to pick up first, the plate or the saucer. You see, if you carry out this principle’s logical implications, it shows itself to be ridiculous, unlivable, and certainly not the kind of life God wants for us—the kind described in the Bible and the lives of the saints. But the authentic principle of discernment asserts that many diverse things are good; that good is plural. Even for the same person, there are often two or more choices that are both good. Good is kaleidoscopic. Many roads are right. The road to the beach is right and the road to the mountains is right, for God awaits us in both places. Goodness is multicolored. Only pure evil lacks color and variety. In hell there is no color, no individuality. Souls are melted down like lead, or chewed up together in Satan’s mouth. The two most uniform places on earth are prisons and armies, not the church. — Peter Kreeft

After the retreat, I wrote these thoughts that extended the priest’s insights. These very simple insights that I shared yesterday, and these below, have deeply shaped my approach to life with great effect. I hope they have given you some insight as well.

What Father said is precisely I try to avoid using the phrases “God asked me, God told me, God put it on my heart, God led me,” etc., to describe my decisions. Why? Because it’s presumptuous. It takes away from me responsibility for what was decided and places it all on God. What I decide=God’s will. As we are not predestination-ists, I don’t believe that my every choice is selecting a divinely pre-picked option. That would be exhausting and terrifying to live by. Yes, God has a “general will” for us which is absolutely clear and is absolutely binding on all of us always. That would include for example the moral teaching of the Church. Don’t cheat on your wife, give to the poor, forgive those who sin against you, use your gifts in service to others, etc. But within the parameters of God’s general will, in what St. Bernard called His “will of good pleasure,” there’s lots of room for play. And for active and creative cooperation with Him that contributes to, and doesn’t just execute the unfolding of His will. And we can be confident we are doing His will precisely because our will is already seeking after God’s “general will.” This is what St. Augustine means when he says: “Love and do what you will.”

I met a Sudanese priest several years ago, and spoke to him at length about his own path to priesthood. In the midst of that conversation, he said something like this: “You Americans, I’ve noticed, tend to begin the discernment of God’s will by thinking of personal fulfillment. ‘What will make me happy? Bring me a sense of fulfillment? Prosper me?’ It’s difficult to think of God’s will from that starting point. God is handcuffed. But in my village, my family, we start with: What do my people need? Or what does the church need? What do I have to offer? And if I see these match, and it’s a way for me to love best with the abilities God has given, deciding is easy. Loving God, which is doing God’s will (which is what you are trying to discern), is found when you start with your neighbor’s needs. This is how I chose to be a priest. It was a simple decision, but not an easy one. Do you know why [the French existentialist] Jean Paul Sartre said ‘hell is other people’? Because he started and ended with himself. If you do that you will always be miserable. If you start with love, you can clean garbage cans all your life and you will be content.”

Peter Kreeft put this spin on the freedom we have in choosing how we are best to love God with our life: “God, in giving us all free will, said to us: ‘Your will be done.’ Some of us turn back to him and say: ‘My will is that your will be done.’ That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: ‘And now, your will be done.’ And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.” My spiritual director of blessed memory, Fr. Anthony Manochio, quoted Mother Teresa to me at a crucial juncture in my own discernment: “Tom, it’s in your hands now to choose your future and make something beautiful for God. Something only you could make. Choose well.”

Our retreat Master gave a great cluster of reflection points. He said, “Do these and then you can choose and be at peace”: Seek after purity of heart, myopic in God’s will, seeking to love God and neighbor. Being faithful in the present moment to the details of your daily duties anchors all faithfulness in future decisions, while being sloppy in the present sets you adrift. Remain obedient to the teachings of the Church. Repent when you fail. Use good judgment and seek counsel from wise people who will kick and not kiss your hiney. Beg for the grace to be docile to the movements of the Holy Spirit so you can act in harmony. Discerning should not feel burdensome, mechanical or anxiety-ridden, but bring us joy and peace …

Peter Kreeft says: “In education, I know there are always two extremes. You can be too modern, too experimental, too Deweyan, too structureless. But you can also be too classical, too rigid. Students need initiative and creativity and originality too. God’s law is short. He gave us ten commandments, not ten thousand. Why? Why not a more complete list of specifics? Because he wanted freedom and variety. Why do you think he created so many persons? Why not just one? Because he loves different personalities. He wants his chorus to sing in harmony, but not in unison.”

Peter Kreeft also says discerning and doing God’s will should be like married sex. “As long as you stay within God’s law—no adultery, no cruelty, no egotism, no unnatural acts, as, for example, contraception—anything goes. Use your imagination. Is there one and only one way God wants you to make love to your spouse? What a silly question! Yet making love to your spouse is a great good, and God’s will. He wants you to decide to be tender or wild, moving or still, loud or quiet, so that your spouse knows it’s you, not anyone else, not some book who’s deciding.”

… As Father said, it’s true that once in a while God does give extra-ordinary clarity with pinpoint specificity as to what He wills us to do. But it is not His ordinary manner, and we should not operate on that level every day. When you start with, “God told me to…, asked me to…, put it on my heart to…”, all discussion is ended. Who could possibly examine or contradict that? No critique is possible. All challenges are off limits. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. It leaves no room for your critical judgment to work or for others to examine your judgment or decision and offer important feedback. It’s a conversation stopper. It’s safe, and it keeps me buffered from any criticism. If later it seems I made a bad decision, well, “You can blame God! He asked me to…” Really? Are you sure? … Asserting in your own voice the unmediated vox Dei [voice of God] is risky business … Whenever someone tells me God told them to tell me this or that, I say: “Thanks for the input. I’ll think on that.” …