Pausing in sadness, yet Mashley

This is exam week, grading week, overdue projects week, catching up with my family week, and preparing for upcoming events week. Then next week is travel for work.

So I will again have to stop my blog, edging toward Christmas.

As this is the writing that emerges from my heart, I am always very sad to stop. Would that I had the freedom to just engage in cardiac writing, especially as of late my heart has been bursting with new insights.

But reality always come first in God’s will, thanks be to God.

One last thing I did want to share, as my wife encouraged me to. It has been 13 months since I went back to the Flip Phone from the iPhone. So much to say! I will just toss out a brief thought here.

While I do not intend to be a self-congratulating or virtue-signaling Luddite, and know that my decision was a recognition of my own weakness, the fruits of this flipping last year have been super-abundant. Two words capture my favorite fruits: freedom and tedium. Freedom from addictive habits of phone checking, especially whenever life slows down to the speed of boring; and the return to that tedious art of agonizingly slow, arduous texting.

My new Beatitude is, “Blessed are the bored, for they shall live life”

…Abundant blessings on this Advent. May it be filled with lots of unpleasant waiting.

Oh, yes, and of extreme importance….

Ashley and (my daughter) Maria will be performing @ 8:00 p.m. on December 29th at Rock n Bowl, opening for Bag of Donuts!! Friends, let me know and I can get you tickets.
Come and enjoy! https://www.rocknbowl.com/events/bag-of-donuts-12-29-18
For those who don’t know Mashley’s work, here’s a sample:

Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee

…for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company — Bar. 5:9

This text from today’s first reading at Mass has a quiet beauty about it. Especially, “leading Israel in joy.” Let me share here some fragmented thoughts on joy.

Joy, in the Christian tradition, is a fruit of the Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit are side-effects of living life in harmony with the will of God. I like to define joy as delight in the fulfillment of goodness, beauty and truth, all of which are the summation of a life lived in love. But unlike happiness, which demands fulfillment in the present, joy feeds off of a confident trust in the future promise of fulfillment assured by a God who is trustworthy and able.

Joy can be as elusive as the future.

This all means joy and hope are close companions. Hence, the God who “leads Israel in joy” is the God who has established for His people, in a hopeless present, the promise of a future full of hope.

Like hope, joy intensifies as the present experience of darkness holds the bright promise of future fulfillment in relief. Through the cross to the Light.

Joy requires a clear vision of our promised future fulfillment, and of the way that leads there. The vision is what we call faith, and the way is what we call love. Faith is the vision of both the Giver and that which we have been called to receive; hope is the Giver’s promise that grounds our confidence that we will receive it; love is the manner in which we receive; and joy is the delight in all three.

Jesus Himself is the Giver, the Guarantor, the Truth of our vision, the Life that is our ultimate fulfillment, and the Way of love by which we are led into joy.

Pat, who had become a dear friend of our family back in the mid 1990’s, was dying of cancer. He was terrified of death, as he feared his long life of selfish malice, of breaking hearts and lives would be waiting for him at the Last Judgment he was soon to face. His recent conversion back to faith, and life of repentance and charity, was no solace for him. He imagined only that the proportion of a few years of good will set against decades of wrongdoing would weigh against him in the final scales of justice.

Pat was joyless because he refused to accept mercy as a recklessly free gift given by a prodigal God to the undeserving. In his pain, Pat turned in on himself, wallowing in fear, drowning in anger-turned-inward, instead of “opening to the Sun above” whose joy over Pat’s return would surpass — O Paradox! — even His infinity.

My wife brought our children to visit Pat in the hospice one day. When they walked in the room, Pat began to cry. Our youngest son, about 5 at the time, jumped up into the bed and excitedly said to Pat, “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay!” Pat began to sob, and said loudly, “No it’s not!” Because of the commotion, the woman who was caring for Pat, who was a devout Catholic, told my wife that it’s probably better if they leave so he can settle down.

Later that day this woman called me to share with me the story of what followed their visit. She said,

After they left, Pat was inconsolable and agitated. So I went to his bedside and said, “Pat, listen to me. Did you feel that little boy’s innocence and love in his words to you? Didn’t you feel God in him?” Pat seemed to calm a bit, and agreed. Then I said, “Don’t you see that Jesus sent him to you to speak those words on His behalf? Pat, Jesus wanted you to know that those are the words you will hear when you die and face Him. ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, it’s gonna be okay.'”

Pat settled into a calm rest, and when I left the room, he flat-lined. So be sure to tell your wife and son that they were messengers of heaven and let Pat die in peace.

And joy.

Tout est grâce, “all is grace.”

Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
And oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah

We are the body of Christ

[re-post from 2017]

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked.– St. John Chrysostom

When our son Michael was a baby, he had colic, which can be defined as your baby crying without ceasing for no apparent reason. My wife went without much sleep for the first six months of his life, as he nursed day and night without more than a few hours break for sleep. After six months, he fell into a much more normal rhythm and stopped his perpetual crying.

Among the tricks we learned for helping him fall asleep in those first six months was singing to him together. For whatever reason, our blended voices had more effect. And there was one song in particular that he responded to more than any other, David Haas’ Table Song. Since I knew the bass harmony, we would sing it in two parts.

We must have sung it over a hundred times in those six months. Whenever I hear it now, I am immediately transported back to those bleary days. In fact, last month on Michael’s 22nd birthday, we sang it for him. He teared up, saying it stirred something deep in him.

I remember one time in particular when Patti and I were awakened at around 1:30 a.m. to his screaming. She had only been asleep for about two hours, so she was feeling overwhelmed. As she sat in the bed nursing, we began to sing Table Song:

We are the body of Christ
Broken and poured out.
Promise of life from death
We are the body of Christ.

In the middle of the song, Patti said,

I just got it. That’s us. It just dawned on me that we three are the body of Christ. This is what Jesus wants our life to be like. I can feel Him here in our little church. Can’t you?

Watching her nursing, being “broken and poured out,” it was impossible for me not to feel Him. Pope Francis’ words here ring with infallible truth:

Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.

Praying when you can’t

I am teaching a class on prayer this semester, and like my classes on marriage and on the problem of evil, it has been super transformative for me. Preparing the class lectures is like jumping off a high cliff into an unknown depth, as I uncover insights that are genuinely new and dazzling. But because of the pace of the semester, I have little time to really process these insights and mostly have to leave them behind in my notes for another day.

This morning I rose early to review my notes on prayer and, well, to pray them through. The topic was “what to do when you can’t pray.” For example, when you are in great pain or under immense stress, or after you have committed evil and are suffering the aftershocks that paralyze your inner world. Or maybe when you are experiencing the oppressive weight of depression and have lost all desire for anything.

As I reflected on this topic in my prayer, I asked Christ: when did you experience the inability to pray? It was certainly intended as a rhetorical question, since I don’t sit in expectation of immediate responses. But as I sat with this question stirring in me, an image blossomed in my mind: Jesus’ final moment of life in Mark 15:37:

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

Phōnēn megalēn, “a great scream.” He could not pray with words, could no longer formulate intelligible sentiments. How can you when you’re violently shaking in the final agony of the death rattle? Then the thought came to me, “In those moments, He absorbed into Himself every human being’s inability to pray and, as God, consecrated it.”

Consecrated it. I wondered what that looked like.

Then I flashed back in my memory to the summer of 1993 when I was hospitalized for crippling anxiety attacks. I was coming apart. Dissolving, fragmenting. And I could not pray, or even think of God. In fact, the thought of God was like a knife, the thought of a “loving God” like a sick mocking of my madness.

I then recalled how, in a very dark moment, I had cried out from my bed with tremendous force — audibly — “Damn you! If you want me to give myself to you, I have to have a self left to give!”

I don’t really know why I said those words, but I realized I had prayed. Yelled. And those words somehow had captured my deepest fear. In the moments following, I recall vividly being washed over by a sense of awe, a presence in the room that exuded compassion. Pure compassion. And in that moment, I was filled with the grace of acceptance — I could accept remaining in this state. Up to then, I only wished to flee. That was beyond anything I could have ever imagined doing, to find this strange sense of order in the chaos. It sounds even now like a hapless contradiction.

This morning, I also sensed the depth of what Jesus took on in that “scream.” He entered our abyss. He suffered my screams of terror as His own and exchanged them for His inconceivably loving presence. Thought of it caused me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases — Isaiah 53:4

The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me, Paul says in Galatians 2:20. For me. Entering into that exchange by simply permitting Him to take my diseases is itself prayer, an act of will allowing Jesus to assume my paralysis, burdens, pains, sorrows and make mine ours. So He can consecrate them. What He does with them then, well that’s His business…

I don’t know how to articulate this consecration at all well. As close as I get: Jesus.

Hiatus

Well, yesterday I declared a pause. But today I declare a subsequent decision, counseled by those I seek counsel from, to take a lengthier break from posting to attend to the myriad “first things first” of life. So I will resume posting October 1st.

Love the community here, am exceedingly grateful to readers here for reading, sharing wisdom and prayer, and drawing good from my work. We pray for each other. Peace and joy!

I will leave off by posting something here I have played with for a long time, but never felt was ready. It’s a brief reflection on my own call as a theologian. For what it’s worth, here’s a view of my peculiar mind…

+++

Mary, Mary & John: Theologians

We need men and women who devote their lives to the glory of theology, that fierce fire burning in the dark night of adoration and obedience whose abysses it illuminates – Hans Urs von Balthasar

I remember when I first sensed I was being called to be a theologian. Back in 1988, I awoke with a start in the middle of the night and felt compelled to write a poem about the Trinity. I had never before felt even the slightest desire to write poetry. As I wrote, my mind exploded with images and insights. While the poem was no literary work of art, it was the sign of something that had awakened inside of me. Something beyond me. A quest that has never for a second left me since.

Being a theologian is a vocation, a summons from God to explore, in a lifelong and disciplined manner, His self-revelation by laying claim to that most audacious claim of the Jews, “Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us” (Bar. 4:4).

But above all, it is the God revealed in Christ into which the theologian is invited to “dive down deeper still.” More specifically, into Christ crucified. The cross is the apex of divine disclosure at the nadir of human depravity. This dizzying assertion has claimed the last 30 years of my life.

I love theology. I am terrified by theology. I have been irredeemably conquered by its restlessness. I’ve learned fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding” is not some bookish enterprise, but is a wild animal. An uncaged Lion, to be very specific.

Again and again, I have been thoroughly disabused of the illusion that it is I who am cleverly seeking God. No. God relentlessly hounds me, God runs me down the ages. As in St. Paul’s twist of phrase, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” (Gal. 4:9). Yes, I imagined I was successfully analyzing Him, only to find Him searching deep within me.

Disconcerting.

I love theology because He who is a crazed, mad, unchained God beyond knowing, invited me to know Him; and then to re-know everything else in light of what I discover There. St. Catherine of Siena models my inner impuse:

O eternal Father!
O fiery abyss of charity!
O eternal beauty,
O eternal wisdom,
O eternal goodness,
O eternal mercy!
O hope and refuge of sinners!
O immeasurable generosity!
O eternal, infinite Good!
O mad lover!
Why are you so mad?
Because you have fallen in love
with what you have made.

I love theology because it faces me squarely toward reality, refusing to soften the harshness, mute the shocking, sweeten the bitterness, smooth out the jagged edges. Yet, in hope. It faces me toward a God who dives straight into darkness, plunges into filth, is soiled by the grotesque, assailed by injustice — all as if the deepest exigency of God was to rescue. He simply cannot help Himself, because it is His nature, and He cannot be otherwise.

How fitting it is that the name God takes when He becomes flesh is Jesus, “God saves.” This is the Name above every other name. God is rescue. And as He did with the Hebrew Prophets, so now He drags those whom He calls to be theologians down into His rescue operation. “See! Listen! Speak!”

Run.

I love theology because the theologian is given eyes to see divine glory absolutely everywhere, sees all creation afire. But especially sees glory super-abound in those places where God has been most violently banished. There, as nowhere else, God empties out in the extreme. The graying, pallid Face of God-made-corpse, drained of watery blood, is the epiphany of divinity. Splendor splattered all over Skull Mount, surpassed only by His final act of emptying in the descent into hell. Only there, in the deepest Pit of Destruction, can the infinite-glory of the Resurrection at last be made manifest.

And so the theologian makes the words of St. Silouan her own, “keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

A longtime friend has a severely disabled son who has been her 24/7 concern for decades. Once she was asked by a relative, when things were especially hard, “Do you ever feel you’ve traded your happiness for him?” She told me she replied to him, “It wouldn’t occur to me to ask that question. I don’t see those as opposed, my happiness or him. They’re one thing, no conflict. He is my happiness.”

I at once thought of this passage from Holy Writ,

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. — 2 Cor. 8:9

Theologians exist to provide the raw materials for saints like her, and like her son.

Yet, in spite of my love, how often I have wished to run from all this. Because I, a truly weak man, would prefer a nicely gated suburban world, a safe distance from the City of a God “whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9). But alas,

If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot. — Jer. 20:9

The last word goes to Fr. John Behr, who for me captures it best,

Forcefully stated, this means that in and through the action that expresses all the weakness, impotence, and futility of our created human nature—our subjection to death—Christ shows himself to be truly divine, voluntarily taking this upon himself.

As one tries to comprehend this, one is simply at a loss for words.

Perhaps not surprising, then, is our all-too-human response to the revelation of God in the crucified and exalted Christ, understood through the Scriptures by the power of the Spirit, is to talk about something else—to make theology into an abstract discourse.

So with Mary, Mary and John, I resolve to love theology by theologizing here alone, refusing to talk about something else. Introíbo ad altáre Dei…

Broken signpost

The stories of conquest conclude with Israel, the people of promise, finally in the land, embattled and rebellious but installed, a broken signpost still shakily pointing forwards to the Creator’s purpose to rescue his human creatures and complete the work of creation. — N.T. Wright

A person recently asked me, “How can you continue to work for the church?” I spontaneously began my answer by saying, “Because I believe we’re part of a broken signpost.”

That’s the Church. Chosen, like the people of Israel, as a People of the Solution, a People of the Problem. All of us, all at once, are always both.

God has designed His rescue plan in such a way that He refuses to bypass the disaster we have created. So St. Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” God will not save us without entangling Himself with a race that is, as Blaise Pascal famously said, the “judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe.”

Rather, God enters straightaway into all of it, wholly identifying Himself with it (1 Cor. 5:21), and then chooses the most disastrous collaborators (e.g. Matt. 27:5; Jn. 16:32; 1 Tim. 1:15) to lead us into His (in)glorious revolution launched from the peak of a dunghill (1 Sam. 2:6; Jn. 19:17). There, amid rotting human remains, emblems of human cruelty, a God-made-slave hung crucified, planning in the hidden depths of His Heart — all the while — a Garden of Paradise nearby (Jn. 19:41), planted in the cursed soils of our (eu)catastrophe (Gal. 3:13).

And so the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass says,

For we know it belongs to your boundless glory,
that you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity
and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,
that the cause of our downfall
might become the means of our salvation,
through Christ our Lord.

After these words are prayed to the Father, the Spirit comes to make present again the torn Flesh and steaming Blood of the Son, amid the ruins of grain and grapes, feeding the once-enemies of God, empowering us to cultivate with Him our Garden.

St Isaac of Syria said “this life is for repentance.” To live is to repent, and to be the Solution is to have repented often.

The Church I work for. All of us.

For God’s foolishness [mōron] is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. — 1 Cor. 1:25