Criticism:Prayer

Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw love out. — St. John of the Cross

The older I get, the more I meet people, the more convinced I am that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace. The only thing we can do about people is to love them. — Dorothy Day

I have mentioned this before. Years ago, a priest in Confession gave me a lifelong penance. It was startling to receive a life penance!

He gave me a ratio of prayer to criticism, “from now on, for the time you spend criticizing anyone behind their back, justly or not, you are to pray for them in a certain proportion of time afterward.” He argued, “Once you identify an evil in someone, like the Good Samaritan you have now assumed the obligation to tend to their wounds, carry them to the Inn and pay for their care. And if they wrong you, all the more, as the Lord commands us to forgive those who wrong us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who do harm to us. By your prayer, which can always be done, you must become their advocate before God. This is what the Lord did on the cross. You be the man you want them to be, and you’ll do them the greatest good.”

I like to contemplate the holiness present

I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. — Pope Francis

Yes, this is it. Descriptions of the truest soul of holiness, charity. Charity, which is the love with which God loved us in Christ. Holiness is when our love synthesizes, harmonizes, mixes, fuses with God’s love, and then overflows our cup into unsung acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holiness is what St. Thérèse manifested when she said, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies.” Because ecstasy, from ek histanai, means “to stand out of yourself.” Get out of yourself, over yourself, and into God and your neighbor.

My wife loves to say that for her the premier sign of holiness in others is found in people who are “unaware of themselves.” Not meaning they don’t have self knowledge, but that when you are with them, things don’t turn back on them but on others. The exude, in a disarmingly natural way, other-centered love. The relationship of such unaware saints with God is wholly consumed with the welfare of others. Like St. Paul: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Or like the Lord Himself who, rapt in an ecstatic prayer with His Father in John 17, thinks only of us.

Us.

What a magnificent thing that God’s love, epitomized in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, is not competitive. Rather, God delights most when we make our love for Him all about the people around us. Including our parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, enemies. Especially our enemies. God’s favorite way of being loved is through the enemy, the one we find most disagreeable, irritating, objectionable, repulsive. As God the Father said to St. Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you.

This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.

May we take one step today toward this holiness, which the revolution of love.

Into the abyss of our abandonment

The Harrowing of Hell

In truth – one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is – hell.

This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.

Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images – which at first sight look so mythological – of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened and the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt 27:52). The door of death stands open since life – love – has dwelt in death.  — Pope Benedict XVI

I gave an evening of reflection during Lent last year at a parish. It was on the meaning of the Cross. After I finished speaking, we had a period of prayer and then people left in silence. After everyone had gone, a woman who had remained came up to me after and shared with me a grace she received from God during the evening. I asked her if I could share this story.

She said because of some severe family problems when she was growing up, she learned life meant hiding from threatening situations. This pattern, she said, led her to hide as an adult, living in mistrust and inner isolation, feeling trapped inside a secret past that she has never dared to share with anyone for fear that by opening it, like Pandora’s Box, chaos would be unleashed in her life.

“But,” she said, “tonight I could see something I had never seen before. In those halls of shame that I live in, Jesus is already there with me. He sees it all. He was so quiet in there, just sitting with me, I didn’t even notice Him. He was waiting for me to recognize Him and give permission for Him to open the doors and allow the light in. I could see this as I prayed. You said Jesus descends into our personal hells to blow them open from the inside out, but with the greatest tenderness imaginable. What did you call that? [Me: The harrowing of hell] Yeah, well, I felt something break deep inside of me and I opened up. I feel I can seek help.”

She cried.

Then she said, “And when you told us that Jesus’ name means ‘Yahweh rescues,’ and that that’s another way of saying ‘God is love,’ because love always rescues the lost — that idea [she paused] — I fell in love with Him.”

We ended with a brief prayer and she went home. I sat for a few minutes alone, in thanksgiving, and thought: I’ve spent 31 years of studying theology precisely to that end. So I could know how to remove stones that prevent others from seeing that Jesus, Emmanuel, is God always and already with us. Harrowing our hells with hallowing mercy.

I have never so clearly understood the meaning of 2 Cor. 5:20 as my personal mission and the mission of every Christian: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Today, Holy Saturday, we reverence God’s decent into hell in silence, as He penetrates the deepest darkness with the bright light of His immortal life and love.

“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” — Eph. 5:14

You Want It Darker

wikimedia.org

[re-post 2017]

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his final album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.

++++

Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. It was his Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited — and was inhabited by — his Hebrew faith. Its language, worship, narratives as he grasped for meaning at the very edge of meaning. At the edge of the grave, his grave. This was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death in 2016. It utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and then woke up at 3:00 a.m. to write.

I wish I could explain the inner sense of awe, holy fear I felt as I awoke.

Cohen’s gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language, and tones, of the Kaddish — Jewish prayers for the dead.

Cohen wants his poetry to find its luminescence beneath the long shadows that arc over the atrocities of history. Especially those perpetrated against Jews. Intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth.

He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in You Want It Darker song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11).

vs. 1-2: God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

This is the first, but not last time it appears in Scripture.

Hineni punctuates this song’s dread reckoning with God’s seeming complicity with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. Cohen grapples with the meaning of God’s “permissive will,” allowing evil space in creation. Or is it His ordained will with Abraham? Allowing death such immense power in the world, through the bloodstained hands of every Cain, His own image. Man.

“Man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe.” Blaise Pascal.

Hineni resonates with obedient readiness. It is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called, even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word in the face of such deep darkness. Indeed, he “wants out” if thus is how the Dealer deals. He will not simply submit without protest against death, without shouting out from within the dark mystery that enfolds humanity.

Cohen contends with God, like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33), like Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32), like Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14), like Job in anguish (Job 31), like Jeremiah in terror (Jeremiah 20:7-18; Lamentations), like Esther facing genocide, like the psalmists crying out from the suffering of catastrophe, exile, slaughter.

“Will the Lord reject us for ever?
Will he show us his favor no more?
Has his love vanished for ever?
Has his promise come to an end?
Does God forget his mercy
or in anger withhold his compassion?”
I said: “This is what causes my grief;
that the way of the Most High has changed.” Psalm 77:8-11

Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice and evil, even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, along with its countless modern genocidal analogues, looms large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings — prays — this song.

When Cohen says, “Hineni. I’m ready my Lord,” what does he brace himself ready for?

Unresolved.

“Vilified, crucified in the human frame.” Easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning. But for a Jew, the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes insufferable dissonance. A shattering paradox, as divine image slays divine image. Genesis 9:5-6. The slaughter-bench of history’s endless procession of image-smashing murderers. Permitted to “murder and maim.”

Why is such horrifically expansive latitude given to evil? How does this work in a divine economy? A paradox to blame? But what comes of this paradox’s unresolved tensions? Is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself?

“Why?” Psalm 22:1

The song is just brilliant. Its raw, shocking honesty, protest in the face of the dark night of evil — spoken before the face of God. It does not sound to me as rebellion, but a laying before God the cursed evil without submitting it to an easy resolve. Not cushioned, romanticized, coated, softened, but prayed out of dark faith into God.

Like the absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among all the psalms. The psalmist ends his for God’s place in the chaos in the night, moaning beneath heaven’s dead silence. Or the Book of Lamentations, which makes your heart sweat if you really pray into it. Especially at night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward.

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (Lam. 3:1-14; 17-18)

Such is prayer for those who “descend into hell.” Prayer de profundis “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1). In the abyss, hope shines brightest. Hope blooms fullest only in hopeless spaces, in fathomless oceans requiring infinite anchors.

And God cannot redeem what He does not make His own, what we refuse to surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a depth of redemption that, as St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night, makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed this way from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!

Cohen is voicing prayer for the prayer-less, those paralyzed spirits who sink into the pit, are mired in PTSD, breathe death in the gas chamber, suffer.

Why? Where? How long? Wake up! Act! Save! Come! No facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

Pope Benedict, son of Germany, speaking at Auschwitz:

To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible – and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany. In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.

David Bentley Hart, reflecting on the 2004 Indian basin Tsunami that claimed more than 230,000 lives across 14 countries:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

God
who
suffered
was crucified
died
was buried
descended into hell
rose again
from
the dead

“The limit imposed upon evil by divine good has entered human history through the work of Christ.” Pope Benedict XVI

Maria and Ashley did it

Well, Maria and Ashley did it. They performed as the opening act for Bag of Donuts tonight (Saturday) at Rock n Bowl in New Orleans.

I will post a video when they get it edited.

Thank you to all those who came, who texted, emailed, showed support and prayed. Especially to the parents of their friends and the seminarians (their “big brothers”) who came. And a gigantic thank you to Jerry Christopher of Bag of Donuts who offered them this opportunity. As they told me before the concert, his belief in them made them believe in themselves.

It was sublime, a truly great moment in our family’s life. They were insanely confident, joyful and performed with such poise and energy. Their song mix was fabulous.

I told them afterwards, as we loaded up Ashley’s car with the instruments, my most intense pride was in their willingness to take a real risk, to exit a safety-zone and allow their gifts to bloom.

There is no greater joy in life for a parent than to see your children bloom with the gifts God has given them.

Deo gratias.

 

Mashley @ Rock n’ Bowl!

Screen Sh

This is not a theological post, but a paternal post promoting Ashley and (my daughter) Maria’s upcoming “opening act” appearance on Saturday, February 24 @ ~8:30 PM at Rock n’ Bowl on S. Carrollton Ave. in New Orleans, as they open for the local band, Bag of Donuts.

So incredibly gracious of Bag of Donuts (esp. Jerry Christopher) to invite Ashley and Maria to do this!

So if you want to come and see Ashley and Maria live, and then get to enjoy Bag of Donuts, come and see!

Promotional: Theology on Tap in NOLA

I wanted to invite New Orleans area residents to attend a Theology On Tap event in Covington, LA that my Seminary colleague, Mrs. Caroline Butterworth, MATS, will be leading on my favorite topic, “Christ in the Secular Vocation.” I am assuming it is ‘on’ as the weather has moderated, but Facebook link here.