As I have a slew of final projects to complete in the next weeks ahead, I will pause posting until I am done. May the Lord bless you with the lavish graces of the Easter season. I will leave you with a last thought…
+ + +
It is not enough to be a passersby on the digital highways, to be simply ‘connected.’ Connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. — Pope Francis
When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Washington, DC in the early 1990’s, the sister who was the head of the convent loved to quote to us Mother Teresa’s saying, “While it is fashionable these days to speak of the poor, it is not fashionable to speak to them.” This saying complemented these words I found in our formation booklet when I started:
What those here in our home really need from you is not your pity but your love. See them not as objects but as equals. Look at them not from above looking down, or below looking up, but eye to eye. Don’t leave them feeling you did them a favor, but that you met Christ together.
When I first arrived to work at this hospice and homeless shelter, I was afraid my inexperience and their very different life experience would stand in the way of my being able to relate to them and let my guard down. But as I put those words into practice, I found most of this fear quickly eroded. Once I was able to see first of all our common humanity, and stop thinking of them as problems to fix or people to fear, a common ground very naturally opened up. It was humiliating to face all of my deeply ingrained prejudices that surfaced in the first weeks there, but it was liberating to see those judgments deconstructed as I came to know them from the inside.
I remember one day, during my first weeks there, I was playing cards with a man named Reggie. Reggie had HIV/AIDS. In life, he had been a male prostitute and was, he said, a professional pickpocket — which he would often demonstrate by handing me my wallet. As we played whatever game it was that afternoon, he said, “Brother Tom, do you think I’m a bad man?” I was so stunned by his question, which stirred up in me all of the conflicted thoughts and feelings I’d been having for weeks. I had a hard time responding coherently. I don’t remember what I said.
Seeing my discomfort, he said, “It’s okay man, you can say it. I did some bad stuff. But look, here we are playing cards together. And you know what I know about you? You suck at cards! So we both got some bad in us, so we’re even!” We laughed and continued the game, which he let me win that hand.
I felt changed, like the eye to eye thing was beginning to happen. Christ was acting in him, reaching out to me.
Over the years I’ve thought so much about this. How often I weigh in on complicated moral or social issues, offering my confident opinions, formulating judgments and proffering seemingly obvious solutions for faceless people, without ever having taken the real risk of speaking directly to any of them. Ask them what they think. How easy and safe it is to make others into abstractions of our own devising! It’s so much easier to deal with ideas than have to face the face of an unruly, complicated human being capable of responding to my ideas.
As the training booklet said, we meet Christ not in ideas but in faces, in the relationships we have with the person in front of us. In that face-to-face space between me and you is where God abides, because only there can there be love.
[A reflection I wrote for someone in answer to his question, “What is the Mass about?”]
I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. ― Annie Dillard
What in the world is it? So much to say, too much to say, and even what can be said is mostly beyond my reach. Anyone’s reach, as it contains the Uncontainable. But that never stopped me before from venturing some of my idiosyncratic thoughts! So kindly allow me, if you would, to splash a few colors and write a few images in your soul to help you to (re)consider this question: What exactly is the Mass?
The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa, which is used in the words of dismissal at the end of Mass, Ite, missa est “Go! Be sent.” So the word Mass is really not a noun but a verb, not a thing but an action — the action of God sending you out into the world like a missile from the liturgical celebration, to detonate Jesus and enact your mission. Though the exact historical reason the whole liturgical event came to be called “Mass” is a bit obscure, for me this accident of history makes a remarkable point. Mass bears both a centripetal and centrifugal force, drawing us in and sending us out.
Venite! Ite! We come dragging the world up the Mountain of Golgotha for mystic crucifixion and death, and then we are Thrice labored out of the Tomb into the world, drenched in risen Glory, to flood every nook and cranny of life with overflowing Crimson Waters upwelling from the open side of God.
This is the liturgy that is Mass.
Of course, this begs the question: What is liturgy? Well, first let’s begin with one of my favorite things, etymology! Liturgy = lēitos ‘public’ + ergos ‘working.’ In the ancient world, liturgy referred to the “department of public works,” government working on behalf of the public for the common good. So liturgy means not so much “work of the people” as it does “work on behalf of the people” by representative public servants. As the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom words it, liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all.” Jesus acted as liturgist inasmuch as he acted on our behalf for our salvation unto eternal well-being.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1136 gives us the theological sense of the word: “Liturgy is an action of the whole Christ” — and by “whole Christ” is meant both Christ himself and those of us who have been joined to him as his Body, the Church. When Christ acts in liturgy, he acts on behalf of both God and man, and invites his Body to do the same. Liturgy is theandric work, which means it is always the co-work of God (theós) and man (andrós).
With all this in mind, we can say that liturgy is humanity syncing with the work of the the dying and rising Christ, namely — redeeming, repairing, reforming, renewing, recycling the world’s glory and garbage into a new and imperishable creation from which all evil has been exorcised forever. Fr. Aidan Kavanagh catches all of this magnificently when he describes liturgy as “the Church doing the world as God means it to be done in Christ.” Do you want to know the way the world was supposed to work under man’s dominion? See Christ.
Christ is liturgy and liturgy is Christ, the whole Christ, God and humanity doing the world into its final destiny.
Let me try a few analogies.
All of Scripture unfolds the working draft of God’s master plan, culminating in the Incarnation of the Word, through whom all things were made (without us) and through whom all things are being re-made (with us). Liturgy is Emmanuel, the God-Man, God-with-us, shot into the world from the Father like an antidote being injected into a mortally sick organism. The baptized, grafted into Christ as his Body and infused with his Blood, serve as the chosen means by which the Father’s antidote, Christ, is continually renewed in the lives of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Liturgy is Christ unleashed!
But at the core of liturgy is not simply some “generic” Christ in action. Liturgy is very concrete, originating in the sweat-drenched, blood-soaked, open-wounded crucified and risen Christ. Why? Because it was precisely in his gruesome execution and glorious resurrection that God and reality kissed, as Christ in his Pasch was working with his Father in the eternal Spirit to enter and penetrate down into the blackest heart of darkness to split the nucleus of death; and to unseal the wellspring of mercy that alone heals our fallen world from the inside out. An insider God, who has descended into our hells, alone is able to empower us to freely embrace the call to become missionaries of his mercy. We liturgists pour his healing balm into the countless strongholds of death that still remain.
Each of the celebrations of liturgy, like the seven Sacraments or Holy Mass, are the prime points of entry for Christ into history. Entry points he himself established. In each of these liturgical moments, the “here and now” is saturated in the sacred circulation Christ has opened up between heaven and earth. In these moments, it is Christ himself who concelebrates with us, joining both heavenly and earthly liturgies as one, unveiling their mysterious mingling transaction. I have often imagined each specific liturgical celebration to be like the point on the skin where a needle enters the body to inject heaven’s life-saving antidote, making us into wounded-healers in a field hospital Church.
While liturgical celebration opens up a unique point of entry for this free circulation between Christ and the world, the Mass …
my God …
… It’s everything.
Mass is the totality of Christ’s work become so extravagantly, completely, catastrophically real and present, that matter itself finally succumbs to divine longing, passing over from its present form into a super-radically new form of existence, i.e. the coming New World sprung from Christ’s glorified body is here, now. Though this transformation — outrageous! — takes place through the thinnest medium of edible signs, bread and wine, its reality is so absolute that past, present and future all conjoin and collapse into the eternity of God now made absolutely present here and now, by the eternal Spirit who hovers over our Gifts. And he makes this collapse ingestible, so eternal life is now.
This super-radical “passing over” of the bread and wine into the liturgizing Christ is what we mean when we Catholics use that wholly novel, bizarrely coined and strangely contorted metaphysical term stolen from Aristotle, which he himself, ignorant of God’s Incarnation, would have declared utter nonsense: “Transubstantiation.”
So next time when you participate in the liturgical celebration of Mass, the Divine Eucharistic Liturgy, you will get a taste of time’s demise by a total immersion in Christ’s infinite cosmic-celestial labors of love worked on Golgotha. And each ritual part of the Mass will work this love in you in a different way. Permit Christ to break open any blocks to the circulation of heaven and earth in you. Allow him to renovate your mind and freedom, memory and imagination, body and passions for a freer and fuller flow. By your choreography of processing, believing, praying, singing, signing, repenting, remembering, hearing, reflecting, responding, asking, standing, kneeling, bowing, kissing, smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling, hoping, forgiving, loving, dying, rising and running, you permit God freer access to dance on earth as he does in heaven.
All of this, and far more, happens when you go to, and go from Mass out into a sick world in desperate need of your antidote. Turn on the news! She has suffered an egregious trauma, and has developed gangrene from her poor circulation. Bring her to Christ the Healer so he can share with her his Body and Blood! He longs to heal her through, with and in you.
Mass is not just a weekly nice pick-me-up, a refueling at the God gas station, nor is it a mere pause from a busy life to catch an inspiring word. No! Mass is the celebration of God’s life-giving infection with our mortal dis-ease. Mass is a Magnificent Mess, as Fr. Kavanagh reminds us:
Genesis says that we began in a swamp teeming with life, but that something went vastly wrong one evening at dinner. Apocalypse says that the difficulty was finally resolved into something called the Banquet of the Lamb. Hebrews tells us how the resolution was accomplished, not in an orchard set in pleasant countryside but in a butcher shop located in the city’s center. The World’s story from beginning to end pivots upon this resolution, a resolution the faint of heart, the fastidious, and the squeamish find hard to bear.
I invite you, then, to see here an icon of the Divine Liturgy, to behold the first Mass of the Roman Rite…
Maybe the highest form of spirituality is simply to bear patiently with our brokenness. In the midst of a world of emotional and psychological violence, perhaps we can at least refrain from violence of any kind toward ourselves. — Heather King
Quite a number of years ago, I was at a Catholic men’s gathering where a seminarian shared a powerful story of his own experience of forgiveness.
Once when he was on a retreat, the priest he met with for Confession recommended he spend the afternoon praying with the story of Christ’s passion and death, asking the Holy Spirit to lead him deeply into the Gospel story. As he prayed, he had an extraordinary experience that, he said, changed him forever. While he was thinking on the scene of Jesus being scourged, he suddenly had a flashback to something that happened to him in middle school. He found himself on the school playground during recess, the day his best friend had been cornered by a group of boys who were intent on “teaching him a lesson.”
He said the flashback was so real he felt like he was there, though he had not thought of the incident in years. As he watched the scene play out, he remembered that as his friend was being kicked repeatedly by the group of boys surrounding him, he did nothing but watch and then walked away. He said, “I felt all over again the burring shame of my cowardice from that day.” But this time, as he relived the scene in his prayer, the group of boys parted so that he could see his friend on the ground, writhing in pain. “I felt so angry at myself for doing nothing. I wanted to die.”
“Then very suddenly,” he said, “my friend sat up and looked at me.” But when he looked at his friend now, his face had become the face of Christ, crowned with thorns. As he looked on with stunned amazement, he said he felt totally paralyzed, until Christ spoke these three words to him with a love unlike any he has ever felt: “I forgive you.” In that moment, he said with deep emotion, he broke down into heaving sobs. “It was the liberating experience of being forgiven in a way I had never experienced before. It was the first time I had ever felt real contrition for sin because of love. And, because of that, the first time I have ever received real forgiveness.”
He said it was in that moment he realized he had to let go of a heavy burden of guilt and shame he had been carrying all those years. In that “place of grace,” as he called it, he discovered new courage to embrace his vocation to be a priest who would also be a good shepherd that doesn’t abandon the sheep. Then he added this powerful insight, which deeply convicted me: “I never realized until that day that being forgiven by God also requires me forgiving myself. Until that moment, I had never made that connection.”
On this Mercy Sunday, receive Jesus’ unreserved forgiveness. Then join him in pardoning yourself for your past failures and sins, placing in his hands the burdens of guilt, loss or regret you carry. Let them go. Jesus, I trust in you.
The day I can look back and read one of my published posts, find a mistake, and correct it without contorting my face, circumnavigating expletives and licking the scratch on my tender ego is the day I’ve reached transforming union with God.
I have changed that based on what I have learned since then:
The day I can look back and read one of my published posts, find a mistake, and correct it as I contort my face, circumnavigate expletives and lick the scratch on my tender ego, amid bursts of hearty laughter, is the day I’ve reached transforming union with God.
I’ll be sure to let you know when that day comes. Hint, R.I.P.
After yesterday’s post, I asked my friend, “Tell me what surrender looks like for you?” I took notes and wrote my own recounting. Here are just of few of those he shared. He began each example with the words,
+ + +
It looks like coming to terms with the past. It was good, it was bad, it was, well, I can’t remember. All of that you come to terms with. Facing it, raging against it, wailing over it, forgiving it, trusting God to bring good from it by doing all in your power to help him make that good a reality. Mostly in extremely tiny matters no one cares about, but him.
It looks like patience, accepting your relapses, not pretending healing in this life is ever complete, though never giving up on hope. Hope is the golden key to surrender, because it allows you to see the darkness as dark, yet see it pregnant with a dawn inexorably rising. And when you can’t hope, get someone else involved to help.
It looks like humility, acknowledging, dealing with, being realistic about, yet moving toward embracing your ugly limits and embarrassing weaknesses, even while risking strengths requiring endless re-dos. We try again, fail again, and fail better. This means to give up on your perfectionism while you seek perfection. If you can accept perfect includes stumbling, tripping, limping, walking, crawling and being carried, perfection is in your reach at every step along the way. This requires the ability to weep and laugh.
It looks like praying every day, whether you want to or not, feel it or not, believe it or not that day – especially when not – because you know without it all is lost. And “nots” are the best places for every act of surrender. Look for them, value them, they come to you so often you should feel spoiled by your opportunities for surrender.
It looks like seeing in your needy neighbors, difficult and ungrateful neighbors an invitation to surrender your wares to them by small acts of mercy, alms of body and spirit, especially those who to you seem to deserve none of it. This is a precious exercise in God’s sight, a calling down of heaven like no other.
It looks like giving up your addiction to controlling everything and everyone. Let people be themselves, give them a break. Love them where they are, and if you have to kick their asses for their own good when they need it, at least leave the results up to them and God. Stop pining for all to like you, approve of you, cheer for you. Or at least choose to avoid the ways you try to strong arm or maneuver approval. When others disapprove, differ, ignore, criticize – work through it with someone you trust. But even more, know that your needy and manipulative self is precisely the one God is madly in love with, even as he shows you another way called the cross every day.
It looks like letting go of the compulsion to justify your existence by having to always being productive, needed, helpful, successful, funny, smart, whatever. Don’t wait for an illness or misfortune to steal away your abilities, to only then start work on letting go of the belief you need to earn the right to exist, the right to be loved. God alone gives you that right, freely, unearned, without need for prior justification. So to let go, you must cling to him.
It looks like holding every moment, every person, every event, everything in open hands, knowing whatever you give freedom to, if it is to be yours, it will come back to you in God’s time and manner. Trying to see Providence in everything, starting with the smallest things every day, believing Providence is what the cross and resurrection tell us it is. And then we’re never surprised, and yet always surprised.
It looks like accepting appropriate responsibility for your decisions, for your screw ups, for digging your various graves. If you fail to do that, always deflecting responsibility and placing blame elsewhere (even on God), not only are you unable to grow up, but your lament will have no place to rest. Repentance, accepting natural consequences for decisions, recognizing limits, growing in wisdom from life and learning God’s primary trade – how to make fertilizer from the dung – that’s all part of surrender.
But mostly it looks like time’s passing, which sometimes is the only way surrender comes … surrender through attrition, like a rock made smooth succumbing to trillions of waves, each removing a micron of resistance. Or like a fist clenching tightly to its sand which, imperceptibly through the years, falls away till there is nothing left to hold onto. As age strips things away from you, you need not act, but only consent, knowing God is keeping them all safe in his treasury. Christ’s perfect act was found in saying, “Into your hands, Father, I surrender my spirit.”
In all of this you learn life’s grounding truth: nothing, nothing, nothing is yours, all is gift, all belongs to God, and surrender is the only way he has made for us to receive what he offers. It’s why death is the only fitting coda to life. In all of these, Christ led the way, leads the way, is the way. Sit at his feet often and say to him, “Teach me.” He infallibly will.
There’s a man I spoke with recently who has been a lifelong friend. It was so good to reconnect again. It had been a while. He’s always been exceedingly transparent and brutally honest with me, and he was cool with my sharing a bit of his story here. For that, I am deeply grateful, as he has a witness to offer.
He was raised by two parents with different forms of mental illness. Life growing up, though it certainly had its beauties, was marked by physical and psychological abuse, marital infidelity and long-term estrangement among family members. He and his siblings, to varying degrees, suffer from the effects of being raised in such a home environment, and some of them manifest similar mental health issues.
He said he survived his childhood largely by learning to hide from his father, though there was nowhere to hide as his mother used him for emotional support, beginning when he was in middle school. He was constantly bullied in school and in his neighborhood, right up to his high school years, when he finally decided to make physical strength, hate, manipulation and deception his way of life. He said he vividly remembers the day in his freshman biology class when he learned about Darwin’s evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest.” He said, “I decided that day I’d just found my philosophy of life.”
As years went on, he had a faith conversion in an Evangelical community he came into contact with through a friend of his, and he quickly began to turn his life around in some radical ways. But the scars were deep and, he said, were permanent. He added, “Eventually I realized God wasn’t going to take the scars away, but eventually I figured out he wanted me to allow him into them.” To this day, even with the immense progress he has made over decades, he still bears a persistent sense of worthlessness and self-loathing that keeps him – as I see it – from accepting and living out of the many gifts God has given him. What good others can see, he cannot.
Occasionally when we speak, as he opens up his soul to me on some of these painful parts of his life, he will sob like a little child. But mostly he lets no one in. As his wife once said to him, “you need a hundred lifetimes to grieve the pain you carry. But please let me at least help you to grieve in this one.”
He and his wife, whom he met in that Evangelical community, eventually had children. What a beautiful family they have! Certainly his pride and joy. There have been several tragedies and crises in their own family over the years, which I will not detail here. But, he said, they have been able to survive them all and, in the long run, come out stronger on the far side because of their shared faith in God. But it has not been easy for either of them. He told me not long ago that some of the very deeds he once cursed his father for, he has found himself struggling with, which has given him a deep and real sense of both humility and compassion for his dad’s failings. He said, “I came to see that man is me.”
He also says quite frequently that being married and having children have allowed him to receive from God a second chance at childhood. That nothing else in life has healed and redeemed him more than his calling as husband and father. “They schooled me in love, which is what I needed to learn.”
He said the other day, “My whole life is a testament of pure grace. The grace of God, and the graces of many good people along the way.” If anyone ever compliments him on his character or anything good he has done, he told me, with a hearty laugh, “I say to myself – Oh my Lord, if they only knew.” When I asked him what word summarized best his whole life story, he said, “Ah! That’s easy. Surrender. It’s only what you let go of that you get to keep. Choose to hold on to all the past shit — or even to the good stuff you have now — like it’s a possession? You’ll lose it all.” He added, “Look for the things you’re clinging to, and then practice every day letting it go into God’s hands. Everything. Good, bad, success, failure. Place it all at his disposal.”
He wrote to me last Good Friday, “This is the real the genius of Christianity to me — placing at the center of everything a God with permanent scars. Makes those of us who are beat up by life feel like all of life worth living. No matter how f****** up you feel, he’s right in it. Broken, together. That’s my hope my friend. Gets me up every day. That’s the love that has me still alive. What keeps you going these days, bro?”
We must remember God more often than we draw breath. — St. Gregory of Nazianzus
Prayer is the single most important form of human activity, as it alone realizes our capacity for infinitely transcending the limits of biological existence into an unspeakably intimate relationship with the eternal God. Prayer is the primal act of transcendence out of which our mammalian nature is elevated to the heights of divine life and love.
I love to use the word transcend, which derives from two Latin root words that mean “to climb beyond.” For me, the image powerfully captures that singular characteristic of human beings to constantly press against all limits and feel driven to relentlessly transgress every boundary. And while this irrepressible inner force can at times lead us into mortal danger, it is the noble burden God placed on us chosen mammals, whom he elected to bear the icon-imprint of his own unlimited Truth and Love.
I mean, think of it — to breathe infinite spirit into an unsuspecting biped in Africa was to unleash an explosive revolution out into the world, one that has taken thousands upon thousands of years to harness sufficiently to prepare a People, and then a Woman, sufficiently ready to freely welcome the Uncircumscribed God into our very flesh and blood. And while our hostile reception of his face-to-face invitation for us to “climb beyond” with him revealed us to be far from complete, his purpose in coming was to redeem our capacity, orient it aright and show us the Way.
Per crucem ad lucem.
Seen in this light, prayer is not an act of us domesticating God to conform to our impulses and whims, but our free act of inviting God to domesticate us, to make of us house-churches ready to welcome him into the harmony and fellowship of love. Prayer allows us to join God in his masterwork of homemaking, transforming the dangerous wilderness into a Garden sanctuary — beginning with the wilderness of our own inner life. Gardens are a symbol of humanity exercising dominion over the earth in the manner of heaven, promoting not a zero sum game involving creation’s exploitation and destruction, but rather harnessing the vast forces of the cosmos toward the integral flourishing of all creatures together, in God, under our stewardship — we who were fashioned from the earth to bear the image of the Master Gardener. This was the vision of Isaiah 11:6-9:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
So when you pray, you are allowing yourself to be apprenticed at the feet of the Master Gardener. Your acts of self-discipline, self-denial and compunction gently break up the hard clods of earth and remove the rocks. Your vocal prayer, song, reading and meditation permit the divine seeds of the Word to be planted in the soils of earth you have cultivated. Your petitions call down soft rain to water the seeds, while your intimate conversation with God dispels the clouds so the sun’s light can warm the soil and encourage the seeds to sprout. Your times of quiet contemplation protect the tender shoots as they sprout and grow, putting forth buds to blossom, while your resolutions to be a doer of the Word permit the fruit to grow and ripen into deeds of loving kindness for the life of the world.
In all of this, your life becomes a fresh Garden of Paradise on earth, a home where the human race can at last dwell in the peace of the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This is, in the end, why we pray, so we might at last harness the Fire raging within, climb beyond the limits of our longing and bring with us the whole of creation into the Heart of God.
Go and pray! I dare you, climb beyond the limits and walk on water…
Back in 2013, my son saw a news clip detailing the unfortunate story of a tow truck rescue operation gone wrong, and he added music and made a little video. On this Bright Monday, the day God laughed, I thought I’d try to provoke a smile in you…