Administering sanctity

Shortly after we moved to New Orleans in 2012, I went to daily Mass at a church in Metairie sometime in June. I don’t recall which parish anymore. The Mass was celebrated by a visiting priest who was covering while the Pastor was out of town. He seemed to be in his 80’s. He celebrated the Mass with great attentiveness and devotion, and his homily was dynamite. He spoke in a slow and paced way that served well to enhance his natural gravitas. I hung on every word, panting for the next. He made a few remarkable points that I jotted down later in my journal. Here’s a sampling:

The Gospel today was about sheep, wolves and good/bad fruits. This was the line he focused on: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” He told the people what a good Pastor they have (he has known him for many years), and asked us to pray for him as he bears the heavy burden of leadership and faces many temptations. He mentioned that in his many years (around 40) as pastor, he came to appreciate the challenges of leadership, including keeping the many wolves at bay.

He said something like:

“When I was first ordained, I was idealistic — which is good, we need ideals — and imagined that my greatest joys as a priest would be celebrating sacraments, spending many hours in prayer for my people and preaching on all the theology I had learned in seminary. But I soon discovered, by watching the pastor I served under, that what the parish really demanded was a good shepherd who watched over the welfare of the sheep with great diligence. He was to make sure the sheep were properly fed and kept together; that the strays were pursued; that the pastures were kept green and lush; that the water was accessible and clean; that the gates were secure and guarded; that wolves were caught and expelled; that the weak, wounded or stray sheep were tended to.

But most importantly, my pastor would say to me you have to get to know your sheep well. Let them know you so they know your voice, give them reason to trust you because they know you love them enough to offer your life, your time, your patience, your prayer for them every day. Cheerfully. Uncomplainingly. One meeting at a time. My pastor taught me by example to love the bricks-and-mortar work of running a parish as much as celebrating Mass. To see them as really one thing. Because they are both Jesus’ work. My first pastor was a wonderful preacher and Confessor, adored celebrating Holy Mass, but he believed all priestly duties were ways of loving the sheep and loving the Shepherd. And the less pleasurable you found this or that, he’d say, the more love you could show.”

What a homily! So magnificent! Just before I begin my Seminary work! I know well from experience it is so easy for a priest — especially younger guys — to see the administrative, governing, leadership, stewardship aspects of priesthood as distractions from the really holy work of sacraments and preaching or relational one-on-one ministry. While there has to always be a balance and a priority, I believe firmly that the work of presiding over the parish’s good order, over “temporalities,” over committees and building projects, settling conflicts, etc., is a great(est) inbuilt asceticism for the priest, a robust means of death-to-self for the good of others. It very often lacks the “cash value” delights of sacraments and preaching and relational ministry. Which makes the munus regendi [the priestly office of leadership] uniquely powerful in the priest’s own sanctification. It’s the divine chiseling munus. A means of allowing Christ the Servant, who ceaselessly governs and presides over and administers the Church from heaven — still with the cooperation of His Apostles! — to be forged in the priest’s heart.

It’s instructive that the word “administration” comes from the Latin words, ad “to/toward” + ministrare “serve.” It’s a privileged way of being “turned toward” God’s people in service. As in, “which will be given up for you…”, “poured out for you…” Leadership, administration, stewardship keeps your eyes fixed on the welfare of others, the common good, allowing the Potter to shape in you the figure of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who governs with selfless love from the cross both the grateful and the ungrateful.

I remember when Bishop [a retired bishop of a diocese] once said to me: “[After becoming bishop], every day my desk was piled with bad news, complaints, crises, decisions that must be made. Rarely good news. I used to think at first that this was going to be a terrible obstacle to my exercising spiritual fatherhood, making me into a CEO. But once in spiritual direction during my annual 8-day retreat, my director challenged me: ‘If you can’t find Christ in the battle wounds of His Body that land on your desk, you won’t ever find the real Christ anywhere else you search.’ I resolved that day to allow Christ to open every letter, answer every call, preside at every meeting in me. It made all the difference.”

How little did I know that only a few months after writing this, I would be asked to give up my primary role as a member of the teaching faculty and take on the administrative role of Academic Dean. Testing my enthusiasm for this truth! I will certainly be judged by Him on how well I embraced the noble burden. Thanks be to God, His mercy endures forever. My only hope.

Thanks be to God for all of those who bear the noble burden of leadership in the church, in the home and in the world. May their labors, carried out with joy and diligence, lead them to holiness and bring much good to all those they serve.

Divine ecology, writing and seed-casting

Sunset during the Willwoods Gala cocktail hour — “Tom, look, you need to get a picture of that and write a Blog on it!” I love challenges.

[Another busy week this week so probably no posts till the Triduum.]

I have no idea where this entry will go. Enjoy the ride…

Saturday night, my wife and I were invited to attend the Willwoods Sixteenth Annual Gala. Willwoods is a NOLA Catholic ministry that serves, among other things, the work of strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.

Patti and I love events like this because it’s kind of a “who’s who” in the world of NOLA Catholic culture on-the-move, with laity and clergy who invest their energy and love and faith into a unique aspect of Catholic life. Aided by an open bar, we had lots of lively conversations with a number of people, some of whom we had never met, but now are connected with — which is our favorite part. As I sat early Sunday morning reflecting on that night and the conversations we had had with quite a number of people, I began to think of the way many those people have reshaped me, my worldview, my marriage and my family’s life.

How marvelous is the interconnectedness of humanity! How astounding it is that we, as persons made for each other, are wholly defined by our relationships — for better or for ill. Many of the people I knew at the Gala I would consider people who strive for holiness, who have labored strenuously to permit God’s grace to shape their lives and, through them, influence the lives of those they interact with every day.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a priest I know, whom I quoted in yesterday’s post. He’s a remarkable man who has an unusual depth of compassion. By that I mean that he possesses a sustained and genuine interest in entering into others’ worlds and allowing them to enter into his. Not to simply accomplish some useful goal, or as a superficial formality, but in order to allow a meaningful human relationship to emerge. It is only, he believes, within such authentic human encounters that Christ can truly enter and reveal His life-enriching glory. It is a marvel to behold the fruits of his approach in others’ lives, mine included. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear said of him is: “He is so caring.” 

Such an approach to life and ministry takes discipline, intentionality and repeated acts of patient love. It comes with a high price tag. You might say his approach lacks a certain product-oriented “efficiency” which demands many — or even most — relationships be functional and goal-oriented. But from what I have seen and heard, the resulting quality-over-quantity “product” he produces bears the sweetest and most enduring of fruits on which alone — he would argue — genuine Christian community can be built.

It certainly was Jesus’ methodology.

As we sat together eating our meatless salads on a Lenten Friday, he asked me to describe the process that goes into my writing posts for this blog. “Where do the insights come from?” Here is roughly what I said:

The vast majority of posts begin with something I read, a conversation I have, a sunset I watch, a billboard I see, an insight that appears while I pray in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Something about this or that experience I have in a particular moment sparks something in me, like a flash of light, which then somehow gets caught up, in my mind, into the matrix of Christ — with it casting light on Him or Him casting light on it.

Then I will feel compelled to jot down the essence of whatever insight I’ve had on a receipt in my wallet, or speak a voice-to-text sent to my email address, or ask my wife if she wouldn’t mind pausing our evening conversation for three minutes while I type an explosive idea I just had into my blog drafts. Bless her heart, she’s so patient with her manic husband.

I have hundreds of drafts sitting in my wordpress account, waiting for me to have time on my hands and a Muse stirring in my imagination.

The amazing thing about writing, for me, is that when these insights detonate inside and I write them, they come alive inside of me. Like, really alive. The whole of my perspective is altered, shifted, expanded, troubled, deepened, stretched, inhabited by something new, something living, something vital that, once released into my thought-world, continues to work on everything I see and do and hear and touch and taste and reflect on and love and pray.

It’s like the ideas I get are living, not simply dead facts or bits of data added to a mental fact sheet. They trouble the waters of my mind until everything else adjusts to their presence. Which is why I love the song, “Wade in the Water,” which captures the “feel” of what goes on inside me as I theologically reflect on some wierd thing that caught me by surprise.

But I’ve noticed that it’s really only when I take these new insights and write them in my blog, or weave them into a talk or lecture I will be giving, that they come alive and begin to reshape the way I see and experience everything. They can’t just sit there, or they vanish. It’s only when I *intend* to give them away that they seem to have the power to re-define the way I see everything. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is information added to my worldview, while faith is information, set in motion by love, that reshapes and defines my whole worldview; becomes bit by bit the way I see everything — others, yourself, the world, God. “I believe” means “I see.”

But it’s really when I take the new knowledge into my prayer-time that, like activated charcoal, purfies and enriches and affects everything else, in a strange way, resetting the the whole mess of my inner life.

That’s really quite odd sounding, isn’t it? It sounds odd as I never articulate this. Thank you for asking the question and listening so carefully.

After I finished sharing this, he shared with me a metaphor that floored me. In brief, it went something like this (I will do grave injustice to it here trying to sum it as his phrasing was so succinct and brilliant):

The image that comes to mind as you speak is of an ecosystem, with your intellectual thought being almost like an ecology of the mind. An inner culture. Ecosystems have a certain delicate balance in which each organism adapts to its native environment and learns to cohabit with other organisms in a vital interdependence and network of life which allows all to thrive in an organic web. But when a new organism is introduced, everything gets troubled, disrupted, and needs to realign and re-adapt to the demands of the newcomer introduced. And vice versa. The ecosystem needs to adapt itself and change to move toward a new equilibrium in which everything becomes different, even if only slightly.

This seems to be what you’re describing here. What you allow into yourself, through your senses or in prayer, finds an already established inner-ecology, Tom’s unique personal ecosystem with its worldview that then trustingly yet discerningly welcomes in various new organisms, i.e. a new face, a new idea, a new smell or sight or taste; or divine life. Everything then has to adjust. And it’s all alive, as you say.

And then when you write, it’s then that you actively reorganize your ecosystem to make a fitting place for the new living principles, whatever they might be. Like dreams do at night, defragmenting and reorganizing new information, writing does for you. [Tom: Which makes me a daydream believer? Us: haha] Maybe some new things you’ve taken in have to be chewed up and digested, while others must be expelled or others embraced, while still yet others — like divine grace — well, you have to allow them to consume and digest your ideas, feelings, desires; your soul and spirit … or even the whole of you. Like the Shema commands. So when you consume the Eucharist, as St Augustine says, Christ consumes you; metabolizes you; adapts you to His divine-human ecosystem. The whole Church is this adapted ecosystem, expressed and given birth to in those real symbols of theandric [God-man] biodiversity: Christ in the Sacraments. Saints are the embodyment of the whole Church in its radical adaptation of human life to God-life. Or maybe the other way around, too, if we believe St Irenaeus. [He was speaking of the Catechism #53: “St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure”]

At the heart of your inner culture, Tom, your inner ecology — constituted by your own free act of faith — is the gift of divine love, the indwelling Spirit that is itself the womb of the ecclesial Supernatural Organism, with its own force and vitality and blows-where-it-will purposes. It gets into everything like leaven spreading resurrection through dough. All of which you welcome whenever you pray. Prayer exposes your inner ecology to that of Jesus, joins them.

So whatever enters into you throughout the day encounters not only “Tom,” but God active and living and sorting things out within you. Christ within is busy at work re-creating in you a new creation; a new Ecology; a new Garden. Holiness. Only then, through such saints, can He extend His divine-human culture and ecology into the various ecosystems around you and effect new changes in others’ lives and in the whole material world you inhabit. That’s holiness, and its progress is slow, uneven, filled with setbacks, death and rebirth.

In this line of thought, that means the Cross embodies the event of God introducing Himself into a human ecosystem that has organized itself against, and to the exclusion of, His life. While His love compels Him to risk entry and deadly rejection in our hostile ecosystem, even while He remains long enough (to the end of time!) for that living system to gradually adapt itself to His presence and organize its life around and in and with His life. The Cross is the symbol of God’s willingness to pay an immense cost in order to enter our world and achieve a symbiosis with us. Divinization by hominization. Restructuring our micro and macro cultures according to the omnipotent principle of divine-human love. Jesus. He is the ecosystem of God introduced into the ecosystems of creation, through the consent of a Virgin who welcomes God into our world. 

Something like that.

I said: “What just happened?”

We went off in stunned silence to retire for the night. He showed me where the tea was for the morning. My heart was on fire with this new metaphor. And I could not get out of my mind that night a chilling scene from the movie, Risen, that contains a dialogue between a blind woman and the Roman tribune, Clavius, who is trying to crush the new “Jesus is risen” movement. They are discussing her claim to have encountered the risen Jesus. Listen:

Hopefully in ten years I will have a better way to explain its power.

 

 

Why?

“The Ancient of Days,” c. 1794, William Blake. ibiblio.org

[from a 2013 journal entry. Read only if you want some mind stretching this morning :)]

To be receptive to the highest truth, and to live therein, a man must needs be without before and after, untrammelled by all his acts or by any images he ever perceived, empty and free, receiving the divine gift in the eternal Now, and bearing it back unhindered in the light of the same with praise and thanksgiving in our Lord Jesus Christ (Mesiter Eckhart, German sermon 6).

My children and I often have bedtime chats about the big questions of life, which is both a delight and a challenge. It’s a delight because their fascination with the meaning of life reawakens my fascination. And the fact that they want to talk about this with their father, even as teens? Holding on to that one. But it’s also a challenge because their questions, which are so basic, force me to articulate truths which cannot be “gotten behind” because they are so fundamental; the ground on which faith and reason walk. Like the principle of non-contradiction (which means that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time) certain truths just have to be accepted as givens, forming the basis for any conversation governed by the rules of logic. Like existence. That we exist is a given, a needed presupposition without which any rational discourse is impossible. If we assume we live in The Matrix, we can proceed no further.

One of the “basic” questions my son Nicholas has posed to me again and again since he was six years old is the meaning of divine eternity. How is it possible, or even conceivable, that God is without beginning, without origin? He once articulated it this way: “If God knows everything, has infinite knowledge, if he also has no beginning where did he get all his information from in the first place? What was there to know if there was nothing other than God? But I guess even saying ‘was’ in the past tense already misses the point of eternal, right? Okay, let’s stop. It hurts my head!”

Mine too!

Nick had asked this often enough to keep this puzzle in the forefront of my thinking and prayer. It’s served as a powerful stimulus for theological wonder! In fact, I often pray now over Aquinas’ description of God as actus purus essendi, “the pure act of being” or as ipsum esse subsistens, “self-subsistent Being” – both of which mean that God is (to speak awkwardly) self-caused, the source and reason for his own existence.

The other day [November 2013] Nick asked a particular question I had never thought of, at least in the way he asked it:

Dad, okay, I get that God has no beginning. I get the idea. That God’s the reason for his own existence. But this is what I still don’t get: Why does God exist? I mean, what’s his reason for existing at all? And why is he love and not, like, raw power or something else? And if he’s really infinitely free, did he choose to exist as a Trinity or did he have no choice?

I think I passed out.

After saying, “I think that may be the most mind-bending theological question I have ever heard,” I said, “We’ve just reached the boundaries of thought in theology.” I shared with him the theological strategy of apophasis, or “unsaying.” Apophatic theology affirms that everything we say about an infinite God requires, as soon as we “say” something is true about God, that we have to immediately “unsay” it. Because everything we can say is drawn from our experience of this finite world. To be apophatic is to acknowledge that God is always more unlike than like what we have said about him. We might say, “God is good, but he is good in a way that infinitely transcends our experience of goodness. There is likeness, but always greater unlikeness because he is infinite.”

It’s one way to think of what God means when he says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). When we compare our categories of thought (our analogies) with the reality of who God is in himself, which is fully revealed in the vision of his face, those categories fall away. As St John of the Cross says, when the intellect enters into union with God, our language passes from prose to poetry to stammering to a silent gaze.

Jesus’ parables give lots of likenesses. God is a Father, but not in a way we have experienced fatherhood — which is why his parables, like the prodigal son, shatter all kinds of socio-cultural conventions, leaving his hearers thinking, “What kind of father acts like that?” Exactly.

In fact, you might say that Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection is the supreme analogy of God because Jesus is God made man, Infinity made finite, Word made words. And the fact that the crucifixion of God (!) is the most perfect and complete revelation of God makes it also the perfect apophatic symbol! God’s supreme moment of revealing himself is also the supreme moment of paradox, of disappearing. Theology built on the ruins of God on Golgotha shocks both intellect and imagination into a sustained state of awe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:22-24).

Aquinas says it this way, “We cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, as we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.” God is not simply one being among other beings, i.e. the peak of a hierarchy of complexity, like moving from an amoeba to a man to God. Rather, there’s an infinite gap between an uncreated God and creation, between limitless and limited, between the eternal Word and temporal words.

Theology, which is our way of thinking linguistically about God with God (i.e. Jesus), always stands on the brink of collapse. This makes theology the most fascinating, exhilerating, thilling human intellectual endeavor possible. Theology is a quest that never comes to a point of rest, but challenges the mind to incessantly stretch out toward the infinite. Made in God’s image, the human mind is capax Dei, “capable of God,” which means that the mind (through faith in this life, vision in the next) will never cease to grow in its reaching out toward the infinite and ingesting it whole. Even in heaven the sounding of divine depths will never cease.

This makes the author of the book of Revelation the most honest of theologians:

When I saw [the risen Jesus], I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:17-18).

“So it’s a mystery?” my son continued. “But isn’t that just a cop out, like saying, ‘I don’t know?'” “No, not really,” I replied,

Mystery is theology’s way of recognizing its limits. Confessing that God always exceeds our capacity to know, like a waterfall. And our knowledge of God is ultimately a gift of faith. But let’s clarify what faith means. How do you know who I am in my deepest self or what I think? You know it only if I choose to reveal it to you freely. When I offer you the gift of making my secrets known to you, I’m offering you the gift of faith. Once you accept my offer and receive what I have to reveal, and come to know me, then you have faith. Faith is not just blind belief, it’s the manner in which we accept another person’s free self-gift, self-revelation. In offering the gift, they say to me: I trust you enough to offer this. In receiving the gift, I say to them: I trust you enough to receive this as truth. Once they offer that gift, and we receive that gift, faith leads to knowledge and to communion. To love.

Poor guy, he’d glazed over by now. But I continued,

Okay, so the “Why does God exist” question is the last in the series of all your whys. It seems to me you can’t go any deeper than that. Honestly, I can think of only one good answer: Praise. Praise says to God, “Thank you for being God! For being Trinity! For being just and good and merciful! For existing at all!” I don’t think we can ever answer “why God exists.” Only God, who is his own origin, can answer it.

And maybe, as I think of it, his answer would be “I AM, without a why.” Like all the best things in life. If you asked me why I want to sit and talk with you late at night, I might have specific answers. But in the end, it’s because I love you, which, in the end, is without a why. And praise is all about doing things — singing, admiring, lauding — “without a why.”

This must be the reason the word “Alleluia” is everywhere in the Bible. Hallelu-yah. It means, “Praise Yah,” and Yah is short for Yahweh, which means in Hebrew something like “the One who causes to be.” Or as the Greek translation of the Hebrew has it,  “ego eimi ho on,” which translates roughly into the English, “I am the one who is.” Ho on = the to-be. Praise you God for being I AM, radiant beauty, sheer love, without a why.

I’d never thought of any of that last part before our conversation that day. I will never forget it.

There’s a medieval Persian poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, who said, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. Then you will know the true God.” Praise is the mind and heart’s song of bewilderment before transcendent mystery. Praise gives us licence to recklessly adore what is both absolutely true and utterly incomprehensible.

After I made that last point, my son said: “Okay, Dad, no more. That’s too deep.”

It was after midnight. Time to sing an Alleluia. Then to bed.

The child has become the father of the man. Thank you, son, for rekindling in me wonder. As you have taught me to praise Him tonight, may I teach you to love Him more tomorrow. Amen.

Creative Lenten Penances

paintedprayerbook.com

On Mardi Gras, as I sipped an Abida Amber, I was inspired to text a bunch of people I know all over the country and ask them: “Would you share with me a creative Lenten penance you’ve done in the past, or are doing this year, so I can share it anonymously (or not) on my blog?” People married, single, divorced, teenagers, middle-aged, a 78 year old and 2 priests replied.

Wow. I was amazed at the response. 23 texts/emails. So humbling and beautiful and inspiring. I will just paste them all here for you to read. Thanks to all who took the time in making themselves vulnerable enough to share them with me. Most of them came as texts, and I will just leave them just as they are. May they inspire your own Lenten practices!

I won’t post again until I have a fresh inspiration, and to give your Inbox a rest!

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Sorry for the delay. Thanks so much for the consideration Tom. Majorly humbling. My first response would be that everyone should just listen to Mashley. But I digress…

If not possible, there are two things I would like to share. Both have not been pulled off to perfection internally or in lived reality. They’re great challenges that I try to navigate.

First, I try to take the beatitudes and break them into weekly reflections for Lent. Though the number of beatitudes and weeks of Lent don’t perfectly match, I try to make them work close enough. Each week, I try to focus on a beatitude. Keeping one beatitude in front my eyes. How is this one manifested in the world. How’s it manifested in my life. How is it manifested in my words and actions. In my encountering Christ work, I stumbled upon a guy that is a theology teacher in town. He really schooled me in the beauty of the beatitudes. Ever since, I’ve tried to find a practical way to tear them open and allow them to infect me. Lent seemed ideal.

The last way is a use of media. Media sometimes takes over me during the year. A natural progression, or digression. I made an intentional decisions to not remove myself from media, instead I tried to use Lent to allow God-filled content to permeate my day-to-day media consumption in the true hope that it converts my overall (year long) intake of music, movies and/or online reading consumption. I usually take a social media fast, but didn’t find that I replaced it with proper channels. This was just an attempt to convert the parts of my habits that were fairly engrained and daily routines. Thanks for asking. Ask any questions you may have, hope that helps in anyway.
Oh. For [my wife’s] sake and with the kids. Creative ideas a plenty for Lent. We did the crown of thorns with the toothpick idea. The kids got to take a toothpick out every time they did a good deed. They loved it.

Resource here: http://www.catholicicing.com/lenten-activities-for-children/

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I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for, BUT… One of the things I am working on is following through with what I commit to and making my “yes mean yes and no mean no”. So before I impulsively commit to anything I’m practicing my immediate response to be “let me get back to you after I check my schedule/prays about it/etc …that way I am also allowing room for Jesus to fill my day before I do. As far as prayer goes, I am doing the Marian consecration and ending on the Annunciation which is a little shy of Easter
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Thanks, Tom. I’m a little under the weather. Besides, I don’t really have many words of value. I’m simply going to rend my heart and love like Christ until il it bleeds. I hope 😉 OR I could give up coffee. But I have to function. I’ll probably be better off with a bloody heart than be without Caffeine!!!

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In the past I have invited people to pick a vice and cultivate the opposing virtue for the entirety of Lent. For example:

Vice: Lust
Virtue: Temperance

Prayer: The Rosary. If we meditate on the Life of Christ in our thoughts and imagination then our words and actions will most likely be Christ Centered.

Abstain: No music in the Car during Lent. This can be used as time to talk with God about our time of meditation.

Fast: Fast from tasty food and drink during Lent. If we can deny ourselves the pleasure we get from tasty food then we can more easily deny ourselves the pleasure we get from Lust.

Almsgiving: Give time to Someone or People we get know pleasure from being around. If I don’t like old people then I will schedule a weekly visit with old people at the nursing home or I will call an elderly relative for a half hour conversation. If I don’t get pleasure from being around poor people then I will spend a day at the soup kitchen every week.

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I don’t know if my penances are very creative! No Netflix on Tuesdays and Thursdays so as to better enjoy my books and my house and 10 minutes of lectio divina every night; I find that much more helpful than spiritual reading alone. If either would be helpful, you can post them!

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Mmmmm. Nothing creative coming out of here for quite some time.

Junior high RE director suggested to class that they keep journal and right the names of people who annoy/hurt/offend them. Rather than gossip or complain, penitent must keep silent and pray – for the “offender’s” intentions, not for them to evaporate/apologize/even change their mind.

Journal must be shared with no one but Christ.

Reverse of private: Bo Bonner had Orthodox friend on his “Uncommon Good” radio show. Conversation about the Orthodox being more about communal penance/offerings. Suggested having another person choose YOUR penance for you, in order to help you practice conforming your will to another’s.
*people in my house thought this was a great idea , until they realized they wouldn’t just choose another’s penance…another would choose the penance for them. Mmmm.

Help others succeed.
Practical application:
Perhaps helping remove obstacles and temptation for one another. Forbidden foods kept out of the house. Prayer books kept in a prominent place. No interruptions for a person trying to create prayer habit at specific time of day.
No invitation to gossip, break fast, skip difficult practices ( stations, late night adoration times, chores we hate).

Maybe there’s a shred there you can add to. That’s all I’ve got.

God bless you and yours.
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Tom,

I’m happy to share, but I have to say that there’s nothing too “creative” about my penitential practices. I’m a firm believer in the value of fasting–mostly of the traditional not-eating kind (a penance that I recommend to one and all, but perhaps especially to husbands/fathers), but also of variations on that theme (giving up desserts, not listening to music in the car, giving up recreational internet usage, etc.). The one other aspect that I’ve included in my Lenten discipline at times is to use Lent as a focused inauguration of some practice that I’d like to maintain
after Lent (for example, increasing/modifying prayer or devotional practices)–the zeal for Lenten practices can go a long way to laying the foundation of a new habit.

Sorry I don’t have anything more interesting to offer, but thanks for thinking of me.

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Not so unusual, but during Lent I typically try to spend more time with the elderly.
And other exercises of almsgiving with time rather than money.

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Sorry for the late reply. Was driving earlier. Two particularly memorable Lenten penances come to mind. One year, I gave up hot water. Having spent a couple weeks on a mission trip in Honduras we didn’t have hot water. I underestimated how much colder the water could be in [my home town] in late winter. I remember all my muscles tensing up and barely being able to stand the cold water long enough to rinse shampoo from my hair. I certainly learned how little water is really necessary (turning it off while lathering, etc) and how quickly and shower can be had!
The Lent preceding my proposal to [my wife], I gave up my bed. It was old anyway, so in order to keep me from backing out of the commitment, I took the drastic step of taking the mattress to the street for trash pick-up. Inspired to continue this sacrifice afterward for my bride to be, I didn’t own another bed until we were married. Thank you for keeping my identity anonymous in sharing.

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Realize that I need to be other focused and more generous…so I’ve picked 6 individuals to focus on. One person per week of lent. I will fervently pray for them and probably write them a note to let them know how much I appreciate their existence.
Also, I have been lackadaisical about tithing, and I have enough saved to do this: writing a check for 10% of my 2016 income and joyfully giving it to my parish.
Also…I always give up sugar but THIS year I’m not going to talk about it or complain about it and have a big smile when I say “no thanks” to dessert. Keeping it a little secret.

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Yes, [my daughter] and I are giving up eating out and not buying anything we don’t absolutely need. I am also starting a weekly bible study.

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I gave up watching the golden girls one Lent, huge sacrifice for me, it was my favorite part of the day

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Be happy to help — Not sure how creative but this Lent I am committing to a Wednesday intercessory prayer gathering during at the Cenacle. In the past one of more creative and powerful Lenten experiences— prayed daily (missed a day here and there) about a long held resentment that I had problems letting go of. And did with through the Grace of God. Hope this helps. Good luck with the blog.

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Not listening to anything in the car to create a space to pray, especially for the random drivers around me…
There also is the 40 bags for 40 days challenge (I have never actually signed up or read the “official” rules/thought behind it), it has been communicated to me that the idea is to declutter your home one bag at a time for 40 days to learn to live a more simple life, more detached.

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Taking the bus/public transportation instead of driving my car.

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I gave up makeup for Lent. I actually almost didn’t give up makeup because I realized that the tøp [Twenty One Pilots] concert was during Lent. But then I was praying before a big physics test and I promised that if I got an A I would give up makeup for Lent because it was my biggest sacrifice.

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Dear Tom,

Per your request yesterday, here is the Lenten practice that is the most important and central for me:
During Lent I really try to make an effort to actively cooperate with the movement of the Holy Spirit within me to not only think but especially act in ways that I would ordinarily not. Rather than remaining within my own human logic, I try to create a space for the theo-logic to surprise both myself and those with whom I come into contact: my family, friends, and strangers. In other words, I attempt to step beyond my own self-centered world, get out of my boat, and meet Christ upon the tumulus waters where he awaits me. This could be anything from giving of my time or possessions when it simply does not make sense to do so or saying that which would normally make me feel extremely uncomfortable but is spiritually edifying for others. It’s all about creating room for God’s activity in the my life and the world!

I hope this is what you were looking for!

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Hi!
Here we go
For this 2017 Lent, I plan on abstaining from the use of mirrors. Doing this service to the Lord will make me a more humble Child of God and teach me the importance of humility. I will not be able to apply makeup nor check my appearance every few minutes. There will be a cover over my mirrors and a sticker over my phone’s front camera. I hope that after this experience I will not be so dependent on my appearance in order to APPEAR kind; I hope that my actual KINDNESS will show through without the mirror-obsessed face.

Hope this is good enough 🙂
Let me know if you need something else, and I’ll be happy to do it

[At the bottom of this page are her mirrors. She gave me permission to share them]

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Hey Tom,

Here’s something I hope to do this Lent.

Grand Silence. At a certain hour of the evening—8pm or so—practice a “grand silence”. No music, no TV, no computers or mobile devices (obviously, be attentive to your family). Just time for prayer, reading, silence: listening to the Lord. And keep the silence until you wake the next morning.

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My wife and I give up making love every Lent so that we can focus more on other forms of affection and caring and appreciate more the gift of sexual union and not take it for granted. She especially likes that for 6 weeks she can know that if I want to kiss her or cuddle in bed it’s not a seguy to sex. Especially for me as a man it’s important that I can let her know in a very specific way that I love her and not sex and that I’m willing to forgo sex at any time if need be (like if she ever got sick) and love her just as much (or more) as when we can have sex. I decided to ask her to do this with me eight years ago when one day she asked me if I would be disappointed if for some reason we couldn’t be intimate any more. I said of course I would always love her no matter what and could never be disappointed in her if we didn’t have that in our marriage. But I could tell she was like you’re just saying that to be nice so I decided one Ash Wednesday after asking God during mass what sacrifice He wanted from me. It hit me like a baseball bat: show her it’s true that you love the way you say you do every Lent. She really loved the idea and cried when I said it because it made her feel cherished. Okay thanks Tom for letting me share that. And by the way [my wife] approves of my sharing this with the one qualification that it be anonymous lol. God bless.

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Every Lent I resolve to begin every day by doing first the day’s responsibility I like the least.

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He simply texted me this:

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I’m a chronic insomniac and I struggle with being irritable during the day, which makes me short tempered and quick to criticize. So this Lent I consecrated my insomnia to God and will work on intentionally making both my daily exhaustion and my tongue-restraining a sacrifice offered to Jesus on the cross, especially for all the people who irritate me most during the day or cause me to lay awake at night. Psalm 134:2 is my lenten verse: “bless the Lord through the night.”

 

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Looking into me

Omaha Jesus

[This post has been sitting in my drafts for years. Ite, missa est...]

The Eucharist, the sacrament involving the poignant necessity of sitting down at a table to eat every day, involves the taking into our mortal bodies the transfigured and immortal body of Jesus as Christ, and a being reminded of and comforted by a most physical and literal sense of his companionship.

To these and other sacraments I would like to add the sacrament of words. I would like to talk about my experience of Jesus’s words in the same way I have spoken about the ingestion of his body. I believe that when we take these words in with full attention, ingest them with our eyes and ears, we are taking in not the body but the mind of Christ and the creative will of God, as Christ is called the Word through which the universe was uttered into being; we are taking in the very thinking of Christ, its meaning and presence which never goes away though we may choose to turn away from it; and we are taking in the ultimate mystery—that Christ came not to abolish suffering (clearly!) but to take part in it. — Franz Wright

I will share today a very personal grace. I usually avoid doing that because one’s experience of God is so unique, and trying to compare oneself to another can be dangerous. I share it only because I believe it contains some universal themes that are not simply about me, but about being human before God. I very rarely have unusual experiences like this, though when I do they usually are harbingers of a great trial approaching. And so it was in this case. And when unique graces are given to me, they are always given to me for others. And that’s the simplest definition of God: for others. Father for Son, Son for Father, Spirit of Father and Son.

Back in 2011, I was praying in St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska, before the icon above. I had been walking around the Cathedral that morning as a spectator, admiring the art and architecture, when I happened on this 5′ tall icon of Christ the Teacher. Somehow, in a way I can’t explain, it gripped me, seized me, drew me in. So I stopped and began to pray. Here’s what I wrote later that night in my journal:

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Those eyes. I could not stop looking at those eyes. How can I explain it? Soft, severe. Inviting, penetrating my inscape. As I looked, I fell into prayer. I got lost in those eyes. I really can find no better way to say it.

Then the center of my focus shifted. I ceased to look at His eyes and they began to look at me. No, into me. It was as if He were searching in me for something. Exploring my soul. Yet it was neither intrusive nor frightening. And for whatever reason, the words of a prayer by Pope Pius XII kept playing in my mind over and over: “Lord, make me your other self.”

And so it was.

He was thinking of me, in me, with me. Not as an outsider, but as an insider. Like St. Augustine’s, Interior intimo meo, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” Utterly astonishing.

And what did He think? Mostly I could not say. Inchoate things, to me more like intuition than concepts. But near the end of the time — nearly 35 minutes — there were some distinctive thoughts that pressed with lasting force.

A flood of memories from childhood came. Voices belittling me for my ignorance, my learning deficits. Though somehow they came without pain. Just remembering, painless tears. And the voice, the thoughts, the words that arose in the eyes of Christ: “I know all things.” I knew with absolute certitude in that moment, He did. “In my gaze, is there shame?” I answered, “No, no shame.” Tears. Silence. Awe. “Then never should you feel shame in what you do not know or who you are not. Knowledge is for love, it is not a weapon.”

Apodictic truth in that moment.

All was silent. The Cathedral around me reappeared.

More tortuous than all else is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?
I, the Lord, alone probe the mind
and test the heart — Jer. 17:9-10

Knowledge is for love. Not a weapon. No distress in those memories, no wincing as there usually is. As if God had somehow entered them. As it happened: On the Cross, transgressing time and space in those minutes, Jesus remembered my dark memories as His own. As my memories came, they were His. John Paul II: “If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened his suffering to humanity [as] a sharer in all human sufferings.”

In remembering, knowing and loving with Him, I knew I was being remembered, being known, being loved (Gal. 4:9). There in those moments, love and knowledge fused. And let me say, to recall loveless memories with someone who loves you reinvests them with an entirely different meaning. With hope.

A mission to never use knowledge to tear others down, inflate myself. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Amor ipse notitia est, “Love is itself a kind of knowledge.”

Or Aquinas: Maius est illuminare quam lucere solum, “It is greater to illuminate than merely to shine.”

My grandfather’s letter: “A smart man leaves others thinking the smart man is smart. But a wise man leaves others believing they are themselves wiser for having spoken with him.” Yes!

Love displaces the center of gravity away from self to the other.

Jesus’ omniscience left me enlightened, encouraged, confident, built up. I said to Him not, “How brilliant you are, Lord, and how stupid am I!” Rather, “How full of light I am! How beautiful is your knowledge, Lord!” God, so humble, self-emptying, loving to give all away; joying when His recipients do the same! Hot potato: no one keeps the gift long. Bonum est diffusivum sui, “Goodness is self-diffusive.”

No miraculous healing in this experience, if healing means freedom from struggle and pain. The cross-etched memories all remain. But I am newly aware my struggle is His, He is my Emmanuel, my God-with.

Faith in love gives hope.

“Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering” (Ratzinger).

“Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Cor. 12:8-9).

That power is love, and love alone makes weakness not a deficit but a capacity. A capacity for God the Most Low.

High above all nations is the Lord,
above the heavens his glory.
Who is like the Lord, our God,
who has risen on high to his throne
yet stoops from the heights to look down,
to look down upon heaven and earth?
From the dust he lifts up the lowly,
from the dungheap he raises the poor (Psalm 113:4-7).

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This rendition of the Woman at the Well captures my insight beautifully:

Angry for God?

sciencedaily.com

[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]

A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon

In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.

St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,

Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.

Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.

What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.

Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.

God says to Isaiah:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).

Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.

This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.

The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).

What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.

I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:

There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.

He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.

The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”

Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:

Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.