Ministry of Silence

[I wrote this whimsical reflection Sunday evening, so I thought I’d post it]

As places of study, searching and refuge, public libraries can play the part of holy sanctuaries. – Chad Comello

A few months ago, I read an article about the decline of silence in western civilization over the last century and its deleterious effect on mental, social and cultural health. I wish I’d saved the article. In any event, the author said something in there that struck me as particularly powerful, to the effect: the only institutional sanctuaries of silence that remain in the West are churches and libraries. Though I would argue, in many cases, it’s libraries more often than not that are the surer bet.

In a culture so dis-eased with noise as ours, the Church has a solemn duty to unearth and offer the world the buried treasure of sacred silence and stillness, guarding it ferociously and distributing it generously as a divine gift. Silence is the Church’s protective ‘womb,’ offering to its inhabitants healing and peace.

I was discussing this idea recently in a faith formation series I am leading at a parish, and some pointed out the gift Eucharistic Adoration chapels offer in providing such a sacred space for prayer in Christ’s silence. Yes! However, much more needs to be done. Like protecting the beginning and ending of every celebration of the Holy Mass from chatter. To fully participate in the “sacred mysteries,” there has to be recollection in silence. And then after the celebration, silence allows worshipers to offer thanks and conserve all one has received in the liturgy, ready to walk back out into the world laden with Kingdom Leaven.

The Church is also a steward entrusted with a rich and ancient tradition of mindfulness, meditation, recollection and contemplation — the ‘centering’ methods of prayer. People in our fragmented and addicted world are hungry for these. The Church should make readily accessible these resources, equipping the Faithful to mine the treasures hidden deep in silence.

Teaching prayer and providing sacred spaces to pray should be one of our greatest priorities. God has filled our culture with so many seekers, searching for inner peace and meaning in life. They gravitate toward yoga, or other methods of mindfulness. But how much do we offer in our ecclesial institutions? We are to help seekers learn to ‘practice the Presence of God’ in silence and learn deep listening, as well as to detox from sensory saturation, becoming more attentive to God who lives within, or they will never find Him.

Parish field hospitals protecting God’s People from threats to their mental and spiritual health. Parish, from the Greek word paroikos “a sojourner” — we seek such weary sojourners. He who is Rest itself awaits you.

The words of St. Isaac of Nineveh come to mind:

Many are avidly seeking,
but they alone find who remain in silence.
Those who delight in a multitude of words,
even though they say admirable things,
are empty within.
If you love truth,
be a lover of silence.
Silence like the sunlight
will illuminate you in God
and will deliver you from
the shadows of ignorance.
Silence will unite your soul to God.

I often use a local public library for study, precisely because it’s so incredibly quiet. Such a refuge. And their secret? Here’s a story.

There is an older woman who works there who is, shall we say, quite eccentric. A character! I just love her, and affectionately refer to her as ‘the crazy lady.’ If anyone dares makes any noise, plays music or some such, this woman literally appears out of nowhere in a wild tirade, hushing and shushing them. She’s wickedly fierce.

Once, I was the transgressor. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was listening to a YouTube video, but in a section of the library where I made sure no one else was in sight. Well, I’m telling you! She rushed out of an aisle of bookshelves nearby and descended on me in an arm-flailing holy rage. Scared the living crap out of me! But as soon as she left — oddly enough — I felt protected and revered. I felt like she was the guardian of my right to silence, and I was filled with gratitude for her.

Okay, so maybe this is what we need in our age of chronic logorrhea: crazy eccentric Guardians of sacred silence! These holy fools would be tasked with rushing about, injecting the fear of God into all (of us) who dare break the code of silence imposed on every designated sanctuary.

Maybe Pope Francis would consider instituting the Ministry! Yes. And he, who last year said the Church must “cultivate spaces for silence in which another Word can emerge: that of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us,” would be the Pope who would:)

A ‘troubled’ break in the Pause

Is this love the trouble you promised? ― Tracy K. Smith

I’m not re-starting posting yet, but after I heard this song I felt compelled to share it! I am a huge fan of The Petersons, an American roots music band based out of Branson, Missouri. I came across their version of Wade in the Water and it blew me up!

This negro spiritual originally grew, as one of the “Songs of Sorrow,” from the experience of slaves escaping through any body of water that would hide their scent from search dogs. It also draws on biblical imagery taken from the King James Bible translation of John 5:4:

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

The troubled waters that Jesus approaches are also healing waters, an emblem of how the God of Exodus works in and through the hardships of life to work his most profound acts of liberation. There, as in the waters of Baptism, our Crucified God makes us whole, if we let him.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. — John 16:33

My periodic pause

This post will be my last for a few weeks. Lots on my plate. I must set aside my personal writing. I plan to restart the second week of October. Sign up at the top right if you want to be notified of new posts –>

As ever, I am INCREDIBLY grateful for those who read here, comment here. I love the comments immensely. I am blessed.

I will end with a song to my wife, cause of my joy. It blends well with these words of St. John Chrysostom, suggested for young husbands to say to their wives (which the Catechism even quotes, recommending the same!):

I have taken you in my arms, and I love you,
and I prefer you to my life itself.
For the present life is nothing,
and my most ardent dream
is to spend it with you in such a way
that we may be assured of not being separated
in the life reserved for us.
I place your love above all things,
and nothing would be more
bitter or painful to me
than to be of a different mind than you.

Catholic Celebrity

I was texting with a Greek Orthodox priest friend this summer about celebrity in ecclesiastical culture, after sending him a clip from a popular Orthodox nun on YouTube. After a number of comments on that, he said:

In American culture, the cult of celebrity is a dangerous field to enter. Especially in a digital age. Popularity carries a high cost. In our [Orthodox] tradition, achieving celebrity in the church is highly discouraged, especially for clerics and monastics. It’s seductive because it seems so effective.

I’ve seen it happen again and again with people I know. It changes you imperceptibly, your mindset. Pride, envy, competitiveness. But especially your ability to seek out and receive criticism — which is the only salvation for any who exercise public influence. Being ready for your own humiliations and setbacks, even grateful, is the only safe way to sustain high profile evangelism.

We exchanged more texts on that point, and then he wrote: “The more famous you get, the more severe the criticisms should be. I mean, you should welcome them. If you want [to be well known] and still be saved, stay sober. 2 Cor. 11.” I looked it up and, especially in this part, immediately got his point as St. Paul outlines signs of apostolic pedigree:

Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 

I shared this whole exchange with another friend, and, after forwarding him an article about the fall from grace of someone we admired, I texted him:

Scary. It’s so dangerous when you get power and influence, it’s almost, it seems, beyond human strength to endure. Which is probably why God had to become incarnate to show the only path of safety through power. Crucifixion. James and John aspired to power and influence, and Jesus said: sure, along with martyrdom.

The God who spoils us

[Repost from 2016]
I have been reading through old letters on the weekend recently. So grateful I have saved so many. My spiritual director, whom I so often refer to here, wrote me a number of letters. There is one from the summer of 1992, when I was working in a factory, that I just had to share. The letter was in response to a phone conversation I had had with him, in which I (evidently) mentioned an incident to him where I thought I had been unfairly criticized by a supervisor at work. He wrote me the letter a few days after the conversation with some reflections, as he would always do after we had a session.

I’ll excerpt here a part, which came right after some excellent advice he shared on handling conflict in general. I will write it out like a poem, because of its beauty. The message of ”keep your spiritual life connected to real life” was really his anthem in general, here just applied sharply to this incident. How I loved this man those years he was my mentor!

…I’m so glad you are feeling
so close to the Lord these days. Good!
But let me ask, what good does it do
to tell God with great devotion
that you love him, as you said,
if at a criticism from someone
you bristle in offence
and at once seem to completely forget
that these situations are the very means
by which God waits on your love for Him?
Don’t say, ‘O God I love you!’
Instead, pray
‘O God, help me love you!’
Just like you don’t say
‘See Father, I’m doing your will!’
Rather, you pray: ‘Please Father, Thy will be done!’
Just remember every day
God spoils you with endless
opportunities to love Him
in those who grate on you, like Mr. Martin.

He also referenced God the Father’s words to St. Catherine of Siena, which he first introduced to me when we first started meeting together in 1989:

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.
From these and from many other things
you should be able to tell if your love for me
and for your neighbors is still imperfect
and that you have been drinking from your vessel
outside of the fountain [of my love],
even though your love was drawn from me.

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Incidentally, at the end of the letter from my director, he added: “Remember my words, that your litmus for growth is always humility. How do you deal with criticism? Value it as much as praise.”

He loves to work…

Recently I gave a talk to a men’s conference on a “spirituality of work.” It was fun to write, pray with and deliver! I want to share a few of my notes here. They’re notes, so please excuse their sloppy unevenness.

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The Gospels are clear, Christ was a man of work. When the Pharisees attacked him for healing on the Sabbath, he said: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

He was a manual laborer, from an early age. The Shroud of Turin shows a man with big hands, thick fingers. Joseph apprenticed him, taught him hard work, to revere ‘the sweat of his brow,’ exhaustion from a good day’s work.

But Jesus, as we see when he hangs behind in the Temple at the age of 12 to enter a Rabbinic debate, is also an intellectual. His extraordinary teaching and debate skills, as well as his mastery of the Hebrew Scriptures, show him to have labored long and hard at study from the age of 12 to the age of 30. 18 years of crafting his Gospel, readying every parable and teaching, honing his debate skills.

It’s very significant that the VAST majority of his life and work was hidden from view – 30 of his 33 years of life! The most important work of Redemption is done out of sight, out of the public eye, over years of quiet and faithful labor. It also shows that time and energy we invest in preparation and training possesses great power in God’s mostly hidden providence.

The Gospel says the family business Jesus and Joseph ran was that of a tekton. Mostly translated ‘carpenter,’ it actually is broader: an artisan, craftsman, or even a general contractor, a small business owner. This is the work of ʽAm haʼaretz “the people of the land,” as they were called, the blue-collar class that Jesus drew his core-team disciples from. No mistake the Sanhedrin described Jesus’ disciples this way in Acts 4:13:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.

Jesus also labored to the point of exhaustion in his public ministry. He never stopped traveling, teaching, praying, debating, healing, exorcizing demons, raising the dead, feeding the people. And he invited others to join him – the disciples and others – which wildly complicated his efforts in the face of misunderstanding, resistance, bickering. He thrust himself in the most volatile situations.

Then there is the supreme labor of the Passion, as he drags the Cross-plow across the hard and rocky soil to ready it for the seeds his Spirit would plant. And even in his Risen-Ascended glory, he sets to work on “making all things new” by opening himself unreservedly to humanity to invite us to co-labor with him as his Body. And Church history has proved this a disastrous project, and yet he never ceases in “laboring to love us.” Ever.

He INVITES US TO DEEPEN OUR FRIENDSHIP WITH HIM IN WORK. Which he LOVES. Co-working can build intimacy through cooperation, and this is clearly his favorite way to grow close to us. Christ LONGS to continue his work on earth WITH YOU. He waits for you to INVITE HIM TO JOIN YOU. As God-made-Man, Jesus wants to enter into every profession, every career, every possible work — but he needs us to do that. And when you finally invite him to join you (or you join him!), you’ll find he has Midas touch and he wants to share it to you. Everything he/you touch goes gold, gets redeemed, consecrated, becomes the raw building material for the New Creation. Nothing you work on together is ever lost.

ASK HIM TO APPRENTICE YOU. Ask St Joseph to teach you how to learn from his Son. Jesus IS A HARD WORKER. He loves when you work hard with him. Sweat, grow weary with him. I think this is implied when he says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” To work with him makes all labor light. It fills work with wonder, joy, surprise as we see him multiply loaves, fishes, wheat, wine. Transform the natural order. Love makes labor thus.

JESUS ALSO KNOWS HOW TO SHABBAT, TO REST, PARTY AND CELEBRATE – INVITE HIM…OR, BETTER, REALZIE HE IS YOUR REAL REST FROM WORK, HE IS CELEBRATION. Jesus IS the Sabbath, the place where God rests to look at all the labor you have done with him, and says: very good, very beautiful. And he invites you to do the same, and say the same of him.

Our Father, sung

You cannot call the God of all kindness your Father
if you preserve a cruel and inhuman heart;
for in this case you no longer have in you
the marks of the heavenly Father’s kindness. – St. John Chrysostom

The “Our Father” is the supreme prayer in the Christian tradition, and none rivals it. It was the only prayer taught by the Son of God, given to us to join him in effecting the restoration of the world and the liberation of creation by the children of God. To pray it is to enter deep into the mind and heart of Jesus, where this prayer was first conceived and composed. Just imagine him working with great care and love on composing it, years before his public ministry.

In the Our Father is the whole Gospel, all of divine revelation, the key that unlocks the meaning of all existence and disposes us to receive the eternal Kingdom that is coming into the world. It is the distillation and perfection of all the psalms, with its seven petitions through which we pass safely from this world to the Father. When you pray it, the Father is supremely attentive as in it he hears the Voice of his Son.

In the very early church, we have literature counseling all Christians to pray it three times a day — morning, noon, night — to threaten all of one’s waking hours with intrusions of eternity. When you pray it, lose yourself with the Son in the Father by words that pierce his merciful heart and unleash life-giving Blood and Water on the whole world through the heart of his Son.

This Aramaic version of the Our Father, chanted before Pope Francis when he visited the country of Georgia, I find so haunting, profound and lush in beauty. A way to lift mind and heart to God. I imagine Jesus himself singing it this way — not speaking it — when he taught it to his disciples. And as I watched this first a few years ago, I imagined Jesus teaching it to the little girl he raised from the dead (talitha koum), inviting her to join him in singing it with him to the Father.

Imagine this with me, and see in the cantor’s eyes the eyes of the Son looking up to his Father, as he sings:

Blessed be boring!

I wrote this reflection in my journal in 2019 after a man I know sent me this note: “Bro, had to share. I was in the park the other day with [my two sons]. They were on the swings and I was on the bench nearby scrolling on my phone. Out of nowhere this old man comes over to me from behind and literally slaps my arm holding the phone. Scared the crap out of me. Then he says ‘hey son put it away! Shame on you. Pay attention to your boys over there. Push them on the swing. One day they’ll be gone. They need you more now than whatever it is you’re looking at there.’ I was stunned speechless and just awkwardly laughed. But here’s the truth Tom. That dude saved my soul…”

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When the children were younger, every time they would complain that they were bored, I would say: “Blessed be boring! I’ll take boring any day!” With life so complicated and non-stop between work and family and other things, what I meant was I wish I had the luxury to taste a boring moment. Bring it on! Of course, they hated when I said that, just as I would’ve when I was their age.

But there was always something much deeper about the boring complaint. How we handle times when there’s nothing to keep us busy or entertain us speaks volumes. Do we have the inner depth with self-mastery to just “be,” or does the stillness make us aware that we are like “a like a shaving of wood which is curled round its central emptiness”?

When I first read Josef Pieper’s book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, back in the 90’s, I was struck hard how impoverished my own understanding of leisure was. For Pieper, modern Western culture, dominated by a total-work ethic, has largely lost the ancient idea of a culture built around genuine leisure. Leisure being the freedom from work to enrich, expand, deepen one’s humanity by engaging in unproductive activity done “for its own sake.” Such “useless” activity finds its fullest expression in prayer, contemplation, worship, all of which position the human being before reality, and reality’s Source, in a posture of receptivity and not mastery. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, whisper words of wisdom, let it be — this is leisure’s anthem.

Pieper further argued that unless we regain the art of resting in silence, relationships and in celebration, which are the wombs of wonder, and unless we substitute such leisure for our hectic and empty amusements, we will destroy our culture – and ourselves. Pieper says:

The vacancy left by absence of worship and contemplation is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost.

In a total-work culture, the ultimate goal is the domination and exploitation of things and of people for profit, pleasure and usefulness. Life becomes constant cycle of consumption and production to feed the insatiable appetitive of an endlessly growing economic machine. Oh the human cost!

Look, Pieper says, at who we hold up as our ‘moral paragons’ — people who exhaust themselves through endless work, activity, productivity, and distract and inebriate themselves into unawareness. Busy-busy-busy is the highest virtue, about which we gladly boast, as we feel it justifies our existence — though we fail to see ourselves as the slaves we’ve become.

Those, on the other hand, who assiduously guard and privilege times of genuine leisure are idle or lazy, certainly not upholding the victim-martyr status of the busy, whose frenetic lives allow no inner space for depth to contemplate, relate and savor the beauty and goodness of life and others.

In such a culture, the enslavement to constant busyness turns leisure from restoration and elevation into recuperation for more busyness; and often a flight into addiction to entertainment, pleasure or distraction. And what suffers most is our relationships. Our humanity. Homo sapiens ‘wise man’ has been overcome by homo faber ‘doing man.’ Who I am comes from what I do. Fr. Tom Hopko put it this way:

It happens that men and women who once were human are simply no longer so. They have become nothing but minds and matter, brains and bodies, computers and consumers, calculators and copulators, constructors and cloners, who believe that they are free and powerful, but who are in fact being destroyed by the very nature that they wish to conquer as they are enslaved to an oligarchy of conditioners who are themselves enslaved and destroyed by their insane strivings to define, design, manage, and manipulate a world and a humanity bereft of the God who boundlessly loves them.

Leisure is, Pieper says, not an evasion of work, but a state of soul, an ability to cease labor, allow the world to be itself — and to receive work, and everything, as a gift from God to be offered back to God; a gift unearned, unachieved, unpossessed. In a culture of leisure, human worth and dignity no longer flow from constant activity, but from simply being, and being-with. And those incapable of work celebrate times of leisure as moments of liberation as the rest of humanity joins them in the dignity of being loved just because.

Interesting to note the striking resonance between this cultural dis-ease and the complaint of Pharaoh (Ex. 5:18) when Moses told him the Hebrew God wanted His people to be allowed to cease working for three days so they could travel into the desert to leisurely worship on the seventh day Sabbath. Pharaoh, who demanded endless activity of his slaves, responded:

You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.

Oh the great gift of Sabbath! But how extraordinary it is that God had to COMMAND us activity-addicts to stop working on the Seventh Day and just-be-with Him, dine, sing and dance with him, and be with one another. Only in sabbath leisure can this kind of surreal scene happen atop Mt. Sinai:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,
and they saw the God of Israel.
Under his feet there was something
like a pavement of sapphire stone,
like the very heaven for clearness.
God did not lay his hand
on the chief men of the Israelites;
they gazed on God,
and they ate and drank. –Ex. 24:9-11

Historian Thomas Cahill famously punctuated this grandeur of Sabbath:

No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation).

The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful.

Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, slaves.

So, next time you are overcome by a feeling of boredom, or uselessness in not being busy, beg the Master of Leisure, the Lord of the Sabbath, to teach you to rest and celebrate that boring moment as blessed. Blessed to be with Him, with the natural world, with those you love, and above all with those who need your love.

When you can do that you will know that, at last, you are truly free.

Come to the Quiet

May I invite you, as you read this, to pray?

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Become aware of the Presence of God.
Here, near.
Deep within.
Welcome Him as your soul’s welcome Guest.
Greet Him…
Now, close your eyes for a few moments and speak to Him from your heart.
Now, lower your eyes…
…and become aware of all the things racing through your mind. What burdens you?
Gather up all these thoughts into your soul’s hands, gently. Hold them to your heart.
Now, extend your hands, open them, and offer those thoughts to Him. Let go.
Know how intensely He loves them as He takes them from you, because He loves you.
Feel the burden lift.
He bears them into His Heart.
Remain in quiet and breathe in His grace, out your life into His.
Now, I invite you to play this song.
Close your eyes and allow it to carry you…

Tikkun olam, “the repair of the world.”

Kintsugi is not just a method of repair
but also a philosophy.
It’s the belief that the breaks, cracks, and repairs
become a valuable and esteemed part
of the history of an object,
rather than something to be hidden.
That, in fact, the piece is more beautiful
for having been broken. – Kathleen Tessaro

In this is the whole meaning and purpose of life, it’s why the church exists and is the sweetest fruit of the Cross. Today, may we each contribute thus to the repair of the world.