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:

img_4755

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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.

When I’m gone

A completely irrelevant, playful post.

I am the master of (bad) puns, and frequently inflict them on my wife and children, inducing varying levels of groans, “Daaad,” and “Stooop.” I, however, laugh heartily at my own jokes. Gets me through the day.

But when my wife, Patti, reacts to them, I often sing to her the refrain of Anna Kendrick’s Cups. Here’s a fun rendition of it:

Darkness, 2

An additional word regarding yesterday’s post about the trial of dark faith of Mother Teresa.

The kind of trial Mother endured was, in the history of saints, rare both for its intensity and its duration. St. John of the Cross, in the Spiritual Canticle, says that those saints who are chosen by God to effect great things in the Church and the world, and have “many spiritual children,” often receive both spectacular graces and great trials (cf. Isaiah 53; Luke 2:35). With graces and trials complementing each other. This is very much the meaning of what Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “to whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

St. John of the Cross also says that those who endure these darkest of nights are truly to be given the title of “martyrs” as their gift of self — “laying down their life” — is both radical and total. These saints are called in the Jewish tradition the “pillars of the world,” giving us their massive shoulders to stand on. They offer the faithful an amplification of certain truths of faith, realities all of us face, though we may never face them in the dimensions these Pillars did. Unquestionably, Mother was one of these giants.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23-30, St. Paul boasted that the Cross marked his life in a way that, he argued, testified eloquently to the authenticity of his apostolic and paternal vocation:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one–I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

All of us face darkness, trials of faith, desolation, dryness. St. Paul, Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse, St. John of the Cross all show us, by their heroic witness of extreme faith-hope-charity, that nothing we endure in this life, bound to the Cross of Jesus, is without value and meaning and power. Jesus says this to St. Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In a world redeemed by Love crucified, nothing that is brought into the ambit of God-and-neighbor love is lost, for love makes all things new. Love descended into Hell, choosing this darkest of prisons as the epicenter of the Big Bang of the new creation. Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all.”

Into every darkness, invite Jesus, who bears with Him the triumph of hope.

Mother Teresa gives us the face of a ship’s captain who, in the midst of the nighttime storm, retains her “great faith” (Matt. 8:26) because she knows that even in the darkest tempest Jesus, though asleep, is God-with-us, ready to awaken at our cry and calm the storm with a word of command (Matt. 8:26).

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this form of sanctity eloquently:

Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too—a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favourable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, apostle of hope in the night, pray for us. Amen.

I’ll end with a musical rendition of St. John of the Cross’ poem, One Dark Night. He composed it while he was imprisoned in a latrine for 9 months, starved and abused. In that night, he found Christ with Him calling him to union with Himself.

The man you thought I was

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“When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women” — Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

[Spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

[Spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

[And one more time, spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

At the end of episode 2, season 4 of Masterpiece Theater’s Sherlock, there was a dialogue between Sherlock and Watson about Watson’s dead wife, Mary. There’s too much to explain background-wise, but suffice to say that in this scene Watson was confessing both to Sherlock and to his dead wife that while Mary was still alive he had had an affair (of sorts) with a woman he met on the bus. He was tortured with that memory. There was an insight in their dialogue that led to a reflective exchange between my wife, Patti, and me later the next night.

Here’s the part of that dialogue I wish to highlight:

Watson: She was wrong about me.
Sherlock: Mary? How so?
Watson: She thought that if you [Sherlock] put yourself in harm’s way, I’d rescue you. Or something. But I didn’t, until she told me to. And that’s how this works. That’s what you’re missing.
She taught me to be the man she already thought I was. Get yourself a piece of that.
[…Watson then confesses his affair to the ghost of Mary]
Watson to Mary: That’s all it was. Just texting. I’m not that man you thought I was. I’m not that guy. I never could be. And that’s the point. That’s the whole point. The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.
Mary: Well then, John Watson, get the hell on with it…

Brilliant. Unquestionably true in my life. “The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.”

That phrase, rightly understood, has a very particular meaning for me. In fact, I know many, many men who would say much the same as I do here. While I cannot say what I am for her in this regard, I can say what she is for me. Here’s the gist of what I said to Patti later, as I captured and expanded on it in my journal. I share it because my wife is a living witness whose story I wish to tell as I am able. She, imperfect in her humanity, has taught me more of the Way of Perfection than any other one person. How can I keep from writing?

+ + +

It’s not simply that you want me to be something I’m not, which can be toxic were it accompanied by your constant frustration, nagging, by seething anger and resentment when I fail because, in reality, you despise these things in me. Were you that way, I would never want to become what you hope from me. And if I did become it, I would be only a chimera, a distorted reflection of your own needs.

Neither is it that you wish me to be who you want for your benefit, to extract what you want out of me. Or that you want me to be what you know I could never be. Or again, neither do you charge me to change by being manipulative, coercive, employing the weapons of guilt or exploiting my weaknesses against me. I’ve seen those before at work in couples or whole families, and it’s bitter poison, the stuff of a suffocating, crushing, life-sucking and joyless marriage and family life.

No, why you motivate me so powerfully, so effectively is because you love me. Plain and simple. You see in me what I can be, awakening me to God’s dream for me. You know me, know who I am all too well, and you see so many things — great and petty — that inhibit me from becoming who I am to be. Because you love me, you see, and you want me free. You see so well the chains that keep me from becoming who I was meant to be, because you listen so long, so deep. And you kiss my chains, you slip your hands between mine, into those chains with me, and you show me the key to unlock them. It was just beneath my hands, but I never saw it. I miss so many things.

And my limits, so many, slowly migrating, sometimes expanding, other times receding, still other times exactly where they were from the start. I know you’ll be a saint for them, grueling patience, relieved by occasional gut laughs together that make us cry.

At times, you’ve known your love must be tough, direct, precise. You grabbed my tie and shook me, looking deep into my eyes as only you can, and said: “This is who you were made to be. You know it’s true. Do it. Don’t let fear keep you down. Your family needs you to be strong. Be a man.” The only reason I finished my PhD. Your eyes, His eyes.

You pray over my chains. You pray for rain on the drought. You call on the Angels to drive away the demons of doubt and fear, of despair and lust, of hate and unforgiveness, of self-loathing and mediocrity. You dismantle the armor, break up the hard clods and clear the stones. You see what I should have known, but never did and, instead of shaming or blaming, you say: “Here, see, look at true beauty; understand the liberating order God has made; a path of life; taste what hope is; be gentle and know that strength is only thus wrought rightly.”

You listen me into wisdom, sing me into peace, gift me into outward love. You never let me get away with what I should never get away with. Highest, greatest of all: you brought to me the gift of children who, with your motherhood, recreated fatherhood in/for me, rebirthed childhood, resurrected wonder and awe and simple joy and spontaneity and so many of my favorite things life had trampled on.

It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother. — St John Paul II

“The man you thought I was is the man I want to be” not because you demanded it, commanded it, but because you inspired it. God breathed life into Adam before He made Woman, but He has breathed life into the New Adam through the New Eve. Likewise, He has breathed life into me through you, with you, in you. Deo gratias. 

Tom: The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.

Patti: Well then, Tom Neal, get the hell on with it…