Celebrate the Healing of the World: Dance!

[the posts this week are old re-posts so hopefully new for most readers]

It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theater, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways. ― N.T. Wright

My wife and I were invited last weekend to a ball by one of the members of her choir. She wore a lovely yellow dress, I rented a tuxedo. I’m not a dancer, she is. I don’t have soul in my bones, she does. I can’t relax easily in a large crowd of unfamiliar people (about 300), she can. The beauty of that difference is that I learn from her and stretch. I did.

In fact, after several hours of an intoxicating mix of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues, Motown and Swing music — all live — I found myself losing my New England puritan inhibitions and dancing with abandon. Or more accurately, found myself succumbing to Patti’s choreographic allure, her boogieing elixir. Which, of course, is no indicator of exactly what I looked like doing it. Hence, the importance of losing my (rational) inhibitions and ceasing to care.

On the way home we had a wonderful conversation and were able to broach a contentious subject that is usually very difficult for us to discuss, bringing it to a new resolve. I said to her, “Wow, that was an amazing grace.” She said, “Yes, it is! I really believe dancing together helps us to love together better. It’s why I always tell you I want to dance and ask you to make date opportunities for us to do that. Do you remember that I always asked couples who argued all the time to do something strenuously physical together? And I’d say, not sex guys. That helped them burn out the aggression and practice non-verbal communication and intimacy. And it releases all kinds of good hormones that open up new bio-chemical channels of communication.” My wife was a licenced social work counselor at Catholic Charities from the late 1980’s to the mid 90’s. I said, “Man, that gives a whole new meaning to two becoming one flesh!”

It’s nice to be married to a therapist.

As I thought about it, it also made new sense out of the importance of liturgical worship being very physical and communal, so you get to ritually practice unity with the Catholic motley crew in praising God and acting in harmony before you exit the church to do faith together in the world.

Patti and I over the years have made it a habit to alternately walk together, play racquetball together, workout together and dance together. Without exception, the time spent doing those things always clears the air between us and leaves us better than we began. To us it’s obvious now that if your only bodily intimacy is sex, sex will become a problem as it cannot bear that much weight.

So men I encourage you, diversify the artful ways you get physical with your wives — and the more you make of it an art, intentionally and creatively putting effort into it, the more beautiful she will feel.

Uneven

Periodically, I let my readers know when I likely will not be posting for a time. I do that as a courtesy,  as I am gratefully aware that some of you read my posts regularly. This week will again be particularly hectic, so I likely will not post until the coming weekend.

As someone commented here last week, at times my ‘primary work’ by which I support my family takes precedence over this work of joy.

God bless you!

Tom Neal, Layman Promoter

I interrupt this blogging break for a shameless service announcement.

I will be offering in July and August a presentation series called Called, Formed and Sent here in New Orleans at the Seminary with a dear friend and colleague of mine, the almost-D.Min. Susie Veters, on the lay vocation.

THE LAY VOCATION!

I am excited about it! It ‘s an opportunity to feature publicly Susie’s and my unbridled passion for the beauty and dignity of the vocation and mission of the laity to build up the Body of Christ and consecrate the world to God.

Here is the flyer and registration info is here.

Thank you for spreading the word!

Yep, the video:

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.