Always have the long view

Pacino di Buonaguida, “Cross as the Tree of Life” c. 1320 pinimg.com

[re-post 2012]

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. — 2 Cor. 5:1

In the summer of 1991, I got the chance over 2 months to sit and speak with a priest who had at the time been over sixty-five years ordained. I asked him for words of wisdom from his long life throughout the summer and kept a journal of the gold he gave me. Among his many stories, he interspersed these proverb-like insights. I will share some here.

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Always have the long view. God works with the long view in mind. These days, people find that very hard, which makes real faith incomprehensible. Just look at Scripture and you’ll pick up the long view perspective. The prophets taught hope for what we have received, Jesus, but died without ever seeing it. Just think, without their aching hope for what they would not possess in this life the Gift would never have come. The most important fruits of my work won’t come into existence until long, long after I’m gone.

Only when I give back what I have been given by God can others finally receive all of it. And only when I die will I finally surrender everything back to the Giver. At least, that’s how I should die. I hope I am able to. It’s why the holy Fathers always counseled, memento mori [remember death]. All of life is to be a rehearsal for death.

I found the harder things became in my life, the better it was for me to gain the long view. Our culture makes this hard, which is why we fear suffering so much. None of what I have is for me, none of it is meant to remain here, all of it is for the final Homeland. Hardship wrests things out of our hands. Breaks our will to control, grasp, possess things without giving full freedom to God’s plan for what we’ve been entrusted with; what He wants to do with what we have. Most of that, keep in mind, we are not even aware of in the slightest.

It all seems easy and natural when things are well. Since my late teens, I’ve always professed trust in God, hope in God, love for God, love for others. Yes, with great sincerity. But not until life got hard, till the wheat was submitted to the grinding wheel, did I have a real chance to really choose love, trust, hope. The chance to give them back, to have exposed in me my well-disguised refusal to hand them over to God’s providence.

If I look back at my own priesthood, I’d encourage you in your marriage and family life to see the first 20 years as learning what needs to be surrendered, the next 20 as practicing surrender, and the last 20 as surrendering. If God takes you earlier, He knows you had the long view in mind and accepts the portion you gave as the whole offering.

You know, they say in Russia that “old age is for prayer.” That is wise. When life is so busy in your early years, your exhausting labor is meant to prepare material for the great sacrifice that, later in life, God willing, you will have time to offer gently back to God in quiet prayer for your family and loved ones and the world. Tragic we have lost this sense and see old age as a wasting away, as a sad, pitiful march to death; when it should be our titan moment of spiritual power.

So remember, when you fret, that there’s a time to labor strenuously for preparing the gifts to be offered, and there’s a time to offer. And if you die before the age of prayer comes, God knows you had the long view in mind and accepts the portion you gave as the whole offering.

There are so many people in the years of my ministry that I fumbled over, ignored, drove away, injured, misinformed, frightened off. There was a time when I lived in regret and self-pity. But thank God, when I was much younger than now, [an elderly priest] once said to me, as I wrung my hands over my missteps, “You do no good to anyone this way, refusing to give to God the most precious treasures of all: failure. Give God these for those you have failed.” I thought he was senile as those words seemed foolish, but I never forgot them. Now I see they are the height of wisdom.

Weaknesses given over to Christ by repentance, by surrender, as offering. That’s real power. It’s why the cross is the instrument of salvation. The whole purpose of life is surrender. The finest surrender is not giving God our soaring cathedrals, good as they are, but giving Him our rubble so He can build. Out of rubble, God builds cathedrals. And sometimes He permits the demolition of our life’s carefully constructed cathedrals so He can finally convince us He doesn’t want us to build great things for Him, but to give Him everything, so He, the Builder, can finally build.

From the Darkness into the Light

A woman named “Amy” commented here last week and asked this of me: “When time allows, please give your thoughts on adult children who struggle with addiction.”

I immediately thought of a remarkable woman I have come to know here in New Orleans, Mary Lou McCall, who agreed to share with me her hard-won wisdom on this topic. So, Amy, this is for you and for all who endure similar crosses among family and friends. Thank you, Mary Lou.

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There is no challenge that will stretch a parent’s capacity to love with the merciful heart of Christ more than when their child is suffering from the brain disease of addiction. This is one darkness that will also push a parent to climb up on the cross with Jesus and cling in desperation to his battered and bloody body. The agony of the crucifixion and the pain wrought by active addiction are parallel journeys intimately embedded in the mystery of the Cross where victory over sin has been claimed for eternity. Meditating upon the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fully absorbing his sacrificial love, is essential for parents whose children have been seduced by this very cunning, baffling and powerful force.

“Nothing is more beneficial…No remedy could be as effective for the healing of our wounded souls as the continuous contemplation on the suffering of Christ.” — St. Augustine

Addiction amplifies our disordered nature brought on by original sin. The horrific harnessing of the human mind through pornography or gambling, or through the abuse of drugs like alcohol and opiates, rewires the person’s brain producing the uncontrollable urge to continue doing the behaviors that are destroying them and using the drugs that are killing them. Addiction simultaneously suffocates the light in the soul and leads to the sinister oppression of free will. It is as though a force has taken over their battered yet breathing corpse. What happened to the child that nursed at your breast, who squealed with delight at Christmas, who brought you such incandescent joy just because they existed? They are still there and because they are still among the living, we must never give up hope!

Addiction is a progressive, insidious attack against the sanctity of human life; it distorts the sacred intent of family life; and it eventually spoils the community through the resulting increase in crime. The consequences of addiction and the shame produced by this dark human bondage seeps into every level of society, cutting across all socio-economic and religious divides. No one is immune. I experienced this powerful plague as it hemorrhaged the lives of two of my five sons. One of them confessed to me years later that he had been so tired and depressed that he was one click away from shooting himself with a gun. I firmly believe that God and the Blessed Mother heard the anguished cry of my son’s soul and intervened on his behalf.

The soul-binding fear and despair that I felt during those dark days, pummeled me into complete submission to the Lord’s will because none of the medical solutions were helping. I prayed for the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit as I fell to my knees before the tabernacle of the Lord and begged for God’s mercy on my children and for the strength to carry me through each day. Jesus did not let me down.

He gently lifted me up and carried me deep into his Sacred Heart where His pulsating love pumped new life into every fragment of my fragile nature. I grew progressively hopeful as He inspired me to seize with complete abandon the graces of my baptism and my children’s baptism. He urged me to humbly enter daily into that sacred space, Holy Mass, where the paschal mystery is celebrated in the eternal now. The Word made flesh, the flesh transforming life and the circular love that has no beginning and no end propelled me along a spiritual trajectory that changed my life and lifted the darkness that had shrouded my family. Before I knew it, the sanctifying graces that were transforming me, spilled over to my sons and saturated their wounds with His healing love. Ever so slowly they grew stronger as they literally willed themselves into recovery and the long progressive process of restoration and renewal.

We are intimately connected to our children as we are to our God, and the synchronicity of our DNA and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than we can humanly understand. So, hang on tight to your faith and believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered on his promise to redeem mankind, and the same God who designed for us the most powerful toolbox in the world, the Sacraments of our Catholic faith.

Pick up those tools so that you can look with compassion and love into the eyes of your children, deep into their soul where Jesus resides. Love them with the same everlasting love that Jesus gives to all of us each and every day; hold them tightly as He is holding us, and always remember that victory has already been won!

“We believe that in the darkest night, it is possible to find light again.”
Mother Elvira Petrozzi, Comunita Cenacolo

When The Saints Go Marching In

St. Clement of Rome Oyster Festival, last night — 11/12/17

A simple post today.

Our parish’s annual Oyster Festival, which raises money for St. Clement of Rome grade school, finished last night. It is a Neal Family annual highlight, and my wife and I go every night to listen to the music and dance.

Every six to eight months we celebrate the Lord’s Day in our home with family and friends, including games, food, fellowship, music (everything from Nowhere Man to Let the Fire Fall, and with Ashley and Maria live performances) and catechesis, with Sunday Mass celebrated on our dining room table. It’s a profound experience of joy, awe, and friendship that helps forge our home into a domestic church. Fr. Brad Doyle graciously offered his precious time to be with us, leading us in praise and worship (man he can sing and pray!), celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and sharing his vocation story. We feel blessed to be associated with so many extraordinary people of faith in New Orleans.

Late last night, I texted a poem about the day to my daughters’ friends (who were there) that I will share here. Also, I will share a video I recorded last night of the fabulous band, Bag of Donuts, closing the weekend with a song by a son of NOLA, Louis Armstrong, that is (obviously) beloved by New Orleaneans.

And I caught my wife in front me dancing… (shh)

Yep, I want to be in that number!

Bananagrams, friends, musical prayer /
newcomers, latecomers, pull up a chair /
cuz God’s out the window; we opened it up /
and He came in to join us, a mystical Sup. /
#ourdiningroomtable, an Altar today /
there loved by a God who’s chosen to stay; /
a God who feeds us, outpouring His grace: /
our expanded family, His dwelling place.

 

Loving God with a bowl of milk

Last Spring, a young man came to me asking me for insight into his vocational discernment. He said with great sincerity, “How can you love God well when you have a wife and children who distract you from giving yourself only to Him? You see, this is what tortures me, that I feel I have no option if I want to love God radically.” The poor young man, for the next two hours, received my torrential downpour response.

Mostly we spoke about the non-competitive meaning of creation vis-à-vis God in human fulfillment; about God’s choice to become Man as sealing this non-competitive meaning; about the nature of love in the Christian story; and about the irreducible diversity of vocations as preserving the fullness of love’s expression in the human race.

I ended our conversation with a beautifully simple story recounted by the Orthodox spiritual author, Anthony Bloom. When I first read it back in 1988, I found it terribly liberating as it somehow opened up in me a space to include in my love for God the thousand small things about life that I still loved. As I had fallen under the sway of some hyper-spiritual Moses friends who convinced me I had to renounce my very earthy ‘bowls of milk’ if I wanted to live for an immaterial God, this story seemed to me to be a key to unlatch the prison I felt I had entered.

Here’s the story:

In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has in a wooden bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies ‘This is God’s milk.’ Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says ‘I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as on offering to God.’

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, ‘And does God drink it?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the shepherd, ‘He does.’ Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that He does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk. Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes, and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight towards the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. The shepherd says ‘You were right, God is pure spirit, and He doesn’t want my milk.’ Moses is surprised. He says ‘You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.’ ‘Yes, I do’ says the shepherd, ‘but the only thing I could do to express my love for Him has been taken away from me.’ Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard.

In the night in a vision, God speaks to him and says ‘Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me, as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.

His Church can do no less

Dachau

Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxy to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer. This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the world stops being cute when told it is morbid. The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh. It is what his Body corporate is here for. In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that [Christ] laid down his life for the life of the world–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less. —  Fr Aidan Kavanagh

His Church can do no less. My.

Yesterday I was speaking with a friend about the general “yuck factor” of so many things going on around us these days, from every direction. Personal, familial, political, cultural, ecclesial, environmental. Yes, human history has always been a mess, corruption has always penetrated every sector of life, chaos has always seemed to threaten a violent knock at the door. But there are times when it gets to you, eats away at you, discourages you, ebbs away your sense of hope.

My friend shared her prayer experience that morning, which gave her a clearer inkling that God — who laughed as she prayed — has already dealt with the darkness and triumphed. All that is needed is trust in His redemptive providence as we “do our own best,” tiny as that might be. Faithful, not successful is the goal.

After we met, as I sat in my car and prayed, I could see afresh how easy it is for the darkness to wear away my Christian hope by turning my gaze away from brightness of Jesus toward the threatening dark of the raging storm. Once Peter, even us. And as your gaze fixes on the terrors of the night, fear, cynicism, hostility and every other corrosive attitude begin to take over and your resolve to ride the wave of God’s so-love for the world diffuses, tumbles and sinks into a sea of doubt and discouragement.

Earlier that day, a lifelong friend, who was visiting the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, sent me a series of photos of the unspeakable horrors that were perpetrated there. She appended a comment to each photo, and in the last one — which showed a pile of over 100 emaciated bodies being prepared for cremation — she wrote, “explain to me again why God loves human beings?”

All day those words haunted me. After lunch, I wrote her back, “I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to give you a pat answer. But this is what came to me at Mass today as I reflected on the fact that in Holy Communion I ate and drank the torn Flesh and spilled Blood of God (all done by hateful humanity): we cannot ever explain the why, only that God does. In fact, eucharistic worship is the only possible response of the creature to the absolute inability to answer the question of why God is as God is. In other words the only answer to why is: Thank you for being God.”

So when I ask myself on those dark days why I still choose to love? Well, I simply throw myself into the why-less mystery of God who is not “loving,” but is love. He is absolutely unfettered and free, yet He can be no other that this. I was called into existence to be this same why-less mystery, made His image and likeness. I did not choose that, yet my freedom is only confirmed by being that. Only when I surrender to being that does my hope return.

Even, no, especially, when I would like my “why” answered.

Something like that.

Again

This semester weekdays are not conducive to posting, so the weekday hiatus continues, hopefully this weekend I will get some space to write. Happy All-Hallows Eve! Peace and joy to you.

I will leave you with my favorite Kari Jobe song. . .

Spying Sanctity

[This is a completely unfinished post, a thought awaiting completion. But what the heck! Will not post again until next Sunday or Monday. Super grateful for my readers. God love you!]

Someone shared a quote with me today, which made me think of a comment my wife once made about a woman she had known and counseled for years before I ever met her. This woman was abandoned by her husband and went on to financially support and raise her several (amazing) children alone. We met this woman one day in a supermarket and chatted with her for about 30 minutes. After she left, Patti said (as I later wrote down),

Now to me, that’s sanctity. Nothing about her draws attention to herself. She has every reason to be bitter with life, to nurse her wounds. Yet no complaining, no blaming, no pity-seeking, no back-patting or a needy trying to indirectly make the conversation about her. She’s all about her kids, about us, her mom, all about what needs to be done, what can be done. She knows she made bad decisions in marrying that guy, she knows she’s got issues, but she doesn’t wallow in that. She got help, forgave and set to work. She knows who she is, she trusts God loves her, focuses on the beauty of her kids and just forges ahead.

I want that.

Me too. I often examine my conscience thinking on her story.

Here’s the quote, by Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras. For whatever reason I thought of this woman as I read his words.

In the language of his place and time, Christ spoke of the mode of existence and life “according to truth” as the “kingdom of heaven.” He preached that those who guide us toward this “mode” are not pious religious people, those who find satisfaction in being virtuous, those who shore up their ego by keeping some kind of law. Those who guide us are people who have lost all confidence in their own [self-righteousness], people who expect no personal reward whatsoever, and only thirst to be loved even if they don’t deserve it – despised sinners: tax collectors, robbers, prostitutes, and prodigals.