Cut loose from purpose

Walking in the Footprints of Jesus : Week One

The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement. From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.
The God of Jesus Christ. Your God will be my God. – Blaise Pascal, text sewn in his jacket

The other day, I shared with someone the story of my life-changing encounter with Christ back in 1987. Though I rarely talk about the story in detail, the effects of it are in my awareness 24/7/365. It is the only single experience of my life that consciously defines every other waking moment.

The person I shared this with asked me what word I would use to describe this continuous awareness.The word that sprang to mind immediately was contingency. I know, only a theologian could make something electric sound so technical. What I mean when I say “contingency” is that, at every moment, I am radically dependent on the will of Christ for existence. He, the Word “through whom all things came into being” (John 1:3), the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). THIS is exactly what crashed into my life that night in 1987, the awareness of Christ — to quote St. Catherine of Siena — as the ONE WHO IS, and of me as the ONE WHO IS NOT. He looked at me, as if saying, “I hold you in existence.”

Back in 1997 on the tenth anniversary, I wrote in my journal a sentence that summarized it: “He thinks of me, therefore I am.” This truth, even as I type this now, is for me more real than anything else in life, without exception.

The other word I used to explain to this person my “ongoing awareness” was purpose. To use German-American poet Charles Bukowski’s marvelous phrase, before encountering Christ, I was “cut loose from purpose.” A rudderless life. I had nothing to live for other than myself, and even that was dicey. In this singular event, my whole life instantaneously, without any reflection or analysis, took on a total meaning. As I told the priest I went to Confession to two weeks after this event, which was my first confession since I was seven:

I know this: to love in Christ’s footsteps. That’s it. Everything. Sounds cheesy when I say it, and I don’t really think I know what it means other than I have to do it. But because of the kind of person I know I am, I’m thinking it’s probably not going to be fun.

It wasn’t. I still vividly remember that confession, that conversation, the room we were in, the desk, the chair, the priest’s facial expressions and his responses to my comments.

That event set in motion a storm in my life that would, over the years, progressively dismantle my egocentric straw house, and challenge me to rebuild my life on rock, out of love. I had no idea what was waiting for me, what the cost of this new sense of purpose would be. But neither did I know just how extraordinary was the world that was opening up to me. Six months later I would take my first biblical class and have my mind explode with fiery passion for learning this Christ. Twenty one months later, in November of 1988, I would meet the woman who would become my best friend and, six years after that, become my wife. Then, the crown of our love, our children.

All these would become for me the clearest, surest footsteps Christ set in the ground as he walked ahead of me, beckoning me to follow him. All along asking me, again and again: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs, Feed my sheep.”

life’s purpose? The answer is absolute, transcendent and universal; supremely costly and outrageously simple: “To walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6), by loving just as he loved.

The rest? Simply supporting detail.

Try this experiment: Pray like you mean it.

Download Universe Wallpaper: Man Under the Stars | CellularNews

My principal purpose here is to point out again, yet more insistently, that one cannot meaningfully consider, much less investigate, the reality of God except in a manner appropriate to the kind of reality God has traditionally been understood to be. Contemplative discipline, while not by any means the only proper approach to the mystery of God, is peculiarly suited to (for want of a better word) an ’empirical’ exploration of that mystery. — David Bentley Hart

This point Professor Hart makes is absolutely crucial. Not only for atheists, agnostics or skeptics looking for ways to evaluate evidence of God’s existence, but for those who struggle in their life of faith to trust God is at work in the darkness, or to bring into alignment their behavior with the high ethical demands of faith. With faith, you simply cannot just think your way into certitude, trust or moral conversion. You must pray. Consistently, frequently, sincerely and in freedom, if you wish to open the key conduit to “empirical” access to God. Prayer uniquely allows divine agency to shape your inner world guarded by your freedom. Prayer is an act of freedom before the face of God, permitting him access to your conscience. From the standpoint of faith, exploring a transcendent reality means one must be willing to engage in acts that — “traditionally” — render one vulnerable to that transcendent Reality.

The late Fr. Tom Hopko would not entertain any debate with a skeptical or curious unbeliever without them first agreeing to engage in a basic set of spiritual disciplines over a period of time, that would accompany their exploration of theological ideas. He said, “if a scientist can demand that I first accept and employ the scientific method of analysis if we are to fruitfully debate the truth-claims of various scientific hypothesis or theories, a theologian can rightly invoke what is proper to his own methodology when he is challenged on particular questions of faith.” Hopko would ask seekers if they were willing to try out faith’s own methodological demands. If they were, he would ask them (among other things) for one month to set aside a brief time every day for total silence, to fast twice a week, to read every day through the Gospels slowly, to attend the Sunday Liturgy and just “stand there,” and to pray repeatedly during their daily time of silence, “God if you’re real, show me.” He said, “After the month is up, I’ll meet with you and we can discuss and debate anything you’d like.”

As with any method, there are no silver bullets, no guaranteed results — faith is not magic. And it’s important to add that faith does invoke philosophical reason to provide a solid foundation and architecture for faith’s assertions. And yes, asking a non-believer or skeptic to practice spiritual disciplines sounds like a fallacious circular argument, as it seems to first require acknowledging the existence of God to come to belief in God before one has been rationally convinced God exists at all. However, it is no more strange than asking someone to risk trying something new and unfamiliar so they can judge for themselves — from immediate experience — its truth or falsity after having given whatever it is a real chance.

My own conversion came about in exactly this way. A young Evangelical named Chris, with whom I had become friends through our mutual interest in bodybuilding, came to my dorm room one evening to witness to his Christian faith. After he saw how uninterested I was in his testimony, he said, “Okay, I can see you’re not buying it. So are you up to a dare?” Unwilling to turn down any dare, with some trepidation I said, “Sure, what?” He said, “Pray this prayer like you mean it.” He was referring to the “Sinner’s Prayer.” I did, and the rest is history.

Blessed Puglisi

Photo Gallery of the house of Blessed Giuseppe Puglisi - Vatican News

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. — Heb. 13:7

Today in a homily, I learned about a remarkable Italian priest. My wife and I have added his name to our personal litany of saints. Fr. Don Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, who is now a Blessed on the way to sainthood.

He was born in 1937 in Palermo, Sicily. His father was a cobbler and his mother made dresses. He learned growing up in a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood that the world can be a dangerous place. But he himself refused to participate in the petty criminal activity many of his peers engaged in. He joined the seminary with the intention of becoming a priest who could fight with Christ against crime and corruption, with a special dedication to confronting the Sicilian Mafia.

Wow. Now there’s a shepherd’s calling defined by love for the sheep.

Throughout his years of priestly ministry, he frequently spoke boldly against the Mafia and worked with civil authorities to expose and move against known Mafia members. Ignoring the frequent warnings of fellow clerics, friends and parishioners of the danger he was in, Puglisi never ceased to publicly denounce Mafia activities. He even refused to permit known Mafia members from marching at the head of religious processions, which was a venerable Sicilian tradition. He is the first known priest to confront members attempting to do so.

On September 15, 1993, two hitmen approached him in front of his parish. Fr. Puglisi greeted these two men and said, “I’ve been expecting you.” Those were his final words. One of them fired a single bullet at point-blank range, rendering him unconscious. He died later in the hospital.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
— Walt Whitman

January 22, 1973

Re-post from 2014

In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day. –General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373

In an annual recognition of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, our U.S. Bishops have made January 22 to be a penitential “Ash Wednesday” of sorts. Today we are required as Catholics to wrap our prayer in penance, begging for God’s mercy to pardon all involved in the procurement of abortion, and to awaken the consciences of all to the inviolable dignity of each human being at the moment of conception. We also pray for the flourishing of a culture of life in a civilization of love that restores family as the sanctuary of life and defends all vulnerable lives in the face of our culture of waste. In the words of Pope Francis:

Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection. And every elderly person, even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the culture of waste suggests.

The pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf wrote an article in the October 16, 1995 edition of The New Republic, entitled “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-choice Rhetoric.” In it, she argues for the feminist pro-choice movement to re-admit the category of “tragedy” into the abortion debate by using truthful language. The same day I found this article, I was re-reading St. John Paul II’s compassionate address to women who have had an abortion. Inspired by both of their approaches, my own prayer today will be that all sides of the debate will resolve to listen to each other in honesty and in humility, with an openness to confront this issue together, compassionately, as friends and not as enemies. As members of the same human family.

So what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism. — Naomi R. Wolf

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…I would now like to say a special word
to women who have had an abortion.
The Church is aware of the many factors
which may have influenced your decision,
and she does not doubt that in many cases
it was a painful and even shattering decision.
The wound in your heart
may not yet have healed.
Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong.
But do not give in to discouragement
and do not lose hope.
Try rather to understand what happened
and face it honestly.
If you have not already done so,
give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance.
The Father of mercies is ready to give you
his forgiveness and his peace
in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
To the same Father
and his mercy
you can with sure hope entrust your child.
With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people,
and as a result of your own painful experience,
you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life.
Through your commitment to life,
whether by accepting the birth of other children
or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them,
you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life. – St. John Paul II

Lord, give me charity, only not yet

Our Statue & the San Damiano Cross | St. Francis of Assisi Church

The Prayer of St. Francis, though not written by Francis himself, captures a definite dimension of his genius. I think of it as an existential exposé on the inner logic of love’s outward orientation, which is the end-game of the whole spiritual life. I think of this prayer as an outworking of Francis’ Prayer before the Crucifix, in which he asks God to grant him perfect charity. What makes for perfect charity? The Prayer of St. Francis gives us a way to judge.

For quite a number of years, I have used it as an evening examination of conscience to great personal effect. It very naturally exposes in me the many gaps in my life where charity has not yet found a home. It was my spiritual director from the 1990’s who counseled me to do it, and I remember him adding this point to his recommendation:

…and I hope you also hesitate sometimes — as I do — before saying this as a prayer. Sometimes instead I’ll pray, “Lord, give me charity, only not yet.” [we laughed] Realize what you’re asking for and consenting to in every prayer and mean your “Amen” like the Jews do — not as a period at the end of a sentence, but as an oath. In every Amen you take your life in your hands and hand it all over to God’s will as spelled out in the prayer. Take your prayed words to God very seriously…

May my heart be ready, O God, may my heart be ready to pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds oneself,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

“It takes a lot of butterflies to make a world full of flowers.” — Trina Paulus

[re-post from 2015]

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” ― Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Not long ago, I shared with my Confessor the story of how I came to meet my wife in November of 1988. As I recalled various pivotal moments in our evolving relationship, he kept taking me back further and further all the way back to the time before we met. At a certain point I said to him, “Why are you asking me this?” He said, “Because you have to get your story straight to see how providence has been at work.”

We ended up all the way back in October of 1984, the inception of my decision to leave Massachusetts, go to Florida State University to study meteorology and eventually meet my wife, Patti Masters. He said, “Why Florida State?” I told him how I came to my decision in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV, Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. Since I was twelve, I was single-minded in my resolve to be a Jim Cantore, before there was one.

I went to the TV studio to “spend a day” with Bruce, and I was starstruck. He was so generous with his time. I remember in particular assaulting him with questions about mesoscale convective complexes. At the end of the day, after I watched him do a live forecast during the 6 PM newscast, he said: “Well, let’s talk about the million dollar question — where to go to college. The two I’d recommend are Florida State and UCLA. But I favor FSU because I am a big fan of Dr. Jim O’Brien. And it’s a party school!”

And so it was, evening came and morning followed, off to Sunny Florida.

There in Tallahassee I would fall far, encounter Christ, have my life flipped upside down, discover for the first time a passion for learning, meet my future wife, discover my career path, marry Patti, have our four children and get a PhD.

After I’d finished telling my story, my Confessor said:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had forever changed by that one comment? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to your conversion, meeting Patti, having your children, establishing lifelong friendships, discovering a career in the church — literally innumerable effects!

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It’s a physics theory that says, for example, the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is impacted by something as minuscule as the flapping wings of a butterfly months earlier in Panama. Never underestimate the effects your least significant actions. One unseen act of fidelity can alter the future world. The future is filled with things that never had to be this way. That’s, of course, the premise of It’s a Wonderful Life.

And remember that because you don’t see the effects, you’ll be tempted to despair of your insignificance — “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t matter.” But it all matters. And if our actions can have such large scale effects in the order of nature, just imagine the order of grace thrown in there! We could expand Jesus’ “O ye of little faith!” with “You massively undervalue what God can do with the tiny mustard seeds you entrust to Him.”

Think of life as an ecosystem. The interdependence of everything is staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate. Just one decision, one smile, one quiet wingèd “whoosh” of a sacrifice. Or one harsh word. These can change the course of history, for better or for ill.

On Judgment Day we will see all things through God’s eyes. See the astonishingly complex web of influence we were part of, and our role in that web. Thrilling. Terrifying.

Remember when Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” both the sheep and the goats were clueless. “When did we see you hungry and feed you?” People you’ve never met, who were never fed by you directly, but by those you impacted, are Christ-fed-by-you. Your impact is without borders, for good or for ill.

When God chose Abram and Sarai, he didn’t say: “Look at the ground in front of you and think of what’s in it for you today.” No! God said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count — nations will be born of you because you said yes. Countless will be the scope of impact I will draw from you, if you simply obey. Give me your future, your security, your son. Go!” And they went, they gave their Yes, and … 1800 years later, God becomes flesh. 3800 years later, you and Patti met. Your children exist.

Life is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.


Sad and alone

Someone asked me to re-share this 2019 post, so here it is.

Along these same lines, I would mention another subtle and dangerous attitude, which, as Bernanos liked to say, is “the most precious of the devil’s potions.” It is also the most harmful for those of us who would serve the Lord, for it breeds discouragement, desolation and despair. Disappointment with life, with the Church or with ourselves can tempt us to latch onto a sweet sorrow or sadness that the Eastern Fathers called acedia.

Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík described it in these terms: “Sadness paralyzes our desire to persevere in our work and prayer; it makes us hard to live with… The monastic authors who treated this vice at length call it the worst enemy of the spiritual life.” — Pope Francis in his Letter to Priests

I will offer a few of my journaled thoughts on acedia. I had a discussion the other day with a faculty colleague about the Pope’s remarkable Letter, and we reflected together on our own experience of acedia’s spiritual poison. Far more can be said, but here are a few considerations.

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… Literally the word acedia means “lack of care” or “carelessness.” Not caring, who cares?, not taking care of yourself. How instructive. Acedia, distinct from (though related to) depression, has a uniquely spiritual/moral character to it. Acedia’s symptoms include persistent restlessness, boredom, sadness. Moral torpor, grief over the more arduous virtues. An inability to be still. The loss of a desire to pray or the will to remain faithful to daily prayer. Chronic complaining. A flagging of interest in, or even disgust with the things of God. A resentment toward those who call us to duty. A desire to flee and hide away, always imagining “something new” will make all well. Acedia undermines hope.

The desert Fathers identify a slew of triggers for acedia’s onset. Some: Suffering a tragedy, personal failure or sin. Deep disappointment attending some unmet expectations. Transgressing rightful limits by over-committing through lack of discretion or compulsions to please. Clinging to the illusory belief that God should make all work out as I have judged best, and when he does not I grow peevish, perturbed. Being excessively controlling. All exacerbated by failing to maintain a disciplined habit of prayer and the practice of virtue, i.e. sloth.

If these initial wounds are nursed and held onto, they eventually metastasize into a persistent listlessness, sorrow, apathy, anger, resentment and, in the end, despair. And slacking in prayer opens the gate wider, without a guard at post. Left unaddressed, acedia grows like a festering wound.

Pope Francis made another powerful point in his Letter — “it hurts so good.” Acedia can acquire a certain sweetness, offering a seductive sense of consolation in misery. The problem? It only leads us further into self-absorbed isolation, fear, resentment and self-pity, and cuts us off from remedies within our reach. The core of acedia’s power is in self-isolation. To this point, Kathleen Norris says:

When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

So what to do? As with any malady in life, there are many natural remedies one should seek, including medical and psychological ones. But the spiritual tradition does offer some very practical wisdom here. Just to name a few practices I have found personally helpful in my many battles with acedia over the years:

Pray. Never surrender prayer, be relentlessly faithful your routine of prayer. Simple, unrelenting. Beg God for the desire to pray. Seek in prayer the gift of tears, to grieve, surrender, repent, bury whatever evil has you fast in its grip. Ask God to restore your joy. Ask others to knock at heaven’s door for you.

Work. Be faithful to your duties. Simplify your commitments if your life has become needlessly complicated. Do manual labor, work your body, organize your living space, sweat hard.

Think. When dark thoughts come, redirect toward the light (Phil 4:8). Reject negative ideation, never dialogue with the devil. You won’t ever win. St. Benedict said, “When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.” The Jesus prayer.

Reveal your thoughts to a trusted other who will listen without judgment, but who will not reinforce the self-absorbed, wound-licking self-pity. Radical honesty defeats self-reliant pride, which is the workhorse of acedia. Bringing dark thinking into the light, to persons who live in the light, sets captives free.

Serve. My great grandmother used to say, “Do others a good turn and you’ll do yourself one.” And Dennis Prager shares wisdom from Judaism in this regard:

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

Judaism itself is built on this behavioral paradigm. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur only if we are in the mood to do so. A Jew doesn’t observe Shabbat only if he is in the mood to do so at sunset on Friday. One simply does so, and if done well, religious feelings follow.

You want to raise good children? Communicate to them that how they feel is of no concern to almost anyone in the world. But how they act is of concern to everyone they will ever meet.

[A new addition to this post in light of our contemporary acedia pandemic. I’ve noticed this a lot of late. Those who are under the spell of acedia, or in desolation, should be careful of the temptation to drag others down into the pit with them. As the saying goes, “misery loves company.” The greatest gift a person in this state can give others is to get help, and, as Prager recommends, by acts of the will do all in their power to refrain from spreading it to others. Contra Cain, we are our brother’s keeper. Every day, beg God…..]

Lying to myself I can make it on my own
Making it alone is lonely
Twisting and I’m turning
Oh I’m crashing and I’m burning
So reach out your hand to me
Come down
Rescue my heart I’ll drown
Without you
Come down
And rescue my heart I’m deep underground
I can’t dig my way out
So come down
(Rescue my heart)
(Rescue my heart)I can’t breath any faster
All the air I wanna capture
It’s heavy and it hurts my head
If you found me
Would you save me?
If you touch me would it break me
Will I come back from this?
Come down
Rescue my heart
I’ll drown
Without you
Come down
Rescue my heart I’m deep underground
I can’t dig my way out
So come down
Rescue my heart
Rescue my heart
Rescue my heart
Rescue my heart
(Who will rescue my heart?)
(Who will rescue my heart?)
(Who will rescue my heart?)
(Who will rescue my heart?)
Come down
Rescue my heart I’ll drown
Without you
Come down
Please rescue my heart I’ll drown
Without you

O Father

Passion of the Christ Jesus crucified on the Cross | Jesus on the cross, Jesus  crucified, Jesus

O Father
hear these cries
rising from a fearful race
beneath dissonant skies
as we beg for heaven’s peace
— which earth cannot give
sheathing our violence.
O show your radiant Face
Come down!
O forever perish our disgrace.
In this our waiting silence
— that we as one might live
all hatred we beg you cease
by Christ who no more dies
IS, the fullness of truth and grace
ever-slaying all death and lies
O Father

The words of Qoheleth

Ecclesiastes | reading Ecclesiastes through the kaleidoscope of time &  belief

Ecclesiastes, aka Qoheleth, is the Old Testament’s nearest brush with despair. The great biblical scholar Raymond Brown once said at a conference I attended:

Qoheleth is the Bible’s necessary this-worldly counterbalance to the New Testament’s eschatological fervor. His sobriety, pessimism — near hopelessness — holds in stark relief the Christian hope in the resurrection of Christ. Qoheleth keeps our feet grounded in the harsh realities of life, where tragedy and insoluble contradictions still exist. The whole Passion narrative is sunk in those contradictions, awaiting Easter. I think St. Paul must have had Qoheleth in mind when he said very honestly: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” [1 Cor. 15:19].

This reminds me of something my first Old Testament professor said to his students as he reflected on Hebrews 11’s festschrift to Old Testament saints. He said:

You have to realize that prophets like Moses and Jeremiah had no clear understanding of an afterlife or the reward of personal immortality. Beyond death they saw no future of joy awaiting them, no reward. Before the Maccabean period [c. 170 BC], most Hebrew notions of afterlife were only of a shadowy and fading existence in Sheol.

Now I want you to think of what it meant for these men and women to be faithful to God, to trust him, to suffer for him with no hope of an afterlife. No hope of a final justice where all wrongs would be made right. And still they were faithful to the end. We should feel some awe and discomfort at that thought.

Would you be faithful in the darkness with no hope beyond death? [He paused. It was eerie, humbling to think on.]

This might help you grasp better Jeremiah’s bitter lament. [Then he read it:]

Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,”
making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame? — 20:14-18

You can taste in Jeremiah’s shocking anguish the sense of futility Qoheleth struggled with as he pondered life’s insoluble contradictions “under heaven.” Here are three Qoheleth examples:

I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun (4:2-3).

I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil (2:20-21).

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8:14-15)

Yet…out of Qoheleth’s grief and bewilderment over the “vanity” of all the passing things of life, he gives us one of the most magnificent, lyrical and — maybe — hopeful expressions of what St. Ignatius Loyola would call “holy indifference,” i.e. the willingness to receive whatever happens as an mysterious expression of God’s ordained or permissive providence.

Though only in Christ do we come to see the dialectics of history in 3:1-8 open up into the hope of an infinite resolve in the eschaton — defining even the present moment — where “all will be well in all manner of being well.”

The greatness of Qoheleth, and so many other of the Hebrew sages and prophets, is that they, without the benefit of a realized messianic hope, teach us to see God in all things — between the yin and the yang, so to speak. It is a gem for meditation, especially in those liminal moments of life when your grip on hope feels as if it might be slipping away…into the wounded hands of the risen Christ…

“Go home” — Mk. 2:11

The Calling of Zacchaeus Orthodox mounted icon

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. — Lumen Gentium #31

I was teaching an adult education class on ecclesiology (study of the church) recently, and we were talking about who the laity are and the interrelationship between vocation and mission. A student asked, “Where are there examples of Jesus calling and sending people out on mission who are regular lay folk like me? You know, who have families, live in regular communities, hold normal secular jobs? It just seems everyone Jesus calls goes on to lives more like a nun or a priest.” My first response was, “Well, 99% of the people Jesus encounters, teaches, heals or forgives he sends back to life as usual. That’s the norm.” But to drill a little deeper, I decided to use an example I’ve thought a lot about over the last few years — the two men from Jericho, Bartimaeus the blind beggar and Zacchaeus the rich tax collector. Here’s the gist of what I said:

In Luke’s Gospel, it’s easy to forget these two stories happen back to back. It’s like Luke paints an iconographic diptych that reveals two very different segments of society — the poor and powerless, the wealthy and powerful — encountering Jesus and having their worlds flipped, even transubstantiated as the high wall that once stood between them came a tumblin’ down. But how different was the strategy of this Joshua at Jericho (Joshua 6:1ff)!

Bartimaeus, whose whole livelihood was built around begging, makes an extraordinarily risky decision when he begs Jesus to restore his sight. He knew he would immediately lose his only means of support, and now would have to learn a new trade to support himself. Be very careful what you ask for!

But he does it. A big wow. He risks losing his victim status by embracing wholeness, with all the responsibility that attends it (12:48) — and after he regains his sight, Bartimaeus “glorifies God” (18:43). How? By living out his new mission, seeking out the way he is now to labor alongside others in the community of Jericho. But he’s going to need help.

Okay, so catch this detail. Luke says, Bartimaeus “follows Jesus” (18:43) right into the next scene as Jesus enters the city and meets Zacchaeus. Here, Jesus will facilitate an archetypal encounter between the rich and the poor, the wicked and the just, the oppressor and the oppressed — not to condemn, but to reconcile.

This is an amazing scene.

Unquestionably, being a tax collector who colludes with the Roman occupiers, the “very rich” (19:2) Zacchaeus would have been despised by the Jewish citizens of Jericho. Maybe even some zealots would have wanted to assassinate him. Prompted by who knows what motive, the short Zacchaeus “runs” (19:4) the risk of seeing Jesus and scurries up a sycamore tree to catch sight of him as he passes through the city.

Listen carefully. You can hear the people yelling and cursing Zacchaeus out with hateful words of derision and anger as Jesus approaches. Telling him to get lost. Jesus, no doubt whatsoever, takes note as he approaches this hostility and soon learns the infamous pariah’s name. As ever, there’s nothing more Jesus loves than to find himself between people who hate each other. Fully aware that his gesture will quickly turn the welcoming crowd against him, Jesus looks up and says loudly, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Lk. 19:5). Risky! How stunned into joy (19:6) Zacchaeus must have been as he climbed down and “welcomed him with joy” (19:6).

Now stop here and imagine Bartimaeus watching all this with his new sight — with his healed vision AND his newfound faith in this edgy Messiah. He must have said to himself, “Yet another risky move!” But this time, the risk was Zacchaeus’ and Jesus’.

Imagine this disciple ragtag group all getting to Zacchaeus’ house and the feasting beginning. But — see this — outside the welcoming crowd is quickly transforming into an angry mob (19:7). Zacchaeus, shaken to the core by the risk-all love he had encountered in Jesus, responds to this building threat by publicly revealing his own healing from blindness to Torah, as he now sees the world anew with eyes illumined by a divine justice called mercy: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (19:8).


And, if we open our imaginations even wider, might we see Bartimaeus as one of the first beneficiaries of this mass profusion of alms? Maybe Zacchaeus hired Bartimaeus on the spot, a sign of a new humanity emerging in a new business venture. Here Jesus was forming a new reconciled civic community, right in the hearth of this tax collector’s home! A house church infecting the city with its sacred contagion — the leaven of the gospel. Yes, the city of Jericho was about to be destroyed and rebuilt again, but without death and violence. The old order of sin and injustice was being overthrown with merciful love, as a new civilization was arising from its ruins. Built on the foundation of healing-alms (11:41).

Now to your point: Jesus asks neither of these men to leave all behind and follow him in evangelical poverty. Zacchaeus is not Levi. But Jesus leaves them all behind to grow redeemed roots in their place, in Jericho, planting there a new creation that has been planted and germinated in their hearts. Zacchaeus doesn’t quit his secular job. He remains a tax collector, but now as a just one. That’s risky! And Bartimaeus remains behind, empowered now to contribute to the common good of his people in a new way. And, no doubt, to come to the aid of other beggars whose world he understands profoundly well. That’s risky!

So, the revolution of God has been enacted by heroic lay risk-takers! These world-planted secular city folk have now become the primary base from which the Jesus-revolution will carry out its transformational mission out into the world at large. Beginning at home. Not to make “all new things,” but to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).