Papa Africa

May the outpouring of the Holy Spirit
make of the cultures of Africa
places of communion in diversity,
fashioning the peoples of this great continent
into generous sons and daughters of the church,
which is the family of the Father,
the brotherhood of the Son, the image of the Trinity,
the seed and beginning
on earth of the eternal kingdom
which will come to its perfection
in the city that has God as its builder:
the city of justice, love and peace. – Pope St. John Paul II

After visiting the Republic of Congo, Pope Francis will be in Sudan today and leave tomorrow. I watched his arrival yesterday morning, live, and it was overwhelming to watch. So beautiful to see the joy of thousands of people lining the streets, ululating and cheering. May his visit bring blessings of hope, joy and peace to that war ravaged land.

Respect, dialogue, friendship

[re-post from 2021]

I would encourage all people of good will who are active in the emerging environment of digital communication to commit themselves to promoting a culture of respect, dialogue and friendship. – Pope Benedict XVI

Respect, dialogue and friendship. Three things that were so absent in my experience of Facebook and Twitter, that I closed my accounts as it only led me to dark places. In the early years, I was an exuberant fan of newly emergent social media, but subsequent years of experience have tempered my hope-filled posture.

I know it’s almost too obvious to need saying, but the angry, arrogant, snarky, dishonest, mean-spirited, ideological echo-chamber mentalities, mass proliferated online, are gravely harming any real possibility of a common quest for catholic unity around truth and charity. We don’t speak with, but at and past those outside our cable network or political party.

And among people of faith — including some church leaders, theologians or catholic pundits — the online expressions of unbridled rash judgment, calumny and slander poured out against, for example, Pope Francis, various Bishops or prominent Catholics, are pernicious and shameful. In 1990, before the coming of social media, CDF prefect Cardinal Ratzinger said, “the theologian should avoid turning to the mass media, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth.” My word, those words were long ago trampled in the dust.

Far too often, there is little to no discretion used by influential Catholics regarding the toxic or confusing witness that is offered to people of faith — or even more, to people of no faith. Spirited conversations governed by a certain propriety, in forums conducive to a genuine quest for truth, have been largely set aside in favor of the dopamine-rich experience of online click-bait frenzies being had in our digital colosseums. By this behavior, truth is not served, charity is not increased, honest dialogue is not cultivated, respect is not fostered, reconciliation is not pursued, Christ is not manifested. Divisive Babel has overtaken unifying Pentecostal tongues, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.

A new Tertullian might justly say of contemporary outsiders’ observation of Christians online: “See how they hate one another!”

A friend of mine, when I told her why I closed my accounts, said: “That’s why you should stay on! There need to be alternative voices.” She’s right. But I’m just not strong enough. I admire those whose muscular virtue, street smarts and thick skin equip them to constructively engage the madding crowd.

I pray that people of faith in Christ will renounce the culture of disdain and division, resolving anew to become instruments of reconciliation, wielders of kindness, promoters of truth in love, proliferators of respect and seekers of friendship across all divides. Like the Master himself, who commanded us:

If you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies,
do good, and lend,
expecting nothing in return.
Your reward will be great,
and you will be children of the Most High;
for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down,
shaken together, running over,
will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give
will be the measure you get back. – Lk. 6:32-38

Pastoral acedia

One of the best pieces of ‘spiritual’ advice I have ever gotten, as a man who works in and for the institutional church, was from my spiritual director many years ago. I interpreted the heart of his message this way:

Never lose your wonder by dwelling on or succumbing to cynicism. Cynicism, fueled by rumination on faults and failings, by gossip and detraction, is spirit-poison. The church you serve is a mess? Always. In need of reform? Always. Like you. God has enlisted the People of the Problem to be the People of the Solution. The real reform of the church is in your power, in you. With your 5 stones, slay Goliath: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).

Remember the work that you do in the church draws all its meaning and power from a catastrophe, the crucifixion of God, and from a largely hidden triumph, the resurrection that still bears the marks of catastrophe. Stay close to this Christ, whose mercy is brightest — through you! — in the darkest of shadows. There you’ll never lose hope. Apart from him, only despair. Cling to Christ. Make prayer your only lifeline. You’ll know your hope is in Christ, and not some counterfeit, if you retain (in all things) the will to love, and the fruits of wonder, joy and peace.

When Pope Francis shared his wisdom on “acedia” — spiritual despondency — for all weary laborers in the Vineyard, it resonated again with the importance of keeping vigilant in the face of all that stands in the way of maintaining spiritual and mental health in ministry:

The problem is not always an excess of activity,
but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation,
without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable.

As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary,
even leading at times to illness.

Far from a content and happy tiredness,
this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue.

This pastoral acedia can be caused by a number of things.

Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects
and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can.

Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature;
they want everything to fall from heaven.

Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of success.

Others, because they have lost real contact with people and so depersonalize their work
that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself.

Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait;
they want to dominate the rhythm of life.

Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers
to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.

And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape:
“the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church,
in which all appears to proceed normally,
while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.”

A tomb psychology thus develops
and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.
Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves,
they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy,
lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”.

Called to radiate light and communicate life,
in the end they are caught up in things
that generate only darkness and inner weariness,
and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.

For all this, I repeat:
Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!

Marriage, through the Father’s eyes

Although happily married couples may feel driven
to distraction at times by their partner’s personality flaws,
they still feel that the person they married
is worthy of honor and respect. ― John M. Gottman

When my wife and I were preparing for marriage, the FOCCUS inventory helped us process our differences and address some big life issues marriage and family life inevitably raise. I remember well Fr. Tom Collins, who was preparing us, said to Patti at one point: “Patti, you realize Tom likely will never change in this area. Are you okay with that?” Without missing a beat she said, “No.” We all burst out laughing, but let me say that 27 years later “I never changed in that area.”

Many a truth is spoke in jest.

In our first year of marriage, an older woman, seasoned in marriage, gave us a piece of advice that, in many ways, accompanied us throughout our marriage. She said something like this:

When I married [my husband], I asked God to allow me to see him as God sees him. God sees our broken pottery and loves us faithfully with what I call a ‘charmed’ love, a Redeemer’s love. And of course I asked God, even more so, to let him see me the same way. But as years went on, I learned one more prayer that, in a way, is way more important than the others: “Father, let me see myself through your eyes. To see that you love the broken pottery that I am.”

When I first read these words of Pope Francis in his exquisite letter, Amoris Laetitia, I immediately thought of her advice:

Married couples joined by love speak well
of each other; they try to show their spouse’s
good side, not their weakness and faults. In
any event, they keep silent rather than speak ill
of them. This is not merely a way of acting in
front of others; it springs from an interior attitude.
Far from ingenuously claiming not to see
the problems and weaknesses of others, it sees
those weaknesses and faults in a wider context.
It recognizes that these failings are a part of a
bigger picture. We have to realize that all of us
are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The
other person is much more than the sum of the
little things that annoy me. Love does not have
to be perfect for us to value it. The other person
loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but
the fact that love is imperfect does not mean that
it is untrue or unreal. It is real, albeit limited and
earthly. If I expect too much, the other person
will let me know, for he or she can neither play
God nor serve all my needs. Love coexists with
imperfection. It “bears all things” and can hold
its peace before the limitations of the loved one.

The Sacrament of Silence

“Silence is the sacrament of the world to come.” — St. Isaac the Syrian

I want to revisit one more time the immense power of silence.

We are noise addicts. Strung out by the compulsion to be incessantly stimulated, entertained. Our inner attention is torn out from our souls, dissipated and consumed by our gadgets, making attentive communication nearly impossible. Prayer, friendship, reflection, compassion grow weak. Being present to where I am, a hardship.

A therapist I knew would prescribe a daily period of silence to her patients, and asked them at the end of the time to write down what rose up during the quiet. And when couples in therapy would reach a tense impasse in conversation, she would ask them to look at each other in silence for a brief time and then resume (to great effect, she said).

A priest I knew in Florida told me he would begin every committee meeting, after an opening prayer, with five minutes of silence, and found the meetings were far more fruitful and focused after he began doing that.

A doctor I know said that a surgical team he works with, before they begin their work, stands together for several minutes in total silence, centering themselves. It makes them much more attentive to their work, he said, and more ‘reverent’ toward the patients.

My primary care physician back in the early 1990’s watched me undergo a panic attack in his office. It was providential as I had lived for years without it being diagnosed.

As I sat there, I was overcome by waves of tremors, patches of red-blotchy skin, hyperventilating. As it was happening Dr. Zimon said, “It’s okay, Tom, I just want you to let it burn through you. Don’t fight it. Breathe deeply, relax.” And we just sat there in his office together for, I’d guess, ten full minutes. In. total. silence. As the attack ebbed, I started to cry uncontrollably (obviously there’s a link of silence and tears for me). He sat silently as I cried, without a word being said or a move to comfort me. After I calmed down, and breathed deeply again, we talked it through and he encouraged me to seek psychological help.

But the fact that he sat with me in that silence for all that time — this was for me a sacred, colossal act. I felt loved. And I knew God was there, in that silence.

The Womb of Silence

I helped lead a retreat this last weekend, and we watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to reflect on the centrality of love in all ministry. I had seen it before when it came out in the theater, but as I watched it this time, I realized I was in a very different place in life. Thank God we watched it in the dark, as I steamed copious tears.

The scene where I nearly sobbed (thank God I didn’t) was the restaurant scene, where Mr. Rogers invites the Esquire magazine journalist, Lloyd, to join him in a minute of silence. I realized, as I sat there in those seemingly eternal seconds, how much power there is in what a friend of mine calls the ‘womb of silence’ – silence that allows hidden truths to emerge from deep within, in a safe and sacred space.

Dcn. Jim Keating once described this form of silence as the “diminishment of interference” between oneself and another, be that ‘other’ human or divine. I love that description.

Earlier in the weekend, another speaker invited all of us to take three minutes of silence to write down the unspoken fears that sprang to mind, that vibrated just beneath the surface of our awareness. “Why are you afraid?” (Mk. 4:40) was in the day’s Gospel. Even though I was a retreat team leader, I decided to allow myself to go there with the retreatants — knowing a torrent of fears awaited. It was yet another moment where I nearly came undone. On the first line, without a moment’s reflection, I wrote words I don’t think I’ve ever entertained before: “My wife dying before me.”

That insight made its way later that day into our silent time of Eucharistic Adoration, where I spoke with Jesus about what this particular fear was about. Lots came out in my journal. As I did this, for whatever reason I remembered vividly another quiet time I had with one of my daughters nearly nine years ago. We sat together on the edge of a dock, fishing together. Just the two of us. Not speaking a word, yet communicating between us a depth of love that, to this day, I can still feel. Gratitude. And yet, I’ve lost those days; she’s grown. Life moves on. More tears flowed.

Blessed are those who mourn. This was the Gospel for that Vigil. It was Jesus inviting me in…“give them to me…”

All these “dead” Jesus was inviting me to bury, to lay them each in his tomb, allowing him to take them up into his Resurrection. I sensed him promise me they were to him precious “treasures” he would never ever allow to perish. Entrusted from my memory to his, they’d entered into memory eternal. What God remembers is refined, undying. More tears flowed.

Okay, enough with the silence, Lord (I said).

Make time for such silence with others. With God. With yourself. Intentional time. Allow it to serve as a womb of safety, a sacred tomb where Christ awaits your fearful, painful, wonderful gifts.

Pausing

A busy stretch the next several days, so I will resume posting as soon as I can.
As ever, thank you for reading here. I never take it for granted.

I will leave you with a TED Talk by Eric Genuis, who performs here his own composition called “Mercy.” Eric places music in service to society’s margins, and is a remarkable man. Some info:

While performing concerts in prisons and rehab centers, I have observed that mercy is often a forgotten attribute in our culture. People, particularly the downtrodden, are often marginalized and disregarded. Mercy can be the magnificent spark that ignites the process of restoration and reconciliation. This background informed Eric’s composition ‘Mercy’.

“The world is a better place when people have hope. Within every person, young or old, rich or poor, is a need for beauty, which makes us human and allows hope to flourish. I create music to touch the heart and soul. I perform my works from concert halls to prisons in order to inspire and awaken hope in everyone.”

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

It’s worth your nine minutes.

How is your prayer life?

The Christian confession is not a neutral proposition;
it is prayer, only yielding its meaning within prayer. – Joseph Ratzinger

“How is your prayer life?” Always the first question of my spiritual director, which, for him, is the hinge on which all other conversation about life will stand or fall. If I am not being faithful to at least the practice, even if not the quality of performance, so to speak, there’s little to speak about for us – other than doubling down on what prevents my fidelity to daily prayer.

The desert Father Evagrius of Pontus famously said, “the theologian is the one who prays, and the one who prays is a theologian.” This is, I find, a fierce reminder to not confuse faith with ideas or arguments. Faith is a living relationship, and prayer is the expression of that relationship.

Augustine taught us in his Confessions that theology, in the end, exists so we will have a language with which to converse with God. Yet so many of us prefer to think, read or talk about God rather than speak with him. While God longs for us to speak to him and to listen to him speak to us.

The Psalms teach us this proper attitude. They are Hebrew theology, raked through the mud of life, that is then turned Godward, singing, groaning, crying, praising, pleading from the guts. The psalms assume a vibrant and volatile relationship between God and the soul.

This was Pope Benedict’s core insight:

Being Christian is not the result
of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life.”

Tragically, the more we know of God, the more “lofty ideas” we have of him, the more tempted we are to love and worship the “about God,” and not God himself. Even when we pray, we so easily turn it into a once-removed encounter with God, who is eavesdropping on me over-there-somewhere. How often I turn my lectio divina into a Bible study, or my morning devotions into daydreaming.

It is mental prayer that is the goal, that prayer “with attention” to God’s living Face before us. It alone keeps us grounded in living a life facing Godward. And your undivided attention is the most precious gift which God — above all else — desires, as it is the portal to the inner sanctuary of your heart.

How is your prayer life?