…I just couldn’t not post this:
Forgot I had yesterday and today still in the queue…Revisiting again the summary of my baptismal talk bullet points…
+ + +
In baptism, we die and rise with Christ.
Todo o nada.
Baptism is a totalitarian sacrament.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3).
Plunged into a watery tomb, only to rise again alive into newness of life.
Like a grain of wheat, Christ’s paschal mystery is planted in the ground of the soul
awaiting our act of faith to germinate in hope and flower into love.
In each paschal seed are death and life, always at work deep within.
We are to invited to become “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).
So many deaths.
Death to our egocentric incurvature.
Death to habits of thought, affection and action incongruous with the love of Christ.
Death to [name your addiction of choice].
Death to lust, pride, vanity, envy, sloth, anger, gluttony, greed.
Resurrection into chastity, humility, modesty, love, zeal, patience, temperance and generosity.
Death to idols, pretensions to comprehending the mystery of God and his providence.
Allow God to be God,
allow the dark night of faith to deconstruct our false certitudes into surrender.
Death to fear, instead embracing reality in trust, clinging to love’s purifying embrace (1 Jn. 4:18).
Ceasing to live in “slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:15)
by preparing for death each day in the hope of resurrection.
“May death find you alive.”
I know a priest who was terrified of death.
He said he inherited this from his mother.
For years, he begged God to take away his fear.
God answered, though not as he’d wished or imagined.
He told me he was driving a pickup truck one day, filled with supplies for building a house near the city garbage dump for a poor family. On his way to the dump, a gang of armed bandits ambushed him and got into the truck. As they drove, they put their guns to his head and made blasphemous comments as they laughed. In that moment, the terror of the grave confronted him.
He said, “Suddenly I heard strong voice within me say, ‘My son, will you die for me?'”
He couldn’t answer because of his fear.
But after the voice repeated the question, he felt the courage well up.
He whispered, “Yes, Lord.”
As soon as he had answered, the man driving slammed on the brakes, threw him out of the truck and drove off. As he lay on the ground, he said, “I knew my fear of death was gone.”
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Baptism incorporates us into Christ’s Body, the Church. No, for real.
There is a beautiful image contained in the New Testament word ekklesia,
though its beauty is largely lost when it is translated into English as “church.”
The word church comes from the old English cyrce, related to Dutch kerk and German kirche,
stemming from the Greek kuriakon, “Lord’s (house).”
But the verb ekkalein means “to call out to invite in.” So pregnant with meaning!
Think here of a mother opening the front door of her home at 6:00 p.m.,
calling out loudly to her scattered sons and daughters:
“Children, come home for dinner!”
This is our Catholic Church.
A loving Mother echoing God the Father’s all-embracing call out to the whole human race:
“Come home, my children! Share in the everlasting joy of heaven’s Feast!”
This image is expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.
There, it is the father’s maternal yearning for his lost son — humanity — to return home
from the land of exile that calls us home.
In his great and tender compassion,
the Father in heaven sends his silent Word down
into the edges of our exile,
of our deadened consciences
to raise us back to life.
Hearing his voice, we “get up and go to my father” (Lk. 15:18)
only to discover it is Jesus, the Father’s crucified waiting embrace,
who clothes us with his stripped-off royal garments of Spirit
and offers his own sacrificed life to us as our homecoming Feast.
Then we, having become his Mystical “ecclesial” Body,
are empowered to do the same.
“Christ has no body now but yours.”
The laity are on the front lines of God’s “calling out” to the world’s exiles: Come home!
As his Body, we the “found” are invited by the Good Shepherd
to join him in his Vigil along life’s edges,
to prepare for him the feast in the Household of Faith
so all who return home can be enveloped in garments of joyful love
that bind God’s Family as one.
[repost from 2016]
O sacrament of devotion! O sign of unity! O bond of charity! — St. Augustine
I can imagine few diabolical ruses more insidious than convincing faithful Christians it is godly to make the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist into a posturing of superiority, sectarian derision or contempt — into a divisive event. And here we are.
The night Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the Upper Room, after commanding the disciples to love one another, he prayed these words:
…that all of them may be one, Father,
just as you are in me and I am in you. – John 17:21-23
Yet, in my 30 years of working within the institutional Church, I have found few things more susceptible to divisive rhetoric or superiority complexes than the Sacred Liturgy. Liturgy has been weaponized. Out of the Eucharistic Fire, contra Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Publican (Lk. 18:9-14), believers hurl flaming coals at one another. It’s despicable. Much of my reason for staying off much of social media is the danger I experienced again and again of having a stroke from my anger over these kinds of things. In Isaiah 1:12-17, God voices his particular loathing of such things:
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Believers who use divine worship for their own ends — in all different forms — only self-adulate, praying pros heauton “toward themselves,” as Jesus colorfully describes the Pharisee’s synagogue worship in Luke 18:11. Such is an anti-Eucharistic Prayer:
O God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (18:9-14).
Those who worship pros heauton are the people St. Paul warned in Galatia:
The whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
If, however, you backbite and devour one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another. — 5:14-15
Okay, let me take this rant in a different direction.
Shortly after Patti and I had our second child, a well-known Marist author and retreat master was giving a mission at our parish. I went to Confession to him, and then after I finished, I asked him what advice he would have for me in raising my children in the faith. Here’s is some of what he said, which I made into a meditation in my journal.
You work for the church, so you see the inside of things. But let me caution you, never speak ill of holy things, and especially of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in front of your children as they grow. Not of its celebration, nor of the celebrant, the music, the church’s architecture and art, the homily, or anything closely connected to it. No matter how imperfect it is, speak of all to them with love and discretion. Guard your tongue with the fear of God as their consciences are so sensitive. While you’ll always have to instruct your children when there is a need for clarifying, to correct what might be confusing, do it constructively and with the greatest discretion.
Do you understand what I’m saying? [yes] Say only what needs to be said, and in a way that fosters love for the holy found in the imperfections of the church. Never speak to them of sacred things or persons with petty criticisms, vitriol, ridicule or slander. By doing that, you’ll unwittingly trivialize the sacred in their souls. If by your words you poison what is holy for your children at an early age, no matter your good intentions, you’ll damage their capacity for it at a later age. You’ll answer to God for that.
Help them see God’s treasures in this world are held in earthen vessels. Beginning with themselves. Show them how love covers a multitude of sins, and truth can never be wielded apart from love.
… In all of this, you’ll be introducing your children as they grow to the real Holy Mass, offered on Good Friday by a naked High Priest, clothed only in a vestment of flies; whose liturgical assistants mocked and jeered at him; whose hymnody was wailing, yelling and cursing; whose concelebrants taunted him and asked for special favors. And not one of these evils or imperfections detracted one iota from our Lord making of this whole mess a perfect offering of pure love to the Father. It was the Mass of Mercy, which is the only one there is.
Give your children that sense of Christ, and they will be able to find him everywhere. You’ll have done well.
Patti and I are forever indebted to him for that advice. Especially, working for the church, we know well the temptation to cynical talk about the true stature of Oz behind the curtain. How clearly we see the humanity of the Church, the fragility of the stewards of the mysteries of God! Like ourselves.
I can say with great personal conviction that only those who think “out of” the crucifixion of God can remain working in belly of the Church, while remaining filled with hope and joy. Why? Because thinking in that place joins the whole truth of what you know to the whole truth of divine love. And, as St. Paul reminds us, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
O Lord of heaven and earth, help me find in sacred worship not a mind shrink-wrapped in nitpicking judgments, but a mind opened out by the recklessly lavish mercy flowing from the High Mass on Mount Golgotha.
I hope you enjoyed my parade of “reposted” material these last days! Though I am still not able to write new material, I posted whatever old reflections from the past came to mind. I am so grateful always for those who read, comment or share my work. I’ll be back in August after my summer teaching pauses.
Here’s a final post for you, from 2014
“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson
My grandfather once wrote me, “When you are criticized, consider it a favor even if it’s unfair. Don’t live defensive. Live interested. Everything can become an education if you choose that path. Don’t let criticism deflate you. Begin with the assumption there’s something to it, and see what you can learn. Even if it’s delivered in ill temper, look for the gold in the dross. Your goal is to be a better man, not prove yourself right. And if you judge the criticism was wrong, have the courage to correct them. Regardless, be the better man. Forgive them if they intended malice, then let go of it. People who squander criticism squander wisdom.” He added later in the letter, “A good way to steel yourself for criticism is to select a few of your own critics. Have people you trust, who have your best interests in mind. Seek criticism from them so when it comes from unfriendly ones you’ll be more prepared.”
He wrote that to me in response to a letter I wrote him in 1987 about being severely criticized at my summer job and finding it was eroding my self-confidence. What that job had taught me was just how tender my ego was, how inexperienced I was, and how much of my life had been constructed around the avoidance of criticism. His letter helped me see not only better ways to handle criticism, but also how to offer it constructively to someone’s face. And I began to notice the various ways other people respond to it themselves, and was amazed how few people, like myself, were really open to it.
It’s been 27 years since he wrote that letter, and I can see now how the journey of learning how to face criticism has never ceased! And while it has certainly helped me in my work over the years, the greatest rewards from his advice have been in my marriage and as a parent. One practice in particular that I have most benefited from has been having a conversation with my children when they turned 18, asking for their own “critical” feedback on the experience of me as a father. “How did you experience me as your father, for better or for worse?” Whoa. The feedback they have given since then has offered me some stunning insights into myself I never would have had without their uniquely polished mirrors. Wow, are children ever watching closely! Also, those transparent conversations have deepened our adultrelationships in profound and enduring ways.
Here, I’d like to take another tack on this topic.
On an eight day silent Ignatian retreat I did back in 2012, as part of my work for the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, my assigned spiritual director asked me on day three to spend one of my five hours of prayer that day in front of the Sacred Heart statue in a garden behind the Jesuit residence. He asked me to spend an hour inviting Jesus to reveal to me something of myself as he sees me.
As you might imagine, I approached that hour with trepidation. Do I really want to know? So I added a caveat to my open-ended prayer: “Lord, be gentle.” As I sat there in the garden speaking to the Lord with that question in mind, I was overcome by what I can best describe as an intuitive knowledge of the roots beneath some of my most pernicious habitual sins and faults. It was not an awareness not of what I’ve done wrong, but an insight into of why I do what I do. Incredibly clear and wildly insightful. Painless tears flowed for well over an hour as I sat there looking at Christ’s Heart, “seeing” my sins from the vantage of that Heart. So it seemed.
Here’s what I found to be most amazing about this prayer experience. First, it was an vivid look into my broken soul, an unvarnished self-honesty with clarity. In those minutes, I could say with the most sincere conviction imaginable: I am a sinner. Truth is, most of the time I don’t know how sincerely I really mean or even understand those words. I later described it to my wife as “a divine critique,” which she thought sounded really awful. But, I told her, in that laser-clear knowledge of my soul there was no shame, no guilt. Instead, it was “medicinal” — its goal was only the overcoming of obstacles to flourishing.
The image I used for Patti to express it was a sense of being loved in this way: a little child, who gets into trouble of all sorts, being looked on by a father who feels such a deep compassion knowing just how weak and ignorant his child is. That’s the image that comes to mind from what I saw, in that garden, to be a God’s-eye view of me.
When I shared this experience with my 8-day spiritual director the next morning, he said,: “Now bring that insight with you next time you face judgment from someone else. Even if they treat you with contempt as they criticize you, know God sees it differently. Return in prayer to that place in the garden with Jesus, whenever you feel beat down by your own or others’ judgment.”
So it is now often that to the Well I go. Join me…
[repost from 2014]
I have permission to share this story.
I was speaking with someone the other day, trying to express my enthusiasm over her really good place in life right now, especially as she’d had a rough go of it the last few years with overwhelming commitments and family chaos. Every time I would affirm how well things were going for her, she seemed very uncomfortable. Finally I said with a touch of humor, “You know, it’s okay to be okay!” Then she said, “Okay, so I hate to admit this, but if I’m not being productive, if I can’t say how busy I am, or if I don’t have some terrible thing to claim victim status for, I feel worthless. I feel guilty for being in a good place, like I always have to have some justification for existing. Can you help me with that?”
We spent the next hour talking about why she thinks this way. As an aside, I brought up the crazy fact that God had to command Sabbath rest every seventh day to get us to stop working, being enslaved to busy, so we could attend to first things first. Sabbath observance makes sure we remember existence is first of all an absolutely unmerited gift from God, and only when we remember that can we keep our priorities straight. Sabbath commands unproductive activities of the highest order: worship, prayer, celebration, song, dance, storytelling, feasting, generosity to the needy, wasting time being with family and the community of faith.
I remember having a conversation with a Rabbi about the gift Sabbath could be in our American producer-consumer culture. Among other things, he said, “You Christians talk about justification by faith not work. Right? Now, you know you stole that idea from our Sabbath, right? Sabbath is the day of faith in the God, blessed be his Name, in whose mercy alone, and not in our own power, do we trust.”
When I worked at a Jewish nursing home in the late 1980’s, I experienced the practice of Sabbath observance for the first time in my life. It was magnificent! The Friday evening Shabbat service was incredibly joyful, but what was most remarkable about it to me was the way it brought the usually sedate residents alive. They sang Hebrew songs, danced and moved to the music, and laughed. The rest of the week they felt alone, like useless burdens as they sat in the doorway waiting for someone to come and visit them. But on Sabbath, when the culture of usefulness was banished, they felt special, loved, almost royal as Queen Sabbath whirled in from the Age to Come to liberate them from the Egypt where only youthful productivity and busyness justifies existence. It was the God of Zephaniah 3:17, Bridegroom of humanity who has all the time in the world for them, who came to celebrate their life with unbridled joy:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
[repost from 2019]
Everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. — Jn. 3:20-21
A few months ago, my wife and I met with an engaged couple and they asked us what we thought were the key ingredients to a strong marriage. We spoke about shared faith, trust, patience, forgiveness and keeping love fresh and alive. But the very first thing we both said, almost in stereo, was “No secrets from each other.” We laughed at our synchronicity, and then Patti added some additional thoughts that went something like this.
But don’t think it’s as easy as it may seem now. You think you know each other completely now. Haha! But, truthfully? You really have no idea who this person is. It really takes years to see each other as you really are … As you both learn more about each other over time, there’s a temptation to begin to hide things from each other. For all kinds of reasons. Some understandable, some dangerous. It takes years to trust your spouse enough to show your whole self, or to accept and love your spouse as they are. It’s never complete, never perfect. … It’s very important to not allow resentment or contempt to fester … It really takes hard times and challenges to see what is inside of each of you. You don’t even really know yourself till you’ve been through the fire! It takes becoming parents. It takes dealing with in-laws. Work. Money issues. Sex. Illness. Well, everything gets tested at some point. Then, you have to learn to love what you’ve come to see and know about your spouse. That’s a whole journey itself.
…Again, the temptation will be to hide things that should be out in the open, avoid confronting things that boil beneath the surface or come out in other ways. They need to be dealt with, brought out into the open. And if you ever find yourself lying to your spouse, you’ve crossed a line and it’s time to get help.
If there is one big truth I have learned from years of getting to know and supporting engaged and married couples, it’s that there are a lot of secrets being kept. Dark, damaging and painful secrets. Secrets from the past. Secrets of unhappiness, anger, disappointment, hurt, loneliness, mistrust, lack of forgiveness, resentment and infidelity, including secret relationships and emotional affairs. And this last one has mass-proliferated in our digital age, when secret extra-marital intimacy can be disguised and rationalized away so easily.
Patti and I have also found that having marriage-supporting mentors and confidantes as a couple, and as individuals, has been absolutely crucial to preserving marital health. They offer support, advice, a space for honesty and challenge, as well as prayer support. And not just when crisis hits. The best defense is a good offense. Or as my mom loved to say to me, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
I came from a family filled with secrets, held under lock and key by a code of secrecy enforced by intimidation and fear. So learning radical transparency in marriage and family life, along with the real humility and trust needed to break with that past, has been a long/ongoing journey for me. Patti and I have been friends since 1988, and there is no human being on earth who knows me better than her. She has earned my trust by means of countless gentle and explosive encounters of honesty, failure and reconciliation. And I have tried to do the same. This “space of truth” opened up in me by her has allowed me to grow in ways I never could have without her. She’s grace in my face. I believe that the future tense of the verb in “the two will become one” means what it says. It’s a process, a journey. Ours is a marriage always under construction, a work always in progress, daily threatened by divisive forces.
Just the other week, Patti and I went to Sacramental Confession together, which is our custom. I thought to myself as I knelt in the Confessional, “I’m whispering my deepest and darkest secrets to Christ. What a crazy thing!” After I walked out, I saw Patti kneeling in a pew nearby smiling at me. It occurred to me just how much Marriage and Reconciliation are sacramental mirrors of each other. Marriage is to be a Christ-crafted sanctuary, a sacred seal of confidentiality, a safe place in which we can each reveal to each other our deepest selves with a willingness to confront/be confronted, to apologize, cry, forgive, embrace, celebrate in hope of a better future together. Marriage is to be a secret-breaking Sacrament, a mystery of reconciliation constantly (re)opening cracks in our tightly shut doors, letting the light in.
Sacramental Marriage is Christ drawing terrifyingly near, getting deep into my business through my spouse, calling me to radical truthfulness and integrity. One-ing with her is one-ing with Christ, while deceiving her is to deceive the One who cannot deceive nor be deceived.
After our conversation with that couple, I emailed them a quote from a second century Church Father, Tertullian, from a letter he wrote to his wife:
Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company.
May every couple sit at the feet of Jesus and learn this Way, how to fuse knowledge with love…
[repost from 2016]
The list of mistakes you can never recover from is very short.
But you likely realize your life will not be destroyed
if your book doesn’t sell or if a potential date turns you down
or if your startup goes bust.
It’s not the failed outcome that paralyzes us.
It’s the possibility of looking stupid, feeling humiliated,
or dealing with embarrassment that prevents us from getting started at all.
The first step to being courageous is being willing to look foolish. — James Clear
Back in the early 1990’s, my spiritual director said to me, after I had publicly humiliated myself at a speaking engagement in New York City, “Get up, get over yourself, give it up to God and get on with it.” He helped me appreciate James Clear’s point, challenging me to embrace failure as a straight path to core virtues like wisdom, humility, trust and courage. Years after that NYC fiasco, I was asked to give a talk to a group that I knew would be hostile to my message. I was trying to decide whether or not to do it, and found myself unable to think clearly because of my fears. So I called my director to discuss it with him. After asking me questions and listening to me, he said, “What’s the worst that can happen? Fear of the unknown? What’s your worst case scenario? Criticism? Humiliation? Rejection? Looking stupid? Name it.” I did name various dreads, and he responded by inviting me into a prayer exercise that we did together on the phone. He said,
I want you to imagine the room you will be speaking in. It’s about an hour before your talk. The room is empty. [he paused] Now I want you to ask the Holy Spirit to come and fill the room. Say over and over, “Come Holy Spirit.” [he paused for about a minute] Okay, what do you see? [I shared with him what I saw] Now ask the Spirit to invite into the room all the people who are coming, and let him prepare them for the talk. [he paused] Now, ask the Spirit to invite you to speak. Ask him to fill you and prepare you. Ask him to unleash his chosen gifts in you. To remove all obstacles, internal and external. To open in you humility and trust. [he paused for several minutes] Now I want you to ask the Spirit to plant the Cross right in the middle of the room. See it? Allow Christ on that Cross to absorb all the negativity, and transform it into goodness and mercy. [he paused again] Now give thanks to Jesus for not leaving you an orphan, for never leaving you alone, but always giving you his own Holy Spirit when you ask him to come and be with you.
After leading me through this very powerful exercise, he suggested that I do something like this in abridged form before making any difficult decision, before every talk, in advance of any difficult conversation. It has helped me immensely, mostly by realigning my whole mindset to be open to the work of grace, and disentangle me from myself and all my “stuff.” I have also made it a habit, after every decision, talk or conversation of consequence, to offer to God the mixed results of ALL that happened — and do so in the liturgy of my heart. I ask God to “do good with my efforts, beyond my limits, and supply for my failings.”
Then when I’m at Sunday Mass, I give a week’s worth of offerings over in the Offertory and imagine the epiclesis, that solemn invocation of the Spirit over the gifts of bread and wine, as the definitive and final planting of the Cross into the heart of these offerings. All of which makes my own daily practice seem a perfect prelude and coda to the Mass.
Come Holy Spirit…
My wife. I’ve written of her in this Blog innumerable times over the last decade, of the gift she is in my world and the world of countless others. Tough as nails, honest as God, maternal to the core, a voice akin to the Angels, with a quiet greatness clothed in a party dress, always trying to teach me the art of dance — a feat requiring heroic patience as it appears, after decades of trying, I am forever stuck in the beginner stage.
And she’d hate that I said all of this. But as I wanted to share the gift she gave me for her birthday, I thought I’d reiterate.
Because of certain aspects of my childhood, memory has always been a painful and paralyzing exercise for me. Part of that has translated over the years into an inability to revisit the physical places I grew up. But after my mom and dad both died, I told Patti that I wanted to go back and see the various homes, schools and other places in New England where I grew up. Do a sort of pilgrimage of memory. I felt I was ready, and believed the physical absence of my parents would allow me to confront things in a way I could not when they were still alive. I had hoped to do this last summer, but it was not to be. I had given up on the idea and had made peace with deferring it into the “some day” future.
This June, my wife had a milestone birthday, and months ago I told her I wanted to use the money we had saved for other COVID-perished travels to go toward a birthday vacation I could plan and she would enjoy. For my beach-loving southern belle, I knew that would mean something like the Florida Keys, the Virgin Islands or maybe Aruba, where we had our honeymoon. Well, being Patti, she told me the biggest surprise she could get would be to allow her to plan it and surprise me. Yup, she totally trusts me. Uh…
For three months, I asked her where we were going, and she refused to tell me. Well, about two weeks before the trip, I said that she had to tell me so I could prepare my mindset. “All in good time,” she said. Ugh. About five days before the trip, we were praying morning prayer together. Before we began, she looked at me with a smile. I’d seen that look before, and so I said, “What’s wrong? What’d I do?” She said, “New England.” I said, “What?” She said, “We’re going to New England. My birthday gift is for you, because the Holy Spirit told me that’s way it’s supposed to be.”
I sat there staring for a few moments at the floor in confused and stunned silence, and then burst into copious tears. The depth of meaning in that gift is one only she could ever know fully among all human beings, as she knows me better than anyone. I felt drowned in love, at once by God and her. And by my parents. I knew this with absolute certainty in that moment. I can feel this as I write here.
The journey up there, back to the landscapes and architecture of my childhood, was so profound I have not yet been able to write anything at all about it in my journal, other than noting details of the people and places, smells and sounds that transported me back in time — to places where (now, then) God was always waiting for me. With my wife.
Deo gratias. Miserere mei, Deus.
For those who read my Blog, you know I dearly love the late Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko. For today, I thought I would share with you this 10 minute reflection he gave on the greatest challenges for Orthodox Christians these days.
[This reflection is excerpted from a draft of my work on the call of the laity]
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The point of the resurrection is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.
These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom. ― Bishop N.T. Wright
I remember vividly the day back in 1988 when I got into a debate with a political science graduate student at Florida State University at a party I was attending. When he found out I was a practicing Catholic, he told me he was an atheist and proposed to me a Marxist critique of religion. I especially remember a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes he shared — “Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” He argued that, in his experience, devoutly religious people tended to be fixated on dogmatic disputes, obsessions over personal salvation, proper worship or some other esoteric otherworldly concern. “These things,” he said, “seem to make the concerns of real life into passing distractions from higher spiritual things.” He heaped on a torrent of other criticisms:
Look at history. Church leadership, promising spiritual blessings to the wealthy benefactors, again and again sideline the poor by failing to confront economic injustices for fear of offending the moneyed class funding their projects. Even the idea of heaven as a place where God finally makes everything right gives Christians, in practice, a rationale for kicking the can down the road. Heaven is a reward for the poor who suffered and the rich who gave alms to the poor, so economic injustice becomes a win-win. That’s why Marx called religion the opium of the people. Lulls believers to sleep in facing structural injustices.
As I had never heard any of these arguments before, I was shaken. It left me deeply troubled for several days. I kept thinking to myself, is that true? Do people who get serious about their faith make religion into a diversion from embracing real-world issues? The question has haunted me for the last 33 years, and in many ways has fueled the evolution of my theological thinking about the dangers of an excessively otherworldly, self-obsessed or hyper-spiritualized religion.
Especially, in my experience, this danger obtains among young converts like myself. We see only an irreconcilable chasm between God and the world, between the sacred and secular, and so feel compelled by our newfound fervent faith to withdraw into a spiritual religious ministerial church bubble, abandoning previous ambitions for secular careers, civic and political engagement, and so on. My zealous faith grew mired in this version of Catholic culture.
I would have fit the description given by a man named Vick, whom I met about ten years ago. He sent three of his children to a particular Catholic college known for its spiritual zestiness. He said to me over lunch one day, “Yes, I sent them all to [this university], where our children went off with passionate aspirations of becoming a lawyer, scientist and politician, and came back wandering aimlessly with a theology degree. I mean, I wanted them to keep their faith but not lose their heads!”
How we think of the world as Christians is immensely consequential.
I have become more and more attentive over the years to the ways Christians tend to use the word “world” (and its correlates). In sum, it has been my consistent experience that “world,” for devout Christians, is overwhelmingly used in a negative sense, equated with words like sinful, godless, corrupt, immoral. The word “secular” shares a similar fate, associated with all things irreligious or antireligious, rather than simply all things nonreligious. Think about it right now, if you are a religious person, what is your instinctual reaction to the words “worldly” and “secular”?
Where does all this come from? Certainly, it stems from a very long and complex history that I would not pretend to be able to do justice to here. But it may be helpful to briefly summarize the way Scripture generally uses the word “world” as a backdrop to that complicated history.
The word “world” is used in three distinct ways in the Bible. First, it refers to God’s good creation that he made in the beginning, which he loves and sustains in existence at every moment. Second, it refers to that aspect of creation turned in rebellion against God. Third, it describes creation damaged by evil, which God has made a “theater of redemption” in which he is redeeming all the broken things.
The first sense of world includes things like matter, the forces and laws of the cosmos, biological life, human society and civilization with its economic, political, cultural and social dimensions. The world in this sense is a majestic and magnificent thing, governed by internally coherent laws established and willed by God from the beginning.
The second sense of world contains the story of the sinful rebellion of humanity, and of a portion of the Angels, against the plan of God. This fall from grace by men and Angels has infected every aspect of God’s good world with its corrupting influence, opening in creation the domain of death and alienation from God.
The third sense of world binds together the first and second meanings into God’s ultimate plan of salvation. Here we see the world as an icon of God’s masterpiece of mercy, God’s highest attribute. This third sense of world permits us to confront the full truth of the world as it is, in all its grandeur and gore, in a manner open to hope in God’s restorative Providence. Humanity has been invited to participate in this plan to repair the world precisely by being deeply immersed in this world as God would have us.
The totality of this third sense of “world” is found in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Jesus is the Theater of Redemption, God making the world new with man. In this Theater, the Church as Jesus’ Body becomes the center of action in the unfolding of God’s repairing the world. In Jesus, who reconciles all things in himself, earthly and heavenly, sacred and secular, God and the world are inextricably interrelated.
It is in this third sense of being “in the world” that the laity find their true genius. As Vatican II said so eloquently:
What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius.
By their very vocation, [they] seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. 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 (LG #31).
I am absolutely convinced that as long as our preaching, teaching and spiritual piety continue to overwhelmingly employ the second negative sense of the word “world,” lay men and women who take their faith seriously will continue to see their only honest options to be flight from the world or flight from the Church. Remember, these laity are the ones whom the Council says are inextricably bound, by vocation, to immersion in the secular world.
While predominantly pro-spiritual=anti-world rhetoric can certainly rally the troops, gather some fiercely loyal ministerial workers, and inspire a certain kind of true believer, it’s hard to imagine that, in trashing the world and secular culture repeatedly and vehemently, we will inspire a fervent laity to relish the sacredness of their secular identity and mission. Rather, it is sure to inspire among the Faithful some genuine spiritual elitism, neurotic fretting, as well as fear, aversion, antipathy, anger and apathy toward the world waiting for Jesus. The world God so loves.
The late Francis Cardinal George made a similar point in an interview he gave:
I mentioned earlier, I am not easy with the term ‘countercultural’, because it sometimes connotes self-hatred. There is truth to the claim that the Catholic believer must sometimes stand boldly apart from his or her culture and speak a word of prophetic critique; but, at its limit, the claim to be countercultural strikes me as incoherent.
Whether we like it or not, we are shaped – linguistically, intellectually, relationally, bodily – by the culture in which we live. To stand completely outside of our culture is, impossibly, to stand outside of ourselves. More to the point, the language of counterculturalism can give rise to an attitude both mean-spirited and condescending. A culture is transformed only by those who love it, just as individuals are converted only by evangelizers who love them.
In a lecture I give to the seminarians on this topic, I argue:
If you believe that the laity are called to “consecrate the world to God” as God’s secular geniuses, and yet continue to employ only derisive, denigrating, suspicious and negative language to describe that world to them, what options do you leave them? From where will they steal any spiritual fire to fuel the very heart of their mission in the heart of the world? It seems to me that you leave them with only three options – fight, flight or freeze. Culture wars, sectarian mindsets or fearful/apathetic/neurotic paralysis.
Yet, our Church tells us their only REAL option for them, as the soul of the world, is to learn to love the world as God does; after the pattern set by Jesus on the cross. This is the meaning of Catholic Social Doctrine, which is the Gospel-template for acting as soul. Laity need you to inspire them to see the world this way, to see how to lead the world God’s Way.
The late Father Basil Pennington said at a retreat I attended in 1989, “The sign of a good retreat is when, at the end, you don’t dread going back to real life but look forward to it more than ever.” Your people should leave every Mass fired to exit back into the world God has entrusted to their stewardship! To see in the world their true spiritual home. No parish of yours should resemble the one St. John Paul II criticized, in which “temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and activities that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world.”
No! Please, I beg you brothers, inspire faithful Christians not to withdraw from the world, not to blend into it, but rather to embrace their front-line secular mission of permeating every aspect of home, neighborhood, work, gym, concert hall, society and culture with the light, salt and leaven of the Gospel. Remind them that by embracing this secular genius that is theirs is the gracing of the world God is making new as we speak…
My theological passion is at core a quest to restore the third sense of world as Theater of Redemption to its primary place of honor in our Christian lexicon. Those 99.8% of Christians whose call is to “do the world” as lawyers, scientists or politicians will certainly benefit from it.
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I will end with one offshoot of this point I have long thought on, and that is the valuation of callings in Catholic culture. Let me invite you into a work of imagination, each inspired by real life stories.
Imagine a young man who loves athletics and who is attending a state university to get a degree in Physical Education, as it was a lifelong dream of his to follow in the footsteps of his own grade school PE coach. While he is a sophomore in college, he is invited to a campus ministry retreat and has a deep conversion experience. Immediately after this, he decides to drop his major, drops out of the university and becomes a Dominical priest. Okay, now imagine a very athletic young man who had a lifelong dream of being a priest. Inspired one day by his religion teacher, he decides to enter the Dominican novitiate after graduating from high school. While he is near the end of his novitiate, remembering the witness of his PE teacher as he plays basketball with some inner city teens, he feels a powerful call to become a PE teacher in a public high school. He eventually leaves the Dominicans, enters an undergraduate program to complete a Physical Education degree and goes on to work the rest of his life in the public school system as a PE teacher.
Again, imagine a woman in her late 20s who has had a successful and lucrative career in marketing. After having ben away from the church for years, she has a life-changing faith-conversion experience and decides to give up her secular career to work for a large and well-known Catholic evangelization ministry she believes Jesus led her to. Okay, now imagine a young woman who has always been devout, went to a Catholic university where she got a degree in religious education and went on to work for a large and well-known Catholic evangelization ministry. After experiencing a profound deepening of her faith on a silent retreat, she senses a strong calling from Jesus to leave Church ministry and dedicate her life to a secular marketing career. She goes on to get her degree in marketing and develops a successful career in the corporate world.
Or again, imagine a young man who, after feeling Jesus powerfully calling him to ordained priesthood during a Holy Hour one night, eventually breaks off his engagement with a woman soon before their wedding day, giving up marriage in obedience to that call and entering the Seminary. Now I want you to imagine the story of a young man who, just before being Ordained to the diaconate, after feeling Jesus powerfully calling him to marriage during a Holy Hour one night, eventually decides to leave the Seminary to date and eventually marry a woman, giving up priesthood in obedience to that call.
Finally, imagine a man in his late 30’s who is a very successful business executive. He has a life-altering faith conversion when his wife nearly dies, and after a year or so decides to quit his corporate job, losing his large salary and his beautiful home, to start a non-profit business selling religious goods. Now imagine the same man, a year or so after his conversion experience, struggling to reconcile his growing faith with the demands of his corporate position. But instead of leaving he decides to stay in his job, keep his home, face the hard challenges and learn what it means to bring his faith to bear in a complicated secular and professional world.
Of these doubled scenarios, which option attracts devout admiration and praise? Inspires a pious “wow”? Which seems holier? More heroic? Unfortunate? Odd? Tragic? Why?
Assuming all things are equal in terms of good discernment practice, in these highly simplified stories, I contend that the day each of these vocational stories is revered as a holy, heroic and sacrificial narrative, as a journey to sainthood, is the day we have embraced a fully Catholic vision. Vocational paths are not competitive sports, and exalting one calling does not require denigrating another. Rather, each are unique personal invitations from Jesus for each person to strive to harmonize with God’s vast unfolding symphony that makes music for the life of the world.
And the sweetest music of all is the love Christ sang while in the world, from the cradle to the workbench to the cross, calling us into life.
However, if our Church is not able to inspire young people to passionately pursue secular vocations out of motives of faith, people who will be street-wise insiders of secular culture, we will have no one to blame in the end but ourselves for the world’s progressive alienation from (and hatred of) the Church.
MLK, help me out…