The man you thought I was

“When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women” — Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

[Spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

[Spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

[And one more time, spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

At the end of episode 2, season 4 of Masterpiece Theater’s Sherlock, there was a dialogue between Sherlock and Watson about Watson’s dead wife, Mary. There’s too much to explain background-wise, but suffice to say that in this scene Watson was confessing both to Sherlock and to his dead wife that while Mary was still alive he had had an affair (of sorts) with a woman he met on the bus. He was tortured with that memory. There was an insight in their dialogue that led to a reflective exchange between my wife, Patti, and me later the next night.

Here’s the part of that dialogue I wish to highlight:

Watson: She was wrong about me.
Sherlock: Mary? How so?
Watson: She thought that if you [Sherlock] put yourself in harm’s way, I’d rescue you. Or something. But I didn’t, until she told me to. And that’s how this works. That’s what you’re missing.
She taught me to be the man she already thought I was. Get yourself a piece of that.
[…Watson then confesses his affair to the ghost of Mary]
Watson to Mary: That’s all it was. Just texting. I’m not that man you thought I was. I’m not that guy. I never could be. And that’s the point. That’s the whole point. The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.
Mary: Well then, John Watson, get the hell on with it…

Brilliant. Unquestionably true in my life. “The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.”

That phrase, rightly understood, has a very particular meaning for me. In fact, I know many, many men who would say much the same as I do here. While I cannot say what I am for her in this regard, I can say what she is for me. Here’s the gist of what I said to Patti later, as I captured and expanded on it in my journal. I share it because my wife is a living witness whose story I wish to tell as I am able. She, imperfect in her humanity, has taught me more of the Way of Perfection than any other one person. How can I keep from writing?

+ + +

It’s not simply that you want me to be something I’m not, which can be toxic were it accompanied by your constant frustration, nagging, by seething anger and resentment when I fail because, in reality, you despise these things in me. Were you that way, I would never want to become what you hope from me. And if I did become it, I would be only a chimera, a distorted reflection of your own needs.

Neither is it that you wish me to be who you want for your benefit, to extract what you want out of me. Or that you want me to be what you know I could never be. Or again, neither do you charge me to change by being manipulative, coercive, employing the weapons of guilt or exploiting my weaknesses against me. I’ve seen those before at work in couples or whole families, and it’s bitter poison, the stuff of a suffocating, crushing, life-sucking and joyless marriage and family life.

No, why you motivate me so powerfully, so effectively is because you love me. Plain and simple. You see in me what I can be, awakening me to God’s dream for me. You know me, know who I am all too well, and you see so many things — great and petty — that inhibit me from becoming who I am to be. Because you love me, you see, and you want me free. You see so well the chains that keep me from becoming who I was meant to be, because you listen so long, so deep. And you kiss my chains, you slip your hands between mine, into those chains with me, and you show me the key to unlock them. It was just beneath my hands, but I never saw it. I miss so many things.

And my limits, so many, slowly migrating, sometimes expanding, other times receding, still other times exactly where they were from the start. I know you’ll be a saint for them, grueling patience, relieved by occasional gut laughs together that make us cry.

At times, you’ve known your love must be tough, direct, precise. You grabbed my tie and shook me, looking deep into my eyes as only you can, and said: “This is who you were made to be. You know it’s true. Do it. Don’t let fear keep you down. Your family needs you to be strong. Be a man.” The only reason I finished my PhD. Your eyes, His eyes.

You pray over my chains. You pray for rain on the drought. You call on the Angels to drive away the demons of doubt and fear, of despair and lust, of hate and unforgiveness, of self-loathing and mediocrity. You dismantle the armor, break up the hard clods and clear the stones. You see what I should have known, but never did and, instead of shaming or blaming, you say: “Here, see, look at true beauty; understand the liberating order God has made; a path of life; taste what hope is; be gentle and know that strength is only thus wrought rightly.”

You listen me into wisdom, sing me into peace, gift me into outward love. You never let me get away with what I should never get away with. Highest, greatest of all: you brought to me the gift of children who, with your motherhood, recreated fatherhood in/for me, rebirthed childhood, resurrected wonder and awe and simple joy and spontaneity and so many of my favorite things life had trampled on.

It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother. — St John Paul II

“The man you thought I was is the man I want to be” not because you demanded it, commanded it, but because you inspired it. God breathed life into Adam before He made Woman, but He has breathed life into the New Adam through the New Eve. Likewise, He has breathed life into me through you, with you, in you. Deo gratias. 

Tom: The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.

Patti: Well then, Tom Neal, get the hell on with it…

Ever Ancient, Ever New


Sunset taken from our backyard 1/9/17

As I was watching this sunset, I sang the 1800 year old Christian hymn, Phos Hilaron, “O Radiant Light,” that was composed to accompany the liturgy that ends the day. I learned it years ago. All three stanzas sing to Christ, who is the Light of Light. It’s a remarkable thought, to realize I am singing words that have been sung for that many years by Christians all over the world. That’s the gift of liturgy’s enduring character.

O radiant light, O sun divine
Of God the Father’s deathless face,
O image of the light sublime
That fills the heav’nly dwelling place.

O Son of God, the source of life,
Praise is your due by night and day;
All happy lips must raise the strain
Of your proclaimed and splendid name.

Lord Jesus Christ, as daylight fades,
As shine the lights of eventide,
We praise the Father with the Son,
The Spirit blest and with them one.

On a lighter note

Change of pace. Three videos I find funny. I hope it will make at least a few people out there smile.

I: In this season of gift-giving, I’ve thought about the fact that men are known to make bad judgments when they select gifts for their wives or girlfriends. I have. Well, there’s this commercial which a friend of mine sent me back in 2010 that brilliantly captures the predicament some men find themselves in in such situations. Maybe most have seen it, but no matter how many times I watch it, I laugh.

II. Another commercial for people who feel they need a job change.

II. A parody on Millennials.

Lenten Empathy

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” — Galatians 6:2

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” — Luke 6:32

Yesterday I was blessed to hear a presentation by a mental health care professional who spoke about the role of empathy and compassion in the health care industry. It was exceptional. Among the many insights she shared, I was struck by the way she described empathic listening as the capacity to enter another’s world of suffering without being “taken down” by it; but to translate the energy of empathy into compassionate action that helps — in ways great or small — bring the sufferer hope and relief. Something like that.

It set me thinking about the importance of recognizing that every person has a story they carry with them, and simply being aware that there is a story can go a long way toward tempering our judgments and responses to others’ words and actions.

It also made me think back on the Lent of 1992 when my spiritual director gave me this stunning Lenten penance:

Every day this Lent, if at all possible, I want you to go out of your way to connect with someone you find difficult, irritating, tedious or unappealing. Have lunch with them, stop them in the hall and ask them how they are doing, call them up just to chat, inquire into their interests and be interested, let them talk and you listen.

40 days. It was a hard Lent! For Holy Week, he asked me to write up the insights and benefits I sensed that I had gained. Here’s part of what I wrote (which I have used in talks I’ve given during Lent):

#1: Self knowledge! I discovered, first of all, how much I naturally gravitate toward people I find appealing and avoid those I don’t, and that it takes an act of the will to overcome this force of gravitation. Sounds obvious, but until I put myself in a position like this I simply did not know how true it really was for me. I also saw, in that way, just how selfish, quick to judge and good at reducing others to a caricature I am. But even more, I thought to myself again and again throughout Lent: My God, who would have me on their list if they had this penance?!

These days exposed my lack of virtues, my weaknesses and pettiness. That was yucky to see. But your request also grew some things in me I would never have seen the need for had I not been forced into this penance. Especially I learned the need to give people a hearing in order to “get” them. And nine times out of ten I came to see that their story, when they shared it, had some tough stuff in it. A few times I said to myself: “So that’s why they’re so difficult to deal with!” But more it was self-recognition, seeing my own blocks and issues that made me avoid them.  The more I came to know them, generally the less aversion I experienced toward them. Not in all cases, but in most.

One guy in particular I found out, from our several lunches together that took us deeper than I had anticipated, he had a rough home life growing up. His dad was hard and demanding and his mom was cold and distant. The deck was stacked against him from the start, and I appreciated how remarkably he had come out of that, all things considered, and tried to move beyond a bad beginning.

One woman who told me why I irritated her, but how she appreciated me more now that she and I had talked. I did not have the same courage to tell her the feeling was mutual. I was deeply humbled, somewhat humiliated, and totally amazed at her honesty!

It made my evening examination of conscience much more vivid! And made me cling more to prayer as I saw my shadows and others’ crosses. My Lenten anthem was Lord, have mercy with gusto!

I really can understand so much better now what you [my director] told me when we first started working together: if I want to be a saint, I have to will it. Not just want it, but will it. Choose it again and again. It’s not enough just to feel passionate or idealistic about holiness. If I want to learn to love these people better than I do, I have to overcome my natural dis-inclinations by choosing to come out of myself and focus on them. Look at them eye to eye, face to face. While there’s no magic happy ending to this, with me now being some kind of Mother Teresa, I have changed and did grow. And that’s gold.

All of these insights I had as she spoke exploded when she showed us a really neat video that drew from me tears and various memories. I’d never seen it before, but she said it’s very popular in the health care training world. It has given me a fresh way of looking at people around me. Such beauty.

Watch if you can, it’s about 4 minutes long:

St. John of the, oh yes, of the Cross

Okay, I don’t have time to write but I could not help myself. A brief thought on St. John of the Cross for his feast today.

I’ve said before, it was my spiritual director in the late 1980’s who introduced me to St. John. Among other reasons, he wanted me to grow beyond my attachment to “cash value” prayer that yielded sweet feelings, lovely insights and other ego-rich goodies. And he knew John was good medicine for kids with a spiritual sweet tooth like me.

I had been complaining for a while that I wasn’t getting anything out of my prayer. He asked me, “What do you try to get out of it?” I said, “Well, you know, a sense of God’s closeness. Something inspiring.” He replied something like this:

You have to remember that prayer is the time you take out of your day to give God permission to do what He wishes in you. Not to get God to do for you what you wish. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. You can’t really imagine, Tom, that the only thing He’s interested in doing are those things you mention? He’s so much greater. The Father sees prayer as really about making you like His Son. Your role is to be faithful to the time you promise Him, and to the methods of prayer we agreed on. Then let God decide what He wants to do. God always responds when we pray in faith. But faith is dark, He’s God, only faith is big enough for His work, and so most of what He does you can’t feel. After 20 years of faithfulness to this, come talk to me and then you’ll have something to say to me about struggle. Plant the Cross in your prayer.

He had given me a copy of St. John of the Cross’ collected works to read, and so he asked me to read the very pithy and incisive “Degrees of Perfection”. I recall this was the stand-out passage that made me realize something totally new to me: prayer was, in part, God exposing for His own viewing my mettle (or lack thereof):

Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.

Premature post

Excuse the premature posting of Catholic Kulturkamf that I took down just now — I did not intend it to post yet as I had not finished it nor had I gotten permission from the subject of the post to post it. Hopefully I will get that done and re-post!

As I will not be able to post for tomorrow’s memorial of St. John of the Cross, here’s a quote from his “Sayings” to mull over:

“What does it profit you to give God one thing if he asks of you another?  Consider what it is God wants, and then do it. You will as a result satisfy your heart better than with something toward which you yourself are inclined.”


Look, No Hands!

Acheiropoieta, a Greek term for “made without hand,” refers in the Orthodox tradition to miraculous sacred images, like the Shroud of Turin, that came into existence without human artistry. These works of art, this tradition says, were created by the Master Iconographer: the Holy Spirit.

Tomorrow is the memorial feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which honors the image of Mary miraculously imprinted on the tilma of St. Juan Diego.

There are evidently a large number of symbols in the image that are drawn from Aztec culture, but the one I find most beautiful is the black sash around her slightly bulging waist that indicates she is with child. The only images in the ancient and medieval Christian tradition that show Mary with child are the icons of the Annunciation, which is why the Gospel of the feast tomorrow is the Lukan annunciation. In the western iconographic tradition, there is a dypich of this event: before and after Mary says “yes” to the angel Gabriel. Before her yes, Gabriel is in an upright, superior position as he enters Mary’s presence, sent by God bearing a message; and she looks at him with open hands. But after her yes, he assumes a bowed posture of reverence, and she bows her head with hands open but lowered, as God has taken flesh within her. She is now the Ark of the Covenant.

The image of Guadalupe is clearly the second image in this diptych, as she has received the eternal Word in her womb and communes with Him in prayer (hands folded, which is a sign to Aztecs she is not a goddess), radiant with the light of divinity shining from within her. And she appears on the tilma as an Aztec woman, making this icon a magnificent revelation of the Incarnation of a God who assumes not only Mary’s human flesh and culture, but all human flesh, all human cultures, impregnating them with His divine light in order to raise them up, purify them and consecrate them for immortal life in the Kingdom of God that is coming and that is to come. When God saves each of us, He also saves the whole world we inhabit. Glory to Him for endless ages for honoring us with such unspeakable dignity. May we live worthy, as she did, of this calling. Amen.