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.

When Trust Means Something

Lay all your cares about the future trustingly in God’s hands, and let yourself be guided by the Lord just like a little child. — St. Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)

My spiritual director a number of years ago said to me, “If you ask God for more trust, know He will find you reasons to. You can’t have it both ways: asking for trust and then complaining when you finally have the chance.” I later wrote with stream of consciousness in my journal:

That’s really jarring. Yeah, trust is easy when all is well. Then trust is a sweet word. Then everything goes wrong and it seems a bitter word. God, I trusted you until things went wrong! That’s my motto.

Trust in God only means something when there’s a reason to trust; when all my pathetic props have fallen away; when the forces of blind chance seem to have taken the upper hand; when evil seems to have gotten its way.

I thought: In the beginning of the first creation the Spirit brooded over the dark and chaotic abyss [Genesis 1:2], and then at the beginning of the second creation the Spirit brooded over the Passion of Christ [Hebrews 9:14]. And at Mass at the epiclesis, He brings the sacrifice of Christ with Him. In the midst of the Spirit’s fertile brooding above the Cross, it seemed only death and chaos prevailed; but out of the terrors of the night came a world of good. Literally! His brooding over the dark abyss in the first creation gave rise to men and women called to trust God; His brooding over the Son’s execution in the second creation, called forth by the trust of a God-Man, gave rise to new heavens and a new earth, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).

At every moment creation, from the divine vantage, emerges fresh from God’s creative word: “Let there be…and there was…” At every moment creation, from the divine vantage, emerges fresh from God’s re-creative Word: “Behold, I make all things new” [Rev. 21:5]. Yet, think about it, those words were spoken by a God with open flesh-wounds in His hands, feet and side.

Trust is simply an echo of God’s creating word, “let there be” — trust says, “Let it be.” Mary permitted God to re-create all things when she echoed the words of creation: “Let it be done” (Luke 1:38). The prayer given to us by the God-Man: “Thy will be done.” Jesus spoke these words at the moment when everything was about to fall into ruin, in the Garden of Agony. He cried out with trust, yet in terror, to the Father with trembling lips drenched with blood, “…yet not as I will, but as you will” [Matt. 26:39]. By speaking those words, He made all things new [Heb. 10:9-10]. Out of that act of trust, spoken into the great silence, the revolution began. John Paul II says, “At the price of the Cross the Holy Spirit comes.” Every act of trust in the darkness threatens a new Pentecost, a world-transforming epiclesis.

St. John of the Cross says, “Suffering for God is better than working miracles” precisely because suffering provides a safe womb for trust (wild paradox!), and trust is the only true source of miracles that don’t just create passing amazement, but transubstantiate the world. God’s providence is revealed fully, completely, totally in the death and resurrection of Jesus. THAT is the manner in which He exercises “control” over history, entering into its bitter dregs in order to draw from it new wine.

Without this full vision of faith, hope cannot be sustained; trust collapses if it thinks “all will be well” offers a detour around the Cross. Only when spoken by one hanging from the Cross can the words, “Into your hands, Father, I entrust my spirit” mean anything.

So, my simple acts of trust in the dark, of obedience in the face of hardship, of prayer in the face of silence, of love in the face of hate, of mercy in the face of evil (all requiring trust in God’s power) are pregnant with the hidden dynamism that creates and re-creates the world at every moment. In every moment, God awaits my fresh echo of His beginning word: “Let there be.” In me may He hear back, “And so it was.” Amen.