DBH Quotable

In honor of David Bentley Hart’s lecture at Notre Dame Seminary here in NOLA last night, I want to post a quote from an appreciative article he wrote on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In it he contrasts the rapidly ascending “trans-humanist” worldview that sees the mastery of (human) nature as the final eugenic solution to human suffering, with the Christian humanism that St. John Paul proposed. While both visions seek divinization (becoming God) as the goal, one proposes to achieve it by manipulation and destruction, while the other proposes to achieve it in freedom by love of God and neighbor, with a special reverence for those whose disabilities permit them to resemble the crucified God.

For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise. To the one, a Down syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.


I noticed just now on re-read that yesterday’s post had a bunch of typosz in it. Lesson: never trust a previous post was edited properly! Sorry about that, as I know that makes for distracting reading. And by the way, I intentionally spelled typos wrong to make my point. Tom Neal, OCD

Oh and here’s a random picture of me installing a new shower in our house. As my daughter would say: “Why, Dad? Why?”



“It has been finished”?!

I was at a theology symposium this weekend and received some wonderful insights. Pages and pages of them, scribbled in indecipherable script! I will share one here. I wrote this after one of the presentations when I had a few minutes to think it all through. Here it is:

John’s Gospel begins with a prologue (1:1-18) that sets a startling backdrop for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Unlike the other Gospels, it does not begin in Nazareth or Judea, but begins by taking the reader back to ultimate “beginning,” before creation, opening with the first (Greek) words of Genesis, “In the beginning…” Jesus of Nazareth, we discover in the prologue, is the “Word” that God spoke in the beginning when He said, “let there be light.” That Word, who is God with the Father (1:1), pre-existing creation as eternal with the Father, and through whom all things were made (1:2), has now become “flesh” and pitched his tent (eskēnōsen) among us (1:14).

This makes Jesus the Alpha, the origin, archetype and beginning of all things. But He is also the Omega, the goal, fulfillment and end of all things. He has come into a world created through Him – the world we have sin-wrecked – in order to liberate it from the bonds of corruption and death, re-creating it by restoring it to its original capacity to receive God (capax Dei) as a bride receives her bridegroom.

But here’s the truly amazing new insight I received. At the Last Supper (13-17) Jesus reveals the goal of all creation – the sharing of divine agape-caritas-love with humanity – and then brings it to fulfillment. Washing feet, commanding love, promising the Spirit, fulfilling the Passover by feeding humanity with His broken Fresh and spilled Blood while asking the Father to admit us into the threefold intimacy of Their eternal Triune communion.

In all of this He is rendering us capable of loving as He loves, “to the end” (13:1) with a self-sacrificing servant love precisely because He has made accessible to us the whole of God’s life which is love.

From the beginning, this and this alone was the true end and purpose of God calling all things from non-existence into being: Man is made capable of God because God has become man.

But here’s the super-duper cool part. On the cross as He’s dying, Jesus says something striking for its stark simplicity – it’s a free-floating verb: “It has been finished” (Tetelestai). What has been finished? Creation! The beginning has achieved its end. In fact, the “end” has already come. Everything from here on out is merely an extension of the end of creation into time. Christus vincit! The God-Man has achieved – “on behalf of all and for all” – in fullest measure possibe the original vocation of humanity: to return the gift of creation back to the Father in the form of a total self-sacrificing gift of love. Now we are invited to join in that fulfillment and allow it to define us.

This is why the Eucharist is a foretaste of the End, of eternal life, of the new creation, because in it is the perfect, total act of both divine and human selfless, sacrificial love — paschal love. And those of us who co-celebrate the Eucharist with Christ, eating the Flesh and drinking the Blood of God-is-love, receive a foretaste and promise of the Age to Come which, even now, forms in us an ever-more perfect love. Here Aquinas’ point that the primary effect of receiving Communion is an increase in charity makes marvelous sense. And the gravity and implications of the Christian vocation to become divine love in the world are revolutionary. The folly of cruciform love conquers all. Amor vincit omnia!

In Christ on the cross, humanity, created in the image of eternal self-wasting Love, brings to perfection the longing of the whole cosmos to share in the liberty of self-wasting love (Romans 8:21 – what else is the freedom of God’s children than love?).

This, it seems to me, is yet another reason why Jesus does not heal the five wounds in His resurrection, because they stand forever as icons of this immutable truth that has been stamped by His Pasch into every quark in the cosmos.

This gives me a fresh vantage on Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s contention that martyrdom – laying down one’s life out of love for the glory of God and the neighbor’s wellbeing – is the *normative* state of Christian life. All claims to Christian authenticity must derive from the martyr’s witness of love to-the-end. The martyr is a living profession of the Shema: love with all your heart, soul, mind, strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). And with the whole of one’s body (Romans 12:1).

All of one’s life is meant to be a progressive self-emptying of love in service to others.  Only with this logic in mind could St Therese’s comment make any sense: “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.”

I had a philosophy professor at back in the 1980’s who was also a devout Jew. One day in our philosophy of nature class, he said: “When you look at the precise balance of innumerable factors that had to be in place for life – and man – to appear, it’s awe inspiring. The appearance of man seems to be the universe’s desire to reflect back on itself and say to someone, “thank you.”


But more, in Christ, the universe turned back to its Origin and, after saying “thank you,” added: “I love you.”

That’s the gist of the insight.

Labor of Love

For those of you who don’t see my Facebook page and are willing to indulge a father’s pride, I wanted to share an update on some new music videos by (my daughter) Maria and Ashley, as well as a one-and-only that includes my daughter Catherine percussing. Catherine was a Jazz Band percussionist before she went to High School. I will not be posting for a while so you have a few to enjoy till then.

First, some Maria and Ashley covers (Maria has the shorter hair):

{This one below is a video compilation Maria assembled from a Twenty One Pilots concert she and Ashley attended in August, backed by their singing of the TØP song, “Truce.” My favorite image is right around 1:44}:

Second, just Maria is solo and “playing around” with Garage Band:

Third, Catherine is backstage with some of the performers in the musical, Legally Blonde, having some fun just before a show. Catherine is seated, percussing on the right:

So small

“No one can grow if he does not accept his smallness.” ― Pope Francis

After reading this quote in an article, I wrote this stream of consciousness reflection in my journal:

Every year I feel smaller and smaller. I realize more how much I don’t know. How much there is to know. How fragile I and others are.  I see how much I have not done, should have done, can never do. I wish I had, wish I had not… I see the vastness of the ancient universe. I, so tiny. Those whom I once saw as invincible, are rendered helpless by illness or misfortune. How limited is my control over life. I see all my flaws and limits more clearly as I age, and time wears away the desire for illusion, to see what I want to see. I look now: there I am.

When I was small I would always notice tiny things, relished hidden treasures. As I grew, I grew dull to them. But grace has reawakened in me a preference for the tiny and small and out of the way, the obscured beauties. I want to re-turn to childhood — “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3). At least on my better days. I love learning the small details of others’ hopes and dreams, pains and anxieties. I have grown again to cherish stopping along the road to catch view of a tiny flower. My wife and children have taught me that love is in the details.

I beg that God’s attentiveness to hair-counts, which seems to rank high on the spectrum of His delight, becomes my own. “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid” (Luke 12:7). Yet I so easily get lost in a narrowed vision, become myopic. It’s usually an experience of pain, sickness, suffering — mine or others — that rips off my blinders yet again.

I pray often for what St. Teresa of Avila says is a sweet fruit of divine charity: to notice above all, amid the many flaws of others, the often hidden goods that are there. Not to dwell in their failings, which loom, and which oft may make me feel better about my own crap and distract me from my own mess. But at what a cost. Little Thérèse also saw this:

I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects–not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.

I see more clearly now than I ever have that God prefers nothing more than working great things within all these limiting factors. He came for the sick, he loves the outcast, he has preferential love for the 1 out of 99. The Most Low God, the Infinite lover of the itty. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Orthodox paradoxy.

And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah  — Leonard Cohen

All our weaknesses and broken jars must be given to Him as an offering; turned from inward fretting upward into a prayer, a cry for mercy. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), i.e. everything human about your life is game for sacrifical worship. My fragilities, if turned from empty gaps or murky holes into spacious capacities for God’s gifts, become wellsprings of divine grace in the midst of the world. Only what is offered up can be consecrated.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, beset by the tempest of human failures and incomplete lives, I jump out of the boat into the Ocean of mercy toward the God who calls me to walk upon the surging waves, eyes fixed on Jesus, and trust.

“In peace I will lie down and fall asleep,
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:9)


Just wanted to apologize for the typos and other errors in this latest post on Prayer. I transposed it from raw journal form straight to the blog and did not review it carefully enough. But maybe that is just part of the point: in prayer you give what you have to God, in raw form, and ask Him to edit it for you! Theologians can justify nearly anything!

Live in the Light

Here IS a post I completed in July that I will post today…

The thirteenth rule: Likewise, [Satan] acts as a licentious lover in wanting to be secret and not revealed. For, as the licentious man who, speaking for an evil purpose, seduces the daughter of a good father or the wife of a good husband, wants his words and persuasions to be secret. The contrary displeases him much, when the daughter reveals to her father or the wife to her husband his licentious words and depraved intention, because he knows well that he will not be able to succeed with the undertaking begun: in the same way, when the Enemy of human nature brings his wiles and persuasions to the just soul, he wants and desires that they be received and kept in secret; but when one reveals them to his good Confessor or to another spiritual person that knows [the Devil’s] deceits and evil ends, it is very grievous to him, because he gathers, from his manifest deceits being discovered, that he will not be able to succeed with his wickedness begun. — St. Ignatius of Loyola

I have written on this before, but felt moved to write on it again: the importance of not hiding your inner struggles and temptations; of not deceiving yourself that you can “tough it out” on your own and, through the sheer power of white-knuckled determination, overcome temptations and struggles without the assistance of another wiser than yourself. Such inner isolation and arrogant self-reliance is the perfect breeding ground for things like discouragement, despair or that most extraordinary human capacity to rationalize and justify succumbing to temptation. When we self-isolate, cutting ourselves off from the saving power of the God-Man, Jesus (i.e. God saves us not directly but through other human beings), we are on our own against “the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12).

Fr. Tom Hopko summed up well the orthodox Christian spiritual tradition’s universal insight:

The person should open their life fully to at least one other wise and trustworthy person, telling absolutely everything, without editing or hiding anything: their thoughts, dreams, temptations, actions, sins, fears, anxieties. This person must be able to listen to you without judgment, but be able to judge the lies and lead you into the light … The desert Fathers called this the “baring of thoughts” and considered it an absolute requirement for growth in virtue … without this practice, one is dangerously subject to prelest [delusion] and all the deceits of the Evil One, who thrives on isolation, secrecy and self-direction. St. Teresa of Avila says self-direction is the blind leading the blind … Satan remains brilliant and is a master at cloaking darkness in light. He tempts the good with good, and the evil with evil … St. Symeon says, it’s better to “be called a disciple of a disciple rather than to live by your own devices, gathering the worthless fruits of your own will.”

I share this now because this summer I experienced yet again the power of this truth, and the power of the lie. I had been struggling with an inner storm for months, and when I finally surrendered my pride and revealed it fully to a wise and trustworthy confidant, its gripping power was shattered. I still had to work through how best to overcome the temptation, but its enslaving grip was demolished. This is the power hidden in sacramental Confession, spiritual direction and spiritual friendships. And I’ve always believed this is the deepest meaning of James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Confess, pray for one another. Though one must use great discretion in choosing the recipient of that confession, the practice itself is foundational.

Regardless of how well I know this truth, or have been through this cycle, I find myself lured into this trap again and again. That’s just the human condition. But it was precisely because I knew the Thirteenth Rule that I knew it’s what I had to do. It’s not always easy to find the “wise and trustworthy” confidant, so it’s something I never take for granted and pray for very often. 

St. Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Jesus tells us it is the truth that sets us free. Living in the truth, in the light, fleeing the dark isolation of keeping secret your inner struggles/temptations, and praying for a trustworthy and wise confidant are the ingredients of inner freedom that blossoms into virtue. God has made us this way, so we simply cannot flourish in freedom without one another. In Christ’s Body we are part of a living symphony, and beauty can only bloom in each of us when we have surrendered ourselves to the unifying song of love that the harmonious Spirit of Jesus sings through, with and in us (e.g. 1 Cor. 12).

We must always move from isolation to communion, from “leave me alone” to “don’t leave me alone”… A 21P if you’re game: