Peace of mind

Fr. Tom Hopko.

I have been enjoying reading Notre Dame University theologian Dr. Laurence Cunningham’s recently published journal, Things Seen and Unseen. There’s an incident he recounts that I found to be particularly insightful. He says,

Once on a plane, when someone found out about my occupation, a pamphlet was whipped out with the opening gambit: “If you accept Jesus as your personal savior you will have peace of mind.” To which I responded frostily: “If I wanted peace of mind I would take Prozac.” I then went back to my reading after adding that faith should not be mistaken for therapy. Religious faith should serve, at the same time, to upset and give hope.

Even though that would not have been my style of responding, he makes an killer point. Funny that just yesterday I heard a speaker on our local Catholic radio say something life: “Trust God and everything’s gonna work out alright.” Well, it depends on what you mean by that. The speaker continued by saying, “No matter what happens, God’s gonna turn it in your favor if you trust Him.” Again, it depends on what you mean by that. Cunningham’s point is especially appropriate for so many American believers who are tempted by the seductive appeal of what has been called “therapeutic Deism.” This is the idea that God — who is really an unimposing, doting and distant grandpa who respects our autonomy and right to self-determine — only matters inasmuch as He makes me to feel good about myself, contributes to my personal happiness and promises that I’ll go to an Orbit heaven, “no matter what.”

Therapeutic Deism avoids placing faith into direct contact with the most brutal realities of life, just as it avoids internalizing the biblical idea of a God who, in the words of Pope Benedict, turns against himself, “his love against his justice” in the face of the monstrous evil of men and angels. Thus therapeutic Deism eviscerates the Cross of its meaning. Such a theology, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously said, leaves us with “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” For therapeutic Deists, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), becomes a lackey of humanity who is happy to light our cigarette when we need a smoke to relax. Or, to quote St. John of the Cross, they are “extremely anxious that God remove their faults, imperfections and trials, but their motive is personal peace rather than God.”

Last November I was listening to a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko and he, as ever, made me laugh. His points were very similar to Cunningham’s, graced with his usual “unhinged” personal style. As I listened, I summarized it as best I could.

He recounted an encounter he’d had with one of his Orthodox parishioners. She said to him, “Father, I try to be a good person and say my prayers. So why do all these bad things keep happening to me?” He replied, “Well, let me ask you, what do the Gospels say good people who pray should expect in this life?” “Good things,” she replied. Father responded, “Yes, exactly.” After a pause, he continued, “and what exactly are those good things according to Jesus?” The woman didn’t dare answer because, he said, she probably sensed he was setting her up.

Fr. Tom continued,

Well, I told her Jesus tells us very clearly that good people who pray the way He told us to should expect to know what joy is in being poor, meek, hungry, thirsty, mourning and peacemakers in war-zones; in being hated and reviled and persecuted while going out like lambs among wolves. Christ promises we will be cross-carrying, persecuted, insulted, hated but merciful and enemy-loving, demon-beset disciples. Christians bring about God’s kingdom through absolute trust in a conquering King whose body was broken and blood spilled. Christians are ready to place their minds in hell itself and not despair. And to bring divine love there.

The psalm says that God lifts the poor from the dung heap [Psalm 113:7; 1 Sam. 2:8], but in Jesus God was crucified on a graveyard of skulls. Being Orthodox means learning to love with the very love of God in Christ, and not just loving nice people, but the inhabitants of a totally loveless and devastated world. For Jesus, according to His Beatitudes, these are the ones who are REALLY, exceedingly glad! They’re the most joyful of people on the planet because they share the lot of a God who was crucified and raised from the dead out of love for humanity. The lot of a deathless God who dies, an impassible God who suffers, a peaceful God who gets torn to pieces. That’s the paradoxy of orthodoxy that faith sinks us into.

So when you pray and try to be good, get ready! The whole thing’s an epic drama. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your very last breath. St. Anthony of Egypt said it. He said, “A truly wise person knows the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false and clings fiercely to what is good, true, and beautiful, but fully expects to be tested, to be tried, and to be tempted till his very last breath.” He said that without being tempted and tried, no one can enter God’s Kingdom—without temptation, no salvation. The whole life of a man on earth is a trial, according to Scripture. Job said it. So we are being tried every moment, we should expect it. We should never expect the trial to go away. We don’t ask God to take our crosses away. We ask for the power to carry them. We ask to interlock arms with Jesus as we carry it. Although it’s true to say God doesn’t tempt anybody, in the providence of God we are tested all the time so that our salvation can be ours; we can OWN it as our own and be co-victorious by the victory of Christ.

The Spirit that fell on Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan as the Father said, “You’re my well-beloved Son,” drove Jesus straight out into the wilderness to be tempted by the Temptor. To do combat! Well, the same Spirit fell on us at our baptism, so why should it be different for us? St. Paul tells us in Romans [8:14-17]: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” — Wow, that’s awesome!  I love that! But Paul then says more: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

So we Christians have joy to offer the world, yes. But Christian joy isn’t happy slappy joy. It’s the joy that comes when we can look into the darkest and worst parts of reality straight on, with no rose colored glasses; into the blackest dungeons and coldest hells and see God right there, dwelling in the tombs and raising Christ again and again and again in us, His Body…

So I told her, that’s why when you pray things seem to still be tough. But if you trust in God through all of this, you’ll share in the greatest human aspiration imaginable: divinization. Participation in God Hismelf. We can rework St. Athanasius’ words, “God became man so that man might become God” into, “God became the rottenest parts of human existence so that men and women, living in those rottenest parts, might become God.” THAT’S the promise…

Surely he has borne our griefs

I was thinking the other day about an 8 day Ignatian retreat I went on a number of years ago. My retreat director asked me to reflect one of those days on some Scripture passages that had to do with Jesus as the innocent Lamb of God who takes away my sins. Not just the abstraction “who takes away the sins of the world,” he said, but all the dark passages of my own life journey. He counseled me to beg God for a deep sense of gratitude that, as he put it, “Jesus took the hit for you,” and asked me to read the Passion according to St. John, and also included these three passages:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed. — Isaiah 53:4-5

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. — Galatians 2:20

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:21

The five hours I spent in prayer that day drew out many profound insights, with tears of joy and sorrow. As I noted in my retreat journal, what I experienced was an intense awareness of the purity and child-like innocence of Christ in His love for us, which stood in stark contrast to the overwhelming violence He underwent in the Passion. The Good Friday reproaches kept sounding in my heart: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” I also kept seeing in my mind’s eye a scene from The Passion of the Christ. If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall that climactic moment during Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas when He reveals with a surge of joy that He is “the Son of the Blessed One.” The High Priest responds by spitting in Jesus’ face as the bystanders mock Him, and you can see the tears stream down His face. When I first saw the movie in the theater, that was for me the most devastating moment. That was the moment I feel I first understood the deep meaning of the phrase, “rejected by men…” (1 Peter 2:4). Anyone who has extended his heart to another — so vulnerable! — and then had it rejected has privileged access to this facet of the Lord’s Passion. “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11).

I wrote in my journal late that night, after having allowed those insights to connect to my own rejection of Him: “This exceedingly personal, intimate, act of redemptive love in the Passion was for me. It suddenly ceased being an abstraction. My God. Because of my sins, my burdens, pains, my lies, my betrayals, my failures He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. For me He endured the cross and the grave. Every injustice done to me in life also fell on Him, each He endured by name and in exquisite detail, like the hairs on my head they were all numbered. Love attends to detail. This can seem so cliché, I fear, but it’s really awfully, fearfully, wonderfully true. It’s also tender and beautiful. How can I do such mysteries justice in words? I received this truth today not as a mere idea, but as Truth whispered into my heart of hearts. I was overwhelmed. But what’s funny is that at the end of this day I was not left exhausted, filled with shame, guilt or burdened by emotion. I was filled with joy, light, peace, overwhelming gratitude … I think as I lie here near sleep: asking God to show us His love, and then waiting for His reply, seems a request God cannot resist. Exodus 33:18ff comes to mind.”

This memory surfaced recently as my daughter shared with me the graces of her High School retreat last week. She was deeply moved during the retreat, especially by a skit some of the students had put on. The skit was a dramatic narration of God’s creation of humanity, of the Tempter’s seductions and of God’s ceaseless labor to draw the human race back to Himself. There’s a well known video rendition of this skit that, if you have a free five minutes, I’d encourage you to watch. After listening to her retelling of the story and then watching this video, those graces of my Ignatian retreat were reawakened in me. God is great.

Fall Away


Daughters Maria (left) and Catherine (right)

My daughter Maria introduced me to the group, Twenty One Pilots, last year and I have (figuratively) joined their fan club. I will be posting more on them soon. Recently Maria wrote a brief reflection for school on a song of theirs, and I found her reflection so excellent I asked if I could publish it here. She graciously agreed.

Here was the prompt she received in class:

For this activity, you will be analyzing a song, poem, article, short story, or character in a book. Your typed response will answer the general question, “How does these lyrics or story promote authentic human freedom?”  You will need to attach the lyrics of the song, the article, the story, or some type of description of what you chose to analyze to the assignment (If you do a song or another media source you may attach the youtube clip as well).  Your response must be at least 200 words.  Pay careful attention to clarity of writing and grammar.

Here’s her answer:

The song “Fall Away” by twenty one pilots discusses authentic human freedom in an obscure but brutally honest way. Tyler Joseph, the writer of the song, divulges his struggle of concealing who he really is and talks about his fear of “falling away” from the truth and, ultimately, God. I believe that the message Joseph is trying to convey is that he strives to live the life he is supposed to live, but many self-doubts hinder his ability to do so. The line “but I don’t want your way, I want mine” is Joseph addressing God, saying that he wants to create his own path instead of taking God’s path of true happiness. Another line, “I can feel the pull begin/feel my conscience wearing thin,” expresses his struggle to retain his original beliefs and morals as the outside world pulls him away, giving him a false idea of what freedom is. While this song does not exhibit an explicit representation of authentic human freedom, it does describe the difficulty many face to use their freedom how they ought to. In our tainted, confused world today, freedom is generally defined as the right to do or say whatever one wants. Especially with the recent upsurge in social media, the pressure to believe in a fixed set of ideas has increased, leaving many people in doubt. Only with God can freedom be used unerringly, which is why it is imperative that we make ourselves immune to the temptations around us.

Here’s the song:

Here are the lyrics. 

I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I disguise
And I will lie
And I will take my precious time
As the days melt away
As I stand in line
And I die as I wait as I wait on my crime
And I’ll try to delay what you make of my life
But I don’t want your way,
I want mine
I’m dying and I’m trying
But believe me I’m fine
But I’m lying,
I’m so very far from fineAnd I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin
It will start to break up and fall apartI don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away

Every time I feel selfish ambition
Is taking my vision
And my crime is my sentence
Repentance is taking commission
It’s taking a toll
On my soul
I’m screaming submission and,
I don’t know if I am dying or living
‘Cause I will save face
For name’s sake
Abuse grace
Take aim to obtain a new name
And a newer place
But my name is lame
I can’t walk and I ain’t the same
And my name became
A new destiny to the grave

And I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin,
It will start to break up and fall apart
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away

Black Night

As we continue in our pilgrimage through the Jubilee of Mercy, I have been trying to jot down thoughts on mercy as they come to me. I will share one here a very personal reflection I wrote down in my journal last November on a Sunday morning:

Insomnia seems to be a Cross bound to parenthood. Sleepless with worry about your children, their future, the past, your failures. Such dark things plague the night. A friend who suffers similar night terrors told me she calls this not the “dark night of the soul” but the “black night of the soul.” She’s a mom of adult children and says she hopes it’s vicarious suffering, redemptive for her children. She said when she saw the Frank Darabont directed movie, The Green Mile, she thought: “God, allow me to carry my children’s burdens in that way.” A sort of hidden combat on their behalf. She rewrote Colossians 1:28 for her children: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, my children.” … Every night when I pray before sleep, I say to God: “Be a Father for them, supply for all of my failings and use them for their good” … For me it’s God’s mercy that saves me from sinking on those occasions into the darkness of despair. “Jesus, I trust in you” is my mantra. As I am at times assailed at night by the memory of evils, the terrible sight of failure, the sting of regrets, chaotic fears — I place myself within the fathomless sea of mercy and consent to drown … I looked at the crucifix last night, at His face, and wrote:

Mercy is the healing balm that flows from love slain under the blows of evil. I let go, succumbed to it, surrendered the blows to love. Being flawless is not the point. At once, Psalm 91:7; Psalm 131:2; Habakkuk 3:17-19; Matthew 6:25-34; Romans 8:28, 38-39 in succession washed over me, and all the darkness of my inner tomb was transubstantiated. Still dark, same sins and failures and regrets, just full of dark hope now. Paradox. Psalm 4:8 lulled me to sleep: “I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

The safety that nothing is lost in the Kingdom, where even the dross becomes gold. As I drifted off to sleep, the thousand holes torn in my soul seemed to spring with water out onto the parched earth.

I laughed with barren Sarah.

+ + +

Here are those Scripture texts:

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand fall at your right,
you, it will never approach — Psalm 91:7

Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul. — Psalm 131:2

For though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit appears on the vine,
Though the yield of the olive fails
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
Though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord
and exult in my saving God.
God, my Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet swift as those of deer
and enables me to tread upon the heights. — Habakkuk 3:17-19

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. — Matthew 6:25-34

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8:28, 38-39

Don’t You Worry Child

This begins my posting of the “quiet posts” I began writing in November…



Sunset over the St. Clement of Rome 2015 Parish Festival in Metairie, Louisiana

There was a venerable tradition in the middle ages of taking “courtly love songs,” popular romantic ballads, and reinterpreting them as spiritual canticles. The underlying idea was that, within the dynamics of deeply felt human love, was a genuine revelation of the meaning of love that binds humanity to God. The biblical Song of Songs is a striking example of this. The Song is a collection of ancient Hebrew erotic love poetry that eventually came to be interpreted by both Jews and Christians as a mystical text of God’s nuptial love for humanity. Take this selection from chapter 7 of the Song — part of a long courtship dialogue of a woman and man — as an example:

Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth. I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.

These verses have received profound, evocative, passionate commentary from the likes of Origen of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila. For these saints, these expressive images disclose the mutual yearning of human and divine eros; images that disclose both man and God, in the words of St. Maximus, “long to be longed for, love to be loved and desire to be desired.” Though these saint-commentators don’t make the mistake of sexualizing theology as some interpreters do these days, their bold language does testify with stark eloquence to the genuinely erotic charatcer of love made in God’s image. Eros, which refers to the desire for total union with another, finds its perfection in the covenant of total self-gift found only in marital union; and marital union is, in the Scriptures, the supreme analogy of God’s union with humanity at the consummation of the ages (cf Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 21:1-2)

All that makes me think of a tangentially related example of discovering God in unlikely songs. I often reflect on music in light of this “allegorizing” tradition, and sometimes experience graced insights to great personal effect. I recall last Fall at our parish festival, my wife and I were listening to a local band and dancing. My wife makes me love dancing, though no one can ever make me good at it. They started to play Swedish House Mafia’s, Don’t You Worry Child, which actually includes some explicitly religious imagery. As they sang the chorus, I experienced an overwhelming awareness of God’s provident love that burned itself into a deep sadness I had had much of the Fall at the thought of my children growing up and leaving. The effect remained for weeks and weeks. 

So here’s the song if you care to receive it through my perspective…or yours:

Lenten Launch

Neal Obstat Readers:

A blessed Lent!

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” ― St. John Chrysostom

I will resume posting this week, earlier than I had previously planned. I have some persuasive friends. For the first weeks ahead I will use posts I have been quietly writing now and again over the last 3 or so months. I will post frequently, though we will see what that means in practice. As ever, I am grateful to all who read and pray that the Spirit uses something I say to benefit your walk with Christ.

I could think of no better way to begin than to share with you my daughter Maria, and her partner in song, Ashley’s latest singing installment. They “cover” the the 1920’s hit, Tonight You Belong to Me. And watch to the very end…