Loving God with a bowl of milk

Last Spring, a young man came to me asking me for insight into his vocational discernment. He said with great sincerity, “How can you love God well when you have a wife and children who distract you from giving yourself only to Him? You see, this is what tortures me, that I feel I have no option if I want to love God radically.” The poor young man, for the next two hours, received my torrential downpour response.

Mostly we spoke about the non-competitive meaning of creation vis-à-vis God in human fulfillment; about God’s choice to become Man as sealing this non-competitive meaning; about the nature of love in the Christian story; and about the irreducible diversity of vocations as preserving the fullness of love’s expression in the human race.

I ended our conversation with a beautifully simple story recounted by the Orthodox spiritual author, Anthony Bloom. When I first read it back in 1988, I found it terribly liberating as it somehow opened up in me a space to include in my love for God the thousand small things about life that I still loved. As I had fallen under the sway of some hyper-spiritual Moses friends who convinced me I had to renounce my very earthy ‘bowls of milk’ if I wanted to live for an immaterial God, this story seemed to me to be a key to unlatch the prison I felt I had entered.

Here’s the story:

In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has in a wooden bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies ‘This is God’s milk.’ Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says ‘I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as on offering to God.’

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, ‘And does God drink it?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the shepherd, ‘He does.’ Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that He does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk. Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes, and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight towards the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. The shepherd says ‘You were right, God is pure spirit, and He doesn’t want my milk.’ Moses is surprised. He says ‘You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.’ ‘Yes, I do’ says the shepherd, ‘but the only thing I could do to express my love for Him has been taken away from me.’ Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard.

In the night in a vision, God speaks to him and says ‘Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me, as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.

His Church can do no less

Dachau

Along with the blood-bought right of Christian orthodoxy to celebrate creation root and branch, there goes an obligation to exorcize continually its human inmates’ lust to do their own thing no matter what, especially as doing their own thing blinds them to the risks, duties, and nobility of being creatures of creation’s Source and friends of creation’s Redeemer. This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the world stops being cute when told it is morbid. The Christian assembly is equipped for such a frightful ministry with no more nor less power than that with which Jesus the Christ came to the same ministry in the days of his flesh. It is what his Body corporate is here for. In him, and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that [Christ] laid down his life for the life of the world–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for those of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less. —  Fr Aidan Kavanagh

His Church can do no less. My.

Yesterday I was speaking with a friend about the general “yuck factor” of so many things going on around us these days, from every direction. Personal, familial, political, cultural, ecclesial, environmental. Yes, human history has always been a mess, corruption has always penetrated every sector of life, chaos has always seemed to threaten a violent knock at the door. But there are times when it gets to you, eats away at you, discourages you, ebbs away your sense of hope.

My friend shared her prayer experience that morning, which gave her a clearer inkling that God — who laughed as she prayed — has already dealt with the darkness and triumphed. All that is needed is trust in His redemptive providence as we “do our own best,” tiny as that might be. Faithful, not successful is the goal.

After we met, as I sat in my car and prayed, I could see afresh how easy it is for the darkness to wear away my Christian hope by turning my gaze away from brightness of Jesus toward the threatening dark of the raging storm. Once Peter, even us. And as your gaze fixes on the terrors of the night, fear, cynicism, hostility and every other corrosive attitude begin to take over and your resolve to ride the wave of God’s so-love for the world diffuses, tumbles and sinks into a sea of doubt and discouragement.

Earlier that day, a lifelong friend, who was visiting the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, sent me a series of photos of the unspeakable horrors that were perpetrated there. She appended a comment to each photo, and in the last one — which showed a pile of over 100 emaciated bodies being prepared for cremation — she wrote, “explain to me again why God loves human beings?”

All day those words haunted me. After lunch, I wrote her back, “I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to give you a pat answer. But this is what came to me at Mass today as I reflected on the fact that in Holy Communion I ate and drank the torn Flesh and spilled Blood of God (all done by hateful humanity): we cannot ever explain the why, only that God does. In fact, eucharistic worship is the only possible response of the creature to the absolute inability to answer the question of why God is as God is. In other words the only answer to why is: Thank you for being God.”

So when I ask myself on those dark days why I still choose to love? Well, I simply throw myself into the why-less mystery of God who is not “loving,” but is love. He is absolutely unfettered and free, yet He can be no other that this. I was called into existence to be this same why-less mystery, made His image and likeness. I did not choose that, yet my freedom is only confirmed by being that. Only when I surrender to being that does my hope return.

Even, no, especially, when I would like my “why” answered.

Something like that.

Again

This semester weekdays are not conducive to posting, so the weekday hiatus continues, hopefully this weekend I will get some space to write. Happy All-Hallows Eve! Peace and joy to you.

I will leave you with my favorite Kari Jobe song. . .

Spying Sanctity

[This is a completely unfinished post, a thought awaiting completion. But what the heck! Will not post again until next Sunday or Monday. Super grateful for my readers. God love you!]

Someone shared a quote with me today, which made me think of a comment my wife once made about a woman she had known and counseled for years before I ever met her. This woman was abandoned by her husband and went on to financially support and raise her several (amazing) children alone. We met this woman one day in a supermarket and chatted with her for about 30 minutes. After she left, Patti said (as I later wrote down),

Now to me, that’s sanctity. Nothing about her draws attention to herself. She has every reason to be bitter with life, to nurse her wounds. Yet no complaining, no blaming, no pity-seeking, no back-patting or a needy trying to indirectly make the conversation about her. She’s all about her kids, about us, her mom, all about what needs to be done, what can be done. She knows she made bad decisions in marrying that guy, she knows she’s got issues, but she doesn’t wallow in that. She got help, forgave and set to work. She knows who she is, she trusts God loves her, focuses on the beauty of her kids and just forges ahead.

I want that.

Me too. I often examine my conscience thinking on her story.

Here’s the quote, by Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras. For whatever reason I thought of this woman as I read his words.

In the language of his place and time, Christ spoke of the mode of existence and life “according to truth” as the “kingdom of heaven.” He preached that those who guide us toward this “mode” are not pious religious people, those who find satisfaction in being virtuous, those who shore up their ego by keeping some kind of law. Those who guide us are people who have lost all confidence in their own [self-righteousness], people who expect no personal reward whatsoever, and only thirst to be loved even if they don’t deserve it – despised sinners: tax collectors, robbers, prostitutes, and prodigals.

Celebrate the Healing of the World: Dance!

[the posts this week are old re-posts so hopefully new for most readers]

It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theater, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways. ― N.T. Wright

My wife and I were invited last weekend to a ball by one of the members of her choir. She wore a lovely yellow dress, I rented a tuxedo. I’m not a dancer, she is. I don’t have soul in my bones, she does. I can’t relax easily in a large crowd of unfamiliar people (about 300), she can. The beauty of that difference is that I learn from her and stretch. I did.

In fact, after several hours of an intoxicating mix of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues, Motown and Swing music — all live — I found myself losing my New England puritan inhibitions and dancing with abandon. Or more accurately, found myself succumbing to Patti’s choreographic allure, her boogieing elixir. Which, of course, is no indicator of exactly what I looked like doing it. Hence, the importance of losing my (rational) inhibitions and ceasing to care.

On the way home we had a wonderful conversation and were able to broach a contentious subject that is usually very difficult for us to discuss, bringing it to a new resolve. I said to her, “Wow, that was an amazing grace.” She said, “Yes, it is! I really believe dancing together helps us to love together better. It’s why I always tell you I want to dance and ask you to make date opportunities for us to do that. Do you remember that I always asked couples who argued all the time to do something strenuously physical together? And I’d say, not sex guys. That helped them burn out the aggression and practice non-verbal communication and intimacy. And it releases all kinds of good hormones that open up new bio-chemical channels of communication.” My wife was a licenced social work counselor at Catholic Charities from the late 1980’s to the mid 90’s. I said, “Man, that gives a whole new meaning to two becoming one flesh!”

It’s nice to be married to a therapist.

As I thought about it, it also made new sense out of the importance of liturgical worship being very physical and communal, so you get to ritually practice unity with the Catholic motley crew in praising God and acting in harmony before you exit the church to do faith together in the world.

Patti and I over the years have made it a habit to alternately walk together, play racquetball together, workout together and dance together. Without exception, the time spent doing those things always clears the air between us and leaves us better than we began. To us it’s obvious now that if your only bodily intimacy is sex, sex will become a problem as it cannot bear that much weight.

So men I encourage you, diversify the artful ways you get physical with your wives — and the more you make of it an art, intentionally and creatively putting effort into it, the more beautiful she will feel.