“Of you my heart has spoken: Seek his face.” (Ps. 27:8)

IMG_2874 (1)


This will be my last random post from my time here in Omaha.

When St. Teresa of Avila was 9 years old, she briefly ran away from home looking to be martyred by the Moors. When her parents returned her home and demanded an explanation, she explained her motive: “I want to see God.”

Scripture is filled with references to the human longing to see God’s face, as the face contains and reveals the whole mystery of a person. Our brains are wired to attend in exacting detail to every feature and movement of the face in order to understand the unseen, inner world of the other. 1 Cor. 13:13 and Revelation 22:4 describe eternal life as the vision of God face to face (prosōpon pros prosōpon). And there’s no mistake that we derive the English word “person” from the Latin and Greek words for face — persona, prosopon.

I thought of all this for two reasons. First, I was speaking with a priest recently about the spiritual life. What wisdom he had for me! Part way through our conversation, he talked about what’s different in the spiritual life as you get older (he’s in his late seventies). He said, among other things: “Lots of the things you struggled with and worried about when you were younger just start falling away. Or falling off. [we laughed] Concern with your reputation; with other’s opinion of you; being admired; vanity; getting your way; over-identifying with your work. It’s a marvelous mercy of God in old age that those things you just couldn’t seem to shake before, He just strips them away. If you take it that way, as a liberating gift, it’s freeing. If you don’t, and you see it as unjust theft, you’ll despair.” Then he said something so moving I teared up. He said, with tears streaming down his cheek: “But more than anything, I long to see His face. I’ve loved Him so long; I just want to see Him.”

I felt tiny before his Mount Everest.

Last evening as I was recalling his words, there stirred in me another insight. I have been away from my wife and children for nearly three weeks. It’s been so hard; harder than it’s ever been. Hard because I know she’s carrying the whole family alone. Hard because I miss them terribly. Certainly, the edge of time and distance has been smoothed by the gifts of Google Hangout and FaceTime. And my children and their friends have sent me lots of fun pictures which I cherish. I even have a separate folder in my iPhone with pictures of Patti that I can look at. Her face. Their faces.

It all makes me realize how much it is on the faces of these people that my love rests. Those faces are sacraments — revealing pain, joy, worry, desire, mischief, anger and so on.

But it’s the faces that I’ve longed for most. That longing has given me a new perspective.

Cardinal Ratzinger said in an interview I read once, referring to the dark night of faith St. Therese endured in the last months of her life (quoting here from memory): “When you sense God is absent, it is not that He has withdrawn His presence from you. It is, rather, that He is present to you now in a new form: under the form of yearning. And yearning stretches your capacity for love.”


The longing to see the faces of those I love and the longing to see God’s face is not one thing, and then another. They are all one thing. Jesus is God’s human face. The Incarnation is the seal on the deepest truth of creation: God gives Himself to us only through the human face; through the human faces around us.  As Jean Valjean in Les Miserables sings so eloquently, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Don’t ever take others’ faces for granted.

I long to see your face, O God. I long to see her face, O God. I long to see their faces, O God. All one longing.

May the object of my longing, O Lord, be fulfilled now and in the Age to Come. Amen.

A Feast for women

Mary Magdalene announcing the resurrection to the Apostles. Albans Abbey, ca. 1119-23. rhedesium.com

Perhaps the most significant example of this is the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. Jesus–who knows that she is a sinner and speaks to her about this–discusses the most profound mysteries of God with her…This is an event without precedent: that a woman, and what is more a “sinful woman,” becomes a “disciple” of Christ. Indeed, once taught, she proclaims Christ to the inhabitants of Samaria, so that they too receive him with faith (cf. Jn 4:39-42). This is an unprecedented event, if one remembers the usual way women were treated by those who were teachers in Israel; whereas in Jesus of Nazareth’s way of acting such an event becomes normal. –St. John Paul II (Mulieris dignitatem #15)

I wanted to share a few scattered and brief thoughts on the elevation of St. Mary Magdalene’s liturgical memorial to the level of a “Feast.”

St Mary Magdalene is now the only other woman other than the Mother of God to have a Feast day. As has been noted by all who have commented on this remarkable change, Mary Magdalene came to be known in the high Middle Ages as the “apostle to the apostles,” having been the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, entrusted by Him with bringing His “brothers” the heart of the good news of the new covenant: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (see John 20:11-18).

There’s something in that scene with Mary encountering the risen Jesus that reflects the healing of Eden’s original rupture between man-woman and God. Here’s my imaginative thought on it: The first Adam remained silent in the garden as the Serpent engaged Eve in a game of lies, but was quick to speak to God words of blame regarding the woman God had joined him to in covenant (Gen. 3:12). “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” suddenly was the tempter and enemy. The second Adam, the Word-made-flesh, whose death had defeated the lying Serpent, now speaks in a garden with great tenderness to the woman and calls her by name (John 20:15-16). He speaks to a woman He had once delivered from the Serpent (Luke 8:2) and who was now seeking out His bones and flesh to anoint with great love. To this woman He entrusts the words of tender mercy, an everlasting and faithful covenant at the dawn of the new creation.

Jesus’ engagement with women in His public ministry was startling and unprecedented. In the Orthodox tradition, the Magdalene is called “The Holy Myrrh-Bearer Equal of the Apostles.” Though this is not, in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, an access point for ordination to the ministerial priesthood, it is a powerful affirmation of the equal dignity, vocation and mission of man and woman to be bearers of the new covenant into the world. St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” is really an abstract and theological way of interpreting the very concrete manner in which Jesus engaged women during His public ministry and after His resurrection. Women were His disciples (Luke 8:1-3), which means that they were given access into the intimate “circle” of learners, engaging in rabbinic styles of dialogue and debate with Jesus (e.g. Luke 7:24-29; 10:38-42; John 4:1-42; 11:17-27). The disciples who happened on Jesus “doing theology” with the Woman at the Well gave voice to the shock-and-awe of Jesus’ contemporaries (John 4:27):

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

Again, this is all astonishing in its cultural context, and eventually Christianity would, in a complex history, admit the voice of women into its public theological Tradition, especially through the monastic movements which gave women unprecedented access to learning and the structures of authority. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named 12th century German Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church. Hildegard was a prolific writer on everything from theology to natural science, writing in Latin and German. One of the remarkable aspects of her power as a thinker was that she did not simply rely on mystical experience as the source of her authority to speak with a public and prophetic voice in the Church (which was nearly universally required for women in the church of the medieval period), but employed the authority of her academic learning to discourse on a staggering variety of topics. She was revered by many of her contemporaries in the theological world, including St Bernard of Clairvaux.

Pope Benedict, after detailing her extraordinary mystical, theological, literary, musical, scientific and pastoral accomplishments, commented on her overall significance for women:

For these reasons the attribution of the title of Doctor of the Universal Church to Hildegard of Bingen has great significance for today’s world and an extraordinary importance for women. In Hildegard are expressed the most noble values of womanhood: hence the presence of women in the Church and in society is also illumined by her presence, both from the perspective of scientific research and that of pastoral activity. Her ability to speak to those who were far from the faith and from the Church make Hildegard a credible witness of the new evangelization.

Pope Francis’ decision to elevate Mary Magdalene’s liturgical memorial to a Feast represents a fresh, creative and striking instance of his desire for a more “profound theology of women” that builds on St. John Paul II’s work. May St. Mary obtain for the Church on earth the grace of penetrating more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s love for women, and His mission for them expressed uniquely in His choice that Mary Magdalene, courageous eyewitness of His death, be the first witness to His resurrection and the first to bear witness to His apostolic brothers the good news of a “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness [dikaiosynē] is at home” (2 Peter 3:12).

Good secrets “for you” to keep

Do acts of mercy in secret. Just do some good things that no one knows about. — Fr. Tom Hopko

There’s a tension in the Gospel between Jesus’ command to do good in public so others can see it and glorify God (Matt. 5:16) and the command do good in secret so only God sees it (Matt. 6:2-5).

The resolution of this tension is to be found in the intention of the do-gooder: why do you do what you do?

For Jesus, the only authentic intention of the disciple is summed up in the twofold commandment: love of God and love of neighbor. Love, which is willing the good of neighbor and the glory of God, takes us out of ourselves, out of our proclivity toward wound-licking and naval-gazing, and reorients us toward God and neighbor. The music of love takes as its refrain the words Jesus spoke as He consecrated the bread and wine: “…this is my Body which will be given up for you…my Blood…shed for you and for many…”

In those simple words is a revolution, as “my” is out-turned and placed in service to “you.” For those who dare to eat this Bread and drink this Cup, any and every claim to what is mine is immediately placed in service to the well-being of others and the glory of God (which is really saying the same thing).  If I say this is “my body” or “my money” or “my home,” the Christian conscience obliges me at once to consider in what way God wishes me to rightly place those gifts I hold in my possession in service to the common good.

There’s no mistake that we call the bread and wine, after they have been transformed under the force of Jesus’ words “…for you…”, the Real Presence. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Doing good for others in secret is a wonderful asceticism for disciplining our broken tendency to turn everything back on ourselves. This is especially true when we do secret good for those who do not do good to us (Matt. 5:46). The early Fathers often counseled fasting and praying for one’s enemies without ever making it known. The frequent practice of secret mercies and kindnesses can also help prepare us for handling our public good deeds when they get praised. Not by mere protestations of pious humility — “No, really, it’s all God” [btw: no it’s not, it’s cooperating with grace] — but by very naturally experiencing an inner gratitude that you were able to benefit someone else and so manifest the glory of the God who is love. The joy of praise is found in its acknowledgment that love is the true measure of all things.

My spiritual director of 25 years ago used to say to me, “If anyone praises you for this or that, remind yourself: ‘How much God must love them to give me these gifts.’ It’s not about you. Gifts are ‘about you’ only inasmuch as they’re about those they were given for.” He continued, “The day that this thought naturally occurs to you when you are praised is the day you’ll know you’ve tasted real humility.”

Still waiting.

A number of years ago some unknown person began paying for our utilities every month, and would send us gift cards in the mail to a local grocery store. We tried every way of finding out who they were to thank them, but we were never able to. One of my children said, “Makes me want to be a better person knowing there’s someone like that out there.”

Yes. Glory to God, the hidden Giver of all gifts.

Liturgy and Concerts


Left to right: Sydney and Maria

Another spontaneous post in my blog hibernation.

I’ve been to a number of music concerts over the years — rock, classical, jazz, country, sacred — and have always found them to be powerful experiences that leave lasting effects. A number of years ago, I wrote an amateur paper on the similarities between liturgy and music concerts. I’ll share with you here a few simple thoughts from that paper.

To make it a little more lively, less theoretical, I will steal some illustrative quotes from a dear friend of my daughter Maria, named Sydney, who wrote some wonderful and raw reflections on her experience of a Twenty One Pilots concert she, Maria and some friends went to in early July out in Woodlands, Texas. Sydney is a lovely, ebullient and smart young lady who has a beautiful faith and a heart for the homeless. She and her friends all go to Mount Carmel Academy, so today I give a special shout out to all the MCA Cubs on this feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel!

I used three words to organize my reflections in the paper: community, transcendence and transformation.

Community: Liturgy (in the most general sense) is meant to be an experience of binding, of being joined to God and the community of saints, along with the gathered faithful in an intimate experience of worship and encounter. Those who enter into the liturgical act are joined, in all their wild diversity, by a common faith, hope and love; by the harmony of words, music and gestures; and by symbols that express a common identity. Worshipers are united around a “celebrant,” the presider who embodies, mediates and gives voice to a unifying center: the drama of God saving us in Christ. Around the celebrant, who is a sacramental sign of Christ, all are made one. Good liturgy should leave people feeling more fully joined to God and to the community of faith. It should ground and solidify their sense of identity as they depart out the church doors into a fragmented world.

The music concert, from the Latin verb concertare, “bring into agreement,” is also an experience of binding, of being joined with fellow concert goers (“fans”) in the power and beauty and energy of music and its message. Fans, like the faithful, have given something of themselves over to the musical culture created by the musicians, as they find it both expresses and gives shape to their own experience and understanding of life. The performers, who become “larger than life” as they celebrate the musical event, embody, mediate and give voice to music’s transcendent and unifying power. Good performers make you sense they understand your world personally and intimately, and by their authenticity, allow you into their world. The musical concert becomes a form of communion and gives those who may feel alone in the world a sense of belonging.

After what felt like hours of anxious waiting, the screens on the sides of the stage that showed ads clicked off, and the screams from the adoring and dedicated fans amplified. We could see a shadow of a figure lying on the ground on the stage, which we had reason to believe was Tyler. He was reaching his hand out to the audience, almost as if he wished we were experiencing what he was experiencing. The dark shadow of his hand diminished gradually, and all I wanted was for it to return. Not even 30 seconds later, the arm’s shadow returned. It was once again reaching out to the audience. He stood up and walked away, leaving me wanting a lot more than an arm.

Transcendence: Liturgy is meant to take us “beyond” ourselves, to lift us from our self-contained isolation out into an expansive world revealed to the faithful by faith and longed for by hope. In liturgy we are lifted up into the “heavenly” world of a God who is both infinitely beyond us and radically near to us, and who loves us and desires our love. We are also drawn out of ourselves in liturgy into the “earthly” world of a universal church, a community of faithful who share our search for God’s FarNear divine love. Liturgy unites heaven and earth, reconciles us to one another and is ecstatic, from the Greek ek-stasis, to “stand outside oneself.” Liturgy pulls us out of the flat dimensions of the mundane, pokes holes in our low ceilings and empowers us to re-see ordinary life in the light of transcendent realities encountered in the celebration of the liturgy. Liturgy awakens in us awe and amazement.

The music concert also takes us beyond ourselves into an ecstatic experience, as performers use their music to sweep us up and out into a vast world of transcendent beauty and impassioned meaning. Performers, and their art, appear before us on stage as multidimensional symbols proclaiming transcendent truths and enacting dramatic and paradoxical tensions, appearing before us as larger-than-life and at once very near to us. The sounds and lyrics, the choreography and visual effects, the costumes and facial expressions of the performers all combine to draw fans out of themselves and into a new world of imagination and meaning created and revealed by their art. It is in these dizzying tensions that pulse between the Far and the Near, the familiar and the strange, that the concert’s greatest power lies; a power that disposes fans to receive the music’s transformative power.

…we sat in our seats in the pavilion in Woodlands, Texas, which were in the middle area of the back section, but they weren’t totally in the back because there were people on the lawn behind us. There were two opening bands who were very unique and cool sounding. tøp [twenty one pilots] was set to start at 8:45 PM, so we were all waiting in anticipation for that moment to come. After the opening bands, very ominous music was playing, making my anxiety rise even higher. There was an intense red light, which lit up an entire piece of cloth that was shielding what the crew was doing onstage to set up for twenty one pilots. Either Swan or Nina realized that there was a mini stage with a piano and drums about 25 feet in front of us. I was in complete shock/awe that Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph would be that close to me and my friends who have been loving them for so long.

…One of the most memorable moments, although there were plenty, was when the self-titled album medley was performed. I would say the stage they performed the medley and “Ode To Sleep” on was about was about 20-25 feet from us. It was something I had only pictured happening in my dreams, and it was happening right there, 20 feet in front of me. Through all the sweat from the 90º+ heat, I managed to have the best experience possible.

Transformation: Every liturgy should leave one’s perception of reality changed, adjusted more nearly to the vision of faith revealed and enacted in the liturgical celebration. Every aspect of liturgy, from Word and song to ritual gestures and vestments, should dispose the worshiper to the experience of a deeper communion with God and the faithful; to receive the dynamic and incarnate grace of God made present to all those gathered in the celebration. Liturgy should leave you thinking and feeling differently about everything (the meaning of metanoia/conversion), in a way that leads to a reformation of your way of life to one in closer conformity to the vision of faith.

Music possesses an unparalleled ability to open up, enter and shape both mind and heart, to stir up inner regions of deep feeling and inspire the loftiest of sentiments. For good or for ill, music gives expression, interprets and reveals the human experience of reality in a manner that surpasses mere words or ideas. Music can take words and ideas and confer on them a staggering power to journey deep into the inner self, drenching emotions and imagination, and planting its contents firmly into the identity-bearing memory. During a music concert, the senses are saturated with a diverse array of sights and sounds, smells and vibrations, which amplify the music’s power to influence devoted fans who believe these performers offer to them something true, beautiful and good.

…During the self-titled album medley, they were performing “Addict With A Pen,” and one of the lines in the song is “you hear me screaming father,” and on the word “father,” Tyler looked up instinctively, like he is used to looking up when speaking to the Lord. Writing this is giving me chills, and I certainly had chills, mixed with my sweat and tears at the concert.

…This band never ceases to amaze me. The last best part of the concert, although the whole thing was amazing, was when Tyler climbed up on a ladder that was in the middle of the pavilion and stood on a platform to perform “Car Radio.” He did this for maybe the whole second half of the song. He was once again extremely close to us, and I spoke/sang every lyric of that song with such purpose because it was the first song I ever heard by them in the summer of 2014, and it quickly became my favorite. The performance of every song was everything I have ever imagined and more.

This is why I so clearly appreciate Twenty One Pilots, as they offer a contemporary art form that gives those who have ears to hear the opportunity to be united in a quest for the FarNear and transformed by a message of hope.

I’ll leave you with a video clip from that concert. It’s the performance of Ode to Sleep. Thanks, Sydney, for letting me share with my readers your sprightly, heartfelt and passionate insights!

Peace of mind

Fr. Tom Hopko. pravoslavie.ru

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