Angry for God?

[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]

A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon

In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.

St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,

Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.

Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.

What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.

Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.

God says to Isaiah:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).

Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.

This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.

The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).

What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.

I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:

There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.

He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.

The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”

Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:

Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.

When I’m gone

A completely irrelevant, playful post.

I am the master of (bad) puns, and frequently inflict them on my wife and children, inducing varying levels of groans, “Daaad,” and “Stooop.” I, however, laugh heartily at my own jokes. Gets me through the day.

But when my wife, Patti, reacts to them, I often sing to her the refrain of Anna Kendrick’s Cups. Here’s a fun rendition of it:

Darkness, 2

An additional word regarding yesterday’s post about the trial of dark faith of Mother Teresa.

The kind of trial Mother endured was, in the history of saints, rare both for its intensity and its duration. St. John of the Cross, in the Spiritual Canticle, says that those saints who are chosen by God to effect great things in the Church and the world, and have “many spiritual children,” often receive both spectacular graces and great trials (cf. Isaiah 53; Luke 2:35). With graces and trials complementing each other. This is very much the meaning of what Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “to whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

St. John of the Cross also says that those who endure these darkest of nights are truly to be given the title of “martyrs” as their gift of self — “laying down their life” — is both radical and total. These saints are called in the Jewish tradition the “pillars of the world,” giving us their massive shoulders to stand on. They offer the faithful an amplification of certain truths of faith, realities all of us face, though we may never face them in the dimensions these Pillars did. Unquestionably, Mother was one of these giants.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23-30, St. Paul boasted that the Cross marked his life in a way that, he argued, testified eloquently to the authenticity of his apostolic and paternal vocation:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one–I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

All of us face darkness, trials of faith, desolation, dryness. St. Paul, Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse, St. John of the Cross all show us, by their heroic witness of extreme faith-hope-charity, that nothing we endure in this life, bound to the Cross of Jesus, is without value and meaning and power. Jesus says this to St. Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In a world redeemed by Love crucified, nothing that is brought into the ambit of God-and-neighbor love is lost, for love makes all things new. Love descended into Hell, choosing this darkest of prisons as the epicenter of the Big Bang of the new creation. Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all.”

Into every darkness, invite Jesus, who bears with Him the triumph of hope.

Mother Teresa gives us the face of a ship’s captain who, in the midst of the nighttime storm, retains her “great faith” (Matt. 8:26) because she knows that even in the darkest tempest Jesus, though asleep, is God-with-us, ready to awaken at our cry and calm the storm with a word of command (Matt. 8:26).

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this form of sanctity eloquently:

Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too—a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favourable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, apostle of hope in the night, pray for us. Amen.

I’ll end with a musical rendition of St. John of the Cross’ poem, One Dark Night. He composed it while he was imprisoned in a latrine for 9 months, starved and abused. In that night, he found Christ with Him calling him to union with Himself.

The man you thought I was

“When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women” — Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

[Spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

[Spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

[And one more time, spoiler alert for Sherlock fans]

At the end of episode 2, season 4 of Masterpiece Theater’s Sherlock, there was a dialogue between Sherlock and Watson about Watson’s dead wife, Mary. There’s too much to explain background-wise, but suffice to say that in this scene Watson was confessing both to Sherlock and to his dead wife that while Mary was still alive he had had an affair (of sorts) with a woman he met on the bus. He was tortured with that memory. There was an insight in their dialogue that led to a reflective exchange between my wife, Patti, and me later the next night.

Here’s the part of that dialogue I wish to highlight:

Watson: She was wrong about me.
Sherlock: Mary? How so?
Watson: She thought that if you [Sherlock] put yourself in harm’s way, I’d rescue you. Or something. But I didn’t, until she told me to. And that’s how this works. That’s what you’re missing.
She taught me to be the man she already thought I was. Get yourself a piece of that.
[…Watson then confesses his affair to the ghost of Mary]
Watson to Mary: That’s all it was. Just texting. I’m not that man you thought I was. I’m not that guy. I never could be. And that’s the point. That’s the whole point. The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.
Mary: Well then, John Watson, get the hell on with it…

Brilliant. Unquestionably true in my life. “The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.”

That phrase, rightly understood, has a very particular meaning for me. In fact, I know many, many men who would say much the same as I do here. While I cannot say what I am for her in this regard, I can say what she is for me. Here’s the gist of what I said to Patti later, as I captured and expanded on it in my journal. I share it because my wife is a living witness whose story I wish to tell as I am able. She, imperfect in her humanity, has taught me more of the Way of Perfection than any other one person. How can I keep from writing?

+ + +

It’s not simply that you want me to be something I’m not, which can be toxic were it accompanied by your constant frustration, nagging, by seething anger and resentment when I fail because, in reality, you despise these things in me. Were you that way, I would never want to become what you hope from me. And if I did become it, I would be only a chimera, a distorted reflection of your own needs.

Neither is it that you wish me to be who you want for your benefit, to extract what you want out of me. Or that you want me to be what you know I could never be. Or again, neither do you charge me to change by being manipulative, coercive, employing the weapons of guilt or exploiting my weaknesses against me. I’ve seen those before at work in couples or whole families, and it’s bitter poison, the stuff of a suffocating, crushing, life-sucking and joyless marriage and family life.

No, why you motivate me so powerfully, so effectively is because you love me. Plain and simple. You see in me what I can be, awakening me to God’s dream for me. You know me, know who I am all too well, and you see so many things — great and petty — that inhibit me from becoming who I am to be. Because you love me, you see, and you want me free. You see so well the chains that keep me from becoming who I was meant to be, because you listen so long, so deep. And you kiss my chains, you slip your hands between mine, into those chains with me, and you show me the key to unlock them. It was just beneath my hands, but I never saw it. I miss so many things.

And my limits, so many, slowly migrating, sometimes expanding, other times receding, still other times exactly where they were from the start. I know you’ll be a saint for them, grueling patience, relieved by occasional gut laughs together that make us cry.

At times, you’ve known your love must be tough, direct, precise. You grabbed my tie and shook me, looking deep into my eyes as only you can, and said: “This is who you were made to be. You know it’s true. Do it. Don’t let fear keep you down. Your family needs you to be strong. Be a man.” The only reason I finished my PhD. Your eyes, His eyes.

You pray over my chains. You pray for rain on the drought. You call on the Angels to drive away the demons of doubt and fear, of despair and lust, of hate and unforgiveness, of self-loathing and mediocrity. You dismantle the armor, break up the hard clods and clear the stones. You see what I should have known, but never did and, instead of shaming or blaming, you say: “Here, see, look at true beauty; understand the liberating order God has made; a path of life; taste what hope is; be gentle and know that strength is only thus wrought rightly.”

You listen me into wisdom, sing me into peace, gift me into outward love. You never let me get away with what I should never get away with. Highest, greatest of all: you brought to me the gift of children who, with your motherhood, recreated fatherhood in/for me, rebirthed childhood, resurrected wonder and awe and simple joy and spontaneity and so many of my favorite things life had trampled on.

It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother. — St John Paul II

“The man you thought I was is the man I want to be” not because you demanded it, commanded it, but because you inspired it. God breathed life into Adam before He made Woman, but He has breathed life into the New Adam through the New Eve. Likewise, He has breathed life into me through you, with you, in you. Deo gratias. 

Tom: The man you thought I was is the man I want to be.

Patti: Well then, Tom Neal, get the hell on with it…

Ever Ancient, Ever New


Sunset taken from our backyard 1/9/17

As I was watching this sunset, I sang the 1800 year old Christian hymn, Phos Hilaron, “O Radiant Light,” that was composed to accompany the liturgy that ends the day. I learned it years ago. All three stanzas sing to Christ, who is the Light of Light. It’s a remarkable thought, to realize I am singing words that have been sung for that many years by Christians all over the world. That’s the gift of liturgy’s enduring character.

O radiant light, O sun divine
Of God the Father’s deathless face,
O image of the light sublime
That fills the heav’nly dwelling place.

O Son of God, the source of life,
Praise is your due by night and day;
All happy lips must raise the strain
Of your proclaimed and splendid name.

Lord Jesus Christ, as daylight fades,
As shine the lights of eventide,
We praise the Father with the Son,
The Spirit blest and with them one.

On a lighter note

Change of pace. Three videos I find funny. I hope it will make at least a few people out there smile.

I: In this season of gift-giving, I’ve thought about the fact that men are known to make bad judgments when they select gifts for their wives or girlfriends. I have. Well, there’s this commercial which a friend of mine sent me back in 2010 that brilliantly captures the predicament some men find themselves in in such situations. Maybe most have seen it, but no matter how many times I watch it, I laugh.

II. Another commercial for people who feel they need a job change.

II. A parody on Millennials.

Lenten Empathy

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” — Galatians 6:2

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” — Luke 6:32

Yesterday I was blessed to hear a presentation by a mental health care professional who spoke about the role of empathy and compassion in the health care industry. It was exceptional. Among the many insights she shared, I was struck by the way she described empathic listening as the capacity to enter another’s world of suffering without being “taken down” by it; but to translate the energy of empathy into compassionate action that helps — in ways great or small — bring the sufferer hope and relief. Something like that.

It set me thinking about the importance of recognizing that every person has a story they carry with them, and simply being aware that there is a story can go a long way toward tempering our judgments and responses to others’ words and actions.

It also made me think back on the Lent of 1992 when my spiritual director gave me this stunning Lenten penance:

Every day this Lent, if at all possible, I want you to go out of your way to connect with someone you find difficult, irritating, tedious or unappealing. Have lunch with them, stop them in the hall and ask them how they are doing, call them up just to chat, inquire into their interests and be interested, let them talk and you listen.

40 days. It was a hard Lent! For Holy Week, he asked me to write up the insights and benefits I sensed that I had gained. Here’s part of what I wrote (which I have used in talks I’ve given during Lent):

#1: Self knowledge! I discovered, first of all, how much I naturally gravitate toward people I find appealing and avoid those I don’t, and that it takes an act of the will to overcome this force of gravitation. Sounds obvious, but until I put myself in a position like this I simply did not know how true it really was for me. I also saw, in that way, just how selfish, quick to judge and good at reducing others to a caricature I am. But even more, I thought to myself again and again throughout Lent: My God, who would have me on their list if they had this penance?!

These days exposed my lack of virtues, my weaknesses and pettiness. That was yucky to see. But your request also grew some things in me I would never have seen the need for had I not been forced into this penance. Especially I learned the need to give people a hearing in order to “get” them. And nine times out of ten I came to see that their story, when they shared it, had some tough stuff in it. A few times I said to myself: “So that’s why they’re so difficult to deal with!” But more it was self-recognition, seeing my own blocks and issues that made me avoid them.  The more I came to know them, generally the less aversion I experienced toward them. Not in all cases, but in most.

One guy in particular I found out, from our several lunches together that took us deeper than I had anticipated, he had a rough home life growing up. His dad was hard and demanding and his mom was cold and distant. The deck was stacked against him from the start, and I appreciated how remarkably he had come out of that, all things considered, and tried to move beyond a bad beginning.

One woman who told me why I irritated her, but how she appreciated me more now that she and I had talked. I did not have the same courage to tell her the feeling was mutual. I was deeply humbled, somewhat humiliated, and totally amazed at her honesty!

It made my evening examination of conscience much more vivid! And made me cling more to prayer as I saw my shadows and others’ crosses. My Lenten anthem was Lord, have mercy with gusto!

I really can understand so much better now what you [my director] told me when we first started working together: if I want to be a saint, I have to will it. Not just want it, but will it. Choose it again and again. It’s not enough just to feel passionate or idealistic about holiness. If I want to learn to love these people better than I do, I have to overcome my natural dis-inclinations by choosing to come out of myself and focus on them. Look at them eye to eye, face to face. While there’s no magic happy ending to this, with me now being some kind of Mother Teresa, I have changed and did grow. And that’s gold.

All of these insights I had as she spoke exploded when she showed us a really neat video that drew from me tears and various memories. I’d never seen it before, but she said it’s very popular in the health care training world. It has given me a fresh way of looking at people around me. Such beauty.

Watch if you can, it’s about 4 minutes long: