A Culture of Waste

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world. — Hans Urs von Balthasar

This last weekend, my son and I sat outside till late at night smoking cigars, drinking and talking about everything. Family history, work, jokes, politics, weather, faith, bugs. It was for us what the Greeks call a kairos moment, where eternity and time transverse, hearts unfold and the burdens of life for a time depart.

The same weekend, I led a ministry volunteer retreat. During the retreat, which was on joy, I invited the attendees to join me in dancing as I played the music video for Pharrell Williams’ Happy. More than half of them did and, for me, it was yet another kairos moment I will never forget. I just knew the Son of David was dancing with and in us.

I have often spoken in this blog of the importance of such kairos time-wasting as an essential attribute of love and relationships, especially in marriage and family life. Singing and dancing, hiking and boating, gaming and gardening, feasting and praying, laughing and crying, or beginning sentences with words like…

What do you think about…

How did you feel when…

Do you remember back when we…

I love it when you…

Wasn’t that funny when…

What’s on your mind…

How was your day…

What’s your favorite…

Why do you believe…

Once upon a time…

Can we pray together about…

I love you…

…then be sure to follow these words with an immoderate wasting of time…

Good Grief

[On hearing of the death of his son,] the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” The troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” — (1 Sam. 18-19)

We Americans live in a culture that has largely lost its shared social scripts and rituals for grieving. How does one grieve loss, failure or tragedy? For how long? How do we move on? How do others respond rightly to those who grieve? With whom should we share our grief? Do we mourn with our clothing? Do we weep and wail aloud in public or in private? Do we share our pain or remain silent? How do we pray in the midst of grief? When do we pray? How should we eat?

And how does faith shape the way we grieve?

Grief is how we bury our dead — the injustices and injuries, losses, failures and tragedies we undergo in life. Grief allows us to heal, surrender, forgive, and move on into new freedom with reverence.

In the face of my parents’ death over the last two years, I have given much thought to this. I have one simple observation.

I and my family were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, support, care, prayer and compassion shown to us. Cards, texts, emails, gifts, flowers, prayers promised, countless Masses offered, meals brought, memorial donations to charities, sincere words of condolence. One friend had a magnificent chalice made, inscribed with my mom’s name, and donated it as alms to a poor diocese so that my mom would be perpetually remembered in the offering of the Sacrifice.

Absolutely overwhelming. How can one possibly begin to offer gratitude sufficient to repay these acts of kindness? “Pay it forward,” as one friend suggested. Lovely, right and just.

The beauty and power of all these gifts notwithstanding, what I found most powerful personally was the sacred space afforded me by two people I know. Each offered me a guarded sanctuary within which I could grieve.

One of them, while my mom was dying, asked me, “How are you?” I knew he meant he really wanted to know, and was prepared for whatever would come out. So I told him. He just listened as I dissolved in front of him. He didn’t attempt to mute my pain with pious words of comfort or counsel, neither did he say he knew what I was going through by telling me of his own tale of loss. He simply listened, revering the infinite power of silence.

At the end he said, “I’m so sorry.” And embraced me. We left in silence.

For me, he was the weeping Christ-with-me. A real Presence reserved in the Tabernacle of compassionate silence.

Aside from the Funeral Mass, nothing has allowed me to bury my mom and return her to God more than that hour I spent with this friend. He brought alive for me the beauty of the words of Job 2:13

[The friends of Job] sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

May I be able, by God’s grace, to pay that forward…

A Hidden Life

Without any commentary yet, I have to recommend with the strongest insistence that all see Terrance Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life — about Austrian farmer Bl. Franz Jägerstätter and his family. It is a masterpiece of iconography that powerfully and convincingly narrates how beauty saves the world. He is now the patron saint of all my work on the lay vocation.
My wife and I saw it last night at the New Orleans Film Festival.

Churn out enormity

And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do; churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God’s blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. — Annie Dillard

I had an exchange with a friend, who’s also a dad, about the impossibility of fully appreciating your children’s childhood. Here is a part of what I wrote to him:

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You know, you are so right to say it that way. I try so hard to appreciate things in the moment, but always feel later a failure. When my mom was dying, as I sat beside her bed I tried desperately to appreciate her still being with me…but in some ways it was too hard to think that way, as the grief of impending loss, of the water’s imminent escape from my hand, clouded my ability to receive the moment. Such a paradox!

But an insight I had with my mom, and have had with the kids, was in the whole liturgical sense of ‘anamnesis’ [Greek word for ‘remember’]. Remembering “in God” what has sunk into the past has become the primary way I access the unsearchable depths of the beauty present in each moment. So much of my prayer has become remembering the past in God’s presence … is this not what praying with Scripture is? Only in prayer can I see clearly that, to the eternal God, all is present. And to the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, our memory and God’s memory have become one remembering. Such is the Eucharist.

Prayer also allows me to realize my nostalgia, the painful desire to not allow what I love to vanish into the past, is an imago, an echo of God’s eternal — agonized — love for all things:

For you love all things that exist,
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. – Wisdom 11:24-26

This morning I had breakfast at City Diner with Maria (our little monthly tradition), and we remembered the past — the special moments, random happenings, and funny things we treasure together…and it was incredible, always is, left me filled with a blend of joy, sadness and hope as I drove away. And when I go to my Mom’s grave, I sit there and remember. So much, everything really. And somehow I go deeper into what was, with a mix of sadness, gratitude and hope.

At once, I must treasure and let go. ☨

To me, as you know, this is what I believe the new creation is about in its deepest structure: forever unpacking in the eternity of God what was the infinite depth of time, of the now, of the sacrament of the present moment that none of us has, or can receive wholly in this life.

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Astonishing thought, in every moment of our lives in this world we are called to “churn out enormity” — to impregnate each minute of each hour of every day with love, readying its labored procession for eternal remembrance in everlasting Resurrection.

Kyrie eleison

Image result for sunflower turning toward sun

My wife, Patti, has been a music director in parish contexts for over 30 years. She is an accomplished vocal performer, an exacting choral conductor and a gifted composer. She treats her work as a sacred task in service to the majesty and dignity of the divine liturgy, and experiences her work as an act of prayer and as a call to prayer. Anyone who has ever watched her conduct knows it is pure choreography. David twirling about the Ark of the Covenant with unhampered joy — with abandon! — is the best analogy I can think of. Her ebullience and intensity electrify every space she enters.

And as any artist knows, the grace of bringing beauty into the world plants the Cross of Christ, the origin and standard of all beauty, deep into the core of her being. How grateful we we should always be to artists.

Patti has brought into our family over the years a steady diet of the arts, and has taught our children — and especially me — the intimate relationship between God and beauty. There have been many times over the years when some of my most profound experiences of God in prayer, in the context of liturgical worship, have come through her work.

One example I felt moved to share today was when she had the choir perform Mary E. Smisek’s Kyrie, which is an arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, opus 92, movement 2. The Kyrie eleison, which is Greek for “Lord have mercy,” stands at the heart of the Penitential Act in the Mass. In those ancient words drawn from Sacred Scripture, we sinners — like Isaiah — seek God’s forgiveness and healing grace as we enter into the holy-holy-holy presence of God:

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! — Isaiah 6:5

It was Lent, and my chosen penance that year was exposing in me just what a weak and pathetic man I was. That year, the combination of graduate studies, my job and our four small children was an “exhaustion-cocktail,” and so my threshold of tolerance was low. I began to back off on my early morning prayer discipline, as my struggles with guilt made prayer uncomfortable, and I found excellent excuses to busy myself with other things. I am excellent at that.

It was the third Sunday of Lent, and as Mass unfolded the Kyrie began. I had never heard this arrangement before. Immediately, its magnificent tones washed over me and I experienced the most profound awareness of being loved by God very specifically in what I considered my most loathsome self. I saw myself as a frightened child and immediately thought of God calling out to Adam, who was hiding in shame amid Eden’s trees: “Where are you?” But whereas previously I had always thought of those words as a divinely irritated reproach, I knew in that moment, with absolute clarity, these were words of tender compassion.

That grace not only remained with me throughout Lent, and emboldened me to return to daily prayer, but to this day if I hear this piece of music I am transported at once into the Garden, where mercy again calls out: “Where are you?” I am also reminded of Fr. Tom Hopko’s searching insight,

Whenever we pray Kyrie eleison, don’t imagine we’re trying to convince God to be something He isn’t. Like, “O God, you are usually a tyrant, be nice today if you please!”

No!

We are simply making a declaration in the imperative form: “O God, you who ARE mercy, be who you are toward me!” Like a sunflower that turns toward the sun to receive its warmth and light, only when we confess with faith who God truly is can we receive what He longs to give us…

Gentle Heart of Jesus

Be humble towards God and gentle with your neighbor. Judge and accuse no one but yourself, and ever excuse others. Speak of God always to praise and glorify him, speak of your neighbor only with respect — do not speak of yourself at all, either well or ill. — Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque

There is a woman I have known since the late 1980’s who has been for me a life-mentor. Wife, mother and grandmother, she is a gentle soul who has dedicated the last ~fifty years of her life to caring for the elderly, mostly in nursing homes, in a ministerial capacity.

She is a holy woman.

After reading the above quote in Magnificat yesterday, the rest of the day I thought of her — she embodies St. Margaret Mary’s counsel as no one I have ever known. Though she has courageously confronted countless injustices over the years in advocating for the protection of the elderly, she has never once, in my experience, spoken ill of anyone behind their back. No trash talk comes out of her mouth. What she says of others she says to them, or she doesn’t say it at all. She always seeks to give the most generous interpretation of every person’s behavior even as she uncompromisingly demands from them the highest standards.

Over the years, she was known for walking into toxic family situations, dismantling all hostility and leaving family members bathed in tears of reconciliation. How? First, she is a master at helping people see the world through another’s eyes, leading them to the “story behind the story” that, in the midst of flaring emotions and long-held grudges, is often overlooked. Second, she is so radically other-centered, sincere and empathetic that she disarms people. She embodies St. John of the Cross’ advice to a fellow Friar, “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love.”

But third, and most importantly from her perspective, she had a deep devotion to what she always called the “gentle Heart of Jesus.” And she clung to the promise Jesus made to St. Margaret Mary that those devoted to His Heart would receive “the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.” Before she would walk into any situation, she would invoke the Sacred Heart of Jesus to envelop the room she was about to enter.

When I was going through a hard time in the early 1990’s, and was consumed by hatred for a particular person, at the end of our conversation she said, “Can I pray with you about this?” “Of course,” I said. She prayed something like this:

Dear Jesus, Tom is so hurt. Only you know why [this person] is the way he is. You have known [this person] since he was in his mother’s womb, growing up, you’ve known his every thought. And only you know, Jesus, why he treated my brother Tom the way he did. Your Heart grieves. You know the pain of both these men, you carried both their pains together in your Heart on the Cross. O gentle Sacred Heart, help Tom to see [this person] the way you see him, and help my brother Tom to find your love for him and for [this person].

Let’s just say, that prayer unchained me.

Dr. Mario, what is prayer?

On this memorial feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, doctor of prayer, it seemed appropriate to share a podcast my friend, Dr. Mario Sacasa, and I did on prayer. Dr. Mario’s podcasts are a treasury of wisdom, and I highly recommend them to all interested in the ways faith and reality intersect in hope: https://faithandmarriage.org/alwayshope/

He is a long time friend, colleague and inspiration to me and my family!