“It has been completed,” said the dying God

Christ the King. executedtoday.com

After several weeks away from blogging, I am preparing to restart in the next few days.

What a feast today! The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The ending of the liturgical year, reflective of the coming end of the ages that Jesus finalized on the cross when He said, Tetelestai, “It has been completed” (John 19:30).

Jesus Christ, the all-ruling King, “completed” fallen humanity’s royal-priestly vocation while hanging on the cross, but only at the very end when His love had reached its most extreme (John 13:1).

Our vocation was to transform the raw material of an unfinished creation into logikēn latreian (Rom 12:1), a living sacrifice of thanksgiving offered to the Father under the form of the daily grind of selfless love for God and neighbor (Rom. 12:2-21).

During Thanksgiving, a woman who has many children and grandchildren was joking with me about how she never gets the gratitude she deserves. But she ended her humorous comments with a comment for the ages, “But does that really matter? In the end it’s God who will judge whether or not my life was worthy of a thank you. Or was a worthy thank you.”

.

May we all live worthy of her tetelestai. Of His.

Pause

This semester has proved to be challenging meeting various obligations and trying to maintain this Blog. A good busy, as they say.

So I will put my writing here on hold for a stretch as I anticipate more of the same to the end in December, weekends included. So until at least Thanksgiving, I will not be posting.

May the Lord bless you super-abundantly in all ways, in the meantime. I’ll leave an old reflection below Sound of Silence for your reflection, if you wish…

 

[re-post from 2014]

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not. — St Silouan the Athonite

I met with a young man earlier this year to discuss some faith struggles he was facing. I will call him Eric here, and he gave me permission to share this story.

Eric had been brought up in a broken home, and had been physically and psychologically abused by his step-father. After getting out of high school, he got a job and quickly got caught up in drug and alcohol abuse and in the hook-up culture. But after going on an ACTS retreat, and having a life-altering encounter with Christ, he radically altered his lifestyle and moved to another state to start his life afresh. Eventually, after a few years, he decided to become a priest.

While he was in a parish assignment his third year of college seminary, he discovered the pastor was engaged in some seriously nefarious activity, which shook him to the core. As this dredged painful memories and overwhelming anger, he said he did not have the inner resources to confront the pastor or face his vocation director, so he simply disappeared and left the seminary and stopped practicing his faith altogether. Though he never lost his faith.

I met him by chance one day and when he found out I worked for a seminary, he wanted to talk to me. Our several sessions were painful and fruitful, and he eventually decided to return to the sacraments and give the church a try again. It was a miracle of grace and a testament to his own resilience.

At the heart of our conversations was the question of why Jesus chooses to include messed up people in His Church. Especially in leadership positions. I remember the day when he said, “I hate that life is so messy in general. I guess the bottom line is, what other choice does God have, right? I mean, I’m messed up, everyone I know is somehow messed up.” We talked about human institutional dysfunction as a permanent state of affairs that requires incessant reform, and shared ideas on possible remedies. Then I said,

But bottom line is it’s only faith in Jesus that gives us hope beyond the limits of history and keeps us from hopeless pessimism. And really, if we look at Jesus as the way things work for God, it’s actually when things are worst that it’s clearest He’s getting down to business and dealing with the problem at hand. Bringing the hidden toxins to the surface. In the Passion, evil was totally spiraling out of control and put Jesus in its cross-hairs. And when evil had done its worst by dragging Him into hell, it was then that He blew it open from the inside out and launched a new creation.

So hope is found only in collaborating with God’s project of new creation, which He makes out of the scraps of human rubble.

You know, St. John of the Cross in the Dark Night says that just before you get to the brightest light of union with God, you stare into hell’s darkest eye. And then what you discover when you get there is that the darkness is really in you. So dealing with the problems of the church or world, whatever they are, really means dealing with your problem, the only one you have a final say over.

My first spiritual director told me that a warning sign that I have become unhealthily preoccupied with others’ failings and faults, have lost perspective, is when I pray less and less. In other words, when I lose hope in the God-project of new creation and progressively withdraw into myself. Of course, what that leaves me with is the exact same mess, but now without hope or joy.

There’s this Orthodox saint, St. Isaac the Syrian, who says that once you let God’s mercy REALLY deal with your own crap, you then become the most merciful person in the whole world and see things the way God does. Which is the final goal. He has this quote that’s killer on that point.

I later emailed him the St. Isaac quote:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

I ended my email to Eric with the Silouan quote, and added, “If you choose to dive into Jesus all the way, wholeheartedly, you’ve gotta be ready to go deep into the thick of it all with Him. I mean, that’s where He’s always heading, to where it’s worst. The key is to stick with Him and never go it alone. Go it alone, you’ve lost everything. Go it with Him, you’ll find everything.”

Family is everything

My paternal grandparents, Edmond and Ruth, were married for 76 years, and my grandfather died just a few weeks shy of 100 years old. They had an immense impact on my life, and their memory lives on in my own family like an undimmed lighthouse.

These photos, taken when my son Nicholas was 1, were taken the last time we saw them both before they developed Alzheimer’s. When I found these pictures recently, I was flushed with a thousand emotions. How I miss them and wish they were still here! What I would give for another hour long phone call to hear them tell life stories, encourage us to stick to priorities, work hard, focus on family and faith. I can hear Pop’s voice saying to me, “Family isn’t an important thing, Tommy, it’s everything” or “Be sure to waste more time just being with your children than you spend keeping them busy. Time wasted, hearts gained.”

As my wife and I have never lived near either of our families, I am so grateful that my own 92 year old mother lives here in New Orleans so our children get to experience how important grandparents are, see what the challenges of old age are like, and learn how to be patient with a failing memory. But most important to me, my mom offers them a privileged opportunity to embrace my family history as their own.

When my dad was dying last Spring, my children were also able to see the painful effects of my parents’ divorce on me, my mom and my own family, as well as witness the extraordinary power of gestures of reconciliation. In particular, I shared with them, with my mom present, a story from the final days I spent with my dad before he died.

I told them that when I went to see grandpa, I brought a photo of grandma to show him and share with him her “forgiveness, love and prayers.” Though he was mostly non-responsive those last days because of the dementia, when I showed him the photo of my mom, and shared her message, he kept his eyes open and looked intently at it for at least a full minute. And then he said in his faint raspy voice, “I love her forever.” It was Easter Sunday.

In that moment, the distance between my childhood and the present moment collapsed, and a deep chasm was bridged.

I want these things to define my children’s memories. And I want Pope Francis’ wisdom to shape their futures.

Listening to the elderly
tell their stories is good for children and young
people; it makes them feel connected to the living
history of their families, their neighborhoods
and their country. A family that fails to respect
and cherish its grandparents, who are its living
memory, is already in decline, whereas a family
that remembers has a future. A society that has
no room for the elderly or discards them because
they create problems, has a deadly virus; it is
torn from its roots. Our contemporary experience
of being orphans as a result of cultural
discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of
the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us
to make our families places where children can
sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. — Pope Francis

Bloom where you’re planted

St Theophane

May the Lord give you the blessing
of a strong desire to stand inwardly before God.
Seek and you will find.
Seek God: such is the unalterable rule for all spiritual advancement.
Nothing comes without work.
The help of God is always ready and always near,
but is only given to those who seek and work,
and only to those seekers who, after putting all their own powers to the test,
then cry out with all their heart: Lord, help us!
So long as you hold on the Lord does not interfere.
It is as though He says:
“You hope to succeed by yourself –
Very well, go on trying!
But however long you try you will achieve nothing.”
May the Lord give you a contrite spirit,
a humble and a contrite heart. — Theophane the Recluse

The one time I did an eight day Ignatian silent retreat, I had a spiritual director guide me who had over fifty years of experience counseling people in the spiritual life. He was all at once gentle and brutal — gentle in delivery, brutal in accuracy. I filled an entire journal with insights from those days.

There were two wrap-up insights he shared the final day of the retreat that remain as poignant today as they were then. The first went like this,

You have two choices whenever you find yourself faced with a difficult trial in life. Either discover in it a cross given you as a path to sanctity or find a way to move on.

Then he read to me 1 Cor. 10:13, adding,

But always remember, everywhere you go the cross awaits. Have no illusions. And, Tom, do not fall into the rut of constant complaining, of second guessing everything, or wishing things were different by saying, “If only…I would be what God wants!” These keep you from embracing God’s will and get you stuck in a spiritual adolescence.

The second insight was the quote above from the Eastern Orthodox spiritual writer, St. Theophane. My director commented,

Bring everything to God in prayer. Pray as if everything depended on His grace. It does. Whenever you travel to a new place during the day — if you go home, to work, to shop or visit a friend or family or church — beg the Holy Spirit to precede you, to go ahead of you and prepare the way ahead of you. If you are tempted to complain, call on the Spirit. On the Mother of God. Your Guardian Angel.

But if you choose self-reliance as your way of dealing with life, and withhold from God your full Yes, God will absolutely respect that and leave you to yourself to face things on your own, until you see how far you get.

He paused for a moment and, looking at me with a smile, took my hand and said, “And you see where that’s gotten you?” We had a hearty laugh.

Show me the Father

Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring … We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. — Pope Francis

[when I read this quote, it reminded me of a post I had written in 2014…so here it is again]

Quite a number of years ago, my wife and I were friendly with a woman who worked in business with her husband and was (at the time) a mother of two small children. She was smart, was a “mover and a shaker” and had a quick and sarcastic wit. Both she and her husband were very devoted to their Catholic faith and were involved in various parish activities. For all appearances, they were the model thriving family.

The rest of what I share is with permission.

One day the husband asked me if I would meet him for lunch, and after three hours of conversation I understood why. Their marriage was in crisis, and from his perspective it was largely because she was strangling him, and their children, with her relentless and unattainable expectations. He said, “She criticizes everything I do and it’s driving me insane. And it’s making the kids resent her. But I know it’s not her fault. She’s just passing on what she received.”

He went on to tell me she had grown up in a hyper-critical home, with a father who was demanding, never affectionate and who never made her feel she measured up to his expectations. Her mother was passive and never stood up to him to protect her little girl. Then, with copious tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Look, she hates herself and I can’t help her anymore. I have tried to help her love herself, but I’ve reached my limits. I’m done.”

They ended up going to counseling, and made enormous progress. After about six months had passed since the lunch, the woman emailed me a very lengthy note expressing her own feelings of anger and hatred toward God. She said, “I can’t get over the sense that God is far away really and never quite happy with me because I never measure up to his demands. To think of God as a father and me as his daughter is totally suffocating … counseling has made me want to stop living a facade of perfection in my life. But now I’m scared because part of that includes my faith in God which has been a total facade.”

As I do so often with people who ask me to help them grow in their relationship with God, I encouraged her make space for silent prayer in her life. I recommended she try to go to Eucharistic Adoration once a week for an hour, sit quietly in front of Jesus and very simply share all the contents of her heart. Among other things, I said,

When you sit in prayer with Jesus, keep still and just look at Him. Allow whatever is deep inside of you to surface. Don’t run away from whatever agitation rises up in the quiet. Let it burn through you and then speak to Him about it. Give permission to Jesus to enter into your heart freely and surprise you. Say over and over, “Show me the Father.” That is Jesus’ entire mission, so see what He has to say …

A few weeks later, I received a handwritten thank you note from the woman. In it, she said,

… I just had to share this with you. After a few tries in the Chapel taking your advice (which was hard as hell by the way), one night I experienced for the first time in my entire life the feeling of being washed with unconditional love from God the Father. You know what a big deal that is. I was a total wreck and it’s all your fault! 🙂 But here’s the million dollar insight I got — I can only love myself when I know I’m loved like that by somebody who knows me through and through and not just the fake me that was most of my life …

I’m sure you know from your wife that a woman just wants to be noticed … That’s totally what I knew that night. God noticed everything inside of me. All the crap especially. But here’s the new part: that’s what he loved. The crap! Not just the “perfect” parts of me which were the only parts I ever felt were lovable. Excuse my French, but that’s just f-ing wild …

Consecrate Me a Boat?

blog.citywinery.com

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their labor through the days of life that God gives them. — Pope Francis

I was shocked to read this. Such a shallow vision of life! Imagine living life this way. What a pagan mindset, appreciating the good things of this world as if they were comparable to a life lived in the light of an otherworldly eternity. How could a pope have succumbed to the hedonism of secular humanism? We should deny ourselves of all worldly pleasures for God and seek spiritual realities and their supernal beauty! What are we coming to?

So earthly minded, our pontiff is of no heavenly good. Where is my pale faced Christian saint who’s left behind the tainted pleasures of this world?!

Well, actually, this quote is from Sacred Scripture, from Ecclesiastes 8:15. Pope Francis quoted it once in a speech, so I took it out of context to make a point. The inspired book of Ecclesiastes, which you might say is the Old Testament Gospel of This-world Realism, assumes the existence of no afterlife, and so forcefully counsels that the elusive human quest for happiness be vigorously sought in this life whenever opportunity presents itself.

I am grateful Ecclesiastes was kept in the Canon of Scripture as a corrective to exaggerated hyper-spiritualized forms of other-worldliness that can easily spring from a Christian hope in an eternal life (wrongly) divorced from this world. As I say so often, the Christian vision of the New Creation is a vision of this creation saved, redeemed, perfected, re-created by God through Christ.

Our calling as Christ’s Body is to love this world — our common home — as God loves it, to cultivate the world as God’s garden, to transform earth into an offering to the God who first entrusted it to us. That offering, carried by the faithful to Mass each Sunday, has the most mind-blowing destiny. Our Catechism #1047 eloquently expresses it:

The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just, sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

The entire visible universe. 💥

But how do we, “the just,” know what it means to engage in this celestial transaction for glorification in the risen Jesus? Who can teach us this superhuman art form? Well, Jesus, the “glutton and drunkard” who dines with sinners (Luke 7:34), the mixer of one-hundred thirty five gallons of spiced wine (John 2:6f), the bread and fish mass-distribution Maker (Matt. 14:19), the breakfast Chef (John 21:12), the Bridegroom who has come to inaugurate an eternal wedding feast, the dancing Son (Luke 15:25), the new Adam who brings creation to completion by loving the world to the end.

In fact, Jesus’ final words on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), declare God’s “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) work of creation now complete in an act of divine and human selfless sacrificial love. Now the Church, Christ’s Fire-breathing Body in the world, remains to carry our His act of love to the very end of time so that every quark of this cosmos can be saved.

This is really the art of the laity, of us baptized royal priests who are heaven’s secular world-loving missionaries. For us, as Vatican II put it, “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in [our] hearts.” Saintly laity are so earthly minded they are of supreme heavenly good.

Now, as we have had millennia of magnificent canonized saints whose vocation was to renounce earthly goods to lift humanity’s eyes upward toward heaven’s future hope, it’s time for us to long now for a new millennium overflowing with canonized saints whose vocation is to rejoice in earthly goods, drawing heaven downward to consecrate earth.

So next time you find opportunity to love the world, first call down the Heavenly Spirit to consecrate your earth, or your boat…

…as many a truth is spoke in jest, maybe eliminating such false heaven-earth oppositions by teaching us laity how to rightly love this world might eliminate some of our knee-jerk rebellion against what we see as a world-degrading heaven…

For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. Together with the offering of the Lord’s Body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God. – Lumen Gentium

Be!

[this will be my last post for the week]

Amo, volo ut sis, “I love you: I want you to be” — St. Augustine

A dear friend gave me a book by Tomáš Halík about a year ago that contains this quote from Augustine, and I have spent the last year reflecting on the meaning of this profound definition of love. I told my wife yesterday, as I was re-reading the book, that for me this phrase masterfully sums up all of Sacred Scripture. From Genesis’ “let there be…” to Revelation’s “I make all things new” — God’s own risk-fraught venture in history — the whole biblical narrative tells of God’s irrevocable will for our be-ing, and for our well-being.

As I reflected on the mystery of God’s ineffable choice to give the gift of existence to something other than Himself, I thought of Donum Vitae’s teaching on human conception:

From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because man is the only creature on earth that God has wished for himself and the spiritual soul of each man is immediately created by God; his whole being bears the image of the Creator. Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator.

At my conception, I was as intimate to the divine command as were the very first image-bearing humans: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). My spiritual soul, which bears the stamp of the divine image, was not an extension of my parents’ souls, but was created ex nihilo, “out of nothing” by the immediate action of the God who “thought of me” from all eternity. At every human conception, regardless of the circumstances, the faithful God says with equally infinite force, “I love you: I want you to be” — then spending the rest of eternity (if I may speak that way) expending Himself to prove those words true and lead me from being to well-being.

The spiritual life is nothing more than accepting, embracing and enacting those words that made us to be.

As I wrote these words this morning, I paused to watch the sun rise in the east over the Gulf of Mexico as the waves rhythmically rolled ashore, and the gulls, terns, swallows, sparrows and pelicans flew before its orange fire. I swear, I can hear faint echoes from the beginning…

Amo, volo ut sis