Naked Prayer

11th Station.

Pray always! He knows our needs better than we do! Indeed, persevering prayer is the expression of faith in a God who calls us to fight with him every day and at every moment in order to conquer evil with good. — Pope Francis

In the days when my father was dying, he frequently prayed. He was severely limited in his ability to move or communicate, but quite a number of times he made the sign of the cross at great cost of pain. And he groaned the word “mercy” countless times, and one of the few times he spoke to me, he said, “Terrible. Thank God.”

It was awe inspiring to witness.

He had mentioned to me many times over the last several years about the importance of facing the “final agony,” the death throes that accompany the end of life, with courage and surrender. He said, “It’s when God has finally taken it on Himself to humble you before He takes you,” adding with a chuckle, “which is going to take a lot of work for me.”. Another time he said something like this, which I wrote down later,

Our Lord made it clear in the Passion that when prayer cuts across the grain of your soul, when pain turns you in on yourself and you choose prayer, you will it, this is an act of great spiritual power. Praying with a naked will in the pitch black, stripped of all the spiritual sweets, is when love becomes agapē. Which is what saves us.

I always thought of the Agony in the Garden this way after he shared that insight, as Jesus’ prayer shifted from a petition aligned with the grain of His soul — “let this cup pass me by” — to a petition that cut across the grain of His soul — “but not my will, but yours be done.” On the cross He continued to pray this way, extending to the extreme “thy will be done,” no doubt with countless naked acts of the will amid excruciating muscle spasms. For us men and for our salvation.

My dad taught me in his dying a new way of praying. When my spirit is far removed from the desire to pray, I now want to pray more than ever. Sure, fitfully mostly, but I attempt to rouse my naked will to Him with love. I hope at least approximating agapē.

Next time you feel conditions in life are most inhospitable to prayer, cutting across the grain of your soul, then pray as you never have prayed.

For us.

High Fives or Watered Gardens?

[beware: this is a meandering post]

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
To choose always the hardest. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was talking with one of my children the other night [I will say it is my son to keep it non-specific] about people who spend their lives fending off all criticism and any honest feedback from others. Actually, we were speaking of a specific person, but then generalized a bit. Whether by isolating themselves, feigning omniscience, posturing as the mountaintop cynic, claiming a victim status (not my fault), or sustaining an elaborate set of strategies to elicit praise, affirmation and agreement from those around them, these people live in a perpetual buffered zone.

He said, “You just can’t get close to them because you can never be totally real with them. You can’t have a real discussion because you know they’re going to go into defensive mode and it’s always about them winning. It’s like they’re always trying to prove something or can’t learn from you, and that’s just so fake and annoying.”

The conversation was sparked after we listened to a recent live performance by Sigrid of her song, High Five, which is all about this kind of person.

We talked about the best way to relate to this person and maybe help them not feel so threatened or just to face the facts. We talked about this person’s family upbringing and what in the family system might have helped to form those ways of dealing with life. We also agreed that all of us can fall into variations of that pattern, making the distance between us and this person only a matter of degree. He said, “Yeah, I pray for him to get a dose of humility and for me to have patience.”

We talked about the importance of honest friendships or even good therapy to confront such things. I said to my son that one of the main goals of friendship and of therapy is to help us to acquire virtues, like courage, humility or honesty, and added, “Years ago I went to therapy, and quickly learned that in the end it’s there to help you become a good person, not just a more functional person. In fact, the underlying goal of all education is supposed to be cultivating a virtuous character. But we’ve mostly lost that.”

One thing my wife did/does exceptionally well as a parent is work hard at intentionally cultivating virtues in our children and their friends. When they were younger, she gave an award to our children at the end of each school year honoring their unique “beatitude” virtues. For her, chores were about solidarity, dealing with irritating siblings was about patience, organizing your time well was a matter of prudence, admitting you messed up was about practicing humility, putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher was linked to justice, serving in the soup kitchen was a work of mercy, or asking someone how their day went (and then listening) meant choosing charity over selfishness.

Once when one of our children said, “I don’t feel like doing that,” Patti replied, “If I did what I felt like, you’d starve.” She also liked to say, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”

I flew up to D.C. to meet with the late Carmelite scholar, Fr. Kieran Kavanagh, back in 2006 to discuss my dissertation on St. John of the Cross. It was a great honor. Among the many things he taught me, I recall him saying something particularly remarkable. “One might say,” he said in his very gentle voice, “that for St. Teresa the whole purpose of prayer is to grow virtue. Because when you grow virtue, your soul is conformed to the divine image and so is most suitable to union with God. To be merciful is to be disposed to union with divine mercy; to be just, disposed to union with divine justice; kind, with His kindness; and so on.”

He then added, “As you know, she describes different kinds of prayer as various methods of acquiring water, and says the virtues are flowers in the garden of the soul. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say for her the water of prayer is given for sake of the flowers of virtue. Which means if you want to judge the health of your prayer life, she’d tell you, don’t concern yourself with lofty feelings or inspired sentiments. No, she’d say examine your response next time someone crosses you…”

Break again

I am heading out on the last leg of my journey, coming to an end July 5. So the week of July 8 I hope to resume posting again.

Always a delight and privilege to think with you here with and about Christ.

I will leave you with Kari Jobe’s The Garden, which I think is among the greatest contemporary pop Christian songs ever written. It has a profound theology in it, rich in biblical metaphors. Placing the Cross, the true Tree of Life, at the center of the Garden of Paradise that sends its redeeming ‘ivy’ branches through the fences of history, is genius.

Her ability to pray her performances is a thing to be greatly admired and emulated.

I had all
But given up
Desperate for
A sign from love
Something good
Something kind
Bringing peace to every corner of my mind
Then I saw the garden
Hope had come to me
To sweep away the ashes
And wake me from my sleep
I realised
You never left
And for this moment
You planned ahead
That I would see
Your faithfulness in all of the green
I can see the ivy
Growing through the wall
‘Cause You will stop at nothing
To heal my broken soul
I can see the ivy
Reaching through the wall
‘Cause You will stop at nothing
To heal my broken soul
Ohh, You’re healing broken souls
You’re healing, You’re healing broken souls
Faith is rising up like ivy
Reaching for the light
Hope is stirring deep inside me
Making all things right
Love is lifting me from sorrow
Catching every tear
Dispelling every lie and torment
Crushing all my fears
You crush all my fears
You crush all my fears
With Your perfect love
Oh-ohh, with Your perfect love
Now I see redemption
Growing in the trees
The death and resurrection
In every single seed

‘Getting’ to heaven?

[re-post 2014]

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. — Catechism #1047

This astonishing statement from the Catechism is the Catholic view of heaven. Our universe, maybe ~40 billion light years wide and ever-expanding, filled with literally unimaginable wonders, is destined to be transformed, restored and placed at the service of redeemed humanity to the eternal glory of God in the Age to Come.

Everything from quasars to quails, supernovas to supermarkets, the most insignificant thoughts to the grandest deeds will somehow all be caught up into paschal fire of Christ’s risen glory, purified, transfigured, made new. Every time I read, for example, Romans 8:18-30 or 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 15:20-28 — my mind blows a gasket.

What does a transfigured cosmos even look like? Well, if the Book of Revelation is any indication, certainly infinitely more wild than this already-wild universe is! It’s no wonder St. Paul, when he was asked by the Corinthians what the resurrected body would be like, simply said, “Fool!” (1 Cor. 15:36)

Often we will speak in our Catholic lingo about “getting to heaven.” While this is certainly not wrong, it can be misleading. Not long ago, I was at a party and a man I was speaking to said, “I can’t wait to die and get out of this shell [his body] and leave this world behind for heaven.” The implication? This world is, at best, a holding tank where we prove ourselves worthy of heaven, but in the end earth is to be cast off and left behind for something far better.

The problem? The Risen Christ begs to differ. What Jesus showed us in raising to new life His brutalized mortal body, making it the cornerstone of the new creation, is that heaven is only heaven when it is wedded to earth and the two become one. Heaven was made for earth and earth for heaven. Mary herself, first fruit of Christ’s redeeming work, was assumed body and soul into heaven.

And the body is not merely a shell that “I” somehow inhabit. Rather, the body is essential to my identity as an ensouled body and an embodied soul. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said of the disembodied soul, “the soul is not I.”

Jesus rising in His historical body, still marked by the open wounds, sealed this truth as an eternal truth. The Resurrection means that, in the World to Come, whether in heaven or hell, we will receive our bodies again, transformed, restored and, for the saved, placed at the service of the eternal glory of God.

The new creation is the old creation raised with Christ into eternal glory.

But the wedding of heaven and earth is not just a future promise that we passively salute from afar. It is to be a present reality, an event happening here and now, set in motion by Christ’s Passover from death to life and detonated in this world by the coming of the Pentecostal Spirit. In Jesus, heaven and earth are perfectly wed now as a new creation. And in us who are His pilgrim Body the heavenly wedding unfolds until the end of time, when God will at last be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

This is precisely what we pray for and consent to every time we pray the Our Father,

Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven

So the meaning and value of this life for humanity is colossal. The mission of the Church is not just to save “souls.” We daily bear on our shoulders the weight of the entire “visible universe” that awaits our priestly Yes for it to be consecrated and transfigured in the Kingdom of Heaven, offered up by us as a living sacrifice to God in Christ through the eternal Spirit.

How? So much to say! But as I have gone long let me be as brief as possible. To that end, I will quote that timeless sage, Belinda Carlisle:

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth

That’s it. How do you consecrate and transfigure this creation into the new creation? Do this:

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another. — John 13:34

Such a love is the “freedom of the children of God” that creation awaits,

the creation itself will be set free
from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom
of the glory of the children of God. — Rom. 8:21

Which calls to mind a note Br. Jude Lasota, B.H. once sent my wife shortly after she had our second child:

The love you and Tom have for those children redeems the whole universe. So it all matters.

Patiently seeking truth

“The Gossips” | 1948 | Norman Rockwell

To be patient means not to allow the serenity and discernment of one’s soul to be taken away. — Josef Pieper

If you had asked me what patience was before I read Josef Pieper’s book on virtue, I would have said something like “the ability to endure hardships over a period of time in pursuit of some good.” While I wouldn’t have been wrong, Pieper gave me a deeper appreciation of the subtlety of patience as a virtue that protects the integrity of making good judgments and steels against violations of truth.

I remember when I was in 7th grade, my tutor Mr. Wallace made me memorize lots of pithy proverbs that, he said, “will take you far in life.” What a lost art! I remember a few of them that were about patience, like “Don’t jump to hasty conclusions,” “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet,” “Everything comes to those who wait,” “Haste makes waste,” “Never cut what can be untied” and “Vainly does he run / the race is by the tortoise won.”

The point Pieper and Wallace made to me was clear, be careful and painstakingly deliberate in seeking the whole truth while making judgments and decisions, and beware of the blinding propulsion of emotion that can take away “serenity and discernment,” leading you to do or say things you will later regret.

Along these lines, Mr. Wallace also said, “There are two philosophies that work in sports and life: either ‘short term pain, long term gain’ or ‘short term gain, long term pain.’” Or as our son Michael said when he was 5 years old, slightly misquoting his mom’s antiphonal proverb, “patience is a virtue” — “I know, I know. Patience will hurt you!”

The Catechism names as one of the “offenses against truth” rash judgment, which “assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” Such rushing to judgment is made exponentially worse when such a judgment is then shared with others and becomes the reputation-damaging sin of calumny, which “harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (#2477). Sinning against another’s reputation, their “name,” is akin to sinning against the Divine Name precisely because each of us is made in the divine image.

Rash judgment and calumny tend to reinforce group-think against the “others,” lending to the calumniators an air of superiority. They offer either a quick rush of pleasure or serve as a means of catharsis for anger and frustration. Indeed, there can be many factors lurking behind these sins, like weakness, laziness, prejudice, anger, fear, hatred, love of drama or gossip addiction.

Yet all of these eschew the evenhanded and meticulous pace of patience which carefully seeks out and weighs evidence in service to truth.

In all of this, it is important to realize the damage such slips in judgment or of the tongue can cause is incalculable, and often irreparable. To reinforce this point, St. Philip Neri once asked a penitent who confessed the sins of detraction and calumny to climb on her roof and empty the contents of her goose-down pillow into the wind, adding, “Then go down pick them all up. For such is the damage caused by the words now scattered everywhere by your tongue.”

Pope Francis made this point powerfully when he said, “Where there is calumny, there is Satan himself.” The word satan in Hebrew means “accuser,” and the word diabolos in Greek means “slanderer.” Two of the premier signatures of diabolical activity are the twisting of truth and division, both of which are well-served by rash judgment and calumny. When Satan exposes sins, it is to sow seeds of division and despair, but when the Spirit exposes sins, it is to sow seeds of reconciliation and hope.

Moral theologian Germain Grisez taught and modeled St. Thomas Aquinas’ dictum, “Seldom affirm, never deny, always make distinctions.” Grisez once said in class, “The whole truth is always greater than what you can see in any given moment. Rarely is there ever something understood or said that does not require further qualification or nuance. Truth seeking requires great discipline and self-mastery, and charity. If you keep to Aquinas’ advice, you’ll rarely be found a fool and will be trusted as truthful. That is, a seeker of the full truth.”

At the end of its discussion of rash judgment and calumny, the Catechism quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola with a tough and very practical challenge:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love.

Keep to this, patiently, and the Truth who is love will be with you.

Let me reward your perseverance in this heady reflection with some “hasty judgment” levity, c/o Ameriquest…



“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

The Confessor I went to on retreat said this to me, in his thick German accent, after I had revealed my sins. He expanded on his words,

You are working so hard to please God, and this is good. And you have failed, and have shared this openly with God. Now you can know His mercy, and when you know His mercy you know something about God even the angels cannot know — the Father’s tender compassion for you as His son. Remember before anything else, you must always go down with Jesus into the water of forgiveness and receive the Father’s tender words, ‘My beloved son.’

Jesus went to the Cross to allow you to hear these words.

But if you don’t allow these words to enter you and define you, you will cling to other identities that will leave you wanting. No matter what happens, no matter how you fail, no matter how others fail you — the Father always, always loves you.

Then he told me to allow St. John the Baptist to take me down to the Jordan, to lead me to Jesus. “He is the forerunner, he prepares the way and is a great saint for leading us to the Father by leading us to Jesus.”

I did, and my takeaway was this: “Become a more loving father by knowing your identity as a beloved son, by allowing yourself to be loved by the Father.” So simple, so basic, so fundamental, so profound, so easy to forget. All I could think of throughout the afternoon was a line from St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans,

There is within me a water
that lives and speaks,
saying to me inwardly,
‘Come to the Father.’

That water of baptism, first sanctified in the Jordan, contains within it the whole mystery of life and death. St. John the Baptist, lead me in to taste there of the Father’s tender mercy. There I can learn to be the father my children deserve.