Epiphany of Love

It’s true that there are difficulties, there are problems with children or with the couple themselves, arguments and fights… but the important thing is that the flesh remains one, and you can overcome, you can overcome, you can overcome.

And this is not only a sacrament for them, but also for the Church, a sacrament, as it were, that attracts attention: “See, love is possible!” And love is capable of allowing you to live your whole life “in love”: in joy and in sorrow, with the problems of children, and their own problems… but always going forward. In sickness and in health, but always going forward. This is beautiful. — Pope Francis

This video (below) is of a couple my wife and I helped prepare for marriage this year. Their 7 minute video is an artistic masterpiece and a testament to their faith-filled love for each other — which Patti and I can say is just as real in life as it is in film. No, far more real.

I thought it would be a wonderful Epiphany meditation, as marriage is, in God’s providential plan, the central epiphany of His love for creation.

 

Holy (Unchosen) Family

[This will actually begin a break as I will be away from internet for five days!]

You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t. — Harper Lee

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of His rescue plan for the human race.

The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or like those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work or what our religion, race or ethnicity is. Or even what parish family we happen to belong to.

George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations, that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.

Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into — relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference — that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are ‘stuck to’ that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “you shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur — one “near by” — love encounters its highest calling.

Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.

The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the Kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.

G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The word “religion,” from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast,” among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a People — many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.

This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the Cross by His neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as He obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.

I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather we fiercely believe, as a rule (§518), that the parish we belong to — are “bound fast to” — is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our land-locked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-by’s with whom God’s scheming Providence ✟ has arranged for us to learn love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.

May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-by’s, beginning with those nearest us at home.

Your secret is safe with me

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” — William Shakespeare

My father used to say, “With almost no exceptions, assume that anything you say to anyone will be known to all at some point.” In other words, realize that people who truly hold confidences are few, and so entrust your sacred secrets to only those rare people who have proven themselves worthy.  Or as Schopenhauer once put it, “If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner. If I let it slip from my tongue, I am its prisoner.”

I have found this to be an iron law.

Yet I myself have failed innumerable times over the years in keeping to this law. A Confessor once said to me, “If you demand others to respect confidentiality, you have to hold yourself first to the highest standard.” He added, “When someone opens their trust and reveals to you a secret to be kept, you become a sanctuary with a tabernacle in which they reserve their pearl of great price. Don’t throw it to the swine to be trampled.” I couldn’t help but thinking that day of Fulton Sheen’s words,

What is Confession? Nudity. It is nudity of the soul. It is stripping ourselves of all false excuses and shams and pretenses and revealing ourselves as we really are.

And why do we feel such reckless freedom to strip naked before God in that Sacrament? The absolute seal of confidentiality, as it is Christ who receives my secrets, not the priest. The same, I’d say, holds for all the baptized who have become the ears, eyes and heart of Christ. It is Christ in us who receives another’s secret confidence, and we are to be His trustworthy ministers.

The Catechism says, “Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion.” In an age of gossip, calumny, detraction, promise-breaking and truth-dumping, we Christians, as prophets of the Truth-made-flesh, can evangelize first by revering the sacredness of human communication in the way we practice honesty, discretion, and hold confidences.

And in honor of St. John, let’s not just talk about it…

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. — 1 John 3:18

Pray as you can

Pray as you can, not as you think you must. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline. — Fr. Tom Hopko

In the first two months after my faith conversion, I was ‘adopted’ by some of the members of a charismatic prayer group at the Catholic Church near my college campus. They met every week to pray, sing and read Scripture together. Never in all my years growing up had I ever experienced Catholics who, as regular people with normal lives, formed a warm and loving faith community centered around explicit faith in Jesus. In many ways, they prevented me at the time from leaving the Catholic Church and joining the Evangelical group that met at my dorm every week to read Scripture and pray.

In particular, I remember a Catholic man named Lance sitting with me one afternoon and telling me about his own faith journey. He was in his early 60’s, divorced with three adult children, and worked as a janitor, though he had previously been a small business owner who ‘lost it all’ because of poor life choices. He said he had come to the Charismatic Renewal at a very low point in his life, through the witness of one of his employees, and his return to the faith changed him for the better. Though he’d lost his business and his family, he said he found hope. He was such a humble man.

I also remember he made me memorize Romans 8:28, which he said saved his life: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what I remember most was his story of learning to pray, which I summarized in my very first journal. Among other things, he said,

I always thought, growing up, real prayer — beyond just saying prayers — was for priests and nuns. I remember picking up a book on prayer once in high school and thinking, This is way too complicated! So I never thought again to pray.

But now I know prayer is simple. It starts my day, ends my day, seasons the rest of my day. Once you learn to listen to God’s Word, and know it’s Him speaking with you, and then let it work in you, you’ll see He’ll lead your heart the rest of the way. The Bible gives you the words, your heart shows you the way and then the Spirit plucks on the strings of your heart — a tune to the Father.

[He then sang in tongues, which of course startled me! But he continued…]

The heart’s not just feelings, it’s like a homing device God’s put in you. The Bible is God’s way home. The heart is your unique way, nobody else’s. But praying is the Holy Spirit’s way. Getting your heart in harmony with Him is the key. But ask God every day to show you your heart, because only He knows it. He made it, one of a kind. You. He searches it, tests it.

But just know He can’t show you all at once. It’d be too much for you to see. Just a little at a time. The rest of your life. Keeping learning. Don’t every quit.

A few years later when I came across this Rabbinic story, I immediately thought of Lance.

In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has into a bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies, “This is God’s milk.” Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says, “I always take the best milk I posses, and I bring it as an offering to God.”

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, “And does God drink it?”

“Yes,” replies the shepherd, “he does.”

Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that he does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk.

Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight toward the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. “What’s the matter?” he asks.

The shepherd says “You were right. God is pure spirit, and he doesn’t want my milk.” Moses is surprised. He says, “You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.”

“Yes, I do,” says the shepherd, “but the only thing I could do to express my love for him has been taken away from me.”

Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard. In the night, in a vision, God speaks to him and says, “Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless, I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.”

Break


I will not be posting for the next several days, entering this season’s deepest heart with my family.

Thank you to those who read here, to those who comment here. I never take any of it for granted.

Thanks also to those many dialogue partners from over the years who have fueled my thinking and writing, who have allowed me to mine their wisdom and reflect their light to others. It’s why almost all of my writing retains a conversational style, because I want to make clear that what I have to offer of value is all borrowed light.

Glory be to Jesus Christ for giving us life and light, hope and joy, love and mercy without limit this Holy Season.

Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones!

Just the way you are

There is a possessiveness in the idealist’s attitude. “You are to be like me. I will shape you, or hammer you, into the shape of my ideal. You must enjoy my pleasures. Your tastes must coincide with mine. You must have only my values. You must be restricted by my limitations.” ― Caryll Houselander

During our marriage preparation, Bishop John Smith, who celebrated our wedding, had lunch one day with us at my wife’s apartment. He asked us dozens of questions about our backgrounds, our relationship, our struggles and joys, and above all asked about our dreams for a future life together. It was a beautiful experience. I wrote this in my journal that night:

…After we had shared with him our dreams, he said: “Don’t let go of those! Don’t forget those! They’re precious. Every wedding anniversary, revisit them. Those are God’s dreams for you, planted in your hearts. Too many couples lose these and grow stale”…

…He put his hands on our shoulders, and said, “And always realize, Patricia [looking at Patti], and always realize, Thomas [looking at me], that the person sitting in front of you — look at each other — is the real person you are marrying. Not the man you wish Thomas would be, or the woman you want Patricia to be.”

“Your sacrament will be a real presence, as God deals in the real. Can you accept the other’s whole package as you see it?” We laughed awkwardly and said, yes. Then he said, “Good! The day of your wedding, you will say ‘I promise’ to the real person each of you will become every tomorrow after that. That’s the biggest promise any man can ever make. It’s the one God made to us on the Cross.”

Years later, when I read Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words, I remembered Bishop Smith with gratitude.

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life”. We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness but where God is not present.

As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?

Being an unoccupied parent

Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on. — Henri Nouwen

I was given this piece of advice around the time our second son was born, and it has been the source of more good than I could possibly express in words. David, who was a father and grandfather, said to me something like this:

Make sure your home life has structure, order, consistency. But also make sure your kids have enough unstructured time, and be sure to always plan in ‘down time’ in your home life when you’re just available, when your children know you’re free and interested to play or talk or do something spontaneous with them. A time when you don’t bark out orders.

If everything is planned and structured, the parts are always moving, you’re always getting on to the next thing, always efficient or keeping them busy, you’ll miss out on what can only be had in those unstructured moments. Freedom for creativity, imagination. Without this, your influence over the deeper parts of their inner worlds will be shallow.

Kids spell love T-I-M-E and P-L-A-Y. These mean, I’m interested in you, I love being with you. Disconnect from your preoccupations, open the door, let in the uncontrolled air and the bugs and other messy things.