“The deeper the grief, the closer is God.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

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My dear friend Fr. Dustin Feddon, founder of Joseph House, recently recorded a brief reflection on grieving. Over the years, he and I have often spoken about the importance and sacredness of grief, and how the general loss of a cultural script — a shared ritual — for how we are to grieve has left us without a clear way to cope with failure, injury, loss, death. To not allow oneself to grieve such things, whether through repentance or mourning, is to refuse the act of surrender that alone can set us free.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” Jesus says at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. Penthos, the Greek word used in this beatitude, is a rich word referring to sorrow, grief, weeping, lamentation and contrition that opens out into joy and hope. Which means without mourning over evils committed or suffered, no comfort can come.

Fr. Dustin once shared with me a compelling image of grief as an act of “burying our dead.” We discussed the many ways to let go of the evils that cling to us in life, and bury them deep in Christ’s reconciling and restorative tomb. We also discussed the great need for human accompaniment, companions willing to walk with us along the way of life helping us to grieve, to repent, surrender and bury our dead, while pressing on in hope.

I’ve shared this story once before. As my mother was dying in 2019, and in the days following, the complexity of decisions that had to be made surrounding her funeral and burial, making arrangements for family, etc., prevented me from attending to the deep pain of losing her. I had to keep my focus. It was not the right time for that. Two days before my mom died, I met with a friend to talk about how he might help me to carry out some practical matters. As we sat down in my office, he asked, “How are you?” I was ready to give him the answer I had learned to give — “It’s hard, but I’m managing, with lots of help.” But a long silence followed his question, extending for thirty or forty seconds. It signaled powerfully he was listening for me. I broke the silence and started to speak, and then dissolved into tears. After I collected myself, he simply said, “I’m sorry.”

Those five words framed a sanctuary of listening silence, and gave me the strength I needed to carry on those next days and weeks ahead. He turned a corporal work of mercy into a spiritual one, as he helped me begin to bury my dead. To return my mom to God.

Our noisy, angry, pain-filled world needs bearers of the Listening Christ, whose compassion attends to the cries of the poor, the brokenhearted, the abandoned, the lonely, the lost. Our world needs sanctuaries of silence where — alone — we can grieve and God can speak to us a word of comfort, and heal our land.

“A great man is always willing to be little.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who is the greatest in  the Kingdom of Heaven?' And calling to … | Bless the child, Christian art,  Orthodox icons

The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed. — St. Edith Stein (quoted by Pope Francis)

In chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers a stinging critique of how Jews practice the pillars of Judaism — prayer, fasting and almsgiving. No one need know the good you do, save God alone. He makes clear something the Hebrew prophets were united on: one courts grave danger in using the “things of God” to serve the ego with its self-serving agenda or voracious appetite for human admiration and praise. As my dad loved to say, “better to be an atheist than to use God.”

Extending Jesus’ analysis, St. John of the Cross at the beginning of his Dark Night treatise exposes the immense sophistication of the spiritualized egoism present in those fairly advanced in the spiritual life. There he details some ways pride, envy or anger can be masterfully guised in religious garb and made to look legit. He concludes each individual diagnosis with a strong assertion: you are ultimately powerless over your inborn narcissism and must surrender to the painful and purifying fires of divine grace and truth that alone can penetrate and heal the deep roots of sin within you.

St. John gives a particularly powerful example of this graced unmasking in the first section of the Dark Night. After exposing some of the ways pride gets cloaked in religious garb in those who are still immature, he offers a vivid description of what pride’s antithesis, humility, looks like in those who have passed through purification:

They receive great benefit from their humility, by which they not only place little importance on their deeds, but also take very little self-satisfaction from them. They think everyone else is far better than they are, and usually possess a holy envy of them and would like to emulate their service of God. Since they are truly humble, their growing fervor and the increased number of their good deeds and the gratification they receive from them only cause them to become more aware of their debt to God and the inadequacy of their service to him, and thus the more they do, the less satisfaction they derive from it.

Their charity and love make them want to do so much for God, and what they actually do accomplish seems as nothing. This loving solicitude goads them, preoccupies them, and absorbs them to such an extent that they never notice what others do or do not accomplish. But if they should notice, they then think, as I say, that everyone is better than they. Moreover, even though others do praise and value their works, such praises seem strange to them.

Far different from low self-esteem, which is still an inward-turned and self-protective posture, humility allows one the freedom to see truth and be selfless precisely because the self has been fully realized in its union with a humble and selfless God whose truth is love. And humility is the capacity to receive and give the truth in love. For John, one who discovers himself as infinitely loved, and allows that love to dismantle his incurved ego, turning it outward and upward, finds only joyful fulfillment in a life wholly dedicated to others and to God. And in their presence, it’s easy to see and believe in God.

I remember it so clearly. My mom, the last night she was conscious before she died, said to our family right after we had prayed a rosary with her: “I want you all to go out to dinner on me!” Now my mom, on an IV at the time, had been unable to ingest food for days and was hungry. So when she said this to us, though I was humbled and deeply moved by her generosity, I felt extremely uncomfortable accepting her request. Sensing my discomfort, she immediately took my hand and said to me, “Yes. Go. This is your mother speaking. And if all of you do this, it will be like I had a feast.”

I want to think like that, love like that, say that and mean it. I’m so far from it, in reality. But having stood nearby it I have hope I can approximate it. If not by imitating her example, then by receiving her prayers to God for me. And if I can, then I will one day be able to join her, with all the hungry and thirsty, the poor and meek. Only those who are little enough can grasp this immense truth St. John of the Cross penned to an embittered friar — A la tarde te examinarán en el amor “when evening comes, they will examine you on love.”

We did, she passed. May we, likewise…

“Love is never defeated.” — St. John Paul II

The Small Crucifixion Beach Towel for Sale by Matthias Grunewald

For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Christianity is its unmatched power to inject into the worst of human malice, hatred and division an otherworldly antidote of reconciliation that makes possible a unity-in-difference — a peace — that otherwise is impossible for human beings. This extraordinary truth is captured eloquently in the second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation:

For though the human race
is divided by dissension and discord,
yet we know that by testing us
you change our hearts
to prepare them for reconciliation.

Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts
that enemies may speak to each other again,
adversaries may join hands,
and peoples seek to meet together.

By the working of your power
it comes about, O Lord,
that hatred is overcome by love,
revenge gives way to forgiveness,
and discord is changed to mutual respect.

Commenting on the revolutionary vision of charity Christ introduced into human consciousness, philosopher David Bentley Hart says, “In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have ‘invented’ the human.” The breakthrough of this radical novelty into the history of our brutal and violent world prompted the pagan convert Tertullian, nearly 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, to say of the Christian creed, credo quia absurdum “I believe because it is absurd.”

St. Paul tells the Ephesians, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (2:14). Indeed, by the Blood of his cross, Jesus delivered into humanity’s mortal wound the grace of mercy that transforms every chasm of conflict into a theater of reconciliation. In his teaching, Jesus dismantles the primal fallen human instinct to “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matt. 5:43) by requiring his followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27), as well as to forgive without measure even (and especially) those who are actively harming you (cf. Luke 23:34).

Of this crazed and outrageous vision, St. Paul aptly says, “the word of the cross is idiocy [mōria] to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

Jesus tells parable after parable of bitter enemies being reconciled, and in real life brings into dangerously close proximity those who despise each other. He calls supremely happy [makarioi] the poor, meek and merciful peacemakers who are grateful to insert themselves into the darkest dregs of human malice, all the while being “exceeding glad” (Matt. 6:12) at the singular opportunity to offer public witness to the madness of God’s mercy in the face of hatred and insult. Which is why, as Tertullian also says, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Here we find the truest and most radical core of Christianity: that Jesus makes mercy the justice of God’s Kingdom. For Jesus, mercy is not supererogatory, beyond the call of duty. Rather, mercy is the basis and starting point of justice. The demands of mercy are absolute for any who wish to gain entry into the Kingdom of God, as Jesus makes eminently clear at the end of the Our Father:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:14-15).

All of this means that Christians should, as a matter of primary vocation, consistently stand out in stark and stunning relief during times marked by hostility, division and hatred. Not unusual in any age should be this early second century description of Christians:

Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice as though receiving the gift of life.

May the Church choose to receive the grace to be mercy toward a broken world.

“God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” — St. Augustine

To be sure, there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray, but it is the same Spirit acting in all and with all. — CCC 2672

One thing that I have learned being a father is to respect the radical uniqueness of each child’s way of approaching faith and life, decisions and setbacks, relationships and vocational paths. As they approached adulthood, I found it to be so important for us as parents — regardless of our good intentions — to not try to over-determine their emerging worldview or try to control and manipulate their decisions toward what we think best. Not only because it’s massively counter-productive in the end (in so many ways!), but because it is a failure to respect their unique and God-given identity, freedom and calling that are, in the final analysis, theirs alone to unfold.

I have also learned that my advice to each has to be very specific, which requires that I know, love and reverence each child’s unique personality, strengths, gifts, desires, weaknesses — and seek God’s wisdom specifically for each. That is a terribly tall order and grave responsibility! Pope Francis once wrote, “Indeed, when the great mystic, Saint John of the Cross, wrote his Spiritual Canticle, he preferred to avoid hard and fast rules for all. He explained that his verses were composed so that everyone could benefit from them ‘in his or her own way.’ For God’s life is communicated ‘to some in one way and to others in another.'”

God help me.

Patti and I especially try to approach their faith this way, discovering (not imposing) how each approaches God, their way of praying, seeking divine guidance, dealing with intellectual difficulties over Catholic teaching, navigating culture as a person of faith, etc. And I must say that entering into each of their respective paths to God in all these ways has stretched, challenged, inspired and blown-me-away in ways no other relationship, other than my marriage, has. Above all because, for their whole lifetime, they have known the real me and I have known the real them. There’s no pretending in family.

It’s really quite wonderful and terrifying all at once.

I showed a video last Fall to the seminarians in my theology of marriage class, and the couple sharing their witness described their very different prayer lives. Once, when they were on a retreat, they were asked to share how they each would greet Jesus if he knocked on their door. The wife said she’d take it very seriously and would bow to the ground, worship and say, “Thank you for dying for my sins.” They she said,

But my husband, who you have to know loves his car, said that after he said “Hi!” to Jesus, Jesus would say to him, “Hey, Cuz, your rims are shiny.” And I said to him, “Come on now, be serious.” But tears filled his eyes, and he said to me, “I am. Jesus is my friend and that’s what my friend would say.” I was in awe, because I finally saw he had a relationship with Jesus I don’t, and that I never knew before.

 

 

Holy Work

“Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day for years to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because but for us Christ would not be there. If our being there means that Christ is there, that alone makes it worthwhile.” – Caryll Houselander

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, established in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a Catholic version of the socialist-communist “May Day,” which was itself established in the 19th century to honor workers. This feast is, of course, not simply about St. Joseph but about Jesus who took up his father’s trade as ho tou tektōnos huios, “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55). The word used for Joseph’s trade, tektōn, actually had a wide array of meanings, including wood-worker, mason, builder, architect or engineer.

Jesus, as St. John Paul II loved to say, was a “man of work” who, as the God-Man, revealed the mysterious truth that all work carried out in harmony with the Creator’s will was an act of co-creating, a co-laboring with God, sharing in the ongoing work that the Father commenced “in the beginning” when He created the cosmos through His “master craftsman” Son (Prov. 8:30; John 1:1-3). Made in God’s image and likeness, humanity was placed by God in creation to labor and so transform its raw materials into parádeisos, paradise, a “garden” — a divine-human “culture” marked by order, life and beauty.

But only when God became man, the Archetype united with His image, could this immense vocation of fallen Man reach its fulfillment. On the Cross, Jesus blessed the cursed earth with His Blood, redeeming and perfecting work’s true purpose as He labored in love “to the end” (John 13:1) under the heavy burden of sin, suffering and death. On the Cross, the Gardener finally achieved His ultimate purpose, as He spoke hope to His co-laboring, co-suffering, sin-ravaged, yet repenting image-bearer St. Dismas: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise [Paradeisō]” (Luke 23:43).

Which is why Mary Magdalene thought the Risen Christ was a Gardener. Indeed, He tilled with the Cross the soils of earth into a Garden, a new creation cultivated by God, and by His tektōn, Man.

Baptism allows us to join the God-Man, as St. Dismas did, in every moment to co-labor by cross-bearing with the Carpenter, with the Gardener, with the Redeemer who, with us, “makes all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Mama Caterina da Siena

For this great feast of St. Catherine of Siena, I thought I would quote one of my favorite passages from her work, The Dialogue, which is her mystical dialogue with God the Father.

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God related to Catherine of Siena:

I ask you to love me with same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I love you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me–that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.

So your love should be sincere. You should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love me. Do you know how you can tell when your spiritual love is not perfect? If you are distressed when it seems that those you love are not returning your love or not loving you as much as you think you love them. Or if you are distressed when it seems to you that you are being deprived of their company or comfort, or that they love someone else more than you.

From these and from many other things you should be able to tell if your love for me and for your neighbors is still imperfect and that you have been drinking from your vessel outside of the fountain, even though your love was drawn from me. But it is because your love for me is imperfect that you show it so imperfectly to those you love with a spiritual love.

“…he descended into hell…”

A priest I know shared with me a short film (6 minutes) that blew. me. (and my family) away. It’s a dramatization of what happened to the soul of Christ on Holy Saturday, after his death.

I recommend a few things before you watch it. First, that you get your self in a quiet place and a prayerful state of mind. Second, that you watch it on a larger screen if possible with either good speakers or earbuds. Third, that you give yourself at least a few minutes afterward to prayerfully process it. And lastly, that you (re)read this 2nd century homily on Holy Saturday before you watch it.

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What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages

You want freedom? Sell everything.

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. — Luke 9:1-3

A few months ago, a priest visiting the seminary gave a homily that really shook me. These recollections are not a recorded transcript, but my own later journal elaboration on what I recalled.

In referring to this passage above, he speculated that one of the reasons Jesus tells the disciples to travel light was to keep them from seeing others they encounter along the way as potential thieves who threaten to steal the disciples’ money or possessions. In other words, he said, Gospel poverty allowed the disciples to encounter every person not as a potential competitor, threat or enemy, but as the prime subject of their co-mission to love all, just as the dis-possessed and poor Christ would one day do from the Cross. I thought of 2 Cor. 8:9:

Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

“So,” the priest continued, “the more possessions the disciples have, the more attachments they cling to, the less free they are to encounter with generous love every human being, assuming the radical spirit of risk that the Gospel demands (Luke 17:33). Because if they fear they might have something taken from them that is theirs, they avoid, exclude, or kill those who might threaten their possessions. Even their lives, which of course is the ‘word of the cross’ [1 Cor. 1:18].”

As he was speaking, I thought immediately of the story about the ‘desert father’ Saint Macarius of Egypt, who one day came back to his monastic cell to find a thief taking his things and loading them on a camel. Macarius immediately set to work helping the thief load the camel, while meditating on the Lord’s saying:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. — Luke 6:28-30

“So,” the priest concluded, “what attachments, what possessions do you have that prevent you from seeing each person you encounter as a brother, a sister, a Christ-bearing equal whose keeper you are? Is it money or material goods? Is it your reputation? Is it your addiction to comfort, ease, free time or pleasure? Your desire to control others? Is it your fears? Is it your prejudices or ideologies? Your desire to always be right? Whatever it is, Jesus is speaking to you today: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ And since you’re going to have all taken from you at the moment of death anyway, might as well begin now, freely…”

Merciful eyes

Yep, a post.

Last night my wife and I watched The Original Image, an exceptional documentary on the history of the original painting commissioned by St. Faustina’s spiritual director, Blessed Father Michael Sopocko, to depict her vision of Jesus. I recommend it highly: www.originaldivinemercy.com

I wanted to share one simple insight the documentary gave me into the image’s unique departure from iconographic orthodoxy — its portrayal of the risen Jesus’ eyes looking not directly ahead, but downward. Why this change?

Evidently, St. Faustina explained that the Lord wished by this subtle departure to communicate that He, in His risen state, retains His downward gaze from the Cross. That insight made my heart skip a beat.

Beneath Him from the Cross, of course, were His mother, the faithful women and John. But also present, and far more vast, was the great throng of cursing, angry, fearful, confused, hateful, cowardly, cruel, blaspheming, ridiculing men and women. All of these Jesus looked down on as He died, not with hatred or self-pity, but with steadfast love.

All I could think of in this regard was Mark 10:21’s description of Jesus’ countenance toward the rich young man who turned away: He de Iēsous emblepsas auto ēgapēsen auton, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Look up, now, into those eyes…

Faustina’s subtle visionary-artistic shift is to me a fresh rendering of Romans 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” As I thought on this last night, laying outside on the front lawn with my son watching a violent thunderstorm approach, I drew into my mind’s eye the Prodigal Son story and rewrote Romans a bit: “God proves his love for us that while we were still wallowing about in mud and slop among the swine, Christ looked down at us with unfathomable love.”

St. Maximos the Confessor, come to my aid:

Those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for He longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

May we allow His eyes, His downward gaze from the Cross to bathe us today with God’s lavish, limitless and longing love. His forever mercy. And may we, standing under that gaze always, then be empowered to bear that same countenance toward the faithful and the unfaithful, the virtuous and the vile, the great saints and the great sinners. Amen.