The sunset, woven of soft lights And tender colors, lingers late, As looking back on all day’s dreary plights, Compassionate; — The foolish day of hopes so high, Who counts her hours by blunders now, Yet wears at last this jewel-crown of sky Upon her brow. Out to eternity she goes, Not for her failure scorned, but see! Our poor day flushed with beauty, one more rose On God’s rose-tree. — Katharine Lee Bates
I had finished work and was driving off toward home. As I drifted left into the u-turn that crosses over the canal along West Esplanade, I looked west and saw that dazzling sight. I stopped my car to get out and snap a shot! The sudden thrill of loveliness warranted stopping traffic, and thankfully the cars behind me were patiently smiling.
During the day the shallow waters of that canal, awash in tannins, are grayish mucky blackwaters. But somehow, at the threshold of night, the sun seemed to vanquish the water’s pallid bleakness, clothing it in colorful splendor.
Back at home from work, my wife and I sat outside as the moonlight waxed in place of the waning sun. We sipped wine and spoke of the sunset, celebrating our simple little life.
Though Patti and I are scattered about the world throughout the day — sometimes tattered by it all — oh how we love to regather at night, “looking back on all day’s dreary plights, Compassionate.” Aided by a sun willing to bend low and spend its beauty on our sickly greying waters.
But without making the time, spending the wonder on simply joys, all of this will be missed. So much to miss.
Let’s sip another glass of wine In our garden in the moonshine Let the shimmering soothe The battle with your blue Let’s smoke another cigarette Before we cut the lights and leave for bed Describe to me Why you read the books you read Do they bring you peace? Be helpless, be grieved Be broken, be incomplete Be patient, be keen Be mine, be all you need But live a simple life With me, with me Let’s play another pretty tune Of april snow and Joni’s bloom Just let go the study of your soul There’s fights you’ll never control Be helpless, be grieved Be broken, be incomplete Be patient, be keen Be fine, be all you need But live a simple life Live a simple life With me, with me
The Holy Spirit teaches us to love even our enemies. When you love this way, your prayer has born its sweetest fruit. — St. Silouan
I was talking with someone at a retreat I gave a little while ago. He shared a really great insight:
About ten years ago I had a crusty old Jesuit as a spiritual director. He’s now deceased. I loved him because he was merciless on my erroneous zones, and he kept me honest.
Once I was sharing with him some lofty experiences I had had in prayer, and some of the deep insights I had received. He listened in his usual dispassionate way. After I finished he said, “How are you doing with your sister?” My sister and I had a falling out months prior, and he knew she was a thorn in my side, that we didn’t ever get along well.
Thinking his attention must have wandered while I spoke, I said to him a bit louder: “Excuse me, Father?” He repeated his question again, “Your sister? Are you speaking?” I said, “Well, as I told you last time, I’m not ready to re-connect with her yet. Still too raw. But with all due respect, what does that have to do with what I’m sharing with you, Father?” He said, “Well, when you’re ready to forgive her and reach out again for the umpteenth time, and face the unpleasantness of love — well, then I’ll be impressed with these experiences in prayer you describe. Until then, it’s all rind, no meat.” Then he ended with the gut punch: “Next time you get filled up by your prayer, be sure to spend it on your sister.”
The man said to me, “What was THAT?” We laughed.
My first spiritual director, a Trappist monk, was of the same mind as that crusty old Jesuit priest. He was a St. John of the Cross devotee, and told me once to
Remember, the lofty spiritual poetry and mystical union John describes happened while he was imprisoned in a smelly latrine, with minimal food, no change of clothing for 6 months and a weekly lashing. The way John saw it, both the beautiful poetry and the mystical union with Jesus were gifts granted to him precisely in the midst of his awful predicament, so he could pour out these riches on his envious and hateful Carmelite brothers. …To that point, the man who stood guard at his cell during the last 3 months before his escape said John became more gentle and kind over time.
You can’t properly understand the saints’ spiritual classics apart from the context of their lives. Those spiritual authors who wrote such lofty thoughts about prayer were, like the rest of us, mired in the mess of human dysfunction. But that’s their point! It’s there, in the crucible, where we discover greatness. Not when life is ideal, going my way. Without unavoidable and inconvenient neighbors, Christian mysticism quickly devolves into a gnostic narcissism. We become spiritual gluttons who store up our surplus grain to feed ourselves, instead of destitute widows who give away our last two coins.
The core heresy of gnosticism is, you might say, being spiritual but not religious — making the claim that salvation consists in my personally delightful, antiseptic, autonomous and enlightening experience of God, not in any way dirtied by the hypocrisy and filth of real humans who organize as best they can in a religious community of saints, sinners and misfits. But St. James (1:27; 2:15-17) shows us what true spiritual religion looks like:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress. If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
So: after my time of prayer if I feel peace, I give peace. If I receive forgiveness, I give forgiveness. If I feel loved, I love. If I am enlightened, I illumine. If I feel encouraged, I encourage. If I am nourished, I nourish. And if I hear Him call, I go.
We have to believe in the mercy and grace of God to trigger conversion rather than the other way around: that you’re only going to get the mercy if you have a conversion. The economy of salvation doesn’t work that way. — Blase Cardinal Cupich
I once had a theology professor who responded to a student’s question about how we can really know what God is like, by saying: “It’s the economy, stupid!” We theological geeks all had a good nerdy laugh at that poor student’s expense.
The word “economy” is important in theology, and bears a rich meaning. The Greek behind our English word economy is oikonomia, which combines two Greek words, oikos (household) and nomos (management). So you might say that the “divine economy” is God’s home economics, the providential manner in which he manages creation as his oikos, his homey (if broken) temple.
Now, here’s what I love most about this concept, and why I would waste your time blabbing on about Greek roots. Oikonomia means that God acts in an orderly manner that has discernable patterns, as St. Paul affirms when he says, “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). That was an immense relief in an ancient world dominated by belief in the cold and impersonal supremacy of capricious Fate. The divine economy opens an orderly way we humans can harmonize with the divine will, being good images, to bring peace into creation.
Scripture is the story of an invitation to syncopate with the rhythm of God’s home ec. Or not. In fact, you can say that the whole of Scripture is God gradually revealing to humanity, through a wild ride of impetuous fits and false starts (Heb. 1:1), exactly what his economic program looks like.
And it’s very very untidy, I must say.
Think here of the stories of creation, the rebellion of angels and humanity, the election of Noah and Abraham, the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, the rescue of Israel from enslavement, the choice of David the adulterer as King and of the prophet Isaiah as naked sign (Is. 20:3), the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, the Maccabean revolt. All of these tangled and knotted Hebrew stories — and so many more! — provide a dense ecology of meaning within which divine life can at last, in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), enter history as biological life, as Man fully self-disclosed:
And the Word became flesh and camped among us. — Jn. 1:14
This Word of the eternal God became human in Jesus to clarify God’s economy, interpreting rightly Hebrew theology once-for-all by his own life, teaching, death and resurrection. Jesus IS the whole economy of God in nuce. After his ascension, Jesus sent the Spirit of Truth from the Father at Pentecost to open full access to his Risen mind through the Church. He did this so all humanity, until the end of time, could endlessly deepen its knowledge of the divine economy, unlocked by the Key of David, and apply that knowledge afresh in every age until God at last brings history to its grand finale (Jn. 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:16).
For the Christian, any inquiry into God’s plan, his will, his providence is always one simply-complex answer: Jesus Christ. Which is why we say Jesus “fulfills” (Mt. 5:17 plērōsai) the Scriptures. He is the key that unlocks all history (Rev. 6:1ff), synthesizes in himself all partial revelations of God, all quests for meaning, including the most fundamental quest-question of all: Why?
Yes, Psalm 22. The true epicenter of divine economics. Jesus crucified. As the Carthusians say, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis “the cross is steady while the world whirls around.” On mount Golgotha, in the lifeless corpse of Jesus, is found all wisdom. Especially divine wisdom that relates God’s goodness to the problem of evil. St. Paul aptly sums up the whole Gospel with one phrase: helogos tou staurou “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). The cross is an inexhaustible text that, even in Paradise (Rev. 5:6), will never cease to endlessly surprise all who contemplate its mystery, its ever-unfolding infinite depths.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! — Rom. 11:33
As I prayed on this last point today, I thought again about Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38) The quest for truth is, in the final analysis, the quest for God’s home economics — all the laws of nature and of grace, of creation and redemption; all God’s and our deepest secrets. And, Pilate, it is Jesus, the God-Man, who is your answer — the whole Truth of God’s economy, God’s broken-secret, the torn-open Heart “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
As Pilate silently looks on the viciously scourged Flesh of the eternal Word, awaiting from him an answer, we sense all of us in Pilate, all of sinful humanity waiting for Truth to answer. Here Pilate is our unlikely guide. As he leads Jesus out to the angry mob and seats him on the judgment seat of Gabbatha, gesturing toward this indiscernible Man of Sorrows he cries out: Idou ho anthrōpos “Behold the Man!” (Jn. 19:5).
Just as there were many who were astonished at him —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. — Is. 52:14-15
And yet, it is Pilate, forever named in our Creed, the enemy Jesus loves, who reveals the final portrait of the whole economy to us: “Behold the mystery of Adam, icon of divinity, at last come to full stature.” Ho Theos agapē “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn. 4:16).
How perfect is this economy of folly, wrapped in mystery.
Among all other prayers, the Lord’s Prayer holds the chief place. — St. Thomas Aquinas
Be honest, you usually pray this prayer too fast, with mind elsewhere, or at best only half aware of what you’re saying, and thrown off a bit by the use of archaisms like art, hallowed, thy and trespasses. If not, pray for me. That said, Aquinas’ words above summarize the whole spiritual Tradition’s unanimous judgment. When it comes to prayer, the Our Father is tip of the top, cream of the crop. Even in the Mass the Lord’s Prayer, like the Nicene Creed placed right after the proclamation of the Word of God, is placed at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer because it is the perfect and most complete compressed summary of the entire prayer of the Church. And with its seven-petition epicenter (#4) being the begging for Bread, it serves as the perfect hunger-inducing prelude to Eucharistic Communion.
I could say so much more. At least bit…
The Our Father summarizes all 150 psalms, while dropping the curse psalms in favor of pardoning. In compressed form, it contains the entirely of divine revelation, the whole teaching of the Gospel, while encapsulating a complete response to that these while rightly posturing us as paupers before God prepared to consent to his making all things come to pass as he wills. It was given to us by Jesus not as his prayer, but as prayer to which he himself is the complete Answer. So when we pray each of its seven petitions, we in effect praying one thing: Give me Jesus. “For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20).
It should be our most cherished prayer, the heartbeat of any Christian mysticism. In fact, St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote a rich commentary on this prayer, held it in highest esteem. At times, she would begin the Our Father only to find herself getting lost in prayer in a single word or a phrase, so she couldn’t even finish the prayer.
Its seven petitions are simple and direct, and are each prayed in the plural making clear mine is always ours. The first three unconditionally consent to God bringing about in us the sanctity of his Name, the rule of his kingdom, and the accomplishment of his will, so we might become his heaven on earth. Then in the next four petitions, we nearly-command, under the form of a child’s irresistible pleading, God to feed us with superabundant [epiousion] Bread unto an overflow of “our” alms; God to forgive us all our sins unto an overflow of forgiveness for all; God to spare us from falling beneath the weight of trials unto carrying one another; and God to rescue us from both evil and the Evil One unto the liberation of all captives.
Other than those seven open-mouthed and open-handed petitions (Ps. 81:11; 112:9), I imagine there is nothing else to be prayed, or done. And even as they are mightily empowering, I also cannot imagine words more frightening for a man like me who still maintains a vice grip on so many of the wrong things. But we, as adopted children, with boldness and without condemnation dare to call upon the Heavenly God as Father, and pray…
It was a Sunday. I knelt down today at my mother’s grave, and sobbed. How I miss her.
The space above, around her grave, so silent, so deafening.
I left there, pulled out onto Airline Highway thinking how many times she and I had driven by this cemetery. Oblivious. Carefree.
Then I drove to the boat launch where I’d take her on Sundays after Mass and lunch, just to sit and watch the waves, the boats, the birds, the people. It was a ritual. She loved repetition. It soothed her dementia. It was all about the routine.
As we’d sit in the car looking at the lake, she’d say the same few things over and again in a round. Then, after a time, I’d help her out of the car, sit her on her walker and push her up to the dock. As we we’d move along she would always say the same thing every week: “I wish I could get up and dance!” I’d say, “What’s stopping you!” She’d laugh.
She loved to dance when she was young. I remember her in my childhood often singing, I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady. She loved it when Patti would sing it for her. “Bed! Bed! I couldn’t go to bed…”
Parked on the dock we’d linger for a bit, and she would greet every passerby. With such cheer, equal for all. I once thought, “If the whole world could pass by her on this dock, the world could heal.”
We’d say nothing much to each other. No need to anymore.
Sometimes I took a photo of her to send to the kids, or to my sister. “Grandma’s having fun!” “Mom’s having fun!” As I’d send the photo, Mom would say something like, “My goodness, the things you can do nowadays! When I was a little girl…”
Then we’d sit quietly for a bit more time and she’d often say, “It’s so peaceful here. I love the sound of the water.”
She loved being near the water when I was growing up, always wanted to go to the Rhode Island shore. Newport, Galilee, Point Judith were her favorites. It gave her a sense of serenity, she said.
She’d gone to the shore right after I was born, my dad told me. After six children and two near-death labor & deliveries, she was worn down. The rhythm of the waves, the smell of the sea salt and the sound of the seagulls made her world seem better. So it seemed. She’d just look.
In those last nine days of her life, she was helpless. I was helpless. She was unable to eat, had difficulty breathing. Yet, she was so serene. Almost otherworldly. It amazed even the nurses.
But I couldn’t take her to the boat launch, to our dock. That crushed me. I wanted to. So much. I told her so. I held back the tears, but she could tell. She said, “It’s okay, I know it’s there. I can see it in my mind.”
Such beauty amid the terrible, as she faded.
I miss you mom.
I know the water is There, and certainly you’re There by it. On eternal Shores, eternal Peace. And you dance, and you sing, and you feast, waiting for us on the Dock.
The Gospel must reach not only the intellect but the whole being. English people often say, “That’s interesting, let’s talk about it, let’s explore it as an idea,” but actually do nothing about it. To meet God means to enter into “the cave of the tiger” – it is not a pussycat you meet — it’s a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it. — Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
Written to post in 2020, never did.
Just after Christmas I visited with an elderly priest I’ve known for years, and he was sharing with me stories from his ongoing ministry to married couples. I asked him what the most important insights he has learned about marriage were. He spoke for nearly an hour, and he gave me permission to share some of his insights and stories. Here’s some of what he said.
More than anything else is this. Making a lifelong promise to God, or to another human being, requires you to be ready to stare truth in the face. The hardest truths. You have to be ready to place your mind in hell and not despair, because promises make you stare in the face of absolutes. All or nothing. Todo o nada. Life or death. An oath lays bare our humanity at its darkest and its brightest.
When you promise to be faithful to another person in an absolute and final way, you pledge yourself to facing all of life, all of this person’s realities, all of life’s possible unknowns with them, come what may. You renounce every option of running away when things get tough or fall apart. In a promise, you say with God to another, “Even if others may forget you, I will not forget you” [Is. 49:15]. Think about that. It’s awesome. [we were quiet for a minute or so]
There’s a married man I’ve been meeting with who’s had to face up to some terribly difficult situations in his marriage. Some of his doing, some not. An iron law, by the way: there’s always two sides. It’s been hard for him. I mean, hard. He said last time we met he comes to me for help because “I made a promise to God when I made one to her, and I’d rather die than break it.” When I see that I think, Tom — now there’s beauty, real beauty. The world misses this beauty when it denies absolutes. The beauty of love, the beauty of God, the beauty of the cross, the beauty of faithfulness to the end. I’ve seen nothing greater, more magnificent or harder in the world that love. The love of promises.
Life isn’t easy for any of us, whether we make promises or not. But only promises make saints. [he teared up] I’ve seen it again and again. I’ve learned it’s why I am a priest, it’s what’s most needed from me — to help people keep promises, and to repair their broken ones. But more than that, Tom, they help me keep mine — if I let them.
… When I work with men especially, I’m very clear with them: being a man is not about machismo, about sexual conquests or answering to no one. That’s a mirage, a show. Compared to real manliness, that’s easy. A man who has the courage to seek help, to confront his own poverty because he knows he’s broken and weak — that’s a man. Having courage to be better, to be faithful to your word, to be just, like St. Joseph.
… I told that married man after he broke down and sobbed in front of me — you’re weeping in front of me because you’ve broken a promise, because your life didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. But he came out of that time resolved to do better and to have me hold him accountable. His failure didn’t break him, it broke him open.
Soon after our conversation, I went on to visit a married couple my wife and I met a few years ago. She’s been confronted by grave health issues that have set them on a long, hard and agonizingly slow road toward recovery. She was once the cook, he now serves all the meals. She was a very independent, tireless worker with boundless energy, and now he has to help her with the most basic tasks. We ate, reminisced, laughed. Those three hours with them left me feeling so humbled, even as the words of that priest were still ringing in my memory. I stopped at a gas station after our visit and wrote this:
Verbum caro factum est. In their small home an absolute promise was transcending all finite limits, as a new covenant encircled the universe with its immensity — amid their countless seemingly unremarkable actions, eternal love was renewed again and again and again and again. In saecula saeculorum.
Transubstantiation seemed to have transgressed the boundaries of the Eucharistic elements they had eaten and drunk only hours before I’d arrived. I sensed the world passing over into Christ. As they exchanged very ordinary words of love and laughter, it seemed an Institution Narrative. As she ate his food, grabbed his arm as she corrected his mistaken stories, tearfully recounted the accident as he held her hand, and as he pushed her in a wheelchair, their intertwining bodies seemed to have become matter perfectly signed to receive the consecrating form of Christ.
As I drove off, I felt changed by both of these visits, felt a fire in my bones. Reflecting during my drive home, I recalled a scene near the end of A Hidden Life. As soon as I got home, I watched the online clip again. Warning: what I will say from here on is a movie spoiler.
In that scene, Bl. Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Franziska, have a final exchange just before he is led off to execution. After many months apart, she was brought to see him in prison by those who wished to convince him to take the Hitler oath. Her initial wavering in supporting his refusal to sign the oath was the one thing that had caused him immense internal anguish and doubt. But in this scene, she reaffirms her undying love for him and her support for his refusal to sign the oath. This scene I include here is, to me, a supremely powerful artistic expression of the absolute character of marital promises kept “till death do us part.”
Note in the background, a haunting chant intones in repetition the liturgical words, Agnus Dei “Lamb of God.” This is marriage, the liturgical offering of body-breaking and blood-spilling sacrificial love that saves the world. Their nuptial kiss is the kiss of a love that “never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8; Song 1:2), of a love fierce as the grave (Song 8:6). The priest in the room, though himself a Jesus-denying Cephas trying to convince Franz to sign the oath, is there to receive their nuptial sacrifice. That is the love which, in God’s world, alone is omnipotent.
A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars. He was simple soul who loved, and that was all. — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
It was a sunny cloudless afternoon on Saturday, January 9th, and the sky was a stunning azure blue. After doing various chores around the house, I decided to go spend some time by Lake Pontchartrain sitting on the levee to just drink in earth, sea and sky. A favorite pastime of mine when I’m not otherwise busied.
There were very few people out walking and biking. I lay down on top of the levee and watched seagulls, pelicans, house sparrows and a blue jay fly overhead. But mostly it was quiet with a very light breeze, stirring on the lake only the slightest ripples. The centipede grass around me was brown and crispy, though scattered about everywhere were vigorous mounds of clover that dotted the grass with flashes of dark green.
Right next to where I lay was a small wispy cluster of tiny Aster blooms. They seemed to be joining the clover in belying what Southerners imagine is winter. Even in the absence of any pollinators, they bloom with carefree naiveté. Akin to the stars once hymned by the prophet Baruch, I imagined the Aster defying practicality while shining their hope of new life upward unto the joy of God.
Before [God] the stars at their posts shine and rejoice. When he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker. — 3:34-35
As I lay there, I prayed. They drew me into their humble liturgy, saying to me:For our sake, God made you in his image, a priest of nature to capture with your body our silent praise and join it to your living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2). In obedience, the next day, Sunday, I pulled out my phone during the Offertory to glace at these Aster “shining with joy for their Maker,” and fulfill their request where heaven and earth unite. Somehow in that moment of offering, I saw in my mind’s eye my Mom, a lover of flowers, receiving from me this spiritual bouquet to offer our Father, to his eternal delight.
Pope Benedict XVI gave me courage in that moment.
We ourselves, with our whole being, must be adoration and sacrifice, and by transforming our world, give it back to God. The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy.
Everything around us waits on our priestly service. No space can be abandoned as profane, no time be counted empty, no quark allowed to hide from our priestly intention to sweep up creation’s silent hymn up into the Liturgy of our Great Amen, into the new creation’s embrace. We are to take up the Canticle of the Three Children at every moment.
O all you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, angels of the Lord, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, the heavens of the Lord, O bless the Lord. And you, clouds of the sky, O bless the Lord. And you, all armies of the Lord, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, sun and moon, O bless the Lord. And you, the stars of the heav’ns, O bless the Lord. And you, showers and rain, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, all you breezes and winds, O bless the Lord. And you, fire and heat, O bless the Lord. And you, cold and heat, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, showers and dew, O bless the Lord. And you, frosts and cold, O bless the Lord. And you, frost and snow, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, night-time and day, O bless the Lord. And you, darkness and light, O bless the Lord. And you, lightning and clouds, O bless the Lord.
O let the earth bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, mountains and hills, O bless the Lord. And you, all plants of the earth, O bless the Lord. And you, fountains and springs, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever.
And you, rivers and seas, O bless the Lord. And you, creatures of the sea, O bless the Lord. And you, every bird in the sky, O bless the Lord. And you, wild beasts and tame, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever. — Dan. 3:57ff
… It is the Holy Spirit who makes us find joy in each flower, the exquisite scent, the delicate color, the beauty of the Most High in the tiniest of things. Glory and honor to the Spirit, the Giver of Life, who covers the fields with their carpet of flowers, crowns the harvest with gold, and gives to us the joy of gazing at it with our eyes. O be joyful and sing to Him: Alleluia! …
Marriage is an everyday task, I could say a craftsman’s task, a goldsmith’s work, because the husband has the duty of making the wife more of a woman and the wife has the duty of making the husband more of a man. Growing also in humanity, as man and woman. And this you do together. This is called growing together. This does not come out of thin air! The Lord blesses it but it comes from your hands, from your attitudes, from your way of loving each other. — Pope Francis
When my wife and I left town to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary this Fall in St. Augustine, Florida, we stopped overnight at a dear friend’s house near Tallahassee. His name is Mark, and he and his wife are stellar human beings. Tallahassee is where Patti and I found our faith, met, dated, married, and had all of our children. It will always be our spiritual home, no matter where we live.
Unbeknownst to my wife, I had schemed with Mark and his wife for a few months to have an outdoor Mass to renew our marriage vows in his backyard prayer garden. I asked the rector of the Co-Cathedral in Tallahassee, Fr. John Cayer, to celebrate the Mass. This was extra special because Fr. John had been an altar server at our wedding. I also asked Msgr. Slade Crawford, a dear friend of ours who baptized our youngest daughter and accompanied us through the painful experience of our first miscarriage, to concelebrate. And I invited Br. Parker Jordan, B.O.H. to provide the music. Patti and I are very close to Br. Parker’s family.
With friends, nature and Christ in our midst, it was a moment when time seemed to fade into eternity. And Patti was so surprised.
I chose to use the same readings we had at our 1995 nuptial Mass, along with many of the same songs. Mark’s prayer garden was framed by enormous trees overshadowing a grassy field, with a huge hand-crafted wooden cross in the middle. The sky was a bright blue. God’s cathedral, and under its Dome the presence of God was thick amid our renewed promises to each other.
I, Thomas, take you, Patricia, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life. I, Patricia, take you, Thomas…
What meaning and depth in those words, said with mind and heart filled with 25 years of life together. I could feel my grandfather’s words to us in 1995, which I’ve re-read 100s of times, vibrating in my soul as I stood there.
God brought you together so don’t expect Him to orchestrate the wedding sonata. From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”. Only “us”, “ours”. I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. And for over 67 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity. So, Tom and Patti, to you we bequeath our heritage, our fidelity and reverence for each other and our gratefulness to God for bringing us together. We know He has never shed one tear of regret!
When my grandmother died, they had made it to 76 years. Their heritage, fidelity and reverence shaped my worldview and offered me from my earliest memories a rock to stand on, especially when my own parents’ divorce caught me in its violent wake.
All of these graces and memories that afternoon in Tallahassee, already so much, came together when Fr. John was setting up for the Mass. He asked Mark if he had anything that could be used for an altar. Mark said, “Yeah, man! I’ve got some sawhorses and a surfboard!” And, lo and behold, our altar — two sawhorses, a surfboard, an altar cloth and two candles. Without missing a beat, Father John, himself a surfer, said:
A perfect symbol of marriage — a wild adventure, lots of risks, but worth it all. Just like surfing.
Indeed. Thank you Fr. John and Msgr. Slade, Mark and Sandy, Br. Parker, Nana and Pop, and all the countless humans who have walked with us these years. And to you, O Christ, we give forever-thanks for faithfully inhabiting our love these years, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. We will never forget that day. Now, on to the next 25 years may we now go, Deo volente…
Excuse today’s vanishing link! I had been working on “De-mystifying discernment” a few weeks ago, but hadn’t finished editing the behemoth. I thought it was queued in “draft” still, but it posted today instead. Which is why I drafted it again. So a rest for today, and we’ll de-mystify another day when I get time to finish it!
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” ― Mother Teresa
When I first heard Rachel Platten’s Fight Song back in 2015, I found the lyrics resonated with my place in life at the time when I was, for a number of reasons, feeling deep regret for having made the decision to leave Iowa and move my family to Louisiana. The many long term effects of my decision had really begun to sink in, and at the time the only effects that seemed important were those I saw as bad for my family.
I was truly in a desolate place.
One day after work, my wife Patti and I were having our Friday afternoon happy hour on the carport, which is our homey approximation of a secluded courtyard. I was sharing with her my deep sense of regret, and she listened, as she always does, with kind concern. After I finished, she leaned over and took my right hand and said:
TomNeal, you need to let go of that regret. You decided to take this job to advance your teaching career. But we decided together this was the better way for you to serve your family and the church. It’s true we lost lots of good things when we left Iowa. And yes, there are things about being here that have been hard for you and me and for the children. And it’s true, your work has not turned out to be exactly what you thought would be when you accepted the job.
But that’s how God’s plan works, right? We don’t hope to make ideal lives for ourselves or our children. We teach them to face real life with faith and courage, and do that best by first doing that ourselves. We want to help them be saints, not just be happy. Just do what you said Fr. Anthony once told you to do: get over yourself, get up and get on with it…
That conversation was a pivotal moment for me on so many levels. For me, my wife is divine revelation with high heels and lipstick on. After we talked, I went to the store to get some ingredients she needed for dinner. While I was driving, Platten’s new song came on. I’d never heard it before that moment. These words in particular struck me:
Like a small boat On the ocean Sending big waves Into motion Like how a single word Can make a heart open I might only have one match But I can make an explosion
I thought to myself, I have to live one step, one decision, one meeting, one challenge a day at a time, and find in those small spaces the whole will of God. I can’t indulge my “big picture” fantasies that demand to know how it all fits into some grand divine scheme. I have no idea how it all fits in. That’s not my business. All I know is how to be faithful to the here and now, and maybe the next moments after that. If I don’t live here, love here, work here, have my center of gravity here, I’ll never be open to knowing what new things may be emerging out of the present moment. I have to internalize the prayer St. John Henry Newman wrote at a very dark point in his own life:
… God knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
The poor widow in the Temple, unaware she was being observed by Jesus, placed her last two small copper coins into the treasury. Like the widow at Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17:7ff), she teaches us that tiny acts of lavish trust in each moment, handed over into the uncertain future of God, are the way our observant Messiah’s joyful Gospel is revealed to the world…