The Boxer, c/o Mashley

Here’s the latest Ashley-Maria (Maria is my daughter) music video, shot by Maria’s sister, Catherine as they hung out in the girls’ bedroom on a rainy Sunday.

This song, more than any other they’ve done, made my heart overflow. Nah, explode. My wife and I adore Simon and Garfunkel. I wrote this as soon as I heard it:

beautifully blending
celestial sending
angels lending
limits rending
hearts ascending
heaven extending
harmonies friending

A friend of mine, who is a musician, texted me after watching it last night. She was the one I mentioned back in June who flew all the way from Chicago just to hear the girls perform at the Chicken Jam. Sui generis. Her words express so well my own enthusiasm for this performance:

I love that song! Now i m going to have to go back to new orleans to sing it with them. Such a great song for them becuz immediately reminds u of simon and garfunkel and their amazing harmonies, and then u realize that is the amazing kind of thing the girls are doing w/their harmonies–sophisticated musicianship made to look easy. i saw simon and garfunkel for their one reunion concert in central park–sort of a whim trip –and to this day so glad i went. It really wasnt til i heard this tho that i harkened back maria and ashley’s harmony style to theirs–such cool parallels. When the girls play central park i will definitely be there.

Veters & Neal: Discernment Workshop

On a Saturday this September 29 and again on October 13, Dr. Susie Veters and I will be leading a “Discernment Workshop” that offers a fresh perspective on discerning God’s will in everyday life, and introduces participants to the StrengthsFinder gift assessment. This is a unique approach precisely because it takes the “self-knowledge” dimension of discernment and drills down into it.

See here for more on this assessment:

Susie is a dear friend and colleague who is presently Director of Stewardship & Parish Services at the Catholic Foundation in New Orleans. We have co-presented on a number of occasions, and I think our styles complement each other well. She’s far funnier than I am.

Free registration (astonishing), and only $20.00 for the StrengthsFinder.

The flyer for the event and registration information can be found by clicking on this link (then click on flyer): Living Your Strengths 2018

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst

First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. The fact that God can make Himself present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. — Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

I am teaching a class on prayer this semester, and it’s shaking me to the core.  Joseph Joubert famously said, “To teach is to learn twice.” All teachers worthy of the name would wholeheartedly agree. But I would add that to teach theology is to enter into the judgment of God, for when you appropriate the mysteries of faith by means of understanding, Jesus’ words come alive deep within:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. — John 3:20-21

The beauty of God’s judgment is that it is always ordered toward salvation, for He always exposes guilt and darkness and sin in order to heal and forgive. In light of this, we can see that one of the primary goals of prayer is to permit God to reveal us to ourselves, to expose our deepest inner life to the light, to permit God to carry out His judgment in us now (John 12:31), so that He can rescue us from all that keeps us from being free to live as His image and likeness in the world.

And this leads me back to the quote I began with above. Prayer, Bloom reminds us, is in the very first instance an act of giving God absolute permission to be Himself. Letting God be God. Allowing God the freedom to act in us as He pleases, when He pleases, and to do all He pleases in us and with us. God will not be manipulated, coerced, bribed into doing our will, serving our preferences, demands and whims. God is not our lackey, ready to do our will.

And He reverences us in the same way, exacting no response from us by force, coercion or violence. He seeks instead to evoke a response from us by Himself suffering violence to manifest fully — shockingly — His gentle open posture toward us. “Come to me” is not a crushing command, but an open invitation. In this sense, God chooses to approach us in those most evocative “spaces” that expose our inner yearning, to attract us to Himself — silence, darkness, absence. In these, God dwells most fully. God inhabits the parched deserts of this world, where the thirst of humanity grows to infinite proportions.

Only under the forms of infinite thirst are we capable of receiving the Infinite wellspring worthily.

God does not demand to be longed for, loved and desired. God, as St. Maximus said so magnificently, “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.” Jesus also says, “Blessed are those who hunger…for theirs is the kingdom…” In prayer, divine hunger meets human hunger. And while our hunger may at first glance seem to be a mere absence of God within, an emptiness, in reality hunger is the presence of God under the form of our relentless hunt for Food.

And the Cross — O foolish wisdom of God! — becomes the moment of capture, of slaughter and of feasting on God-with-us in the silence, the darkness, the absence.


Slight un-pause

Okay, so this is not really a post, so it simply does not count as an interruption of my pause…

But yesterday was my daughter Catherine’s Mount Carmel Academy “Spirit Day” that I have, every year since 2014, posted on NealObstat. Because that’s just how I roll.

In the midst of the intensity of these last weeks, incessantly beset by weighty issues, my mother and my daughter injected fresh doses of wonder into my soul.

On Sunday, after spending the whole day with us, my 91 year old mother said to me, “Every day I spend with your family is the best day of my life.”

Okay, really? My heart literally hurt. Yes, that’s the meaning of life. All else is an illusion.

On Monday, Catherine was prepping for Spirit Day by having a sleepover with her friends so together they could practice the cheers and choreography.

As I drove her across town to her friend’s house, she shared with me her wild excitement over this event. How special it was to her and her friends. And she described all of these small details surrounding the day like they were matters of the greatest importance. Because they were.

Okay, really? My heart literally hurt. Yes, that’s the meaning of life. All else is illusion.

Thank you God for a 16 year old and a 91 year old, both of whom led me deep into your Heart, which I bet literally hurts, too.


“If you believe that former times are better than today, it is because you are not living in those times.” — St. Augustine

Happy feast of St. Augustine!

As has become normal, this week is overrun with demands that give me no time to write. I hate to post this over and over, but I like to let you know when I will stop and when I plan to re-start.

In the mean time, Lord have mercy on our broken, bleeding Church. (When is she anything other?) Raise her from the ashes and make her a sign and instrument of unity. Amen.

In Christ Alone

The theological virtues [of faith, hope and love] relate one directly to God. They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object. — Catechism #1812

I wrote in my journal back in 1990 that my spiritual director said to me, “You know, Tom, what is a good test of whether or not faith, hope and love have found a home in you? When all have failed you, without exception, and yet you retain joy in your commitment to remain faithful to Him. Only then do you really know God is your Rock.”

Then he added, “But this is a grace that must be begged for, over a long period of time. Grace isn’t automatic, God isn’t a slot machine. Yes, it’s freely offered, but is received only at great cost. I have begged for 40 years as a priest, and have begun to sense now they are finally beginning to take hold in me … I love to say to God, “If you left me to myself, Lord, for a even a moment, I would be faithless.”

Marriage and the Subordinate Clause

Today the (in)famous Ephesians reading finds its way into Mass, with its household “subordinate clauses,” which address husbands and wives in chapter 5, and children-parents and slaves-masters in chapter 6. St. Paul (or his disciple) offers, in these two chapters, a vision for the difference Christ makes in the organization of a traditional Greco-Roman household.

What is so often noted are the Greco-Roman elements that grind on our modern sensibilities,

“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” … “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

What can easily be missed in this are the stunningly subversive Christ-twists added in by Paul. These seemingly subtle insertions radically reconfigure the way this traditional household order is to be understood. To a non-Christian Roman citizen, these lines would have been jarring,

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” … “Masters, act in the same way toward [your slaves], and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven and that with him there is no partiality.”

We might say, in short, that these Ephesians passages insert a radical mutuality between woman-man and master-slave that is not present in Greco-Roman society. This is what is meant by the introductory Ephesians 5:21 passage, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In the ancient world, these relationships were substantially unilateral ones, with the balance of power massively favoring the husband and slave owner.

What Paul argues here is that, when the agapē-love revealed in Christ crucified enters into human institutions, as when it enters baptismal water or eucharistic bread-wine, it utterly transforms them into something new.

Like a doting grandmother that loads her grandchildren up with hyperglycemic sweets and then leaves it to the parents to endure the volatile consequences, St. Paul loaded the Ephesian Christians up with these volatile hyper-agapē commands and then left it to the later Church to decipher and harness the consequences.

St. John Chrysostom attempted this in his homilies on Ephesians 5,

There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, the source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience.

What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of the husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he live with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

It is difficult for us to appreciate just how unheard of this way of thinking was in 4th century Roman society — which we are constantly reminded of when we read St. John and are amazed at how many times he has to warn husbands to stop abusing their wives.

My favorite line in today’s reading, though, is 5:28,

He who loves his wife loves himself.

This is a twist on the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which makes clear that the commandment means not that self-love is the model for love of neighbor but that your neighbor is your self. “Another self,” you might say, meaning that what you do/don’t do for them you do/don’t do for yourself.  To murder is to commit suicide. Their good is your good, and their suffering is your suffering. And, contra Cain, you are your neighbor’s keeper.

In this sense, marriage is the most extreme form of neighbor love as the two become “one flesh,” i.e. the absolute renunciation of all “private property” before the spouse. And so we have in Song of Songs 6:3, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Which is why Paul says (!) in 1 Cor. 7:4,

For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

Marriage is meant to be a singular prophetic sign that models in extremis, “in the extreme,” for all humanity, and for the church (Acts 4:32!), the way love of neighbor works. Marriage is the supreme school of love for children, for extended family, for the local community and church. Marriage is meant to be the leaven that heals a fractured humanity, that models reconciliation among those who are estranged, that witnesses to the authentic meaning of unity-in-diversity, that offers an example of long-suffering patience between very different people, and that teaches self-sacrifice in the face of suffering, tragedy and hardship.

Marital love stands at the core of God’s redemption of creation and exists for the life of the world, which is why Christ made it a grace-drenched, life-giving, mercy-full, cross-bearing Sacrament. Marriage is “not for me,” as Seth Adam Smith famously said in 2013, but is for my spouse and children, for the church and society. Marriage is love lived “on behalf of all and for all.”

May it be so for all those called to this most exalted and noble form of divine and human love. Amen.