St. Not Saint

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Last weekend I watched the documentary on former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason called, “The Diary of a Saint.” It’s really excellent and hard to watch, as it chronicles his personal and familial battle with the degenerative neurological disease, ALS.

There’s so much in this film to comment on, but I will limit myself to a brief exchange between the film interviewer and Steve’s wife, Michel. And I don’t even know what exactly I want to say, just have an intuition, so here it goes. One shot, no editing returns…

Michel is reflecting on public perceptions of both she and Steve as “heroes” or even “saints.” They both cringe over being defined as “heroes” or “inspirations” and wonder how real people’s perception is of their life situation, or what kind of unrealistic pressure it puts on them to be something they are not. Michel says that one time someone even “congratulated” her on the many benefits derived from her husband’s illness. She said very honestly, “that really fucked with my mind.” What these romanticized perceptions tend to overlook, she added, is the brutality and messiness of their daily existence as a family. “Hero” and “inspiration” may make for good tweets or stirring headlines, but they’re just not always really reality. Pushing enemas in his anus, siphoning phlegm from his throat, sterilizing his feeding tube incision, cleaning feces off of his wheelchair, exhaustion, angry outbursts, despair, a screaming baby. That’s the reality they have to face every day.

Michel says, “I’m never gonna be a saint. I don’t want to be a devil. But I don’t want to be a saint, either. I just want to be a real person.”

A real person. I love that.

We had a priest over our house recently to celebrate Mass, and he referenced this documentary, and very specifically that scene. He quoted Thomas Merton as saying, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He said that sanctity is not simply about the achievement of a lofty, pristine ideal but about the meeting of God and the real in oneself, in others and in the world. That the God of Jesus is a God of the real, of the real cross and the real resurrection. And so Christianity is for real people, for prostitutes and tax collectors and fishermen as well as for zealots and Pharisees and scholars of the law. It’s for naturally magnanimous souls and for naturally pusillanimous souls; for the patient and the hot tempered; for the petty and the selfless; for those in thriving marriages and those in anemic marriages; for those who articulate the faith eloquently and those who produce more spittle than light as they attempt to explain the most basic tenants of faith; for those full of fiery love and those full of icy hate. Christ comes to all, bears toward each man and woman an infinitely passionate, redeeming love that sees beauty alive and beauty awaiting His loud call: “Lazarus, come forth!”

This is why Christianity is hope. For all.

The Incarnation of God means Christ is the God of the real, the God whose love is wholly identical and equally absolute for the lowest and highest, the weakest and the strongest, the most wretched and the most righteous. Christ calls each in their place, where they stand, kneel, sit or lie, and from there says: “Come, follow me.” Real sanctity, which is the will to maximally echo divine love from within the walls of one’s confining reality, is only for those willing to risk becoming their truest God-made self in real-time, real-space, real-life. The God for whom nothing is impossible is also the God of the hopelessly unworthy, confined, imprisoned, hemmed in. There, in that frame, cubicle, machine shop, classroom, prison cell, nursing home room the Spirit paints His masterpiece. Indeed, these “little ones” must be those Jesus refers to when he says, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16). The same ones Dostoyevsky refers to in Crime and Punishment:

Then Christ will say to us, ‘Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!’ And the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why are you welcoming them?’ And he will say, ‘O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.’ And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!

Only these real saints will enter. Matthew 21:31. I want to be in that number.

I’m on Mashley’s Team

Maria and Ashley bring it home again with another cover, this time with Lorde’s Team.  Their acapella performances are among my favorites. It’s not rushed and the harmonies, which Maria improvised, make the song even richer.


“The Ancient of Days,” c. 1794, William Blake.

[from a 2013 journal entry. Read only if you want some mind stretching this morning :)]

To be receptive to the highest truth, and to live therein, a man must needs be without before and after, untrammelled by all his acts or by any images he ever perceived, empty and free, receiving the divine gift in the eternal Now, and bearing it back unhindered in the light of the same with praise and thanksgiving in our Lord Jesus Christ (Mesiter Eckhart, German sermon 6).

My children and I often have bedtime chats about the big questions of life, which is both a delight and a challenge. It’s a delight because their fascination with the meaning of life reawakens my fascination. And the fact that they want to talk about this with their father, even as teens? Holding on to that one. But it’s also a challenge because their questions, which are so basic, force me to articulate truths which cannot be “gotten behind” because they are so fundamental; the ground on which faith and reason walk. Like the principle of non-contradiction (which means that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time) certain truths just have to be accepted as givens, forming the basis for any conversation governed by the rules of logic. Like existence. That we exist is a given, a needed presupposition without which any rational discourse is impossible. If we assume we live in The Matrix, we can proceed no further.

One of the “basic” questions my son Nicholas has posed to me again and again since he was six years old is the meaning of divine eternity. How is it possible, or even conceivable, that God is without beginning, without origin? He once articulated it this way: “If God knows everything, has infinite knowledge, if he also has no beginning where did he get all his information from in the first place? What was there to know if there was nothing other than God? But I guess even saying ‘was’ in the past tense already misses the point of eternal, right? Okay, let’s stop. It hurts my head!”

Mine too!

Nick had asked this often enough to keep this puzzle in the forefront of my thinking and prayer. It’s served as a powerful stimulus for theological wonder! In fact, I often pray now over Aquinas’ description of God as actus purus essendi, “the pure act of being” or as ipsum esse subsistens, “self-subsistent Being” – both of which mean that God is (to speak awkwardly) self-caused, the source and reason for his own existence.

The other day [November 2013] Nick asked a particular question I had never thought of, at least in the way he asked it:

Dad, okay, I get that God has no beginning. I get the idea. That God’s the reason for his own existence. But this is what I still don’t get: Why does God exist? I mean, what’s his reason for existing at all? And why is he love and not, like, raw power or something else? And if he’s really infinitely free, did he choose to exist as a Trinity or did he have no choice?

I think I passed out.

After saying, “I think that may be the most mind-bending theological question I have ever heard,” I said, “We’ve just reached the boundaries of thought in theology.” I shared with him the theological strategy of apophasis, or “unsaying.” Apophatic theology affirms that everything we say about an infinite God requires, as soon as we “say” something is true about God, that we have to immediately “unsay” it. Because everything we can say is drawn from our experience of this finite world. To be apophatic is to acknowledge that God is always more unlike than like what we have said about him. We might say, “God is good, but he is good in a way that infinitely transcends our experience of goodness. There is likeness, but always greater unlikeness because he is infinite.”

It’s one way to think of what God means when he says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). When we compare our categories of thought (our analogies) with the reality of who God is in himself, which is fully revealed in the vision of his face, those categories fall away. As St John of the Cross says, when the intellect enters into union with God, our language passes from prose to poetry to stammering to a silent gaze.

Jesus’ parables give lots of likenesses. God is a Father, but not in a way we have experienced fatherhood — which is why his parables, like the prodigal son, shatter all kinds of socio-cultural conventions, leaving his hearers thinking, “What kind of father acts like that?” Exactly.

In fact, you might say that Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection is the supreme analogy of God because Jesus is God made man, Infinity made finite, Word made words. And the fact that the crucifixion of God (!) is the most perfect and complete revelation of God makes it also the perfect apophatic symbol! God’s supreme moment of revealing himself is also the supreme moment of paradox, of disappearing. Theology built on the ruins of God on Golgotha shocks both intellect and imagination into a sustained state of awe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:22-24).

Aquinas says it this way, “We cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, as we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.” God is not simply one being among other beings, i.e. the peak of a hierarchy of complexity, like moving from an amoeba to a man to God. Rather, there’s an infinite gap between an uncreated God and creation, between limitless and limited, between the eternal Word and temporal words.

Theology, which is our way of thinking linguistically about God with God (i.e. Jesus), always stands on the brink of collapse. This makes theology the most fascinating, exhilerating, thilling human intellectual endeavor possible. Theology is a quest that never comes to a point of rest, but challenges the mind to incessantly stretch out toward the infinite. Made in God’s image, the human mind is capax Dei, “capable of God,” which means that the mind (through faith in this life, vision in the next) will never cease to grow in its reaching out toward the infinite and ingesting it whole. Even in heaven the sounding of divine depths will never cease.

This makes the author of the book of Revelation the most honest of theologians:

When I saw [the risen Jesus], I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:17-18).

“So it’s a mystery?” my son continued. “But isn’t that just a cop out, like saying, ‘I don’t know?'” “No, not really,” I replied,

Mystery is theology’s way of recognizing its limits. Confessing that God always exceeds our capacity to know, like a waterfall. And our knowledge of God is ultimately a gift of faith. But let’s clarify what faith means. How do you know who I am in my deepest self or what I think? You know it only if I choose to reveal it to you freely. When I offer you the gift of making my secrets known to you, I’m offering you the gift of faith. Once you accept my offer and receive what I have to reveal, and come to know me, then you have faith. Faith is not just blind belief, it’s the manner in which we accept another person’s free self-gift, self-revelation. In offering the gift, they say to me: I trust you enough to offer this. In receiving the gift, I say to them: I trust you enough to receive this as truth. Once they offer that gift, and we receive that gift, faith leads to knowledge and to communion. To love.

Poor guy, he’d glazed over by now. But I continued,

Okay, so the “Why does God exist” question is the last in the series of all your whys. It seems to me you can’t go any deeper than that. Honestly, I can think of only one good answer: Praise. Praise says to God, “Thank you for being God! For being Trinity! For being just and good and merciful! For existing at all!” I don’t think we can ever answer “why God exists.” Only God, who is his own origin, can answer it.

And maybe, as I think of it, his answer would be “I AM, without a why.” Like all the best things in life. If you asked me why I want to sit and talk with you late at night, I might have specific answers. But in the end, it’s because I love you, which, in the end, is without a why. And praise is all about doing things — singing, admiring, lauding — “without a why.”

This must be the reason the word “Alleluia” is everywhere in the Bible. Hallelu-yah. It means, “Praise Yah,” and Yah is short for Yahweh, which means in Hebrew something like “the One who causes to be.” Or as the Greek translation of the Hebrew has it,  “ego eimi ho on,” which translates roughly into the English, “I am the one who is.” Ho on = the to-be. Praise you God for being I AM, radiant beauty, sheer love, without a why.

I’d never thought of any of that last part before our conversation that day. I will never forget it.

There’s a medieval Persian poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, who said, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. Then you will know the true God.” Praise is the mind and heart’s song of bewilderment before transcendent mystery. Praise gives us licence to recklessly adore what is both absolutely true and utterly incomprehensible.

After I made that last point, my son said: “Okay, Dad, no more. That’s too deep.”

It was after midnight. Time to sing an Alleluia. Then to bed.

The child has become the father of the man. Thank you, son, for rekindling in me wonder. As you have taught me to praise Him tonight, may I teach you to love Him more tomorrow. Amen.

Joie de vivre

“There is a close link between the hope of a people and harmony between the generations. The joy of children makes their parents’ hearts leap and opens up the future. Children are the joy of the family and of society. They are not matter of reproductive biology, or one of the many ways of producing them, much less their parents’ possession. Children are a gift. They are a gift. Each one is unique and unrepeatable, and at the same time unmistakably linked to his or her roots. Indeed, to be a son or a daughter according to God’s plan, means carrying in oneself the memory and hope of a love that has become tangible by kindling the life of another human being, original and new. And for parents, each child is him or herself, different, unique.” — Pope Francis

One of the greatest gifts each of our children have offered us is bringing the light of joy into our life. Yes, challenges. But the overriding reality is unquestionably joy. While we adults try to teach children all about life, children teach us what life is all about.

All this to introduce two videos.

First, by a miracle of biblical proportions, my daughter Catherine agreed to allow me to post a music video — produced, shot and edited by Maria — that she starred in. It replicates the spectacular opening sequence of La La Land in our front yard. Catherine is life’s vitality incarnate.

Second, a news clip that my wife showed me that’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s gone viral so you may have seen it. While adults wax grave about the terrors of geo-politics, children break in and remind us that we are the fools and they, the wise (Psalm 8:2).

Chewing tobacco, gags and Jesus

What do Jesus, chewing tobacco and the Crusades have to do with each other? Read this re-post from 2014, re-posted just because it was such a delightful experience for me! I mistakenly posted this twice recently…so here it is a final time. Enjoy Kari at the end!

I thought today it might be useful to share a recent experience I had attempting to be faithful to St. Peter’s command, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you.” — 1 Peter 3:15

I traveled to Pittsburgh for a conference back in December. On my flight back to New Orleans, I was seated next to a man from rural Alabama who was on his way home for Christmas to visit his daughter. He was a single dad, as his daughter’s mother had abandoned both him and her early on and moved away to another state. His mom and dad helped him raise her. He had a thick Alabama accent, donned a University of Alabama ball cap and chewed tobacco the entire flight, spitting the brown juice every few minutes into an empty Coke bottle with remarkable precision. The indescribable sounds accompanying this 90 minute dip-spit ritual served as a fine appetite suppressant and flipped an occasional gag-reflex on.

He was very chatty, and spent 30 minutes telling me about his six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off contract work in Pittsburgh. I didn’t really understand everything he said, as we were next to one of the jet engines, but it had something to do with dredging contaminated materials. After he shared his last story about his co-workers’ nighttime drinking binges, the stewardess broke his train of thought to ask us if we wanted any of those air-filled packets with 5 mini-pretzels in them. When he picked up the conversation again, he said, “Damn man, I’ve been chewin’ your ear off! Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

I thought, here it comes.

I told him that I taught theology and served as academic dean at a Roman Catholic seminary in New Orleans.

He said, “Whoa. That’s different.”

I replied, “Yep.”

After about two minutes of silence, he continued, “Hey, I’m a history buff, and I’ve always wanted to ask a Catholic this question. Why did the Catholic popes kill all those people in the crusades?”

I spent about 4 or 5 minutes trying to set the crusades in historical context, tried to explain a Catholic take on “just war” and proposed some ways one might consider a medieval crusade as just, as unjust, or as both just and unjust. In other words, I tried to explain that moral judgments on complex historical events should never be oversimplified for the sake of a slam-dunk point. When I had finished my meandering argument, he said,

Cool. Makes sense. Thanks for explaining that. When I went to college I was always told that the Catholic crusades were proof that popes just wanted to control the world and that the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment brought an end to that. You know, there’s no Catholic church anywhere around where I live, so I don’t ever get to talk to Catholics. And when I’m in Pittsburgh I just hang around with my work buddies, and trust me, none of them go to church even if they were Catholic.

Then, without missing a beat, he began to tell me about why he didn’t go to church. He said,

My mom and dad went to the Baptist and Methodist churches once in while when I was a kid, but mostly dad and us went fishing on Sundays. I’ve always thought that people who go to church were just as bad as those who don’t, so I figure, what’s the point? I just don’t get why there’s so many churches and they all disagree. How can Christians say they’ve got the true religion when they don’t even agree on their own? I just try to be a good person and keep to myself. I don’t drink. But I don’t think about God much, either. Just never comes up much. But my daughter [who is 14] goes to a Presbyterian church with her friend these days and when I come back in town she tries to drag me with her. She’s good for me.

I asked him if he planned to go to church with his daughter this Christmas. He said,

Maybe, but we’ll see. I mean, you’re Catholic and you teach the bible to priests. So why do you go to church?

As he continued his ritual spitting, I asked him what he knew about why God asked the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. We talked about that a bit. Then I explained how Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday morning made Sunday the new Sabbath for Christians, and how it was the eighth day of creation. He thought that was neat. Then I told him the story about what motivated Christian martyrs of 3rd century north Africa to go to Mass on Sundays, even though it was illegal. I told him how this one group of Christians on trial before a Roman prefect explained their choice to risk execution to worship their God this way:

Without Sunday we cannot live!

I also mentioned the need to worship and give thanks to God not just as individuals but as a family of faith. I said only God gets to decide how and when he is to be worshiped, and pointed out the many blessings that God pours out in the celebration of the Eucharist that makes the rest of our week a whole lot better. As he actually seemed to be listening, I asked him why he bothers to celebrate his daughter’s birthdays, why it’s so important for families to gather at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, or why human beings dedicate any special days and times to gather and celebrate important things in life. That then led to a great side-conversation about the devastating effects his grandmother’s death had on his extended family.

She was the anchor of our family. She always brought everyone together for special times and it kept our family close. My happiest childhood memories are being at her house for family get togethers. But now that she’s gone, there’s nothing left to hold us together any more. It’s sad. Now that she’s gone the center unraveled, all the old grudges people had before now keep them from ever talking. My grandma always forced us to get together, and she’d say to anyone who’d complain, with fire in her eyes: “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family!”

What a perfect segue! I said,

That’s exactly what Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist together every Sunday as a faith family together. If you look at Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, they were always arguing. He forced people to be together who would never have otherwise hung out together. Jesus brought enemies and rivals together to show us how God wanted people to live, and that God is the only one who can reconcile everybody together. Take Him out, it all unravels. That’s really what going to church is supposed to be about, God bringing us together, making us forget the grudges and feeding us with His best food just like your grandmother fed you all.

After a brief pause, he said,

Damn, that’s deep. I’ll have to think about that one.

That was the end of our exchange. We were silent for the rest of the flight. After we landed, he told me that his daughter had a serious and chronic illness. I told him that even if he was not ready to go back to church yet, he could pray. And I said I would pray for her. I said, “If you love her, the best thing you can do is pray for her.” He said,

Right. Well, I’ve never been a praying man but that’s a good reason to pray. Thanks, man.

And that was the end of our conversation. I wondered if I should ask him if I could pray for her at that moment, but I didn’t. As I sat in the Atlanta airport, I wished I had. I thought of the charismatic Catholic woman in Florida I know who would pray with anyone anywhere, and thought of her gentle boldness that deeply impacted so many people. But what I was grateful for was the rare clarity of mind I had that so often escapes me when I am taken off guard by deep questions, posed by a stranger seated inches away from me. He challenged me not just to teach theology and history (which for me is safer), but to witness (which is riskier).

I find that my conversations with curious people wondering about faith give me a healthy opportunity to self-critically reflect on what it means for me to share my Catholic faith in Christ in a manner that is respectful and bold, personal and thoughtful. What it mostly looks like is finding natural openings that allow faith to speak to real life concerns — where they’re “at” — and giving God’s Spirit freedom to work through the uniqueness of that moment.

I will end with Mother Teresa’s favorite prayer (penned by Bl. John Henry Newman). It is really the prayer of the evangelizer. Please join me in asking Christ to make us fitting instruments of his Light.

Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance
everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so to shine as to be light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from you.
None of it will be ours.
It will be you shining on others through us.
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best
by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching,
not by words, but by our example;
by the catching force –
the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.


Saved? Watch this…

“If one were to do a cursory read of the Synoptic Gospels, one would get the impression that we are saved by giving alms” (Dr. Nathan Eubank)

I was speaking with someone the other day and mentioned that I taught theology. He was a devout Evangelical and taught bible study in his church. We got into an energetic conversation and asked me about the Catholic view of salvation. He said, “You Catholics believe you’re saved by your own works, right? But we believe God saves us and makes us righteous. That we’re saved by faith in the blood of Jesus.”

I thoroughly enjoyed our exchange and was unusually clear of mind that evening, I said something like this (meaning these very general points that I later amplified in my journal). It kind of runs all over the place, but that’s how it went.

No, not really. For us, to be saved is God’s work. Just like it was God’s work to create us, it’s God’s work to re-create us. Which is what salvation is, right? Being re-created, becoming a new creation. God’s love is such that after we fell away, sinned, died and rotted in the grave, God’s righteous justice was overcome by his love intensified into mercy — which is really love on steroids. [He liked that] God’s response to our rebellion wasn’t just to end our rebellion and make us good and righteous servants again. It’s this love-mercy, far beyond justice, that drives God to justify, sanctify and glorify us.

In addition to restoring justice, He chose to raise us up from being servants to being beloved sons and daughters, made us into his Temples, gave us a share in his own divine life by allowing us to eat the Flesh and drink the Blood of his Son. Hopelessly in love with his own enemies, us. We talk about a prodigal son, but really God’s the prodigal Father. Way excessive in his response to our waste of his gifts. Destroy and squander my gifts? Okay! I’ll give you a thousand more!

Yes, for us Catholics it’s God who saves us. But when God saves us, we believe, he doesn’t just “do it all” for us, like he did when he created us out of nothing. He’s made us in his image and likeness, which means that we resemble him. We resemble him, for example, whenever we practice justice, mercy, compassion, humility, forgiveness, love, sacrifice, fidelity. We’re living, breathing icons he’s painted with all the colors found on the palette of his beauty. And as his image we are also his priests, the nexus of God-creation, which means whenever God acts in this world justly, mercifully, compassionately, humbly, etc., we, his image always get caught up in his work and brought into the act. When God acts, we get activated. If we act in concert we’re saved, if we act contrary, we’re judged. And baptism only sinks us deeper into God’s action, our priesthood and makes us not just like him but, in Jesus, unites us with him.

In his letters, St. Paul loves to use the Greek prefix syn all over the place, which means “with.” We are syn- with God, Paul says we are syn-ergoi, “co-workers” [1 Cor. 3:9]. Like the English, synergy. Always acting with God and God with us. Jesus is really God’s syn-, God’s permanent commitment to a syn- strategy. God desires to enlist us in his renovation project, salvation. Faith is our “in,” our free acceptance of this divine draft.

A Catholic theologian from 1600 years ago, named St. Augustine, said: “God made us without us, but he will not save us without us.” So we Catholics don’t say we are saved by our own works, as if God is somehow so impressed with our amazing-ness that he rewards us with an eternal Pat on the Back. But we would say that doing good works IS what saved people do, the fitting sign that salvation is at work in us. “By your fruits you will know them” [Matt. 7:16]. We are being saved in doing good works and we are saved in order to do good works. Doing good works is exactly what an image of God DOES, in imitation of the good-working God [who even works on  the Sabbath! John 5:17]. Being saved is not simply an escape route, is not just about getting out of punishment or drawing a get out of jail free card. It’s about becoming human in the way God made us to be. That’s Jesus, who yesterday, today and forever IS the way humans are meant to be. Being saved is about doing life the Jesus-way, giving way for Jesus to live is us so we can finally be human again.

And the New Testament is unanimous: to be human in the pattern of Jesus means to love while carrying a cross for the sake of the one who placed the cross on your shoulder. That’s nuts! That’s love on steroids. To be human God’s way is to live selflessly, to love enemies, speak well of detractors and bless cursers. In shorthand, Jesus died on the cross to save us so we could look like Jesus on the cross. We’re saved by the blood of Jesus SO we can become blood donors, life-givers, martyrs of charity. These saved are the saints made worthy of imitation [1 Cor. 11:1], who love with the love with which God loved us in Christ on the cross.

St. Paul in Galatians [5:6] said: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The better way to express this as a Catholic would be to say not that we are “saved by good works,” but that we are “saved by faith working through love.” Faith without love is dead, and love without works is hollow. Working love saves [Matt. 7:21]. Loveless works of the law are clashing symbols and don’t save, but once you inject works with love, which is the premier sign that God is in you at work [1 Jn 4:16], all your works are saving and saved [1 Pet. 4:8].

Especially love for the poor, which is heaven’s chosen means for all eternal treasury deposits [Luke 18:22].

Open-handed, he gives to the poor;
his justice stands firm for ever.
His head will be raised in glory (Psalm 112:11).

That’s what we believe, in a nutshell.

We talked for a bit more and exchanged business cards to talk more again. I hope we do!

If I had access to wifi for my phone at that moment, I would have saved lots of words, skipped all of that theologese, and simply said, “For Catholics, being saved means this” — and then hit play:

“Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Screen Face.

[these are loosely joined reflections on some ‘temptations of new media’ that I wrote about last Lent. I decided to post them now after I happened on an article that seemed to offer a perfect coda]

Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. — Pope Francis

I think I can speak for most parents with younger children when I say that one of the greatest struggles these days is how to manage — and teach them to manage — their use of digital technologies and new (especially social) media. Just a very few thoughts on this today.

It’s ubiquitous, what my wife and I call the “screen face.” That blank zombie-like stare, bathed in a dim glow, that eloquently captures the existential state of a child (or adult) caught in the act of tuning out their immediate surroundings in order to enter into a virtual world mediated through silicon chips and LED screens. More and more studies are uncovering the deleterious effects the over-use of screen time can have, including the rewiring of brains in a manner that inverts virtual and real worlds or that produces effects in the brain similar to heroine addiction. Yes, of course, immense good can be accomplished through the medium of screens. This blog I am typing right now betrays too harsh of a protest. And, as Pope Benedict said, “Do not be afraid of new technologies!” I’m presupposing that. But then there’s an insidiously addictive, dissociating effect that over-exposure to phones, laptops and tablets can produce that causes Patti and me — and so many others we know — terrible parenting anxiety.

What to do? When I am asked that, I say that we’re figuring it out with every other parent who has had this challenge thrust upon them from every direction, including school. I will share a very few, mostly general, musings. And all personal examples I use first received permission for anonymous sharing from the main characters.

First, parents must themselves model healthy, balanced, disciplined habits of technology use. What I call techno-asceticism (asceticism refers to habits of discipline that help one achieve self-mastery in pursuit of excellence). Your words mean nothing at all if you are abusing your own rules, or worse, if you have no rules at all and leave technology use to whim. And I don’t mean abusing only when children are around you, watching you, but always, because in the spiritual world every action, even the most secret and interior one, affects all; and especially affects those entrusted to your care. In the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a purely private sin or vice, as the “butterfly effect” obtains in that unseen realm 24/7. As Fr. Tom Hopko often said, “One secret lustful or hateful thought poisons the whole universe. That’s why we confess those dark secrets aloud in the light of Confession. But just the same, every virtuous act perfumes the world.”

Limits, limits, limits. Strong and smart limits, which include time-use, space limits (e.g. never a phone used at a meal) or content limits with age-appropriate parental supervision & the use of good filters. Our household motto: never never ever allow your child to use devices after bedtime. Sleep should be a screen-free time zone. I know a parent who fairly recently told me that she did not feel she could ever take the phone away from her teenage daughter, even at night, because she feared her daughter would resent her and shut down. But as a result, she said, her daughter is continuously sleep deprived and lost her faith by becoming deeply involved (at night) in a goth-atheist reddit community. I asked her, “What first prevented you from taking the phone away at night?” She described to me her daughter’s reaction when she first took the phone away from her one night. She said, “She screamed and threatened to kill herself. It really terrified me because she seemed to act like a drug addict being deprived of a hit. I felt paralyzed and just gave in because I was afraid of facing those threats, or what was beneath them. I regret it now. I feel guilty about it. But I feel it’s too late.” I said, “It’s never too late.”

As a family we have, for the last 9 or 10 years, practiced “Screen-Free Sundays.” That means extremely restricted use of all screens, limited to communication necessity, family movies, sports on TV. But because negation itself is not sufficient to cultivate character and joy, we work hard to make Sunday a creative, fun, meaningful day with interactive activities like family Mass, cooking, eating out (rarely), board games, feeding the homeless at a local shelter, outdoor activities, zoo, fishing, walking, biking, drawing, painting, visiting with friends. And all homework that requires computers must be completed by Saturday evening, which teaches time management and advance planning.

Once every 4 months or so we have Sunday Mass in our home, inviting our children’s friends and various other people to join us for an afternoon of food, fellowship, secular and sacred music ending with the celebration of Mass on our dining room table. We invite different priests each time to come and share their vocation story and offer some catechesis. We are so grateful for these priests’ generous gift of time and faith to do this!

I have to say with great gusto that the whole screen-free thing is a liberating practice, and my wife is the genius behind it.

Face to face relating with people and things, we insist to our children unto irritation, always remains the Queen, while virtual relating with people and things through screens remains the Queen’s Handmaiden. The temptation is immense to drift off into an online fantasy world to escape immediate life commitments and relationships. Even if it’s called FaceTime or Facebook, it’s not the same as the faces of flesh and blood.

Sacraments are all about “real” presence, about encountering God through the material world and flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s why Sacraments can never be done through the Ethernet or the Internet. Or why Mass on TV, which does offer enormous benefits for the home-bound, can never equal Mass in person. Spiritual Communion, though marvelously efficacious, always begs for consummation in bodily ingestion of the Flesh and Blood of God. Icons, which allow us to see into the Age to Come through a “mirror dimly,” always lead us toward a face to face and embodied encounter with the Realities they mediate. Otherwise they become idols and illusions, keeping us at a safe distance from Christ and His Mystical Body.

Living at the speed of life. Digital technology too easily gives us the false impression that life, dislikes or boredom can be clicked or swiped away, and that only interesting, entertaining and pleasurable things that I like are worth engaging and hold my attention. This can quickly become a whole worldview. This digital-culture A.D.D. makes it difficult to live life at its real pace, which is an uneven pace. A culture of swipe also makes it really tough to love the people we’re stuck with, people who take time and patience and sustained attention to love. Digital A.D.D. can make it agonizing to listen, in un-skippable silence, to a slowly revolving world that only gradually yields its deep secrets to those who wait long and listen closely.

A college student once asked me to give him spiritual counsel. We met several times and I quickly discerned he was a digital media junkie. So I asked him to spend 10 minutes every morning in total silence, repeating the Jesus prayer. When I met with him the next month and asked him how it went, he said: “Torture. I hated every moment of it. I’d rather have my eyes plucked out.”

Suffering life’s coming at each moment is essential to being human, and our culture of escape, of entertainment-on-demand, of binge-watching, of deletion and x-ing out or scrolling down is no friend to the real work of living, loving, working and growing in wisdom, charity, heroism and faithfulness amid the often droning dull daily duties that are the substance of lasting joy and penetrating sanctity.

One dad I know at our parish told me that one of his ‘tweenage’ sons once said to him, while he was in the middle of trying to explain to his son a consequence he was imposing, “Man I wish I could x you out.” Well, let’s just say that the next month for that child was 100% screen free, and the child had to work out a plan with his teachers of how to do his homework without a computer. #dadpower

Okay, I’ll just stop here and end with (1) an excerpt from an article last week in the Times-Picayune by Laura A. Jayne and (2) a cool video on this topic:

Parents use the devices to keep children entertained during errands and long car rides. OK, whatever. But now they hand the phone over to a child at home so they can make dinner without listening to the kid whine. Listening to your child whine is a time-honored part of parenting. It makes you glad they (you hope) eventually move out on their own. And now children are playing electronic games at parades. We have to decide something is wrong with just turning over a smart phone to a child any time he or she wants it.

I teach at Loyola University, and it can be a challenge getting students to listen in class and ignore their phones. And we are fascinating here! (As fun as Nyx!) So it’s no surprise that researchers also have found that high use of mobile devices is linked to anxiety in college students. Anxiety to stay on top of things. Anxiety that they are missing out. Anxiety when the phone is lost or broken. I see it. We know our kids are using phones too often for too much – but while we complain about the usage of our teenagers, we are handing the phones over to our toddlers. By the time they come to college, the phone is a security device.

Do we want to be a nation of anxiety-ridden adults incapable of enjoying the world around us? No, we do not. So, take the smart phone away from your kid. Relish the boredom.