Darkness, 2

An additional word regarding yesterday’s post about the trial of dark faith of Mother Teresa.

The kind of trial Mother endured was, in the history of saints, rare both for its intensity and its duration. St. John of the Cross, in the Spiritual Canticle, says that those saints who are chosen by God to effect great things in the Church and the world, and have “many spiritual children,” often receive both spectacular graces and great trials (cf. Isaiah 53; Luke 2:35). With graces and trials complementing each other. This is very much the meaning of what Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “to whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

St. John of the Cross also says that those who endure these darkest of nights are truly to be given the title of “martyrs” as their gift of self — “laying down their life” — is both radical and total. These saints are called in the Jewish tradition the “pillars of the world,” giving us their massive shoulders to stand on. They offer the faithful an amplification of certain truths of faith, realities all of us face, though we may never face them in the dimensions these Pillars did. Unquestionably, Mother was one of these giants.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23-30, St. Paul boasted that the Cross marked his life in a way that, he argued, testified eloquently to the authenticity of his apostolic and paternal vocation:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one–I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

All of us face darkness, trials of faith, desolation, dryness. St. Paul, Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse, St. John of the Cross all show us, by their heroic witness of extreme faith-hope-charity, that nothing we endure in this life, bound to the Cross of Jesus, is without value and meaning and power. Jesus says this to St. Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In a world redeemed by Love crucified, nothing that is brought into the ambit of God-and-neighbor love is lost, for love makes all things new. Love descended into Hell, choosing this darkest of prisons as the epicenter of the Big Bang of the new creation. Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all.”

Into every darkness, invite Jesus, who bears with Him the triumph of hope.

Mother Teresa gives us the face of a ship’s captain who, in the midst of the nighttime storm, retains her “great faith” (Matt. 8:26) because she knows that even in the darkest tempest Jesus, though asleep, is God-with-us, ready to awaken at our cry and calm the storm with a word of command (Matt. 8:26).

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this form of sanctity eloquently:

Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too—a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favourable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, apostle of hope in the night, pray for us. Amen.

I’ll end with a musical rendition of St. John of the Cross’ poem, One Dark Night. He composed it while he was imprisoned in a latrine for 9 months, starved and abused. In that night, he found Christ with Him calling him to union with Himself.

Bound to the Destitute

Gethsemane at night. amazonaws.com/

Who wrote this?

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no one to answer–no one to whom I can cling–no, No One–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart–and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Whenever I read this text aloud in classes, workshops or retreats, rarely does anyone guess that this was written by the now canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta, during the many years she endured what has been called her “dark night of faith.” It’s absolutely stunning, and seems to betray the woman of smiles whose bold spirit, profound aphorisms and tireless service to the poorest of the poor captured the world’s attention for decades. When I first read the collection of her private letters, I had to catch my breath. But, having been a student of St. John of the Cross, mystic of the dark night, as well as of St Thérèse of Lisieux, I began to connect the dots. In fact, after reading these words from Mother I immediately searched for a quote from Thérèse I’d come across years before that sounded very much like Mother’s lament.


I get tired of the darkness all around me. The darkness itself seems to borrow, from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech. I hear its mocking accents: ‘It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country, of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity! All right, go on longing for death! But death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence!’ … For love of you, my God, I will sit at that table of bitterness where poor sinners take their food, and I will not stir from it until you give the sign. I am willing to remain there alone to eat the bread of tears, until it shall please you to bring me to your Kingdom of Light.

That last line was, for me, the key that unlocked the mystery of this darkness both women suffered.

When I served back in 1991 at the Gift of Peace home and hospice for homeless men and women infected with HIV-AIDS, one of the Missionary of Charity Sisters spoke to me of Mother’s vision for their life of vowed poverty. I wrote down her insight that night in my journal:

…Sister told me, “Mother reminds us that we freely vow poverty to share in the poverty of Jesus, who shared in the poverty of the world’s poor whom we serve. Most of these poor live in poverty and despair for reasons beyond their control. Charity commands us to share their lot as much as we can, like Jesus.”

This made me think of a passage in St. Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). I’ve never really thought of this passage as a paradigm for Christian life, how it shapes the way I think about my own life and faith as a call to such radical solidarity. I am a child of my culture, placing autonomy over communion.

Sister also said to me, “We choose to live our life very near to the poorest of the poor, the lonely, the destitute, to lighten their burdens and so they see we are not above them, but with them. This is the Christian way. Not God above us, but God with us. Jesus. Our poverty, Mother says, is a lifelong fast that gathers up food to offer to the hungry and drink to give to the thirsty. Not just material food and drink, but the food of love, companionship, friendship, joy, hope. It is truly heaven — isn’t it? — when none hungers or thirsts, because all share all with all? We must give the poor a taste of heaven, now, like the disciples did in the church of the apostles.”

She was referring to this striking passage in Acts: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).

These Sisters, Missionaries of Charity, are living signs in the church of this apostolic exaltation of the common good; of the vocation of each disciple of Jesus to be a Simon of Cyrene, called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). “You received without paying, give without pay” (Matt. 10:8).

The same logic Sister applied to her evangelical vow of poverty — the logic of divine charity — applies to Mother’s experience of darkness and abandonment. In her vow to serve the poorest of the poor, she bound herself to their terrible lot, leaving to God the implications of that binding. She chose to shoulder the destitution of the poor, and God received her Yes as consent to make of her life a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1ff). This is the “logic of exchange” that burns deep in the heart of Christ’s sacrificial offering on Golgotha. And, so, those of us who, through Baptism, have been bound to the cross of Christ also partake in this marvelous exchange. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

How great is the folly of God who, in Christ, has chosen to overthrow the kingdom of darkness by turning Hell’s dark arts into the very weapons wielded by the Children of Light.

Mother said of herself in one of her letters,

I have begun to love my darkness,
for I believe now that it is a part, a very small part,
of Jesus’ darkness and pain on the earth.
If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of darkness.

Surely she is that. Deo gratias.

Grant me the grace, O Father of the poor, to see in my burdens, bound to your Son’s cross by the eternal Spirit, a mysterious offering that can lighten another’s burden. Such a lovely providence, my God! Only in heaven will I come to know the joy my small offerings brought to others’ lives, as well as the joy others’ offerings have brought into my own. Oh the beauty of your Christ’s Body! May it be so now, dear Father, and into the day of our eternity. Amen.

Twenty One Silence

[re-post from March 2016]

Those of you who read my blog with any consistency know well that I share my daughters’ affection for the group, Twenty One Pilots. I dig their sound, energy and vibe, but even more their clean and meaningful lyrics. I wish I could find a way to communicate to them my admiration for their work. I was thrilled to see on Word on Fire philosophy professor Father Damian Ference make these comments about them:

What I am saying is that Twenty One Pilots has offered a masterful incarnation of the culture of encounter. They meet their audience where they are, as they are, and they let them know that they “get them.” Once their audience trusts them, then they can slowly challenge them to consider a new way of seeing, a new way of living, and a new way of being. Is it evangelization? Maybe not exactly, but it is encounter, which is a prerequisite for authentic evangelization. They’ve accomplished the important work of preparing the soil for seeds to be sown, which isn’t easy. And, if by the end of the night, Twenty One Pilots can get some young people to say “Hello” to God for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, well, that’s better than most.

Among their songs, I have a number I really love and have nearly memorized. Among these is Car Radio, which is about abandoning the culture of distraction and being confronted by the frightful vulnerability found in stark silence. The lyrics are fabulous. I have given several retreats on the value of silence over the last twenty years, and have said far more about silence than anyone should. I’ve found again and again that people benefit more from those silent retreats about silence than any other I have given. Precisely for the reasons stated in this song. The music video for Car Radio, in true Twenty One Pilots form, is off-beat schizo-pop. It offers a wild visual narrative of the painful process of being stripped, shaved, of all those external “noises” that distract us from facing our inner struggles, preventing us from having to face head-on life’s most profound meaning-questions.

A man I know, who is now a bishop, said to me back in the 1980’s when I took a philosophy course from him:

There are nights when I feel the pain of loneliness to such a degree that I feel almost desperate. I used to immediately distract myself with TV or a phone call, or head out to the drug store to buy chips. But now I just sit in the chapel in my rectory and let it burn through me, in the silence, with tears, and ask Jesus to make me a better priest. Silence is the only way I can allow what is deep within me to surface out into God’s presence. And it’s a taste of hell.

I couldn’t help but think of this segment of the Creed:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell…

Okay, let me get to the song and video. I’ll preface it with a gritty quote from Henri Nouwen that I’ve used to open many of the silent retreats I’ve given.

As soon as we are alone in silence, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound

There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win and fear will lose
It is faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

This week

NealObstat Readers:

Thank you for being part of this Blog, and allowing me to share with you my insights and the insights of others into the infinite implications of faith in Jesus Christ. These last two weeks have been remarkable in terms of feedback I have received on posts. In particular, the post reflecting on Sherlock received many more views than I am accustomed to because someone put my work on Facebook. I am very grateful.

I have a hectic rest of the work week and then give a retreat over the weekend. Please pray for these things, if you would.

I include below a haunting video of the rhythmic and litanic Jesus Prayer, chanted by monks in Russian at the Valaam monastery. That Prayer is among the most beloved devotions of the Eastern Church. It bears a power that at times leaves one shaken to the core. That Name.

I highly recommend it. I use a simpler version of the prayer, and pray it over and over: Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me. 

Here’s the Russian text from the video, and the full English translation:

Russian: Gospodi, Iisuse Hriste, Syne Bozhij, pomiluj mja, greshnago.

English: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


The Risen Christ as the Gardener encountering Mary Magdalene by Abraham Janssens. Taken from blogspot.com

[re-post from 2015]

I love to garden, though it has been years since I’ve made the time to do it right.

I love being outdoors. It opens my soul wide.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are marked by an almost myopic fascination with the natural world. My dad says I would sit motionless in front of an ant hill for lengthy periods of time when I was 4 or 5 years old. I can still vividly recall the throbbing joy I would feel smelling the sweet scent of those hot pink Spring azaleas, watching the bumble bees dart from blossom to blossom siphoning out nectar with frantic excitement.

I also remember regularly stealing away from home into a small patch of dense woods near our house, thrilled at the prospect of hiding away in secret solitude. No one knew I was there, and all around me, like wild Cathedral, was a universe teeming with mystery and meaning. Very many times, as I sat on an old stone fence beneath the leafy canopy, I sensed a warm and joyful presence that seemed to emanate harmony from the unruly tangle of sights, sounds and smells. It was my first intuition of the meaning of sacrament, as God seeped into my soul gently through His creation. Here is a terribly blurry picture of an old photo of the woods near my childhood house:


Samuel Taylor Coleridge gives voice to this world I loved:

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.

Humanity is born in love with nature. We were made by God to be gardeners. Pope St. John XXIII said in his Journal of a Soul,

We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life.

The natural world, whether it be the cultivated garden or the wild meadow, enriches our capacity to imagine beauty. The kaleidoscope of colors, textures, tastes and fragrances overwhelms and uplifts the soul. Nature is awash in the lovely splendors of Paradise, suspended between the first beauty God once sang into being “in the beginning” and the second beauty that sprang new from the Garden Tomb. A radiant beauty, a fragile splendor, a terrible beauty etched by cycles of death and rebirth. A paschal beauty.

“The Cross as the Tree of Life,” Pacino di Bonaguida, 14th century. nd.edu

The liber naturae, “book of nature” is itself a divinely inspired scripture, an iconostasis leaking rumors of a Kingdom come.

Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enameled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection. — Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

I love to think of theology as a blooming garden of language. Good theology is always beautiful theology, bearing the grammar and syntax of sacrificial love. The Cross is the highest form of beauty, a Tree inscribed with a new Law by the bleeding finger of God. Theologians think and pray amid Gardens: Eden, Gethsemane, Golgotha, New Jerusalem’s Paradise. They are invited by the Spirit to inhabit the Risen Gardener (John 20:15), the human imagination of God, opening their minds to the rioting colors and fragrances, textures and tastes and sounds that eternally overflow the realms of nature and grace and water the world’s parched deserts.

Beauty never exists for its own sake. Like the flower that yearns to conceive and bear edible fruit, beauty is life giving.

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.
– T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, 1930

Gardens are encoded by law of the gift. Plants sink their hungry roots in fertile soil, spout leaves to drink in the sun’s light and offer these gifts received as gifts given. They transform what they receive into medicinal leaves, lovely flowers and nourishing fruits. Such generosity! And the fruits eaten contain the seeds of new life, born again only after they die.

I think now of bread. An unspeakably selfless gift. Wheat wholly renouncing its own life to give life. Harvested, winnowed, crushed, kneaded, baked in fire only to rise again as food for man. A gift total, absolute, an entire existence expended for the life of the world.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:51).

O selfless wheat, you are nature’s High sacrament of God, mystic sign of our Creator-become-Bread, crushed for the life of the world. O Christ, you are the Wheat of God given as food to us, the ones who crushed you.

Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His Word to Flesh He turns. — St. Thomas Aquinas

God is Bread = God is love. God is food, a feeding God. Transubstantiated by the Spirit into Christ in His act of self-sacrificing love: “This is my Body which will be given up for you…” Dangerous food to eat.

Behold what you are, become what you receive. — St. Augustine

Consent to Christ’s gardening in you, to make your life yield super-abundant fruits. Charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, chastity. These fruits of the Spirit are born in us to nourish others. My joy is joyless if it is not for you, is not your joy as well.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. — Romans 12:15

I remember years ago one of my daughters asked me, “Daddy, are you happy?” I said, “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?” They said, “When you’re happy, I feel safe.”

That made me desire happiness with a passion. If my happiness were only for me, how dead it would be.

Thank you, God, for gardens.

Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit’s final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christian’s truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master’s art and make the desolate earth grow green. — Vigen Guroian

Beginners, all of us

[re-post from 2015]

I know a priest in his late 70’s who gives retreats to nuns all over the world. He told me once about a retreat he gave at a convent in France, where he met a nun who was in her late 90’s. He said she was a very joyful woman, whose face betrayed her age. She enthusiastically thanked him for the retreat after his last talk. He said to her in reply, “Thank you, Sister, but did you really find the retreat helpful?” She said, “Oh yes, Father, I did.” Then he said to her, “At this point in your life, how would you describe your spiritual state?” She said, “Father, I’m just beginning.”

I told him, “I quit.”

The priest then offered me his fascinating interpretation of her answer. Here’s what I wrote later in my journal:

Tom, that’s the definition of being poor in spirit. She gets her vow of poverty. Man is a beggar who needs to ask God for everything. I thought at once of St. Catherine of Siena’s vision of Christ, who told her: “You are she-who-is-not; whereas I am He-who-is.” In other words, God is the cause of her existence, whereas He is the cause of His own existence. She depends on Him for every nanosecond of existence, He is self-subsistent Being. That blows your mind, doesn’t it?

You can never imagine yourself in the spiritual life to be some adept, or take an elitist stance that places you above others. Humility is the ground of everything. And humility is the most elusive of the virtues, because once you claim it, you’ve lost it. Every day we begin anew, utterly dependent on God for everything. St. Anselm prayed, “O Lord, do not withdraw from me, for if you would, by nightfall, I would be an unbeliever.” It’s said that St. Francis, at the end of his life, said to the friars, “Let us begin again, brothers. For up till now we have done little or nothing.”

When I was a new priest my first pastor, who was a wise old salt, said to me: “Remember, John, this parish belongs to Christ, not to you. So while you are here, make everything you do for the people about Him, for Him. Lead them to Him, bring Him to them, unite them around Him. Don’t build the parish around your personality. Build all to endure. If, when you leave, people think only of you, of your gifts and your greatness, they will always think less of your successor because he’s not you. And because it was, in the end, really all about you. If you think it all depends on you, you’ve failed. Christ can use anything or anyone to do His work, speak through a jackass [Numbers 22:30], so if you build on Christ, no matter what or who follows, the people will find Him. If it’s about you, it will all fall.”

Being poor means being free of burdens that should never be yours. So, Tom, every day begin by letting go of everything, everyone, all your successes and your failures, and return all of them to God. Mother Teresa got this: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” This way, success and failure will hold equal value, as God receives both as a worthy sacrifice and turns them to His good use.

The late Orthodox Bishop Anthony Bloom once wrote, “To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it. The obsession we have in our spiritual lives to possess, to be right, to be better, to turn everything toward ourselves, to manipulate God and others, to demand control over our spiritual progress, over the oscillations of consolation and desolation, or over the speed with which God eradicates our sins. This obsession kills the life of God within us, which demands poverty of spirit.”

St. John of the Cross, referring to God’s action of purifying this impatient need we have to control His work in us, captures this well:

Softened and humbled by spiritual dryness and hardships and by other temptations and trials in which God exercises the soul in the course of this [purifying night], individuals become meek toward God and themselves and also toward their neighbor. As a result they no longer become impatiently angry with themselves and their faults or with their neighbor’s faults. Neither are they displeased or disrespectfully impatient with God for not making them perfect quickly.

Lord, make me poor in spirit so your Kingdom might come in me. Amen.

Parenting advice


Dear friends of ours, when they found out they were expecting their first child, asked Patti and me for parenting advice. Though I think there are tons of people far more qualified than I am to offer true wisdom, I acceded to their wish. What wisdom we do have on parenting we learned from God’s kindly light, from others or from our many mistakes. Patti also wrote them her advice, which I never saw. I’m sure it was far more practical than mine. Below is what I wrote. As my blogs go, it’s long! But if there’s anything useful here for new parents, I hope it does some good.

+ + +

Let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have greater wealth and glory than riches can provide. If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth, but who requires nothing. Don’t think that only monks need to learn the Bible; Children about to go our into the world stand in greater need of Scriptural knowledge. — St. John Chrysostom

Moral education entails asking of a child or a young person only those things that do not involve a disproportionate sacrifice, and demanding only a degree of effort that will not lead to resentment or coercion. Ordinarily this is done by proposing small steps that can be understood, accepted and appreciated, while including a proportionate sacrifice. Otherwise, by demanding too much, we gain nothing. Once the child is free of our authority, he or she may possibly cease to do good. — Pope Francis

“Thoughts on Raising Children.” I will limit myself to [twenty three], so I’ll actually give you something useful and won’t put off writing this until “that day” that will never come! There’s so much more to say. This is what came to me as I sat today. Have no illusions that we achieved them all! But we aspire to them all. Love you both. Cherish every day. Jesus is with you! Tom

  1. Remember your children aren’t yours, are not your possession, and you are neither the arbiter nor the judge of their worth or purpose or mission in this life. They are given by Him to you, entrusted to your care. Though you are given the dignity of being co-creators with God in bringing your child into being, once they exist your power over them is only that of shepherd and steward, a divine vicar who mediates and discerns for and with them. You must not manipulate their life’s unfolding under grace. Your main task is to help them learn, like the prophet Samuel, to hear the voice of God for themselves and be ready to consent to His will when they know what it is. So your primary posture toward your children is reverence and gratitude, holy fear and a readiness to reveal to them, as best you can, the Face of God each day in your own faces. Especially in your smiles.
  2. The greatest gift you can give your children is your marriage, which is meant to be for them a safe playground within which they can grow. Framed by stability, consistency, joy, faithfulness, affection, laughter, openness to life, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, adventure and diversified unity, this playground will allow them to feel safe enough to sprout, grow and bloom. Let them see a living model of what love looks like so they can internalize what is to be the grand narrative of human existence: The wonder-full drama of human and divine love!
  3. Order your home with rhythms of time and predictable patterns, within which spontaneity means something. Your home should know that balance between the given and unyielding structures of nature and the creative and spontaneous freedoms of grace. Too much rigid structure can stunt the unfolding of their playful uniqueness, while too much freedom can leave them without the safety of boundaries or the solid foundations of virtuous habits. Somewhere between tyranny and anarchy is charity. 🙂
  4. As spouses-become-parents, you are sacramentally consecrated as priests empowered to bless your children and intercede for them in their needs. Bless them every day, all their lives. Make it a bedtime routine every night, a brief ritual that will imprint itself in them as a gesture of care and tenderness. A sign of the cross on their foreheads with a brief formula that is your own, including the Trinitarian invocation, with a splash of holy water. Relentlessly pray and quietly sacrifice for them every day, especially in times of need, celebration or rites of passage.
  5. Teach them to pray. Have them memorize the traditional prayers from the earliest age. Encourage them to speak to God from their heart with intention (i.e. knowing they speak to God who loves them) from the first days they can speak. Never make prayer a punishment, never discipline them with anger during prayer, and make daily family prayer time short and sweet and consistent, though with a variety of forms. Give them a role in creating prayer forms as they mature. Use sacramentals as much as possible in prayer — candles, holy water, incense, holy images, relics, beads, etc. Soak their senses.
  6. Make Sundays special days of worship, catechesis, joy, fun, food, family. Develop Sunday traditions that set it apart, a special time of family leisure and celebration. We recommend “screen free Sundays” to protect face time: no electronic devices with screens all day, except for family movies or sports. Have Sunday Mass stand as a centerpiece of the day. Have a special meal, offer hospitality to others, visit a nursing home, play games, take trips to the park.
  7. Teach them to work, sacrifice and serve in (always) age-appropriate ways by giving them home responsibilities early on (i.e. chores). Though your witness as parents to a life of hard work and servant leadership is essential, challenging them from a young age to work and make sacrifices themselves, and put others first, is far more important. Can’t emphasize that enough! This links to the principle of subsidiarity, which, as you know, means that the life of a home is a work of shared governance as each takes his or her proper role in contributing to the common good of all. “Do your part.” Responsible care and use of their own possessions, as well as responsible care for common areas and things in the home, should be part of every stage of their growth in virtuous self-mastery. Social justice, and all the social virtues, are first learned at home.
  8. Let them know love for the poor, the sick and the needy. Make sure they are never far from those who suffer and help them develop, age appropriately, compassionate and merciful hearts. Keep close to the lowly and teach them to live simply.
  9. Oversee their friendships. Friendships are of extreme importance in the growth of children, and ensuring their friendships are healthy and compatible with your family culture is crucial. Get to know the familes of their friends and try to connect your families as much as possible, so they see friendships and family life form a natural unity. That said, don’t be overprotective helicopter parents that require perfect friends who will not challenge and stretch your children. Let them learn how to fight and reconcile, to deal with differences and learn the appropriate virtues for real life. For God’s sake, don’t try to protect them from all disappointments, mean and hurtful words, or the ups and downs of relationships. Strike a balance and let them learn some of life’s harder things for themselves. Bit by bit.
  10. Expose them to great art from the earliest age. Music, paintings, plays, musicals, movies. Encourage their love for painting, sculpting, drawing, singing, building. Get them into kinesthetic learning modes as often as possible. Sing with them and teach them to sing, to play instruments, to write poems and stories. Teach them to make beauty!
  11. Cultivate a love for reading. Read to them, teach them to love to read, especially literature that grows their moral and spiritual imagination. Let their imaginations run wild, without help from screens. Don’t moralize your children, browbeating them with moral lessons, but inspire them with stories of virtue and vice, sin and redemption. Let their consciences grow gradually and don’t expect too much altruism or impose a rigid code of moral rectitude at too young an age. If you press too hard, they may explode later in life. Let them experiment and learn in the playground of your family.
  12. Help them to see the beauty of the natural world by spending lots of time outdoors, exploring the mysteries and adventure and excitement and dangers of nature. Let them get dirty and muddy and wet. Teach them to fish, hunt, spot birds, explore the wild world and breathe the fresh air deeply. Let them feel cold and hot, rough and smooth, sharp and soft. Let them get stung and pricked and scraped knees. Let them be afraid of the thunder, awed by the wind and thrilled by the first snowflake.
  13. Have clear rules for technology. Don’t be afraid of teaching them how to live in a digital world, but have clear guidelines and keep to them. Don’t trust their online explorations for a long time — filter everything. Protect their imaginations when they are to be innocent, but help them face the dark images of life when it is time as they mature. Don’t leave them naive when they should not be. No phones until they absolutely need them. Stand strong, the pressure is fierce.
  14. Guard your speech. Create a language culture in your home that you would like them to imitate all their lives. Be especially wary about gossip, detraction and calumny. Don’t talk about your children in front of them, unless you feel they must hear what you say and would benefit from it.
  15. Yelling is a sign you have lost control. Avoid it at all costs, and work mightily to keep to serene, firm, immediate and consistent consequences. Talk is cheap, action works. Work hard as a couple to be on the same page for applying discipline to the children. You will differ, yes, and you will have to work on that always, but never let your children see you divided on essentials. Never disrespect your spouse in front of them, or let them disrespect your spouse. And unless you have agreed on it for some specific purpose, avoid the good-cop, bad-cop default roles, e.g. dad’s nice and easy on us, mom’s hard and mean. Kids pick up on that and exploit it, and tend to lose respect for parental authority when they see division. Though there tends to be the natural default in a marriage (one is better at discipline than the other), you must work hard to keep toward a happy medium and a united front.
  16. Practice forgiveness. Let your children see you forgiving each other, let them hear about people who forgive others, forgive them often and teach them how to forgive and reconcile. Be humble when you are wrong. Help them see that forgiveness is not overlooking wrongdoing, that it requires a change in the forgiven person, and that it is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Help them develop a healthy conscience that sees mercy as the predominant context of sin and failure. Let all this dynamic be the way in which they learn the meaning and value of monthly Confession. Have a family tradition of going to Confession, even before their first celebration of the Sacrament. Once they receive, have a post-Confession celebration every time — friends of ours called it “Prodigal Son” — that links the experience of forgiveness with the experience of joy.
  17. Teach them how to suffer and fail and sin. They say in my dad’s Russian church that the vocation of the priest and the parent is to teach their children to suffer well. The natural instinct of a parent is to protect their child from suffering and failure, and to a certain extent this is absolutely appropriate. But it must be balanced with your vocation to teach them how to suffer with grace and courage, how to offer their sufferings up to God for good, how to learn from suffering and to not be afraid of it (unless there is good reason to!). The best teacher is to allow as many of the natural consequences of their actions as possible to befall them, so they learn the world of cause-and-effect, personal responsibility and how to avoid bad decisions in the future. Natural bad consequences are often far better teachers than manufactured ones. You also have to teach them how to fail, how to accept failure and its consequences, to learn from these, grow and not be crushed by them. Start this lesson early, and cultivate, age appropriately, virtues like courage, humility, patience, longsuffering, perseverance. Teach them not how to sin, but how to recognize it, face it, repent of it, and rise up from it full of hope and joy. Help them to distinguish sin from weaknesses and imperfections, to avoid scrupulosity and obsessive guilt, and help them see it is really about relationships, and the greatest harm of sin is the damaging or destroying of a relationship and not simply the violation of a moral code. But know that process of growing a conscience is uneven and gradual, is Spirit-led art. So you need to beg the Spirit to guide you, as He alone is the true pedagogue of their soul.
  18. Talk about the faith openly and often, embrace your role as primary catechists and don’t default to allowing parish or school to do your work for you. Whether you choose to home school or not, what they learn from you is their most important source of faith formation. Talk about the Trinity, the Saints, and especially Mary, their patron saints and guardian angels. Teach them to pray for the dead, and visit graveyards so they know how to reverence the dead.
  19. Teach them to honor their mother and father by never allowing them to disrespect either of the two of you. Let them know that you guard each other’s honor, and will not stand for any dishonorable behavior. Honor your own parents openly and visibly. Never speak disrespectfully of your parents in front of them, or of any of their relatives. Though you may have to speak difficult truths to them about family now and again, always do so in charity and justice and respect. Teach them to intelligently honor all authorities in their life (e.g. teachers, priests), and never speak of these people with disrespect, even though, again, you may have to speak difficult truths about these people.
  20. Let them always know that they can tell you anything, no matter how bad or scary it is, and you will not respond with anger or outrage. Yes, you will have to respond to things that require a firm response, but you will never receive anything they tell you with a harsh or angry or punishing response. Always with love that is in their best interests.
  21. Every night when they go to bed, as they grow, let them talk freely. It may take patience and you will have to draw some boundaries of time, but they should feel that there is a designated time and space for sharing their inner lives and that you are interested in everything they say. Building trust from the beginning is the pearl of great price. And let me say, bedtime is a very opportune time to let them open up.
  22. Give them great memories that they can draw on all their lives, memories of a childhood and young adulthood that they can celebrate and laugh and cry over one day.
  23. As Dad, I say: mostly, have them listen to their Mom. “Behold your mother” (John 19:27).

Love them.