A theology of failure

“Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross. Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.” — Pope Francis

A priest I have known for a number of years, who is in his 80’s, shared with me his “theology of failure.”

He served in Latin America for many years among the poor and has endured some exceedingly difficult hardships throughout his life. Yet, he remains a joyful, self-giving man of tireless service who said he will retire only when he is unable to function. A few weeks ago, he taught one of my classes as a guest lecturer. Later, I caught him in the hallway to express my appreciation for sharing his wisdom born of so many cycles of success and failure. Combining the insights he shared with me in the hallway, and in the class, I wrote a Neal-esque journal reflection — in his voice — that night.

Tom, what you begin to see when you have a long view of life, and are honest about things, is that most of what we do in life falls short, falls apart, falls away, is forgotten, goes unappreciated, isn’t what we expected or wanted. That could make you pessimistic and cynical, very easily.

Lots of very good people I worked with over the years, who had wonderful ideals and plans to help people, burned out because things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. And they became hard and bitter. But thank God I had a priest who helped me to see things differently when I was in Latin America. And the poor I served, who have more faith than I ever will, helped me see things differently.

It’s this. To those of us who stumble along through life doing what we can, Jesus on the cross gives hope by making failure the privileged entry point of the Kingdom of God into this world. See, when you realize you’re really nothing of yourself, that everything is in God’s hands, then you’re free to do everything with a total confidence, without being paralyzed by fear of failure, by regret or by obsession over results. And you’re not consumed by angry judgment over yours or others’ failures.

You’re joyful.

Pope Francis talks about a “revolution of tenderness,” and this is what he means. When you see this is how God works from the cross, you are gentle with yourself and others. Jesus’ response to everything falling apart around Him was forgiveness of us and total trust in the Father’s power to raise out of the rubble, a Kingdom.

With this faith, you can see that the farther something is from your control, the more important it becomes in God’s victory over evil. “Power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Failure wrapped in surrender to God’s mercy is the victory won, the Kingdom come. That will be the long view from heaven. But when you have faith, that can be your view right now.

It’s not easy, but what’s the alternative?

And let me tell you, you sleep a lot better [he laughs].

Sound of Silence

[re-post from 2017]

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Last weekend I happened on a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence by Passenger. Dang. It’s such a brilliant song, both for its lyrics and its melody, and Passanger draws out from it such depth of feeling. It was part of my childhood, and so whenever I hear it now I think of my brother’s scratchy vinyl album playing in the living room as I tinkered with my Lincoln Logs.

Though I am not entirely certain what the song’s lyrics meant to Paul Simon, they have meant different things to me at different points in my life. I’d like to share very briefly here one meaning they took on for me while I was serving at Mother Teresa’s homeless shelter and hospice in D.C., Gift of Peace, back in the early 1990’s. I’ve shared this story here before, but when I heard Michael Rosenberg sing I thought of this experience in a whole new way. I’ll paste it again here and add a few flourishes:

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I was assigned to care for a man when I started volunteering at Gift of Peace. He was in his 40’s, was originally from Tallahassee, Florida and had had a stroke while he lived on the streets. Actually, he had a stroke in midwinter, while he was sleeping in an abandoned car under a bridge suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. He was found and survived, but lost some of his fingers and toes, as well as his ability to move freely or speak intelligibly. And from what we were able to learn of his past, his was a life rife with tragedy.

The sister who paired me with him said that, in addition to the bodily care he needed, more than anything else he required my companionship. My time. My friendship. He needed me to sit with him, for lengthy periods, without any practical purpose. I needed to learn his stroke-slurred language, to talk about Tallahassee (where I had previously lived), sing songs to him, talk sports or just wheel him around. She said he had come from a world where no one listened. Where few, if any, cared.

I wrote in my journal one night, “Sr. Manorama said wants me to ‘break Heaven’s silence,’ be a ‘word of God for him.’ Damn that’s deep. Hope I can fill such a tall order. Frightened.”

I would imagine him living out in the streets, surrounded by the bustle of busy people. Yet utterly alone. Silent nights of dreamless sleep. There are so many like him in D.C., in every city and town, in homes, offices, marriages. Lazarus, passed by unnoticed, neglected, forgotten. No time or place is immune from the disease of apathy, the curse of neglect. Studdard Kennedy writes of this in the Birmingham, England of the early 1900’s:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds–and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—
the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.

And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.

When my time at Gift of Peace was complete and I was ready to leave — for good — I had to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I had planned to soft-pitch it to him with a “No worries, I’ll be back to visit” white lie. But Sister Manorama would have no part of it. I had to tell him I would not return, and how I really felt about him, or I would be like everyone else. A liar, abandoning him.

So I told him I would not be able to return. He would not look at me. He was so hurt. Angry. Disappointed.

I finally convinced him to look at me, in the eyes. Then I said what I had never said to him, “I love you.”

It was a detonation. He exploded into wailing and sobbing, heaving gasps. I was horrified. What had I done? Was my love a dagger? I tried to console him, but he would not be consoled. A Sister came over and told me it was okay to leave. She would take care of him.

I walked away, down the hall to say goodbye to Sister Manorama. I told her, “That’s exactly why I didn’t want to say that was it, the last time. See?! Terrible.” She asked me what happened. I told her. She said, “You are mistaken. Don’t you see how important that was? You told him you loved him. Who do you think has said that to him in his life after first showing him your words were true. That’s why those three words had such power, got down deep into his soul. Now he knows he’s loved by a man who knew him well. Was a friend, a brother. No one can take that from him. So, Brother Tom, go in peace.”

I still was haunted by those wailing sounds in the hallway. Go in peace? A small comfort.

Yet I saw, so differently, all my life is an opportunity to break God’s silence. To fill every silence with love, turning silence from a barren absence to a pregnant presence. Full of human and divine love.

This is why I exist: to be a divine word, a divine thought spoken into the deep wells of silence. Transubstantiating absence with Presence, non-being with Love, darkness with Light, a wailing dirge with a New Song.

“But this song only really works if everyone’s super super quiet,” listeners to the Word spoken from God’s silence.

O God, split the night in me, that others might know they are not alone.

You are with us, in the silence.

Whatever God gets into gets big

The Ancient of Days by William Blake, 1794. wikipedia.org

“Each one has his place. It matters not a whit whether it be glorious or modest. It is the plan which is grand. One is great only in occupying one’s own place within it. The most modest place is quite incomparably great, provided only that it is inhabited with faithfulness.” — Fr. Yves Congar, O.P.

I’ll never forget the janitor’s comment, “And always remember, it all matters, cuz whatever God gets into gets big. Real big.”

He had worked at a Catholic parish and grade school for decades, and was known to everyone as Mr. Jim. Never married, in his 70’s when I met him, thin as a rail, scruffy face, always smiling. Proud member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

That Monday morning, he was answering my question about the source of his permanent smile. “Real simple. Keep God right in front of you. Live right. Always do a good turn for folks you meet. Leave ’em better than you find ’em. Don’t ever complain, cuz life’s always better than you deserve. And always remember…” Yep, the “Big” quote above.

I never got to ask him what he meant by “Big,” as we were interrupted at that point by a food crisis in the school cafeteria. But its meaning seems clear. As Mary says so clearly in her Magnificat song of praise (Luke 1:46-55), God loves, loves, loves to employ the tiny, lowly, hidden to magnify His power, glory, beauty, mercy, love, and all of His other infinitely numbered attributes.

The smaller, more powerless and seemingly insignificant something or someone is in human judgment, the greater it seems to be in God’s eyes. Infinity loves the itty-bitty.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you. — Deut. 7:7-8

Which gives St. Thérèse the catholic audacity to say, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” Greatness in Christ is found in doing the smallest of things with the greatest love possible.

Whenever I happened on that parish, just the sight of Mr. Jim seized my heart with hope. Push broom in hand, working with a smile, whistling with joy, sweating with faithfulness, praying with his enormous heart. Made me want to be better.

And all around him — I could see it — a world being made new, swept up by his broom into a “vast and forever peaceful” Kingdom, bequeathed by the Most Low God to the clean of heart and poor in spirit.

To Blessed Mr. Jim.

Mission: Love

From  Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Wounded Healer:

One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man were handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do.

The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.” Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden.

After the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room.

That night an angel came to him, and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”

While versions of this story are very old, it seems the most modern of tales. Like that minister, who might have recognized the Messiah if he had raised his eyes from his Bible to look into the youth’s eyes, we are challenged to look into the eyes of the young men and women of today, who are running away from our cruel ways. Perhaps that will be enough to prevent us from handing them over to the enemy and enable us to lead them out of their hidden places into the middle of their people where they can redeem us from our fears.

“It takes lot of butterflies to make a world full of flowers” ― Trina Paulus

[re-post from 2015]

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” ― Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Not long ago, at his request, I shared with the priest I go to Confession to regularly the story of how I came to meet my wife. This priest is really exceptional for me, as he challenges me very hard, and helps me search my heart to see more clearly what drives me to self-destructive behavior, i.e. sin. As I shared various important moments in our relationship, he kept taking me back further and further, all the way back to the time before we met. It was a remarkable, and emotional, journey to take with him.

We ended up all the way back in October of 1984, to the origin of my decision to leave Massachusetts and go to Florida State University, where I would eventually meet my future wife, Patti Masters. He said, “Why Florida State?” I told him that decision originated in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV in Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. At the time, I was myopic in my resolve to be everything Jim Cantore became — a TV weatherman.

I went to “spend a day” with Bruce and was starstruck. He was so generous with his time and wisdom, even indulging my obsession with mesoscale convective complexes by answering my many questions. At the end of my day of shadowing, after he had finished the 6 PM newscast, he said, “Well, so the million dollar question is where to go to college for this career. Florida State and UCLA. But I consider FSU’s Meteorology department, with Jim O’Brien there, to be top notch.” And so it was, sunny Florida.

In Florida I would discover myself, my faith, my passion for learning, my wife, my career path.

My Confessor then said to me:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had shaped by that one comment? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to conversion to the faith, meeting your wife, having your children, establishing friendships, a career in the church — endless effects!

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It’s a physics theory that says, for example, the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is impacted by something as minuscule as the flapping wing of a butterfly months earlier in Panama. Never underestimate the effects your least significant acts of fidelity can have on the future world. For your every new movement, the future is filled with things that never had to be this way.

Remember, just because you don’t see the effects, you’re often tempted to despair and say: “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t really matter.” But it all does matter. We tend to be so myopic and narrow in our judgment on the value of everything we do. We massively undervalue what God can do with our little nothings entrusted to Him.

Think of life as ecosystem. The interdependence of everything we are about is so staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate that just one decision, one smile, one quiet “whoosh” of a sacrifice — or one harsh word — can change the course of history. For better or for ill. Your secret interior life radiates out into the whole cosmos. Even your most secret thoughts make it easier, or more difficult, for those around you to follow Christ.

Begin each day with a prayer for the Spirit to guide your thoughts, words, actions, that they will set in motion the uncountable goods He wills. Then at the end of every day entrust all to His mercy. Ask Him to forgive failures and bless successes, and untangle knots you have tied up. God loves to make faults “happy.” We need to beg Him to do that, daily.

On Judgment Day, one of the things we will see, through God’s eyes, is the astonishingly complex web of influence we were part of. We will be allowed to see our role in that web. Imagine seeing that! Thrilling, terrifying. Kyrie eleison.

I am convinced Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” will come to us from people we’ve never met, who were not fed by us directly but by the others we impacted, who in turn fed them. Generations later in the future. Think of that next time you feel your work is insignificant. Given to grace, its impact is without borders.

When God chose Abram and Sarai, He didn’t say, “Look at the ground in front of you and think of today and your next step.” He said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count! ‘Countless’ is the size of impact you will have on all of history!” They gave their Yes and, holy cow, look at what’s happened! God said, “Go!”, they went, and 1800 years later, God becomes flesh. And 3800 years later, you. Me. Patti. Your children.

God’s plan is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.

Additionally amazing is that a friend, just last week, said to me, “Tom, what you are doing now for your children will fulfill its purpose in your great great grandchildren.”

May we learn to be silent


“There is so much noise in the world! May we learn to be silent in our hearts and before God.” — Pope Francis

I met a woman who has been a therapist for nearly 40 years, and is very committed to her faith. About 15 years ago, she confided to me something she said she believes was inspired — whenever she sits with a new client, she immediately writes them a “prescription” before their first session even begins. It reads, “30 minutes every day in undistracted silence.”  After she hands it to them, she explains that during that time they are to keep a journal of all that comes up during those 30 minutes. And if they find initially that 30 minutes is too difficult to handle, she tells them to start with 5 minutes and then work to build up, little by little, toward the magic 30 minutes.

She said she decided to do this when she noticed, with the advent of the Internet, the increasing difficulty people were having engaging in any serious form of self-reflection. She said, “It had become a very rare thing for people to actually set aside all distractions and simply sit in quiet and allow their inner world to surface.” She continued, “Facing yourself and life can be scary, and the temptation to be compulsively active and distracted is enormous. It’s toxic to mental health. But the insights gained from those daily quiet times can be amazing. And silence, like sleep, allows the mind opportunity to process, to sort information, to heal. Those journal entries give us the best and most productive material for making progress in counseling.” She added, “It seems revolutionary now, since the coming of the iPhone had made it all a thousand times worse.”

I thought of this as I began to read Robert Cardinal Sarah’s incisive book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. He says,

When we retreat from the noise of the world in silence, we gain a new perspective on the noise of the world. To retreat into silence is to come to know ourselves, to know our dignity … If we give ourselves to ephemeral and insignificant things, we will understand ourselves as ephemeral and insignificant. If we give ourselves to beautiful and eternal things, we will understand ourselves as beautiful and eternal.

That therapist shared with me one other “silence strategy” she employs for couples. “When married couples find themselves unable to communicate constructively during a session, I will ask them to just sit there in quiet and look at each other. For five minutes. And then we resume. Very frequently, it makes all the difference. Something about simply looking at someone, someone you really do love, despite your differences, and just allowing them to be there in front of you — something about that makes them both more vulnerable, more willing to let down their guard.”

Mashley’s “Untitled” Cover!

Nothing exists without music, for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tone of that harmony. — St. Isidore of Seville

For those of you who don’t frequent Obstat, this is Maria (my daughter) and Ashley singing. I post their work here, (1) because I’m a dad and (2) because this blog is dedicated to allowing beauty to save the world.

Oh, Maria makes up those harmonies — since she was very little, she says, she could ‘hear’ harmonies in all monophonic music she’d hear.