The Cause of My Joy

Patricia Ann Neal

“To love another person is to see the face of God” —  Jean Valjean, Les Misérables

“After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the greatest form of friendship” — St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, 123

“Marriage is ‘love of neighbor’ in its most extreme form, and so human love in its most challenging form. As such, marital love is the primary social foundation for any civilization that claims to be built on this commandment of Jesus” — Sr. Paula-Jean Miller in a lecture, Spring of 1994

A week again, but Mashley

Again, as last week, my week is full to the top. Then next weekend I give an educational immersion to deacons on the lay vocation. Kindly pray for this. I will return to writing here after these are over.

I will leave you Maria and Ashley’s latest cover, with Maria trying some super cool editing. Oh, and a tidbit: Ashley is wearing a Franciscan Tau cross blessed by Pope Francis.

Faith Goes Public: ☨

The X-ray Telescope on the Japanese/NASA mission observing the full Sun.

One of my favorite aspects of writing this blog is the feedback that comes from you, the readers. I could collect those alone and publish a book of meditations called, “Mirrors of Faith: Reflections of the Faithful,” or some such. Some recent comments here and here are just two marvelous examples of the depth and authenticity of exchange. I had a dogmatics professor back in 1993 who said in one of his lectures on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, “Theology is at heart dialogical, a divine-human exchange of ideas among both friends and opponents. It is out of dialogue that God, who IS dialogue in His very essence, draws forth a surplus of truth.” Since those days, I have striven to make certain that my thinking about divine revelation has been a dialogue with God, with the church, with family, with friends, with random people, with culture, with history, with texts, with nature, with anything that presents itself to me.

This inter-relational dimension of faith is why small Christian faith communities are so essential for the flourishing of Christian life. Such intimate gatherings of the faithful together are sacramental encounters with God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, celebrated anywhere “two or three gather in my Name” (Matt. 18:20) — at home, in a neighborhood, in a parish, in a school, in a workplace, in a coffee shop, in a group text, in a public square. Communal faith seeking understanding. Anywhere, everywhere. Faith is essentially ecclesial and can only be had in communion, in conversation, in dialogue or in spirited disputation, both in private and in public.

A great challenge is that our culture straightjackets faith in radically private spheres of opinion, punishing all publicizing offenders with labels like “judgmental” or “imposing on others.” Such a culture domesticates faith and renders it wholly emotive-subjective, deracinating its rational content and eliminating its native capacity to leaven society and culture. Such censured public faith becomes very, very uncomfortable when we try to evangelize, i.e. to Gospel-ize the world around us.

To mention “Jesus” in polite company is just bad manners, singularly awkward, freakishly weird and shocking, so most Christians simply avoid J-talk outside of the household of faith and speak as if He were irrelevant to the vast majority of daily living. While discussion of “God” may be tolerated, as it is a malleable cipher, Jesus is loaded with an in-your-face meaning that forces a confrontation. Not simply with an idea, but with an historically defined person whose supernal dynamism continues unabated after 20 centuries. Jesus is God made content-specific, radically particular, with facial features marred by a history of human violence yet creased by the smile-lines of divine joy. Indeed, He is alive here and now and, when He is spoken of, it’s just strangely palpable.

The acreage free for the scattering of these flaming seeds of the Word has become tiny indeed, safely hemmed in by fences of fear.

But the light of faith is fearless and knows of no such borders. The faith of Jesus demands as expansive a horizon as does our sun, which of necessity commands infinite space to fully expend its selfless radiance. Faith is volatile, irrepressible, and will always rebel against artificial boundaries or punch holes in low ceilings as it reaches toward the Most High. It possesses its own momentum, its own force of power that seeks to infest everything, like a wildfire that breaks free from the stones of a fire ring, driven by its irrevocable will to engulf everything.

Yet this graced fire of faith, like the Burning Bush, neither diminishes nor overwhelms what it takes into itself, but builds on nature, preserving liberty, illumining all it encompasses, revealing expanses of beauty and wonder and glory hidden in quarks and quasars. Faith enhances, perfects and elevates, even as it purifies and refines. “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great” (Pope Benedict).

Faith is our priestly, prophetic and kingly reception of God’s loving gaze on the creation He declares at every moment to be good, good, good, good, good, good and very good.

Bearers of luminous faith must not refrain from speaking, engaging, introducing, proposing, witnessing, inviting, inferring, proclaiming, gesturing, enacting and questing with others in a common hunt for truth in love. In Him we live and move and have our being. We must beg the Spirit for wisdom, charity, boldness and gentleness; for a remarkable capacity to listen and a serene confidence that flows from trust in God as the Source and End of all that exists.

I met a woman named Jan at a catechetical conference in D.C. back in 2003. She was an enthusiastic member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. She had high ceilings, vast horizons and a disarming personality. And was very funny in a natural way. I was giving talks at this conference and between two sessions I developed a terrible headache. She noticed my discomfort and offered to drive me in her rental car to the nearby convenience store to get some ibuprofen. She came inside with me to get some items for herself, and when we got to the counter to check out, the clerk seemed very miserable. Jan said to her, “You alright today?” The woman replied, “Nah, crappy day. Sorry. Is that all you’re getting today?” Jan replied very matter of factly, “Have you told Jesus about this?” The woman looked a bit stunned. She said, “No, not actually.” Jan said, “Do you mind if I tell Him right now and ask Him to help you?” The woman said, “No, I don’t mind.” Jan said, “What’s your name?” “Claire.” So Jan prayed something like, “Jesus, Claire is feeling low. Lord, she was made for joy. Let her know that you love her and you care about her sadness…”

She prayed for a minute or so. The woman teared up as she prayed, and when Jan was done Claire said, “You’ve changed my whole day. Thank you.” Somehow, nothing about the exchange seemed assaulting or invasive — I really think because Jan was so loving and so sincere. And if Claire had said she was not comfortable with the prayer, Jan unquestionably would have been just as loving in her respecting that wish.

That’s how living faith works. Simple, direct, natural, bold, respectful, spontaneous, surprising, unaffected, free, kind, offered to lift the other up. To Him.

One last thought as I meander through to the end of this post. In a climate hostile to faith witness, we must always keep in mind that faith stands at its most eloquent and penetrating when it is rejected, spurned, ridiculed, spat on and ignored. Only then can faith and love be fused, trust be evidenced, and only then can one rightly claim to be a lover of Truth yielding the torrents of unseen mercy that flow ceaselessly from Christ’s open side.

Caritas in veritate.

It is only the blazing splendor of such Truth that pierces the darkness, softens hard hearts and saves the world. Let us walk confidently along this Way.

You Want It Darker

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his last album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.


Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. His Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited his Hebrew faith. Or at least its language, worship and narratives as he grasped for meaning at the edge of meaning; and of the grave. It was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death [in 2016] that utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and woke up to write.

His gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language (and tones) of the Kaddish, Jewish prayers for the dead. Cohen wants his poetry to find its light beneath the long shadow over the atrocities of history, especially those inflicted on the Jews, intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth. He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in the song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11). The first, but not last time it appears in Scripture. It punctuates the song’s relentless, dread reckoning with God’s seemingly complicit flirtation with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. More broadly, it seems to me, Cohen is grappling with the meaning of God’s permissive will — or His ordained will with Abraham — that has allowed death such immense power in the world, above all through the bloodstained hands of His own image, man.

Hineni, which is a word of obedient readiness, is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called; even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word, indeed “wants out” if the Dealer deals thus. He is not content to simply passively submit without protest against death into mystery. He wrestles, brawls with God. Like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33) and Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) and Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14) and Job in his anguish (Job 31) and Jeremiah in the face of plots (Jeremiah 20:7-18) and the psalmists moaning out of the suffering of exile and slaughter. Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice — even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, and its countless modern analogues, loom large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings, prays (?) this song.

When Cohen says “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord” to God, what does he declare himself ready for? Unresolved.

“Vilified, crucified in the human frame” — while it’s easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning, for a Jew the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes quaking dissonance. A shattering and terrifying paradox, really, as image slays image. Genesis 9:5-6. Cain, Abel; and the slaughter-bench of of history’s endless procession of iconoclastic/image-smashing murderers. Permitted, okay; but permitted to “murder and maim?” Why such horrific latitude? He wonders, grinds within….How does this work in the divine economy? A paradox to blame? Or is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself that is not merely content with some dazzling paradox?

The song is just brilliant. For me, here’s how: It is raw, shocking honesty and protest in the face of the night before the face of God, though not appearing to be rebellion, lays before God cursed evil in an unjustified, un-rationalized state. “Here it is, Lord.” Not cushioned or romanticized or coated or softened, but prayed out of into God. It reminds me so much of absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among the psalms that ends its search for God in total darkness. Lamenting beneath heaven’s dread silence. Or I think of the Book of Lamentations — makes you sweat if you really pray into it. At night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward. Of God, Jeremiah says:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (3:1-14; 17-18)

Such prayer, uttered by those who “descend into hell,” is prayer “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1) in the truest sense. There in the abyss (Psalm 42:7), hope can shine brightest as hope fully blooms only in hopeless spaces where its anchored strength is needed. God cannot redeem what He does not assume, make His own, and He cannot assume what we ourselves do not surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a form of redemption that — St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night — makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed thus on the cross, in His native tongue. Eli! Eli!

I don’t know if Cohen would consider this text a sung (or groaned!) prayer or not, but he is voicing the anguished, tortured prayer of those who sink into the pit, are mired in depression, succumb to the gas chamber, suffer tragic loss, witness the destruction of the innocent — but still turn these upward.

Why have you? Where have you gone? How long, O Lord? Wake up! Such a vision of real faith — Hineni — seeks no facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

I think here of David Bentley Hart’s echo of Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, the monk protests against a kind of God who intentionally “uses” human suffering for His own good ends:

Answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be architect on such conditions?

In an article he wrote after the 2004 Tsunami, Hart said:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Cohen shares this same protest that the God who “became sin” Himself took up on a cross, in hell. Passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis.



Periodically, I let my readers know when I likely will not be posting for a time. I do that as a courtesy,  as I am gratefully aware that some of you read my posts regularly. This week will again be particularly hectic, so I likely will not post until the coming weekend.

As someone commented here last week, at times my ‘primary work’ by which I support my family takes precedence over this work of joy.

God bless you!

Playful Providence

I love the Jewish-Christian idea of divine providence, which the Catechism #302 defines very simply this way:

We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward perfection.

Combining the Latin words pro, “ahead” and videre, “to see,” providence’s “divine foresight” reveals history to be not simply the subject of blind chance, but as under the guiding watch of fatherly love that, in spite of the looming cross, ever-envisages a more glorious resurrection. That said, Catholic theology affirms that genuinely random chance is part of creation, fully compatible with a divine providence that allows the “space” required for the radical variables of chance and human freedom. As theologian Thomas Davenport puts it:

God’s creative power is such that the very powers that allow a creature to act and to cause, even to cause contingently and by chance, depend at every moment on His sustaining power. Whatever happens in the world, whether it is a radioactive decay, a biological mutation, a decision to sin, or a decision to praise Him, does not catch God by surprise. In fact, He gives His creatures their existence and their natures that allow them to decay, to mutate, to sin, or to praise.

For me, such a view of history is far more thrilling to contemplate than either a predestining providence that controls all things like a puppet on a string or a providence-less universe wherein history blindly presses on without hope of a final resolve into beauty. The first makes for a monstrous view of God who enslaves creation and the second makes for an ultimately meaningless, purposeless view of history. The Jewish and Christian universe, however, is filled with all the tensions of drama and surprise, mystery and faith, terror and eager hope of a labor and delivery room.

And with play.

All of this came to mind because of remarkable coincidence that happened last week, which I will recount for you in brief. A little background. Twenty-three years ago my wife and I fell in love. I remember precisely the place and time. We were in St. Augustine, Florida on a mini-pilgrimage to the holy sites there, in particular the Nombre de Dios mission with its tiny Our Lady of La Leche Shrine dedicated to Mary nursing Jesus. As Patti and I walked toward the two-hundred and eight foot tall cross marking the location of the first Mass celebrated by the Spaniards in Florida in 1565, I remember vividly looking at her face for the very first time with romantic love. We had been simply friends before that for years. Later that evening, after dark, we decided to visit the Shrine chapel to pray. The gates were locked, so we jumped the fence and went into the chapel. The alarm went off! So we prayed very quickly, and I consecrated our still very secret love to God and our Lady, and then we sprinted off.

It’s a wonderful memory she and I love to revisit together, and over the years of our marriage we would return to that Shrine chapel many times to pray for the gift of a child or to grieve our miscarriages.

Back to last Friday. Patti had been gone all week at a conference and I was feeling especially lonely that day. During the morning while I was working, I texted a friend of ours in New Orleans to wish him a happy birthday. He knows nothing of our St. Augustine history or the “shrine alarm” story. He responded to my birthday text at once, “Tom, so kind. I’m here at this chapel. NOW in St. Augustine. Will say a prayer for you and the family.” I assumed he was referring to a parish in New Orleans called St. Augustine, until he texted me a moment later the picture I included at the top of this post. A photo of Our Lady of La Leche Shrine.

I was flabbergasted and audibly reacted in the coffee shop: “WHAT?!” Two elderly men across from me fell silent and stared. I said, “Sorry, just an amazing coincidence.” I immediately texted him back to share the significance of his text to me, and he replied, “What!!???!! Wow. Mass at noon. You both will be in our intentions. So crazy. Right!!!! Literally. [You texted my your birthday wish] the exact moment we walked into the chapel.”

What the heck? How? Why? I don’t claim to know. Coincidence inhabited by the Creator. As a person of faith it’s easy to see in such moments what I like to call God’s playful providence. Maybe its part of His passion — so evident in Scripture — for connecting events, revealing hidden patterns, painting wild masterpieces, telling crazy stories, writing seemingly-cacophonous symphonies, creating stunning beauty, disclosing a new order of existence under the form of surprise. Glimmers and sparks of a conspiracy toward Christ’s final resolve into beauty, what we Christians call the final judgment, the parousia, the consummation of history when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” On that Day, evil will be definitively judged, love will conquer all, every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new. The work God first began in the Virgin’s womb, nursing at her breast, will be brought to glorious completion in an eternal wedding feast.

Yes, right, a wedding feast that for us began in a Shrine as we ran.

How grateful I am that the Bridegroom chose last Friday to grant me a glimpse of His “divine disposition toward perfection” in my bride, and through the text of a dear and unsuspecting friend on his birthday.

Lead Thou me on.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Should lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life. — Bl. John Henry Newman

Look up!

[Because of a blitz work demand through Saturday I will force myself to pause! Matt. 21:29]

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ― Robert Frost

I have two kinds of writing I do: Required writing and kindled writing. (Those are my terms, by the way). Required writing involves deadlines and duties, like writing a lecture for a class or an article for the upcoming newsletter. Required writing constitutes quantitatively the vast majority of my writing work, because it has to do with ever-present demands of work or volunteer responsibilities I have taken on. Then there’s kindled writing, which emerges in the moment, is driven by circumstance, impulse or a flash of unexpected insight. That’s what I write here, exclusively. If this blog ever became mandatory, deadline-driven or made money it would cease to be what it is. NealObstat is the writing that allows me the luxury of expressing my inner stirring sense of wonder and awe in the most natural, spontaneous, fun way. And, at least in terms of conscious awareness, it gives me the most intense sense of God’s presence.

It’s what the spiritual authors sometimes call scriptio divina, ‘divine writing.’ When one ‘writes in prayer,’ they say, he becomes much more open to intuitive-symbolic forms of knowledge than is available through discursive, analytical writing. When I write in prayer, in the freedom of wondering ‘without a why,’ many more fresh insights are allowed to emerge. At least for me.

Now let’s be clear, I am not making any claim to divine inspiration or to the superiority of one form of writing over the other. Each has its role and God’s immediate action in anyone’s writing is always an ambiguous affair. And, though I distinguish these two writing styles, they often overlap with one another and are not sealed in tidy categories. But I love and cherish the opportunities I have for kindled writing and am exceedingly (heap on here any and all hyperbolic adjectives) grateful that readers of this blog engage my writing and make use of it for their own benefit. You give my thought wings.

Frequently I wake up at 3:00 a.m. and cry out: “You idiot! Why do you think anything you have to say matters?!” But I console myself with the thought that, inasmuch as what I say approximates God’s self-revelation in Jesus in His Spirit-filled Church, or gives testimony to the greatness of the extraordinary people I am blessed to know, it’s worthwhile. Then I pray the Jesus prayer.

Or I just re-read Numbers 22:21-38 and claim the braying jackass again as my patron saint.

Why am I writing all this? Because Monday I experienced in a striking way a sudden shift between required and kindled writing. I’d spent nine hours that day in required writing for various projects, lectures and courses I have coming up. Although writing is always a gift to me, the stress of deadlines has a way of squishing you inside. I was exhausted mentally as I left the building. I walked to my car with my eyes on the ground, staring mindlessly. As I took my keys out, I was suddenly startled by a whopping crackle of thunder that shook my insides. I looked up and everything outside and inside of me at once changed. The roiling black clouds wedged beneath the dark blue sky to the north, the gray veil of rain quickly advanced toward me, the bluish-white bolts of lightning linked heaven and earth, and the strong cool breeze descending from the core of the storm caressed my face with its clean hands. I fell to my knees and laughed. Anyone watching would have worried about me.

I realized at that moment how shallow my breathing had been all day as I hunched over my laptop and typed. I drew deep into my lungs the refreshingly fragrant cool air that was washing over me. All of this experience completely re-wrote my inner world in an instant, diluted the mental sludge and re-awakened a heart of wonder within me. What for a moment seemed like a future filled with insuperable demands suddenly seemed possible, or at least seemed hopeful. My widened horizons made room for hope, which demands space and which can only be satisfied by the sounds of God’s strident protest against the impossible. The word “capacious” sprang to my mind. I felt immensely spacious within, my narrow walls suddenly stretched big by this rogue, dark, threatening and unsought cumulonimbus.

How marvelous! Startled into the light by the darkness.  I thought of Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And all I wanted to do was sit down in the parking lot, take out my laptop and write. So many new insights came into me. But alas, another work meeting awaited. No time to write them out. But before I fell asleep tonight, I was determined to write out this reflection on the ‘feel’ of it all, at the risk of indulging my own solipsistic fancy. Hopefully in service to hope.

Thank you for walking with me.

No matter how narrow your world seems, look up and allow Him to surprise you. Anyway.