Always have the long view

Pacino di Buonaguida, “Cross as the Tree of Life” c. 1320 pinimg.com

[re-post 2012]

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. — 2 Cor. 5:1

In the summer of 1991, I got the chance over 2 months to sit and speak with a priest who had at the time been over sixty-five years ordained. I asked him for words of wisdom from his long life throughout the summer and kept a journal of the gold he gave me. Among his many stories, he interspersed these proverb-like insights. I will share some here.

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Always have the long view. God works with the long view in mind. These days, people find that very hard, which makes real faith incomprehensible. Just look at Scripture and you’ll pick up the long view perspective. The prophets taught hope for what we have received, Jesus, but died without ever seeing it. Just think, without their aching hope for what they would not possess in this life the Gift would never have come. The most important fruits of my work won’t come into existence until long, long after I’m gone.

Only when I give back what I have been given by God can others finally receive all of it. And only when I die will I finally surrender everything back to the Giver. At least, that’s how I should die. I hope I am able to. It’s why the holy Fathers always counseled, memento mori [remember death]. All of life is to be a rehearsal for death.

I found the harder things became in my life, the better it was for me to gain the long view. Our culture makes this hard, which is why we fear suffering so much. None of what I have is for me, none of it is meant to remain here, all of it is for the final Homeland. Hardship wrests things out of our hands. Breaks our will to control, grasp, possess things without giving full freedom to God’s plan for what we’ve been entrusted with; what He wants to do with what we have. Most of that, keep in mind, we are not even aware of in the slightest.

It all seems easy and natural when things are well. Since my late teens, I’ve always professed trust in God, hope in God, love for God, love for others. Yes, with great sincerity. But not until life got hard, till the wheat was submitted to the grinding wheel, did I have a real chance to really choose love, trust, hope. The chance to give them back, to have exposed in me my well-disguised refusal to hand them over to God’s providence.

If I look back at my own priesthood, I’d encourage you in your marriage and family life to see the first 20 years as learning what needs to be surrendered, the next 20 as practicing surrender, and the last 20 as surrendering. If God takes you earlier, He knows you had the long view in mind and accepts the portion you gave as the whole offering.

You know, they say in Russia that “old age is for prayer.” That is wise. When life is so busy in your early years, your exhausting labor is meant to prepare material for the great sacrifice that, later in life, God willing, you will have time to offer gently back to God in quiet prayer for your family and loved ones and the world. Tragic we have lost this sense and see old age as a wasting away, as a sad, pitiful march to death; when it should be our titan moment of spiritual power.

So remember, when you fret, that there’s a time to labor strenuously for preparing the gifts to be offered, and there’s a time to offer. And if you die before the age of prayer comes, God knows you had the long view in mind and accepts the portion you gave as the whole offering.

There are so many people in the years of my ministry that I fumbled over, ignored, drove away, injured, misinformed, frightened off. There was a time when I lived in regret and self-pity. But thank God, when I was much younger than now, [an elderly priest] once said to me, as I wrung my hands over my missteps, “You do no good to anyone this way, refusing to give to God the most precious treasures of all: failure. Give God these for those you have failed.” I thought he was senile as those words seemed foolish, but I never forgot them. Now I see they are the height of wisdom.

Weaknesses given over to Christ by repentance, by surrender, as offering. That’s real power. It’s why the cross is the instrument of salvation. The whole purpose of life is surrender. The finest surrender is not giving God our soaring cathedrals, good as they are, but giving Him our rubble so He can build. Out of rubble, God builds cathedrals. And sometimes He permits the demolition of our life’s carefully constructed cathedrals so He can finally convince us He doesn’t want us to build great things for Him, but to give Him everything, so He, the Builder, can finally build.

From the Darkness into the Light

A woman named “Amy” commented here last week and asked this of me: “When time allows, please give your thoughts on adult children who struggle with addiction.”

I immediately thought of a remarkable woman I have come to know here in New Orleans, Mary Lou McCall, who agreed to share with me her hard-won wisdom on this topic. So, Amy, this is for you and for all who endure similar crosses among family and friends. Thank you, Mary Lou.

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There is no challenge that will stretch a parent’s capacity to love with the merciful heart of Christ more than when their child is suffering from the brain disease of addiction. This is one darkness that will also push a parent to climb up on the cross with Jesus and cling in desperation to his battered and bloody body. The agony of the crucifixion and the pain wrought by active addiction are parallel journeys intimately embedded in the mystery of the Cross where victory over sin has been claimed for eternity. Meditating upon the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fully absorbing his sacrificial love, is essential for parents whose children have been seduced by this very cunning, baffling and powerful force.

“Nothing is more beneficial…No remedy could be as effective for the healing of our wounded souls as the continuous contemplation on the suffering of Christ.” — St. Augustine

Addiction amplifies our disordered nature brought on by original sin. The horrific harnessing of the human mind through pornography or gambling, or through the abuse of drugs like alcohol and opiates, rewires the person’s brain producing the uncontrollable urge to continue doing the behaviors that are destroying them and using the drugs that are killing them. Addiction simultaneously suffocates the light in the soul and leads to the sinister oppression of free will. It is as though a force has taken over their battered yet breathing corpse. What happened to the child that nursed at your breast, who squealed with delight at Christmas, who brought you such incandescent joy just because they existed? They are still there and because they are still among the living, we must never give up hope!

Addiction is a progressive, insidious attack against the sanctity of human life; it distorts the sacred intent of family life; and it eventually spoils the community through the resulting increase in crime. The consequences of addiction and the shame produced by this dark human bondage seeps into every level of society, cutting across all socio-economic and religious divides. No one is immune. I experienced this powerful plague as it hemorrhaged the lives of two of my five sons. One of them confessed to me years later that he had been so tired and depressed that he was one click away from shooting himself with a gun. I firmly believe that God and the Blessed Mother heard the anguished cry of my son’s soul and intervened on his behalf.

The soul-binding fear and despair that I felt during those dark days, pummeled me into complete submission to the Lord’s will because none of the medical solutions were helping. I prayed for the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit as I fell to my knees before the tabernacle of the Lord and begged for God’s mercy on my children and for the strength to carry me through each day. Jesus did not let me down.

He gently lifted me up and carried me deep into his Sacred Heart where His pulsating love pumped new life into every fragment of my fragile nature. I grew progressively hopeful as He inspired me to seize with complete abandon the graces of my baptism and my children’s baptism. He urged me to humbly enter daily into that sacred space, Holy Mass, where the paschal mystery is celebrated in the eternal now. The Word made flesh, the flesh transforming life and the circular love that has no beginning and no end propelled me along a spiritual trajectory that changed my life and lifted the darkness that had shrouded my family. Before I knew it, the sanctifying graces that were transforming me, spilled over to my sons and saturated their wounds with His healing love. Ever so slowly they grew stronger as they literally willed themselves into recovery and the long progressive process of restoration and renewal.

We are intimately connected to our children as we are to our God, and the synchronicity of our DNA and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than we can humanly understand. So, hang on tight to your faith and believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered on his promise to redeem mankind, and the same God who designed for us the most powerful toolbox in the world, the Sacraments of our Catholic faith.

Pick up those tools so that you can look with compassion and love into the eyes of your children, deep into their soul where Jesus resides. Love them with the same everlasting love that Jesus gives to all of us each and every day; hold them tightly as He is holding us, and always remember that victory has already been won!

“We believe that in the darkest night, it is possible to find light again.”
Mother Elvira Petrozzi, Comunita Cenacolo

A Small Step

Mustard seed

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. — Pope Francis

My sagely grandfather once wrote me in a letter, “Never be discouraged by your shortcomings, Tommy. Use them to stretch your soul. Remember, your greatest virtues are not those that come naturally but ones nearly impossible to perform. Holding a sharp tongue once far surpasses in worth a surplus of easily spoken kind words. Cracking a feeble smile from a dim soul to lift an ignoble lout vastly outshines the outpouring of exuberant joy from a bright heart lavished on a cheery friend. Value the difficult good things in life most. Every day, your next best step.”

That’s writing.

So often people who strive to live a life of faith share with me a deep exasperation over their inability to do all the good they wish, pray as they would hope, forgive as they must, be patient as they desire, and so on. They are hemmed in by a thousand limits, internal and external, and become discouraged, frustrated, angry, guilt-ridden. I understand this so well. Yet the beauty of our God! Revealed for who-He-is in a cradle and on a cross, He is irresistibly drawn to small spaces, inconvenient circumstances, tiny mustard seeds. He, lover of the Widow’s Mite, dances over fitful acts of faith, hope and love. He is absurdly pleased with our pathetic nothings, born of heartfelt sincerity, steeped in reckless trust, all the while surrendered to His boundless mercy.

I know a Catholic woman with lots of children who felt for years like she was a failure in her spiritual life because of her inability to make any significant time for focused prayer or to muster any meaningful feelings of devotion when she finally found time. She said guilt and anger became her primary spiritual disposition toward God. Then she met a contemplative Carmelite nun in Rhode Island to whom she confided her struggle. She said the nun floored her when she said, “What God gives to me in 6 hours of prayer a day, He gives to you in the few minutes you consecrate to Him. The joy He takes in my silent contemplation is exceeded by the joy He takes in your harried frustration, given over to Him. Your desire to please Him renders all of the walls around you into an iconostasis.”

What.

The woman said to me, “Those words are what I call my ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was let out of my prison of guilt that day.”

This made me think of 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s tender words, “God accepts our desires as though they were of great value. He longs ardently for us to desire and love Him. He accepts our petitions as benefits as though we were doing Him a favor. His joy in giving is greater than ours in receiving.”

So when you feel most useless, helpless, feckless, aimless, wrap it up in faith, light it up with hope and send it up with love into the Heart of God. But be ready. Out of that pierced Heart floods a raging fountain of mercy, and mercy takes no prisoners.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

When The Saints Go Marching In

St. Clement of Rome Oyster Festival, last night — 11/12/17

A simple post today.

Our parish’s annual Oyster Festival, which raises money for St. Clement of Rome grade school, finished last night. It is a Neal Family annual highlight, and my wife and I go every night to listen to the music and dance.

Every six to eight months we celebrate the Lord’s Day in our home with family and friends, including games, food, fellowship, music (everything from Nowhere Man to Let the Fire Fall, and with Ashley and Maria live performances) and catechesis, with Sunday Mass celebrated on our dining room table. It’s a profound experience of joy, awe, and friendship that helps forge our home into a domestic church. Fr. Brad Doyle graciously offered his precious time to be with us, leading us in praise and worship (man he can sing and pray!), celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and sharing his vocation story. We feel blessed to be associated with so many extraordinary people of faith in New Orleans.

Late last night, I texted a poem about the day to my daughters’ friends (who were there) that I will share here. Also, I will share a video I recorded last night of the fabulous band, Bag of Donuts, closing the weekend with a song by a son of NOLA, Louis Armstrong, that is (obviously) beloved by New Orleaneans.

And I caught my wife in front me dancing… (shh)

Yep, I want to be in that number!

Bananagrams, friends, musical prayer /
newcomers, latecomers, pull up a chair /
cuz God’s out the window; we opened it up /
and He came in to join us, a mystical Sup. /
#ourdiningroomtable, an Altar today /
there loved by a God who’s chosen to stay; /
a God who feeds us, outpouring His grace: /
our expanded family, His dwelling place.

 

Keep making beauty

A seminarian who loves Kurt Vonnegut shared this letter with me from the fantastic collection, edited by Shaun Usher, called More Letters of Note. I highly recommend it!

I absolutely love what Vonnegut has to say and the playful way he says it. As GK Chesterton says, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Yes. Never once have I engaged in any art form — as a creator or a receiver — and not come away enriched. But what struck me most was Vonnegut’s last paragraph.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a literature professor and a (degreed) philosopher shared with me a fascinating insight into art. He said something like this (as I jotted in in my journal later),

Great artists are careful not to do all of their art for public consumption, so that their creativity is not unduly determined by external motives, e.g. trends, accolades, money. They do some of their art for charity, some anonymously, some for the unlettered, some for beauty’s sake, some for God alone. Think of how many saints burned their work! We see that as a great loss to us, and it is! But they saw it as a needful act of detachment, of humility, as an oblative acknowledgement that none of it was theirs to begin with. Beauty resists being possessed by utility, so her truest prophets must always be willing to surrender to her will and not bend her to their own. Often that can mean sharing art with others for their benefit, but there must be moments when the artist is equally happy to create Beauty in secret and offer her back to her Origin. Like those art forms of the spiritual life, prayer, alms and fasting [Matthew chapter 6!].

Last week I was going to bed early and I heard my daughter in the other room playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. She did not know I was listening and no one else was around. I had not slept well in weeks. As she played it, tears rolled down my face and I was transported into sleep. I woke the next morning with my alarm without waking up once during the night. It was a gift beyond telling. I wrote her a note that afternoon, “Thank you for giving beauty to your dad last night from the piano. I heard it, unbeknownst to you, and God heard it as a prayer for your dad. Keep making beauty. ❤ Love you.”

God loves me more … for you

[Re-post from 2014. Again, no posts until the weekend. Peace and joy!]

“All you can take with you is that which you give away.”

That quote, which appears in a scene of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, captures the economy of God’s Kingdom. While it most certainly refers to the importance of alms given to the poor, it refers more generally to a way of life based on this premise: All that I possess, without exception, is inscribed with the law of love and so must be always turned otherward if it is to achieve its proper end. Every gift I possess is marked with a secret arrow pointing at someone in need.

God’s special favor to one is always done in view of all, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God’s special love for one is an epiphany of His love for all who will benefit from the gifts of the one. God loves no one in isolation. The Virgin Mary was given unique privileges of grace not so she could revel in being loved and favored more than others, but rather so she could bear the immense responsibility of being God’s Mother and, as New Eve, the Mother of all those re-created in her Son.

When a reporter shared her dismay at God’s seeming unfairness in giving Mother Teresa health, while those she served suffered various ailments and misfortunes, Mother replied along these lines, “The suffering are given the great gift of sharing in the world’s redemption with Jesus on the cross. I am not worthy to suffer as they, but I am worthy to walk with them. And if I am given health, it is so that I might spend my health on caring for the sick. It would only be unfair if I spent my health on myself. But God gives nothing unfairly. Only we are unfair.”

Health as a sign of divine favor to the sick? My God. What a vision of life if you really live out of it.

As I look at every gift I have been given in life, my question should always be, “For whom was this given to me?” Vanity is when I imagine my gifts are principally meant to draw benefit on myself — attention, accolades, indulgence, ease.

Even God sees Himself bound by this law, in this way. He freely created all things because His love demanded that His existence, with all of its infinitely rich attributes, be given away. God is one but not alone. God is Three, as God-ness demands being given away: Father to Son, Son to Father, Father and Son to Spirit. Creation was the natural sequel to this eternal dynamism.

A Sister at the Missionary of Charity hospice I worked at said to me, “You can know God only when you love, and you can love only when you know you are loved.” Ah. It helped me understand afresh the meaning of 1 John 4:20, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Fr. Anthony, my spiritual director years ago, said to me in a vulnerable moment, “I want to die poor, empty, with nothing left to give.” Three weeks before he died, his doctor said, “You need to have heart surgery, Tony.” He said, “Yes, yes, after Christmas. I need to be with my people for Christmas.” When he did not show up for the Vigil Mass on December 31, they came into the Rectory looking for him. They found him in his rocking chair, with an afghan and a rosary in hand, dead. His surgery was scheduled for January 2.

Loving God with a bowl of milk

Last Spring, a young man came to me asking me for insight into his vocational discernment. He said with great sincerity, “How can you love God well when you have a wife and children who distract you from giving yourself only to Him? You see, this is what tortures me, that I feel I have no option if I want to love God radically.” The poor young man, for the next two hours, received my torrential downpour response.

Mostly we spoke about the non-competitive meaning of creation vis-à-vis God in human fulfillment; about God’s choice to become Man as sealing this non-competitive meaning; about the nature of love in the Christian story; and about the irreducible diversity of vocations as preserving the fullness of love’s expression in the human race.

I ended our conversation with a beautifully simple story recounted by the Orthodox spiritual author, Anthony Bloom. When I first read it back in 1988, I found it terribly liberating as it somehow opened up in me a space to include in my love for God the thousand small things about life that I still loved. As I had fallen under the sway of some hyper-spiritual Moses friends who convinced me I had to renounce my very earthy ‘bowls of milk’ if I wanted to live for an immaterial God, this story seemed to me to be a key to unlatch the prison I felt I had entered.

Here’s the story:

In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has in a wooden bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies ‘This is God’s milk.’ Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says ‘I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as on offering to God.’

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, ‘And does God drink it?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the shepherd, ‘He does.’ Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that He does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk. Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes, and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight towards the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. The shepherd says ‘You were right, God is pure spirit, and He doesn’t want my milk.’ Moses is surprised. He says ‘You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.’ ‘Yes, I do’ says the shepherd, ‘but the only thing I could do to express my love for Him has been taken away from me.’ Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard.

In the night in a vision, God speaks to him and says ‘Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me, as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.