Thursday, October 27, 2016

Welcome to Paradise

Today I was driving through Lancaster County for work. Lancaster has some great town names, the butt of many a joke growing up--Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Virginville. On Rt 30 I passed through Paradise, and couldn't help but think, "what was it about this place, that people would name it Paradise?" Was it some kind of Amish utopia, the kind of place where 'things are the way they are supposed to be?' I wondered.

Laying all that aside for the sake of speculative argument, though, what would a true society founded on Christian values, by look like? How would a true Paradise earn its namesake? Here's my list:

  • People would share what they had with those in need, so no-one had more than they needed or was in want. (Acts 2:44; Prov 30:9). They would be under no compulsion to do so by government coercion or taxation, but motivated by the recognition that we are our brother's keeper, and any weakness in the corporate body affects everyone.
  • People would not live in isolation, but be supported in fellowship. Children could play outside and parents would not worry about them being abducted or abused. Women would share child-rearing responsibilities, and have each other for support. (Ecc 4:10)
  • All men would have meaningful opportunity to work according to their gifts and abilities. Boys would apprentice and learn applicable skills from men in the community. (2 Thes 3:10)
  • Babies would be the natural fruit of marital love, the future of the next generation, and they would be welcomed into the world and seen as blessings rather than burdens. (Ps 127:3)
  • The elderly would likewise be seen as sources of wisdom and life experience, supported by their children and revered (Eph 6:2-3; Ex 20:12)
  • The land would be respected, the wells not poisoned, not to be abused and spoiled but preserved for future generations. (Ps 24:1)
  • God would be the center of existence. Worship and due thanks would take its rightful place in society.  (Debt 10:20; Lk 4:8)
  • Love, joy, peace are not exceptions that make an appearance every once in a while, but are the genuine manifestations of living the life of community in the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
These are just a few that come to mind. The funny thing is, I think the Amish hit many of the things on this wish list, (at least from my own limited, outside perspective)  albeit in a 'culture within a culture.'  They seem weird and outlandish, but only in contrast to our own materialist culture that eschews community in favor of electronic distractions and suburban isolation, and places idols on the altar rather than giving God His rightful place in our lives.

I don't trust anyone who pushes a utopic vision of the future, whether that be a political Promised Land or a eco-village where everyone equitably grows and shares all their own food and powers the village with biogas produced from composted manure. We are products of the Fall, which introduced disfunction as a fact of life,--a propensity towards selfishness, sin, and disorder. We have been banished from the garden, our Paradise Lost, always hoping to return but never able during our time on earth, due to the force of concupiscence. 

We live in an uncomfortable tension, never completely at home here in this world, while called to love and work, work and love, bringing God's love to earth in the way we live our lives as a witness to his creative work.  Maybe then, we will have a little taste of Paradise after all.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tiny Life

When I was younger, I wanted to be an 'efficiency expert'. I didn't have an engineer's brain, but I was an environmentalist and an inventor at heart and loved to create things, coming up with better ways to solve problems. I sewed a sleeping bag with strategic zippers so that you didn't have to get out of your cozy cocoon when nature called; I taught solar cooking workshops in Haiti; in my more manic days, I drafted blue prints for a solar powered electric vehicle that would fit into two suitcases you could take on a plane with you so you didn't have to rent a car at the airport.

The ideological efficiency issue became paramount, in my mind, when it came to driving and residing. I saw wasted space as sloppy design. I thought Smart cars were, well, smart, since most trips were made by solo passengers and there was no need to cart around thousands of extra pounds of steel for no reason. I was also fascinated by a trend in eco-living that was starting to emerge of living in small, stand alone spaces. "Tiny houses" appealed to a sense of unconventionality and conscious living--many were built on flatbed trailers to skirt building restrictions and encourage a kind of gypsy mobility ("don't like your neighbors? Pick up and move!" and offered just enough space for one or two people, no more than one would need. Socially responsible. Ecologically sustainable. Wave of the future.

I visit from time to time people who are enamored of efficient living. Some influential figures, like financial guru Mr. Money Mustache who advocates for smart efficient and environmentally responsible living by biking over driving (and if one needs to drive, to do so in a small compact car). and limiting the number of children you have. He also sold a bigger house because of all the 'wasted space' and built a small passive solar house in a suburb of Colorado with just enough space for him, his wife, and his son.  Everything is planned for. Everything has a purpose. Wasted anything is symbolic of the uninformed life. He has been described as a 'benevolent dictator' by reporters. And his blog is incredibly popular, with a loyal following of like-minded engineer, life-optimization type people.

But something shifted when kids came. I don't fit in anymore. My world is no longer efficient. There are extra rooms in our house. Toys are everywhere. I drive to the store, rather than bike like I used to. We have failed in limiting our progeny to the single child, and we buy happy meals in moments of weakness. I have a shed full of crap, and I can't keep up with tracking every financial purchase in a spreadsheet. I have even shopped at Walmart a few times in the past few years.

But you know what? I don't mourn my efficient, planned-out life. It is the best thing that ever happened to me. The wasted rooms in our house we have available for anyone, stranger or friend, who needs a place to stay, and the extra seats at our gigantic dining room table are for guests to join us for dinner. The mess in the family room is a constant reminder of the proverb, "where there are no oxen, the stable is clean, but an abundant harvest is produced by strong oxen." (14:4). Nothing with kids is predictable, though the thought of limiting their existence because of the disruption seems impoverishing.  I try to use some common-sense when it comes to energy usage and sustainability--we still compost, keep the thermostat low, and hang dry our laundry. We will not be financially independent or early-retired anytime soon, but that's ok; the tradeoff is, in my mind, worth it. Our house is full of life and chaos. And there is always room for more.


There are over 57,000 state-sponsored churches in China. These churches belong to the Communist Party controlled "Three Self Patriotic Movement" (TSPM). The three ‘Self’s are Self-governance, Self-support, Self-propagation, and respectively reject foreigners' influence on the church leadership, foreign financing and foreign missionaries, while “Patriotic” indicates the church's loyalty to China.

These churches are subject to rules governing their existence. They include:

•  The Communist Party is the head of the church in China (Three Self churches report to the Three
    Self Patriotic Movement, which reports to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which is
    controlled by the Chinese Communist Party).
•  The Communist Party decides how many people can be baptized per year.
•  The Communist Party has the final decision on who can preach and what can be preached.
•  Preaching should focus on the social rules and the social benefits of Christianity.
•  Preaching about resurrection and the second coming of Jesus is forbidden.
•  Preaching against religions that deny the deity of Jesus is forbidden.
•  Preaching that atheist communist heroes went to hell is forbidden; good communists go to heaven
•  Preaching against abortion is forbidden.
•  Gathering to worship outside Three Self churches and official "meeting points" is forbidden.
•  Preachers cannot preach at a Three Self church other than the one to which they were assigned.
•  Evangelizing or giving out tracts is forbidden.
•  Importing Bibles is forbidden, even if they are given away for free.
•  Printing Bibles is forbidden, even if they are given away for free.
•  Government officials cannot be Christian.
•  Teachers cannot be Christian.
•  Soldiers cannot be Christian.
•  Police officers cannot be Christian.
•  Children and teenagers cannot be Christian.

In short, they are puppet churches set up by the state to co-opt Christianity and use it as a means of promotion of the party, for what they can't stamp out (religion), they seek to control. As one pastor at a state-sponsored church in Beijing reminded his congregation: "We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country," he says. "And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second."

While they may have the veneer of authentic worship to the unassuming eye, anyone who is filled with the Holy Spirit in China and looking to worship the one true Lord recognizes that such churches are a sham. Those who wish to worship "in spirit and truth" must do so in underground house churches that operate in secret, risking fines and imprisonment to do so. Such unsanctioned forms of worship are seen as subversive, and such accusations are not entirely inaccurate. Whereas Communism subjects the individual through coercive measures to submit to the state, Christ breaks the chains that bind us in slavery (Is 9:4). It is not a co-opted freedom, for those who continue in the Word "are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn 8:31-32). It is hard to control free men. Because they are free.

For those sensitive to issues of religious freedom and its slow erosion in our current culture here in America, China looks like an extreme example. But it paints a picture of what blatant, unchecked state-control of religion looks like. To the true believer, the sham-nature of such churches is obvious upon closer investigation and appears almost laughable, for true religion loses its authenticity the moment Christ is taken off his throne and replaced with liberal ideology. But how many undiscerning have accepted it sight unseen, apostatizing unknowingly? How many accept that the "Kingdom of God comes second?"

For those who have no love of Truth, keep your sham churches and your sanitized worship. For those who submit to the One True God, the Holy Spirit gives them eyes to see, for "the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people" (Jn 4:23). But pray they might persevere to the end, because the road to life is narrow. And the State does not tolerate subversion so kindly.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

All My Friends Will Soon Be Strangers

As I'm writing I am watching the trees sway in the violent wind through the kitchen window, sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea. I like piping hot tea, especially on chilly days like today. I also like iced tea, especially a tall cold glass on a hot summer afternoon. They both serve their purposes--the hot tea, to warm the bones; the iced tea, to refresh and cool.

Ever had a cup of tepid tea? Bleh. It's good for nothing, similar to salt that has lost its saltiness (Mt 5:13). Too cool to be hot tea, and too warm to be iced tea. It has no identity. It is a no-thing. It would be an insult to serve it to your guests.

If there was ever an indictment to be found in New Testament, an admonishment from the Lord of how we are to be, it can be found in the Book of Revelation:

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Rev 3: 15-16)

Spit you out of my mouth. It evokes an image of divine disgust, offensive to God. It helps me to imagine this from the perspective of a father, sick to his stomach in the face of such apathy: My son DIED for you. He was tortured for you. He shed his blood to give you LIFE. It was a free gift. I sent Him to take your place, as a ransom. And you shrug.

Like many converts who came into the Church, I had trouble understanding the complacency I experienced from other Catholics. I had a personal encounter with the Lord on my own road to Damascus. I recognized, with quite a bit of pain and gratefulness, what I had been ransomed from. The disciplines of the faith only made sense and had purpose in the context of an ardent faith--otherwise, it just seemed miserable to be religious; being a Catholic was embarrassing enough in the eyes of the world, but to be a Catholic with no real faith, devotion, or praxis, a Catholic in name only...well, it seemed the worst of all worlds.  Thomas A Kempis, in his classic The Imitation of Christ, notes this as well, when he writes to lukewarm monks:

"A religious person who is negligent and slothful has trouble upon trouble and suffers great anguish and pain on every side, for he lacks true inward comfort, and is prohibited to seek outward comfort."(71)

For most of my life of faith, though, I have tried to live in two worlds. I think a lot of convert struggle with this--reconciling their prior lives to their new lives in Christ. Christian friends are not a given, though hopefully they are acquired. You don't really want to leave your former friends, because you have an authentic history with them.

I was at a bachelor party over the summer which wasn't completely off the chain, no arrests or anything, but was just dark in its hedonism. I have done my share of partying, and like to have a good time with good people, so it was not a foreign scene for me. But something was different this time. It wasn't a matter of being better than anyone else, or holier than thou. I just realized I didn't belong here anymore.

But I was kind of trapped, as it was. As the party was raging into the morning, I went into my room and with a feeling of despair, opened the small Gideon bible I brought with me. I opened randomly to Colossians, chapter 3, and read:

"Put to death, therefore whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourself of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips." (Col 3:5-8)

I wanted the best of both worlds--I wanted to live in the world and experience all it had to offer without having to say no to anything or let anything go; to continue my pre-conversion life but in my Christian suit. I realized that night, though, that I was fooling myself. Not choosing, not standing apart, was itself a choice, for as the Lord says, "If the love of the world is in you, the love of the Father is not." (1 Jn 2-15). There is no middle ground, and if there is, it is like tepid tea--offensive and insulting to one's character as a new creation in Christ, good for nothing. There is pain in detachment, but only because we have allowed ourselves to become inordinately attached to that which, ultimately, enslaves us.

The more the world loves, accepts, and affirms us, the more we should be cued in that we are perhaps not on the path that leads to Life,  but living a kind of spiritual inauthenticity, for "if you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." (Jn 15:18-19).  When we are slandered and accused as Christians for speaking truth, we should rejoice, for we are living the beatitudes: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Mt 5:11-12).

Thursday, October 13, 2016


My twenties were a turbulent time. In 2005, after an acute episode of psychotic mania while living in Philadelphia, I was voluntarily admitted to an in-patient psychiatric facility for treatment. The symptoms of mania--boundless energy, rapid speech, delusions of grandeur--and subsequent depression manifested themselves in a severe but diagnostically-predictable manner, which was good because it alleviated any uncertainty as to the diagnose--Bipolar I disorder. When you know exactly what you are suffering from, it makes it easier to treat.

Mania sneaks up on you, disguised as enthusiasm, excitement, a zest for life, and perceived brilliance. At some point the ball gets away from you and takes on a life of its own, which is when things get scary. You can't get off the train even if you want to. When the crash follows, and you have pushed most of your friends away, it can also be a lonely time. Thankfully, many friendships I was able to repair over time. My family's support, however, was unwavering, and I believe this is what got me through the eye of the storm.

Rebuilding my life in the aftermath after discharge was difficult. My apartment looked like it was hit by a tornado--half finished projects, books everywhere, overflowing ashtrays, and recording equipment were littered everywhere.  All my energy and will had left me, and a dark cloud had settled over everywhere I went. I had trouble moving my limbs. My dad would take me for walks and it would take an hour to go 100 feet. I would verbally abuse him, treat him badly. "You have to remember," he would say, "it doesn't seem like it now, but it will get better." He knew from experience, having gone through the same thing.

In the midst of my illness I came across an obscure film called Quitting (2001) about the life of Jia Hongsheng, an actor of some national acclaim in China who quit acting after getting hooked on heroin. It was a film rather than a documentary, but Jia played himself, and all his family played their selves as well, which was kind of unique. It is the story of how Jia's family--his mother, father, and sister--move to Bejing to nurse him back to health. This was quite different from the expectation in Asian culture that the siblings take care of the parents, not the other way around.

Quitting is one of my favorite movies, because it is so personal to me--I was Jia. His life, his story, his recovery, his family--it mirrored my own. He was a prodigal--I was a prodigal. His father and mother took care of him in the way mine did.

"Honestly, I didn't want to come to Bejing. I had only two years before my retirement. As a parent, when your child faces something like have to help them. We didn't know what he was going through. I had to see for myself. Sometimes when I saw him suffering I knew the drugs were still in him. It was unbearable. I couldn't do anything to help him."

He thought he was special, destined for greatness, but instead the acting world moved on without him, as all my allusions of greatness, of being a great writer, had done for me.

"I had that feeling again. I couldn't stop trembling. Suddenly there was no sound and my mind was blank. 1993. The music came from my headphones. I saw the bluest sky in the world. It was totally pure and crucial. I felt like I was Lennon's son. I'd seen my destiny while everyone else was running for nothing. I felt like everyone was an idiot."

He did not leave his apartment, and neither did I. The recovery after getting clean is dark, as was being in the trough of depression following mania, so I could identify with his suffering and loneliness.

"He didn't talk to us at all. He was always attacking us. He said my feet smelled, if it wasn't my feet it was my socks. It was like he was my father.
We didn't know how to help him. We decided to ask for help from a doctor.The doctor said the effects of his addiction would last a long time.We should be patient and try to keep him happy. He asked for a bike to go out. We bought a secondhand bike for him."

One of my the most moving scenes for me personally was the little snapshots of time Jia's father would spend with him, going for walks, sitting under on overpass in the grass, sharing a beer; how he cared for his son, putting his own dignity aside. The scene could have been one of my father and I:

"We went out for a walk everyday. When he wanted beer, I got it for him. I iced two beers every morning and brought them with us. I put a raincoat on the grass for him to sit on. I used branches to drive the bugs away. He was getting better everyday."
Quitting is a prodigal parable hiding in a secular story. The film itself is ok, interesting--but I think it moved me the way it did because it was my own life's script during that time in my life that I saw. The bicycle, the walks, the apartment--it could have been my story. With one caveat: I found out Hongsheng jumped to his death in 2010, nine years after the filming of Quitting. It could have been me. It could have been my story.

It's taken me about a week to get this little post down and published; I was reluctant--it seemed too much, too personal, and unnecessary. I didn't want it to be a film review, because while it was moving for me personally, the film is nothing special. I didn't want it to simply be a self-indulgent post for the sake of a personal post. And honestly, sharing about one's illness is not especially comfortable in a public setting because of the stigma and potential for discrimination. 

So what was I trying to say? What was my purpose in writing this?

I think it is this--there is power in stories, the narratives we find ourselves in. We make sense of our lives through them. Jesus himself was a master storyteller--he was always telling stories! It was how he communicated eternal truths in a practical way. I think film, secular or otherwise, can do this, as can books and the example of others. It is a popular model in AA, as well as in converts sharing their story of how they came to faith. Like the Jewish people, stories help us to remember our history, what God has done for us and saved us from. 

Stories help us remember, as I remember now those difficult days ten years ago typing much in the same way I am doing now at the kitchen table with a cup of tea at one in morning, hanging on to life by a thread, and how my family and my God were manifestations of a shard of light that refused to let me be swallowed by darkness. 

Jia Hongsheng had a story. 
I have a story.
And so do you. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Look Me In The Eye

Ever since I was little, I never had a knack for lying. I wasn't an angel by any means, but I was quick to own up to my transgressions because I both couldn't stand the tension of holding something in, and had trouble keeping false stories separate from truth in my mind. I don't know how those pathological liars do it, keeping so many stories straight to hold up their alter-reality.

So, I came to the conclusion early on that it is just easier to always tell the truth and not lie to save myself the psychological discomfort of having to keep stories straight. I think my wife secretly appreciates it, because she knows I can never get away with anything. It's hard to look someone in the eye when you're lying or hiding something, unless you are some kind of sociopath.

Of all the parts of the human body, I find the eyes the most intriguing. Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov 18:21); the springs of life flow from the heart (Prov 4:23); but the eye is the lamp of the body (Mt 6:22)--the very temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). A window to the soul.

As in literature, music, or interior design, the space between (ie, 'white space') plays as much a role as the words or notes themselves. Without it, meaningful composition would be impossible, as one could not differentiate between objects. I have heard humans are only creatures with the whites of their eyes visible. This allows for an incredible amount of creative nuance of expression.

Have you ever spoken with somone who stared a little too long? Very uncomfortable, like they are encroaching on private property. It makes you think maybe they are not cued in to social conventions or awareness.

Have you ever locked eyes with someone of the opposite sex across the room? If you are a single man or woman and looking to meet, this is your ticket. If you are married, you had better be careful to ensure that such a gaze is truncated in a timely manner lest it lead to something inapprorpriate.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who couldn't look you in the eye (shifty eyes)? You can't help but wonder to yourself, 'what are they hiding? What did they do?'

Have you ever met a confident person who looks you right in the eye when they speak? Intimidating, yes?

When one 'holds their head up high,' gaze forward, it conveys a sense of integrity. When one (rightfully) 'lowers their head in shame' at the recongition of a failure of integrity, one's gaze is averted. Adam and Eve sought to cover their nakedness after the Fall and the Lord saw right through their feeble attempts to hide themselves from His presence (Gen 3:8). His gaze cut right through them, because they themselves had something to hide.

We sometimes think doing the Lord's will is hard. In some ways this is true, given our propensity towards sin due to the Fall and our wounded nature, and our desire to thwart God's benevolent governance by eating the fruit which we desire, even though it may lead to death. It can also be hard in some sense when we face persecution from the world, those who are against God's designs and would seek to snuff out or silence those who follow Him.

But sin in its own way leads to more disorder, more disruption, and more difficulty, as Scripture attests: "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." (Ps 19:7).

When we lose sight of this perfect law in Christ, we are like ships in a storm with no navigation and no rudder. The precepts of the Lord are like a lighthouse on a rocky shore which cuts through the fog and alerts us of what would capsize us. In fair weather one thinks they can do without it and navigate on their own. But it is in storms where faith is tested. Jesus rested in the comfort of God's perfect else could he fall asleep on a pillow in the middle of a squall? (Mk 4:38)

God always wants what is best for us. The Law is written in our hearts (Rom 2:15) so that it might be known to all, for "there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil...but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good." (2:9-10). So guard your eyes, the lamp of the body, in order to hold your head with a gaze focused foward. For if the light in you is darkness how great is the darkness!" (Mt 6:23)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Bring Me My Weapon"

The thought of killing myself hadn't crossed my mind in a number of years. So I didn't recognize it when it appeared tonight in my bedroom like an unwelcome guest, a Stranger "rapping sharply, four times...on the fatal door of destiny."

I hadn't invited the Thought. It seemed a culmination of events had led to leaving the door slightly ajar, able to be pushed in from the outside. Feelings of betrayal from friends, stress at work and home, and doubt were likely suspects, but not enough to explain the barrage of negative and aggressive thoughts, the usual suspects: "It's useless. You'll never amount to anything. Better off without you. You have no one. You are alone. Just get it over with already and quit wasting our time."   Everything just seemed to be going down. I lay in bed and stared at the wall. Tears had dried up hours ago but I was weary and had trouble moving out of bed.

My mom watched the kids and Deb came upstairs. I tried to talk for a while, and told her about the Thought, but it didn't assuage anything. "I think you are under spiritual attack," she said. I continued to stare at the wall. Up until recently I had been carrying my rosary with me in my pocket everywhere and praying it every night after Deb's mom died, but had not the past few days. If I was vulnerable, it would make sense that such an attack was coming when I had left "the weapon," as St. Pio referred to it, at home.

I tried to speak, but my mouth wouldn't open. I pushed the words out but they muffled against the inside of my teeth. "What?" Deb said. I forced them through a slight opening between my lips. "Brngmemyrsry." "What?" I pushed and pushed the words out, a kind of verbal constipation and pressure. Why was this so hard. Finally I shouted, "BRING ME MY ROSARY" followed by a series of growls. It was so strange, but not completely unfamiliar. I was pretty sure at this point Deb was right, something was at work, but at least the problem was diagnosed and the will had been exercised to take action, albeit painfully so.

We started to pray the Glorious Mysteries since it was Sunday, meditating on the life of Christ and His mother with each bead fingered. As we prayed with focused deliberation, it occurred to me that each of the mysteries was serving as an antidote for the spiritual battle waging.

I had lost faith. The spiritual fruit of the First Glorious Mystery--the Resurrection--was FAITH.

I was filled with a sense of hopelessness. The fruit of the Second Mystery--the Ascension--was HOPE.

My love of God was growing cold. The Third Mystery--the Descent of the Holy Spirit--promised LOVE OF GOD.

Thoughts of taking my life filled my head. The promise of the Fourth--The Assumption of the BVM? A HAPPY DEATH.

Mary, the enemy of Satan, was not on my mind until now. The Fifth Glorious Mystery--the Coronation--assured her INTERCESSION in times of trouble.

As soon as we began to pray, and for the next twenty minutes, the darkness that had cloaked me, had settled and made a blanket over my mind, began to lift like a fog. I can't explain it, but I know it came from the outside-in in this case; the thoughts, the voices...they seemed foreign, like they came out of nowhere and did not belong. Seeing the Devil's tactics exposed was a grace in itself, for in doing so God reveals how he can be countered.

Pope Adrian VI referred to the Rosary as "the scourge...of the Devil...a flying elbow to the ribs, a metal chair to the head." And the famous exorcist Gabriel Amarth reported that, during an exorcism, his colleague reported hearing the Devil say that each Hail Mary is like a blow against his head.

Evil is scary when you come face to face with it, but how mores when we are caught defenseless? Satan is no fool....he knows our vulnerabilities. He knows such thoughts are no stranger to me, that they have made their home in my mind in the past, so why not again? Even more so, disguise them as coming from my own mind, for how can you fight against your own mind, your own self? When the suffering becomes too much in this parasitic state, one is left with no choice in hopelessness but to kill oneself.

All sounds kind of outlandish, right? Kind of ridiculous, yes? A bunch of hocus pocus. Yeah, I can see how one would say that if you didn't believe in evil. But I know better. I can say with confidence that it is only through God's grace in the past that I have escaped the fate that suicide promises, and tonight old demons in paying me a visit disguised as thoughts reminded me to be careful, to cleave to Christ...and to not leave home unarmed. The stakes are high. I consider myself now warned.

Zeal and Shame

My wife and I had an 'introvert date night' last night at the local bookstore. We got coffee and perused the shelves. We were surprised to see how expansive the 'Christian Living' section was. I have become wary of contemporary writers trying to make a name for themselves in the Christian world with a repackaging of the gospel, and prefer instead to stick to spiritual classics in my own spiritual tradition.

Writing is a shameful exercise. Those who spend their lives engaging in it do so more out of compulsion than choice--they can't not write. If you are a nominal writer/poet/songwriter, thankfully your words will, like unrequited love, drift into the ether undiscovered and fade away into obscurity,  reaching few ears and having little impact on the world.

Those who make a name for themselves on the other hand have their own struggles--not with insignificance, but in having to stand naked and exposed in the limelight behind what they have cast on the page in dried ink as the world itself stops not to remember their words. Hopefully the writer who makes it realizes the power of the words they put to page (the pen being, as they say, mightier than the sword), accepts responsibility for bringing them into the world, and defers to God's truth rather than his own agenda in what he writes.

I came across an interview with Christian author Joshua Harris recently, who wrote the best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye in 1997 when he was just 21.  Someone gave me a copy in college, which I read, and it gave me good food for thought about purity and intentionality, but I was hardly a devotee. In the interview, he apologized to those who read his book and took his advice not to date, and admitted it was 'speculative'.

Whenever I go back and read anything I wrote from the past (I have twenty years worth of archived blogs, journals, essays, articles, and manuscripts to dig into whenever I am feeling self-loathing), I can't help but be profoundly embarrassed at my self-assuredness, brashness, and spiritual immaturity. Thankfully 95% of it has never been published (as in, bought) and as such is at my discretion what I do with it rather than surrendering it to eternity on a library book shelf. Honestly, not getting a tattoo and not ever publishing a book (both of which I was on the brink of making a reality at some point or another) I consider saving graces. It is hard to stand behind a decision made at 21--whether that's an inked arm sleeve or a publishing a book on relationships.

This goes beyond writing, though. Taking a stand on anything comes with the danger of inconsistency. Thomas Merton, the ever-evolving (some might say 'unsettled') and introspective Trappist monk made famous for his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, covered his bases on this topic when he self-reflectively wrote:

"My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center, and I am always seeing that center, and I am always seeing that center for somewhere else. Hence, I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation."  (Jan 20th, 1964)

Merton has always been a kind of spiritual kinsman, an earnest and flawed man whom I could relate to spiritually, as well as in personality and temperament. The world loved him and was fascinated by him. However, it wasn't until I came across an article that questioned whether he could be trusted for spiritual direction that I realized not everyone feels this way. In fact, his 'lack of a center'  (aside from his monastic vows) and inconsistent character was more of an indictment than anything noble. Could his writing be trusted? Was he leading people astray by his witness? Was he a model of personal integrity, or was he divided in spirit?

These were the questions being asked in the article, and the forgone conclusion about his 'brilliance' as a complex spiritual thinker among his devotees was not so undisputed. Whether or not my affinity for Merton as a spiritual brother from another era was accurate or not, I still felt shame, as if someone was holding up a mirror. He was not a saint, not being considered for canonization--just a complex and flawed man with demons, struggling to stay put, wrestling with his vows, searching for love, and for God.  Human, yes. But saints are the ones we should follow, a sure bet; the message is we should keep our distance from unstable men such as Merton, since reading his writing for the faithful Catholic is like, as was said in the article mentioned above, "sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant."

I have a photograph from my observership at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert of me with one of the monks, a novice named Br. Inugo. He took me for a hike one day through the canyon when this photo was taken. He was a very quiet, humble monk in his mid twenties on a straight path.  He just wanted to live for God and devote his life to Him in a quiet, contemplative way. I was this restless, conflicted, adventure-hungry attention-seeking convert with a checkered past. We were very different, and looking back at this photograph now (almost twenty years after it was taken), the picture of contrast is worth a thousand words. Truth be told, I hope God will have mercy on me for my waywardness, for anything I have written that has scandalized someone else, for leading anyone to anything except the One Truth Church, for even today, I feel shame at the thought of the man I am and have much to repent of.

When you realize that you of taking people for a ride on your spiritual journey, sometimes narrowly avoiding heresy and misguided example in the process, it is like being a drunk driver driving a school bus full of 1st graders. It would be better for you not to have been born (Mk14:21; Mt 26:24). Better to be silent than to teach, but if called better to stick with the tried and true teachings of Christ and his Church and simply transmit them as "an unprofitable servant" (Lk 17:10). Better to align zeal for the Gospel with true teaching rooted in tradition than to be an unwitting heretic following one's own agenda. Better to be tireless rather than fickle, committed to duty rather than charisma. Better to repent and keep one's head on to the ground than lift it up to Heaven.

True prophets are unfashionable in their consistency. For those who preach year after year, sticking to God's commands and eschewing embellishment or spin (Msgr Charles Pope comes to mind). They are not exotic, preach no esoteric teaching, but simply lay out Scripture and the teachings of the Church on moral issues, sometimes in blunt fashion, tirelessly, and in ways that often make people uncomfortable. There is a hardened zeal there does not care if they are liked or not, because they are simply reflecting and transmitting God's Truth as it has been revealed to them; they are simply messengers doing a job. Many do not listen, many reject them as curmudgeons, yet they continue to preach, hoping that a few might be saved in the process. They are under Pauline compulsion, like the prophet Jeremiah who writes:

"But if I say, 'I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,' Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it." (Jer 20:9)

We do not read the Gospel for the sake of the human story (though that is implicit); we read the Gospel to experience God's story of Salvation for all. He is the author. We are all actors playing our part in this odyssey, with lines written by the Playwright Himself. It is not about us. Let's not go off script, lest we find ourselves in an unsolicited one-man act. We learn our lines in prayer, and without significant time in prayer we risk forgetting them. Play your part with zeal and gusto, but make sure the lines you read are credited to He who writes them.