Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Darkness Before Dawn

I first came across reference to The Tytler Cycle at Msgr Pope's excellent post titled "The Eight Stages of the Rise and Fall of Civilizations" a few months back. It offered perspective and a sober analysis of our current state of affairs as a democracy.

Where would you say we are? 

One interaction with a millennial today and I think we can rule "Courage" out. Perhaps the founding of our country in the 18th century would be the truest expression of "Liberty"--but not now. In an age of polarized wealth and 1% oligarchs, "Abundance" does not ring true for many Americans. You could make the case for "selfishness," but I think we're passed that, along with "Complacency." We've even moved beyond "Apathy," I would argue, and moving out of the tail end of "Dependency." I would argue, as an American society, we are entering into a period of true bondage. 

The original "Benedict Option" of the time of the founder of western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century (you could argue earlier, with St. John Cassian in the 5th century), emerged during a time when Christians were becoming comfortable and complacent. The persecutions had largely ceased under Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 AD and those seeking a more rigorous life of self-denial and penance fled to the desert. Later centuries saw similar periods of complacency, decay, and revival. 

The "cycle of democracy" in the Tytler model above has a cycle life of about 200 years. That would put us about on course to finishing up and coming full cycle.

I try not to be a fatalist, but the times, they are a-crazy. The writing seems to be on the wall. If we are truly entering into the darkness of bondage (final stage), we will have quite a storm to weather as a democracy. I love our country and our unique model of a Republic, but I also really do not think things are getting "better." The sense of virtue wedded to civic responsibility is all but lost among 99% of the population, and once gone it is almost impossible to recover except through destruction and rebuilding among the ruins. The Left has gone off the deep end, and the Right with all their talk and love of liberty and freedom has failed to couple it with virtue and so it is destined to be impotent, since the only way our Republic stands and the American Experiment works is when we our ideals of liberty are bounded by virtue. Trying to find civic and moral virtue in government today is like trying to find a winning Powerball ticket.

These are dark, stained and sordid days we are living through. But I have hope. Not hope for this world or for our democracy, but an eternal hope for a home in a kingdom not of this world. What other recourse do we have? Our period of bondage, the "labor pains" of a new birth--not in a new age way of thinking, but a true eschaton, where we should not hope for (but also not be surprised at) the demise of our democracy.

If our inability as a society to have reasoned discussion with those we disagree with beyond emotionalism and party slogans, and recognize the Natural Law, among other things, is not apparent to you now, it should be. I think we are passed the point of no return.

At the darkest hour, dawn is just on the horizon. The rainbow comes after the flood...for those on the ark. But you have to get on. Our hope is in Christ, and our ark is His Church, founded on the promise to Peter that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. "Do not put your trust in princes, or in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation" (Ps 146:3-5). Like the disciples, we ask when all turn away towards destruction, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!" (Jn 6:68).

So hold on, and wait like a centurion for the dawn. It's going to be a bumpy ride. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Waiting For Your Son

If anyone asked me what my favorite parable in the bible was, and I could only choose one, it would be the parable of the Lost Son. Quite simply, the personification and indignity of God's love for His children in this story never gets old for me.

"And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.  
 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)

There are three featured characters in the parable: the younger brother, the older brother, and the father. Most of us identify with one or the other brother: either one who is breaking the rules or keeping them, one who is a "bad boy" or a "good boy." There have been many expositions and commentaries on this parable, so I won't repeat scriptural exegesis.

I will say that my own experience has always led me to identify with the younger son: leaving home for a foreign country, taking an early withdrawal on his inheritance, squandering it and losing everything, getting homesick in a pagan wasteland, and making the way back to where he started. I never really "got" the older brother because it wasn't my story, but I have known many "older brothers" who played by the rules and did things right the first time. Older brothers have their own struggles, though, so I don't want to canonize them, as that is not really the heart of the story.

No, at the heart of the story is the father's love. He loves both sons. When his younger leaves the nest, the father's heart is in search mode; his eyes eternally scan and rest on the horizon. When he does see the son making his way back, it is "from a long way off" (15:20). He is "filled with compassion", not pride or the desire to lord over his son's wrongs (which would be within his rights) or spurn his homecoming. He runs out. Runs. Completely undignified and unbecoming out of love for his son. "He was dead, and has come to life again." His joy knows no bounds. Slaughters the fattened calf, finest robe, throws a party.

Like I said, I was always a son, and a son to a father who really did personify and helped me understand God the Father's love for us. Not in catechesis or formal instruction, but as a living model of self-sacrifice, self-abasement for my sake, and overwhelming affection. While I can't begin to recount everything he has done for me, since there has been so much, the deepest memory I have was calling him from a payphone somewhere in New York state the summer after graduation, having walked there from Pennsylvania. "I think I want to come home," I said. Six hours later, he was there. Seeing him as I approached a general store in the middle of nowhere (where we had planned to meet), feeling shame myself for failing to complete what I had set out to do, I was overcome, and he was too. He came for me. He was there. He didn't even think twice about it.

While I was a exclusively a son for 32 years of my life--thought as a son, lived as as son--now I am also a father. I am called to be there for my son (and daughter) in a way that personifies the Father's love for him. Even though he is only five years old, I can see things now that I will probably see later in his life as he strikes out--the big emotions, the periods of shame, the stubborn resolve, the way he collapses in an embrace of a hug, as if he can finally rest in love. It is the kind of privilege that brings one to their knees, to be a father. I thank the Lord that I have a model in my own dad to emulate in this life, and a Father and Son relationship to meditate on and ponder in scripture that personifies a love that empties itself so completely that its depths can never be plumbed, never fathomed in entirety.

What does love look like? It means giving them freedom to leave, to reject your love. It means continuing to love when they take their inheritance and run, saying "I wish you were dead" as the door slams on the way out. It means scanning the horizon day after day, waiting for their call. It means dropping everything and hopping in the car and driving, night and day, day and night, when the call comes, and shelving "I told you so's" in exchange for embraces steeped in tears of gratitude for even the chance to embrace. That death has not in fact won over this case, that this soiled and stained son from the grave is real and alive, and that no party is too great, no calf too fat, no robe too fine, for a redeemed life and family reunited once again.

Friday, August 11, 2017

What Have You Put Before Me?

Idolatry is such an abomination to the Lord. It is the greatest of mortal sins. God puts its prohibition first, before any other commandment: "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me." He simply cannot tolerate it.

Yet if I'm honest with myself the gods that I have made, the worthless golden calves I have had fashioned to retain control in my life, to take the place of God and His sovereignty, themselves make a spiritual death sentence justifiable. The things we put before God will be our downfall.

What or who we worship tells us a lot about who we are as people. Our idols are always tied to our deepest fears. The man who chases his whole life after money, accumulating wealth and building bigger barns to hold all his grain, assuages his conscience by reveling in the pleasures it gains, "eating, drinking, and being merry" (Lk 12:19), thinking he has cheated death and poverty, yet it comes to him anyway; he is nothing but a fool in the end. The woman who places her children before the Lord, has made an idol of them, for God Himself did not spare even His very own Son to accomplish His work, and the Lord himself said that he who does not hate his own children and yes even his own life is not worthy to follow him (Lk 14:26).

The theme of idolatry, of God's people being idolatrous and co-mingling with idolatrous people, is a common thread that runs throughout the Old Testament. But we see it in the New Testament quite a bit as well. In listening to the Book of Acts in the car,  this issue of idolatry came up and can be seen in Paul's encounter with the metal workers in Ephesus, whose business making idols is being threatened by the spread of Christian worship (19:23-34):

23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”  

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.  

32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

I noticed a few things in listening to and reading this passage:

  • There's going to be losers here. The metalworkers of Ephesus' pocketbooks were being hit; Paul's ministry was affecting their business. "You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business." Things get real when they get personal, and when it becomes a matter of money on top of that, even more so. Their livelihoods were at stake, since pagan worship was unequivocally incompatible with Christian worship, and if Christianity were to spread, they would be out of business.

  • The crowd gets whipped up into a confused frenzy. "Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there." The get furious and begin shouting slogans: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!"

  • A man named Alexander is put before the crowd by his fellow Jews to make peace and distance themselves from the Christians who were causing so much trouble in the area. If it is the same Alexander, he is mentioned in 2 Tim 4:14 as an enemy of Paul, so you would think the opportunity would have been well used. But "when the crowd realized he was a Jew" they shout him down, they can't think straight so strong is their identity politics rooted in their particular populist group. 

  • Artemis was considered the goddess of fertility. This was a big deal, and Demetrius states that Artemis "is worshipped throughout the province of Asia and the world." Yet Paul, speaking on behalf of all Christians, says that "gods made by human hands are no gods at all." Idol making for fertility control is big business.

As I caught snippets on the news of the so-called "Women's March" in Washington last year, it was like a modern day Ephesus. Some observations:

  • It was a thinly cloaked Planned Parenthood march. They realize that the Christian faith stands in opposition to their imperatives. Like the idol makers in Ephesus, abortion is big business, and the industry recognizes threats to their livelihood. Lobbying, drumming up public support, aligning themselves with the Democratic's all for the purposes of preserving their business. "We receive a good income from this business." (19:25)

  • The "Women's March" was a confused mismatch of groups all shouting different things, whether it was Ashley Judd's rambling "poem" recited from stage or the various ideological banners flying at the march itself. "Many did not even know why they were there." (19:32)

  • They shouted down pro-life women, like Abby Johnson, and pushed her into the street. What are you even doing here? You are not welcome here. "When they realized he was a Jew..." (19:34)

  • Abortion may be framed as a "right," but it is really about control. People will literally worship at altar of Planned Parenthood to retain the rights to fashion their own reproductive idols, and react violently when the thought of it being taken away makes an appearance. "There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”  (19:27)

This is just one example of the time of great confusion, idolatry, and apostasy we are living through. But we don't even have to look outside of ourselves to see what idol worship has been placed ahead of God and His statutes, for we are guilty ourselves. Money, security, good name, our family, our children, our livelihood, our addiction to comfort, our phones, our full stomachs. Remember: anything you place ahead of God is an idol before God, and hinders our relationship with him and compromises our walk as disciples. 

So be honest with yourself: what have you put before Him? Fast and pray, and ask God to reveal it, root it out of the darkness, confess it and leave it on the altar. For nothing, nothing, is more important than Him, and anything that claims to be is not of Him. The idols in our lives may look different from person to person, but they all deserve to be trampled under foot and left behind, so we can follow Him more closely on the way to Calvary.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

My Interview With Doug Connolly For Catholic Phoenix

Have a listen! My phone reception is horrible for the first half (I was doing the interview from the garage), so if you can get through that it gets better the second half after I step outside. You can also download in iTunes, or listen online:

Monday, August 7, 2017


This evening (morning?) at 11:59am, something snapped me out of the clutches of sleep. It wasn't my kids or my wife, it wasn't a dream--it was just a strong sense that I need to get up to pray for something or someone. I've experienced this from time to time. On January 18th at 2:42pm I was working in the garage and felt the need to stop what I was doing and pray for an evangelist friend I know. She told me later at the exact time I was praying for her she had made the decision not to travel through what later ended up being an ice storm.

The middle of the night is a hard but good time to pray, often born during periods of inner crisis, as the quiet drapery of dark silence envelopes everything and you are alone with God, "pondering on your bed, being still." (Ps 4:4). St. Pope John Paul II, as a young Karol Wojtyla, remembers waking up in the middle of the night and seeing his father kneeling in the dark, praying silently. For a busy family man, this is sometimes the only part of the day/night when we have the opportunity for an intimate moment alone with the Lord.  Or sometimes, He just rouses us from sleep for His purposes.

The problem is when it's the middle of the night and you are dog tired the clutches of sleep are strong. At midnight, my eyes opened, but my body was chained to the bed by grogginess. All I wanted was to drift quietly back to sleep, but I had a nagging sense I needed to get up. The war of the senses began to rage hard, the flesh and the spirit, "for the Spirit gives life, and the flesh counts for nothing" (Jn 6:63). At the center was the will. I needed to exercise the will for God's purposes, and it was so so hard at that moment.

During this struggle I remembered what I had heard about the "Five Second Rule." It's the idea that

"Because of the way your brain is wired, when your thoughts and feelings are at war, when there is a discourse between what you know you should be doing and what you feel like doing, your feelings are always going to win. If you don't feel like doing it, you're not going to do it. If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea."

Sure, it's a secular principal, but I decided to adopt it for my spiritual life, the way Augustine adopted the philosophy of Plato to the Christian life. When you are being called to action, and your flesh and your spirit are at war, act within the first 5 seconds. Otherwise things get infinitely harder and you are more prone to lose the battle, "For to will is present within me, but not to do good." (Rom 7:18)

In my time spent at the monastery, we would rise at 4am for Matins (Vigils) as part of the Divine Office. It was always so hard, but eventually I got in the rhythm of it. It was also customary temptation when working in the fields or the orchard or in the workshop, to hear the bell for prayer, and want to ignore it if you were right in the middle of something, to finish it or say "just a few more minutes." But it was good practice to drop whatever it was you were doing when the bell rang, as a matter of obedience, and make your way to the chapel, for nothing should be above prayer.

Though wounded and weakened by original sin, and often opposing or subverting reason, the will can still receive God's grace, co operate with it, and love as God loves. When we encounter resistance and suffering in doing what God wants us to do, it is because we are so unaccustomed to it, and love comfort so much. Our will to do the good can often be like a hoe or rake left outside and overtaken by weeds and brambles because it is hardly ever used. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we often return to such disobedience like pigs to the slop, on account of this perpetual war we are fighting within ourselves to subject the will to right reason, for

"I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not." (Rom 7:18)

The will is not good thoughts or noble intentions, but the action of assent. And when exercising it for God's purposes, it really can hurt, like a flabby unused muscle in a Crossfit workout. In the case of rising from sleep, getting out of bed to pray in the middle of the night, I needed to "physically move", and then most effectively within those first five seconds of receiving the prompting to get up, lest the foggy mist of sleep envelope and drag me back to the ether of suspended consciousness.

When the Lord nudges or gives you an impulse to do something, to take action, to pray--don't hesitate. Ideally, respond immediately, but at the very latest, within five seconds. Otherwise your brain might hijack your will and snap you back into place. The Devil would like nothing more than to keep you from carrying out God's will when He calls. So be extra vigilant and willing to suffer discomfort, and take heart that He will give you the grace needed to carry it out. You never know who may be saved by your prayers in such a moment that may have otherwise passed you by!

Friday, August 4, 2017

God Is Looking For Dodoes

I'm listening to the biography of Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, on audio book in the car for the second time. I love her. She was a poor student in high school, came from a broken home, was racked by health problems throughout her life, and had a feisty temper. But she had great great faith. She was a great evangelist, trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead and guide her, even when it didn't make sense or was a frightening prospect. As she was known to say, "Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy feeling in the stomach."

I also love that Mother Angelica did some ridiculous things, took risks for God. When she felt the Lord calling her to start a Catholic television network (with no broadcasting or communications experience), she didn't hesitate to get started. On September 18, 1980 already hundreds of thousands of dollars in arrears Mother Angelica was about to order a 33 foot satellite dish from scientific Atlanta at a cost of $350,000 when she hesitated: where would you get the money and what if it never came? Most would've cut their losses and run but Angelica proceeded with the order exercising what she would later call her "Theology of Risk."

"You want to do something for the Lord do it whatever you feel needs to be done even though you're shaking in your boots you're scared to death. Take the first step forward, for grace comes with that one step and you get the grace as you step. Being afraid is not a problem--it's doing nothing when you're afraid."

I was raised to eschew risk. I'm all about being financially responsible and playing it safe, being level headed and a planner and responsible, ensuring security for myself and my family. But Mother wasn't really any of this, and these things I consider a badge of honor in the world can actually act against radical faith. She loved the Lord with a childlike faith, and nothing was too good for Him, whom she trusted to provide in all things as long as she was doing her part for His kingdom. She spent lavishly on the things of the Lord, took high-stakes risks, never knew what was around the corner or the next steps until the Lord revealed it to her, and wasn't afraid to change course when it became clear she was being directed elsewhere. One of my favorite sayings of hers is her recognition of being a true fool for Christ, a "Dodo" as she called herself:

"I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can't be done, so they don't do it. But a dodoe doesn't know it can't be done. God uses dodoes: people who are willing to look ridiculous so God can do the miraculous."

Over the years as my faith has grown, I see that the things the world esteems--financial security, playing it safe, planning the future, keeping religion and faith private and in a box--none of these things really allows God to work. Every now and then I've broken out of that pattern by the Holy Spirit, whether it's buying a school bus to live in or flying to San Francisco on an inspiration to minister to my friend Joseph Sciambra at the Gay Pride parade. Every time I have taken a crazy risk like that for Him, God has answered with great graces, opened doors, and provided new opportunities to spread the Word. The more I do it, the more I trust Him, though I have a long way to go.

Examples of a radical, trusting, child-like faith, like that of Mother Angelica's, during our lifetime proves that saints aren't mummified in the Middle Ages--they live today! Doing the great things of God doesn't depend on our power, intellect, or ability--in fact, those things can sometimes work against us--but only our faith, trust, and obedience for God to do the work through us, to use the gifts He has give us.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of people like Mother Angelica, who recognized her faults and limitations but was not afraid to take risks for You. You can do great things through fools for Christ like her. May we all be dodoes for the Lord!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Used To Live In Fear. Then Something Changed.

My kids were watching Veggie Tales this afternoon, and I overheard Larry the Cucumber say something to Bob the Tomato. In this particular episode, Bob was afraid of water slides. "A life lived in fear is no way to live," Larry tells him.

I'm not sure how many years of my life you could subtract that were lived in fear and anxiety, but I'm sure it's more than a couple. I even went looking for a picture to embed in this post (as I usually do) from my photo albums, one in which I was seriously anxious and afraid. I couldn't find any--it would be kind of weird if I could. 

Of course we don't take pictures of these moments and if someone captures one by chance we certainly don't go posting them for everyone to  see. We keep them hidden, and for good reason--fear is a kind of nakedness. They reveal some of the deepest parts of ourselves, a vulnerability we reveal to only those closest to us and even then only in the most trusted environments. 

Fears are weird. Let me give you an example. At one point when I lived in Philly and had only had a car for a year or so (it wasn't until 2009 at the age of 29 that I really started driving on a regular basis) my anxiety got so bad commuting on Roosevelt Boulevard that I started seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist. I was also afraid of parking garages, so much so that I avoided them at all costs. I hated the feeling of being trapped and closed in.

There was a lot of shame attached to these thoughts and feelings. I think at the root of it (and this applies to many things, I believe) was the fear of public humiliation. The thought of being in a crowded city on a Friday night, trying to leave the garage and the wooden barrier not raising up because there was something wrong with the ticket with a line of cars behind me getting impatient, honking and cursing and looking like an idiot, was enough to almost drive me to the point (in my mind) of just driving straight through the barrier in order to get out. It's a silly fear, but it was very real. At least, it was in my mind. 

I know my brain is wired a bit differently and a bit more vulnerable, so I have to be sensitive to these kinds of stressors. CBT helped a bit. I can drive into parking garages now and on interstates without thinking about it too much. Beyond these esoteric but acute situational instances, though, there are deeper, generalized fears that many people share...the existential ones--the fear of rejection. The fear of losing face. The fear of loss. The fear of death. 

But fears change over time, too. When I was younger I was so so anxious about breaking down in the car in a strange part of the country on vacation, and not being able to get home. Or that there would be some natural disaster like a flood, or an earthquake that would destroy everything we had. Even a zombie apocalypse was something I was bracing for. 

In my thirties, and two kids in, my fears began to drift to something that should be a source of joy and blessing: I became fearful of us as a couple having more children. Without realizing it, I had absorbed the contraceptive mentality from the culture, one that views children through a lens of liability and burden rather than a gift from God. I was convinced we couldn't handle any more--emotionally, financially, logistically. One night at the kitchen table I googled "Catholic Babies Fear" and stumbled across a blog written by my now-friend Leila. I believe this was the particular post I came across. (Another powerful one here.) It was about surrendering your will to God as a way of abandoning fear.

Do you know what command is issued by Jesus more times than any other? It's "Fear Not." "Do not be afraid." "Be not afraid." It appears more than seventy times in the New Testament

Do you know what scene in scripture just flabbergasts me, almost to the point of l-o-l'ing? Mark 4:37-38. The disciples are out to sea with Jesus. "A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped."

"Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion."

ASLEEP! On a CUSHION! Just snoozing away lol. 

Jesus trusted his Father completely. And yet he also sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, sorrowful and afraid "unto death" before his crucifixion. He was human, like us in all things but sin. The devil reminds us of and exploits our fears. He wants us to live in them. Fear is the antithesis of trust. When you are afraid of someone you don't trust them. When you don't trust a bridge to hold your weight, you are afraid it will cave beneath you. 

When we began to trust God with our fertility, I began to no longer see babies as a threat or something to fear. Something changed when we handed it over to God. I've done the same with any concerns I have over the state of the Church or our country; over finances; the possibility of weather-related catastrophes; losing my kids; losing my wife; losing friends because of my faith; losing my job. I did it when our daughter was born because there was so much to worry about I told God outside a Wawa "it is too much. I can't. You can." I am trusting God, "casting my fears on Him, because (I know) He cares for me." (1 Peter 5:7), and working to cultivate in prayer a perfect love that casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18). 

When things get too big, when the army is too large, when it becomes literally impossible to win whatever battle you are fighting on your own by yourself: surrender. Surrender your will and trust God, who is bigger than any problem, fear, or concern, to handle it. Pray hard and step out in faith. It takes faith and practice, but when God comes through and witnesses to His great power, it builds on itself and lays a foundation for trust, since "He did it before, He can do it again." I have a long way to go, but have also come a long way, by God's grace. I still deal with occasional anxiety from time to time. But nothing like before. Given all things, I probably shouldn't even be married, a father, employed, or even alive today if it weren't for the God that saved me and preserved my fragile mind to do His work in the world. Yet here I am. Fear is a great burden, a heavy jacket. I'm happy to lighten my load, for the sake of my life and my travels through this world, to leave it behind.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lightening Up

When my wife and I met, she had a 'list' of what she was looking for in a husband. I don't think this is uncommon. Of course, I did not know about "Resurreccion's List" until after the fact, but it was pretty long and substantive. I must have received at least a passing score, since here we are eight and half years later.

I had a kind of working list in my mind of what I was looking for in a mate, as well. Not as long, but mentally catalogued none the less. It wasn't until a few years after we were married that I realized I had left one thing off, something vitally important, that I overlooked at the time. Thankfully, Deb had this quality even though it wasn't on my list. Thankfully, she had a great sense of humor.

It seems like such a worldly quality, doesn't it, kind of a peripheral and second-rate characteristic that you could take or leave if you are approaching a potential relationship from a spiritual perspective? I never really thought about it before, but I am here to tell you now: you will get a lot of mileage out of the ability to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously, and if you are married to someone who can do the same, it may just get you out of more jambs and potential pitfalls in a marriage than you may realize.

Who you marry is one of, if not the most, important and decisive acts of the will you will exercise in your lifetime. I don't want to undermine love and attraction, but as anyone who has been together a longish time knows, much of marriage is pragmatic-- the day to day, nuts and bolts task of living together and being a team. It can be a joy and also, at times, a grind. Having a sense of humor is like the oil in the car--it lubricates the inner parts of the engine, minimizing friction, and keeps it from overheating.

When Deb and I have been in arguments that got tense and heated to boiling point, it was humor that kept things from blowing up. In fact, life with my wife is overall pretty pleasant in large part because we laugh a lot--both at ourselves, our situations, and each others. I can honestly say it has moved up 'the list' to one of the top three slots in what I appreciate most about my wife.

I've met people that don't have much of a sense of humor, and it can be a downer. But I think developing a sense of humor is something something available to anyone, and it's important. Remember too, that this is coming from someone with clinical depression and bipolar disorder, so I know what I'm talking about when it comes to how to survive! Here's a few ideas to introduce a healthy and hearty dose of humor in your life as a Christian:

1) Don't take yourself so seriously. Christ has paid the price for us. We don't save anyone by our own power. We are all children of God, but if we start to think we are more important than we really are, pride and self-love can sneak in the backdoor and make a home in us. Being able to laugh at our mistakes and failings keeps us humble and human, two things the devil absolutely can't stand.

2) Find opportunities to laugh. You don't have to look up raunchy tasteless comedians on Youtube to do this. Humor is like a spice for what can feel like a bland existence sometimes in the world, and you can find it anywhere. For us, sometimes its videos of cats freaking out when they see a cucumber, or poking gentle fun at each other's foibles (without being mean). If you have trouble laughing, ask yourself why. Maybe turn off the news for a change of perspective, or try to connect with things from your childhood that made you smile or laugh. Whatever it is, it's worth exploring. Plus it's fun!

3) Connect with your humanity. I think people who are afraid to have a good guffaw every now and then at their own expense can sometimes have an exterior wall up that keeps people from seeing them in a negative light. Humor is very disarming. If you are a boss or a CEO, laughing and a degree of self-deprecation around your staff can put them at ease and go a long way in developing trust. It has a humanizing effect that is good for morale and confidence. We are humans after all, not perfect robots that never make mistakes! And if becoming human and taking on flesh was good enough for God Himself, it should be good enough for us too.

Life can be a grind. If our marriages become one more cog in the wheel of suffering, rather than an oasis for refreshment and mutual support and understanding, we are going to have a hard time of it. Of course, sometimes marriage itself becomes a source of trial. But if you find yourself just needing a 'tune-up,' --being snippy and petty and wearing each other down--consider adding a quart or two of humor, laughter, and not taking yourself so seriously as the antidote for what ails you. Take a step back and work it in intentionally and spontaneously where you can. "Laughter is cheap medicine!" --Lord Byron

"He that is of a merry heart has a continual feast." (Prov 15:15)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Very Special Announcement

"In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind."
(Job 12:10)

God is so good. Is there any time in which God is not good?

He has heard our prayer to serve Him alone, and patiently waited for us to open our hearts, leave behind our idols, and loosen our grip on our sense of control and calling our own shots.

He has given--
sent new Catholic friends, mentors, revelations, people, places, situations, sacramentals, and graces to help gently pry our fingers off the wheel of our lives and to allow Him to steer. 
He has put in us a new heart, and put a new spirit within us, one that sees children as a heritage from the Lord. (Ezekiel 36:26; Psalm 127:3). 
Blessed be His name!

This past year, the Lord has also taken away. 
He has called Deb's mom home suddenly, and our two little ones who were never born. But he has also taken away fear--the fear of the unknown, the fear of loss, the fear of losing face for our faith. 
We bless His holy name, for though he slay us, we will trust Him still (Job 13:15). 
Blessed be His name!

And now, He has given once again. 
Twelve weeks along, and a strong heart beat at Deb's appointment today, so time to start breaking the news. David is sure it is a boy, because he prayed for a boy, but we will have to wait until February to find out. We know the risks, but also know that God will not be outdone in generosity. 
Blessed be His name!

God is so good. Is there any time in which God is not good?

Thank you all for your prayers this past year, and always!


"I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; 
I will tell of all your wonders." 
(Ps 9:1)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Assume The Position

My wife and I have been married for seven years. Though chastity is an important and cherished part of our relationship now, it was not always so. We struggled mightily early in our relationship prior to stay chaste and maintain proper boundaries with each other, and faltered on many occasions to reserve sexual expression for marriage. We set ourselves up for this by sleeping over each other's houses and fooling ourselves by toeing the line and thinking we were stronger than we were. Although we desired chastity, we didn't put things in place as diligently as we should have to ensure that the opportunity to practice chastity didn't have so much going against it in; ie, the near occasions of sin we were constantly finding ourselves in.

I heard that Billy Graham never used to ride an elevator alone with a woman who wasn't his wife.  If a woman stepped on, and he was the only one in the elevator with her when she got on, he would step off. I used to think, "man, that's pretty extreme." But now I get it. I've heard Vice President Mike Pence has a similar policy. It's protection for themselves and the integrity of their vows, yes, but I also think it is a healthy distrust of themselves and a recognition of our fallen nature. So, they put things in place to have a rightly ordered posture that edifies their vows and sets up bulwarks against those things that might compromise them.

Not too long ago, I used to 'pray in bed.' That is, if I was praying a rosary and was tired, I would do it lying flat on my back on the bed. That way I could rest and pray, I reasoned--best of both worlds! Nine times out of ten, I would fall asleep while doing so. My posture, so to speak, was ordered towards sleeping, not praying, and so my spirit followed that natural trajectory that I had set up for it. For me, it was ultimately a lazy and casual approach to prayer that was not fruitful because it's outward expression conflated with something else.

Also not too long ago, I had a similar lackadaisical attitude towards the Sabbath--why not use the 'day off' to catch up on all those things that I didn't get to during the week: church yes, but then mowing the lawn, running errands, catching up on work emails or house projects? Rather than being set apart, Sundays bled into the the rest of the week and became just another day. It wasn't until we started being intentional about taking rest on the Sabbath and keeping it holy seriously that I started to see how important it was to keeping everything else in its right order (3rd Commandment).

The Lord had strict instructions for the Israelites against inter-marrying and warnings against it (1 Kings 11, Ezra 9, Deuteronomy 7 and others). They were "a people set apart" (Deut 7:6). The Lord also makes clear in the book of Revelation that hot should be hot and cold should be cold, but a co-mingling that produces lukewarmness is an abomination to Him (Rev 3:16).

When I started getting more serious about my spiritual life, I started to notice the laziness and compromise in these things and how the lack of clear delineation between the flesh and the spirit, or the sacred and the profane was making it harder to live a life of integrity. It was, instead, a life of laziness, convenience, and compromise.

But there are concrete things one can do to affect change in these areas and "re-orient" oneself to right order.

Firstly, for me, the Sabbath should be set aside for rest and worship, and it should be intentional. Yes, we may need to cook a meal and we don't need to be hassidic about not turning on lightswitches or driving. That means Mass (every Sunday, not just every other or every Christmas and Easter or every now and then). It also means being serious about rest. A lot of times this translates into extra-busy Saturdays trying to get things done in anticipation of the Sabbath, but the solid day of rest (because the Lord rested on the seventh day) on Sundays does wonders for the spirit. We relax, enjoy family time, reading, prayer, maybe go for a walk or something. I may write, but as leisure and not as a kind of work. If you've never tried setting aside your Sunday, I'd encourage you to give it a try, and be intentional about the way you orient yourself on the day. It has made a huge difference in our lives and our relationship with the Lord, the Creator of the Universe.

Secondly, we have made a devoted "prayer space" in our house. It is a little room off to the side of our bedroom, and is pretty simple--a small desk, a bible, a crucifix on the wall, and a candle. This is the 'place' of prayer, the place set apart as a little sanctuary, where we can "close the door, and pray to our Father in secret" (Mt 6:6).

Thirdly, when I pray in this space, I often pray on my knees. The area is carpeted, and I may look into making a padded kneeler or something at some point, but at this point in time I pray on my knees. It's slightly uncomfortable, enough to keep me attentive. I find when I sit (perfectly acceptable, especially if you have bad knees or joints), I get sleepy and tend to slouch, and it feels a little too comfortable and casual. The outward orientation of being on your knees is one of humility before the awesomeness of God, a kind of healthy fear and reverence. There are times I do sit, but I find praying on my knees puts my mind and spirit in a different kind of orientation, a focus, that is conducive to an intensity in prayer I wouldn't have if sitting.

Lastly, I find that a structured prayer like the rosary has become more and more useful to me to maintaining spiritual discipline. As a minimum, it provides me almost exactly fifteen minutes of prayer that is hard to walk away from in the middle of it when the temptation to leave and do something else gets strong. Of course, I enjoy unstructured prayer and reading as well, but the nature of the rosary is efficacious to maintaining discipline in meditation and has assumed a place in my prayer life. I would also like at some point in the near future to have a more structured approached to reading scripture (such as the Divine Office, or something similar), so that it might bear more fruit then the 'flip open and jump around' way I read now.

My point is, posture is important, and the externals can help orient our internal spirit in the right direction. If I want to be intentional in prayer these days, I don't do it lying down in bed; and if I am lying down in bed, I get up and kneel at the foot of my bed, or go in the the other room to pray, so the two don't get conflated. Keeping the Sabbath holy is not only good practice for orienting us in the right way with regards to worship and rest, but it is a command of the Lord Himself to Moses ("Keep Holy the Sabbath"). Sex with your spouse is oriented in the right way when you're focusing on the experience at hand--not fantasizing about someone else, being totally open and vulnerable, loving with complete abandon in trust. Don't bring other people or images into your bed with you, since we are called to "keep the marriage bed pure and undefiled" (Heb 13:4).

These are simple things--posture; a devoted prayer station; setting aside the Sabbath for rest; and some structure in prayer time--that can make a big difference and are relatively easy to implement in how we 'orient' ourselves, spiritually. Sometimes it's the simplest things that make the biggest difference.

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Well, Brothers, When Shall We Begin To Do Good?"

History is such an interesting subject to me personally. For one thing, it is cumulative--everything in history builds on and is often a reaction to what came before it. I am not detail oriented, but everything about the subject of history--dates, times, people, places--lends itself to detail. I'm also not a real smart guy, so it can be a struggle for me to synthesize everything sometimes and write accurately without blunder. Reading and retaining takes time and brain cells, and it is a great poverty that I don't have more time to spend reading about, say, the causes of the world wars, or the backstory behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

So I focus on what is pertinent to my life and what I feel God is asking of me to share. I love learning and reading, but I have no time for curious intellectual masturbation; it has to lead me somewhere. Most of the time when I bang out a blog post it's in 45 minutes or less with minimal editing, because often that's all the time I can carve out and spare to write--on my lunch break, between after dinner and bedtime for the kids, in the middle of the night. I don't write intellectual articles because I'm not an intellectual. I rarely write polemical articles because I'd rather find common ground with "those who are with not against us" (Lk 9:50). And I tell stories because my life and experiences are often the most accessible case studies I have on hand.

Every now and then I want to devote more time to a lengthier post, and last night that was the case when I was reading about the period in Church history known as the Catholic (or Counter) Reformation. The reason I started reading about this period in history (16th century) was to make sense of this particular place we find ourselves in the early 21st century. It is a moment of great moral decay and confusion, even within the Church; a time in which Christendom faces new and particular enemies; and also a period in which the Lord is raising up key players in the fight against a ruthless secularism and dictatorship of moral relativism.

What's reassuring about studying history is that there's really nothing new under the sun. The Catholic Church should have buckled and gone under years ago, whether under the pernicious dominant heresy of Arianism in the 4th century or the fall of Christendom under Enlightenment usurpation in the 12th century. And yet, she is still standing. The question that becomes relevant to me as a Christian living and believing in the world today is: What are the unique challenges of the cultural landscape in which we live?  Who are our enemies? What should our strategy or missionary charism be for ensuring the Gospel reaches every living person in need of its saving power?

The Cultural Landscape

The Catholic, or Counter, Reformation was the response of the Church to the powderkeg explosion of Protestantism in the 16th century Europe. Whether or not Martin Luther was a reformer or revolutionary may be subject to debate, but things quickly out of hand after the 95 Theses got nailed to the a church door in Wittenberg, and the Church found itself on the defensive against Protestantism. It was a time of necessary renewal in the church, not unlike our present day. Reading about the lives of St. John Fisher, St Thomas More, St. Charles Borromeo, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St Ignatius of Loyola, it is awesome to see how God always raises up the right people at the right time to stand as a bulwark against the tide.

I especially loved reading about the life of St. Philip Neri, a conversationalist who wasted no time converting good conversations to good actions as a means of evangelization. His customary affable question, "Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?" really struck a chord with me. I will be asking for his prayers on a regular basis.

We have moved beyond a post-modern culture in Western civ. I would argue we are living in a post-Christian culture that is essentially pagan, with the gods of secularism being worshiped. One cannot take for granted the Judeo-Christian foundation we once enjoyed.

Who Are Our Enemies?

"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12).

We are advised by the Lord Himself to be "as wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt 10:16) while moving through this hostile landscape as Christians in the world. I would argue we need to balance a clandestine underground approach, not casting our pearls before swine, with a fearless proclamation of the Gospel and a willingness to witness through suffering for it.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI warned against a "dictatorship of relativism" in our current culture, and I encounter this in my day to day. "That may be your truth, but it doesn't apply to me." As Benedict said, "we must have the courage to say, 'yes man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth.'" We should not be like Pilate asking, "What is Truth?" for as Catholic-Christians we know the answer and need only proclaim it boldly and without fear, for Truth can stand on its own.

There are also powerful lobbies both inside and outside the Church working to obscure clear teaching on homosexuality and gender and advance agendas contrary to the Gospel. These are not so much individuals but ideologically driven collective blocs that confuse and obscure Truth. They cannot tolerate dissent, and so operate in a militaristic, totalitarian fashion to "punish the wicked (Christians)." They will not be appeased and they are not open to discussion.

Communist regimes like those in China continue to attempt to squash the Gospel and set up their sham state-sponsored "churches" as a way of controlling the populace and ensure docile loyalty to the State. Their regimes are evil and opposed to religion and the Christian faith.

The pernicious darkness of sexual exploitation of minors, sexual slavery of young women and boys, abortion on demand, and the pornography industry dehumanizes and degrades the goodness and holiness of our God-given gift of sexuality. It must be fought with a personal integrity that refuses to participate or consume it, to starve it out so it dies a horrible death.

There are many other enemies of the Gospel and false prophets, some apparent and some not always so. But "be their fruits you will know them," (Mt 7:15) so pray and steep yourself in the Word of God to know the fruits when you see them, and avoid their bad rot.

We need to partner with those who are "not against us"--our Christian brothers and sisters in this fight against the Dictatorship of Relativism, in common, fervent prayer and public witness, while maintaining our distinct identity, voice, and community as Catholics. Once you've identified the enemy, it's time to pick up sides.

A Mission Church

We are living in mission territory here in the West. We are beyond the days of fish-fries and golf outings and cannot afford to be complacent. Like Paul the Apostle in his travels, we need to learn how to communicate Truth effectively in a neo-pagan culture that does not know nor care about 'churchy-talk'. Indeed, the elemental truths of Christianity cannot be taken for granted. We need to make to priority the call of Jesus to make disciples of all nations once again, for we have forgotten it in our complacency. We need to get out from the church walls and his the streets, be open in our families, be cautious yet not ashamed in our places of work, and live lives of integrity and love that make people witness to your lives and say once again in the words of Tertullian, "See how these Christians love one another!" We can take nothing for granted, and we do not need to go to Africa or Asia, but can start in our own backyards, for sometimes God asks us to "start where you are."

People are hungry for Truth, yet it is like a foreign alien specimen in a post-modern culture. The Truth can hurt but can also be a great salve for a hurting culture and for those 'walking wounded' who have hit bottom and have no other recourse but to look up. "Do not be afraid!" the Lord says over and over again. Be not afraid!

We are in the midst of a great period of renewal in the Church, and a fight for the culture. I have full confidence God will raise up those willing to fight. Will you be one? Take courage! Even should there be a falling away, a pruning, the Lord knows what He is doing. But we are called to great work, and there is no room for leisure or complacency while souls are being lost. "I have come to bring fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" says the Lord (Lk 12:49).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Most Terrible Poverty

I'll never forget one of my best friends in high school, since he was instrumental in my conversion. I'm inclined to put friends in quotes because it was a completely one-sided friendship. I was available to hang out whenever he wanted someone to do something with. With our other buddies we had great times walking the rail road tracks for miles, and sneaking to each others houses through the giant drainage pipe that ran under the 202 bypass. We were a posse. 

I don't know if he ever realized it, but this friend of mine was one the most self-centered people I had ever met in my life. He was gregarious and fun, quick to share a laugh, talented, and popular. Yet despite our years of friendship, when I was in the hospital he never came to visit me. I couldn't share anything of meaning with him while feeling he truly cared about me. I was good for a good time. I could never put my finger on it; it was only in retrospect that I came to realize that he didn't really care much about me or my well-being.

I mentioned that he was instrumental in my conversion because I never really felt valued by him as a person, despite the years and years we spent together. He helped me to feel and experience what the model of friendship in the world was--utilitarian, shallow, self-focused. So when I did experience the model of love, self-sacrifice, concern, communion, and genuine friendship in the person of Jesus Christ and those people I met who embodied his life as disciples, I had something to contrast it with. There was no comparison. I'm indebted to my friend for allowing me to experience the shallow dissatisfaction and loneliness such a friendship provided, because it moved me to search for something more that what it provided.

Saint Augustine believed that in this world there are two things that are essential: life, and friendship. To Augustine, friendship is as important as food, and a means of being authentically human. He drew on Cicero's definition of friendship: “agreement with kindliness and affection about things humans and divine,” but added, “in Christ Jesus our Lord who is our real peace.”

Today, I have good close guy friends from my time in Philly who I hang out with regularly and who would probably take a bullet for me. None of them, however, are Christian, and so there is always something I am leaving aside when we hang out. I love them like brothers, but I can't share all that I am with them; despite that, making new male friends in your late thirties is no easy prospect, so the thought of leaving them behind is not something I'm inclined to do.

I often find myself in a conundrum--longing for the close male friendships, the communing of souls, Augustine extols in his classical treatise; friendships not based on "doing things" or shallow interests, but on willing the genuine good of the other as disciples striving together for holiness

And yet, this kind of closeness seems to be the territory of women. It's not the male archetype, and so there is a subtle shame in desiring and needing these kinds of intimate friendships. As a married man, I can't seek out new friendship with members of the opposite sex. And as a man, finding another man who I can confide in beyond the trite and externals is not easy. My dad used to say when my brothers and I were younger, "making friends is easy! You just go up to a kid and say, "Hi I'm Robbie, want to be friends?" It generally worked as kids. Manhood as a husband and father in suburbia is a different story, especially if you are like me and really thrive on close, intimate relationships. The lowest common denominator in this closed equation is loneliness.

"The biggest threat facing middle-aged men," wrote a journalist in a Boston Globe editorial last March, "isn't smoking or obesity. It's loneliness." It's a public health crisis in that loneliness contributes to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's. But it cuts deeper, too. St Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, "the most terrible poverty is loneliness and feeling of being unloved."

I have such good memories from college of sitting out in the quad at 1 in the morning with my brother in faith, Peter. We would share our struggles and our desire to serve the Lord til the sun came up. It was a special time, but a time that wouldn't last forever. Like most of my friendships as I approach my forties, they've taken a backseat to work, family, and activities. Most of my guy friends aren't real big on writing or staying in touch regularly, and I can't say I am all that good about it either. It's just not something guys do. But when times get hard, and I think, "who can I turn to? Who can I commune with, confide in, confess to...I come up short.

Christian Men need an archetypal way of connecting that moves beyond the shallowness of sports and acquaintanceship. They need to know they can rely on other men for their struggles, trust that they can be accountable and hold others to account, and that other men will look out for their well being while pushing them to cultivate those virtues which allows them to stand on their own two feet. A deep loneliness and isolation permeates middle-aged men, especially those (like myself) who struggle to connect in a meaningful way beyond the BS that often keep us at arms length from really knowing one another. I don't know what the remedy to that isolation is, but there is a lot going against us: technology, isolation, convention and social norms, substituting 'doing things' for being there for one another in times of need, the fear of rejection or being seen as weird or effeminate, and being vulnerable.

But I don't think it has to be that way. At the heart of true friendship is wishing the other well. Jesus himself said "there is no greater love than for a man to lay his life down for his friends" (Jn 15:13). That kind of sacrifice, such "brotherly love" is a truly masculine trait. Jesus' vulnerability, too, in wanting his friends to stay awake with him in his hour of need in the garden before his crucifixion was a deeply human trait, neither masculine or feminine, but human.

Christ the Son of God said to those men in his inner circle, "I do not call you slaves, but friends." (Jn 15:15). To make a friend you sometimes have to be a friend, so maybe that is what God is calling me to do and be. Instead of desiring friends, maybe I should try being a friend to someone without, someone suffering under the painful yoke of loneliness, without thinking as much of my own need. Maybe that is a an unconventional remedy, though it is not without risk. "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." (Prov 18:24) Moving out of ourselves has a way of assuaging at least in part that deep sense of loneliness we all experience as part of being human, our attempts to fill that "God shaped hole" in the imperfection of human friendships. And yet what better and sweeter way to experience the love of God than in those friendships founded on the love of Christ? It is "iron sharpening iron," more valuable than gold.

The Poison of Unforgiveness

"To withhold forgiveness is to take poison and expect the unforgiven to die." --St. Augustine of Hippo

I am a pretty forgiving person I like to think, but there are some times where I really, really struggle with it. Last night was one of those nights and I am still working through it this morning, still struggling, still not at peace. I can tell it hasn't been resolved yet, because my spirit is not right, and I am mostly to blame, because I did not settle things quickly when I should have but chose instead to hang on out of pride and a lack of charity. It is wearing away the enamel of my spirit.

What's scary is, unforgiveness is often precipitated by something else rather than whatever perceived or actual grievance you are dealing with. For me recently, it is when I let my guard down and slack off in my daily prayer life, and that has been true the past few days. Satan is always looking for a chink in the armor, a place to enter into, and when our first line of defense--prayer--is down, we are totally, totally vulnerable.

Nothing poisons a marriage more than unforgiveness. It is like plaque in an artery that builds up over time with resentment and bitterness and when it accumulates enough, can lead to a spiritual heart attack. It can literally destroy a marriage or family relationship. It should not be underestimated.

Now when you hear of this in marriages it is a large percentage of time a wife who is struggling to forgive her husband for something. But men can struggle with hurt and unforgiveness too, even though the perceived faults are less than obvious. Big things like infidelity or betrayal can be the sources of struggle in forgiving, but it can also manifest itself in the smallest acts of perceived betrayal. The temptation is to lord the hurt over the other person and act out of stubbornness, holding it close to our chest and refusing to let go.

  • Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is an act of the will.
Sometimes I have to really pray hard, I mean really hard, and grit my teeth, to come to a place of letting go. Demons can be stubborn like that, but our free will, that supreme gift of God, holds the capacity to move us beyond emotion and makes decisions to do right or do wrong irrespective of how we feel about it. Forgiveness is an act of love, and love is an act of the will; it wills the good of another.

  • Refusing to forgive cuts us off from God's grace.
I find it hard to pray or worship when I am holding on tight to the bitter cup of unforgiveness. This, or course, makes it harder to get out of, and when we are holding so tightly our hands are not open to receive grace. We need to beg forgiveness of those who we have wronged and who have wronged us, and of God, for He will not forgive our trespasses unless we forgive those who trespass against us. (Mt 6:15). Do I get that? Do I get that Jesus himself said God will not forgive my sins unless I forgive others? Talk about heavy.

  • Unforgiveness is a puss-filled wound that festers the longer it stays in our spirit.
It's an unsettling and grievous feeling to live in a state of unforgiveness. Honestly, it's not my usual state. Why am I struggling so much in this instance? What's off? I made a choice not to forgive quickly out of spite, hurt, and pride, and I am paying the price this morning.

  • Unforgiveness binds you; it is a prison, one you lock yourself into while holding the key
God forgives quickly, and does not hold our sins over our head. "If you kept a record of our sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared." (Ps 130:3).

  • Forgiveness is a heart issue; the reasons for grievances, valid or invalid, are largely irrelevant
"For out of the heart comes evil thoughts..." (Mt 15:19) It starts in the heart. It may be a large thing or a small thing that we perceive to have grieved us, and it is even harder when it seems to come from people close to us whom we love. We may be justified in our head, but the heart holds the key to unbinding the spirit.

  • Unforgiveness is Satan's way of making us into little gods trying to usurp authority from God Himself. 
He tempts us to follow his path, his fall from Heaven, through lack of humility, rage, and impotent grasps for power. It may feel temporarily gratifying for a brief moment, but it is a rotten satisfaction. It tricks us to draw us away from God, the Devil's strategy. Satan fell because he would not submit to God's rightful authority, but wanted it for himself. Let's not be like him.

  • A lack of prayer opens the door to a spirit of unforgiveness to make a home in us. Humble and penitent prayer for help in forgiving is the antidote.

Pray for the grace to forgive, exercise the will to carry it out (it hurts, chaffs against our sinful nature), and do it quickly. It is like clearing out the plague of the arteries, so that fruitful prayer and sanctifying grace can once again find a home in us, for it can't live there as long as unfogiveness is making a residence.

I am so sorry, Lord. I need your help. I need help to let my hurt and anger go. I am really hurting and struggling to forgive my wife, and I need you. I want to be made right. Thank you for putting a thorn in my side and recognizing my sinfulness. I am a fallen man, and I need You. Thank you for the grace of Your forgiveness. Please forgive me, and help me to forgive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Do I Regret My Masters Degree In Theology? I'm Glad You Asked...

I moved to Philly a few years after graduating from Penn State in 2001. I had spent the year after college running a recovery house in Harrisburg and volunteering half-time as an assistant to the chaplain at Dauphin County Prison and living on my savings. It was around this time I was actively discerning monastic life, but had to make a living as well in the meantime. I took a job as a bike messenger, delivering packages and certified letters to law offices throughout the city, from "river to river, Vine to Pine." Then I got a job as a long-term substitute at a Catholic primary school in Oxford Circle, teaching English, Science, and Religion to 7th graders. After that gig was up, I worked in case management for individuals with developmental disabilities and forensic recovery, and it was about this time I started thinking about applying to graduate school. 

I told myself if I ever went back to school it would be for something I was actually interested in and passionate about. I was deciding between two different routes--a MFA in Creative Writing at Temple, and a MA in Theology. There were three programs I was considering for Theology--Lasalle, Villanova, and St. Charles Seminary. I was working full-time so wanted to stay in the city, and wasn't willing to move for a program. 

Lasalle's program was a little weak, though I did know an enthusiastic guy from the Philly Young Adult group who was in their program for Youth Ministry or something. I visited St. Charles in Overbrook and spoke with the Dean. She said something which at the time did not register, but in retrospect I remember as significant enough to stay with me, "we teach the Truth here." As a left-of-center Catholic at the time, the statement of orthodoxy seemed stiff and off-putting, and while the program at St. Charles was significantly less expensive, I decided instead I was better suited to attend Villanova. I spoke with the graduate program director, applied, and was accepted.

I took one course a semester, working during the day and traveling to campus once a week in the evening. My first class was a summer seminar course on Romans. It was my first theology course ever, and it was not for beginners. Every night I went home and looked up words in the dictionary--I had no idea what 'hermeneutics' was, or 'eschatology' or 'parousia'. I was surrounded by smaht kids and I was out of sorts. To add to the challenge, I was fighting an extreme bout of clinical depression, hardly able to get out of bed, my brain and body like molasses. My mom would have to drive an hour to my apartment, pick me up, take me to class, and wait outside the SAC for me to finish, then drive me back to my apartment...a true act of maternal love. I struggled and struggled, but got an A- in the class. The remaining five years in the program, one course a semester, was a grind, as my diagnosis was just beginning to manifest itself in an intense way. In one bout of mania, I emailed the entire faculty with a frenzied idea for a convoluted thesis proposal. When things started to spiral and I was too sick to continue that semester, I took a leave of absence, but came back the following term and ended up graduating by sheer force of will and grace in 2009 with a 3.8 GPA. 

Why did I want to go to grad school in the first place? What was my motivation? As a new Catholic of less than five years, I was enthusiastic about wanting to serve the Church and live for God, and figured it was a logical next step to learn more about how to do that, from an academic perspective. I (naively) figured it would help me be a better Catholic, a better future monk, and to learn effective ways to transmit the kerygma and the tools to teach apologetics, defending the Truth of the Catholic faith I had fallen in love with. I thought even if I didn't end up becoming a monk, I could go into campus ministry or serve the Church in some way. 

If anyone in those shoes would ask me today, anyone who cared about their faith and orthodoxy and evangelism and Truth, I'd tell them in all honesty to think long and hard before pursuing a Masters degree in Theology. Here's why:

1) You can learn everything you need to do know about the Faith in the Catechism, which can be accessed online for free, by anyone, anywhere, through the Vatican's website. Or, as the famous line in Good Will Hunting goes when Will encounters a first year Harvard grad student at a local bar: "You dropped a hundred fifty grand on an education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library."

2) The program was engaging in the sense that you were encouraged to "ask the questions," but there was a flip side on the negative to this approach. In constantly "asking the questions" while never really coming to definite answers, it encouraged a kind of intellectual or philosophical masturbation. I did have one Thomistic professor, but he was the exception rather than the norm. I realize an academic discipline such as Theology was not akin to catechesis, but I just felt like the exploration came at the expense of definitive Truths taught in the classroom.

3) We probably ended up studying the works of just as many Protestant theologians as Catholic theologians. I think there's value in that in some ways for balance sake, but it's just peculiar looking back. Something to be aware of.

4) It didn't encourage a simple, trusting, child-like faith. My professors were very nice and learned, but devotion and submission to authority were not ideals held up to be emulated. Theology in this context was about pushing boundaries rather than arriving at definitive destinations. 

5) I guess I shouldn't have expected this in the first place, but I didn't really learn any effective and practical ways to help make disciples or spread the Gospel. It was a strictly academic, heady kind of knowledge that did me little good in the real world (aside from honing writing and citation style). No one really seemed to be on fire for the faith, but were instead suspicious of it. I was naive, I admit. But still disappointed in the end.

6) Your job prospects are limited. Campus ministry and DRE positions don't pay much, so your ability to support your family is challenged from the start, especially if you have loans to repay. Better to go into something where you can support a family, raise a family, witness to the faith by your family, and study the classics and read about the lives of the saints on your own. If you do want to go into these fields, just do it with your eyes wide open.

7) You really have to be careful about orthodoxy. Some programs are outright dissident, some less so but still not orthodox. I had to 'unlearn' quite a bit as I came closer to the Faith after grad school, and realized nothing I learned in grad school helped me become a better Catholic or encouraged me to practice the virtues personally. If it's not helping you become a saint, and even works against it...well, maybe it's best to leave it behind.

8) Liberal Christianity is a dying game. The days of the Jesus Seminar and all that nonsense have run their course. When liberal Christianity gets conflated and indistinguishable from an MSW program, you know something valuable has been lost and is no longer worth dying for.

This was my experience. I'm sure there are more reasons I would dissuade anyone who cares about their faith and regards it as a pearl of great price thinking about pursuing a degree in Theology. Do I regret it? Like all things, I think God used the experience and brought good out of it in the end, if nothing else. I was also in a different place in my faith journey during that time, so Truth and orthodoxy chaffed, like an itchy shirt that was a size too small. Thank God for His patience with me, and His grace and forgiveness, that I would encounter people in my life who quietly challenged my preconceptions about stodgy conservatism by the way their lived their lives, and the fruit it bore, and the Truth it attested to. As St. John Chrysostom said in his "Homilies on the Gospel of John":

"What shall we then do that we may be saved? Let us begin the practice of virtue, as we have opportunity. And when we have got into the habit of this virtue, let us go to another, just as in the things we learn at school, guarding what is already gained, and acquiring others."

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Life of Leisure

When I was in college I was a backpacking instructor with the Penn State Outing Club. In the academic department one could pursue a graduate degree program and take classes in something called "Leisure Studies." I assume it was just as it sounded--the academic discipline of studying how people spend their spare time and how to develop programs that cater to a society with a lot of free time on their hands. Cue the "underwater basketweaving" jokes.

Leisure is something relatively new in the past hundred years. It used to be that people had to work a lot, whether in fields or factories, just to have enough to eat. Cooking, cleaning, laundering, and taking care of the livestock and homestead occupied much of any free time that might be left over. In the post-war 1950's you started seeing ads for "convenience" items like dishwashers and washing machines to make life easier. About that time television sets were slowly finding themselves in American homes to fill the vacuum of this new found free time that people had on their hands.

We have found as a family that since moving into a bigger house, the "stuff" tends to expand and fill the new space. That is, no matter the size of the house, what you own will fill out the space, and if aren't diligent you'll end up buying or accumulating things because "why not?" There are some days when I do miss our little 1,100 square foot row house; it just seemed easier to stay on top of.

Now don't get me wrong, having some free time to ourselves is nice. But it works kind of like the house example above--the more leisure time we have, the more we try to 'fill it' with stuff for the sake of having something to do, and in doing so, we risk a self-centric forgetfulness of our eternal trajectory if indulged in too much. A PhD in "Leisure Studies" would be laughable fifty years ago, but today it's par for the course. Industries spawn in response (think R.E.I, Easter Mountain Sports, etc)--spend your weekend kayaking, boating, snow shoeing, etc. And of course, that requires gear, which requires you to spend money, which keeps these places in business.

Now, I'm all about "work smart not hard," but there's really something to be said about hard work and not "conveniencing"
every last thing. When I have too much leisure time on my hands--time spent indulging my senses with food and drink, entertainment, distraction, and relaxation, (like on vacation)--I tend to get a little hung-over, sensory-speaking. It's nice for a day or two, but more than that and I start to get disgusted with myself. When I spend a day working outside chopping wood or mowing the lawn, or serving in a volunteer capacity, on the other hand, I come home feeling tired and with a sense of accomplishment. When we are constantly serving the self, when we have everything we could possibly want at our disposal, when we have more free time than we know what to do with--I think it's kind of a breeding ground for unhappiness. For myself, the times I am most unhappy are those times when it's just about me.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells a parable about a "rich fool" living the life of leisure:

"The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'what shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; east, drink, and be merry.'
But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God." (Lk 12: 18-21)

Concerned only with himself and eating, drinking and being merry, he is caught off guard when the day of reckoning comes, soft from all that leisure time.

Men do best when we have purpose or a task to complete, when we get out of ourselves, and have the opportunity to work hard. That's why you see the seeds of discontent and radicalism being sown in areas where high percentages of men are unemployed, sitting around all day, with no opportunity for meaningful work.

Men and young men have real potential to great things when pushed, but our current culture of leisure works against this. My dad had a saying growing up--"too much of anything is no good." It's not good to work eighty hours a week and never rest. It's also not good to lay around the house all day not working and just satisfying the senses. Good to find a balance, but err on the side of hard work, because it is good for our spirit. "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest--and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man." (Prov 6:10-11)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Take Captive Every Thought

I have a distinct memory of a supreme moment of disillusionment as a boy. It is a trite example but has lodged itself in my subconscious for over 25 years and so it makes me think it is important. Maybe it holds the key to something if I ever get into therapy.

I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, throwing a ball around the basement with my brothers. The ball had rolled away, and I went to where I was sure it had rolled to (behind a piece of furniture). To my dismay, it wasn't there, but had rolled to another part of the room instead. I stared, thinking "this isn't right, it's supposed to be HERE." I had constructed the predicted ball-retrieval scenario and it simply wasn't playing out in reality as it had in my mind. It touched a nerve--I got upset, then angry. It was pretty ridiculous. But why?

As I got older I encountered other scenarios where this played out. I would go to parties and construct a scenario prior to how my grand entrance would play out--people would stop and yell out "Rob's here!", hand me a drink, and it would all go according to the rendering in my head. Until I arrived, and it didn't. Or you meet a girl for the first time expecting her to be a certain way, or the conversation to go in one direction, and it doesn't. Or I'd buy clothes from Banana Republic trying to look like the guys in the catalogs. But I didn't. Expectations often turn to disappointment when reality doesn't "live up" to our artificial mental construct of these various scenarios. I wonder if I'm the only one who has ever gone through this.

My mind can really get away from me sometimes. A strange case in point. One day Deb was supposed to be home from work at a certain time, and wasn't. I tried calling out of curiosity where she was, and she didn't answer. It got later, and she still hadn't arrived. A scenario started playing out in my head, not unlike the ball incident from when I was younger--she was obviously dead, and was most likely in a car accident on 95. She wasn't answering her phone because she was crushed between the seat or something horrible like that. It was only a matter of time before a police officer or the hospital would call and just confirm what I knew to be true already. I was beside myself, pacing, and figuring out how I would go through the rest of my life without her.

Well, it turns out she had her ringer off, she had stopped off at Staples to get a three ring binder, and she and her car were fine. It was the strangest thing....when I head the tires on the gravel in the driveway, and her get out of the car, it was like seeing a ghost, a resurrected body back from the grave. She was dead...and now is ALIVE! I was overjoyed at seeing her, dropped to my knees and hugged her hard, and it was like a new chapter in my life was taking place. She had come back to life.

Crazy right? This is what happens when your mind gets away from you. It wasn't fair to Deb, and it was sure hard on me, when it didn't have to be. When fantasy and reality meet, it is like two strangers encountering each other, aliens from other planets. But reality is what was there all along. Only one thing was really real.

I did, thankfully, eventually get to a point in my life where I realized the catalog photo-shoots, the TV dramas, the expectations in my head--it was all a construct, and would never square with 'real life.' So better to just drop these expectations. We suffer a bit when we choose to live in these 'artificial zones' of consciousness, and not see things for how they really are. I still suffer some when my mind races ahead, but the words of St. Francis de Sales reign me back in:

“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow. The same loving Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”

St. Paul says to "take captive every thought, and make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor 10:5). Dwelling on the past and worrying about the future don't do anyone good, but it can be hard sometimes not to fall into it. Good practice to pray for wisdom to discern truth from lies, for the Devil will always try to get your mind out of the present, the task at hand that God is calling us to, and obsess about things that aren't really there.

In the end, it's always to our benefit to face reality head on, even when it causes us pain. So, stay rooted in the present, with an eye to the future, and a remembrance of the past. Don't fall trap to the lies and expectations of how things "should be,"--whether people, places, or things--for in doing so you negate what actually is. When storms come up, pray, and keep focused on the task--the work of Christ--at hand in that very moment. Take captive every thought, in the name of Jesus, and submit your mind to the Spirit.

Reality will never square with the constructs we build in our mind. Better to just leave them behind.