Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Day That Cost Me My Friend

This is a painful post for me to write. It was painful when it happened on June 26th of this year, and it's painful now. It was a day that cost me one of my best friends.

Do you ever experience a cross and you just weep and thank God for it while at the same time struggling under its crushing weight? Like the experience of redeeming suffering and joy that is simultaneously co-mingling, like blood and water, with the pain of loss? I imagine this is what we feel when someone close to us dies while we hope for their eternal reward--the intense and hole-like feeling of grief existing in tandem with the joy of anticipation for their happy death.

But my friend didn't die...I just lost him forever. Let me rewind a bit.

In June the Holy Spirit came to collect on a prayer of abandonment I had made in the car--somewhere between Route 322 and Baltimore Pike on the way to work one day last year--when I had earnestly prayed, "Lord, I know the harvest is great but the laborers are few. I want to be a worker in your vineyard. Here I am. Send me."

Be careful when you pray, because the Lord hears all prayers, and ones like this, I think, catch his attention, and He takes you at your word.

On June 15th Joseph Sciambra, who many of my Catholic friends know, posted on his Facebook page that he was looking for volunteers to help him in his outreach to the LGBT community for San Francisco's Pride parade, which draws over one million people to the Bay area. I had only gotten acquainted with Joseph and his ministry not long before that, when I discovered his post on his webpage "Hell Is For Real" about his near-death experience and was moved and shaken. I friended him on Facebook, and so see the things he posts. Two of his friends who he had usually counted on for help in passing out rosary bracelets and cards with his website in the massive crowd had backed out, leaving him alone. I saw the post right before I left work.

It was around this same geographic area--in the car driving home from work, on Baltimore Pike near Route 322--that I can only describe as the Holy Spirit 'convicting' me with what felt like an electric shock (kind of like a mild heart attack, but not painful) as I was driving. You know how when the call of God comes it isn't always audible words, yet you know what is being said? Well, the message I got from this electric current to my soul was: "You go."

Now, I'm kind of a literalist and it gets me in trouble sometimes. I'm not a big over-thinker. I read that evening in scripture of a companion of Paul's, Silas, who joined Paul after Barnabas and Mark broke with him, and I was convinced God was saying, "I need you to be Joseph's Silas." There were many people offering prayers on his page, and saying they wish they could help but couldn't for one reason or another. And I kept thinking to myself, "please, somebody else step up." But after a while checking on the computer that evening, it was clear he was still in need. So, without thinking, I sent Joseph an email saying I would go. He dissuaded me, thanking me but saying I would never make it in time and accommodations would be impossible. I thought that was that, but I felt pushed to write again, saying that as long as he was ok with it, I would make it happen. I didn't know how--we were scheduled to be on vacation the week right before Pride, and I would be driving back home eight hours that Friday. I would have to find a flight that left either the next day or, even crazier, Sunday morning, in which case I would go straight from the airport to the parade downtown. It just did not seem possible.

I reached out to a few faithful friends for guidance and prayer, all who confirmed that this indeed seemed like the Holy Spirit working and that I had to go if at all possible. On June 18th, we were on vacation in Massachusetts that week, and I couldn't stop feeling this pressure, this inner urge, to obey, as crazy as it seemed. I was checking flights and couldn't find anything less than $750, and everything was booking up with breakneck speed. Also, the times were lousy. I prayed and spoke frankly to the Lord, "You are going to have to make a way if you want me to do this, because I just don't see how it is possible." I was waffling about the cost but my friend urged me to step out in faith and bite the bullet, as long as it wouldn't put us in dire straights financially (which it wouldn't have). Sure enough, against all odds, a flight appeared that I hadn't seen previously, with the exact times I needed to make it work: leave home 3am Sunday morning, get into San Francisco an hour before the start of the parade, and fly out on a red eye that evening. I booked the ticket, and once I did, the Lord took it from there.

I wrote about the day which you can read here, so I won't repeat myself. My friend published my reflections from the day on June 25th, written at SFO waiting for my flight home, and tagged me in the post which she shared. I figured I was in so deep with the Holy Spirit by this point that I wasn't really thinking about any possible repercussions. Stepping out in obedience to this crazy proposal had reinforced itself, it was exciting to see God working, and many graces that would flow were as yet unseen at that point.

The next evening, on June 26th, I received a txt from one of my closest friends, J. We had been friends since college. I still remember the day in 1999, sitting on the curb on Beaver Avenue, eating a slice of pizza together, when he shared that he was gay. I didn't know, didn't have much of a sense of these things (faulty gay-dar, I guess). It didn't seem a big thing back then. We went to parties together, visited each other after college, went to the clubs, hiking, and just, well, being friends. Even attended Mass together a few times in DC at a gay-friendly parish. I was always cognizant of it, but it was just a non-thing.

It wasn't until the Obergefell ruling that things got a little bit more...uncomfortable. I was slowly moving in a different direction in my faith, from liberal Catholicism to orthodoxy, and at my kitchen table, after our bike ride, asked me point blank, "What are your thoughts on gay marriage?" He had been dating a man, and maybe he wanted to know where I stood, seeing the direction my faith was moving should they get 'married' and it came time for invitations. I tried to sidestep, but knowing he deserved a truthful answer, said with only light conviction that I can't get behind it, that marriage should be between a man and a woman and my faith precludes any kind of support for such a union. He respected that as much as he could, but I could tell our friendship was beginning to go the way of cognitive dissonance.

He was the one I was thinking of most during this whole experience with Joseph. He had seen my story, as I knew he would. I could sense the hurt and feeling of betrayal in his words of his text. All those years. Did I always feel this way? My heart kind of stopped; though I knew this was a possibility, I didn't want to go through it. I cried, with my wife by my side. God was doing something, was pruning and it was painful. I loved J, my friend. He told me he had to unfriend me, for his own self-respect, that we were still friends, but I knew things had changed and there was no going back. He would never speak to me again, and we would never see each other. It was a kind of death, one that holds to this day, and it hurt like hell.

While I have no regrets about this endeavor, it drove home to me--really, for the first time, since until then I had been trying to "have my cake and eat it too," that every choice comes with a cost. Christ lays it out, encourages us to count before building (Lk 14:28), that he came to divide, not bring peace (Mt 10:34), that even our own father we cannot turn back to bury (Lk 9:59).

I miss my friend dearly, and I pray for him, but I know there is no going back to the way things were before. We have to be true to ourselves, and accept what comes with that. That's the cross. Just like when you prune a bush, new growth comes back anew, I have made new dear friends, graces have abounded, and my faith has been renewed...but at a cost. And I would do it all again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Render Unto Caesar

Have you ever seen an architectural rendering? You know, one of those two dimensional stylized representations of a future reality that doesn't exist but SHOULD because it would be so awesome and would solve all of planet Earth's problems? Like a 200 story high rise that is covered with vegetable gardens, or a mixed-use space where young urbanites can live and work and play and shop in a walkable paradise? It doesn't exist yet, but 'build it and they will come.' 

I have an admission: I hate renderings. Why? I don't know. I just like life in the real world. I have a low bs threshold, and real life has a way of not always fitting into neat prescribed models. I remember watching Jurassic Park as a kid when it first came out and thinking, "this is a HORRIBLE idea!" And it was, in the end, as all the dinosaurs escaped or something and turned on people. Maybe it's my acute awareness of the Fall, not only the rebellion in my own life, but in the world in which we live, that is wary of such social utopias.

This past year we saw a kind of political rendering that was drafted prior to November, where the model was pre-scribed and pre-meditated and all we as citizens had to do was fit ourselves into it. But the majority of predictions were simply wrong in the end because they adopted a narrative that precluded what didn't fit--people 'outside the rendering' who were, in the end, tired of the agenda-driven BS and didn't want it anymore. 

When we see the emergence of the early Christian community in the book of Acts, it doesn't come as a prescribed model, but an unfolding of life lived in the Spirit. Even the disciples' expectation of the coming Messianic Kingdom needed to be adjusted, as they ask, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). But what do they go about doing after Pentecost? "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the every day meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes." (Acts 2:42; 46-47). Not only that, but "awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles" and "they ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people" (2:43, 46).

This life, along with the preaching of the Gospel and the visible witness of the martyrs willing to die for their love of Christ at the hands of their persecutors, was what fueled the growth of the early Church. "See how these Christians love one another," Tertullian marveled. 

I used to read and write a lot of poetry growing up. The best poets, as I learned, don't write about "love" or "truth" in the ephemeral macro, but bring such grandiose themes to life in a kind of sacramental grounding in the everyday. One of my favorites is "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel 

glazed with rain 

beside the white

I don't trust renderings, because they don't speak to me. They live in an urban architectural vacuum, the world of proposals and blueprints and speculation. I need a model, not on paper or a computer screen, but one that is lived and real, of how to "do life" as a follower of Jesus.

For me, in my Christian walk, the Saints are the answer; they are the anti-rendering. They don't live in a spiritual place of make-believe, but in the real world, the same world we inhabit. They're men and women just like you and me who follow in the footsteps of Christ, who live and love in flesh and blood while pointing the way to something beyond this world. They live within the same limitations as we do, were born into the world in the same way we were, and yet they open us up the possibility of a great expansiveness, of something more. Not in a sterile, self-serving mall-of-the-future 2D proposal, but a sacramental, spirit-filled life founded on breaking everyday bread (the food for our bodies) as well as the Eucharist (the food for our souls).

I became Catholic because I saw someone who was Catholic, who had great joy, abundance of life in the blessing of many children, and a deep and unshakable confidence in an afterlife that precluded fear of death.  We became open to life, not because I read the Theology of the Body (I still haven't), but because we met families who trusted God with their fertility and by virtue of that trust embodied the wisdom of Solomon: "Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox" (Prov 14:4). We learned to love by spending time with those who loved us with the love of Christ. We were converted because of LIVES LIVED, not just words spoken.

Don't underestimate the power of your everyday witness when it comes to the Gospel. Live with zeal, and love with integrity. You never know who may be watching you, searching for more than this artificially rendered life has to offer.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Good Yeast, Good Bread

This is a small sampling of the SPAM folder in my email.

Every week I have to clean it out, and every week it's the same solicitations. I tend to just delete en masse, though I'm always afraid I will have a legit one that was routed into the pile inadvertently and so sometimes I have to nervously pick through, like going through a heap of trash at the county dump, and I'm always afraid it will catch me on a bad day with their click bait. They--whoever sends these emails--are simply relentless. It never lets up, never quits. Sooner or later, they figure, you'll click.

I was out with some guy friends a few weeks ago. We were at a bar and a few of my buddies were taking smoke breaks, so we were all outside talking. My wife always asks me what guys talk about when they get together and I honestly don't know what to tell her, because we don't really talk about much, at least nothing of much substance. Sports sometimes, work, occasionally something about our kids or spouses, or arguing. But mostly it's not much of substance.

Anyway, we're out front and just shooting the breeze and somehow, I don't know, the topic of 'taking care of yourself' came up, though I don't remember in what context. And I made mention, kind of non-chalently, that I hadn't masturbated in about seven years. That included not looking at porn  on-line and not looking at women in any kind of sexual capacity if they weren't my wife.

It was one of those moments when the record stops and its just...silence. "You're joking," one buddy said. No, and I couldn't quite understand the incredulity either, since my wife and I are intimate pretty regularly, so it wasn't like I wasn't, um, being 'taken care of.' Just didn't seem necessary to take care of anything myself.

Now, I love these guys. None of them are Christians, none of them are conservatives, but they are good guys. and are exceptionally respectful of me and my choices and generally don't badmouth the Church or faith or anything like that around me, and I value that about them. But the thought of a guy not looking at porn, not masturbating, and not even looking at a woman in that way was just..well, I think it was just one of those smh wth moments.

It didn't happen overnight. Nothing in my life happens overnight. I'm always two steps forward, one step back (and sometimes vice versa), and there was a good bit of stumbling along the way. But I was assured, from other men who had gone before me, that sexual integrity was a possibility, that God gives us the grace to resist sin, and that there are tools we can equip ourselves with to ensure victory. And believe me, if it is possible for me, it is possible for you too.

This morning at my men's prayer group, we were reading Jesus' Parable of the Yeast as it relates to the Kingdom:

"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened."
(Mt 13:33)

St. Paul also refers to yeast and leaven in his letter to the Corinthians, when he admonishes them,

"Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough? Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened (1 Cor 5:7)." 

He also writes more explicitly in his letter to the Ephesians that there should not be "a hint of sexual immorality among you" (Eph 5:3).

And, of course, the Book of James recounts the lifecycle of the larvae of destruction:

"Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death." (James 1:14-15)

Yeast is a collection of small little grains that look like sand. In other parables close to the parable of the yeast, Jesus speaks of other small flecks, seeds--that of weeds (tares), as well as mustard seed. If you've ever baked bread, you know that yeast--those tiny granular flecks--work their way almost magically through the dough and expand it outwards. But it is not just 1 fleck, which would be insufficient to leaven a loaf. A teaspoon of yeast containing maybe a hundred granulars would do the trick though.

I asked an old monk once, "when do the temptations stop?" He answered me, "the day you die." Rather than deal with the macro 30,000 ft view, think about virtue as habit that plays out in the micro, day to day. It's the accumulation of many small choices that reinforce and slowly turn the U-boat of a particular action. In my case, the bouncing of the eyes became a daily practice, imperfect at first, of controlling the intellect, which in turn twarts fantasy, which in turn makes masturbation less likely. It seems like an impossible task, but flushing out and putting to death even the 'hints' of sexual immorality actually makes the task of chastity easier in the long run. You flirt with temptation you are going to get burned. For me, it has a way of getting a hook in and spreading like bad yeast, like weed seed in a field, very difficult to control.

Sexual integrity is not a goal in and of itself, that is, for bragging rights or some kind of moral Essene superiority. As we have seen lately, the way sexual immorality plays out in society hurts people--it hurts girls and boys, women and men, friends and family, wives and daughters, sons and brothers, and it is needless, death-dealing hurt.

Men--individual men, facing temptation, making choices, denying themselves, and choosing to suffer if need be for a greater good--are the individual grains that can leaven a loaf. And that means you. Start with yourself, and you'll have some ground to stand on. Be willing to stand up for your sisters and daughters, but do it with integrity first.  Pray in earnest for healing. Confess your sins. Develop good habits. Practice bouncing the eyes. Find a brother to be accountable to. Suffer when your body calls for it to maintain chastity, for the sake of your sisters and daughters. Refuse to be complicit in darkness and perversions. Be open to life. Love sincerely and without possessing.

Do these things and maybe each of us, together, can make a dent in a culture of sexual darkness and violence, once grain at a time.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Behold Your Mother

On Friday I took my family to a traditional Polish church in the city for a Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima. A statue of Our Lady of Fatima was in the front of the Church, and we were gratefully able to receive the merciful gift of the Holy Father in the form of a plenary indulgence, and consecrate ourselves and our family to Jesus through Mary.

I was never a "Mary guy." Like many converts, I struggled for most of my early years as a Catholic of 'what to do' with Mary. I prayed the rosary, but truth be told it wasn't my favorite of prayers, and I struggled with distraction.

But the last year has been different. Mary, the Mother of God, has been working in our lives in very clandestine and remarkable ways, and it all started when when found a Miraculous Medal and started wearing it. It unlocked the storeroom of grace, and they have been flowing every since. Deb's mom died less than a week after discovering the medal, and the story of St. Catherine Laboure (who commissioned the Medal at Mary's request) spoke to my wife's heart, since St. Catherine had also lost her mother and said to the Blessed Virgin "Now, you will be my mother." We (I) were also not previously not open to life, and my heart began to soften when it came to welcoming children. We got pregnant unexpectedly after we made the decision to trust God and try to honor him with our fertility, though we lost the child at around 7 weeks. Deb described being downstairs one day not long after and seeing a child running across the hallway out of the corner of her eye, thinking it was our 4 year old daughter, but when she went upstairs she was in her room. To this day she can't explain it, but she's convinced it was our little Catherine Rose, whom we had lost before she was born.

Other things have been happening too. At a talk on the stages of the spiritual life, I realized I have no hope of ascending in it unless I get some serious help. The spirituality of the Little Flower came to mind, who desired to enter Heaven with "empty hands" in a spirit of total dependance, like a little child. St. Therese was intimidated by the heroic characters of the great saints and in recognizing her littleness and weakness, sought a more simple and direct way, like an elevator that ascends directly and swiftly. Who could help me more than the very Mother of God herself, who desires to show us the way to Heaven as a model of perfect discipleship to her Son, and who has made it known with urgency in the past two centuries through the messages she seeks to impart.

The priest at Mass on Friday described in his homily one of the lesser known Apparitions that took place when the Virgin Mary appeared to a young Belgian immigrant woman, Adele Brise, on three occasions in October of 1859 in a small town in Wisconsin. She was instructed by the Virgin to “Gather the children in this wild country, and teach them what they should know for salvation … Go and fear nothing. I will help you.” I had no idea the Virgin Mary had ever appeared in our own country, but she had, and is described as Our Lady of Good Help.

Of course this was only one of many appearances of the Virgin Mary throughout the world for the purposes of giving us a message. But just who did she rely on to deliver those messages?

Take a look at these approved appearances of the Virgin Mary and see if you can see the common thread:

The Apparitions at Fatima - the three children to whom she appeared were Lucia dos Santos, aged ten, and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, brother and sister, aged eight and seven respectively.

The La Salette Apparition - September 1846 Maximin Giraud was eleven years old at the time and Mélanie Calvat fourteen.

The Apparitions at Lourdes - On Thursday 11 February 1858, fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous saw a beautiful young girl in a niche at a rocky outcrop called Massabielle, about a half mile outside the town.

The Apparition at Pontmain - appeared to  Joseph and Eùgene Barbadette, aged ten and twelve, sons of simple and hardworking country folk.

The Apparitions at Beauraing, 1932-33 - On the evening of 29 November 1932, she appeared to Fernande Voisin, a fifteen year old girl, Andree Degeimbre, aged fourteen, and her sister Gilberte, aged nine

The Apparitions at Banneux in 1933 - Mary appeared eight times to Mariette Beco, aged 11, outside the family home at Banneux, a small village, in Belgium. She described herself as the "Virgin of the Poor," and promised to intercede for the poor, the sick and the suffering.

The Virgin did not appear to a group of moral theologians, or important dignitaries. She appeared to simple, common folk, the majority of them being...children. She is sending us a message amongst those who are most disposed to receive it.

Are we surprised?  We know when the Lord chose the Twelve they were simple men, fisherman and the like, to follow Him. Jesus prayed, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants" (Mt 11:25) and admonished us that "unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18:3)

Children know they are helpless apart from the one who cares for them. They recognized their "littleness" and dependence. They are receptive because their hearts are still open to belief, with less to overcome, less to peel back--that is, the layers of cynicism and pride that build up on the hearts of adults over time.

How might we, on the other hand, be described? I think of the words of Christ when He said "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me'" (Mk 7:6). We pray without believing, and worship without honoring. We go through the motions while missing the message.

So how do we become like little children? I'm still working it out myself, but I know becoming like a child holds the key to entering the Kingdom. So, it's important. 

One hard part in becoming like children means we give up a lot of control, the control we think we have over our lives, and hand it over to God, telling him, "I don't know where to go, I don't know what to do, I need help, and I need you Abba. Save me." It is very simple and very hard for us as adults. It is also very necessary, since God can't work with a heart that is hardened, a door that is closed. 

The second is the risk of looking like fools. Most of us know we don't really have it together in our lives, but we act like we do, putting on the facade in good company. When we take it off, expose ourselves to being "fools for Christ," we begin to enter into that mystery of Scripture and the Rosary of the mocking of Christ, the crowning with thorns. Prayer, in the modern world and to the modern mind, is complete foolishness. It is regarded as a waste of time, a superstition and a crutch, a psychological maladaptation, and a weakness. Of course we know that is not the case and is in fact quite the opposite, since it brings us in touch with reality itself, the 'behind the curtain' world beneath the facade. Nevertheless, it is foolishness in the eyes of the world.

The third is the disposition to belief. Children believe. They believe in things they don't see and can't prove. They believe what their parents tell them about the world. If we teach them to be cynical and anxious and materialistic, they will be cynical and anxious and materialistic. If we are cynical and anxious and materialistic ourselves, that is what we pass on. But Christ calls us to Repent, and BELIEVE in the Gospel (Mk 1:15), not to be unbelieving but to BELIEVE (Jn 20:27). The smarter we think we are, the less inclined we are to believe what we do not understand. So don't think of yourself as too smart! Humility is a foundational virtue that others build on, it lays the foundation, and we can learn it from our children and the children we work with and are surrounded by.

Finally, I think the innocence of children is so important in a world in which they are so vulnerable of being robbed of it. Preserving innocence safeguards the secret chamber of the soul, in our lives and in our children's. When we defile the Temple of the Holy Spirit, His indwelling in us, through inviting in sin, we lose the signal, the radio frequency through which God tunes into our hearts to speak to us. We get disoriented because we can't hear and can't see, and wander in the wilderness without clear direction. The first thing they say when you are lost in the woods is to stop, rather than go off and keep marching when you don't know where you are going. Sin has a tendency to get away from us, for "when desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sink when it is full grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15). Remaining in a state of grace, and not conceding ground to sin, disposes us to sanctifying and actual grace that can work and grow in us to keep that signal going, so we, in turn, know when and where to walk.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of God, was a simple girl when the Angel appeared to her, whose supreme gift to the world was her YES to God. And so, she chooses to appear also to those who will answer in kind, with a YES, risking to look foolish before the world to warn them of the coming chastisement should they continue to persist in unbelief and unrepentance. Christ takes the children to his lap and places them in the seats of honor. He throws open the doors to the banquet hall and calls us in, and his Mother encourages us to get dressed for the feast. How long will we continue to ignore her?

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Most Precious Temple Of All

This evening after Mass, on the 100th anniversary of the last apparition of Our Lady of Fatima appearing to three shepherd children in Portugal, a poor man made his into the sanctuary as we were getting ready to leave to go home. He stood around waiting for someone to speak to him.

"Does anyone here speak Spanish?" one of the bustling busy church women asked in passing. Our au pair did. She conversed with him as we looked on uncomfortably. What did he want? Why was he here? "He is asking if anyone has work," she told us. "He just came here two weeks ago, he said. His parents were killed in the earthquake in Mexico City. He has a place to sleep, but is looking for work."

It had been a fruitful but long, hot, intense and stressful Mass with our melting down kids in a sea of childless older parishioners. After Mass was finished, the Eucharist consumed, the blessing given, the relics venerated, the closing hymn sung, I just wanted to leave, and I had to proverbially step over this man smelling like unwashed underpants asking about work at 8 o'clock at night in the back of the church while I'm trying to get my family home. The man was quiet and demure, and seemed ashamed to be there among all the churchy stuff going on, like he didn't belong in his t-shirt with the stretched out collar, and his leathery skin and stubble and dark quiet eyes.

Now, I am a rich man. I travel in wealthy and upper-class circles. Most of my associates are well off people of similar stature. I've never known want in my life, even for a day. I pay my bills off each month and funnel the excess to accounts. I never have to think twice about choosing one thing over another, gas over food, medications over heat; all my needs have been provided for, and my storehouses are full of grain.

So in those rare instances in which I get up from my table and notice someone there, someone I almost stub my toe on on the way out the door who is in some degree of want, it's unnerving. It is a glaring reminder that I royally misread the Gospel, consistently, when I ignore the poor and see them as 'irrelevant' to the act of solemn worship.

The Gospel is a hair shirt that itches and scratches, and the poor are the sanctifying fibers. The dialectic tension of sublime liturgical worship--Transfigurations on the heights of spiritual mountaintops--buttresses up the pungent presence of flesh and bones in want at the base down below. When Christ pays us a visit in the distressing guise of the poor, we must be ready to genuflect, bow, and receive him on our knees as we do in the Eucharist in which He is also hidden. Yet most of the time, I am simply put off and put out. I receive him sloppily and without thought, consumed quickly, something to get through in order to move on to the next thing.

It's a tough tension and a challenging dialectic to walk consciously among the two camps--the liturgical and the charitable--while neglecting neither. At the risk of idolizing, the poor man in our midst, in the back of the church or the places we intentionally separate and insulate ourselves from, is the living, breathing, uncomfortable reality of the Emmaus Christ. On a spiritual high, his companions cannot see the Christ among them, walking and talking.

Dorothy Day recognized that the way to embody a lived spirituality of recognizing Christ in every moment in every face of the poor encountered was to not quarantine oneself from Christ and his poor, but surround oneself with it, with all its uncomfortable and smelly, needy, humanness. Can our spirituality of divine and proper worship and right justice in charity be a both/and, not an either/or? Can we be equally cut to the heart by Christ sacrificed on the altar during Mass as we are when we recognize our hidden contempt for the poor, the Lazarus at our feet? Can we wash our hands before receiving the Host, and dirty our hands by washing the feet of the man who walks in to the sanctuary? Is the choice really between being the pejorative "bleeding heart SJW" and "radtrad" classifications...or is there a secret in embracing both the Liturgy and the poor in one embrace?

When I'm tempted with neglect and a calloused heart, and the self-righteous indignation of justifying myself before God by my worship, I remember the words of St. John Chrysostom, the great and holy golden mouth synthesizer of right worship and right justice. We neglect the poor at our own peril and profane our offerings at the alter when we do so:

"Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison.  
Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all." (Hom. 50, 3-4, PG 58, 508-509)

My futile offering of alms to the man I encountered tonight after Mass in the form of ten dollars, a squeeze of his hand, and a word of encouragement, pales to the justice owed to him on account of what I have been loaned by God. I do not think it was an accident he visited us tonight after such a sublime mountaintop experience of worship, since the lived reality of the Christian faith is dependent not only on our holy Sunday oblations, but on the poor themselves--we simply cannot be Christian without them, and let's pray they will pull up a chair for us when we encounter them at the heavenly banquet after we die.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Where Regret Never Ends

My parents have been married for almost 40 years. Like all couples, they have had their shares of ups and downs. I remember as a kid during the most unnerving of verbal arguments sitting at the top of the stairs with my brother and listening to every word and wondering if everything was simply hanging by a thread about to snap. You have so little control as a child, over your life and environment, that whatever control you do have you totally leverage as a way of coping with, well, life.

For some children and young adults, cutting is a way of physically 'bleeding' emotional pain; for others, eating disorders manifest themselves as offering a mondium of control when you feel like you have none. 

For me, as a kid, worry was my way of controlling things. As has been said before, worry is self-reinforcing: if you worry about something enough, and the bad thing never happens, you can come to think that your worry was what prevented the bad thing from happening. I.e., worry works. It doesn't of course, but for a kid, the path of that psychological closed loop can weave its way into your psyche like a Kevlar thread. My anxiety of 'bad stuff that's just around the corner' played out physically in G.I. disruptions, and worrying about your parent's marriage doesn't help.

But my parents always assured my brothers and I that divorce was never an option, no matter how bad things got, and I believed them. They were not especially religious, but I almost appreciated that more, because the seriousness with which they took their vows of "for better or for worse" went beyond merely a religious conviction. They affirmed, by their actions of keeping them, that vows meant something, something eternal and binding but also something that marriage as a natural institution extends beyond a isolated sphere, the way St. Paul speaks of the the "law written on hearts."

Even at the lowest points, when you are gritting your teeth and staying together through the storms because that's just what you do and can't see to the other side, temptation rears its sweet and ugly head and can become acute. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus demands his sailors tie him to the mast of his ship and that they plug their own ears, lest they hear the siren's songs and run the boat aground. Odysseus does not plug his ears since he is curious about the siren song; were it not for being bound, he would have succumbed to their deadly embrace. 

As a result of gutting it out during those trying periods, they can now taste the fruit in their golden years, which, as I can see from my vantage point as a son, is sweet: their marriage is strong, they are a good team and complement one another well, and they are enjoying retirement together. I don't think it can be overstated that their staying together gave my brothers and I a solid foundation on which to build our own lives--financially, emotionally, and psychologically.

But what if, during a fit of frustration, one had threatened divorce, and the bullwarks that reinforced their bond was not as strong as they were then? What if my mom went to girlfriends during one of my father's episodes and they flippantly advised her, "you have to get out. You have to take care of yourself, and this is no way to live." Or what if my dad just decided the pressure of married and family life was too much, and filed himself, abjugating himself from the responsibility? I don't think people realize the magnitude of planting such seeds of such temptations in other people's lives, and their long-lasting consequences. 

I work on a college campus. I don't know how many young mothers there are of the tens of thousands of students, but I don't think it's very large. At all. I have never seen a visibly pregnant college student on campus; not to say it doesn't exist, I just haven't seen it. Which makes me think that there a lot--a lot--of young women who are walking around who may have had an abortion.

Women procure abortions for different reasons, but I suspect underlying them all is the thought "I can't do this." I can't disrupt my life like this; I can't support a baby financially; My parents will disown me. I have no support." Whether or not that is true is unforeseen, but the fear is real and fear motivates us to do things that we often regret.

Time magazine reported that 95% of women who have gotten an abortion have not regretted the choice. I wonder. I wonder because I dont' think that statistic tells the whole truth, and it belies the layers upon layers of psychological compensation that many women often employ to come to terms with their choice. Choosing life is not an easy choice for a young woman today, especially for college students and especially when the culture at large dos not support such a choice. It's a narrow way that leads to life in the world today. But like staying together during the darkest times of marriage, I have to believe that the moment one choices to step out onto the wide road and end a life is a pivotal point that so much else hinges on that we might not see, and never allows for a rainbow to form.

I think deep down, deep deep down, in the dark of night when alone with themselves, many post-abortive women think and wonder 'what if?'. What if I hadn't listened to all my friends that told me I had no choice? What if there wasn't a Planned Parenthood a mile from campus? I came across the thoughts of a young woman who had an abortion in college, completely secular, but was struck by the honesty and, if I dare imagine, the universality of such an experience that lives beneath the surface:

"I don’t know why, but afterwards I just felt so empty. Not that I had put on any weight or anything; I just felt physically empty. I could physically feel the lack of my baby’s presence. I wasn’t bloated anymore. I didn’t throw up anymore. I didn’t feel nauseous. It felt wrong to just go back to my life as if nothing had happened. I had erased all evidence of my baby.  
After a couple months of therapy and many self-help books, I was finally able to cope with my abortion. Sometimes, I still think about how old my baby would be if I had decided to keep him or her. I also wonder if it would have been a boy or a girl. There are so many questions and so many things that I wish I could tell my baby. I wish I could apologize. I wish I could explain. I wish I could tell it how much I loved it, even though I didn’t want it. 
There are some things in life that you will never get over. You will carry these things in your heart from the day you made your decision until the day you leave this world. They might be common knowledge, dark secrets, or white lies, but whatever it is, you hide it deep inside your soul under layers of scarring. After a while, what happened feels like a lifetime ago, something that you know happened, but still don’t really like it did. Something you can barely remember — probably because it hurt so much that you had to force yourself to forget it just to move on. And you will move on with your life, but at any moment, a reminder can send you spiraling back. Free-falling back into the hole you tried so hard to bury — to that decision that changed your life forever."

The choices we make have consequences, sometimes seen and many times unforeseen, and whether we like them or not. Regret is an acute ache of the heart, a dull intermittent torment in this life and an agonizing, eternal one in the next. The pain of regret for those who find themselves in Hell is the torture of knowing you had so many chances to save your soul and be happy with God, but lost Heaven because of mortal sin.  You are surrounded by souls, millions of souls, who have made similar choices to reject love. "Here," they say, "we drink hatred like water."

St Bridget of Sweden said, "if Hell pains were visibly seen as they now exist, man would be totally frozen with fear and would see Heaven out of fear and not out of love. Since no one ought to seek Heavenly joy out of fear of punishment but rather out of divine charity, these pains are therefore now hidden."

But if you are reading this there is a 100% chance you are still alive. And that means it is not too late to turn away from regret, from shame, from loss, while Death remains at bay. Life Itself is calling you.  There is nothing--nothing--you could have done in this life that God does not have the power to pardon through the merciful heart of His Son Jesus Christ. When something is buried so deep it can be hard to see, and it takes great courage to unearth what has been buried years and decades ago. We live so as not to confront it.

I began writing about my parent's marriage, and their choice to remain faithful to their vows. That choice has had long-lasting consequences for the good, and I am so so grateful for they made it, though they probably didn't think about it at the time. To think it could have all been different had they considered divorce based on short-term hardships, had chopped down the tree at the base that had been growing and developing roots. There's no taping a tree trunk back together after it's felled. There's no way to bring back a life that has been 'erased.' And so the potential for regret comes part and parcel with the awesome gift of free will that God graciously imparts to each of us.

If you are living with regret, lay your burdens down. Lay them at the foot of the cross. His yoke is easy, and His burden light. Do it while you are still alive, face the pain now rather than suffer the eternal pain of regret that is the mark of Hell. God is so merciful, so loving, and able to be trusted. He is pining to forgive, He exists to love, and He will stop at nothing to go after those who are lost.

"If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." (Ps 130:3-4)

Monday, October 9, 2017

Tares Among Wheat

I became a Catholic in 1998 at the age of eighteen. That I was a sinner in need of redemption was an obvious and solid foundation with plenty of material on which to build. On a solo three day backpacking trip in the wilderness of upstate Pennsylvania a year prior, I groaned in my slavery to self and cried out to a God I did not know but who might be able to save me. He did.

Coming from such a personal and ransoming experience that I had trouble putting into words, I guarded it carefully. If I was going to follow this Jesus who I had heard about, the route had to be original. There could be no whisper down the lane; I had to go to the source of Truth itself. And the source was His Bride, the Church. In fact, when I walked down the aisle to receive Him for the first time in December of my freshman year of college, in a sleepy Byzantine church in Hawk Run, Pennsylvania, I knew this was a marriage about to be consummated, and that it was for life.

I spent my remaining three years at Penn State getting acclimated to the community of believers and being a part of something rather than a lone wolf: the little 'c' church. I got involved--making friends on a retreat that I eventually ended up directing my senior year; experiencing the life of joy and poverty in Haiti; and spent most of my junior and senior years discerning a call to monastic life, after our priest invited a few of us guys to a vocation weekend at the Abbey.

I hadn't really developed habits of virtue though, keeping one foot in the door of my B.C. life: I partied and got drunk most weekends like I did in high school; I rarely said no to the opportunity to hook up with girls, though now I felt guilt about it. The elderly but emotionally pre-pubescent and co-dependent priest who catechized me was old school, but not in a healthy kind of way ("make sure you don't get hit by a bus before going to Confession," that kind of thing). I felt guilted in to attending the small Byzantine Divine Liturgy when he came to campus from his small rural parish, when I really wanted to be with my friends at the Roman masses. I had no appreciation for liturgy, it was just pomp and incense in my eyes.

It was about this time I started making weekend trips to a Catholic Worker community in Harrisburg with some other students and a married couple. I connected with the radical nature of the Worker right away, as well as with Bruce, the one half of the Peter-and-Paul team that ran the St. Martin de Porres House of Hospitality for homeless men with drug and alcohol addictions, and spent a year after college there practicing the Works of Mercy and serving the poor. Bruce was in his mid-forties, smoked Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes, and, as I learned later, was HIV positive as a result of his midnight homosexual rendez-vous.

When mismanagement and scandal began to surface, and Bruce suddenly left in the middle of night and disappeared, I was left to run the place with his counterpart, Naed, a man with a mysterious past who I had heard was fired from his job as a campus minister at King's College because of some scandal (but never knew the whole story of what happened). Naed's non-heirachical, organic approach to governance was much different from Bruce's, who took a structured approach to running things. He put most of his energy into the community garden, and protesting at places like the School of the Americas in Georgia.

During this time I was kind of stuck between two worlds. I was reading volumes of Eastern monastic spirituality like The Philokalia and The Way of the Pilgrim, all while discerning a nagging calling to religious life. But on the book shelves at the Worker were books by authors like John Deer and the Berrigan brothers, which I also read. I had a strong desire to serve the poor and live a life of voluntary poverty, and admired Dorothy Day, but was less crazy about the political activism of the CW and her communal legacy.

When I left the Worker in the Fall of 2002, I didn't have a plan. I had lost my virginity my junior year of college to a Samoan girl in New Zealand, and I went back to visit, but it didn't end well and I ended up just hitch-hiking around the country for a month after she kicked me out of her apartment. I came back home to my parent's house and got a job at a factory painting propane tanks.

In the spring of 2003 I came across a website for an organization called the "Catholic Campaign for Human Development," the Social Justice arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in DC. They were sponsoring a cross country bike ride from June to August called "Brake the Cycle of Poverty," and I was game. I made the cut of 24 riders, and flew out to San Francisco for the start of the ride that June to raise awareness about the problem of poverty in America, and how CCHD was working to "address the root causes of poverty" by providing grants to community organizations as a means of breaking the cycle.

As we traversed the Sierra Nevada mountains, crested the Rockies, and made our way up to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and eventually DC, we held press conferences, did interviews with local newspapers, and spoke to parishes about the importance of working for justice. Our slogan was something to the effect of "We Can End Poverty," which didn't seem to jive with Jesus's words "the poor you will always have with you," but I kind of chalked it up to ideals that nobody seriously thought would ever manifest completely.

Most of the people on the tour were of a liberal, social justice bent, with the exception of one. His name was Brian. He was about my age, hailing from Kansas City, MO. He was quiet but friendly and prayed the rosary, something no one else on the tour did (at least not in public). He was a small-town, faithful, simple kind of guy--a square in my eyes--and I couldn't stand him. Even the way he pedaled--a huge gear at a low cadence--earned my scorn. I thought bad thoughts about him. I wished him ill. I saw him as a threat, but to what I didn't know.

One of the riders and I got romantically involved about halfway across the country. She was tough as nails, quite a few years older than me, and covered in tattoos from head to toe; a South Philly boxer and bartender, a talented photographer, who had financed her schooling by stripping. We hit it off, and after the tour ended, I moved to Philadelphia, and we got engaged. By the grace of God, the relationship fell apart a month before the wedding.

I got an apartment in Northwest Philly, a great one bedroom with ten foot ceilings and windows that you could walk out of to the vegetable garden in the front yard. I made friends with all my neighbors, growing marijuana in my closet, chain smoking inside and watching episodes of Lost and Battlestar Galactica together. After a breakup, I shaved my head and flew to Thailand and meditated in a jungle at a Buddhist monastery for 11 days without speaking and doing yoga every morning. Not long after getting back I bought a schoolbus and converted it to live in. I was also struggling to reign in my mind, which would get a way from me due to my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Life was a kind of series of kicks and going with whatever presented itself. As long as it wasn't square, like that guy Brian.

I had been Catholic for almost ten years by this point, but I was a walking contradiction, and I knew it, and I embraced it. After the engagement broke off, I had stayed in touch with the Jesuit priest who had done our Pre-Cana and he became my spiritual director. He was kind and taught at the Jesuit university nearby, as he had written a book on 're-examining' sexual ethics. I appreciated the time he spent with me, but it was fruitless, since he basically kind of affirmed everything I did and spoke very lightly and understandingly of sin (though he was also my regular Confessor).

I was like a wayward son without a spiritual father and no discipline, an orphan trying to figure out the spiritual life and the way of the saints on my own. It's not easy to raise yourself in the faith; we need guides. The influence of my time at the Worker and with CCHD kept me in left-learning crowds, both Catholic and secular. I simply did not know anyone who was orthodox who could "give me a word," as those who approached the hermits in the desert would plead.

It wasn't until 2009, when I met my future wife, that things started to take a different direction. It was a slow slow process, like turning a U-boat. Thankfully I had kept up the practice of Eucharistic Adoration, even (and especially) in my sin and darkness. I would go to the chapel in Manayunk (when I was in between jobs and not working) and just lay down before the Lord like a bum and lay it all out, my whole mess. I had no posture of prayer, no discipline--just the same helplessness to improve or change or make things right that I experienced during my conversion in the wilderness.

But I did pray to meet someone, a spouse (since the monastery did not look like it was going to work out at this point), as I remembered our priest in college telling us. "Pray for your future spouse," he would say, "even if you don't know them." I did, before the Blessed Sacrament. My future wife, for her part, was praying also during the same time to meet someone. When we met, got engaged, and married, it became clear that we were God's provision to one another for the benefit of sanctification.

We contracepted early in our marriage (figuring "God understands"), and it wasn't until I came across Dr. Janet Smith's talks on the subject that put a little thorn in my conscience about it. It took a long time and a lot of agony, but when we made the move to trust the Lord, by his gentle nudging, and get in a state of grace--that was a pivotal point in both of our lives. Because then he could work. For so long I had my hand to the plow and was looking back. But you simply can't advance in the spiritual life in an efficacious manner until you leave death-dealing sin behind for good. When we began trusting also in the Mother of God, wearing the Miraculous Medal we found by chance, and making frequent Confession, Mass, and daily prayer a part of our lives, things really began to change.

You can't change the world from the outside. It has to start within, and it has to start with you, and by extension, your family--the domestic church. That's where I think the left gets it wrong. The promise of social utopia here on earth woefully neglects the dreadful reality of the Fall, and the rejection of clear, authoritative teaching and Reason, puts us back in the pre-creation dis-order of chaos. There is great diversity and expansiveness in the long as we are all playing by the same rules and not trying to subvert them for our own misguided ends.

I mentioned the guy on the ride, Brian, to whom I harbored so much unfounded hatred because of his conservative orthodoxy. A few months ago I got his number from a friend and was able to connect with him after fifteen years. He was as pleasant as could be, and invited our family to visit. He is now a lawyer, and he and his wife have ten children. They live a rich Catholic life in the country, and I have no doubt he is on his way to sanctification. I confessed to him, thorough tears, how much I hated him and thought ill of him, and asked for his forgiveness, which he had no qualms with extending. They even sent a hand written card when we experienced our first miscarriage to express how sorry they were and how they were praying for us. I look to him for guidance in my spiritual life today.

It's hard when you don't see the true faith lived, or see it lived as a subversive counterfeit, which is why St. Paul told the Corinthians "be imitators of me," to give them a flesh-and-blood example of what is possible with God's grace. I thank God for my orthodox, faithful friends, for shining their light before them so people like me can see the way out of chaos.

"Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law." 
(Psalm 119:18)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Please. Teach Me.

Of all the stories in Scripture, one of the most dear to me is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.

“But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Canda′ce the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:26-39) 

The Ethiopian eunuch was an educated man of means, possessing his own scroll of the prophet and able to read it as well. He also had great professional responsibility as treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia. He had a good life. But you get this intimate portrait of a man on the roadside just earnest with the desire to learn--not to impress his friends or engage in debates or look smart, but to know God.

He was not a Jew, but he loved and worshipped the God of Israel in earnest. He was in many ways ‘outside the community’ but like the persistent widow in Luke 18 and the woman with the flow of blood in Luke 8, he doesn’t let his status or situation stop him from true worship.

He was open to instruction. He didn't engage with Philip and try to flex his debate muscles. He is simply docile to being led by one with apostolic authority. He has the right disposition to receive the Word and make it fruitful in his life. He asks questions innocently, like a child and without pretense. Which leads to the praxis:

He recognizes the urgent need for baptism, grace, and sacramental action. He asks to the point, "See, there is water. What prevents me from being baptized?"

There is true love, concern, and friendship among the two men, Philip and the Ethiopian. It is not based on race or identity or standing, but filial instruction. Philip trusts God where to go to find this man by being led by Him, and the Ethiopian in turn trusts Philip what to do to be saved by being led by Him. The diversity of the body of Christ, the Church, always fills me with hope and gratitude, because Christ came to save all people, Jew and Gentile alike, and those who wish to offer right worship are not spurned when they have the right heart to orient themselves towards the One True God.

Philip as evangelizer had the right modus operandi: God showed him who to go to in a vision, and he trusts Him and goes out to find the man. When he finds him, he approaches the chariot without reticence, and asks a question ("do you understand what you are reading?") as a means of invitation. He points to the prefiguration Jesus in the scripture. When his work is done, he is taken up.

The Ethiopian for his part had the right disposition to receive the gift of the Gospel seed, the "fertile ground" Jesus refers to in the parable of the sower: docility, humility, hunger and zeal, persistence, the desire for right worship. Like the centurion who trusts Jesus to heal his servant without even being physically before him, the eunuch trusts Philip to give him right, Spirit-led instruction in truth. His baptism shows this is not mere intellectual learning for him, but life itself. Perhaps the cush life of plenty was not satisfying his needs for 'more,' for something deeper. But that day he found the 'more' and "goes off rejoicing."

Thursday, October 5, 2017

When You Throw A Book Across The Room...Pay Attention

I don't think there's anything more misunderstood in the life of faith for the Catholic today than the role of the conscience.

The Catechism states that

"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (CCC 1776). 

Conscience is "a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act" (1796). It needs to be well-formed according to reason in conformity with the true good willed by the Creator. And the kicker: man must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience (1800).

We humans have an incredible ability for self-justification. St. Benedict writes of those detestable monks (Sarabaites) to whom

"the gratification of their desires is law unto them; because what they choose to do they call holy, but what they dislike they hold to be unlawful." (Rule, Chapter 1)

How easy it is to fall into this kind of rotten discernment without a guide. Thankfully we have a guide--Christ, Tradition, Scripture, the Magisterium. It's all right there. Even for pagans, the Natural Law is written on their hearts, as St. Paul writes:

"For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having [c]the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus." (Rom 2:14-16)

So what does all this have to do with throwing books across the room? Well, let me relay an incidence that happened on two occasions where the Holy Spirit was ramming a finger into my ribcage.

When I was in college, my girlfriend at the time gave me a novel by a man named (its fortuitous I remember, that says something) Bud MacFarlane Jr titled Pierced by a Sword.  There's a bunch of random characters and it was kind of entertaining to read but I don't remember any of it really now. The only thing I remember, vividly, was a section of the plot in which one of the characters dies and goes to Hell and Satan says to the person, "Contraception has made you mine." I remember reading it to this day.

I read it and threw the book across the room.

Fast forward a few years later. I am visiting my friends Duncan and Cathleen in Phoenix and we are going to Mass. After Mass there is a bookstore in the giftshop and there was a book that (I can't remember) Cathleen bought me by Christopher West titled Good News About Sex And Marriage. Again, I read all about Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" and the Church's teaching on the use of artificial contraception (it's a mortal sin).

I threw the book across the room.

Really, it's hard to communicate just how much I was pricked and raging against what I was reading. It was utterly ridiculous and antiquated, backwards and absolutely impractical, heavy burdens tied up and laid on shoulders. I didn't understand the Church's teaching and I didn't care to. All I knew was that it was stupid and I hated it. Hence the visceral book throwing.

But the reactions we have when we're pushed and pricked can hold a key to something if we consider them more closely. Why does the Protestant rail against Mary? Why does the atheist rage against the problem of evil? Why does the rich man push back hard against the Gospel's preferential option for the poor? Could it be because they know, deep down in their inner sanctuary, that the Church is right; that God exists; that the poor are Christ himself?

Our conscience--the law written on our hearts--is a profound gift. It is the gift of God that has its root in freedom; that is, our free will, our capacity to love and obey free of coercion--the gift we offer humbly back to our Creator. We have a responsibility to form it careful and it takes work and effort to do that, aided by grace and fostered by humility and openness. As Solomon prayed, "Give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil" (1 Kings 3:9).

It is a spiritual work of mercy to "Instruct the Ignorant." It is a work of great mercy but it is tough love, and one should be prepared for pushback. I'm grateful (now, in hindsight) for those people who gently pushed me into conviction, who didn't back down but spoke Truth unapologetically. It stings, it  really does. But the Lord is the Divine Physician, and sometimes what is good for our souls is not pleasing to our bodies, our senses, our situations.

Don't forget: this game of life is a high-stakes, one-and-done sojourn. There's no re-runs, no second-chances after we die. We have one soul, and that soul is going to be judged. So if a friend ever bursts your bubble of ignorance by gifting you with true Gospel teaching, rather than punch him in the face--thank him. You'll be happy you listened and changed course when you go before the Throne.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

"Not One Can Say No To Her"

Tonight I watched a interview of a priest who had a near death experience talk with Mother Angelica about coming before the Throne of Judgement. What struck me about the interview was not that this was a heroic priest, a zealous priest, a pious priest, or a selfless priest, but an ordinary sinful man who had taken his vocation for granted, was more concerned with the praise of men and his parishoners than his service to God, and who found that excuses for the way he lived his life meant nothing before the Lord at his particular judgment.

The first thing that Fr. Steven (who was ordained in 1973 and who was involved in the head on collision that almost took his life in 1985 on a highway in Kansas) spoke about that was really concerning was the utter disregard and disinterest of many of his priestly confreres in their 'off-time' to concern themselves with anything pertaining to the spiritual life. Keep in mind that this is your normal every day small town parish many more priests experience the same throughout our country and world?

"The peer pressure is pretty much the same," he said. "We did not go to other priests for spiritual direction. We did not go to other priests for spiritual matters period. One goes to the rectory to see Father so and so, and Father automatically fixes you a drink, you talk about sports, or anything that has nothing to do with what priesthood is all about.

"Consequently," he continues, "one can never go to another priest with a problem, a spiritual problem. It's just not done."

Fr. Steven went on to describe his moral cowardice and lack of devotion prior to the accident. "I've always run from the cross. I've found out since then, if we run from the cross, there is a bigger one waiting for us. I was a coward those twelve years. I had little training in spirituality in the seminary. There was no spirituality involved. I was not prepared for the kind of life, which is a life of sacrifice. Love it (sacrifice), or don't be a priest."

"One believes in one of two ways--with the head, and with the heart. I believed up here (the head). I didn't know anything about this (the heart)." He also went on to talk about his intellectual belief, but not really believing in the spiritual realm. "The angels, the saints, our Lord--they were make believe friends. They were not real."

Something else he described affirmed my experience as well, and that is the power of prayer among all Christians. After he was rushed to the hospital following the accident, "the Assembly of God minister (in our small town) spent the entire night in prayer for me and opened the doors of his own church for people to pray. My own church opened the parishioners opened the doors all night and people were saying rosaries for me. Baptist, Methodist, I was on the Mennonite prayer list. To me, this is where ecumenism really takes hold. God hears everyone's prayers...and that's why I'm here (alive) before you this evening." We are in a war in this life, and we need all the prayer we can get.

Fr. Steven described when the Word spoke to him--literally, he was reading the Gospel (Luke 13:6-9) at Mass and the page illuminated. It was the story of the tenant farmer who goes to inspect his fig tree and does not find any fruit. "For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?" But the vineyard-keeper replied, "let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer, and if it bears fruit next year fine; but if not, cut it down."

"I gave excuses," he said, speaking of being before Jesus at his judgment, "I was talking to TRUTH. When you're talking to truth you can't give excuses." He recalled, however, during that time the Mother of God stepping in and saying to her Son,

Son will you please spare his life and his eternal soul?

Jesus replied:
Mother, he's been a priest for himself for 12 years and not for me. Let him reap the punishment he deserves 

She pressed further:
But son, if we give him special graces and strengths and then sees if he bears fruit; if not, your will be done

There was a very short pause


he said

he's yours. 

"Ever since then," he said softly, "I have been hers."

When I was in Detroit, something occurred to me when the arduous reality of the Narrow Way became clearer--"I need help. I can't do this alone. I need Mary's help." I don't know where it had come from. But the past few years my devotion to Our Lady has been slowly growing, trusting her more and shedding like a snake skin those prejudices and things I always held against her (Why do we need Mary, why can't I just go straight to Jesus? Isn't this misguided devotion? Etc) Yet she was Christ's first disciple. She was closer to him than anyone else on earth. She was his mother! Isn't this someone I would want on my side? We are in a spiritual battle in this life. We cannot afford to go it alone.

"We have a mother," Fr Steven explained. "I didn't have any special devotion to her. But since then, she's become everything. At the foot of the cross the Lord looked down and said "Woman behold your son--that's us the church. She takes that very literally and very seriously.

"I experienced the Lord's mercy. But it was his mother who came and interceded for me. One thing I have learned since then is this beautiful truth: with regards to the Trinity--none of them, not one, can say no to her. They cannot. It's impossible. They will not say no to her. Isn't that somebody we want on our side?"

Mother Angelica closed the interview by asking Fr. Steven what he would tell priests today? What have you learned that you would like them to know?

"Be a priest in service of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be a priest of prayer. Once prayer goes, the priesthood goes. We should not be afraid of telling things as they are...things that are going to make us unpopular. But that's part of being his follower. He only promised crosses. But the crosses are bearable because he is there, and his blessed mother is there, to lighten them.

A priest without prayer is dead. A priest without the blessed sacrament is dead. A priest without the blessed mother is dead. I learned my lesson, but it took him breaking my neck, and the threat of eternal damnation, to get my attention.

I would never want to go back to the way I was.



Friday, September 29, 2017

This Is What Christian Love Looks Like In Real Life

We have been blessed with some very special friends and friendships, Deb and I. Sometimes, though, you just have people in your life who are truly extraordinary people, even from a purely objective standpoint. Our friends Dan and Missy are those people for us.

I am convinced that the contagiousness of the Christian faith rests in large part on the witness of the everyday; that is, people who live the Gospel with integrity and zeal in their ordinary lives. They do not put on a show, but walk humbly. They are consistent in their character and treat all people with respect and dignity. They are selfless and genuine, prayerful, generous, trusting, kind, and joyful witnesses to the saving power of Jesus Christ. When people encounter Christians living the Gospel authentically, they can't help but say to themselves, "I want what they have." It actually exists.

That was the case when I met Dan and Missy for the first time when Debbie and I first started dating. Debbie and Missy had grown up together, attending the same grade school in Delaware. I believe it is in large part due to the prayers of Missy and her mom for my wife that she came back to the Faith, that we met, and that she was 'set aside' for me as a provision to be my wife. Missy and Angel simply never stopped praying for Debbie, never stopped gently planting seeds (with books and invitations), even when she strayed and went separate ways; she was never a 'lost cause.'

As a couple struggling to maintain the virtues of purity and chastity early in our dating relationship, Debbie and I approached Dan and Missy for help. By that point they had been married for about ten years and had learned a few things. We confided in them our struggles and they listened patiently and though they may have winced interiorly, they loved us in spite of our moral failings, and gently suggested ways to come back to wholeness. We would visit and draw on their experience of Christian love in the context of marriage many times over the years.

With four kids, a myriad of activities and homeschooling, and the demands of work as a physician, Dan and Missy never made us feel like they had no time for us. Quite the opposite; they made time by inviting us over for the everyday experiences of their family just doing life--having dinner, roasting marshmallows over a bonfire in the backyard, kids soccer games, and running errands. We were made to feel like extended family, part of an intimate and cherished unit, never a burden, always joyfully welcomed. When Debbie threw a birthday party for the dog, they were there. When the kids were baptized into God's family, they were there, even assuming the responsibility of being Monica's godparents.

Although we are rooted in different Christian faith traditions, we always felt that our beliefs were respected, never denigrated, and that they loved us, which made understanding easier. Differences, while not treated as unimportant, took a back seat to friendship in Christ and common prayer. We were always edified by Missy and Dan's witness to love. We never--never--experienced them talking bad about anyone, but focused only on building up. Their character was consistent--they were the same around us as they were in public, at work, around believers and non believers alike. To this day I still attend a men's prayer group that Dan leads every Tuesday morning at 6am. I drive half an hour to get there and a half hour back, and I have been doing so for the past five years, because it is not only edifying from a faith perspective, but rooted in male friendship and accountability. Dan's witness and personal integrity is a light on a hill, a beacon to look up to, to see what true manhood is. Whether he realizes it or not, he is both mentor, friend, and model for Christian manhood to me personally.

Dan and Missy have always gently pushed us to wager big on God, have great trust in His mighty power, and His ability to work miracles. We have seen it in their lives and, following suit, we have seen it in our own in manifestations where it was simply undeniable that God was responsible for miracles and benevolent provisions beyond our wildest expectations.

When Debbie's mom died last year, Missy and Dan and their family mourned with us, brought us food, were simply there for us. When Missy's dad passed away not long after that, we were able to return the blessing of friendship during an especially difficult time. They were the ones who showed us what true agape love looked like, and so it was not hard to emulate because it was so clear in their own lives in how they loved and put themselves aside for others.

We learned what it meant to be intentional about instruction to our children from Dan and Missy, of how to raise up a child up in the way he should go (Prov 22:6). They gave us children's bible story books and Focus on the Family cd's and books on raising, *ahem, headstrong children. Their own children are a testament to God's blessing--some of the most well behaved, polite, faith filled and loving children we know. That does not happen by accident, but through constant and loving attention as we observed in the way they brought them up.

Finally, we are simply grateful for God's gift of friendship. We can be ourselves with Dan and Missy; they never judge us and if there is any admonition, it is done gently and suggestively with great sensitivity and patient love. Every time we leave their house, we are built up and edified, never dejected or discouraged. Praying together, eating together, spending time together--it is a pure gift. To taste a little bit the good fruit of friendship the way God intended it here on is sweet indeed, for "a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity" (Prov 17:17).

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Devil Offers Lousy Deals

I am currently reading An Exorcist: More Stories, Fr. Gabriele Amorth's (who, until his recent death, had been Rome's Chief Exorcist) follow up to his 1999 Un Esorcista Racconta. While the media sensationalizes the topic of exorcism and highlights the most extreme examples of diabolical possession, Fr. Amorth is quick to point out that cases of diabolic oppression (where there is no possession, loss of consciousness, or involuntary action and word...just severe to mild events that plague the individual) are much more common.

The Christian should not be obsessed with the Devil, for he holds no power over us (1 Jn 4:4). But neither should we be ignorant of the temptations and trickery he uses to affect a soul.

I was reading an interview with Lady Gaga from her forthcoming documentary. Something struck me from her description of a particular experience early in her career, before she got famous. I will tell you why in a moment, but first her description of the event:

"I had just been on stage, it was a good show, I was high on the love and applause from the crowd. I was outside lighting a cigarette, thinking about scoring some more cocaine. I was aching for more. More of everything. I just wanted to feel good. Feel anything.  
Then this man, a strangely ageless man in a suit, spoke to me. He was leaning against the wall, smoking, and he said to me 'I think you've got what it takes. Do you want it?' I asked what 'it' was. I thought he was coming on to me. But he smiled and said 'Everything. Success. Fame. Riches. Power. Do you want it all?'  
I looked at him curiously. I couldn't work him out. Then he just stood there and sang one of the songs from my routine earlier. It was otherworldly. I stared at him like he was a dark jewel dredged up from the deepest ocean. I got down on my knees and asked him who I should praise. I looked him right in the eye and told him I wanted it all. I told him I'd do anything." 

The man. That man. I read it again, and got some strange goosebumps. I remember--when I was in the throws of my first major psychotic bout of mania a little over a decade ago--experiencing a vision. I wrote about it later in my journal, following my hospitalization:

"I saw a vision of a black man, an Angel of Death, dressed in common clothes outside my window. The Dark Man sits outside my bay window, in the garden. He sits like the moon, legs crossed, twirling a black-eyed Susan between his fingers. It spins like a yellow cartwheel, faster, until the olive shaped black eye bleeds out onto the pedals and yellow pigment drips onto the concrete below. I followed him here to this grotto, like someone just woken up from a nap, bewildered and walking blindly, settling into my chair. He sighs and tosses the flower aside. 
The Dark Man whispers to me to come and see. I look out the window and he points to the maple tree in the front yard. Fluttering in the wind on the branches are hundreds of photographs--girlfriends, lovers, high school buddies, college friends, camping trips, road trips. Pictures of late night partying, jumping off rope swings, traveling, hitchhiking, bungy jumping, cliff jumping, racing bikes. Pictures from New Zealand, Australia, Haiti, Mexico. Old family photos, yellowed and dog-eared. My brother playing his first guitar; my other brother with his stuffed animals. My parents on the back patio at our old house before I was born. 
I kneel on the couch and watch it from the window. But the wind begins to blow and one by one the photographs are ripped from the branches and flutter off into the sky like dandelion blossoms. I run out onto the porch but by the time I get outside the tree is stripped and bare, forlorn in the night, arms braced to the sky. I turn to the Man. He is paging through a book, the plastic film pages blank. The Dark Man has stepped in as a sort of stepfather. He reveled in the fact that I had not come from him, but yet he had such strong influence over my life, was with me in the womb. So much so that during this time of mania he paid visits and mingled his wisdom with that of my real Father, so that it was hard to tell sometimes who was speaking.  
I rest on the couch for a moment and watch the maple tree. The Man is sitting on the ground with his back against the trunk, his hat tipped down over his eyes. It looks like he is sleeping, but he never sleeps. He is always waiting. He is always looking for fun.
But I don't know if I'm having any fun anymore. The erratic passion is there, but it's like a sour adulterous relationship--it's slowly getting old, tiring, complicated. And hard to get out of. I want eternity. I want moments that never die, but I am tired of this sleepless hell. 
I lock my door and turn off the lights and when I go back to the window the Man is chipping away at the bark with a knife, whistling an old slave song under the light of the moon. Inside a heart carved in the base of the tree are my initials: RPM. He turns and takes off his hat, bearing his gleaming white teeth. He gets up and puts on his hat. 'Everything is written, and everything is a dream,' he says, and walks off slowly into the night whistling that old slave song, 'Everything is a happy dream...' The moon is strung up in the sky like a wafer on a piece of thread, silent, twirling, pale and lifeless, serene, and passionless." 

I have always had a soft spot and affinity for Lady Gaga. I think she is an earnest and creative person. She smells truth, but she's not there yet. I do think she is missing the mark with the public focus on the physical (fibromyalgia) explanations of her dis-ease and malaise. She poses with priests, praises homilies on the Eucharist, and snaps photographs of herself clutching rosary beads--I don't know what her motives are, and its not my place to judge them. But if she really did make some sort of pact with a demon at some point in her life, any attempts to treat this psycho-somatic source of chronic pain will be ultimately ineffective, for there is only one Physician who can heal such an affliction.

The spiritual realm is the undercurrent flowing beneath the surface of this life. It affects EVERYTHING, and our ignorance of the forces at work vying for our soul only compounds the problem of illness as it manifests in our everyday life. While I don't doubt I do have a legitimate 296.46 diagnosis that requires treatment and management, looking back I can see the diabolic forces that plagued me during this time also had a root in my own personal sin that compounded and exasperated the symptoms. Blasphemy, gluttony, idolatry, drunkenness, fornication, and the temptations from outside of myself to take my life all had a demonic spiritual taproot that had taken hold in me unrecognized. I put myself in situations early in my life where I may have incurred an evil spirit. I hung out with those who practiced New Age mysticism; I spent the night meditating outside a cave where spirits made themselves present. At one point I had gone to Thailand and participated in yoga, bowing unknowingly to false gods. And this was all after my entrance into the Church! I don't know where it had snuck in the backdoor, but I gave plenty of opportunity, for which I have since repented and sought deliverance

Mind-body-spirit--the synthesis of which makes us human. While medical treatment was largely effective in my case, it wasn't until I got serious about repentance and cleaning up my spiritual life, having recourse to the Sacraments, was prayed over for deliverance by keen friends who recognized that something not of God may be at work in me, and got serious about being in a state of grace, that my mental health improved to the point of a full remission. Neglecting the spiritual dimension of life and dabbling in that which might, even inadvertently, invite in the demonic, is something we do to our great peril. Remaining vigilant is essential, since we know that

"when an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, "I will return to the house I left." When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first." (Mt 12:43-45). 

There is so much depression, so much suicide, so much unhappiness manifest in the world today. Do we dare ask the question--what is the root cause, and what is the state of our spirit? Fr. Amorth asks and unequivocally answers the question we should be considering:

"Can we make the case that the demon is more active today than in the past? Can we say that the incidence of demonic possession and other, lesser, evil disturbances is on the rise? The answer to these and similar questions is a decisive YES. Rationalism, atheism--which is preached to the masses--and the corruption that is a by-product of Western consumerism have all contributed to a frightening decline in faith. 
This I can state with mathematical certainty: where faith declines, superstition grows."