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.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Conversion, Chapter 3: From The Pit


Buoyed from surviving my weekend solo backpacking trip in Lackawanna County, I decided to set loftier goals and hike the Appalachian Trail from Maryland to New Hampshire after graduation. I recruited a friend to come with me for two weeks across PA, after which time I would continue on solo. 

It was a great adventure, but when the time came for my friend to leave after two weeks on the trail with me, I was right back to the same isolation and loneliness that I had experienced before. One night, homesick and crying quietly in an Adirondack-style shelter where I was spending the night, I took about a small bible that a friend's mom had given me before I left. I had never really read the Bible before, but I turned to the Psalms and read:

"I waited patiently for the LORD;
And He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit of destruction,
out of the miry clay,
And He set my feet upon a rock
making my footsteps firm." 
(Ps 40:1-2)

It was comforting to read, that the Lord would "hear my cry" and care for me, care about me and what happened to me. I didn't have much in my pack, as I was traveling light, but that little bible meant a lot to have with me.

I never made it the whole way to New Hampshire, bowing out in New York state, and spent the rest of the summer before my freshman year of college at home, embarrassed to admit to my friends that I hadn't finished what I had set out to accomplish. The friend who had hiked with me for two weeks was Catholic, he came from a family of 7 and I knew his mother was a devout person. I imagine she was praying for us on the hike, and maybe some of those prayers were for me specifically.

During this time, I was like the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts who replies to Phillip when asked if he understands what he was reading, "How can I, unless someone explains it to me?" I didn't know any people who were Christians besides my best friend Andy who I could talk to and ask questions. It wasn't until I got to Penn State that I would go to my first Mass and take the first steps to becoming Catholic.


Plain And Simple

I attended my first Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) over the weekend at the invitation of a friend. My son wanted to go with me, so we set off together to the Overbrook section of Philadelphia Sunday morning, not really knowing what to expect. Deb and Monica went to our parish for Mass that day, as I wanted to scout out the TLM first.

There were a good number of people present. The women wore veils on their heads (1 Cor 11:3-16), and everyone approached the liturgy in a reverent manner. It was a little hard to follow along (I kept flipping through the Missal, as the priest had his back to the congregation as is custom and spoke the words quietly in Latin, so it was hard to hear.

I could appreciate the traditional Mass for it's reverence and its focus (the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is about God, not about you), but personally it wasn't really my style. I grew up occasionally going to Eastern-rite liturgies with my dad, which follows a similar form, so it wasn't completely novel for me. We attend a Roman-rite Novus Ordo Mass today, for better or worse.

But I have heard "the Devil hates Latin," and I believe it. There is a reason exorcisms are performed in Latin--it is the official language of the Church. We (I) would be wise to learn it, if nothing else as another weapon in the spiritual artillery box.

I'm not completely Latin-clueless, however. Every now and then throughout my day, if I find myself in a contemplative mood, I catch myself quietly singing the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) in Latin. I never learned Latin in school or otherwise, but I did spend part of a summer in observership formation at a Benedictine monastery in New York state when I was 19. Every evening after Compline the four other observers and myself would descend with the monks to the crypt and sing in plainsong before the statue of the Blessed Virgin to close out the evening.

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae: 
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve. 
Ad te clamamus, exsules, filii Hevae. 
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes 
In hac lacrimarum valle. 
Eia ergo, Advocata nostra, 
 Illos tuos misericordes oculos 
Ad nos converte. 
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis, post hoc exsilium ostende. 
O clemens! O pia! 
O dulcis Virgo Maria!

I remember it today by heart (and I do NOT have a good memory, in general) because we prayed it, in song, every night. It became habit, and stuck. Whether in Latin or otherwise, I think it is really to our benefit as Christians that we commit to memory certain scripture (esp psalms) and prayers that we can draw on in time of need, from memory. The easiest way is to pray it every day, as in the Divine Office, out loud; it has a way of seeping in to your subconscious more effectively this way.

Psalm 4, for instance, has stayed with me from my summer at the monastery as well, so it is a go-to for me when I don't have a bible handy. I really think the rhythmic style of Gregorian Chant lends itself to this kind of memorization. When I pray it from memory, I sing it in plainsong, because that is how I learned it and, again, it stuck:

"When I call, answer me, O God of justice; 
from anguish you released me, have mercy and hear me! 

O men, how long will your hearts be closed, 
will you love what is futile and seek what is false? 

It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves; 
the Lord hears me whenever I call him. 

Fear him; do not sin: ponder on your bed and be still 
Make justice your sacrifice, and trust in the Lord. 

"What can bring us happiness?" many say. 
Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord. 

You have put into my heart a greater joy 
than they have from abundance of corn and new wine. 

I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once 
for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety."

Since I stopped listening to secular music on the radio and my ipod, the only music I play in the car anymore is Gregorian Chant. The particular CD is the Marian chant of the Monks of Norsia. I just have it playing in the car when I leave for work, and that's all I really listen to. I'm hoping it will seep in, so that I get to catching myself singing it to myself throughout the day, rather than lyrics by Beyonce or Katy Perry as I have in the past.

I wish we would bring back chant to the Mass, and do away with the folk guitars and instruments. Keep It Simple Silly, and there's nothing more simple than plainsong. It is reverent and ancient and simple and lends itself to profundity, and gets deep into your bones when sung regularly.

Deo Gratias.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Conversion, Chapter 2: Groaning In The Wilderness


In June of that same year I set off to test myself in self-sufficiency--that is, training in leaving civilized society with all its trappings and social disappointments behind. I guess I always envisioned a kind of zombie apocalypse happening at some point and I'd need to learn how to be alone and how to survive in the woods. So I set off to do just that.

Hiking and backpacking was a hobby I picked up, maybe unconsciously to counter-balance the time spent with my buddies indoors. It was always the same old same old. I was still listening to hardcore music, and had come across a Hare-Krishna band that sang about things like the spiritual realm and higher states of consciousness, and it really took a hold on me--not so much the Hare Krishna bit, but just that feeling of "is this all there is?" and wondering if there was more to life than getting drunk in our parents' basements, shooting pool, and watching reruns of Saturday Night Live.

Looking back, my parents had an admirable degree of trust in me. I asked my dad if he would drive me three hours north to a huge splotch of green on a paper map--Lackawanna County, home of Pinchot State Forest--so I could hike the Pinchot Trail. He agreed (he convinced my mom, knowingly, that "this is something he has to do") and dropped me off at the trail head. I drew an 'X' in pencil on the map where to pick me up three days later, and I said I would try to be there around mid-day. This was before cell phones, and even if I had one it wouldn't have worked in this remote part of the state. He drove away, and I set off.

I had packed light to be able to maximize my mileage. It turned out to be a little too light. My fleece blanket did not provide enough insulation to keep me from shivering all night long in my hammock, and I did not pack enough Dinty Moore soup to last all three days, so I was hungry. The fire I started kept away critters and animals...until it went out. Then it was a sleepless night filled with malicious croaks and peeps in the pitch black, waiting for the dawn. I was lonely, hungry, homesick, and strangely too, felt an acute sense of my own sinfulness and inadequacy in the ability to save myself from...I don't know what. Fate? The world? Myself? Like everything I had experienced at the basement hardcore show, it was vague, but acute, an anonymous indictment for a crime it felt I didn't commit and never lived out. It was just a sense of...smallness. I slept with my tail between my legs, ashamed of my juvenile bravado and misplaced confidence in myself.

The next morning I set off on the trail. I hadn't seen another human being the day before, and today proved to be the same kind of isolation. It was really taxing, mentally, to know there just wasn't anyone around to talk to or help or provide distraction. It was just me following my map. That is, until I lost it.

I realized it was gone after a couple miles, because when I went to pull it out of my rucksack pocket, it wasn't there. I got a sick dread in the pit of my stomach. This was bad. I retraced my steps, backtracking. Nothing. I kept walking and looking. I was getting panicky. I thought about the preacher. He prayed. Could I pray? What does that look like? I had a feeling there was a God but I didn't know His name. I cried out in desperation, "Please help me!" It was another one of those strange feelings, the kind you can't put into words without sounding crazy, but I felt a giant hand cup me, shielding and guiding me. I looked down in the brush, and there was my map. A wave of euphoric gratitude washed over me. I felt as if I had been spared from a disastrous fate, given another chance. An unknown God had heard my cry and answered.

I had never been so glad to see my dad that Sunday afternoon, right where we had agreed to meet. I had made it out alive, though not without some mental scars. I knew I had been saved from something, by a benevolent Force. By next summer, setting off to hike from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail and facing the same loneliness and isolation, I would learn that force had a Name, and that someone had written about it long ago, in something called "the Psalms."


Monday, July 10, 2017

Conversion, Chapter 1: Something To Live For


I'll never forget the first time I was caught off guard and filled with the Holy Spirit, in the most unexpected of places.

In the way Augustine as a young man had fallen in with the Manichaeans, I was attracted to and adopted the Straight Edge life--a kind of monastic discipline of the underground hardcore music scene. 1990's Straight Edge hardcore was a reaction to the intoxicated nihilism of 1980's punk rock; its tenants rest on three main pillars--no alcohol, no drugs, no promiscuity--a kind of secular moral code. Adherents marked black X's on their hands as a sign of their discipline. Music was the religion, and Straight Edge was the praxis. It gave us something to live for.

It was 1997, my junior year of high school, and I was at a basement hardcore show at a church in Lansdale. Sets were fast and furious, adrenalin was pumping everywhere, the guttural energy intense. The crowd was drenched in sweat from moshing and panting when a bearded middle aged man came on stage.

He was a preacher, I assumed the pastor of the church where we were. He wasn't lame, and he had a few words to say, though I didn't remember what they were exactly. What I do remember was him extending his hand over the crowd, and praying.

I was not expecting this, nor did I sign up for this, but I also wasn't opposed to it. It's hard to describe, but as he prayed over the crowd I felt a kind of rush, like a wind or something--not physical, but in my spirit--and a tightening conviction that there was a kind of vague and unnamable void in me. It was Introduction to One's Own Sinfulness 101. The preacher invited anyone who wanted to learn more about Jesus after the show to talk to him. So I did.

I don't remember anything he said specifically, but he prayed over me and I started crying, which was weird. I can't describe it--I just knew I was a "sinner" like he said, though I didn't know what sin was, that that was really the foundation to build on, that nothing could really happen without laying that first stone down. He offered to follow up with me, and I gave him my phone number.

Back home, he did follow up a few days later by phone, and by then I had kind of shaken out of it and said I wasn't really interested but thank you anyway. Besides, I didn't want to have to explain any of this to my parents. A few days later I was back to normal and had forgotten about the whole thing. Until a few months later when I found myself in the wilderness of upstate Pennsylvania, lost, alone, and calling out to an unknown God for help.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Si Señor

When I was 22 I set off an an impromptu solo pilgrimage. The plan was to fly to McAllen, Texas and walk across the border, then hitch hike to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which was about 700 miles from Reynosa. I did fly to Texas made my way over the border but changed course when I came to the realization that kidnappings of Americans were a real thing in Mexico City.

In Reynosa, I was sitting on the steps of a church praying my rosary, taking a break and figuring out where I was going to spend the night and what the new plan would be. A man came up to me and introduced himself as a Catholic priest. I was a little skeptical because he was not wearing any clerical attire. As I learned more about Mexican history, the reason became apparent. The Mexican Revolution ushered in a new Constitution in 1917, and the Constitutionalist delegates viewed the Church as a political enemy to the establishment of a liberal, secular nation-state...a kind of foreign body that worked against the development of a progressive and independent nation. As a result, many of the articles in the Mexican Constitution are anti-clerical in nature.

Though such laws were on the books, it really wasn't until 1926 under President Plutarch Elias Calles that they were enforced...and brutally so. On July 31st, public worship was suspended for the first time in 400 years...not a single Mass was celebrated. Bishops and priests went into hiding. Those who refused to register were often fined, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. It was out of this anti-religious climate that the Cristeros revolutionaries fought back in the name of religious liberty, were able to put pressure on the government, but were eventually betrayed and mass tortured and executed.

Eventually this priest I was speaking to invited me to stay at his church. The accommodations in
reality ended up being a make-shift deportation shelter for men who had just been dumped over the border by U.S. immigration.
I found an old mattress next to a Honduran who was caught trying to cross the border; he had a smile and we chatted in broken Spanish. The next morning I ate with all the recently deported men--tortillas eggs and chilis--and as I was leaving a man my age came up to me and we started chatting. He had just been released from prison in Ohio and was on his way to Monterrey to go back to live with his family. Would I like to meet them? Sure, I said, let's go. I had kind of just agreed in my mind to just say yes to whatever came my way on this trip. So we caught a bus in town, 12 hours, into the Mexican interior.

When we arrived, his mother and father were there, as well as his sister and her husband and his nephew. His mother hadn't seen him in years...she hugged him tightly and cried and touched his face. Then he introduced me and they welcomed me as a member of their own family.

I spent the next week with them just doing every day things. I would hold the punching bag for big Tony (a sack of grain on a rope) as he practiced his combinations. Tony Jr. and I rode in the back of the pickup truck to inspect the cattle. He taught me how to kill rattlesnakes with a rope. We went cliff diving, and his brother in law showed me how to drive a semi (he was a truck driver) and let me drive his rig.
Tony Jr's parents owned a small convenience store; he mother cooked us breakfast every morning--eggs and little chilis from a can. Though I was careful not to drink the water,
I eventually got sick from her washing the dishes in the well water, and spent five days unable to eat, throwing up and constant diarrhea (having to haul 5 gallons of water from the well at the time to flush the toilet). Eventually I weakly made my way out the side of the road in the middle of this sleepy town to wait for a passing bus to try to get back to the U.S. I rode the 12 hours back overnight, and the Spanish music on the radio next stopped playing. To this day I get a little queezy when I hear Spanish music.

I never did make it to Mexico City and my pilgrimage got a little derailed. But I learned that saying 'yes' to whatever opportunity presented itself on this trip lead to some neat adventures, and some pain and suffering, too. I didn't really know what was around the bend, but God seemed to be looking over me, even though my motives were not always geared towards Him.

I'm finding that my sense of adventure in my twenties has given way towards a cautious domesticity in my thirties. It's easy to settle in to swim lessons, soccer games, church on Sundays, getting obsessed with paint colors, date nights, paying the mortgage, and everything else that comes with having a family.

But God doesn't want us to get too comfortable, or at least so comfortable that we are inclined to say, 'no thanks' when He really wants us to say 'yes' to his call. There is no adventure more worth living out than saying 'yes' to God. It opens doors to people, places, and things you would have never thought possible otherwise. He truly does provide for our needs when we are doing what He asks of us. It might not lead us to other countries or a third world mission field. It may be as benign as taking a different route to work in the car at His request, or starting a conversation with someone we wouldn't normally speak with.

Though it's usually uncomfortable at first, stepping out in faith to God's calling at particular times in our life gets to be more second-nature the more you do it. Sometime we need tangible way to practice, even it if it's not directly responding to a call from God. One little thing I do to practice charity and self-sacrifice (and it is a little thing) is to always give my wife whatever dinner plate I am more inclined to take for myself--the bigger porkchop or whatever. Another little thing I started doing with regard to trying to stay in the habit of not hesitating when the call of God comes is when I am at the beach, no matter how cold the water is, I just dive right in rather than wading in tepidly. It's really hard to do sometimes! When the water is cold its a shock to the system, but in many ways its easier to just go under all at once; surprisingly, your body gets used to it and adapts quickly.

Our comfort zone is like a layer of fat that insulates and protects us. But faith is a muscle, and it needs to be worked. It develops memory through repetition--that is, saying 'yes' often enough that it becomes just what we do--and it gets strengthen by getting pushed beyond the pleasant, not unlike a Crossfit workout. When the muscle is stretched and torn, it rebuilds with layers of virtue. But if it atrophies, it will slink back to a flaccid state of lukewarmness. Faith builds on itself by grace. All it demands to grow is assent and a willingness to suffer for it's sake. It is an adventure for sure.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Marriage Is A Duel To The Death Which No Man Of Honour Should Decline

If you want to plumb the deepest depths of anger, frustration, and all those not-so-nice parts of yourself that come out only when pushed to the brink--get married. If you're married already, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you're not, and you will. There is a reason marriage is a hard road to sanctification, or as G.K. Chesterton put it, "Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline."

Let me tell you a little story of what went down in our house tonight. It has a happy ending. I promise.

Deb stopped by her Dad's after work, and also went grocery shopping after that. Now, there are two things that need to be noted.

One, this was my second night at home late with the kids. I can usually handle one night alone, but back to back nights push me to my limit. The kids for their part are fine, but as any single mother knows, being alone with your kids can be hard. Now, part of this is selfishness (makes it hard for me to get anything done I want/need to get done) and part of it is an irrational feeling of abandonment (which my wife probably feels herself on a regular basis).

The second thing to be noted is that I usually do the grocery shopping, and when my wife is out on her own, she tends to, shall we say, take her time. I appreciate the willingness to shop, but I know what we need and what is on sale and am a control freak too which makes it hard to accept this help. So combine the two nights in a row of late night watching the kids alone, with latent frustration, plus my wife refusing to answer her phone, and you have a big huffy time bomb just waiting to detonate upon arrival. 85% my fault

But I was hanging on to that 15% that wasn't my fault, and hanging on hard. I fell asleep on the couch about the time she got home and woke up to...her falling asleep on the couch. This is the struggle of working parents, especially mothers: being spent from the day and all your emotional and mental energy drained out of you so and struggling to give what's left. It's a model we've been working with for most of our marriage and honestly it's hard, and I think if circumstances were different we would consider a more traditional model, but it's just what we're dealing with right now.

I think at the heart of my anger and frustration was a feeling of not being respected, which is at the heart of many men's feelings in their marriage. I mean, anger is not really my thing, but tonight I was slamming cabinets and banging pots and dishes like a rhinoceros and yelling, with Deb yelling back over who was going to make the freaking instant pudding. The kids were starting to get upset, and for good reason--they felt the tension between us, that something wasn't right, and it wasn't right, and it needed to be made right.

But I was holding on tight and so was she, and the stalemate was starting to implode. Anger is a bitter pill, and it doesn't take long to start poisoning everything. We needed to separate. I grabbed my charger, brushed my teeth and took my contacts out, and headed to the spare bedroom for the night.

I had also grabbed my rosary. Now, it feels really hypocritical to pray in a state of unforgiveness, but I didn't know how else to get out of that state than to pray about it, because I was really in deep. In scripture it says,

"If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Settle matters quickly with your adversary while you are with him on the way, so that he may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison" (Mt 5:24-25) 

So, I needed help.

I had just made it through the Creed, the Our Father, and three Hail Mary's when there was a knock on the door. I made no sound, but the door creaked upon and in walked David.

"Daddy," he said, "are you praying?"

"Yes," I said, "Will you pray with me?"


I got him a pillow for his knees so he could kneel next to the bed with me. We began again, together..."I believe in God, the Father almighty..." He knows the Our Father and the Hail Mary, but we only got about as far as I got initially when he came in the room that there was another knock. It was Deb, followed by Monica some steps back. She layed on the bed next to us.

"I'm sorry," she said, "do you forgive me?"

"Daddy," David said to me, "Let the sun not go down on your anger."

I wanted to hang on to it. Forgiveness really is an act of the will, and it takes practice to exercise it.

"Remember," my son said again, "If you don't forgive others, God won't forgive you."

He's like a little prophet, this one.

Thankfully with the whole family together it makes a heart soften quicker. I squeezed Deb's hand and told her, "I forgive you." And that was that. 60 to zero in about 20 minutes. All grace, and a little boy who only wants to see love between the people he loves most.

Marriage makes you dig deep. It's intimate tutoring in the school of love, forcing you to work things out in the life raft when all you feel like is throwing the other person overboard.  With love comes forgiveness, it's annoying little tagalong brother that you have to take together as a package deal.

We sin against each other, wound each other, and bind the wounds of those we hurt, sometimes all in the same night. It's an intense, intimate dance, one of great privilege. A duel to the death, and experiencing life along the way.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Friends In High Places

I feel for stars--actors, singers, musicians--famous people who have made it in the world and in their careers. It's hard to sustain being at the top (assuming you ever get off the B list and "make it"), and especially these days, the rate at which they are being chewed up and spit out by Hollywood once they outlive their usefulness to the industry is so swift. None of them...and I mean none of them...truly seem happy.

When I was in my twenties I had started a novel about a prophetic evangelist who devoted his life to saving Hollywood, one star at a time. He prayed constantly for their conversion in his Skid Row one-room studio apartment. He made friends in high places among those in the industry, providing spiritual counsel one on one to those who expressed even the slightest interest in the spiritual life. But his efforts never real bore any fruit; the allure of fame and riches was too strong for those in the industry, and he never made any converts or disciples. The scripture rang true: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt 19:24). They've already received their reward in this life. The path from Somebody to nobody is pretty direct.

You have to understand--the power of the Gospel flips everything upside down. The Beatitudes Jesus delivers in Matthew 5 is probably the best illustration:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherent the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the poor in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Mt 5:1-12)

In God's economy, what holds you in esteem, in security, in pleasure in this life is dross. St. Paul says, "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. I consider them rubbish..." (Phil 3:7, 8). The same applies to those the world considers fools, for "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." (1 Cor 1:27) If they're close to God, you're going to want them on your side.

On a recent trip, I had sent out a request for fervent prayers to a few thousand people through a friend of a friend. I felt I had an entourage of faithful people praying for me. It was powerful. "The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful" (James 5:16)

In the spiritual life, the Catholic Faith has many tools for sanctification at its disposal. One is the friendship of those who have gone before us, that is, the Communion of Saints. That is, the communion of us pilgrims here on earth (the Church Militant), those saved who are being purified in Purgatory (the Church Suffering), and those who have been perfected, the blessed in Heaven (the Church Triumphant). We are all one family, baptized in Christ, and we help each other. Those of us pilgrims on earth can pray for those suffering and being purified in Purgatory; the saints in Heaven can intercede for us here on earth for our spiritual and corporal needs. St. Dominic said to his brothers as he lay dying, "Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life."

Whereas the stars of this life fade from glory and are forgotten, the saints in heaven who suffered and wept in obscurity live now in infamy and for all eternity, their names written in the book of Life to be remembered until the end of time. We have an entourage in Heaven to whom we can turn for spiritual muscle in this life, and how often their willingness to help us is ignored, passed over, or even discouraged! These are the "spiritual insiders" who lived life on earth just as we did, who didn't do anything we aren't capable of by the grace of our baptism. They were willing to suffer and endure whatever came their way if only to taste Heaven when they died.

The grind towards sanctity is a worthy "career" aspiration, even if we produce nothing in this life that would be esteemed by men. It produces joy in its own way, even in the midst of suffering, a joy that is not fleeting and no one can touch or steal. Anything that is a threat to it, whether it be worldly fame, riches, or praise, should be viewed with suspect if it would cost one Heaven, as nothing but rubbish.

The saints witness to the faith by their living example, but they are not memorialized in Heaven as in a museum. They live beyond time and space, present and timeless to us today as friends and intercessors. They can and do work miracles....whether it was in 30AD or 2017. Coming from all walks of life, all ages, all parts of the world, all kinds of personalities and temperaments, there is a saint for everyone.

Make friends with the holy ones, both those here on earth and with the Father in Heaven. You'll appreciate the backup when you find yourself in it deep.