Sunrise over city

Sunrise over city

Monday, March 13, 2017

Christ In The Poor

The other day Chris asked what route I wanted to walk, and then half-jested,"Are you looking for Christ hiding among the poor?"

To most of us, it seems an unlikely place.  Most of us flinch and inwardly groan when we watch the poorest of the poor: the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicts and the prostitutes.  I had known many hobos and wounded men from hardscrabble backgrounds when I was in prison, and few of them seemed admirable.  The one's I admired as a young man in prison were the strong, the bosses, the "solid cons" who basically ruled the "joint".  They seemed like they had it together, and few of them had any use for Jesus.  When I got out of prison and swam around in academia for more than a decade, I continued my contempt for the poor, or at least for Karl Marx and his followers who "fetishized the poor".  Marx and his progeny didn't truly know the poor; they made the poor into an idol, a strange god.  That was true enough.

Yet we know that countless saints have met Christ in the poor, sometimes quite literally, like St. Martin of Tours.  The holy deacon, St. Lawrence, gathered the most wretched together and declared to the Roman persecutors, "Here is the treasure of the Church".  Mother Theresa was blessed with mystical experiences of Christ, but then he was silent for four decades.  She pursued him among the sick and dying in Calcutta, lovingly searching their faces for the Divine Author. Jesus himself famously tells us, "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me."

A Chronicler of the Poorest

Now one of the "rich", a former Wall Street trader and PhD in Physics, is encountering God as he documents the lives of the poorest of the poor.  Chris Arnade has left Wall Street, and now spends his time getting to know the most wretched. He assumed they would share his atheism since they know more than others "how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be."  Yet they are all believers in some way or another, "steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore." They wear rosaries and crosses, and testify that God has never left them amidst abuse, addiction and prostitution.  One couple totes their picture of The Last Supper from place to place as the heroin drives them onward.  The wretched have now challenged his atheism, and he concludes that "atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy".  He once cheered on the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, but now he finds them to be "so removed from humanity".  Chris Arnade has discovered that the "poor" are not as poor as they seem, nor the "rich" as rich as they seem.  In other words, the way we see the world is often upside down--just as our Christian faith tells us.  The most wretched are often the most receptive to grace, the most hungry for the life of Christ in the soul.  Chris and I have seen this over and over.

In truth, the world is upside down.  God showed us this when the very Creator of life and love, beauty and majesty, was born and walked amongst us only to be trodden upon and murdered.  The Messiah became the weakest.  Now in Heaven, many of the weakest will be the strongest. May Chris Arnade connect all the dots and make the full journey home.

Takeesha was raped at 11 and pimped out at 13.  She now has six children.  Her mother was also a prostitute.  She testifies, "Whenever I got into the car [of a john], God got into the car with me."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Prayer and Cheap Talk

The other day after mass, I had a fascinating conversation with two aspiring priests.  Neal, who went to Ireland on Friday to interview for seminary, was lamenting the fact that few believe in the power of prayer today.  Jeff, who has been discerning the monastic life, agreed and said that whenever he offers to pray for people they kind of give him a look, as if to say, "Umm, thanks." or "Yeah, whatever."  I reflected on why that might be.  On the one hand, many people are skeptical of prayer because they lack a truly supernatural outlook, but it is also true that offers of prayer are often "cheap talk".   They can be empty gestures, a part of the well-meaning dynamics of conversation or good will gestures on Facebook.  But are the offers backed up with something more than a quick petition or remembrance?  God is probably still waiting to receive many of the prayers that have been promised on Facebook...

When I taught World Politics, we used to distinguish between "cheap talk" and "costly signals" in the relations between states and other international actors (like OPEC, the United Nations etc) .  Political and economic players engage in "cheap talk" every day in order to pursue their interests, but it doesn't tell you much about where they really stand because they're not incurring much of a cost in whatever they are doing.  But if they do something costly, then they've signaled who they really are and what they really believe.  Jesus refers to a similar dynamic in the parable of the "Widow's mite" (Luke 21: 1-4).  Jesus watches the rich offer their gifts at temple but he is unimpressed because their gift is "cheap talk", it flows from their abundance and doesn't disrupt their lives in any way.  By contrast, the poor widow gives two small coins that she will miss in her poverty, but in doing so she has sent a "costly signal" about where her heart is. Jesus is impressed and gratified, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them."  She alone was justified.

In a similar way, our lives are always signaling to God where our heart is.  Are we revealing ourselves to be cold, lukewarm or full of divine love?  We want our prayers to be costly, because by the sacrifice we signal to God that we believe He is worth it, that we don't take Him and his offer of salvation for granted.

Some Costly Forms Of Prayer

There are many ways of engaging in costly prayer, and different practices suit different people.  Here are some ideas: praying the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours each day, a daily rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet, fifty-four day novenas, praying on your knees on the hard floor, praying cruciform standing or face down on the bare floor, late night vigils or "keeping the watch" (perhaps at an adoration chapel).  We should always unite our prayers with whatever sufferings God has given us, and gently accept those sufferings.  We should also bear the burdens of others in our hearts, truly "compassionating" with them.  I've often done this while doing the street ministry and it is very heart-rending.  In particular, I recall Becky, a young Canadian woman who went from university life to a series of bad boyfriends and then to addiction and prostitution in a matter of five years.  The saints allowed themselves to be wounded by compassionating with the fallen of their own time, out of love for God and poor sinners.  Another good practice is to consistently pray throughout the day, offering thanks, supplications for all those we meet, and returning to God in mental prayer.  It is nothing other than inviting Jesus to walk alongside of us as we go, but it does take dedication. Jeff, who I mentioned above, has another good practice.  He prays for two hours each morning, usually before the tabernacle at St. Stephens.  Now that's dedication!  Jesus knows where his love is.  Lately Chris and I have been praying rosaries and chaplets as we do long loops in our tunics around a local Planned Parenthood (the last one here that still performs surgical abortions).  It is usually after dark, cold and wet and so there is some sacrifice involved.  Chris hopes that it will crumble like the Walls of Jericho, but I'll settle for just one woman embracing the child that is within her.  She too would be wounded by love one day, the love for her child.  May it be so.

St. Teresa of Avila wounded by love

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Finding Your Place

A few months back Chris and I had a memorable encounter with a young man named Taylor King.  We first encountered Taylor as we were leaving the Grotto parking lot to begin our "route".  He was a little agitated and asked us, "Hey, is mass going on right now?"  We said 'Yes' and then we went our separate ways.  I thought that Taylor looked like an unlikely candidate for Sunday mass given his neck tattoos and disheveled appearance, but I shrugged it off and looked forward to slipping into a spirit of prayer on our walk.

Chris and I walked our long loop and were eager to hop back in the car and call it a day.  But God had other plans.  We bumped into Taylor again just outside the Grotto, but this time he was with a friend.  Taylor's face was strained, almost tearful, and he wanted to ask us a question.  "If you have an experience of God, and still have doubts, does that make God mad?  Will God be upset with me?"  We quickly assured him that God is very patient, and that doubts and questions are a normal and even healthy part of growing in the faith.  I stressed that the most important thing is to speak honestly and plainly to God, rather than be coy or play games.  It was evident that Taylor was in the throes of something, and so I was eager to find out what it was.

I asked, "Did you have an experience of God?  Like a supernatural encounter?"

He barely nodded and stammered out a "Yeah".  It was clear by his alternating looks of shock, confusion and joyful gratitude that Taylor had experienced a Burning Bush moment.  He struggled to put his encounter with the Good God into words (who doesn't!?!), but all that mattered was the Author of Beauty and Truth and Love had deigned to lean down from Heaven to call him into a new life.  Chris and I confirmed Taylor's experiences with our own conversion stories, but all the while his friend grew restless.  Taylor's friend was embarrassed by all the "God talk" and kept trying to deflate the moment with sarcastic asides.  Taylor repeatedly brushed him off, saying "Don't listen to him.  He's a snake."  Taylor said it with simple conviction but without malice.  As a young Protestant pastor friend joked to me, "Taylor was given clarity."  Yes, Taylor had clarity, and things were what they were, and his friend really was a snake (In fact, the friend was trying to hock a very large Russian ruble banknote of Catherine the Great issued before the Russian Revolution.  We assume he stole it.).

As the conversation winded down, Chris gave Taylor his rosary.  Taylor tried to reciprocate by giving Chris a necklace with a precious memento of his dead mother, but we protested that idea.  Finally, I offered Taylor one of our meditation cards. With that same matter-of-fact clarity Taylor replied, "Oh, I already got one.  Man, I balled my eyes out after reading that.  I just sat in the church balling."  Then he reached in his pocket and produced one of our crumpled cards.  Chris and I looked at each other dumbfounded.  By what crazy act of providence had Taylor acquired one of our "I Thirst" meditations?!?  God never ceases to amaze...

Here's the prayer card we hand out, front and back.  

In the past few months I've often thought of Taylor.  God had blown his world wide open, just as he had spun me around almost ten years before.  Nothing would ever be the same again even though the "snakes" would do their best to trip him up.  I've wondered if Taylor has found a spiritual home, a healthy parish where he can bond with fellow-believers and grow in the faith?  It's often difficult for young men to find like-minded peers in today's Church.  According to the latest numbers, only 7% of young Catholics actually practice their faith, and the youth hastened their exit during the aggressively secular Obama years.  Even the devout of the parish (usually a generation or two older) don't know what to do with someone freshly dewed by the Holy Spirit.  At least that was my experience.

Chris and I would love to meet up with Taylor again, or any of the people we've come to know through street evangelization, but often it's a "one and done" encounter.  Is that God's plan for them or are we failing them in some way? What is our role here?  Are we to follow St. Philip Neri and his "oratory" and help gather together spiritually hungry men for robust fellowship and growth in the faith?  Or are we merely the sowers of God's seed, lonely men of prayer and sacrifice like Blessed Charles de Foucauld?  Obviously we would prefer the first scenario (and St. Stephen's parish already has the beginnings of an oratory), but we are resigned to God's will so long as we do what is expected of us.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thoughts on the Men's Conference

The Salem Men's Conference exceeded expectations and had a massive turn-out despite the threat of icy roads.  I was impressed by how many young men were there--men in their 20s and 30s--and the average age of the participants was a full 10-15 years younger than past conferences I've attended.  The men were also more masculine and rugged (and that's a good thing!) than you find in the urban centers, and they represent the future of the Church in the fading West.  These men are blessed with a masculine bishop, Archbishop Sample, who actually stayed for the conference after offering the morning mass.  As the well-traveled Fr. Donald Calloway MIC remarked to a few of us, "Most bishops just take off after giving their remarks.  You've got a rare one here."  Amen!  Archbishop Sample takes great pleasure in being around faithful, orthodox men; he is at home with us, and we are at home with him.  May God give the Church many more shepherds like him!

The most remarkable thing about the conference was how many fascinating men were in attendance.  Since Chris, Felix and I had our "Street Evangelization" table, I was able to sit back and meet and listen to the stories of many good Catholic men.  It also helped that our table was right next to Fr. Calloway who always invites a long line of greeters and book-buyers.  I met a burly, Hispanic retired police officer (a friend of Jesse Romero) who shared his tales of evangelization while on duty. He was a remarkable man, intrepid and creative in sharing the faith, and with a heart fashioned by Christ.  I met Richard, a Vietnam vet whose experiences in the war led him to be a street evangelist and a protestant pastor.  He entered the Church a couple years ago, and would make a great addition to our "team" if he ever drives up here from Cottage Grove.  I had a faith-filled chat with this fascinating young man, who renewed his marriage and life after re-discovering the faith "once-delivered".  Finally, I met a widely-read gentleman who had a special devotion to our patron, Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  In fact, as I queued up to communion, I noticed the man kneeling in prayer, and a gentle burst of divine love came from my chest, where my relic of Blessed Charles rested.  Blessed Charles has a pure, heavenly love for the man, interceding for him before the good God.  If only we knew how great and busy the saints are on our behalf!  We develop an idle interest in a saint, feel a little kinship, and meanwhile the saint burns with heavenly love on our behalf.  It boggles the mind!

Chris and I were operating on very little sleep at the conference, and Chris admitted that he would probably sleep through half the talks.  But that was before Fr. Calloway, Jesse Romero and Deacon Sivers got going.  Then Chris was held in rapt attention, and I kept teasing him, "You're not asleep yet?"  No one sleeps during those talks.  We hope to attend next year's conference, slated for October.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Come Join Us!

Chris and I are heading down to Salem in ten days to attend a Catholic Men's Conference.  The event has drawn an outstanding line-up of speakers, and we've been given a table to spread the word about street evangelization.  I'm very grateful to the organizer, James Thurman, for the opportunity since display space was limited.  We'll have a large banner with the Jesus Caritas cross, our brochures, the prayer cards we give away, and one of our tunics (our "uniform").  I can't wait!  I feel like a little boy waiting for Christmas.  I'm certain that we'll meet scores of faithful Catholic men of integrity who are hungry to deepen their relationship with Christ.  I look forward to hearing their stories and watching their faces as they share the faith.  One or two might even join us.

Who might join us?  The Holy Spirit has prepared them by giving them a nagging itch to do "something more" for the faith, for those in the fog of unbelief, and for those on the cusp of conversion.  The apostolate is for someone who sees a prostitute or homeless man and thinks, "I want to talk to them, to get to know them, and help them if I can."  In fact, you will find the bloom of grace in unexpected places!  This apostolate is for you if you've figured out that what really matters is the Kingdom of Heaven; if you crave the knowledge and delight of Jesus and a galaxy of angels and saints over the judgment of men.  This apostolate is for you if you've discovered that the Faith is for the intrepid, and that there is no greater adventure than following Christ where he leads.  In fact, he will lead you to a greater understanding of yourself, seeing yourself in His clear and humble light.  He will lead you to other good men, united in fraternity in the faith, and may he lead you forward with us!

An excellent video calling men back to their awesome responsibility and dignity in the Church Militant:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Those Who Keep The World Turning, Part II

God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise; he singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong.  He chose the world's lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something; so that mankind can do no boasting before God.
                                                                                                   St. Paul, First Letter to the Corinthians

The Catholic Herald has a must-read article about a remarkable homeless man, Thomas Hooker, who just passed on to meet his sweet Lord.  His pastor, Fr. Illo, described Thomas as "a kind of patron saint of the homeless".  Thomas spent many hours praying each morning in the back of Star of the Sea church, much like another saint of the homeless, St. Benedict Joseph Labre.  Thomas was well-known to locals for his kind disposition and cheerful words.  He lived for years under a tarp on the streets of San Francisco, which for the uninitiated carries a damp coldness in otherwise sunny California.  The stubborn chill was undoubtedly quite a change from Thomas's native Caribbean island of Trinidad. Thomas acknowledged his trials, but knew that they made him a better man: "I suffer a lot, you know, and when you suffer, you must know to be kind."  One aspect of his kindness was generosity.  Like St. Benedict Joseph Labre, he gave away an extra donut or an extra dollar when he had them.  This may have been impractical, but he had a mystic's vision of things.  Once he "woke to a cloud of butterflies kissing him."  Some call that crazy, but I'd call it a foretaste of Heaven.

Thomas Hooker and his beatific smile, just like Blessed Charles de Foucauld!

I wonder how many graces Thomas brought down for those who knew and observed him?  How many people he introduced to Christ in his own lowly person, Christ-in-disguise?  How many souls he saved from perdition by his supplications and patient sufferings?

I'm grateful that God sent Thomas to poor Fr. Illo, embattled and despised by all the right enemies. It has been a rough couple years for Fr. Illo, who has sought to found an oratory after St. Phillip Neri's example, at Star of the Sea parish.  May God send the oratory many more saints-in-the-making!

Blessed Feast Day!

While St. Philip Neri is a co-patron of this apostolate, our primary heavenly intercessor (not named 'Mary') is Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Today is his feast day.  After more than a year of searching, I finally obtained a relic of Blessed Charles.  It is from the burial cloth in which he was wrapped from 1916-1929.  To my delight, it was issued by the bishop where Blessed Charles was a priest, and the bishop belongs to the "White Fathers", from the religious order that Blessed Charles worked alongside of.  Deo Gratias!  I now wear the relic around my neck when we walk the streets to evangelize.  Blessed Charles, ora pro nobis!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Those Who Keep The World Turning, Part I

The great mystics have said many enigmatic things over the centuries.  My favorite quote comes from the 7th or 8th century from a North African saint (unfortunately I can't recall his name).  By that time Western Civilization had collapsed, and Islam was subduing once Christian peoples through violent jihad.  The North African saint, a wandering John the Baptist type, baldly declared,  "It is only by my supplications and those of [another holy hermit] that the world has not been destroyed."  In other words, like Sodom and Gomorrah, the world would be spared if only a few righteous men could be found.

I've thought about this quote many times in the past year as four of the best Christians I've known have passed on.  First there was Rosie Vlcek, a spunky nurse who worked with my mom and was a stalwart with 40 Days for Life.  She had a giant heart and an innocent's courage, standing up to injustice in the face of long odds (whether against troubling new workplace rules or social problems).  She died unexpectedly.  God also suddenly took Nancy Curcio.  She had been a religious sister for ten years before entering secular life and teaching at the local Cathedral School.  She later married but was not graced with children.  Nancy helped oversee the 24 hour adoration chapel,  and steeped her life in spiritual reading and private devotions.  Nancy's smile and presence were a testimony to the existence of her Creator.  She had something so few people have.  Jim Germann, who passed a few days ago, once reverently pointed her out to me to say, "Now there is a real Catholic lady."  Then he just smiled and took in the sight of her.  Jim and I did biweekly runs to the Oregon Food Bank for five years for our St. Vincent De Paul chapter before he was sidelined by cancer.  He would lug forty pound bags of rice (against my protestations) even at the age of 90!  Jim was country strong, raised on a farm in the Dakotas, and spent his life stocking groceries.  When I visited him a few weeks ago he came to the door himself, tidily dressed, and his face seemed to glow.  He was half here and half in Heaven, in a strange twilight before becoming one with the Father through the Son.  By contrast, I recently visited an elderly relative who has led a life of greed, selfishness and malice.  He looked and acted like Gollum.  We all die as we have lived.

My late mother, Pamela Loogman, shared many things in common with the other dearly departed.  All of them were without guile; they did not have their own agenda.  They were simple and straightforward in a complex and crooked world. Each of them had to suffer, and often it was their children that rent their hearts.  My Mom suffered through so many things, and like the others, she never lost her joy.  She was kept aloft by "the peace that surpasses all understanding".  As I've thumbed through her photo albums, seeing her grow up on a dairy, surrounded by younger siblings and cousins, I've often thought, "This sweet, hard-working girl has no idea of the sufferings ahead."  But God gave her the grace of a happy childhood and the grace of faith so she could endure and win hearts amidst the cruel dysfunctions to follow.  She grew up wanting to give herself completely as a religious sister, but her mother wouldn't have it.  But she still fulfilled her vocation, living so as to offer herself "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1) for her children, husband and hospital patients.

My Mom and her parents after graduation from nursing school

As these true Christians have passed on, I've often  wondered at God's plan.  Who will replace them? Is he taking them because he wants to spare them from a coming chastisement?  But I quickly quash that last thought.  Ours will be a long defeat without any great fireworks.  The important point is that Jesus has asked all of us to replace them, and sometimes he has even asked in person.

To be continued...