Sunrise over city

Sunrise over city

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ten Years A Catholic, Ten Things I've Learned

The path of the just is like the passage of  dawn;
it grows from first light to the full splendor of day.
So that in all things we may grow into Christ who is our Head.

                                                       Office of Readings, February 9th

This April marks the tenth anniversary of my sudden and unexpected conversion.  Deo gratias, what a blessing!  The last ten years have been the happiest and most fulfilling of my life.  They haven't been smooth sailing, and I have very little to show for these years in terms of a career or impressive projects, but I have stayed close to Jesus and have enjoyed the blessings of family and friends.

In the spirit of the early (and more edifying) days of Catholic blogs, I thought I would offer the dreaded Top Ten List of the most important things I've learned (and re-learned and re-learned) in that time.

1.  It's Not About You

In the years following my conversion I spent a lot of time navel-gazing.  In particular, I flirted with a kind of "survivor's guilt".  I kept returning to the same thought, "Why me?  What about all of the other people I know who suffer from separation from God?  What have I done to receive truth and hope?"  God had reached down, and in a sovereign act had set my life along a radically new course by lifting the veil separating the natural and the supernatural.  It was a gift too awful to bear.  Then I finally understood that it wasn't about me, but that I was just one little part God's great plan.  I kept coming back to a bowling analogy.  God is a perfect bowler, and I am merely a pin that he has lovingly struck so that I might then move a few other pins.  This was a liberating realization.

2.  Become A Living Sacrifice

If God has reached down and plucked us from our misery, it is because we exist for the sanctification of the world.  Just as Jesus died for the world, he asks us to "die" in our own way for those he puts before us.  Jesus asks us--as he asked the apostles--to Follow Him, and he invites us to mirror his own life in our person.  God the Father has given us faith in his Son because he has called us to be "another Christ, a little Christ".  It is easy to protest at such an awesome dignity, and I know I resisted this core of Christian truth for some time.  Nevertheless, Christ will only come to completion through us, his Body.  It is scandalous given our weakness, but St. John Eudes writes, "He intends to perfect the mysteries of his passion, death and resurrection, by causing us to suffer, die and rise again with him."  What a vocation we have been given!  If only we cooperate and welcome His life into us.  As St. John Vianney beautifully states,  "We are each of us like a small mirror in which God searches for His reflection."

3.  We Are The Obstacles To Grace

As many mystics and Doctors of the Church have affirmed, a single Holy Communion is sufficient to sanctify us, and yet most of the graces slip through our fingers as we cling to our own ways and protect our own prerogatives and wounded hearts.  In particular, I know several serious and long-time Christians who have made scant spiritual progress in the last ten years.  Perhaps they have even regressed.  The problem seems to be that they don't truly believe in their heart of hearts that they are lovable.  At some deep level they still believe the painful lies they were told as a child by unsound parents, or other more recent lies of the devil.  Perhaps their pride cannot reveal their wounds to a God who already knows them anyway.  Perhaps they value a sense of control and resist surrendering to the King of Kings.  God yearns to heal them, but they guard their wounds.  For my part, I have been meditating in church on the scene where Christ is stripped of his garments.  I beg Jesus to strip me down, too, remove all those layers of resistance that separate me from Him and from my neighbor.  We must have the courage to lay ourselves bare to be made into His image.

4.  God's Plan For You Is Probably Not Your Plan

After my conversion I knew that my life would take a radically different path, but I wanted to direct that path along the career path I had already taken.  So I thought, "Okay, I can still finish my doctoral dissertation even though I now think half of it's wrong, and I can still work as a professor, albeit at a small Catholic college."  But Jesus had other plans.  Then I thought, "Okay, I have a great conversion story.  Maybe I'm supposed to write a book about it and be one of those Catholic apologist/conference speaker/radio types.  Then I could still put my years of education to use!"  Fortunately Jesus spared me from the speaking circuit--probably because a friend once tellingly-described me as a "peacock". Peacock's want attention--unless it is the wrong kind of attention.  But that's just the kind of attention that Jesus had in store for me.  He gave me this apostolate and a tunic which would attract some jeers and many bemused eyes.  It's kind of like the way St. Philip Neri would mortify the pride of his well-born and macho young men: he'd have them walk a dainty little dog all around Rome.  That provoked lots of laughs!  So much for the peacock.

The apostolate also seemed a bad fit because I'm someone who prefers to be detached and alone with my thoughts.  I always jogged and hiked alone.  I spent more than a decade in quiet with my nose in philosophy and literature.  But what was God's plan?  To toss me out onto the streets and into all kinds of face-to-face encounters with complete strangers! And it's worked.  It's a testament to God's all-knowing providence, to his transformative grace, and a rebuke to demons who only see our faults and weaknesses.

5.  Watch The Road, Not The Signs of the Times

The Christian soul and the Christian life should be one of harmony, with everything receiving it's proper place.  Things go sideways when we treat secondary things as primary, or when we give an outsize role to to a smaller duty.  For my part, I wasted a great deal of time and focus on discerning where we are in salvation history: is this the Great Apostasy, is there now a likely candidate for the Man of Sin (the final anti-christ), are we in the Last Days or just another great upheaval?  Every Christian should consider these things (Our Lord commanded it), and I especially recommend Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World and Blessed John Henry Newman's Sermons on the Anti-Christ.  But this can easily become a draining and distracting quest, especially as it is usually accompanied by reading lots of news and commentary on the state of the Church, politics and economics.  I could have decreased my consumption of news and audio sermons by 90% and still have done my due diligence, but alas, this stuff is titillating.  I suspect many of us have given up pornography, video games (well, mostly) and our sports obsessions, and have replaced them with online news and commentary.  It is immensely more fruitful to focus here and now in the "sacrament of the present moment".

To Be Continued...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Re-Branding Catholicism

A few days ago Chris and I had a good talk with a tall, young pentecostal named "Edgar" on one of our evangelization routes.  Edgar hailed from Mexico, but now spoke perfect English.  Edgar had two great hopes that sprung from his sense of Christian vocation: he prayed to meet a faithful, virtuous woman to be his bride, and he hoped to do missionary work--particularly in Muslim countries.  Edgar didn't just want a "good woman", as any Catholic man would hope for, but he wanted a woman who had set her face against "the world, the flesh and the devil".  A rare woman indeed!  Moreover, when I warned him that missionary work in some Muslim countries would land him in jail (like Saudi Arabia) he doubled-down and insisted that his preference was to be a missionary in Muslim lands.  In this he sounded like some of the first Franciscans--martyrs and would-be martyrs for preaching Christ Crucified in muslim North Africa.  In short, Edgar was the personification of zeal, and everything he said was Catholic (probably unbeknownst to him).  After we parted I remarked to Chris: "Edgar probably grew up Catholic, but abandoned it because it was lame.  The usual safe, lukewarm stuff we all grew up with.  He wanted a serious faith.  Part of what we're doing out here is to re-brand Catholicism.  Show people that it's a burning faith."

It seems to be working in its small way.  I've run into numerous Christians--some Catholic, some not--who are surprised and edified by what we are doing.  I've also met many non-believers who are intrigued by our presence (such as Eon).

Three Priests Doing Great Work

I've recently read about three different priests who are each "re-branding Catholicism" in their own mission field.  A reader of the blog sent me a delightful write-up of Fr. Lawrence Carney, who evangelizes the streets most days in St. Joseph, Missouri.  He's hard to miss in his full-length black cassock and traditional soutane, carrying a crucifix and rosary.  As he walks along, the curious are drawn to him, and he wins unlikely friends and admirers.  His sense of humor certainly helps his evangelism; he describes his efforts as "fishing".  A fellow priest describes his unusual appearance as "a visible image or icon of the Church" and notes that in Fr. Carney's walks he "sees, talks and prays with those that the average parish priest doesn't have a chance to encounter."  Fr. Carney hopes to attract more priests to the charism, and form a society of priests committed to street evangelization.  I find it significant that Fr. Carney is chaplain to the much-admired Benedictines of Mary as well as friends with many FSSP priests.  It seems to me that both of these orders have been raised up by God to help re-build the Father's House.  As iron sharpens iron, God often clusters saints together in time and place so that they might strengthen each other.  Here's praying that Fr. Carney is the start of something big.

If I'm ever in his area I'll go out of my way to meet him.  His experiences are largely our experiences, especially the initial trepidation at starting off alone.  In the meantime I will read his book, due to be released at the end of the year.

Fr. Carney fishing for souls

Fr. Jason Cargo is another priest who has taken to the streets, though in his case he sets out with other Catholics in the form of a daily rosary procession during Lent.  The group walks local neighborhoods in prayer, and is led by a medium-sized crucifix.  The crucifix is a powerful sacramental when prayerfully used, and mystics have testified that it puts demons to flight by making the crucifixion present again (since God and spirits exist outside of time).  Processions can have a remarkable impact on by-standers, especially when accompanied by music and the Blessed Sacrament.  I wrote of Phillip Trower's conversion here; he was always touched by the Walsingham processions in England while he was still an atheist.  At the close of the Sacra Liturgia conference in New York, Daniel Marengo writes of the procession along Manhattan streets:

“I HAVE LIVED IN NYC ALL MY LIFE and never participated in such an outward Eucharistic procession of this kind.  All of NYC, including the police, pedestrians and the stunned commercial and residential onlookers from the buildings along the way, watched in awe and silent wondering as the canopied Blessed Sacrament meandered its way through the cavernous streets, touching the lives of countless secular and hard bitten New Yorkers.” Daniel Marengo, NYC

If you'd like to hear more about Fr. Cargo's rosary processions, his diocese has put out a short video here.

Finally, I'd like to direct you to the remarkable story of Fr. Fames Mawdsley FSSP.  Fr. Mawdsley became a human rights activist in his youth, and was even imprisoned in Burma for more than a year. His time in solitary confinement began to re-direct his life to a higher calling--toward "the peace that surpasseth all understanding".  There is something brutally jarring and finally suffocating about solitary confinement.  I've seen it drive hardened cons a little wacky (though they straighten out within a few days or weeks of their release).  I fought the suffocation of "the hole" with beauty--wandering in tight circles reciting the hundred poems I had come to memorize while in prison.  Fr. Mawdsley found a beauty much greater than poems from Keats and e. e. cummings.  He continues to pursue and witness that beauty in the sacred liturgy because he has learned the most important lesson: "Without God, we can do nothing."

Fr, Mawdsley with Archbishop Schneider

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: