Monday, December 1, 2014

Happy Feast Day, Blessed Charles!

Today is the Feast Day of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, patron of the apostolate and of so many other worthy lay and religious groups.  He was murdered 98 years ago today by an anxious young tribesman who was assigned to guard him while the rest of the warriors pillaged Charles's little compound.  In honor of his feast, I was intent on walking the streets today, and I had some hope that something special might happen.  I wasn't disappointed.  Well, at least I wasn't disappointed in Blessed Charles's sense of humor.  A cheerfully intoxicated fifty year-old woman followed me and insisted that I share her fried chicken leg.  Perhaps the chicken was meant for Blessed Charles's feast?  If so, I missed the clue. Instead I managed to distract her enough with friendly questions to avoid eating the leg.  She was great fun though, and could certainly use a few prayers.

After walking the streets I went to the archdiocese to talk to Todd Cooper, the acting Director of Evangelization, about the apostolate.  He was surprised when I pointed out that he had scheduled the meeting on Blessed Charles's Feast day, but as we know, Heaven is full of surprises.  I think the meeting was very rewarding for both us, and he was very patient when I went to tears talking about some of my old convict buddies.  Some of those buddies did me a great deal of good behind bars, and they are still in prison today.  Todd assured me I had Archbishop Sample's blessing, and said that when it comes to street ministry, "You're all we've got."  That made my eyes widen, and I felt like stepping out into the cold to resume the apostolate.  I'm sure the Lord will send Portland more workers soon since we know that Heaven's not stingy. God has already sent us Josh in Louisville, and there are plenty of good men in Portland.  My Mom's already agreed to sew two tunics to have on hand, and I've already got the fabric ready!

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Model for the Re-evangelization of the West

For the last decade Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine has walked the gritty streets of Marseille, France in a cassock.  He walks the streets so that he might know all of his people, and he patiently waits for them every evening in the confessional.  He has brought many back to the faith, and has earned the respect of all the people of the diverse seaside metropolis.  The parish he was given was once almost empty, and now it is the busiest parish in Marseille.  His example has not gone unnoticed.  In fact, he has even inspired the good Archbishop Leonard of Brussels to found the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles after Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine's example.  The Fraternity has begun with three priests and seven seminarians, and has recently found a home in the once-closed old St Catherines'.  Like Father Zanotti-Sorkine, they walk highly-secularized Brussels in cassocks, and they bring the Gospel and sacraments to those who wouldn't otherwise seek them.

Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine has given us a model for how to re-evangelize the West.  He offers something old and something new to bring his people to the wedding feast of our Lord.  With his traditional dress, devotion to the confessional, and reverent mass he has reached deep into the time-honored treasures of the Church, and has been called another Cure of Ars.  His commitment to walking the neighborhoods is reminiscent of the early Franciscans and Dominicans, and represents the perennial missionary spirit of the Church.  He has also been adept at using modern technology to reach people through various forms of media: books, interviews, online sermons and even music.  God seems to have given him more hours in the day than the rest of us, and his success has earned him more than his fair share of critics.  Some critics find him too traditional, other critics object to the fact that he gives our eucharistic Lord to prostitutes (I would be ecstatic if some of the prostitutes I see every week would join me in confession and mass!), or that he has an attractive website and following.  He has taken some pastoral risks, but has also shown great faith in laboring for the Lord.  Who knows how long he walked the streets in his cassock before people finally relaxed and welcomed him?  And who knows how long he sat in the confessional--night after night--before people finally began to trickle in?  In his ten years at the parish of St. Vincent de Paul, the good father has shown us that Catholicism still works.  What worked for Sts. Francis and Dominic will still work for today, and what revitalized the village of Ars under St. Vianney can still happen in parishes today.

Fr. Sorkine and the Fraternity

Fr. Zanotti-Sorkine has recently taken a new assignment at the Shrine of Our Lady of Laus.  We wish him all of God's blessings, and also for the good priests and seminarians of the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How Blessed Charles was Converted

The other day while doing the ministry I was reading the old Bazin biography of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  It's my book of choice while walking the streets, while waiting "for something to happen".   I came upon the part of the book where Blessed Charles first met the priest who was to play a decisive role in bringing him back to the Church.  He met Father Huvelin at a fashionable salon or evening party when he was fresh off his great success as an explorer and geographical writer.  Charles was a sought-after personage at the time, yet his soul was restless.  Unbeknownst to himself, his soul was ripe for conversion as his objects of desire had faded in disillusion.  First he had tasted of life as a young viscount, as a man of exquisite luxury and as a man with an amiable mistress.  Then he had excelled in perilous situations as few men do: first as a cavalry officer in combat and then as an undercover explorer in the hard, hostile land of North Africa.  While he had finally come into his manhood and sense of himself, there was still an unease that dogged him.  He was aware that he lacked the peace and ease of spirit that marked his devout relations, and their Christian example was not lost on him.

But what Charles needed was a catalyst, to meet just the right person or more accurately, just the right friend.  He found that in Father Huvelin.  It seemed like  a "chance" encounter at the salon, though we know that with God there is no element of chance.  Father Huvelin had gone to the best of schools, though he was not at ease with the luxury and the privilege of high society.  The Bazin biography tells us that he "did not try to be smart" in Charles's presence, but was just himself: an unassuming blend of simplicity, profundity and earnestness.  Somehow, perhaps by an instinct in the soul, the two men recognized in each other a common bond and joined destiny.  Bazin beautifully tells us that "“they recognized and waited for one another in their hearts", and later considered their meeting "a great event”.

I was amazed at reading these passages because they capture the central purpose of the apostolate.  Blessed Charles's own conversion is a model of how the apostolate approaches the spiritually famished in order to forge a genuine connection.  While life-changing friendships are rare, we walk the streets in the hope that God will put us in just the right place to meet just the right person.  A conversion to Christ usually comes through human relationships, and this makes sense when you consider that the committed faithful are members of Christ's own mystical body.  Thus, if we share in Christ's divine life, then in meeting us they are meeting Christ in us.  God has given all of us a great privilege and responsibility to go out and bring Christ to others, and the surest way of bearing Christ is through the Eucharist.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How the Apostolate Began, Part IV

I continued to sketch the ministry in writing for that day and the next.  Just as the apostolate unfolded on paper, so did the purpose of my life begin to unfold in my mind.  I became certain that the apostolate was as central to my life's calling as my vocation to be a husband and father, as well as my vocation to share the truths of the faith through writing.  From the beginning of time we are all fashioned to play our specific part in God's perfect plan of salvation.  In a sense, we are supernaturally "stamped" with qualities, traits and desires that lead us--amidst the freedom of our choices--to the purpose God has for us.  Thus, if a woman has been given the gift of motherhood, there's a mystical sense in which she has carried that calling with her throughout her life.  Even as a little girl she has been "stamped" in the image of motherhood, just as an acorn carries with it the "plan" to be an oak tree.

I began to understand that my past experiences in prison and academia had laid the groundwork--were the preparatory crucible--for my future work as a street evangelist.  My own past was being unlocked before me, and treasures were brought forward amidst my past sufferings and sins.  I began to finally see all the pieces of my life as a coherent whole: the long walks in every kind of weather, the abiding care for at-risk youth, ex-cons and prostitutes, the intellectual desire to understand human history and defend the truth, the love for the fading treasures of the Catholic tradition, and lastly, the need for Christian brotherhood that is a nobler friendship than the solidarity I found amongst the "solid cons" in prison.

Where's the brotherhood among Catholic men?

The concerns and pre-occupations that gripped me also seemed to be some of the weakest parts of the Church in the "developed" West.  The apostolate seemed to effortlessly provide a remedy for many of the needs of the Church: the need to re-claim and model a deeper sense of prayer and worship, the revival of a spirit of reparation, the need to reestablish a public prophetic witness, the need to go out and find poor sinners where they languish amidst spiritual starvation, and the recovery of Catholic masculinity and friendship.

In the initial burst of thinking and writing on the ministry, I envisioned a small army of like-minded laymen tromping through the cities, with some men even serving as full-time missionaries, and some of the single men living together in run-down urban Jesus Caritas houses.  I thought the ministry might help test young men who were discerning a call to the priesthood.  They could spend a year walking the streets, and recent college graduates could also spend a year or two before they met their spouse and got on with "real" life.  I knew it would take a miracle for the apostolate to become what I envisioned, but I half-expected a miracle since I had been haunted by the supernatural since my conversion.  But if I had paid closer attention to the life of Blessed Charles and his lonesome ministry, then  I would have known that these were only daydreams.  I confess them now so that you might know my foolishness.

What is clear is that the ministry will always be a part of my life until I am overcome by old age.  It's become a part of who I am, just as it sprung from my own hopes and pre-occupations.  I may only write about the ministry in fits and starts, but I'll always walk the streets in the hope that God will put me in just the right place at the right time.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How the Apostolate Began, Part III

I still wasn't wholly convinced that Blessed Charles de Foucauld was the right patron for the ministry until I understood that there was an analogy between the modern cities of the West and the Muslim tribes of Blessed Charles' beloved desert.   Just as the tribes practiced a crude form of syncretist Islam that was adapted to their tribal society, so do many Christians in the West adapt the faith to the contemporary impulses of materialism, new age, and false notions of autonomy and sexual liberation. Both peoples move amidst the comforting signs and symbols of religion or spiritual yearnings but without the transforming power of an encounter with the living God.  And so both peoples travel through a spiritual desert with an apparent disinterest in the leaven of Christ's love--a leaven that can permeate a society and raise our hearts up the kingdom of God.

Then I remembered the three groups of people that God had shown me outside the gallery, and reflected on how Blessed Charles might minister to them.  It was clear that the three groups of people represented three different states of soul, or three fundamental dispositions we may have toward God.   We can live in the friendship of Christ, we can be driven on by a zest for sin and live squarely against Christ, or we can live apart from Christ amidst sorrow and dis-illusion over our fallen idols.  The last state is really just the state of the prodigal son, and is a fertile ground for a deep, lasting conversion.

I thought that if Blessed Charles met the family who lived in the friendship of Christ, that he would offer Christian hospitality and fellowship--recognizing the divine life of Christ that is in all Christ's friends.  Blessed Charles's life of radical Christian discipleship would also provide a salutary example, just as street ministry suggests a more radical expression of the Christian life.  The apostolate could offer a gentle impetus for Christians to go deeper in the faith, and it would also reassure those evangelicals and pentecostals who equate Catholicism with a luke-warm faith.

If Blessed Charles met the poor man who had turned his back on Christ, Blessed Charles would show him the love of Christ and the "peace that surpasseth all understanding".  He would offer prayer and sacrifice for the poor man, and humbly bear his scorn.  He would only show him love, and if that love were humble and true, then the man may recognize it and a slow movement may begin in his soul.

If Blessed Charles met the woman who was ripe for conversion he would set aside everything else, and begin the walk of faith with her.  He would offer prayer, catechesis, books and a ready ear for questions and concerns.  He would patiently remain with her through the ups and downs as conversion can be a rocky process since that person's soul becomes the center of a great spiritual tug o' war.  He would be mindful that the woman may have rejected the faith in the past because she had never met a person transformed by Christ.  The goal of the apostolate must be to become a "little Christ" so that others may see Christ in us.  In witnessing our humility, patience and supernatural charity they will begin to believe that there really is something to the ancient faith, and that it's a bracing alternative to the little dry gods of modern culture.

After reflecting on these things it became clear that Blessed Charles was certainly the right patron for the ministry.  As I considered his life and example, the heart and mind of the apostolate gently unfolded before me.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How the Apostolate Began, Part II

I understood that to be an effective street evangelist, my appearance would need to signal to people why I was out on the streets as well as offer an attractive presence.  The Mormons announced themselves by their wholesome yet corny uniform, and the fundamentalists used a sign.  I decided that a sign was awkward and immobile and so I would need a uniform of some kind.  But what kind?  Maybe a t-shirt or sweatshirt with a cross and large lettering: "ASK ME WHY I'M CATHOLIC" or "DO YOU KNOW CHRIST?"  No, that wouldn't do.  I wanted something more timeless--more Catholic--as well as something that even passing cars could recognize and consider.  Then I remembered a strange experience, a supernatural fragment from two years ago.

The monks of Papastronsay had sent me a book in the form of a magazine about Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  It was the old biography by Rene Bazin supplemented by dozens of vintage photographs.  I had never heard of this saint, but I was impressed by his photo on the cover.  I thumbed through the magazine and then forgot the book amidst the pile on my desk.  After all, what would a monk and evangelist to the muslims have to do with me?  Then a year later, about the time of his feast day (December 1st), Blessed Charles stepped into my life through an interior vision.  He stood slightly bent with his hands clasped before him.  He was a small humble presence who seemed to be housed in my soul.  He said nothing, but merely looked at me for a few moments from within me.  And then he was gone.

I didn't know what to do with this experience, and so I dug the magazine out from the pile on my desk and read it.  I presented the magazine to my spiritual director, and said with embarrassment, "He appeared to me from inside of me."  I was surprised when my director looked pleased, and announced that he was very fond of Blessed Charles.  We concluded that Blessed Charles must be one of my heavenly patrons, and that God was reminding me--through Blessed Charles--that humility is the central lever for spiritual growth.

But two years later I now saw the experience in a deeper light.  Blessed Charles's prayerful witness and example of Christian brotherhood to non-believers was the ideal recipe for evangelization in the post-Christian West. Moreover, Blessed Charles's religious habit with the Holy Cross emerging from Christ's Sacred Heart was the perfect starting point for constructing a uniform.  The heart and cross offer the perfect message of love and sacrifice as well as soothing the fears of those I might encounter.  I could make a short tunic that was modeled after Blessed Charles habit, though it would need to avoid the particular marks of religious dress.  Then I recalled that in past centuries, some lay people would wear distinctive dress that identified them as a member of one of the  Third Orders (Dominican, Benedictine, etc).  Emboldened by this precedent, I asked Blessed Charles for his patronage and began sketching out a tunic.   I decided that a wool tunic with a prominent Jesus Caritas heart/cross would be unusual enough to be unmistakable to passers-by on foot and car.  There would be no mistaking what I was up to.  Moreover, wool is remarkably versatile and could be worn throughout the change in seasons.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How the Apostolate Began, Part I

After All Saints' Day Mass of last year I took our daughter to visit the art gallery where my wife works.    We saw the new exhibit for November, played on the stairs, and then headed out the front door for home.  As I left the gallery I noticed a husband and wife with their twenty-something son and daughter waiting for a table at a restaurant.  As soon as I saw them, I also understood something much deeper than their generally pleasing appearance.  By a divine grace I could read the general state of their souls, and the whole family lived in the friendship of Christ.  I stared at them and they were gracious enough to smile at me.  I thought, "They must be devout Christians."  Then a young man briskly passed in front of me reading something on his iphone.  My thoughts were interrupted.  There was a shadow over this young man, as well as a hardness and determination.  He had turned his back on God, and was not receptive to grace.  I watched him as he continued down the sidewalk.  I thought, "That used to be me."  Then I noticed a brunette woman in her mid-30s who wore a scarlet and gray skirt suit.  She was crossing the sidewalk in the usual way, but I understood she was in turmoil.  Whatever had gratified her in the past had fallen away, and she was now bare, confused and ripe for grace.  All she needed was the right person to introduce her to Jesus.  I knew I wasn't the right person to do that--at least, not yet.

When I got back to the car I mechanically fastened my daughter into her car seat and wondered what God was up to. Why did God show me those people and the state of their relationship with him?  Was he showing me a need, and inviting me to do something about it?   That must be it!  But what?  I don't even know them, or the millions of others like them.  How could I be of use to them unless I took the faith to the streets?  I pondered the possibilities on the drive home and was grateful when my daughter fell asleep.  That would give me more time to think and reflect on what had happened.  As I reached 50th and Powell I noticed a young Mormon missionary that I had spoken to a few months back. He was gesturing enthusiastically to a shabbily dressed man while his fellow missionary looked on.  I was surprised that their mission territory extended this far out.  Then it hit me.  This might be a sign.  I asked, "God, do you want me to be a street missionary like the Mormons?  That must be it!"  Then I drove another twenty blocks and was astonished to see a young black preacher camped out on the corner only two blocks from my house. He had never been there before.  A young white man stood next to him holding a large ugly sign--the kind of street sign that mattress stores use when "everything must go".  I read the sign: "Repent or perish...Now's the time..." followed by some scripture.  The preacher looked angry and the young man looked defiant.

This is not a winning strategy

They wouldn't win any converts with that approach, but at least they were trying to witness.  After all, where were the Catholics--those graced with the faith that Jesus passed down to his disciples?  My heart sank for our dear Lord.  His only representatives were a pair of fundamentalists and some eager but confused Mormons.  It couldn't be a coincidence that I had seen these street missionaries on this afternoon.  God has a perfect plan, and every piece moves in harmonious purpose with every other piece.  God had arranged for me to be in the exact place and time to see three different states of soul, and two different examples of street ministry, and in just twenty-five minutes!

When I got home I grabbed a fresh yellow legal pad and sat down.  Words and ideas streamed from my mind with remarkable clarity and conviction.  It was effortless.  I thought, "This must be the Holy Spirit..."  Then I remembered Blessed Charles de Foucauld and something that had happened two years before.

To be continued...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Through A Glass Darkly

"For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.  Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I am known." 1 Corinthians 13:12

One of the most famous passages in modern thought is from the great sociologist Max Weber.  He laments that a de-enchantment of the world--a virtual "iron cage"-- has followed the progress of science, industry and the technocratic efficiency of the modern world.  In many ways what Weber was describing was the historical eclipse of a deeply Catholic culture that united the bonds of the past, the wonder of the natural world and the ever-present sense of the supernatural.

Max Weber's "iron cage"

While Weber was undoubtedly describing something tangible about the "feel" of life in the modern world, we must never lose sight that we stand with St. Paul, and can still peer "through a glass darkly".  As St. Paul would urge us: the world is still enchanted, and all of our actions reverberate into the future and even into eternity.  We are only dimly aware of the true value and meaning of our words and actions, but there are breath-taking things going on around us.  This is most apparent in the case of the powers entrusted to the Church and her sacred ministers.  Jesus Christ really does come down onto our altars at the mere words of consecration during Holy Mass, and He is always attended at the altar by angels who join us in proclaiming the thrice-holy God, "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus".  These are every day miracles, and yet we don't see them.  Every day men and women are freed from the grasping clutch of demons, as a good confession absolves sin and the power that the sin had given demons against the poor sinner.  The demons were once attached to the sinner, even intimate, and now they stand far off.

Now there are some wonders that only come around once a year.  Did you know that on Good Friday the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is halted and there is a great hush between heaven and earth?  The unimaginable graces that flow from the re-presentation of Calvary at Holy Mass are paused as the Church and the heavenly host commemorate the death of our Lord.  For a brief time the great Jacob's Ladder between heaven and earth is seldom travelled.  How humble is our God to honor the great feasts of the Church calendar even in Heaven!

The Great Ladder between Heaven and Earth

If we could only see in our own lives how our choices are pregnant with meaning.  If we could only see as the heavenly host do, we would see that every thing is magnified beyond our dim apprehension.  When we see a mother on the street with her baby, we may feel gratified to see her motherhood, but imagine the delight that our Lord takes when she loves as a mother should.  When we go hiking in the woods we may sing the Ave Maria or Gloria, and feel comfort even if it's poorly sung, but you would be shocked if you knew how delighted our blessed forbears are in observing such simple acts by their progeny. Finally, a man just beginning this ministry may feel that his time has been in vain if he doesn't have any meaningful encounters with passers-by, but what is the view of Heaven?  Is he a fool for walking the streets like that?  Are his prayers and sacrifices wasted?  No, he's a faithful son who should trust in divine providence, and know that the gentle gaze of Heaven follows his very step.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mary, Angels and Human Sin, Part Two

In the last post I considered some painful truths of our faith, but it is better to grapple with them and internalize them now rather than wait till death and finally see our sins as God sees them.  Despite our obstinacy and self-conceit, God has an unimaginable love for us, and a wish to pour his mercy upon us.  In fact, his mercy is super-abundant precisely because he knows our weakness and that the deck is stacked against us.  If we didn't have an uphill climb due to the weakening effects of original sin, the manipulations of demons and the lures of a disordered world then God's mercy would not be so great.  Just ask the demons, who did not have the refuge of God's mercy once their powerful angelic nature preferred rebellion and evil.

God's love and mercy is our source of hope, but there is yet another reason for joy.  God's providence so governs the world that He brings about his kingdom even in the midst of our weakness.  Two years ago I was walking through my hard-scrabble neighborhood, and I apologized to my guardian angels for having to accompany me day-by-day as I give in to sloth, gluttony and a spirit of judgment.  I've often repeated that refrain in the past, but this time the angels answered! In a tone of gentle correction, they said, "Oh no!  There's nowhere we'd rather be!"  Then I felt their deep delight and joyful zeal in serving as my guide.  I was floored.  It was a wonder: how could they have such delight in accompanying me, and in this neighborhood?!?  There's a lesson there.  Weakness and evil do not have the last word.  While it is a mark of the blessed to have sorrow for sin, there are also greater things at work.  The angels see the workings of grace that are all around us while we only see scattered fragments.  Angels haven't seen the whole story of the future, but they have seen God's perfect plan unfold in countless eras and across countless cultures.  They see how God has his hands on all things, and if we could only see it we would marvel at God's wisdom and perfection.  Blessed be the Lord!

Mary, Angels and Human Sin, Part One

When I first began the ministry I would come home to my wife and share my sorrow over the state of the streets.  A street looks different close-up, especially when in the attitude of prayer.  There are the condom wrappers, drug paraphernalia, endless cigarette butts and graffiti, and then the advertisements that offer an easy paradise if you just buy the right product.  As I'd pass the strip clubs and sex shops I'd pray with greater fervor, and when I'd pass bars and pubs I'd marvel that they had so many customers when many of our masses and adoration chapels are poorly attended.  I would even recoil sometimes at the shabby smell or clothes or red sores of some of the people I would meet, but I soon found those things endearing since Christ yearned to dress them and bind up their wounds.  Nevertheless, I wasn't surprised when I read that it was difficult for the Blessed Virgin Mary to visit Massabielle in Lourdes.

St. Bernadette Soubirous

According to St. Bernadette Soubirous, it was a sacrifice for the Blessed Virgin to visit amidst the throng of crowds, and she would always look with sorrow and distress when she would look over little Bernadette's shoulder into the crowds. Presumably she saw their poor spiritual state, and the muddied state of their soul was a dismal contrast with the glory and perfection of heaven.  The ugliness of our sins is not a fashionable thing to reflect upon, but it only takes a moment to confirm the truth.  One need only take a close look at the crucifix: it is our sin in the bruises and gashes that cover our Lord.  Or one could read the mystics on purgatory, and consider the soul's painful journey after death to reflect the pure love of our Lord.

A few years ago our Lord twice poured his love into me, and I rejected it, "vomited it" back up after a brief moment.  The point was to show me how little room I had in my heart for divine love.  We are often very shallow vessels. Once while exiting the church after confession at The Grotto (the Shrine of or Lady of Sorrows in Portland), God gave me an interior vision of the state of my soul prior to confession.  Needless to say, it was a shock.  My soul appeared like a ship that had become unrecognizable because it had been out to sea for too long.  It had become an oblong mass that was discolored with rust and brine and covered with barnacles.  I was too long from the harbor, and after that I dedicated myself to daily mass and frequent confession.

So what is one to make of the sorry state of our own sins, how little divine love we can bear in our hearts?  Or even the sins of our communities or Holy Mother Church?  Do we give in to despair, doubt our divine inheritance or forsake the "narrow way" as unrealistic?  By no means!  To be continued in the next post...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Two Kinds of Love Built Two Cities

"For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance of life to life." Corinthians 2:2

This scripture verse was recently featured in the Office of Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours (the daily prayer of the Church), and reminded me of a remarkable aspect of this ministry.  There is something about this street ministry that prompts a reaction--whether for good or evil--from passerbys.  Perhaps the "fragrance" of Christ comes forth in the public witness to the faith, or in the image of a heart with a crucifix emerging from it or even in a peaceful, prayerful presence. In any event, "all hearts are revealed", or some anyway, and what is revealed can be a pleasant or sorrowful surprise.

There have been many small acts of kindness, the "fragrance of life" that bring us to Christ, the source of life itself.  On both very cold and very hot days, I've had tired mothers stop to kindly urge me to wear a coat or a lighter tunic as they wrangle their children at the bus stop.  A simple thing for sure, but their eyes said more than their words.  On another occasion a tavern-goer at Pappy's on 82nd harmlessly teased me asking, "Which of the twelve apostles are you?"  But his ex-convict friend couldn't bear the teasing, and intervened, "You can't say that!  Shhh, what are you saying?!"  The gruff, tattooed ex-con had zeal for the Lord's house, and wouldn't brook even the smallest slight.  Nowadays the tavern-goer sings gospels tunes as I pass and we have a good laugh.  On another evening a young man in a souped-up Honda Civic with an over-sized muffler waited at a stop-light alongside of me.  He fidgeted with his smart phone and rocked back and forth to the pounding beat of his stereo.  Then he noticed me praying next to him and turned off the stereo.  When the light changed to green he sped off and turned the music back up again once he crossed the intersection.  I was surprised and touched by his little gesture of respect.  Now there have also been many little acts of malice, and often from unexpected quarters, but they are not worth dwelling upon.

So what does it all add up to?  Everything we do either builds up the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Satan.  Or as St. Augustine wrote of it, there are two cities that were built by two loves: the love of self even to the contempt of God, and the love of God and neighbor that loves even to the contempt of self.  Our small acts often reveal what city we belong to.  Often times we seem to pass from one city to the other as we struggle to "run the race".  Some seem to be squarely in the wrong city, as I once was.  But even if we set many bricks building the wrong city, Christ loves and seeks after the poor sinner--though ultimately the choice is ours.  As Christ once asked me several years ago, "How much do you love me?"  We answer that question with our lives, and it can either be a glorious affirmation or a sorrowful indictment.

The Tower of Babel, a city built by self-love

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Suicide, Spiritual Combat & Grace

Over the years I've known about a dozen people who have struggled with thoughts of suicide.  Perhaps I have unusual friends, or more likely, I live as an open book and so others then reciprocate with an openness of their own.  Two teenagers I grew up with and admired for different reasons, Shad D. and Kristi G., each took their own life almost twenty five years ago.  They are not forgotten.  I keep them in my prayers and I ask you to take a moment and commend them to our Lord.

There is always an element of spiritual warfare when a person is haunted by thoughts of suicide, and that warfare is especially fierce when a person is living outside of the friendship of God.  When I was in the midst of a black depression ten years ago, I always found it strange that I would get a sudden urge to crash my car into a highway overpass.  It was as though my mind would see the broad concrete pillar like a lovely bullseye, and then there would be a suggestion to just do it.  It was strange because I had no desire or intention of killing myself.  This went on for many months as I drove between Detroit and Ann Arbor.  Then after my conversion--about two years after my depression ended--I finally understood.

One night I tucked my friend Stacey into her bed at about 8pm, and headed downstairs to pray the rosary for her.  Stacey always went to bed early since she began drinking glass after glass of La Crema chardonnay starting around 4pm.  Aside from her alcoholism, Stacey had begun to despair of life.  Her husband had committed suicide two years before, her ex-husband now had custody of their children, and she was now losing her fashionable Bloomfield Hills home to foreclosure.  She was still stunning and fit, but she wasn't the local TV celebrity that she had been ten years before.  I settled on a couch in her living room and took out my beads to say a long, slow rosary.  The living room was situated on the ground floor, but was carved out of both floors of the house, and so the ceiling concluded with magnificent wooden rafters.  As I began the rosary my eyes naturally drifted up to the ceiling beams as they were reminiscent of an old church.  Then I saw in the rafters the form of large black vultures with angular heads and humanoid bodies.  Sixty demons had taken on this deathly form and were comfortably roosted in the poor woman's house as she slept.  They waited patiently, confident in their kill.  Occasionally they would shuffle back and forth, and once in a while one would leave or another would arrive, but they had made the place their home and there was nothing to drive them from it.  Stacey had neither faith nor icons or crucifixes mixed about the home, and my prayers were as weak as my will towards beautiful women.  It was then that I understood the true nature of demons.  They have no mercy and give no quarter.  They are simply predators who watch poor sinners as a vulture watches a horse stumbling through the desert.  When the horse falls the claws come out and they revel in the carnage.

That was seven years ago.  All of these memories have come back to me as I spend time with another friend who is struggling with suicide.  Like Stacey, he has struggled with alcohol and sought comfort in a steady tide of sexual relationships.  He thought that the suicidal thoughts would end once he sobered up, but he has been dry for over a year and the thoughts have returned with a vengeance.  He often thinks about using his .357 magnum around 2 am.  He no longer has any answers.  In a strained, halting voice I told him about demons, and without using the word, I talked about hell, and the terrible thought of spending eternity with them.  I think he believed me.  I told him to come over to my house at any time or hour if he needed to talk.  I gave him a Bible and marked the Gospel of John with a St. John Paul II rosary.  He's proud of his Polish heritage, but like a lot of Polish Catholics from Chicago, he lost the faith somewhere in the 70s and 80s.  I also gave him a copy of my conversion story, and much to my dismay, he read my story before he turned to the Gospels.  A few days later I stumbled out of bed and went directly over to his house where he was working outside.  He said that something strange and inexplicable had happened at work.  He then told me the story and how for the first time in his life he recognized God's hand on him and in the world.  He began crying.  I was reminded again that our Lord will run eagerly to meet poor sinners if only they would glance in His direction.  Blessed be the Lord, for His mercy endures forever.  My friend has a long and bumpy road ahead of him.  Please keep him and all of those tempted to suicide in your prayers.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Prostitutes Yearn for Christ

When I first began the ministry six months ago, I thought it would be best if I covered as many major streets as possible so as to reach all kinds of people in all kinds of neighborhoods.  This seemed to be God's will since I live in gritty SE, and yet he gave me the ministry while walking one of the tony streets in NW Portland.  But I quickly discovered that people in poor and working class neighborhoods were more open to my presence, and so I began to focus my attention on SE and NE Portland.   I also decided that it would be easier to build relationships if I became a familiar presence in the area by walking the same streets.  Well, I've now been walking the neighborhoods for long enough that I can spot some trends.  

One interesting phenomenon is that prostitutes often follow me around.  Some are young and some are middle age, some are hopped-up on drugs and others are sober.  Some will even jaywalk a busy street and then walk right in front of me or right behind me.  Some come up and stand seven or eight feet away while I'm sitting at rest.  They rarely strike up a conversation, but I notice that they secretly watch me.

Why do they follow me?

A cynical "realist" would say that they think I might be a potential "date".  But if you saw my tunic you would quickly dismiss that explanation.  A better explanation by the realist would be that they stay close to me so that the police will not question them.  They blend-in better when they're next to other people, and I'm a built-in alibi ("I'm with him--we were just talking.  Right mister?").  This explanation has some merit.  A more sensitive realist might add yet another layer of explanation: I'm a large but gentle man who wears a big red heart and cross on my shirt, and so they feel safe in my company.  That's true enough as well.  But there's also something more profound going on--something that can't be captured by "realist" or "naturalist" explanations.  The supernatural element is revealed in the way that they look at me.  Sure they often give me a cynical or ironic glance, but there is also curiosity and even yearning behind their eyes.  The Lord is calling to them.  Deep calls to deep.  Chords in their soul still tremble with hope that there is a God who is mindful of them.  Please pray for them.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"The Lord Always Comes First."

Like everyone else, I always have a lengthy “to-do” list going into the weekend.  Some of the tasks are chores and part of what goes into being a good father and husband, but other items are basically recreation and leisure.  Lately I’ve fallen into the bad habit of putting the ministry at the very bottom of the list.  It’s easy to see why.  Just yesterday, several people tried to shout nasty things to me as they sped past.  But the speed of traffic was too fast, and so all I would hear was an unfinished insult: an angry “You s-“ or a scornful “Jesus w-“, and then the whir of wheels.  I would always break into a smile since the insults were lost in the wind.  So often the devil's noise comes to nothing.

Yesterday I was thinking about my to-do list habits as I walked up SE 82nd.  I prayed and tried to recover my sense that the unseen spiritual world is the true and real world.  I reminded myself that the noisy impressions around me are secondary and mere passing shadows in the plan of eternity.  I noticed up ahead a middle-aged mocha-skinned black man leaning against the wall of a convenience store.  He wore a black do-rag and baggy black clothes, and I guessed he was peddling a little dope.  I could also tell he had done time—ex-cons can always spot other ex-cons.  He sized me up and then we both noticed an elderly Asian couple speeding through the parking lot toward me.  I took a few steps back while the black man pushed himself off the wall and waved for the Asian couple to stop.  I motioned that it was ok for the couple to go since I always try to be courteous, but he shook his head and said, “The Lord always comes first.”  I reluctantly crossed and the man watched me the whole time saying, “The Lord always comes first.”  His complexion and eyes were sallow—tinted by Hepatitis—but his mind was clear about the honor owed to God.  I was embarrassed and humbled and gave him a big smile and an “Amen!”  He couldn’t have known it, but his little act and words were as piercing to my soul as if Jesus himself had said them. 

“The Lord always comes first.”

I marveled that I had so much to learn from this man.  I laughed at myself.  Here I put on the tunic, grab a book or two and go out to witness to Christ like a proper disciple, but I’m not the teacher.  I left that behind when I left the University of Michigan.  The Holy Spirit is the teacher, and the Spirit goes where it will.  I learn as much from those I encounter as they learn from me, and bless the Lord for giving us that kind of world.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Three Ways God Uses Us to Bring about His Kingdom

In the first few months of the apostolate, I've been amazed at the diverse ways that Christ can use his servants to bring about his kingdom.  He is eager to use all of his people in what ever way he can: sometimes as a silent witness or visible sign, sometimes as an evangelist sharing the faith, and sometimes just through prayers and suffering.  What follows are three stories that illustrate the different ways that God eagerly puts us to use.

A Silent, Visible Sign

On a crisp, sunny winter afternoon I was walking a poor and working class neighborhood in Portland.  As I walked up the sidewalk on SE 122nd, I could hear a black couple having a relationship spat.  I tried not to eavesdrop, but a high wooden fence hid my presence, and so the couple argued fervently as if they were the only persons there.   As I was ten feet from view the man had grown silent and the woman kept repeating, "You need God!  You need prayer!"  Just then I passed from the end of the fence into full view, and they both jumped back with big eyes.   The man pointed a long arm at the cross and heart on my tunic and burst out, "Right on time!  Right on time!  God's always right on time!"  The woman was triumphant, "See!  See!  You need prayer!" and then wagged her head to laugh.  I gave a big smile and didn't even break my stride.  I sensed that God had already used me in the way that he intended, and that offering a word would only detract from the moment.  Nothing notable happened for the rest of the afternoon, but I knew that my time had been well-spent--even if I had said nothing.

A Young Man Asks For Reasons to Believe

Southeast 82nd street is a rough and tumble part of Portland, and the city has declared it a "prostitution-free zone" in an effort to clean up the streets.  As the cold day passed into evening I noticed a young man watch me and then nervously grin as I continued on my way.  When I returned that way later he seemed more serious as he walked toward me, and he stopped just as I passed.  I didn't take his cue.  Perhaps I was as frightened to talk to him as he was to talk to me.  As I continued down the street he ran after me to talk.  He was in his late 20s, wore a hoodie from a local micro-brew outfit and had shy almost guilty eyes.  My impression was that he was about to ask a smart-aleck question.  Instead, he lamely asked what I was doing out here and then blurted out, "Can you help me believe in God?"  I was stunned--like a fisherman who has gotten no nibbles all day and then gets yanked forward by the big one.  I thought, "Wow, so that's what I'm doing out here...  Please help me Lord!  Guide my lips!"  We quickly settled into a fluid stream of conversation. He had been a philosophy major in college and so we had a fertile range of topics.

But the academic approach eventually began to dry up and I could sense he was a little impatient and disappointed.  I hadn't given him a satisfactory reason to believe, and so I decided to change my approach.  I began to tell him of my own conversion experience.  He watched me closely as I told him that I had instantly converted when I heard God say one day, "I love you and I forgive you."  He was eager now, "Would I have heard the voice if I was standing right next to you?"  His face fell when I said that I doubt it, and his expression said, "This religion stuff is always hopelessly subjective..."  He brightened up again when I told him I was not one to hear voices, that I was an ex-con who liked to stay close to the ground. And then he opened up and spilled out the heart of his despair.  He told how he had already done time in jail for two DUIs, and was now ducking a third charge in Washington.  He said he was an alcoholic and that he had made his life a "complete wreck", and was even now a little buzzed.  I reassured him of Jesus' faithfulness and mercy, and suggested that his alcoholism may even aid in his salvation.  I remembered a story about an alcoholic that the late Fr. Thwaites liked to tell, and so I shared the story.  I told him it was a cross that would keep him humble and close to God.  He would have to be dependent like a child--as all of us should be--and even now this wound had left him hungry to seek God.

As our encounter ended, he remarked, "It's easier to believe in demons than God."  He further said that he thought the possibility of demons was "probably true", and his eyes glazed over as he he seemed to be inwardly recalling some things.  The fact and mystery of evil weighed heavily on his mind, and I urged him to start there.  Once he was convinced of that side of the supernatural, then he might find his way to the lovely source of truth, beauty, and goodness--God himself.   Before we parted he reached out and I gave him a brotherly embrace.

I haven't seen or heard from him since that day.  Perhaps the next day he was embarrassed that he had opened up to a stranger.  Perhaps he was put off that I had declined his invitation early in our meeting to talk about these things in his apartment, or that I didn't like to give out my phone number.  I regret those decisions now, and will respond differently in the future.  He was at a tipping-point in his life--ripe for the workings of grace--and it was time to step out of my comfort zone and take a chance.  If a mess ensued then it would be cleaned up, but it is better to engage in some holy foolishness than to let one of God's beloved stay out in the cold.

An Acceptable Sacrifice

The final episode occurred on the first evening that I began the ministry.  Earlier that day my neighbor had  finally finished sewing my tunic after many delays, and I was anxious to walk the streets to see what God might have in store. I decided to walk down to the Planned Parenthood on SE 50th where I had often participated in 40 Days for Life prayer vigils.  The building would be empty at this hour, but it was an apt destination as it was the only Planned Parenthood in town that still performed surgical abortions.  I set out after dinner and the weather was foul.  A strong cold wind pressed the tunic against my limbs, and the cloth with the Jesus Caritas heart--appropriately called a 'yoke'--flew up into my face like an insult.  In fact, the insults and doubts were steady like a relentless rain, but not from Portlanders--for they had taken refuge from the weather.  Instead, the battle was within.

The whole length of my journey I was battered--no doubt by demons--with thoughts and sensations of inadequacy: of my meager trust in God, of accusations of being an impostor or poseur, that I was doing the right thing for the wrong reason, and they went on and on and on.  Even my prayers were hurled back in my face.  Once while stopped at a busy intersection I could feel people watching me from their cars, and I remembered what it was like to be a teenager again: to have a mind crippled by a hunger for human respect.  I recalled that demons are all "liars from the beginning", but they tell the truth when it suits them and I knew there was enough truth in their insults. In fact, God had allowed them to relentlessly mock me so that I would never forget the hidden pride that slips between the crevices of our hearts.  And so I continuously thanked God for the grace to see myself as I really was, and for once again turning the ugly work of demons to His own purpose.

When I finally arrived at Planned Parenthood, I began to say the rosary in front of the empty building.  I tried to kneel or sit discreetly out of view of the passing cars, but a nervous, hollow exhaustion had begun to set in, and so I slowly paced back and forth like a stiff sentry.  Then for a brief moment something happened.  A utility pipe configuration that was connected to the side of the building vanished from my sight and was replaced by a few violet and red flowers against a thick bed of green foliage.  I stood looking, and two seconds later the little flowers were replaced again by the gray pipes.  The symbolism was clear: my walking and prayers had not been in vain, but were a small spiritual bouquet, a tiny offering pleasing to God.  The flowers had been dull and small, the green foliage had been unruly and rough, but I didn't need a glorious sight.  My offering had been accepted and recognized.  I was deeply grateful for the humble sight, and frankly, I needed it.  I began the journey back home in hope, and was cheered by Tennyson's famous line,  "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."