Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

"Everything I have to give, is yours."

Two thousand years after his birth, and Jesus Christ will not be outdone in generosity. We seek to pay him some small homage, and he wants to honor us with everything. His love and solicitude are unfathomable.  Just run the race and you shall see!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Hard Sayings, Part II: Do We Walk With Angels or Demons?

"Such is the choice I set before you this day. blessing or curse.  A blessing, if you will obey the commands I now give you from the Lord your God; a curse, if you disobey those commands, and forsake the path I am showing you."
                                                                    --Deuteronomy 11: 26-28

One reason I evangelize and share the truths of the faith is because I know what it is like to live without God, and even worse, in opposition to Christ, divine truth himself.  Some people live as virtuous pagans--mindful of the basics of natural law even without faith.  That is itself a grace (though they don't know it).  My wife was a "virtuous pagan" (not even baptized!) until she came to faith with me.  I'm also thinking of people like Jennifer Fulwiler before her conversion, or more illustrious persons like Aristotle and Socrates.  It is quite another thing to walk in grave sin, because you are essentially walking with devils.  That person is vicariously taking part in the curse of the fallen angels because demons have an affinity for persons and places devoted to grave sin.  St. Francis saw this in a vision when he saw a cloud of demons descended on Arezzo, a city torn by civil war.

Arezzo, a city full of devils

That's why places like strip clubs, drug houses, abortion clinics and prisons have a strange pall about them, and why many people insist that there are haunted houses.  There is something heavy and oppressive in the air that produces disquiet, and that is the presence of demons.  Some people even bring a host of demons with them wherever they go (as my conversion experience suggests).  Once while entering a local church I sensed a pall, the heavy oppression of demons.  I turned to my wife and said, "Something's wrong.  I don't think Father Slider's here today."  Sure enough, there was a substitute priest, a long-standing heretic on basic questions of Christology (he denied that Jesus was the son of God) as well as the usual dissent from moral issues.  The light, consoling presence of angels had been replaced by demons.  The poor priest even wore it on his perpetually worn face and heavy shoulders. I was once like that.  The spiritual had revealed itself in the natural, and even colors had lost their luster.  In fact, after my conversion the whole world literally brightened and sparkled,  as though I had an eye operation!  May the poor priest enjoy the grace of conversion, and become a priest for Christ as we hear in Fr. Scheier's remarkable testimony.

Conversely, there are those persons and places that glow with the peace and light of Christ.  We've all felt this in devout parishes and in deeply Catholic homes of friends and relatives.  They are the "resting places" of angels, or at least, angels show their delight by their presence.  Demons don't like to be in close proximity to the things and people of God, and so they usually do their work at a distance.  That is why St. Paul describes the temptations of demons upon the faithful as "arrows" (Ephesians 6:16)--because they have to be launched from afar.  Demons still relish the opportunity (granted by God) to assail the saints in close combat, but they soon leave for more agreeable company.

The saints have often made their mark by descending into the territory of demons and letting Christ shine through them. We think of the martyrs of the Roman circus, St. Patrick against the Druids, Sts. Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in the dungeon for the sanctity of marriage (like John the Baptist before them), or Fr. Damien amidst the incest and despair of the Molokai leper colony.  St. Maximillian Kolbe was even described by a death camp-survivor as "a great shaft of light" in the darkness of Auschwitz.

As the world continues to darken by pursuing man-made lights (these are more agreeable gods since we fashion them ourselves!), all followers of Christ must brighten by reflecting the true source of light.  That is what I pray for my future, for those who take up the apostolate and for all street evangelists.  For now I'd like to recall an episode from five years ago that bears on some of these matters.

A Weekend at Duke University

Part I: The Blessings of Life

"I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  
                                                         Gospel of John, 10:10

In October 2010 I travelled to North Carolina to visit my best friend who was working on post-graduate studies at Duke in surgical medicine.  Dunya, a Chaldean Catholic, has always had an intrepid streak.  Before my conversion she once declared to me during an argument, "Scott, you need to find Jesus!  Jesus is the way, the truth and the light!"  I responded with uproarious laughter.  Less than a year later I converted and she got the last laugh.

Not long after I arrived at Duke, we sat on her couch chatting about her dating life.  Dunya had longed for marriage and children, but she was always attending other people's weddings.  She mentioned that a Coptic Christian named "Raphael" had expressed interest in her through her "Catholic Match"  online profile.  She hadn't responded back and she wondered what I thought of him.  She passed me her laptop and I was delighted to take a look.  Then something strange happened.  When I looked at Raphael's photo, it was as though I was seeing him through the loving gaze of Christ.  I experienced Christ's delight, and a supernatural warmth flowed from Raphael's smile.  I thought he must be a holy man.

I continued to examine the photo with great interest.  In the photo, Raphael had turned for a moment as he hiked up a hill. His posture shown in a supernatural light and beckoned to Dunya, "Come follow me."  My eyes grew wide and I blurted out, "This is your husband!"  I repeated it several times in a state of disbelief.  Then I explained that she needed to follow him, and said in our joking way, "We all know how strong-willed you are--make sure you let him be the man!"  Dunya's moods alternated between eagerness and alarm--she had never even met or spoken to Raphael.  Nevertheless, a couple years later they were married in the Church (after some dust-ups and storms--it was a match that only grace could secure), and now they are deeply in love and grateful for each other.

Raphael had appeared in the photo that day as brimming with supernatural life, as though he walked in the light of angels, because his fundamental orientation is toward Christ, the very well-spring of life and light.  He had his battles with God, including feelings of resentment, abandonment and frustration at God's ways.  He wasn't as conformed to Christ as I had assumed, but he and Dunya have enjoyed the blessings of God because they persist in walking after Christ in faith.

Part II: The Curse of Rebellion

"You belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires...When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
                                                                            Gospel of John. 8:44

The next day I followed Dunya down to the Duke campus for a little tour.  There was an unmistakable stir on campus, and it was clear that there was a popular event taking place.  As we entered the student union, an anxious security guard stopped us and asked us if we were here for the book-signing.  We said "No" in bewildered tones, and he replied that he was just trying to screen-out protesters.  Then he explained, "Richard Dawkins is here promoting The God Delusion.  A local church said they're going to come out and have their say."  As soon the guard uttered Dawkins's name, two things simultaneously happened.  I was immediately aware that there were thousands of demons (not ten, not a hundred, but several thousand) in the air about us.  They were seemingly "guarding" Dawkins or at least the event.  The other thing that happened was that I felt my chest moderately compressed by an exterior force; my breath was short and my heart rate increased.  Dunya began pacing back and forth saying, "Oh my God, oh my God, what are going to do?  My heart is beating like crazy."  For Dunya, someone like Dawkins is a kind of boogeyman, and she felt she needed to be up at arms and do something, preferably something confrontational.  Yet Dawkins is just another secular humanist academic (a dime a dozen), albeit more vocal, and more accomplished in his particular field (evolutionary biology).  Before my conversion, I had even read chapters from The Selfish Gene in a doctoral class, "Evolutionary Theories of Morality".  Dawkins wasn't so different than the professors I knew, and I regarded many of those professors with affection.

Dunya and I moved over to the railing to pray, and like a good Chaldean Catholic she produced a rosary from her pocket. The security guard eyed us warily, and we turned our backs to the hubbub, and tried to pray.  But the demons redoubled their efforts, and our minds were restless and scattered.  We felt a prompting to kneel, and found a quiet spot on a lower level to pray in reparation.  As soon as we went downstairs the demons left us in peace, satisfied by our departure.  After prayer, I decided that I wanted to see Mr. Dawkins up close since it would be easier to pray for him in the future if I could bring his face to mind.  As soon as we returned to the signing the demons descended upon us--especially since there was a momentary lull in the line.  I walked over and saw him seated behind the table.  He was unremarkable, oblivious that he was guarded by thousands of demons.  I must have watched him like a zoo animal because he looked back at me with a curious expression.  I asked God if I should approach him and offer him a word or something, but was given no indication.  Then we left, thinking that if we had been saints we could have made a difference.

I took this photo of the chapel tower on the day of the book signing

We noticed outside that the Duke Atheist Association (they had t-shirts for sale!) had set up shop next to the Duke chapel tower.  I let my eyes follow the high rise of the tower into the blue sky and tufts of clouds.  I could sense God's solidity and his abiding presence.  He is always there, always faithful, even while he is casually mocked by his beloved creation immediately below.  Frankly, the Dawkins devotees (and Dawkins himself) would fall off a horse if they suddenly knew there was a God, and that Jesus was their savior,  the Eternal Word made flesh.

We watched the event-goers arrive and leave with great anticipation and satisfaction, as though they had received some grace, though it was an "anti-grace", the fruit of sin.  They even clutched their newly signed books as a new convert grips his Bible.  The crowds roughly fell into three groups.  The largest contingent was composed of prideful nerds: the intellectually hungry and imperious types that show up in Dostoevsky novels (always lean, spare and envious--as Shakespeare warns against in "Julius Caesar"!).  In past centuries they formed the backbone of the radical socialist/Marxist movements in Russia and the West.  The next group were high-achieving wastrels; denizens of the Duke hook-up culture who worshipped physical beauty, sensuality and status.  They had sleek bodies, a trendy appearance and a secondary concern for social issues.  The last group wrenched my heart: they were the freaks and rejects, physically repulsive or even handicapped.  One of these beamed with pride at having met his hero, while his face was scorched from a fire or industrial accident, leaving scars where his hair should be.  Christ had come especially for these, but they spurned hope and self-giving love for resentment and self-assertion.  Mercifully, we know this is just a snapshot in time, and all is not lost.  In the final post of this series ("A Tender Saying"), I will reflect on how our Savior tries to lure us back through every twist and turn of our life.

Our Choices Matter

It's no small thing to spend your life against Christ.  St. John XXIII described the fruits of our choices at the opening of Vatican Council II (as Cardinal Sarah pointed out in God or Nothing): "Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace.  Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they experience confusion, bitterness in human relations, and the dangers of fratricidal wars."  While St. John focused here on the earthly fruits of our fundamental orientation, we also know that these choices reverberate into eternity.  I will (thankfully) conclude this series of "Hard Sayings" with some thoughts on divine judgment and the hereafter.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Hard Sayings, Part I: What Is Man That You Should Remember Him?

"For if any man think himself to be something, whereas he is nothing, he deceiveth himself."
                                                                                                           --Galatians 6:3

As I mentioned in the last post, I'll be trotting out some experiences from my past that vindicated some of the more difficult and implausible aspects of our faith.  These experiences have led me to love that "Old Time Religion" (as the Protestant tune has it), that strangely wonderful, ancient and deep faith of the saints.  Since these experiences were of a supernatural order, I think it's best to say a few things about such encounters.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind, is that God often gives such graces to the wretched--precisely because they need them!  These often occur at the beginning of a poor sinner's conversion, and then taper off and even end as the person's soul turns more and more to Christ.  In our own times, many conversions have happened this way: including Roy Schoeman, Marino Restrepo, Dawn Eden, David Moss, Terry Nelson, Sally Read, Roger Dubin, Joseph Sciambra, John Carmichael, Fr. Calloway MIC.  [It seems like God is creating a small brigade for our difficult times!]  The other point is that God bestows these graces because the poor sinner needs them in order to pursue the specific tasks that God has fore-ordained.  Every Christian is called to play a crucial part in the vast plan of salvation, though some need a little more help to get the job done.

The next point is that these graces are understood as graces because they strike the mind as uniquely true and real.  I wrote about this in the last part of my conversion story here.  On the other hand, sometimes God gives us supernatural experiences that are less certain (like the experiences I wrote about here last week), and sometimes they are even the product of demons (which characteristically produce anxiety and confusion).  In any event, there is always something to be gleaned from such experiences--even if it's just a better understanding of how demons interact with us.

Finally, in past eras of the Church where the culture was thoroughly leavened by the faith, it was sometimes customary to keep these experiences private--especially in monasteries and convents.  Since we no longer live in anything remotely like a rich Christian culture, and since many of these truths are only half-believed, I've decided to share them.  These Hard Sayings have always been a part of the faith, and Christ always (and especially!) points back to them in trying times.

Our Wedding Day

The first experience occurred 6 1/2 years ago on our wedding day.  Amidst all of the photo-taking, conversations and last minute details, I was very keen to keep my mind directed to God.  He had the place of honor in my heart--especially since I would have been too stupid to marry my dear wife without the gift of conversion.  The wedding sacrament was full of tears and we trembled with joy before the altar as we exchanged rings.  Then the holy sacrifice was offered and we received communion.

Upon receiving the host I began to feel an inkling of the immensity of God.  I knelt at a prie-dieu next to my wife and looked up at a statue of Mary.  I immediately felt her tangible presence, like the quick embrace of a friend.  Then I looked up at the broad, muscular crucifix that hung overhead.  As I looked upon the image of Christ, the immense presence of God began to well-up from the consumed host, gathering force like a carefully controlled hurricane.  It began in my soul and then reverberated out into my body.  I lowered my head to grit my teeth, bracing my body against the ever-expanding presence of God.  It was not comfortable; it was not leavened with divine love and sweet consolations.  It was simply a tiny glimpse, or a tiny blast of God's raw being.  I began to hope for the experience to end--how much more could I take? Just as my soul and body felt ready to burst, the divine hurricane began to recede and finally vanish.  I was grateful to return my gaze to my wife, basking in thanksgiving and hope for the future.

When I reflected on the episode later, I was immediately struck by the contrast between the modest presence of Mary and the unfathomably massive being of God.  Even the Queen of Angels is nothing compared to her son!  Then I marveled that God had "interrupted" my wedding day to teach me a lesson, an uncomfortable truth.  While I was grateful for a sign of God's presence on my wedding day (and through the awesome reality of the eucharist), the real lesson was the inconceivable magnitude of God and the tiny reality of us, his beloved creatures. While the sheer enormity of God should feed our hope for the grandeur and perfection of Heaven, it should also serve as a needle to prick our inflated sense of self.  We are often so protective of our own prerogatives and desires, secretly sure that we matter more than our brothers and sisters.  At least that's how we often keep our own counsel as we go about the day. By contrast, the great saints put no store by themselves and we're happy to say they were of no account.

St. Margaret of Cortona was once a high-flying beauty

This experience was particularly telling, because in our day weddings have become tainted by a sense of individualism and self-assertion.  Recall the familiar phrase of brides: "This is MY day", and it's not just "bridezillas" who adopt this mindset.  When I was younger, I tended bar for at least a hundred weddings, and I would watch the bride and her retinue inspect the grounds as we set-up the reception.  I could take a fair guess at which marriages would endure based on what I saw behind closed-doors.  Priests have their own stories to tell if you like black humor.  Even in their relationship, the couples propel forward through a shared narcissism, a shared hedonism that lasts as long as the pleasures continue to flow.  God responds to all of this with a bucket of cold water, "It's not about you!  You hardly even know who and what you are, so small and so wretched."  God is neither nice nor polite (read how often Jesus rebuked the apostles).  Imagine if an attendee at the wedding had the gall to point out such things?  By our lights, God is impudent, but the truth is he loves us too much to respect our comfort zones.

We Come As Penitents

A few months back I approached the altar rail for communion, and knelt, waiting for the good Dominican friars of Holy Rosary Priory to pass by with the sacred hosts.  By a grace, I was aware of the utter transcendence and perfection of God.  Christ's sacrifice for us struck me as so singular, so incomprehensible that I would never understand it this side of Heaven.  At the same time, I saw myself approaching the sacrificial banquet as a penitent, so lowly and needful. Afterwards I took a step back from things, including this blog for a couple months.  After all, what was there to say?

If we come to God as anything other than life-long penitents, than we are deceived.  While God wants to give us everything (by giving us himself), we can only claim our divine inheritance by being willing to lose everything.  God has sent us many recent witnesses to this fact: Padre Pio, Brother Andre, St. Sharbel, Fr. Solanus Casey, Mother Theresa, and our own patron, Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  Happily, several prominent cardinals and bishops have begun calling for a return to the Church's ascetic or penitential traditions, and we continue to say at every mass (and three times in the old mass):

"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, 
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent, a penitential season of the Church that has been described as a "mini-Lent".  If you're unsure of what a penitential spirit is, then watch one of my favorite movies, The Island.  It's about a cowardly sailor who becomes a penitent at a Russian Orthodox monastery.  The man clings to his penance even while God showers him with supernatural gifts.  The once-cowardly man reluctantly becomes another Padre Pio or Brother Andre.

The monk from the film was holy because he was a penitent

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Past is Also Our Future

One of the gifts of a true conversion (of a metanoia, "a turning around") is that the new believer begins to order his life according to the mind and plan of God.  This brings a great deal of relief and peace as his life finally begins to form a coherent, cohesive whole.  He also comes to understand himself truly for the first time, or rather, to recover who he once was before sin set him on another course.  For example, I realized just the other day that as a child on the playground I often sought out the friendless, the awkward, the outcast--just as I do now while walking the streets.  It was always meant to be so.  As a child I gravitated to the schoolyard oddballs by a natural instinct, a grace really.  Then as I grew into a teenager I became ashamed of these oddballs.  I wanted to be one of the cool kids, and the outsiders were holding me back.  So I abandoned them, and spoke like St. Peter, "I never knew the man".  Since the outsiders were often kicked in the teeth, they only resisted with a hesitant word, or a look of loss and gentle reproach, the docile eyes of a cow.  I burned with shame and learned to look past them as though they weren't there.  It was a necessary evil, or so I told myself.  But now decades later things have come full circle.  I'm grateful to be at home again with the oddballs--as I was always meant to be--thanks in part to the street apostolate.

A Return to Old Gifts

God has given all of us certain gifts, experiences and character traits, and he means that we use them for the glory of his kingdom.  Sometimes certain gifts and passions take a backseat, but the arc of our life is long, and these gifts will return to prominence at the providential time.

In the past year or two, as I focused more and more on the street apostolate, I began to presume that my old philosophical passions were mostly a thing of the past.  After all, when you do street evangelization in hard-scrabble areas, the conversations typically revolve around the other person's current struggles and a few basic Christian truths. There is rarely a need to take a deep dive into the truth of things.  The world of books and ideas--of right belief--seem very far away, and the focus is on compassion and friendship--a meeting of hearts.

In recent times, there has been a movement to pit the life of the heart against the life of the mind, or at least to downplay the importance of truth, of right belief.  This is a mistake.  As the great Dominican theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, put it, "Mercy and rigor of teaching can only exist together."  The two things are inseparable, if it is to be true mercy and true teaching.  The life of the mind and the life of the heart should be intertwined, and this fusion is what gives us the genius of the saints.  Even (or especially!) the most humble, ignorant saints had a crystal clear understanding of who God was and who we are.  I fear in recent times we've lost a clear image of God, and thus we are losing a clear picture of ourselves.  This was evident at the recent Synod on the Family when many cardinals and bishops sought to blithely sweep aside the plain teachings of Jesus Christ and his ancient Church.  In most parishes in the West in my lifetime, priests and laity have dodged the "hard sayings" of Christ like a child running away from his medicine.  This has only been possible because there has been a "loss of a sense of sin" (which Pope Pius XII described as the great tragedy of our era), one of the rotten fruits of the loss of faith.

One senior priest recently told a group of us that a two-tier church is emerging: one of believers who embrace the full historic teachings of the Church, and then a much larger body who mix in a thick dollop of the spirit of the age.  Another priest told me last week that the church hasn't been this sick since the Renaissance.  He wasn't referring to corruption or nepotism, but a crisis of faith: a mistrust in the radical power of grace, and a mistrust in our patrimony of scripture and tradition (the basis of right belief).  Some leaders in the Church think it's unimportant to align your mind with the eternal Church, with the saints throughout the ages, and the boldest openly profess the emergence of a "New Church" after the Second Vatican Council.  We know they are wrong because the Church is the mystical Body of Christ and "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" [Hebrews 13:8].

In my own process of conversion, I can attest that our Lord has a solicitous care for right belief, for the truths of the faith. Several years back, when I was still scrambling to transition my mind and heart to the Christian worldview after an instantaneous conversion, God mercifully walked with me, and at key moments he gave me supernatural glimpses of the divine order of things.  These experiences were often corrections, a gentle rap by the Good Shepherd, and they always pointed backward to what holy men and women have always known (including seeming curiosities like the fact that demons hate Latin).  I've written about some of these past experiences in earlier posts here, herehere, and here.

Now for the next two months I've decided to return to some old treasures, and write about personal experiences that I still reflect on in order to center and strengthen my own faith.  I will be "emptying out" my spiritual diary (really just a short collection of notes), and share three posts on the "Hard Sayings" of Christ, and then end with a "Tender Saying".   Some of the stories I will share are regrettably fantastic, but after all, God is not boring, nor is our destiny inconsequential.  If you doubt this, read about the life of today's saint, St. Columban, a well-traveled Irish monk.  His life has the makings of a great movie--though all of our lives are astounding when seen from the spiritual point of view.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

I'm Not A Prophet, Nor Was Meant To Be

Please note: This post is meant to be thought-provoking rather than prophetic (Well ok, I'll stop playing coy.  The Cardinal Sarah bit is a prophecy).  The two episodes below were so unusual that I wanted to write about them in order to think them through.

Last night was a very strange night.  Before I drifted off to sleep after saying Night Prayer, a very persuasive notion struck me from out-of-the blue.  I had the distinct conviction that Pope Francis would soon pass on ('soon' by God's standards, not ours), and that he would be replaced by Cardinal Robert Sarah.  This thought was accompanied by a consolation, a sweet peaceful sensation and the knowledge that everything was in the hands of God and that Cardinal Sarah would admirably steer and strengthen the Church.  The experience wasn't about Pope Francis per se, but was really about Cardinal Sarah.  He was an anointed of the Lord, a great gift to the Church.  [UPDATE: Archbishop Ganswein recently captured a related thought in an interview: "In this hour, Cardinal Sarah arises, prophetically."]

[MORE UPDATES:  John Allen, a well-known progressive reporter, just wrote a piece on who might succeed  Pope Francis.  He characterized  Cardinal Sarah as "a touch extreme" and wrote that "he's been in Rome too long to be in touch with life in the trenches."  Well, that made me laugh.  The Kingdom of Heaven is more than a touch extreme, and that's where the real warriors for the Lord make their home, where the real trenches are manned.  May God give us more "extreme" cardinals!  I also noticed that an author on the website of the German Bishops' Conference condescendingly described Cardinal Sarah as offering "simple answers to difficult questions"--an approach that only works where there are "low education levels".  However, simplicity is a hallmark of the Kingdom of Heaven.  God is simple because God is love, and the demands of love are wonderfully clear.  Only sin makes things complicated!

I guess I better read this book!

After that I had the Mother of All Dreams.  In the dream I was simply going about my day in a crowd of people.  All of a sudden everything went black and disappeared.  I stared out into the billowing purple blackness as several seconds passed.  I understood that our Lord had done this, and that he was using the blackness to prepare my mind for what would come next.  Sort of like how a movie starts with a black screen before the real action begins.  In a flash the blackness gave way to a deep blue and the enormous figure of our Lord appeared.  At that moment I was given the knowledge that every person alive was simultaneously having the same experience.  The din and commerce of the world had halted, and each person stood alone before the Lord.  They looked upon Christ, and in doing so they saw themselves as the Lord saw them.  It was an illumination of conscience, a merciful foreshadow of each person's particular judgment. That great and terrible day (as the Dies Irae tells it)!

I was aware that I was in the midst of the greatest miracle since our Lord walked the earth.  Then a thought flashed through my mind, "I always thought the 'worldwide illumination of conscience' prophecy was bunk.  It's too stupendous! Our God is the hidden one of Nazareth, the baby in the barn."  Then as I looked upon Jesus' eyes, his oval face and thick hair, I had another thought, "The Lord's going to show me how wretched I am.  I can't bear it, but here it comes..." But as He deepened his gaze, the dreaded moment did not come.  I was already a penitent and he had a different message. He looked away as if turning to the world and simply reigned as the Incarnate Word, as the Crucified King. Then the encounter ended and I found myself back amidst the crowd of people.  My mind burned with curiosity, "How would people change after such an experience?  Would the world now be completely different?"

But then I awoke amidst great comfort and smiles.  I kept thinking silly things, "God is SO awesome!  I LOVE IT. Absolutely love it!  I wish I had that dream every night."  I tried to hold on to the joy for as long as I could before I was re-taken by sleep.

On a day when Islamic terrorists attacked Paris and dominated the world's attention, the message was simple.  The Lord reigns.  He has conquered.  He knows his own, and he is always with us.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Something Worth Reading

Apologies to my regular readers for my extended absence.  I've had to focus all of my time and energy on keeping my domestic church happy.  In the meantime, I'd like to direct your attention to a conversion story that is currently making the rounds: Drunks and Monks by John Carmichael.

As the book commences, the author seems to have done well for himself.  He's young, has a million dollar home off the ocean in Southern California, and represents media celebrities at an entertainment law firm.  He married an attractive woman--his college sweet heart--and other people envy and idealize their marriage.  But it's all tenuous since it's not grounded on Christ.  In fact, the last time he attended mass was at his own wedding some years before.  His life finally begins to crumble when his wife asks for a separation.  He abruptly quits his job and takes his first drink at thirty-four.  He had sworn off alcohol at an early age after enduring his mother's alcoholism, but now liquor strikes him like a revelation. He takes to booze like a greedy new convert.

He endures much suffering and family strife, but God continues to lure him forward.  Finally, through an amusing act of providence he gets lost and discovers a Buddhist Monastery.  But the path is blocked by an enormous bull that has escaped from a local ranch and so he continues down the road until he reaches a Norbertine Abbey.  After some fits and starts, a new man emerges, the new creation in Christ.  At the end of the book he writes to his father, "The Catholic Faith truly must be the Pearl of Great Price, because it cost me everything I had to get it."

I'm always gratified by a good conversion story.  Such stories offer grace made visible, the living faith moving in lines across a page.  Please check it out.  The book resounds with the Holy Spirit, and is so much more worthy than what we typically read.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Which Kingdom Will You Choose?

For the past week I've been haunted by an encounter I had on the streets with a sixty year old, homeless black man. I've encountered him in the past, and in each case he's greeted my smile with an icy reception.  But this time he extended a long, beckoning finger as he sat on a parking curb, and so I happily crouched down to hear what he had to say.  He began with a long story about how he had lost his dog, a miniature Pinscher, and was now looking to kill the people responsible.  He talked about his gun (I doubt he actually had one), and then talked about other people with whom he was angry.  He was fascinated with violence and drank hatred like water.  He wouldn't give me his name; not even a fake one.  I was relieved when he began to talk abut his shoes and other items.  Finally he asked if I had a credit card or money.  I lied and said "No."  He looked at me in disgust and replied,  "Then what good are you?"  I touched the Jesus Caritas heart/cross and said, "Friendship, prayer."   He sneered and said he didn't like "white people", and then transitioned into a rant against the police.  He ended the conversation abruptly with a demand, "Get out of here.  Go on!" After I had walked fifty yards I glanced over my shoulder and was surprised that he had gathered his things amidst the cool shade and was walking away in the 100 degree heat.  He didn't want to remain in that spot.  It was now tainted by his ugly words, even if it was a cool quiet spot.

I stopped to watch him pass out of sight.  He was tall with a broad form, and wore black from his do-rag to shoes.  He looked like a great shadow passing though the land.  As I prayed I began to guess how he had come to be the man he was.  A broken home.  Abuse and neglect by one or both parents.  Physical abuse by the older boys, perhaps sexual abuse by a neighbor or relative.  Early drug use and petty criminality.  Racial discrimination.  High school drop-out. Juvenile hall.  Abuse of women.  Creeping depression.  Alienation from the workforce.  More intense drug and alcohol abuse.  Multiple stints in jail and prison.  Anxiety.  Increasing isolation.  Permanent homelessness.

I have known many men and women who have tread a similar path, but they have held onto their humor and compassion.  They have suffered greatly--at first by another's hand, and then later mostly through their own sins.  But this man was different.  He was burned up, consumed with rage.  He seemed keenly aware of his imposing presence; perhaps his power and might had always been his trump card, his refuge in life, but it had only left him increasingly isolated and now his strength had faded with age and substance abuse.

A Similar Life

I once knew another homeless black man who doubtless had a similar upbringing and adulthood, but chose gentleness and patience in his later years.  He was a slight man and could never have been tempted to rely on his physical prowess and presence.  In fact, he was the most fragile and forgettable creature imaginable.  Twenty-three years ago I was chained to him on a prison bus when I was shipped from one county jail to another.  It was only a ninety minute bus ride but I couldn't overcome a fierce drowsiness, and fell asleep right onto his shoulder.  Although I didn't know it at the time, it was God's grace that put me to sleep that day.  I had begun to fancy myself as better than the other inmates, and resented being chained to an old "wino".  I thought I was brighter, had committed more sophisticated crimes, and most of all, was more physically impressive and tough.  My personal gospel was strength and toughness in body and mind.  You see, I wasn't that different from the first man--the raging one.  But then I fell asleep like a baby on the little man.  When I awoke with a start, a gritty convict on the other side snorted and looked at me with amused contempt.  Real tough guy, sleeping on an old wino.  I looked at the small man and he politely gazed ahead with a peaceful smile.  Apparently a shoulder was a small thing to offer, and he was glad to give it if I needed a nap.  Every other man on the chain bus would have given me a rude awakening if I had dozed on them.  I watched the little man closely after that, trying to understand what made him tick.  I also wondered at the mysterious bout of sleepiness.  Maybe he wasn't so pathetic after all, and maybe I wasn't so tough.

Which Kingdom Do We Inhabit?

As we pass through life we are lured by two different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Hell.  The first kingdom is the home for those who ultimately hunger after peace, compassion, faith, wonder, simplicity, and self-giving love; the other kingdom is the permanent dwelling place of malice, lust, self-assertion, self-protection and ultimately, perfect despair.  Some of us begin life in healthy families that reflect the kingdom of Heaven, and then we discover the power of wrath and the triumph of lust, and have a conversion (of sorts) to evil.  Other people begin life in a mad antechamber of hell, and follow the light of grace into Heaven.  There are rare people like the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux, who began in a heavenly family and remain there until a holy death, and there are those who are born into malice and disorder and drink it up until their death.

Most of us don't fully belong to either kingdom.  Holy people, those who have conformed their will to Christ, are rare, and so are those who put on the mind of devils.  Most of us resist being converted one way or the other: we accept a little faith but with a counter-dose of self-assertion; we move forward to love but with a reserve of self-protection; we enjoy peace and then yearn after the thrill latent in filthy things.  We know we don't want the wages of hell--that's obvious enough--but we don't really want Heaven either.  What we really want is a third kingdom: the glory of man, the kingdom of Now (so long as we don't have to get old or sick).  That kingdom, the Kingdom of Man, was once "nasty, brutish and short" (according to Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher), but with radical advances in medicine, hygiene, infrastructure, food production and distribution, mass production of cheap goods of all kinds, it's become increasingly more attractive. Now progressives in my neighborhood even have cartoonish bumper stickers that proclaim, "Life is good".  In past centuries people could only say in thanksgiving, "God is good", and there was nothing cartoonish about it.

Once when I was in wealthy Marin County outside of San Francisco, I was given a supernatural glimpse of the ascendant Kingdom of Man.  The sun was shining in early May as noon approached.  Everything had a subtle gleam: tank tops and yoga pants, the well-manicured sidewalks and bike paths, the shining faces of the young women, and the youthful confidence of the men.  Even the toys of the baby boomers sparkled: motorhomes, convertibles, Harleys and European racing bicycles.  But behind the gleam there was nothing; it was a mirage because it lacked the "one thing necessary".  There wasn't an ounce of real faith amongst the passers-by, and the life-giving presence of Christ was not wanted there.  The scene had appeared so glorious and promising--so different from the streets that our two homeless men had known--but it was actually an occasion of sorrow.  In fact, there was more glory in the humble heart of the old "wino", a petty thief who had suffered much, and had finally lost all conceit.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Holiness and Evangelization Proceed Along the Same Path: Part II

Several months after my conversion I attended a political theory workshop at the University of Michigan.  Professors and doctoral students would circulate their work amongst the group, and we would gather and discuss the papers.  Somehow the topic of the Immaculate Conception was raised, and the professors began to bat it around with amused indifference. I quickly became disconcerted as the discussion was shot through with errors.  The professors had assumed the Immaculate Conception referred to the birth of Jesus rather than the birth of Mary, along with a few other mistakes.  I intervened and subsequently learned two things from the exchange.  Firstly, that most educated secularists know very little about the Christian faith--whether points of dogma or even the heart of the faith.  Secondly, they view the faith as a mere artifact or historical curiosity, and a tedious one at that (unless sexuality or demons are discussed).  We may as well have been discussing ancient Babylonian gods and their temple rites.

It's worth reflecting on this episode because it captures the state of mind of many of the unchurched and lukewarm in the post-Christian West.  We are faced with evangelizing men and women who are apathetic and who are ignorant, and worst of all, they don't know that they are ignorant.  We can only overcome this lethargy by the grace of God, but what are the means to channel this grace?

One of the four attributes of God is beauty, and beauty has a way of cutting through our apathy and ignorance.  It overcomes lethargy because it's effects are rousing and unshakable; beauty simply commands our attention.  Beauty also overcomes ignorance because it reveals something--a truth is presented--while at the same time beauty resists being argued away.  Beauty just is, and it can't be denied.  In the novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky has the holy title character declare, "Beauty will save the world", and beauty has certainly brought many into the Church.  I quietly sing Gregorian chant in parts of my walk, and Patrick, a fellow who plans on joining the apostolate, likes the idea of reciting poetry in his bohemian neighborhood.  We would do well to restore and revivify Catholic art and architecture, reverent liturgies, processions, sacred music, poetry, prose and even some religious habits.

A large procession begins after Mass at the Sacra Liturgica conference in New York.
NY street-goers were very respectful and many were deeply moved.

But there is something even more unshakable than beauty, and that is holiness--the presence of God dwelling in and acting through one of his saints.  Blessed Charles de Foucauld had a way of radiating the presence of God while saying Holy Mass.  Many years after his death, officers and soldiers remembered with animation the way he said Mass--even though his chapel was like a "hovel".

Marshall Lyautey colorfully described his chapel as follows: "a miserable corridor with rush-covered columns.  For its altar, a plank!  For decoration it had a calico panel with a picture of Christ, and tin candlesticks!  Our feet were in the sand. Well!  I have never heard Mass said as Fr. de Foucauld said his.  I believed myself in the Thebaid [amongst the great desert Fathers].  It is one of the greatest impressions of my life."

Another soldier recalled, "What a Mass!  If you were never at his mass you don't know what Mass is.  When he said the Domine non sum dignus ['Lord I am not worthy...'] it was in such a tone that you wanted to weep with him."

Holy monks of the Thebaid

Blessed Charles, by the grace of God, was evangelizing at Holy Mass simply through his transparent holiness.  Just as beauty cannot be argued away, neither can peace and charity.  The soldiers and officers were often rough, coarse men--skeptical of the power of Christian virtues--but then they were struck with awe when they encountered the living peace and charity of Blessed Charles.  Many men who have lived their lives in the grip of the devil have been stopped in their tracks by the peace and love of Christ, shining through his saints.

Brother Juniper tames the tyrant in The Flowers of St. Francis

Holiness is the most potent force in the world, and what can convert tyrants and dissolute soldiers can also seize the souls of professors and distracted young men and women.  The true power of our religion isn't in talented people, strategies, massaging our message, improving our means of communication, but in holiness---for it is the power of God! If God is with us, who can be against us?  Our evangelization efforts will succeed to the extent that we conform our wills to Christ, and become a living witness.  It is really that simple.

St. Peter Chrysologus has a beautiful description of the path to holiness (Sermon 108):

Keep burning continually the sweet smelling incense of prayer.  Take up the sword of the Spirit.  Let your heart be an altar.  Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice.  God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Holiness and Evangelization Proceed Along the Same Path: Part I

This last Friday was the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Since I wear the image of the Sacred Heart on my tunic, I was keen to walk the streets in order to receive the graces of this great feast.  I was not disappointed.  Our Lord had something special in store--the re-appearance of a woman whom I had often commended to His Sacred Heart.

It began four years ago when I started to have an itch to do some kind of evangelistic outreach--particularly to the most wounded persons on the streets.  This desire arose because I would often drive past a mobile home park on SE 82nd and see the same intoxicated prostitute weaving about, waiting for a "john".  Unlike most prostitutes (even "street walkers") she never attempted to fix herself up.  Her light brown afro would stick out in haphazard clumps, and she usually wore dirty pajamas.  Then one day I noticed she had a distended abdomen.  Was she dying or maybe pregnant? As the weeks and months passed, her belly grew and it was clear that she was with child.  I tried to think of a way to speak with her and create a rapport.  I didn't want to just walk up to her alone, as she and the police might assume that I was a john.  Perhaps I could park around the corner, put my little girl in a stroller and we could pass her way for some conversation.  But before I could put the plan into action she disappeared.  That was over two years ago.  I assumed she was either dead or in jail.

Then I finally saw her last Friday while walking the streets.  We had a cordial conversation, but it was  limited by the fact that she had a mental disability.  I was grateful to see her alive and well, even if she was out there waiting for "clients". After we parted, all I could do was offer her to Jesus in prayer, whose Sacred Heart is wounded and burning with love for all of his little ones.  I trust I will see her again soon.

We Are Not In Charge Here

It's worth reflecting on this simple episode because it reveals a foundational truth about the Christian life and evangelization.  Only God could have so arranged for me to see the woman on this special feast day.  Just as only God could have arranged my meeting with the archdiocese on the Feast Day of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, and all of the other providential encounters I have had while walking the streets.  None of the encounters were by chance (there is no such thing as 'chance' when it comes to the work of salvation), and they certainly didn't come from my hand.  I have no power to put the right person in my path at just the right moment.  All I can do is cooperate with grace, and try to strip away those habits within me that pose barriers to reflecting Christ.  The power and wisdom are with God, and our role is to recognize this truth and set out upon the path of humility.  John the Baptist's maxim is our way to both holiness and evangelization: "He must increase, and I must decrease."

Unfortunately the way we often approach and talk about evangelization seem to point along another path.  Recently a bishop on the East Coast announced his program for re-evangelizing his once-Catholic city.  He offered his flock the same stock phrases and concepts that we have heard so many times in recent decades: a "permanent strategic planning commission", a "comprehensive pastoral planning process", "new leadership councils", etc.  Notice that these phrases assume the same strategies and governing institutions that we find in corporate America, NGOs and in political bureaucracies and governments.  These phrases are in wide currency because they give us what we crave most: control, or at least the illusion of control, and the satisfaction that we are "doing something".  Unfortunately, while this approach often works in the economic and political realm (after all, the economic and technological developments of the last few centuries are unprecedented), they've born little fruit for the kingdom of heaven.  Why?  Because our power is not in our cleverness or finding new "efficiencies", but in the providential grace of God. In fact, you'll read in the lives of the saints how a saint planned and drew out the details for some hoped for religious community or great work for God, and yet the saint was glorified in some completely different way.  That's why Mother Theresa used to say, "If you want God to laugh, tell Him your plans."  The Saints still became saints and had a profound influence on leading souls to Christ, but it was not by their own path.  It was in following the will of God--which was usually unforeseen and often didn't suit them (at least at the purely human level).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Blessings of Pentecost

My experiences on the street have undergone a remarkable change in the last several months.  People were so friendly today (and other days) that I kept thinking that I had better move to a different part of the city.  After all, if I'm really enjoying the ministry, then where's the sacrifice?  But that's foolishness.  People have become friendly because I've walked the same neighborhoods for so long that I'm no longer a strange, unsettling presence.  In fact, there are people who have seen me around and have waited for an opportunity to talk to me.  So leaving is an absurd thought--like a gardner who never gets around to planting because all he likes to do is break up the hard soil.  The rocks are loosened now, and it's time to begin planting.  Maybe one day there will even be a harvest!

Another great change is that the Holy Spirit has loosened my tongue.  Now I've become adept at striking up conversations where I feel the Spirit is prompting me.  All of a sudden I have the touch of "holy boldness".  Perhaps I should also credit Archbishop Sample.  I asked and knelt for his blessing after Memorial Day mass, and he offered a spontaneous prayer for my evangelization efforts.  His blessing had an immediate effect once I hit the streets.

"Shane, come back!"

First I met Shane, a twenty-six year old ex-con who was really hurting from dope.  Even though it was a warm day he just stood by an open port-a-potty in Montavilla Park shivering and trying to hide in plain sight.  [By the way, those port-a-potties are like a Tiajuana sewer: condom wrappers, hypodermics, lewd graffiti with phone numbers for quickies, stolen wallets and cell phones, and feces and toilet paper everywhere.]  I had a few words with him, but he was too rattled to talk.  When I returned that way again he had gotten the jitters under control, and he gave me his name so I could pray for him.  Even though he was well-dressed, he was homeless now and had lost his job down the street as a mechanic.
I asked if he was "jones-ing" for heroin, but he said he kicked the "horse" several years back and he was just rattled from last night's crystal meth.  We agreed it must have been a bad batch since the come-down was so extreme.  Then I noticed both of his hands were swollen.  He had been beating on someone or something the night before, but he didn't have any memory of what happened.  He seemed like the kind of guy I used to buddy around with in prison, and sure enough, he had done some time at Columbia River Correctional Center.  He knew the prison lingo and we swapped prison stories and observations about life.  I found him to be a likeable guy.  It was clear that he wasn't open to the pull of faith, but I was grateful that he was beginning to seem more like himself.  Hopefully he will steer clear of meth for a while, and that he was only doing some lines because it was Rose Festival weekend (a huge "party weekend" in Portland).

After we parted I found it amusing that I've known three other guys named 'Shane', and all three of them were hoods of one kind or another.  But at least two of the Shane's grew out of it, kind of like the outlaw-turned-hero in the classic western, Shane.  I will keep Shane in my prayers, and ask that you lift him to Jesus in prayer, and all other young men like him.

Tasha & Her Rowdy Friends

Unlike Shane, Tasha had been thinking about God for a long time.  I met Tasha and her friend Megan on their way back from the laundromat.  They had been complaining that the laundry basket was heavy, and so I volunteered to carry it back to their house.  Tasha and her young friend were definitely the type of women that men want to follow home.  Tasha looked like she had probably posed in the Easy Rider magazine a few years back--though she had even more tattoos than usual.  Appearances are often deceiving.  Although Tasha was dressed to maximize her sexuality, she was actually a natural-born philosopher.

She stated that she thought that men had invented the idea of God to give them hope.  She also argued that without the prospect of heaven or hell it would be difficult to maintain social order, and so those in authority promote the idea of God.  Then she asked why she should believe in God.  By this time, Tasha's friend Megan had dropped far behind, and I guessed that God had arranged that so Tasha and I could have an intimate talk.  I asked her if she had children.  She said that she had a baby once, but gave it up for adoption after birth.  She had given the baby to a Catholic agency.

I decided to give her the two-minute version of my conversion story (though I left out the ex-con part).  I emphasized that I had once believed as she did, but then had a supernatural experience of God's love and forgiveness.  She seemed taken by the story--particularly by what I had been doing when God revealed himself: I had been kicking myself over how I had treated a young woman who had endured a hard life.  She said that she still prayed even though she didn't believe in God.  She also decided that there must be something supernatural out there because of all the stories and "youtube videos" of angels, ghosts and demons.

When we got back to her red brick ranch-style duplex, it was full of burly ex-cons.  She said they were "idiots" who were probably drunk, and she couldn't vouch for them.  The ex-cons were actually happy to see me.  She kept telling them of my experience with God, that it was like a bomb of pure love that had gone off in my chest.  "Boom!  Boom!"  She also kept repeating that "He just walks around the streets and prays", as if that was the strangest thing she had ever heard.  One of the ex-cons had just lost his brother to lung cancer.  The massive man came out of the house to talk, and I was taken aback by his powerful frame.  I'm rarely intimidated by other men.  When I played rugby, men from the other team would come up to me after the game and say, "Man, you're a beast." or "Your a horse!", but this ex-con was in a whole other league.  He said his mother used to carry around a little Bible everywhere she went, but that the sons had gone off in another direction.  Tasha said maybe his brother was in heaven with the mother, but I mentioned purgatory and said it was like a slow escalator up to heaven.  Then another ex-con showed up in a shiny blue Dodge Challenger and was amazed to hear all of the God talk.  Tasha kept telling everyone my conversion story, and the powerful man gave me a hug.

I've always thought that the flow of grace may be interrupted if I over-stay my welcome, and so I took my leave.  I'm sure I'll see Tasha and her friends around town.  Though Tasha and I had a deep and lengthy conversation, she had always kept her eyes ahead of her.  I had been like that, too, before my conversion.  Eyes always averted.  Pray that Tasha and her friends will hear the whispers of the Spirit, and surrender to the gaze of Christ.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

More Observations from the Streets

When I walked the streets the other day, I had so many diverse encounters that I was struggling to regain my bearings from one moment to the next.  There were spirit-filled conversations, gestures of friendliness and spite, and odd moments where God was using my presence to provoke a choice in onlookers.  There was even a moment where I thought I would have to stop a young street tough from assaulting his girlfriend (the guys at Jiffy Lube were also about to jump in), but the young man wisely fled after he attempted a haphazard slap.

"Where are you going?"

God often uses our presence to prompt a choice in certain people.  It's as if he desires that we stand in for Christ, as part of his mystical body, and our gaze becomes his gaze: a call of return, of coming-to the source of life and love.  I have written about this phenomenon in an earlier post here.  Several times as I walked in a state of recollection, I felt a gentle prompting to look in a certain direction.  Then sure enough, my eyes would immediately meet a face staring intently at me.  It was as though I knew exactly where that person was--even if they were in a crowd of other youths, or behind plate glass in a restaurant.  The person was fixed on my presence, deep in thought, and we gave each other a long look.  God seemed to be asking them a question: "Where are you going?" or "Who do you say that I am?"  I don't know what their answer was, but that is a question we all have to answer many times throughout our lives.

Fr. Willie Doyle SJ, a Holy Chaplain killed in WWI

A couple months ago I read an excellent piece on Fr. Willie Doyle SJ, and was reminded of the efficacy of offering little sacrifices to God as we go about our day.  Thus, before I set out to walk the streets I passed on dessert, and then chose to walk with a pebble rattling around in my shoe.  The pebble had just popped-in, and I was about to take it out when I felt a gentle urging to accept it as a sacrifice.  I resumed walking on the pebble and remembered a saying from the Cure of Ars, "God speaks to us without ceasing by his good inspirations."  These little sacrifices should come to us through a gentle signal, and we shouldn't force things.  God will lead the way and he will present sacrifices to us as he sees fit.

Shortly after accepting the pebble, a young homeless man cavalierly crossed four lanes of traffic to come talk with me. That's happened many times over the last year.  Street people like to think it's their street, and so they act accordingly. He started out by teasing me, asking me if I was the pope.  That is also common: people often tease me before they get around to saying what is really on their mind.  Once the young man decided I was all right, he earnestly asked for my prayers, and said he was battling some things.  I asked him his name.  I've learned that saying and knowing a person's name has a powerful effect--it immediately takes the encounter to a deeper level.  He was embarrassed to say that his street name was 'Casanova'.  I smiled because his appearance had suggested as much.  Not all street people are indifferent to vanity.  Then we shared in spontaneous prayer, and the Holy Spirit seemed to guide my words.  It was a moment of spiritual communion, and then we hastily parted since men can only endure so much intimacy with each other. When I saw him two hours later he was no longer sober.  Please say a prayer for Casanova, and also for a woman named Kelly.

I met Kelly later that day when she and a male friend stopped their car to talk.  The man was very cheerful and friendly and had a dizzying number of piercings and tattoos.  Kelly asked for prayers several times and seemed skeptical that I would follow through.  She prayed that she was on the right path, and that she was faithfully following her late uncle.  He must have been a good man.  Kelly had already mastered the virtue of charity since she insisted that I looked handsome in my tunic.  That's the first time I've heard that!  As soon as they left, I prayed that she would also master the other virtues as well.  I've continued to commend Kelly and Casanova to God in prayer and at daily mass.

The Long Defeat

The Catholic internet is in a buzz over the latest Pew Research showing the continuing de-Christianization of America. Some are convinced that a persecution is looming, but I don't get that sense at all when I walk the streets.  Now a person may get that sense if they spend a lot of time on the internet reading news of scandals and crimes, but it's different in the lived world.  Portland, Oregon routinely ranks as one of the least-churched cities in America, and only a tiny number of those I encounter are genuinely hostile.  Many more are actually welcoming in one way or another.  The only way that we would see a situation like the Cristeros or the Spanish Civil War is if God removed his hand, and so many of our neighbors and co-workers subsequently suffered a "strong delusion" (2 Thess. 2:11).  That's possible, but it's the exceptional case and not the regular order of things.  As Sr. Lucia saw in a vision at Fatima, the sword of justice is regularly suspended by the intercessions of the holy ones (especially the Virgin Mary).  One holy saint from the 6th or 7th century even said that God was sparing the world only because of his prayers and those of another holy hermit.

Another reason a persecution is unlikely is because most Catholics have already been swept away by the spirit of the age (whether of the "progressive" or "conservative" version--really two halves of Caesar's same coin).  Thus, the fervent Catholics can be dismissed or ignored, just as they are in some dioceses and many parishes.  By several different metrics it would seem that there are about one million faithful, serious Catholics in the US (out of 50 million self-described Catholics).  Catholic book publishers have researched the market for faithful Catholic books and have arrived at that number, and polling has also repeatedly shown that only 2% (that is, one million) of Catholics in the US believe all of Church teachings.  Matthew Kelly's group have found that a larger number--some two million or so--Catholics do virtually all of the ministries/volunteer work at parishes.  Though many of that number treat the parish as a social club or part-time charity and have resisted the Church's hard sayings.  Some even do so with the pride of the unrepentant sinner.  I once overheard a couple who are pillars of a parish tell the priest that they consulted a dissident website before they left on vacation in order to find a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage parish to attend while away.

As far as the Catholic findings in the Pew Report, as Sherry Weddell of "Intentional Disciples" fame comments, the falling away of millions of more Catholics was entirely predictable.  In fact, she had predicted it five years before.  (BTW, there seem to be five voices in Catholic media that are distinguished by their reliable judgment: Sherry Weddell, Dawn Eden, Msgr. Charles Pope, Peter Kreeft and Dan Burke).  I tried to offer a gentle warning about this trend a couple of months ago here.  In fact, my greatest concern in starting this apostolate was finding faithful, vibrant parishes for those who wished to come into the Church.  In most dioceses, only a handful of parishes preach Christ's "narrow way", and act as though the liturgy is the meeting place of heaven and earth, the most important moment in the week.  By doing so, these parishes remain open to the full flood of grace, and so are the usual sources of vocations to religious life and of large families.  While every parish has a small number of committed disciples (by God's merciful design), these handful of parishes have many serious disciples and many of them are actually young.  They are the future of the Church, and her best hope for evangelization.

In the coming weeks I will write on what God is asking for in the "New Evangelization", and what he is not asking for.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Art of Sharing

I've enjoyed getting back into the rhythm of walking the streets now that life has settled down at home.  On one of the walks I ran into one of the local Sisters of Reparation, a small order founded by an opera singer.  It's always encouraging to see a religious sister in habit walking down the sidewalk.  That was once a normal part of Catholic life, but what was once the rule has now become the exception (did you catch my pun? :-)

On one of my walks I was out after 11pm, even though "Nothing good happens after midnight".  For those of us who were once thugs or night clubbers or bed-hoppers--or all of the above!--it's hard to argue with that proverb.  Demons seem to think that the night belongs to them, but then God's grace keeps getting in the way of their plans.  While I was out late I met two young black evangelicals with the Victory Chapel Outreach.  The young men were looking for prostitutes, addicts and other vulnerable people who were ready to make a radical break and join their program.  Victory Chapel offers housing, job training and work, as well as extensive Bible study, in order to re-shape the habits and identity of those under their care.  It's a very disciplined, regimented program, and so it really only appeals to those who are returning to the Father with empty hands, like the prodigal son.

One of the Victory Chapel evangelists was a remarkably bright, eloquent speaker.  In fact, he would have made a formidable Dominican.  While he talked I thought, "He must be a pastor.  He will go places in life.  I wish I had his gift!" Then after a while I realized he was just talking at me, and I no longer envied his gift.  I recalled that God had called me to this ministry even without the gift of eloquence.  In fact, listening can be even more powerful than speaking, and a more sure foundation for a deep-rooted evangelization.  The readiness to listen presumes a certain equality between parties, a willingness to learn or come to know the other person, the very building blocks of friendship.  The ancient Greeks often wrote on friendship, and they understood that some recognition of equality was necessary for a profound relationship.  I trust the talented young man will learn this lesson as he grows older.  Before we parted he kindly offered to pray with me.

Blessed Charles wasn't much of an orator, and in fact he is well known for preferring the silent, "hidden life" of Nazareth. He even began as a Trappist, those great listeners of God, where he took the name "Brother Marie-Alberic".  Blessed Charles wasn't born a great listener, but he became one as he increased in humility and charity.  Humility, because he assumed his opinion was not always worth hearing, and charity because he assumed that others might have something better to say.  It's only been in the last few years that I've acquired the faculty of listening.  Before that I was the insufferable student and professor that always had something to say.  Now I cringe when I recall those days.  Blessed Charles, ora pro nobis!

The other day I heard an enlightening talk that proposed that the saints continue on with their life's work after death.  This idea was present in the early Church, and we have heard recent saints express the thought as they neared death.  Sts. Padre Pio and Therese of Lisieux each prophesied that their earthly life was only a foretaste of their work to come.  But what struck me is that the saints' intercession and communion with us is far more personal or autobiographic than we ever could have imagined.  It goes far beyond fostering their unique charism and role in the Body of Christ, but it runs even to things like personality traits and life experiences.

Thus whenever I seethe at the worldly spirit in the Church and begin to get carried away, I remember Blessed Charles's reaction to papal liberalization of the Trappist diet.  He was scandalized that the Trappists would now be granted a little butter or oil with their bread! A good laugh always puts things in perspective.

I've also been comforted to reflect on Blessed Charles's penchant for grandiose dreams.  He once paid a land merchant for the title to the Mount of the Beatitudes in the Holy Land so he might make of it a hermitage and chapel.  Imagine the Mount of Beatitudes all to himself!  But he was swindled out of his sum through a false title.  Before that he had composed a thick Rule for a dreamed-of religious community--The Little Brothers of Jesus.  His friend and spiritual director, Abbe Huvelin, replied, "The Pope hesitated to give his approbation to the Franciscan Rule; he thought it too severe; but this rule!  To tell you the truth it terrified me!"  Once again, Blessed Charles saw his great dreams come to nothing.

All of this is a comforting thought as I have been chastened by my own grandiose dreams for this apostolate.  As I laugh at my own presumption, I know that Blessed Charles is laughing with me.  Two fools marveling at God's trust in us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Passion and Springtime of the Church

There's a remarkably widespread opinion amongst prominent Churchmen that the Church is entering a passion.  Just as Christ took on his passion as he walked among us, so must the Church--his mystical body--undergo her passions as she journeys through the centuries.  Christ endured rejection, abandonment and terrible wounds, and so must the Church.

This gloomy consensus seems to cut across generations and even theological differences.  Karl Rahner SJ, a giant of the Second Vatican Council and favorite amongst progressives, opined that in the future the church would only be composed of mystics.  Fr. John Hardon SJ, a tradition-minded theologian, said that only the very humble or very chaste would remain faithful.  In 1969, Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) offered some hopeful, poetic words even amidst a post-Christian future.  He predicted that after a falling-away, the world "will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new."  The whole passage is worth reading here.  One industrious author has even assembled the apocalyptic warnings of the popes from the past two-hundred years.  It's a meticulously documented though tiring book: Heralds of the Second Coming.  Some might object that two hundred years sounds like an awful slow warning, but apostasies are often slow motion events; that is, until they're not.  Spiritual bankruptcy is a lot like Hemingway's description of financial bankruptcy: it "happens in two ways: gradually then suddenly."  In Quebec, Canada, it is said that most of the province ceased going to mass over the course of a few months in 1966.  Obviously the Devil had been laying his groundwork long before that.

About eighteen months before God invited me to take up the apostolate, I had a supernatural experience of the passion of the Church.  It was an event that at first seemed apocalyptic, and later full of omens and portents.  As I've grown deeper in the faith, I now view the experience as an invitation and a sober warning rather than a glimpse of the End Times.  It happened on Monday of Holy Week, April 2, 2012, while I was driving home from a hike in the Columbia River Gorge.  I had just laid down my rosary beads to focus on the drive home when there was a sudden change in the skyline: there was a massive new celestial body in the sky.  I was startled and thought Christ had come, "like a thief in the night", to finally reconcile all things to himself.  But I remembered that the signs of the End Times had not been fulfilled, and then I noticed that the other drivers did not see the celestial body.  I calmed myself and watched: it was a bright disc that seemed like a second sun.  It was the identical size and shape as the sun, and was directly across from the sun in the sky, on the same geometric plane.

Then the second sun began to move across the sky at a deliberate pace.  As I watched the second sun, I saw that it wasn't like the real sun, but seemed an imitation, or worse, a counterfeit.  Whereas the true sun gave forth its warm, radiant yellow light, the second sun was a cool silver, shining and yet sterile and cold.  Then I realized that the second sun was moving across the sky to cover the true sun, and its movement took on a quietly ominous movement.  As it approached closer and closer--seemingly inevitable and unstoppable--the true sun seemed not to notice.  Perhaps the true sun was too regal to recognize its rival, or was resigned and at peace at the approaching counterfeit.  When the second sun finally reached the true sun, there were no fireworks or spectacles: the true sun serenely absorbed the counterfeit sun and it was gone in an instant.

Two days later, Wednesday of Holy Week, Christ asked, "Won't you share my passion?"  My spiritual director and I shared the same interpretation of the experiences.  The sun is an icon of Christ.  The second or counterfeit sun, is the spirit of anti-Christ, a false gospel that many mistake for the true Gospel, and which is ascendant in vast swaths of the world.  It's an anti-gospel of scientism, materialism, individualism, sexual liberation, idle entertainment, and the glory of man at the expense of the cross and the love of God.  As men increasingly prefer the anti-gospel to the Gospel, the Church will be abandoned and betrayed.  The cheering crowds from Palm Sunday will scatter, the apostles will hide and dissemble, and there is always Judas.

The Church, the new Israel, has undergone many passions over the millennia, just as the old Israel did  before Christ's coming.  Some saints and spiritual writers have said that every generation has its passion, though some passions are clearly worse than others.  A week or so after his passion, Christ appeared to the apostles and calmly spoke, "Peace be with you."  Then he said it again, because he knows we are poor listeners, "Peace be with you."  Christ, the true sun, is always at peace even as the false suns move across the sky.  The false suns always seem confident of victory; their triumph appears unimpeded and sure, and yet they are effortlessly swallowed up by the true sun.

The Springtime

In every passion there is a Springtime, those moments of resurrection and new life.  St. John Paul II famously predicted a "new springtime" for the Church, but he also famously declared in 1978 that we have entered "the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel".  So how do we square these two prophecies?  In the mind of the Church there is no contradiction.  The history of our faith is ancient and sure, and we mustn't think as the world thinks.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has always been most fecund in times of crisis--just as our Lord's greatest triumph came with his bloodshed.  Thus, the Church has always had a maxim, articulated by Tertullian, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church".  Sometimes the martyrdom runs red with blood as we now see in parts of Africa, the Middle East and even Asia, and sometimes it is the "white" martyrdom of willingly losing most of what you hold dear.

Even if we're not called to red or white martyrdom, new life will spring from our faith and sacrifices.  He is asking us to overcome ourselves with grace, and share in the sufferings to come.  If we share in his passion, then the Church will enjoy a resurrection, a new springtime.

Three weeks ago my wife gave birth to a baby boy, Gabriel Kristoff.  My wife remained open to life even after two straight miscarriages, and the challenges that come with childbirth in your 40s. That's faith and a sign of Spring.

In another sign of Spring, Daniel O'Connor, a young man from Albany, New York has been evangelizing the streets in his Sunday best and a giant Divine Mercy button.  He has invited others to join him here.  I noticed that Daniel has a similar take on the "signs of the times" even as he sets out to evangelize.  My next post will be a meditation on this seeming paradox: Christ invites us to follow him even as he signals that the tide is coming in against us.

Finally, a few weeks back I sent Josh his tunic to evangelize in Louisville.  He had only been wearing an old sweatshirt with the Jesus Caritas heart.  Now he's eager for Spring to melt the snow so he can resume walking the streets.  Springtime is coming, and the Lord comes with it.

Josh's wool tunic is several shades darker than mine