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.