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.