Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thoughts on the Men's Conference

The Salem Men's Conference exceeded expectations and had a massive turn-out despite the threat of icy roads.  I was impressed by how many young men were there--men in their 20s and 30s--and the average age of the participants was a full 10-15 years younger than past conferences I've attended.  The men were also more masculine and rugged (and that's a good thing!) than you find in the urban centers, and they represent the future of the Church in the fading West.  These men are blessed with a masculine bishop, Archbishop Sample, who actually stayed for the conference after offering the morning mass.  As the well-traveled Fr. Donald Calloway MIC remarked to a few of us, "Most bishops just take off after giving their remarks.  You've got a rare one here."  Amen!  Archbishop Sample takes great pleasure in being around faithful, orthodox men; he is at home with us, and we are at home with him.  May God give the Church many more shepherds like him!

The most remarkable thing about the conference was how many fascinating men were in attendance.  Since Chris, Felix and I had our "Street Evangelization" table, I was able to sit back and meet and listen to the stories of many good Catholic men.  It also helped that our table was right next to Fr. Calloway who always invites a long line of greeters and book-buyers.  I met a burly, Hispanic retired police officer (a friend of Jesse Romero) who shared his tales of evangelization while on duty. He was a remarkable man, intrepid and creative in sharing the faith, and with a heart fashioned by Christ.  I met Richard, a Vietnam vet whose experiences in the war led him to be a street evangelist and a protestant pastor.  He entered the Church a couple years ago, and would make a great addition to our "team" if he ever drives up here from Cottage Grove.  I had a faith-filled chat with this fascinating young man, who renewed his marriage and life after re-discovering the faith "once-delivered".  Finally, I met a widely-read gentleman who had a special devotion to our patron, Blessed Charles de Foucauld.  In fact, as I queued up to communion, I noticed the man kneeling in prayer, and a gentle burst of divine love came from my chest, where my relic of Blessed Charles rested.  Blessed Charles has a pure, heavenly love for the man, interceding for him before the good God.  If only we knew how great and busy the saints are on our behalf!  We develop an idle interest in a saint, feel a little kinship, and meanwhile the saint burns with heavenly love on our behalf.  It boggles the mind!

Chris and I were operating on very little sleep at the conference, and Chris admitted that he would probably sleep through half the talks.  But that was before Fr. Calloway, Jesse Romero and Deacon Sivers got going.  Then Chris was held in rapt attention, and I kept teasing him, "You're not asleep yet?"  No one sleeps during those talks.  We hope to attend next year's conference, slated for October.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Come Join Us!

Chris and I are heading down to Salem in ten days to attend a Catholic Men's Conference.  The event has drawn an outstanding line-up of speakers, and we've been given a table to spread the word about street evangelization.  I'm very grateful to the organizer, James Thurman, for the opportunity since display space was limited.  We'll have a large banner with the Jesus Caritas cross, our brochures, the prayer cards we give away, and one of our tunics (our "uniform").  I can't wait!  I feel like a little boy waiting for Christmas.  I'm certain that we'll meet scores of faithful Catholic men of integrity who are hungry to deepen their relationship with Christ.  I look forward to hearing their stories and watching their faces as they share the faith.  One or two might even join us.

Who might join us?  The Holy Spirit has prepared them by giving them a nagging itch to do "something more" for the faith, for those in the fog of unbelief, and for those on the cusp of conversion.  The apostolate is for someone who sees a prostitute or homeless man and thinks, "I want to talk to them, to get to know them, and help them if I can."  In fact, you will find the bloom of grace in unexpected places!  This apostolate is for you if you've figured out that what really matters is the Kingdom of Heaven; if you crave the knowledge and delight of Jesus and a galaxy of angels and saints over the judgment of men.  This apostolate is for you if you've discovered that the Faith is for the intrepid, and that there is no greater adventure than following Christ where he leads.  In fact, he will lead you to a greater understanding of yourself, seeing yourself in His clear and humble light.  He will lead you to other good men, united in fraternity in the faith, and may he lead you forward with us!

An excellent video calling men back to their awesome responsibility and dignity in the Church Militant:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Those Who Keep The World Turning, Part II

God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise; he singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong.  He chose the world's lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something; so that mankind can do no boasting before God.
                                                                                                   St. Paul, First Letter to the Corinthians

The Catholic Herald has a must-read article about a remarkable homeless man, Thomas Hooker, who just passed on to meet his sweet Lord.  His pastor, Fr. Illo, described Thomas as "a kind of patron saint of the homeless".  Thomas spent many hours praying each morning in the back of Star of the Sea church, much like another saint of the homeless, St. Benedict Joseph Labre.  Thomas was well-known to locals for his kind disposition and cheerful words.  He lived for years under a tarp on the streets of San Francisco, which for the uninitiated carries a damp coldness in otherwise sunny California.  The stubborn chill was undoubtedly quite a change from Thomas's native Caribbean island of Trinidad. Thomas acknowledged his trials, but knew that they made him a better man: "I suffer a lot, you know, and when you suffer, you must know to be kind."  One aspect of his kindness was generosity.  Like St. Benedict Joseph Labre, he gave away an extra donut or an extra dollar when he had them.  This may have been impractical, but he had a mystic's vision of things.  Once he "woke to a cloud of butterflies kissing him."  Some call that crazy, but I'd call it a foretaste of Heaven.

Thomas Hooker and his beatific smile, just like Blessed Charles de Foucauld!

I wonder how many graces Thomas brought down for those who knew and observed him?  How many people he introduced to Christ in his own lowly person, Christ-in-disguise?  How many souls he saved from perdition by his supplications and patient sufferings?

I'm grateful that God sent Thomas to poor Fr. Illo, embattled and despised by all the right enemies. It has been a rough couple years for Fr. Illo, who has sought to found an oratory after St. Phillip Neri's example, at Star of the Sea parish.  May God send the oratory many more saints-in-the-making!

Blessed Feast Day!

While St. Philip Neri is a co-patron of this apostolate, our primary heavenly intercessor (not named 'Mary') is Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Today is his feast day.  After more than a year of searching, I finally obtained a relic of Blessed Charles.  It is from the burial cloth in which he was wrapped from 1916-1929.  To my delight, it was issued by the bishop where Blessed Charles was a priest, and the bishop belongs to the "White Fathers", from the religious order that Blessed Charles worked alongside of.  Deo Gratias!  I now wear the relic around my neck when we walk the streets to evangelize.  Blessed Charles, ora pro nobis!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Those Who Keep The World Turning, Part I

The great mystics have said many enigmatic things over the centuries.  My favorite quote comes from the 7th or 8th century from a North African saint (unfortunately I can't recall his name).  By that time Western Civilization had collapsed, and Islam was subduing once Christian peoples through violent jihad.  The North African saint, a wandering John the Baptist type, baldly declared,  "It is only by my supplications and those of [another holy hermit] that the world has not been destroyed."  In other words, like Sodom and Gomorrah, the world would be spared if only a few righteous men could be found.

I've thought about this quote many times in the past year as four of the best Christians I've known have passed on.  First there was Rosie Vlcek, a spunky nurse who worked with my mom and was a stalwart with 40 Days for Life.  She had a giant heart and an innocent's courage, standing up to injustice in the face of long odds (whether against troubling new workplace rules or social problems).  She died unexpectedly.  God also suddenly took Nancy Curcio.  She had been a religious sister for ten years before entering secular life and teaching at the local Cathedral School.  She later married but was not graced with children.  Nancy helped oversee the 24 hour adoration chapel,  and steeped her life in spiritual reading and private devotions.  Nancy's smile and presence were a testimony to the existence of her Creator.  She had something so few people have.  Jim Germann, who passed a few days ago, once reverently pointed her out to me to say, "Now there is a real Catholic lady."  Then he just smiled and took in the sight of her.  Jim and I did biweekly runs to the Oregon Food Bank for five years for our St. Vincent De Paul chapter before he was sidelined by cancer.  He would lug forty pound bags of rice (against my protestations) even at the age of 90!  Jim was country strong, raised on a farm in the Dakotas, and spent his life stocking groceries.  When I visited him a few weeks ago he came to the door himself, tidily dressed, and his face seemed to glow.  He was half here and half in Heaven, in a strange twilight before becoming one with the Father through the Son.  By contrast, I recently visited an elderly relative who has led a life of greed, selfishness and malice.  He looked and acted like Gollum.  We all die as we have lived.

My late mother, Pamela Loogman, shared many things in common with the other dearly departed.  All of them were without guile; they did not have their own agenda.  They were simple and straightforward in a complex and crooked world. Each of them had to suffer, and often it was their children that rent their hearts.  My Mom suffered through so many things, and like the others, she never lost her joy.  She was kept aloft by "the peace that surpasses all understanding".  As I've thumbed through her photo albums, seeing her grow up on a dairy, surrounded by younger siblings and cousins, I've often thought, "This sweet, hard-working girl has no idea of the sufferings ahead."  But God gave her the grace of a happy childhood and the grace of faith so she could endure and win hearts amidst the cruel dysfunctions to follow.  She grew up wanting to give herself completely as a religious sister, but her mother wouldn't have it.  But she still fulfilled her vocation, living so as to offer herself "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1) for her children, husband and hospital patients.

My Mom and her parents after graduation from nursing school

As these true Christians have passed on, I've often  wondered at God's plan.  Who will replace them? Is he taking them because he wants to spare them from a coming chastisement?  But I quickly quash that last thought.  Ours will be a long defeat without any great fireworks.  The important point is that Jesus has asked all of us to replace them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Makings of a Saint?

I took up this apostolate three years ago, on All Saints Day of 2013, though it feels more like seven years ago than three. There have been so many struggles, so much adventure and unexpected encounters that it's hard to fathom that so little time has passed.  In the beginning I grudgingly endured the ministry (why couldn't God have called me to a quiet life of study and writing!?!), but now it's a joy in my life.  By contrast, Chris dove in from the beginning, but he likes to jump into the fire with both feet forward.

In nearly three years of walking, the most intriguing person I've encountered is a fiercly intelligent agnostic with the Space Age name of 'Eon'.  While Eon's parents were back-to-the-earth hippies (hence the unusual name), Eon was like a character out of a science fiction novel.  He's a Man in Black, or maybe a Blade Runner.  In fact, he's a Behavioral Threat Assessment Specialist at the Department of Homeland Security (you can't make this stuff up).  The first thing Eon did upon greeting Chris and I along NE 82nd was to tell us all about our own apostolate, based on his observations (e.g., "So you guys are walking a beat.  This street is your spiritual beat?").  I stood there dumbfounded, pointing a finger as at a spectacle, and said to Chris, "Can you believe this guy?  He's amazing!"  Eon was like a cosmic gumshoe, Dick Tracy but sucking on a vape instead of a cigarette.  He could accurately read people and situations like some of the wise convicts I'd known, and like them, he was a natural psychologist.

Eon also knew more about the Middle Ages than 99% of Catholics.  We talked of traditional Church customs and especially of the mendicant orders and the mysterious figure of St. Francis.  Eon was intrigued by St. Francis because he detested tame religion, a faith that has been seduced by comfort and self-satisfaction.  I remembered Georges Bernanos's denunciations of "bourgeois catholicism" and voiced my support.  He complimented us on our apostolate, saying that he had driven past us on a few occasions before he decided we must be worth talking to.  We hadn't lost our zeal anyway.  For Eon, life was nothing if not a radical commitment.  He talked about his commitment to an austere simplicity, and why he gives his lunch to homeless people or takes them out to eat.  He spoke with the rare combination of radicalism and personal warmth.  I listened with fascination and finally said, "Why you're more Catholic than me!  You'd make a great Christian!"

He was puzzled and so I explained.  I had been reading a book, Pillar of Fire by Karl Stern, the conversion story of a well-known Jewish psychologist.  The book includes a long letter to his brother, an atheist Jew living on a kibbutz in Israel. The brother lives an austere life, communally farming the arid soil of Israel. The brother burns with justice, discipline and a pure life of the mind.  At one point he even pens a later to his psychologist brother while perched on the summit of Mt. Carmel.  Karl replies to his unbelieving brother. "You live, apparently on the basis of an a-religious philosophy, a life which corresponds to what my religion teaches me.  I, on the other hand, live in a [bourgeois] setting" with "a car and life insurance", a professor at Columbia University, no less.  Karl Stern marvels at the paradox, which is now present before us in the person of Eon.  Eon was probably more ascetic than us even though he lacked the religious reasons to be!

After we charitably parted ways, I breathlessly exclaimed to Chris, "Eon doesn't know it, but he is one tiny step from conversion.  He would make a great Christian, maybe even a saint!"  
"Do you really think so?"
"Yes!  He's already more Catholic than the people at your old parish, St. XXXX" (name redacted to protect the guilty).
"Yeah. that's true,"
God's already laid all the groundwork.  Eon's got an eros for truth, a spirit of sacrifice, he's got zeal in spades, and he likes to mix with the poor.  Let's pray he's given the grace of faith.  Maybe one day he'll join us!  He'd be tremendous." And so we prayed that in God's time, Eon would fall on his knees and pray.

Dear readers, please pray for Eon's conversion!

Friday, October 7, 2016

When a Drunk Man Told Me All of My Faults

Catholic shrines have a kind of gravitational pull for those in the throes of conversion or a spiritual awakening.  This is true for non-Catholic Christians as well as those without any faith background.  Chris and I have had at least three profound encounters on the outskirts of The Grotto, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows.  These seekers may not go deep into The Grotto to find Christ in the Eucharist, but they do find us, anyway.

A few weeks back, Chris and I had just left The Grotto parking lot to head down Sandy Boulevard when we spotted a small man sitting on the sidewalk under the shade.  I nudged Chris, "Let's go talk to him."  The man was slightly rocking back and forth, cross-legged, with an open beer can at his knee.  I couldn't tell if he was homeless or not.  His clothes were clean and he was well-groomed, but he was well-past tipsy.  He complimented the Jesus Caritas heart/cross we wear and I settled down beside him on the sidewalk.  I hoped to do him a bit of good, perhaps hear his story, but he had something else in mind.  Perhaps we looked too somber, because he began a spontaneous rhapsody on the beauty of God's creation.  I thought he sounded very Franciscan, and I was edified when he transitioned from  the joy of created beauty to our simple response of thanksgiving.  He began exhorting us--and seemingly all creation--to recognize blessings and always give thanks.  I felt a pang of conscience, and thought, "I don't give thanks enough.  I take so many things for granted, and I miss the beauty and grace in life due to cares and little tasks.  I've gotten into a rut, a bad habit."

The little man continued and then transitioned again, thanking God for the kind hand of His providence.  He marveled that before God even created the world He knew and fore-ordained that we would meet him, David Becker from Chicago, on that day in that exact spot.  He explored this over and over again until he was satisfied that we recognized it as a great wonder and a great kindness.  For God can do all things and with unsurpassing good!

Then I felt another pang of conscience.  "My faith is weak.  I act like the fruits of this ministry only depend upon me, and I'm always focusing on people's obstacles to conversion instead of the power of the Holy Spirit.  If I could just get out of the way, this apostolate would bear more fruit."

Then David transitioned again, from God's goodness to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.  He had already shed tears during his oration (and he had brought me to tears of gladness), but now he had the gift of tears in abundance.  He began to repeat with his head down, "Jesus took a whuppin' for me and he took a whuppin' for you."  Then he gave me a searching look and pleaded, "Jesus took a whuppin' for us!"  I felt the third string of conscience.  "I'm a lousy Catholic, with so little devotion to the Passion.  I take Christ's sacrifice on the cross for granted.  He gave it to us freely, and I just take it, run with it, and don't look back."

At this point it was clear that the Holy Spirit had given me David's prophetic words as a gift.  I inwardly laughed as I remembered sitting down some twenty minutes before as a humble gesture in the hope of getting David to open up.  But now who was ministering to whom?   When it was time to leave, David profoundly repeated, "I'll see you guys in Heaven." I couldn't help but think he was being prophetic again.  The Spirit goes where it will.

As we walked away, Chris said, "I couldn't hear him or understand him that well."
I replied, "Well, you were sitting further away.  I think it was meant for me, anyway.  That guy just told me all of my spiritual faults--all the holes in my spiritual life."

Thank you, dear Lord, for David Becker, and may we always keep him in our prayers.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Even the Birds of the Air

Today is the feast day of one of the greatest disciples of Jesus Christ, St. Francis of Assisi, the "little poor man".  It so happens that Chris and I have been reading The Flowers of St. Francis while walking the streets.  We take turns reading the chapters aloud, and delight at the often zany and wise adventures of Francis and his first companions.  Last Sunday we were walking SE 122nd, and rested on some stones while Chris told of the time St. Francis preached to the birds. Afterwards we reflected on God's hidden hand in nature, and shared some stories.  I told him of the time my wife believed she was pregnant (the test was positive) and then had some agonizing counter-signs of a miscarriage.  I prayed to God full of anxiety and confusion while I drove to adoration at St. Agatha's Church.  Then I was given a sign.  A hundred yards in front of me, birds twirled and executed playful loops as in delightful celebration.  I knew from a touch of the Holy Spirit that the birds were moved to play by the joy of Heaven at the conception of our daughter, Clara.

Chris and I continued on our journey, praying, and wondered whether there were signs all around us in nature that we miss by living in the city.  We took up the book again, and just as we passed under the roof of a building we were met by the strikingly rich and pure chirping of baby birds.  We turned in stunned silence as though Jesus himself had called to us. A mother pigeon was tending to her brood in a nest.  She raised up and fluttered a wing at us, and I waved back.  Chris and I continued on in laughter and wonderment.  The birds had sounded so different than the usual background noise of busy birds.  An atheist might chalk it up to a coincidence or "confirmation bias", but life is different for those who walk in faith.  For us, the whole world is infused with the Spirit and laden with meanings both delightful and dark (earlier a pitbull had lunged over a fence to try to grab my tunic sleeve).  Thanks be to God that He is always with us.

Chris and I have had a remarkable string of Spirit-filled encounters on the streets, including moments of real conversion by those we meet.  I hope to share some of them in the coming weeks.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Catholic Diversity

Many people (including some famous philosophers) reject the Christian faith because they believe it entails unhealthy, unnatural constraints that will steal the joy out of their life.  Nietzsche certainly thought this (his father was a dour Lutheran pastor), and there is no doubt that there have been grim Christians and deformed christian cultures since the beginning.  But the true faith gains everything, and only surrenders to God our sin and its ugliness.  Similarly, many contemporary people forgo having children out of the same fear of constraints (never mind how unnatural this is), and rather than having more freedom and more life they actually have less.  Little children, like the faith, open up the rich tapestry of life and it's possibilities.  Each child brings with him a new world of insights, talents and adventures, something his sister or brother did not see or understand or pursue.  The author Jennifer Fulfiller has described this: that in the Catholic home you are "surrounded by so much life".  In fact, it is really a foretaste of Heaven.  Everything in Heaven brims with life--even the colors seem to share in the very life of God.  We know from scripture that Heaven is a feast, and in their little way, children are a feast as is the Catholic life with its abundance and great diversity of delights.

On our honeymoon, my wife and I enjoyed an amazing feast every morning at the Hotel Cavallari in Rome

In a similar way, the very life of the Church--with all of its diverse vocations (lay, religious, consecrated virgin, widow, married) and religious movements and charisms is a great feast for the honor and glory of God.  It is "man fully alive" as St. Ireneaus described it over 1800 years ago.  In fact, our diverse patrimony and history across cultures and time is a feast to study and contemplate.  If you read about different saints in every century of the Church, you will witness them come to life in your imagination as they descend from Heaven to kindle your soul.  Every saint was different because they had their own bundle of experiences, their own formed character, and because God had a unique call for each of them. This "call" was often to do one thing but not another (even if the other thing was praiseworthy and needs doing).  

We often fall into the trap of following something we haven't been called to do, or trying to shoe-horn other people into our pre-conceived idea of what they should be doing.  I once had a fellow prayer witness at 40 Days For Life become angry with me when I resisted her notion that God had called me to be a professor, and so evangelize in the university.  But that wasn't my call (though at one time I hoped it was) and we must honor the diversity and singularity of God's call.  As another example, here in Portland there is a good Catholic man, a former protestant pastor, who closely attends to the homeless population and lobbies for them in courts and state benefit offices.  That's what he has been uniquely formed and called to do.  It is not my calling, and my apostolate is not his call.  This difference in "calls" reflects the beauty and wisdom of God's plan, and we should marvel at it instead of nosing about and wondering why other people aren't doing what we think needs to be done.  Many people have criticized Mother Theresa for not building hospitals and massive infrastructure for the sick, marginalized and dying, but as she simply responded: "That's not my call."

Don't Quench The Spirit

In the past few years I have been troubled as faithful, vibrant movements in the Church have been suppressed for dubious reasons (Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, and now a priestly exorcist society founded by Fr. Ripperger).  This is nothing new in the Church as we know from reading the lives of founders of religious communities.  It has also been common for holy men and women to be misunderstood and persecuted by the Church (Sts. Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Jean-Marie Vianney, Padre Pio, Mother Angelica immediately come to mind, though a full list would number in the hundreds).  Padre Pio's main opponent, Fr. Edoardo Gemelli, did God's work in founding and steering the Catholic University of Milan, and yet he wrote awful things about Padre Pio.  It is a terrible thing to die--even in sanctifying grace--and then have the Lord show you that you have been persecuting some of his chosen souls. One of the Vatican monsignors who was sent to evaluate the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate was over-heard in a restaurant mocking their penances and lowly lifestyle.  He remarked in a humorous tone, "You wouldn't believe it, but at night you could hear the echo of lashes throughout the friary.  All night long!"  Now I don't take the discipline (unlike Blessed Charles de Foucauld, our patron), or lash myself, but I have a tender fear of disappointing God, and so would never mock those who do.  Who knows what God has called them to?  If it is orthodox and comes from our lived faith tradition, then tolerance is the better part of wisdom.

One of my former professors at University of Michigan, Scott Page,  wrote a theoretically rich and wide-ranging book on the unique benefits of diversity in different institutions.  As a secular academic, his jump-off point was a famous passage from Aristotle, but it might as well have been St. Paul on the Body of Christ.  Even the ancient pagans and the new pagans get it!  St. Philip Neri certainly got it as he assembled his great oratory full of talented and holy young men.  The great saint had the grace to see each man as he was, and wisely drew from each the unique talents and vocation that God had given them. Each person has gifts and a calling and we must not stand in the way of it because we have cramped views on liturgy, or mortification, or the modern world, or ecclesiology.  There has often been a confounding diversity in the life of zealous Catholics, and this comes from the very hand of God.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Don't Run From The Light!

My friend Josh Kusch was the first man to join in this apostolate, and I was glad to send him a tunic sewn by my late mother.  Josh has been graced with a hungry, clear intellect and a heart for the suffering and those far from Christ.    This might seem like a dual call or gift, but it is really the same invitation from the Blessed Trinity to share in the one life in God.  Nowadays it is fashionable in and out of the Church to fudge or set in opposition the relationship between reason/intellect and the compassionate heart of Christ (or dogma/doctrine vs. pastoral practice) but that is nonsense since Jesus is both the Eternal Word (the Logos which is Truth itself) and the One whose side was opened on the Cross to reveal his Sacred Heart.

Paradoxically, when we think about the deep things of God, we should do so with the attitude of a child: innocent, receptive, trusting, and eager to embrace what our Father reveals.  This is how we are given wisdom, which is nothing other than the knowledge of God and his divine order.  In yet another paradox, many of the truly wise are also the unlearned.  Did you know that during the Enlightenment, God raised up many lowly Franciscan saints (especially Capuchins) to confound the intellect of the learned?  I wear a relic of one such friar, Blessed Didacus Joseph, otherwise known as the "Dunce of Cadiz".  Did you know that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta began her Nobel Prize speech with two cringeworthy (but harmless) errors about St. Francis?  Yet she had more wisdom than her entire audience!

We should read scripture and receive the life of the saints with the same spirit: the spirit of a child and not the "spirit of the world".  The worldly man plays politics, watches public opinion, acts coy, trusts in his cleverness, seeks not to offend even as he offends Truth Himself.  We all have to resist the worldly impulse, that gravitational pull of our wounded nature.  We must be vigilant because we shouldn't tinker with what God has revealed.  As I saw first-hand at the time of my conversion, the wisdom of the world is rubbish.  God and his ways are so different than ours.  God's vision for us is so much grander than we'd allow.  With that in mind, our brother Josh has recently written two excellent articles to defend God's neglected word.  He has reached out and taken hold of two of the "third rails" of our time: divorce and "re-marriage" and the relationship between husband and wife.  Both articles have been enthusiastically received.


Peter Kreeft, a wise and humble philosopher, recently echoed some of my thoughts: "A German cardinal who is very scholarly and often quite wise said one of the worst things I ever heard a cardinal say when trying to justify relaxing the Church's demand to live in chastity even if one is civilly divorced.  He said that the Church does not expect everyone to be a moral hero.  That is exactly what the Church does expect, because her Lord expects it."

Amen!  Thank you, Peter Kreeft.  Also, thanks to Josh, Chris, Felix and all men who aim to be "moral heroes" as husbands, fathers, teachers and street evangelists.  God looks on in delight as you fight the good fight.

Monday, August 22, 2016

An Awesome Responsibility

Chris Huling and I continue to hit the streets, and yesterday we even passed out free Gatorade in the mid-day sun.  Our offering was gratefully received, but our most compelling encounter happened after we emptied our cooler and stripped off the wool tunics in The Grotto parking lot.  A black man in his early thirties approached us, and said that he saw us kneeling in prayer.  He wore a hiking backpack and bore a few other signs of being homeless.  He said that he needed prayer, and asked if we could pray for him.  Chris and I glided past his words and asked whether he needed food or some money.  With a hint of impatience, he corrected us, "No, no, none of that."  You see, by a grace he understood that his greatest need was spiritual assistance--even deliverance from evil.  As far as being homeless and jobless, he said, "I can handle that.  You see, I'm the problem."  We walked over to the statue where Chris and I had been praying, and knelt down.  The statue captures the last moment of the Crucifixion, where Jesus died for our sins before heavenly and earthly witnesses.

The statue at The Grotto

I told our new friend about the figures below the cross, and asked if he prayed to his angel who accompanies him wherever he goes.  He said he does.  Then he painfully described how he's plagued with issues of "self-control".  He said he tries to fight it, but it almost seems like there are two of him--not in the sense of a split personality, but in terms of a struggle in his soul.  He hates how he sometimes hurts people when he loses control, if only he would never lose control again.  Then he prostrated himself before the Cross, just as the angel had taught the little children at Fatima.  By a grace I offered an extemporaneous prayer on Christ's faithful love for him and all his children, and how we ask for Christ's love to heal his heart so he might love others like Jesus, always doing right by them. I joined him in prostration for a few moments of silence.

Afterwards I gave him a rosary that belonged to a recently deceased priest.  I asked the priest (whether he's in heaven or purgatory) to watch over and pray for the young man.  He then asked what kind of place this was, that had such statues in a parking lot.  Chris and I were floored.  The man had no idea that he was at a national religious shrine--he had just noticed the trees and taken cover from the sun.  Only a grace could have led him there!  Then it was time to depart, and the last time we saw him he had tightly wrapped the rosary around his wrist like a bracelet.  On the way home, Chris and I prayed seven St. Michael prayers for him, as well as some Marian prayers.  I ask readers of this blog to offer him spiritual assistance as you can.  The young man's name was "Chris", and he's undergoing intense spiritual combat.  You might also pray for those he's hurt.

Later that evening, Chris Huling sent me the following e-mail about the privilege and responsibility of street evangelization:

"I was sitting home thinking about today and I'm trying to process it and took a little walk and it hits me! Do you have any idea what we witnessed? We were privileged enough to get to see the Holy Spirit in action! It's freaking me out a little in a good way of course. You had prayed that we might be the face of the LORD, I remembered. And here this young man comes out of nowhere and expresses what looked to me like perfect contrition to a statue of his savior! Is that not a textbook definition of grace? just hit me and the power of it is a little overwhelming!"

Yes, it blows the mind.  We're not worthy!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Going Where The Pain Is

Apologies for the sparse postings.  The unexpected death of my mother sucked some of the wind out of my sails. Nevertheless, the street apostolate is still going strong even if I don't find the time to write about it.

Last week I walked for the first time with Chris Huling, a recent revert to the faith who has a military background and love for the traditional practices and expressions of the faith.  Like myself and many other men (often younger than us), he has dived head-first into the new oasis that is St. Stephen's parish.  When I asked him why he wanted to walk the streets, Chris said that he didn't want to be rejected by Jesus at the Last Judgment for ignoring Christ in the "poor, imprisoned, widowed and orphaned".  I was mildly shocked:  "Wow!  Someone who actually takes the words of Christ at face value!" Then Chris told me of an an inspiration from the Holy Spirit: that he should walk the streets on hot days with a rolling ice chest and distribute cold drinks and a prayer meditation.  The meditation is extraordinary.  It's the "I Thirst" meditation attributed to Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and it is really the Gospel in miniature.  In the meditation, Jesus is speaking directly to his lost children (that is, all of us at one time or another).  Here is how it ends:

"Now matter what you have done, I love you for your own sake.  Come to Me with your misery and your sins, with your troubles and your needs, and with all your longing to be loved.  I stand at the door of your heart and knock...  Open to me, for I THIRST FOR YOU..."

For the people we typically meet on the streets, this message is probably the most shocking words they could ever hear. They would be less shocked if we cursed them or berated them.  But to hear that God intimately knows and loves them and yearns for them?  Unthinkable.  That has never occurred to them, and yet it's at the heart of the Gospel.  You can hear the full meditation by clicking on the video below.  The meditation is read by Fr. John Riccardo, an ascetic priest who always reminded me of Christ Crucified when I attended his parish in Michigan.

Since St. Stephen's parish is located in a trendy neighborhood full of hipsters and the "resolutely unchurched", I was considering going "uptown" and walking amongst the "children of this age".  Perhaps I could be the "Apostle to the Hipsters" since I already live in "FoPo", the hipster neighborhood of Portland.  Then I realized I'd be awful at that, and am better suited to meaner streets, to something more "real".

A cross-section of PDX (Portland) hipsters.  This is not real life, though the pain they try to hide is very real.

If you're looking for real life, watch this movie about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal living amongst the most wretched among us.  Kyle Turley, my favorite Catholic journalist, has a great write-up of the movie at Catholic World Report.  Apparently one of the friars who ministers to a Honduras HELLHOLE prison is himself an ex-convict.  Hurrah for him!  These men are living the faith that we try to walk.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fr. Peter Carota: Strange Like a Saint

The late Fr. Peter Carota was always burning.  He yearned for a greater knowledge--a greater closeness to our Lord--for himself and for whomever he met.  Now that he's passed on and has beheld the shining face of Christ, he burns even brighter.

While he was with us, we thought of him as strange, foolish, unpolitic, of rude zeal.  He was foolish when he cashed in his wildly successful real estate practice to open a soup kitchen and homeless shelter.  Then he made another leap and was ordained a priest of Christ.  For a time he was a more or less typical parish priest, but then the burning started again when he discovered the old mass, that ancient highway between man and God.  He shared it with his congregation, and then he was driven to share it with everybody else.  He left his unknown parish in Ripon, California and set about to form a missionary society of priests to spread the old mass, and even broadcast it on a dedicated satellite channel.  He burned, brighter than ever, but neither of the dreams came to pass.  He did burn lots of bridges though, especially with brother priests.

I first learned of him through the indignant rant of a celebrity priest.  I was at a local Catholic Men's Conference, and our widely traveled priest/speaker couldn't stop blasting this "very confused" and "way off" priest down in "middle of nowhere Ripon".  Apparently Fr. Carota had urged him to learn Latin; that it was important for his priesthood.  The celebrity priest bristled, and warned us not to come up to him after his talk and tell him "goofy sh*t" like "the devil hates Latin".  Now since the celebrity priest was full of ugliness of all kinds I reasoned that his judgment was backwards and that the lowly Ripon priest must be someone worth reading about.  I was right.

Fr. Carota was never boring and this was reflected in his blog.  His frequent stays in Mexico made for fascinating reading: they were part cultural study, part missionary journal and simple stories of local people.  Fr. Carota also took to prickly situations like a hummingbird to a cactus flower.  If there was an abortion provider nearby, he was outside the building in prayer.  If a couple were "shacking-up" while raising their kids, Fr. Carota would bring them to the altar.  If young women dressed for mass like they were at a nightclub or in a Univision soap opera, Fr. Carota would remind them of their baptismal dignity.  Then there were the blog posts on the Illuminati, Freemasonry and the New World Order.

I began to grow weary of his exhortations and forays into strange topics and so gradually stopped reading his blog.  Fr. Carota burned too hot for prudence, for gradualism, for tact, for the "art of the possible".  If only he'd been educated at elite schools like myself--that would have cooled off his brain!  But the art of the possible is the province of politics (as Tip O'Neil had it), and not the faith that can move mountains.  So much the worse for us, so much the worse for me.

While many turned their backs on him, Jesus Christ was always at his side.  Especially when he was offered up like a victim lamb on our behalf.  He was afflicted with a mysterious illness that would not let him keep his food down.  It had echoes of my favorite movie, Diary of a Country Priest.  The medical profession was unable to diagnose and resolve the malady and he slowly wasted away.  Fr. David Nix put it starkly, "Fr. Peter Carota starved to death today."  He starved so that the Church might be fed.  He was a chosen soul, holy in God's sight but an embarrassment to men.  Fr. Peter Carota, forgive my arrogance.  Fr. Carota, ora pro nobis!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Where Two Or More Are Gathered In My Name"

I was blessed last week by a visit from my friend Josh, who does the apostolate in Louisville, Kentucky.  He's a good man, a loving father and husband, and loves the faith "once handed-down" by the apostles, saints and martyrs.  He has the soul of a philosopher, an "eros for knowledge" (as Plato put it) of the true faith.  That's a grace that we wish more embraced in these rocky times.

Josh and Scott "fishing for men" on 82nd Avenue in Portland

On our walk we chatted with some of the "little souls", the working poor and those who at one time or another have been down-and-out.  Many of them are easy to love because they are not puffed up.  Even when they have pretensions, they readily let go of them when they meet an honest soul.  It's easy to see why our Lord favored them, the "poor in spirit".  It's harder to love the proud, those who think they've got it all figured out--when in reality they are a product of the zeitgeist and deceptions that come from sin (both demonic and personal).  It's especially hard to love those who have ascended to positions of authority--especially religious authority--and are either hirelings or wolves.  If I had more love, I would pray and sacrifice for them.  But alas, my middle name is 'Nickolas' after St. Nicholas, and my first urge is to punch the heretics among us.  Ha ha!

I love these memes.  A good Catholic use of the internet!
St. Nick punching Arius the heresiarch at the Council of Nicaea

With that in mind, I'm sad to report that the new cardinal-archbishop of Brussels has effectively shut down the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles.  You can read all about it here.  I've written of the Fraternity on this blog many times, and they are a model for the renewal of the Church.  The recently retired Archbishop of Brussels, Andre-Joseph Leonard, was even planning on spending his last years living amongst the fraternity.  No word on whether he'll have to move out.  While Archbishop Leonard was known for his courage and patient suffering as his country "descended to Jericho" (as the early Fathers liked to put it), his successor never misses an opportunity to push "new thinking" on all matters sexual and "ecumenical".  While I'm sure the Fraternity is reeling right now, they should know that their persecution is the surest sign of God's love and confidence. Christ suffers for his Church, and he has now brought the Fraternity close to his aggrieved heart to share in his passion. In time, all things will be restored, if only they are faithful.  Pax Christi.

Some of the Fraternity and friends.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Sacred Fountains of Inspiration (II)

Personal note:

My dear Mother unexpectedly passed away from heart failure on May 26th.  She was only 66, and enjoyed racing around the house and sidewalks after her grandchildren.  Many thanks for all of the prayers; we have been lifted up by grace and Christian love.  We always welcome more prayers for my mother, Pamela, and her large family.  The other day at holy mass, I understood that she was joined in the maternity of Mary, in union with her, mothering the people of God here below. To those who knew her, it is not surprising, though it was a welcome theological insight.

More Good News

I was delighted to read about the two young Dominican friars who are walking from New Orleans to Memphis on an evangelical pilgrimage.  Imagine walking 500 miles through the American South in the stifling summer heat!  It's a very Catholic thing to do, and an exemplar of the kind of risk-taking and holy zeal  that will re-build the Church for our times. The friars will offer what the Church sorely needs: their sufferings and prayers united with Christ, fellowship, a visible presence on the street, and serene evangelization.

You can read all about the friars at:

Friday, May 20, 2016

Why the Gospel Seed Falls on Hard Earth

Cardinal Sarah was recently in the U.S., and gave a bracing speech on how the spread of the Gospel (largely) depends on the life of the family.  We know from experience and even empirical data (yes, statistics) that religious vocations disproportionately come from healthy, devout Catholic homes.  We also know that Christ-centered homes typically produce Christ-centered offspring.  By contrast, in wounded families the grace of God has to follow a more circuitous route.

In his speech, Cardinal Sarah draws heavily from St John Paul II:

"St. John Paul explained: if it is true that the family is the place where more than anywhere else human beings can flourish and truly be themselves, it is also a place where human beings can be humanly and spiritually wounded.  The rupture of the foundational relationships of someone’s life – through separation, divorce or distorted impositions of the family, such as cohabitation and same sex unions – is a deep wound that closes the heart to self-giving love unto death, and even leads to cynicism and despair. These situations cause damage to little children through inflicting upon them a deep existential doubt about love. They are a scandal – a stumbling block – that prevents the most vulnerable from believing in such love, and a crushing burden that can prevent them from opening to the healing power of the Gospel."

To such children, love itself is a lie, a myth, and the God-who-is-love is believed to be equally false.  This reasoning comes from a masterstroke of the Devil, his trump card, and it is his chosen play in our times.  We see the casualties of this battle all the time in the street apostolate, and it is a primary stumbling block for receiving the Gospel.  St. John Paul II wisely observed that, "The future of the world and the Church passes through the family."  In other words, as our families go, so goes the Church and ultimately the world.  Sister Lucia of Fatima fame even prophesied to Cardinal Caffara that "the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family."

Sr. Lucia & John Paul II, a meeting of saints

Along with these warnings, Sister Lucia, John Paul II and Cardinal Sarah all remind us that Christ is triumphant over sin and history (apologies to Marx).  In fact, these three illustrious members of Christ's body are part of God's victory plan, and so are you and I!

I encourage you to listen to Cardinal Sarah's entire speech here.  He begins at the 1:15:00 mark.

African Methodists on Cardinal Sarah

The other night while walking 82nd, I was flagged down by five Methodist ministers from different countries in Africa. They were in Portland, Oregon for the United Methodist's General Conference.  They struck me as kind, upright men--true Christians--and so were excellent representatives from their home nations.  We talked of two things: Wal-mart and Cardinal Sarah.  They were searching for Wal-mart to buy items that were difficult to find in their homelands.  After I helped them with the bus transit down to Wal-mart, we spoke of Cardinal Sarah.  They became animated, and described him as "an honorable man" who is "fighting the good fight."  They were referring to Cardinal Sarah's defense of the divine plan for the family.  You see, earlier in the day they helped to vote down the usual LBTQ proposals at their Conference. Then with smiles and shining eyes the ministers declared Cardinal Sarah "the next pope".  It was a happy thought and revealed that Cardinal Sarah is the pride of Africa.  Africa has been called "Christ's new homeland", and the good men reminded me why Africa is the future of the faith.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Sacred Fountains of Inspiration

Last week I walked the streets for the first time with Felix Barba, a charismatic Catholic who is mature in the faith. He's passionate with bold ideas, and so I joked that he has "the soul of a poet".  He replied that he had a teacher once that used to call him, "The Poet".  We had some interesting encounters (more about that in a different post), though we spent a great deal of the walk lamenting the state of the church in the U.S.  It is a sleepy church, a comfortable church, cold to the burning heart of Jesus in the Eucharist and in the poor.  It is largely indifferent to sinners.  In short, a church of little poetry. Meanwhile, the blood of the martyrs flows in distant continents...!

Sometimes it's necessary to share your frustration so as to be reassured of your sanity (after all it is the world that has gone mad, not us), but I doubt we'll spend much time complaining on future walks.  We know that God has a better use for us, and we know something that Georges Bernanos knew:

"One can only reform the Church by suffering for her; one can only reform the visible Church by suffering for the invisible Church. One cannot reform the Church's vices except by pouring out the example of the most heroic virtue. [...] Can I say--in the hope of being better understood by some readers--that the Church does not need critics but poets? When there is a crisis in poetry, what is important is not to denounce the bad poets or even hang them, but to write beautiful verse, to reopen the sacred fountains of inspiration."

Some readers may marvel at all this talk of 'poetry', but it is something St. Francis and his followers understood. Sometimes poetry can be captured in a photo.  Do you see the poetry in the friars of Toca de Assis?

Or listen to this friar singing Aquinas's classic hymn, "Adoro Te Devote" and witness the Christian brotherhood:

The Brazilian friars of Toca de Assis see God's poetry in service to the poor, in real fraternity, in the tonsure and traditional habit, and in kneeling to receive our dear Jesus in the Eucharist.  They have reached into "the sacred fountains of inspiration", and they have born much fruit.  May they always walk and rest in God's Spirit!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

All It Takes to Win Heaven

One of the hidden gems of the catholic internet is the website,
The author is a youngish westerner teaching in Thailand.  Every day he posts a short spiritual reflection  by a saint or other trusted spiritual writer.  He recently found this outstanding quote from Blessed Charles de Foucauld:

"[God] didn't attach salvation to knowledge or intelligence or wealth, nor to long experience or rare gifts that are not given to all.   He attached it to something within the reach of everyone, absolutely everyone.   Jesus attaches salvation to humility, to the act of making yourself little.   That is all it takes to win heaven."

After his conversion, Blessed Charles always sought the lowest place.  Whether as an anonymous brother in a Trappist Abbey or as a day laborer in the Holy Land.  In this he followed the example of many saints from noble or wealthy families (Sts. Francis and Clare, Ignatius and too many others to list).  Pride, privilege and luxury die hard.  But just as he found a home in his lowliness, God desired to raise him up and glorify him.  He reluctantly began studying for the priesthood and was ordained.  

He discovered another aspect of humility: that humility isn't just simplicity and a love of being unknown or overlooked, but it is also accepting the path that the Lord has set for you.  Many saints found it painful that God had fore-ordained that they stand out as remarkable, or even obvious vessels of the Holy Spirit.  St. Philip Neri was so embarassed by his reputation for sanctity that he would play the buffoon, walking around Rome with his face shaven on only one side.  At holy mass, he was vexed by the divine love bursting from his heart, threatening to break out in mystical flight, so he would interrupt mass to brush his teeth or offer a silly joke.  Poor Blessed Charles is now numbered among the eminent and celebrities.  Recently a letter of his was offered up for auction, alongside letters from Einstein, Picasso, Beethoven and a slew of papers from presidents and famous generals.  The letter sold for $1,300 (commission included).  The priest who was the original recipient of the letter had kept it as a keepsake and wrote a note on the bottom:

"An encouraging letter--and from such a saint!"

Alas, the hardest humility: accepting that God will not give you the lowliness you crave.  Fortunately, I don't think any of us will have to pass that test!

In the spirit of outing priests as holy, listen to my favorite sermon on St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. The priest is Fr. James Gordon FSSP.  He has a remarkable understanding of the spiritual life for a younger man, clearly a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Two of his brothers also belong to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP).  Contemplative in the Mud has lately been featuring some mind-blowing observations from St. Paul of the Cross.  Here is a favorite:

Blog Maintenance: Lost Comments

I've had at least three people tell me that their submitted comment never showed up on the blog.  The comments never showed up in the moderation queue, and so they must have disappeared into cyberspace.  I've since removed the moderation feature, and so I hope that gets us around the technical glitch.  If your comment was not published in the past, I assure you it was just a website malfunction.

Monday, April 25, 2016

This Is How To Do It

I'm always eager to share the little seeds or little works of the Holy Spirit wherever I find them.  Whether they are unexpected conversions, grace-filled stories or fledgling institutes and apostolates.  I was recently edified by reading about the St. Thomas Aquinas House in inner-city Detroit.  It's a community of young men who live together, chant parts of the office, share catechesis and training in the old mass, and engage in door-to-door evangelization.  They are religious brothers (called "canons") who take vows, and there is the opportunity to study for the priesthood for those who are called.  I know the area they serve, as I returned to the faith in 2007 through a church they serve at, St. Josaphat's.

Now that's what I call a church!

If the Canons of St. Thomas Aquinas had been at St. Josaphat's back in 2007/2008 I might have tried to join them, or at least I would have followed them around like a lost puppy.  You see, in the first years after my conversion I was basically on my own.  I felt God's closeness, but I never found a priest who could take me under his wing, nor did I find any peers to share the labors in the walk with Christ.  Perhaps I was meant to be alone so as to cling ever closer to Jesus, but that's not God's usual plan.  Since heaven itself is fellowship and union, God intends for us to walk in faith together here and now.  But this is especially difficult for young men, who often have an independent spirit and don't see their place in graying parishes with few of their peers.

Yet there are few things more considerable than a band of young men joined together in a common purpose.  I learned this lesson in a maximum security prison where I witnessed dangerous convicts brought together in peace (more or less) under the "convict code": a shared worldview of discipline, justice and brotherhood.  The convict code made prison bearable and safe (at least for those who adhered to the code), and it laid the groundwork for deep friendships.

God desires to bring young men together, and for a higher calling than mere convict justice!  I've noticed that a hallmark of many saints is that they served as a magnet for other young men.  There are the obvious examples: Sts. Francis and Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri in devastated Rome, and then lesser known examples like St. Paul of the Cross or St. Clement Hofbauer at St. Benno's in Warsaw.  Even as the founders became elderly (like Philip Neri and John Henry Newman) they continued to attract dedicated young men.  These fellowships produced many other saints since "iron sharpens iron", and the effects of their friendships even resound to our own day.

The Canons Regular of Thomas Aquinas on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land

I'm grateful that the archbishop of Detroit and other good bishops have welcomed new communities and new approaches to evangelization.  So long as they are deeply rooted in the Church and her wisdom throughout the centuries, they will bear fruit.  Some are unconventional like Fr. Jacques Philippe's Community of the Beatitudes or the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles (which I wrote about here) or even this little apostolate.  The Church has many great needs today, and in many places she is looking out upon a "Devastated Vineyard" (to borrow the title from a Dietrich Von Hildebrand book).  Now is not the time to get in the way of the Holy Spirit!

The Canons of Thomas Aquinas have the right approach to re-seed the vineyard.  They offer the wisdom of a deep understanding of our faith, the courage to evangelize, the charity and solidarity of brotherhood, and the heavenly beauty of our ancient liturgy and arts.  May the face of Christ shine upon them!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fix Your Gaze on the Supernatural, Part II

If I wrote with conviction in the first part of this post, it's because I was leaning heavily on a remarkable dream from six years ago.  It has always struck me as more than just a dream--or else I wouldn't bother to write about it.  Though I was asleep, it was an experience of great clarity and vividness of color and image.  It also progressed at a patient pace, as though I was supposed to savor and remember every little detail.  Simply put, the whole experience felt as though God was showing me something.

The day of the dream had been a grueling one.  I had no children at the time, and so I was able to spend six hours outside of the Beaverton Planned Parenthood with the 40 Days for Life apostolate.  During those hours, we prayed, shared faith stories, talked to the curious, and absorbed the blows of the angry.  For whatever reason, those who resented us displayed even greater anger and confrontation than normal.  Even more sorrowful, several of the post-abortive women were visibly traumatized by their abortion.  One Indian woman pushed away from her husband and children and vomited in the bushes.  Another woman could barely walk, and her boyfriend, a successful-looking urban professional, looked simultaneously helpless and guilty.  I thought they looked like Adam and Eve, newly wounded, limping away from the Garden of Life.  I guess I felt helpless too, overwhelmed with the sin and suffering, and so the dream mercifully followed.

The dream began with a distant view of a knoll set in a fertile valley.  On the knoll was a glorified Christ, bloodlessly reigning from his cross.  I understood that the valley was lush and fertile only because His cross was planted there.  Then the image zoomed forward and I saw myself behind the cross, half sitting, half-reclining in his crucified shadow.  I hoped I would always remain there, in his refuge.  Then the view shifted, and I was looking out from my seat behind the cross.  I looked at the wood of the cross, smooth and strong, a tree like steel.  Then our Lord's powerful thigh was before my eyes.  It was tan and muscular like an ancient Roman sculptor's ideal, though Christ's body was not like marble but was coursing with life.

I desired to lift my gaze upward along Jesus' body, but couldn't do so.  All I was allowed to see was a leg.  Then my view was directed to the sky and great clouds assembled, covering every inch of skyline.  It began to rain, a torrent of drops drenching every thing in sight.  It continued to rain and rain and rain.  The drops dripped in steady beads from my brow and cascaded down the cross, forming streams down our Lord's leg.  I followed the stream down Christ's leg and saw something remarkable take place in the earth.

A myriad of rivulets were formed from the rain water, and moved with tiny purpose.  It was evident that this wasn't ordinary rain water.  All of my attention was now focused on the innumerable paths of the water. The water was patient, and able to work its way along every crack and crevice in the ground.  It wound its way past tiny pebbles, over gleaming minerals, and along hard or soft soil.  I thought of the Vidi Aquam: "I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple [Christ's body], and all those to whom the water came were saved."  Then I recalled St. Faustina's diary, and the Divine Mercy image of blood and water.

After watching the waters for some time, I looked up towards the clouds.  I knew the clouds would never stop pouring.  They would never empty or move on.  The rain drops glistened and fell like tiny parachutes.  They were uncountable, a superabundance of grace from heaven.  The world was saturated with grace, and nothing was untouched by Christ.

When I awoke, I regained my hope for the poor men and women I had seen leaving Planned Parenthood.  Their very misery was itself a grace trying to crack their hardened hearts.  Even vomiting in the bushes can be a grace!  I knew God would pursue them through every twist and turn of their lives, calling them back to Him.

I was sure that our Christian witness outside of Planned Parenthood was a little trickle of grace through many lives.  We might seem like failures at the purely natural level, and we won't know the fruits of our charity this side of heaven.  I was also grateful that the Lord was with the 40 Days for Life crew, placing his faithful witnesses in the shadow of his cross, where we reclined. We've taken blows from every side, but God is with us.  We know that to many of our fellow catholics and even clergy, we are an embarrassment, an expression of "zealotry" or an "imbalanced faith".  But that's okay.  One person's 'zealot' is another man's 'fool for Christ'.  Perhaps it's time for the critics to put on their supernatural glasses.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fix Your Gaze on the Supernatural, Part I

During the nine years since my conversion (how time flies!), I have always returned to One Big Idea: the pre-eminence of the supernatural over the natural; or the notion that the real action, the real narrative of our lives takes place at the supernatural level.  This idea flies in the face of contemporary wisdom.  Whereas the Catholic Faith was once at the center of how people understood their world (with concepts like grace, sin, providence, intercession, atonement), it has been surrendered to the margins.  We now go about our lives in our ordinary way, feeding the demands of the body and skimming the surface of life.  Meanwhile God seems to play the good Deist, rarely intervening from his hidden heaven, though he might show up when there's a crisis or at death.

It's very easy to slide into the naturalist trap, reducing life to the things of the senses, riding the great carnival of modern life.  I was once a doggedly naturalist doctoral student whose guiding light was the materialist and skeptic, David Hume. My dissertation was an attempt to vindicate David Hume's "evolutionary" account of the purely natural origins of justice by examining how norms of convict justice (the "convict code") developed in prison.  That's a complicated way of saying that I didn't think we needed God for anything, not even a grounding in ethics!  Yet only God's grace could turn a die-hard naturalist into a zealot for the unseen kingdom of God, and this is a lovely joke to God and a soar-spot to demons.

In point of fact, there can never be a purely natural account of human affairs since our lives are drenched in the supernatural: we have eternal souls that are simultaneously distorted by original sin and yet hard-wired to seek God or at least shadowy idols.  Every day we experience both divine grace and demonic temptation.  Some of us are transformed by grace going from "strength to strength" while others fall into a labyrinth of the Devil's own making.  Since it's easier to see with the eyes of the body than the eyes of faith, we miss these truths because God has us work out our salvation amidst the noisy, humdrum world.  Yet it is God's genius that he bestows his grace in the contours of our material lives, along a subtle providence that is often missed.

Grace is everywhere, if you look for it.

Even after my conversion, I clung to some naturalist prejudices.  Naturalism dies hard.  Actually, it brings death with it. Many religious orders have now died or are dying because they took a naturalist turn some fifty years ago.  They came out of the cloister, became more "active", ignored their Divine Office and prayer (since the effects of prayer are usually unseen), they focused on socio-economic/structural causes of human misery instead of personal sin, etc.  They told classic naturalist stories like re-interpreting the feeding of the five thousand as a "miracle of sharing" rather than a miraculous multiplication of food by the Incarnate Word.  They stopped using supernatural words like "sin", and spoke of how "values" change (they usually meant sexual ethics) as conditions change and people come to a "greater understanding".  The Jesuit order has been typical of the "naturalist turn", and their order has been cut in half in the last fifty years.  Meanwhile, those Jesuits who remain average somewhere between 65-70 years of age.  By contrast, read this sermon from a growing religious order full of remarkable young men.  It might be the best sermon I've ever read, and it's a clarion call for living the faith with "supernatural glasses".  It also captures how street evangelists feel while walking a post-Christian city: "We are the Lord's gentle spies!"

Grace is Everywhere

Those with faith know that without God we can do nothing.  Take the other day for example.  While walking the streets in my tunic, a street-wise young black man approached me and said, somewhat embarrassed, "Hey, I know you don't know me and all, but can you pray for me?  I really need help with some things right now."  He told me his name was 'Merlin'. Now I believe that it was grace that gave Merlin the courage to stop and talk to me.  Why?  Because there were all sorts of natural barriers to dissuade him from making such a request.  Men don't like to ask other men for help--especially strangers.  Moreover, there is still an uneasy racial divide in this country, and it often leads to social discomfort or even suspicion. Finally, his request was an acknowledgment of weakness, a confession that "I can't handle my life right now". Nobody likes to ask a stranger for that kind of help!  Bless young Merlin for responding to God's prompting, and may he go from grace to grace.

I witnessed another work of grace during the Mass of the Lord's Supper, on Holy Thursday.  I have a 13 month old baby boy, Gabriel, who loves to watch people, but he is shy and doesn't like to be held or touched by "strangers".  He even used to wail in fright whenever the poor priest would reach out his hand in a blessing.  After I received communion on Holy Thursday he wanted to see the Good Shepherd statue in the back of the church.  I lifted him up for a look, and he stretched out in delight, grasping the hand of Jesus.  Then he leaned in three times and kissed the hand.  My wife and I were stupefied.  But little Gabriel wasn't done yet.  Then he stretched further up and kissed the face of Jesus several more times.  Finally, he brought us back down to earth by moving over to the lamb on Jesus' shoulder and declaring, "Kitty cat."  He thinks all animals are kitty cats, and it's one of the few words he can say.  While not everything "out of the mouth of babes" is reliable, Gabriel gave us a lesson in child-like wisdom and tenderness.

He greeted Jesus with a kiss of love

Sometimes grace can be painful.  Take the example of my recently deceased grandmother.  Before her sudden death, God gave her two important graces to try to win a repentance of heart.  You see, Grandma (and Grandpa) was not a lovely person.  She was estranged from both of her children for decades.  She rarely had a generous word for others, and liked to say things like, "I LOVE money.  I simply love money."  She could be a bold sinner. A few months ago I mailed her a relic card of St. Charbel blessed in holy oil from a recent tour of his relics.  She gave back the card with a tart remark, "I don't like beards."  You get the idea.  Yet God pursued her to the end, as He always does.  First, he arranged that their wallet was stolen or lost when a furnace repairman visited the house.  This sent my grandparents into bizarre, paranoid fantasies that the repairman was going to return to the house to finish the job: stealing their car, jewelry, mink coats and more.  Things got worse when I reported the lost wallet to the furnace company.  Now they imagined the repairman would return and burn their house down out of vengeance, or "throw acid" in my grandmother's face. Somewhere in this terrible farce was a great grace: God was letting my grandparents stew in the effects of their grave sin.  He was asking them: "Do you really want to spend eternity like this?  In paroxysms of anxiety, alienation, recrimination, hatred and terror?  That is what Hell is like, and that's what you have chosen so far."  Grandma eventually got the idea and began to take stock of things.  Then she was given another grace: her sister (who also worshipped mammon) unexpectedly died.  This shook her again, leading to another round of soul-searching.  Finally, she also died unexpectedly, though we all assumed she would live another 15 years.  God had gone out of his way to win her back, even though she didn't deserve it.  Grace is like that.  Love is like that.

To be continued...