Attention is love

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In the mid-twentieth century, there was a writer named Simone Weil, a physically frail woman who suffered from intense anxiety. She worried she didn’t measure up, that her writing wasn’t good enough, that she was unimportant, that she was wasting her potential. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, she fled to a monastery in a small town in France called Solesmes. While there, she listened to the monks sing their daily prayers, later writing that because of a week-long splitting headache, “each sound hurt…like a blow.” But she forced herself to continue to engage in the devotions and was rewarded. Eventually, she says, she was able to, “rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a perfect and pure joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words.”

Amid the frenzy of the world and her own interior anxiety, she encountered a calm, deep, patient love; the love of the monks as they devoted themselves to God and the love of God as he permeated the monastery. It was here in the womb of the Church that Christ entered her previously non-religious soul.

A friend visiting the monastery with her explained that the sacraments of the Church are love incarnate, and they re-make those who receive them. He showed her a poem by George Herbert about God’s undying love. To focus her attention, she would recite it to herself when she was in the midst of health issues and in pain until the poem blossomed into a prayer and an intimate encounter with Christ, which greatly surprised her. She says, “I had never foreseen the possibility…of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.” For the rest of her short life, her entire demeanor changed. She had encountered God’s love and it changed her. All she needed was to come to a full stop in some holy place and pay attention.

The passage of time is uncanny, one minute you’re in high school and the next you’re celebrating the birth of a grandchild. One moment you’re dating the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen and the next you’ve celebrated your 50th anniversary with her. I wake up each morning at 6am and make a cup of coffee so I can sit on the porch and listen to the crickets for a few minutes. I get excited because, even though I’ve said thousands of them, I know I get to come to Epiphany and say another Mass. It’s a simple ritual to sanctify the day, and it means everything to me, because without it I have trouble coping with how fast life is slipping away. That simple act of coming to Mass each morning sanctifies the time and helps me to bring God with me throughout the day.

A friend of mine talks about sitting at a red light each morning on the way to mass. She says, “Each morning I see the same bent over, elderly man with his Quik Trip coffee cup make his way painfully across the street. He is clearly suffering pain in his legs, but he keeps going. All the cars are moving and turning and rushing past him, their drivers thinking their own thoughts. This is how suffering is. We always think martyrdoms are glorious affairs. But dying is a lonely business: whether you are dying to your selfishness, or suffering physically, or in the final breath. It’s this amazing heroic thing going on in…a world too busy to be amazed.” Even this – a man with his gas station coffee – even this is worth the attention we might give to it because it can unlock a profound meditation on the nature of life.

In the book of Wisdom, we are confronted with a series of questions. How do we know what God wants of us? How do we hear his voice? What are his plans for us? You can hear a hint of anxiety in the writing – perhaps I’m coloring the text with my own concerns – but certainly it has always been true that the search for God has been a relentless wrestling match with doubts, uncertainty, and the feeling that we are all treading water in the open sea with no land in sight. The medicine is the same as it is for for Simone Weil, even if it is through gritted teeth and a splitting headache, pay attention to the beauty of God breaking through seemingly ordinary objects and people. Every single created thing is embraced by the love of God and if he had to he would die daily for each of his creatures. And if we are patient enough to recognize that love, it will embrace us, too.

When St. Paul writes his letter to Philemon, he does so because Philemon’s runaway slave has found St. Paul and begged to not be sent back into slavery. St. Paul appeals to love, because love is a more accurate insight into the true nature of things than pure reason. In the end it isn’t necessarily the smartest person who becomes the saint, it is the one who loves. And it isn’t the most educated person who is most wise, it is the person whose love has allowed them to pay attention most intently. If Philemon had demanded his slave back, according to Roman law he would have technically been “right,” but then again, we all know he wouldn’t actually have been right. It is love that reveals this distinction. Look again, says St. Paul, see more accurately, you may lose a slave, yes, but you will gain a brother.

Where is it that we need to take a second look, a better look? A more generous look?

People who are in love pay attention. A mother stares at her baby for hours and takes note of every little feature, every sigh, every hiccup. When we have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament here, it isn’t unusual that people will simply kneel in silence and look at Jesus very closely and very carefully. They are paying attention because they are in love.

If you feel like you are carrying a cross, carry it with love. If you are trying to curb a bad habit, or simply improve each day as a parent, a spouse, a friend, the energy to do so is motivated by love. Authentic and pure values – truth, beauty, and goodness – are the result of one act, the act of paying full attention to the object and seeing it, perhaps for the very first time, just the way God sees it. St. Paul says that if Philemon will welcome Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother, he will in fact be welcoming St. Paul himself. How much more so is it true that, when we put our anxieties behind, put our own thoughts and concerns behind to welcome and cherish what God has given us, welcome the people he has placed in our lives, then we are welcoming God himself. After that, it’s impossible to see anything the same way ever again.

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I know how to be arrogant, but how can I be humble?

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St. Peter meets ultimate humiliation

All my life, I have had one, not very secret vice – Arrogance. I’m one of three brothers, each of us more competitively arrogant than the next. Our poor mother doesn’t know what to do with us. My oldest brother will say how he’s starting to get in shape, and I’ll say big deal I road my bike 80 miles yesterday, and my younger brother will say he road his bike 100 miles yesterday up a mountain in California and was the fastest one up it and no one will ever be faster or stronger than him. Whatever needs to be done, whatever the skill or task is, my brothers and I will guarantee you we can do it better than anyone. If you’re listening closely right now, you may have noticed that I’m actually bragging about how arrogant I am. You might think it’s because I’m humbling myself, but actually I’m willing to share embarrassing facts about myself because I’m unreasonably self-confident. It’s layers upon layers of irony.

What I’m saying is that I’ve had a lot opportunities in my life to think about humility, particularly when my pride hasn’t – frequently – matched my lofty expectations. Here’s how our reading from the book of Sirach begins: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility.” In the Gospel, Our Lord says, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled.” So we know that humility is important. It’s so important that Our Lord goes on, “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” In other words, unless we get serious about developing the virtue of humility, we are in danger of not making it to heaven.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “It belongs properly to humility, that a man restrain himself from being borne towards that which is above him. For this purpose he must know his disproportion to that which surpasses his capacity.” In other words, he’s saying that we all need to get real. Humility is the virtue of accurate insight, the ability to not think we are that which we are not. Most often, this means the honesty and discipline to restrain ourselves from thinking we can take God’s place, or that we are superior to other people by our very nature.

There’s this odd idea floating around that we are, in general, “pretty good people,” and that’ll get us into heaven. Thinking such a thing is unvarnished pride, because our effort is not enough. The scriptures are clear about that. St. Paul says, “For all have fallen short of the glory of God.” He is the creator of the entire universe, the source of his own being. He stands outside time and has no limits. That should give us some healthy perspective. At the very least, it reveals that the primary effect of pride is to shrink our world and imagination down to almost nothing, kind of how Satan proudly proclaims “I’d rather be king in hell than a servant in heaven.” There’s that Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have a person like me as a member.” It’s the same with pride; I wouldn’t be very interested in a world in which I was the best thing going.

If humility is the ability to not over-reach, it is equally true that it doesn’t make us less than we are. It’s not low self-esteem or negative thinking. More than anything, it’s authentic, true self-knowledge. A humble person doesn’t wallow in self-pity. Our Lord draws this out in the paradox that, if those who try to exalt themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted. Sirach says the same thing – the more humble you are, the greater you are. So, humility is not worthlessness. It is not grovelling at the feet of an angry God. It is an accurate assessment of ourselves. Honesty is vital, because without it, we may become convinced that we do not need God’s forgiveness and grace, that we are fine just as we are, that the sacrament of confession is not for us, that our own choices take precedence over God’s precepts. And so we muddle on, and all we have is ourselves.

Fulton Sheen warns, “If we are filled with our own importance, then we can never be filled with anything outside ourselves.” Humility is the condition for breaking out of our limited, interior world and out into the infinite life that God has in store for us.

I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet I’m very fond of, who was so interested in discovering God’s presence that he would bend down and examine a leaf for hours, and sketch a raindrop in his notebook because the beauty of these simple things helped him know God better. People laughed at him and thought him very strange, but Hopkins was humble and all he cared about was encountering Christ. If it made him seem odd, well, his own reputation wasn’t so important. He wished to raise himself up, not against God, but to God. Humility made Hopkins a very happy man and a profound poet.

In order to discover the ladder to heaven, to uncover the reason the lilies of the field are beautiful beyond compare, to fulfill the nuptial desire in our deepest of hearts, to turn our soul fully to God, we must be very humble and very honest. So what is the truth about us? We are flawed. We are messy. We have all sorts of mistaken ideas about ourselves and our abilities. We do strange things that embarrass us when we look back. We grow and change, and have a long path to travel. It is also true that, in spite of this, God loves us with an undying love, and he will raise us up to a heavenly throne if we are humble enough to let him.

Humility is not mediocrity. It is asking God for help to achieve a heroic transformation, to reach for heaven and settle for nothing less. Our Lord has made the greatest act of humility the world has ever known. His death on the Cross is the path to his eloquent, festal glory – because he does it out of love. He suffers cruelty, violence, and the sting of death for us. Humility is not for our own greatness – that’s a byproduct – humility is for the sake of others. It is this connection with the divine love that makes it so vital, and why Our Lord speaks of it in such elusive terms. Think of others first, and all of heaven will be laid at your feet.

The tyranny of formlessness

download (3)When I was a child, I loved to watch Cardinal games at the old Busch Stadium. I really loved watching the Blues in the Old Barn; when they blew that foghorn after a goal, the entire, rusty structure would rattle and hum and you would feel it in your teeth. Sure, it was a rat-infested dump, but it was full of energy. Now as an adult, I have to admit I don’t care much for the new Busch Stadium. It seems like a nice enough place, the only way I can explain my distaste is that it isn’t where I watched baseball as a child. It isn’t where I saw Mark McGuire hit his 62nd home run. It isn’t where my grandparents bought me cotton candy. Sure, a normal person would get over it and start making new memories at the new stadium – and I admit I’m playing this up a bit – but it has been well established that I’m not a normal person.

It’s true, though, that we are creatures of habit. We attach memories and comfort to places we have been, or to the food that Grandma used to make at Thanksgiving that only she could make, and old family heirlooms that have seen better days. Within reason, there’s nothing wrong with this, because ritual is important.

I grew up in a Christian community that denied any sort of ritual in our worship. Our prayers were meant to be spontaneous, the length of the church service could vary wildly, the pastor might decide to sing one song or two or three. The idea was to listen to the Holy Spirit and be flexible. It made sense, except that, over time, I noticed each Sunday started to look more and more similar to the others and eventually a new liturgy had been created. While denying that we had a liturgy, we very clearly did. Again, creatures of habit.

Nevertheless, I didn’t realize what I was missing until I encountered the Mass. I was amazed at how structured it was, how everyone knew when to stand, when to cross themselves, when to sit. The Mass is ritualized, dense with signs and symbols and traditional forms. The fact that Mass is very formal, that it is repetitious and repeatable is not a weakness, it is a strength. What I noticed is that, once I understood – now I cross myself, now we stand and say the creed, this is what I do and it is what everyone else is doing – once I realized that, it set me free to pray with no self-consciousness. We are a community at prayer, and our individual prayers mingle seamlessly with the liturgy because we have a shared language.

I’m on the editorial board of a literary magazine called Dappled Things, and I read poetry submissions from writers who would like us to publish their work. The first thing I look for is some sort of form to the poem, a structured approach like meter, a cohesion of theme, and I even like if poets are old-fashioned enough to attempt rhyme. There are many recognizable forms that poems can take, and it’s exciting when poets work within a form, because it means they are disciplined, that they are attempting to communicate. They are reaching out in friendship to create a space in which two minds can meet and interact.

The book of Hebrews teaches that God allows us to endure trials because those trials help us to discipline ourselves. They bring clarity to our faith by refining it. It isn’t the easiest way. Although the burden of Our Lord is light, it is still a burden, and he insists that the gate to heaven is narrow, meaning that there are specific criteria, a specific pattern of life that fits the lock to the door. So, our faith is not formless. Quite the opposite, it is the very process of bringing out the poetry of your soul, that hidden beauty that lies within, of being formed into the image of Christ. By that I don’t mean that we are all becoming the same – the closer we get to Jesus the more uniquely ourselves we actually become – but we are entering into a dialogue with God, speaking a shared language. God has given us the Mass and the sacraments as part of our ordinary lives. They redeem us, not by means of some extraordinary, highly emotional, unrepeatable action, but they effect us on a daily basis, in everything we do, in myriad small ways that are repeatable and become part of who we are, but for all that they are no less miraculous.

This is counter-intuitive in today’s society, where the prevailing opinion is that we do not need to conform to any criteria, that there is no objective standard of judgment by which we can say the gate to heaven is narrow. That gate has more or less been torn from its hinges.

Here’s the funny thing about the whole, “I’m spiritual but not religious, don’t judge me, everything is okay,” crowd. For them everything is formless, sin doesn’t exist – until it does. For instance, my dear alma mater, Yale University, has fallen entirely into the creed of formlessness at all costs, insisting that everything goes. Except that everything doesn’t really go, it’s just that the rules are now secret. How do you know what they are? You don’t until it’s too late. The Yale newspaper recently published an administrator’s old Yelp Review that was distasteful and they got her fired. This is the type of crowd that will dig up something you said twenty years ago, an opinion you used to have that was wrong but you’ve changed your mind, and it turns out what you said is unforgivable. We see it happen with public figures all the time.

The Church, these same people say, is too insistent on sin. Yes, we are clear that sin exists, that there is a formal structure to our relationship with God. There are certain expectations. If you were to ask me if such and such action was a sin, if I think it is I will tell you it is. If you ask me what happens when we are in mortal sin, I will tell you that it separates us from God and places us in danger of hell. But you know what? In the Church, everything is forgivable. Every single wicked, wrong, selfish, embarrassing thing we’ve done in our lives, God cannot wait to forgive us.

We don’t always see it this way, though, because spiritually we fall into a childish attitude. We rebel and refuse God’s discipline. The formal nature of the faith, the expectations God has for us become a burden that we hesitate to carry. It doesn’t always seem fair and we ask, “Why me?” But those expectations from God, even if they seem limiting, they are what set us free. The discipline that God is asking of us touches on his belief that we can be so much more. It is his way of saying – You are worth it.

So don’t give up. He never gives up on us, so he never stops trying to form us. It’s frustrating, but it’s a real compliment. When God makes that big ask of you, be ready. Be present in your discipline. Remember your calling. Be grateful for it. Cherish it and make every effort to enter through that narrow door.

We’ve broken our toys and are tired now

download (4)If you’ve raised children, you may remember playing out a particular scene. The child is wandering aimlessly around the house, complaining. If he’s a boy, he’s probably breaking random things out of boredom. Maybe he’s outside smacking a tree with a stick, or staring aimlessly into the bird-bath. You point out to the child that he is very blessed with material wealth. That he is surrounded by toys, by bikes and games and building blocks, but the child is bored with those toys. The child demands new toys. Expensive toys.

It’s a metaphor that the poet EE Cummings picks up and applies to all of us, writing:

You have played,

(I think)

And broke the toys you were fondest of,

And are a little tired now;

Tired of things that break, and—

Just tired.

So am I.

Even as adults, we still desire toys, right? I’ve gone through phases where I’ve been very into buying and tinkering around with vintage audio equipment, racing bicycles, bow ties, antique musical instruments, and always books. More books. I’ve become interested in lots of other obscure byways and hobbies, but the point is, it’s all toys.

There are a couple of ways to look at it. The first is that life is super interesting and lots of things are worth our attention. There’s something precious about all the unique, fascinating inventions and hobbies and interests that humanity gets involved with. It’s a creativity that participates in God’s creative desire. But, the other way to look at it is that, if we throw ourselves into obsession over toys, over material possessions and entertaining distractions, perhaps we are seeking to avoid reality, to forget about ourselves, our old sadnesses and disappointments, discontent with how life is going.

All our best toys have worn thin, and now we are tired – tired of pretending that this stuff is important when in fact we are bored, tired of pretending they give our lives meaning when in fact they are broken. A sense of weariness exudes from it. There are a lot of desperate people out there convincing themselves that life is nothing more than a six-pack of beer and possessing the next-best-thing and obtaining whatever shiny new toy is trendy. Just stay busy, don’t rest for even a moment to look at what is happening inside.

This is what St. Paul is talking about when he says, “let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” There is a spiritual weariness that brings us to a halt when we get wrapped up in our own issues, when we start looking to the world instead of to God. Attachment to the things of this world creates tiredness, it weighs us down. This is precisely the danger that Our Lord seeks to free us from. He brings fire, a drastic intervention to shake us loose from the status quo. He doesn’t come to bring superficial peace, to lull us into complacency, that is precisely what he is fighting against. It is easy to be mediocre, but God doesn’t want us to be mediocre. It is difficult to rise to a challenge, but in the end it is worth it because we were not made to be subject to this world, but to rise above it and find our eternal home in heaven.

The life that God would give us is abounding but also demanding. If we look beyond the shiny new toy, even if faith appears in contrast to be mere dutifulness, a dried up denial of life, and we practice our spiritual journey, and take our place in that great communion of saints, and keep our eyes fixed firmly on Christ, in an unexpected moment when we’re least looking for it, you suddenly lift up your eyes to the hills and your soul breaks open into sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be.

The problem we run into is that, in between the place where we are and the rewarding place we never quite expected but that God does promise, lies the place we don’t want to be. This is where we stay a while, in a habitation of difficulty. We must fight to make it through, fight for peace, fight to overcome weariness.

Faith can never be the shiny new toy. It is much more substantial than that. But it’s in the effort that saints are made, and eternal, lasting happiness is discovered, and weariness and boredom left behind. If we put in that effort, Jesus promises that he will meet us right where we are and by his grace we will push through to the other side. The world tried as hard as it could to break Jesus on the Cross and it could not be done, because our God is so much stronger. So no matter how you feel, you are safe in his hands, because this life that God has called us to is different and larger and so much more exciting than we could ever have dreamed.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin unlocks the key to our spiritual lives

download (3)St John, in soaring, poetic language, describes the Blessed Virgin having risen like the moon to her place in heaven among the sun and stars. There are some seemingly contradictory details, in which he talks about her glorious assumption but how she also experiences ongoing labor pains, meaning that Mary is both in heaven but also somehow still making her way on earth in a somewhat difficult way. She is both exalted Queen and our sorrowing mother.

In this vision of St. John, we have unlocked for us the secret to our spiritual lives, which is that we are simultaneously assured that we will one day enter heaven and we have already received it through grace, but at the same time we are journeying towards that goal and have not yet achieved it. It’s what Our Lord means when he says that the Kingdom of Heaven is already here and is yet still arriving. We have a yearning and a desire for heaven, but are still working out with fear and trembling how to fulfill that desire. In this journey, Our Blessed Mother accompanies us every step of the way. For she is the Church. This why the Church is perfect in her magisterial teaching office and in her dispensation of grace through the sacraments, and it is why she is imperfect in her members. The Church fully of the earth and she is fully of heaven. The arrow, though, is pointing in only one direction, and that is towards her fulfillment.

As mother, the Church is constantly bringing forth Christ. In the midst of a world that is dying daily, the Church stands as a sign of contradiction. The world stands for cheap thrills, greed, a disposable attitude towards the environment and our fellow human beings, pleasure at all costs, and ultimately all of this is a veneer on an empty and vain existence. The Church, however, is the very principle of generation. She is life. She is birth. She is present at the side of Christ and dispenses his graces to us. Each sacrament that she provides is a mysterious borderline, an eternal womb, a sun rising over the horizon and dispersing her light on the nations. Because of this, the Church does not look like the world, rather she stands within the world beckoning us to be born again and live a new, different sort of existence.

So what does this mean for us? It means that in this life, if we suffer, Mary still suffers with us, the Church suffers with us. If we find ourselves at odds with a prevailing culture that has given up on life, that has given into superficiality and dishonesty and is running scared at the thought of looking reality in the face, that same culture is also at odds with Mary, so she knows exactly how you feel. If we feel lonely and abandoned, she will gather us up into her arms. It also means that, if she is the luna sancta, the sacred moon, and she shines brightly by reflecting the sun that is the glory of God, we too will shine ever more brightly the closer we get to Jesus. Our suffering in this life is intimately connected with victory in heaven, because that suffering has already been assumed, already crowned with her glory, and laid at the feet of Christ in the heavenly throne room. Your everyday concerns, your challenges, your joys, your responsibilities, all of these are gathered up by Mary and have already been presented to Christ. You know how a mother saves the little drawings and crafts that he children give her? And how to her, they are a great treasure? That is how Mary is, she saves up all of our halting attempts at love, our little gifts to God, and she unites them with God’s unquenchable and irrepressible love. Our everyday small, everyday victories are given eternal significance, because God’s love runs through this life from bottom to top, like a red thread through the rows of generations, through every single person. God really cares about you.

Every day, we fulfill the mystery of the Incarnation, both walking this earth and seeking the vision of the presence of God. Mary and her Blessed Assumption is God’s way of showing us that what we strive for now will become reality if we remain in his grace.