Friday, October 31, 2014

Not Very Scary. Just Sweet!

We still have two tricky treaters, but they're not going to scare anybody. Teresa is dressed respectfully in a manner inspired by various traditions of Native American women (and she had a lot of fun putting it all together). And Josefina is a French chef, with a pot to collect treats.

On this All Hallow's Eve, our girls are -- one could say -- presenting themselves as two regular people, like millions and millions who have walked the earth, longed for glory, and found the fulfillment of their hope. But I'm not going to get all theological here and spoil the fun.

May all the holy Native Americans and all the holy cooks watch over them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Runs Its Course

As October runs its course, Autumn colors are in the fullness of their flair. Autumn sunsets light up the sky in the early evening, as the days grow brisk and shorter.

Mornings also have their glories along the Blue Ridge, in the Shenandoah Valley, with angles of sun on the mountains and woods of bright leaves:

Full daylight brings out all the variety right here in our neighborhood in town:

It's a glorious celebration of exuberant color:

And bright fire warms the air in the countryside after nightfall:

As the days and weeks near the end of another year, we look forward to our preparations for a beginning that is ever new:

"The Word was made flesh...." Annunciation (from Atrium tracing card)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Remembering Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, Mentor and Friend

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete's funeral was celebrated yesterday in New York.

Sadly, I'm in no condition to travel. But thanks to a memorial page on Facebook, I've been able to participate in something like a "virtual wake" with testimonies and pictures and videos from all over the country.

I have read so many moving stories over the past four days. People have recalled the first time they met Lorenzo Albacete and the impact he had upon their lives. They have all remarked upon his love for life, his freedom, his joy, and of course his unparalleled sense of humor. For many, he was instrumental in their encounter with Christ through the charism of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, wherein he had found his spiritual home.

For me it was wonderful over the past twenty years to see his own profound personal charism enlarged and made so abundantly fruitful by being inserted within the charism of CL. It freed him to be a hundred times more himself (if that's possible to imagine) by lifting the profound melancholy burden of what had been his somewhat lonely sensibility and brilliance... or rather, transforming it more and more into an intense compassion.

As I look back over the years, I can't identify the "moment" when I first met this remarkable, unforgettable man. It's all blended into my original encounter thirty five years ago with the whole crazy, big hearted, tireless, exuberant, uncompromisingly Catholic crowd that founded Christendom College.

Lorenzo must have dropped in at some point in those days, or at least he was talked about and loved like an uncle in the family. At that time (the late seventies and early eighties) "the family" was a circle that moved through Washington, DC and the newly established Arlington diocese all the way out to this very Front Royal where I find myself today.
Albacete with Cardinal O'Malley: old friends

This past January, the annual New York Encounter featured a beautiful little "thing" (I don't exactly know what to call it. Lorenzo called it "the two bums"). Basically, it was an excuse for two old friends to shoot the breeze and share memories with the rest of us (I wasn't there, but I watched the video): Lorenzo Albacete and Sean O'Malley, friends for forty-five years.

It was a friendship that formed around the Hispanic Catholic Center in Washington, DC, and it had a place within the larger circle of offbeat Catholics in the city.

"Offbeat" is an understatement.

Lorenzo had cut his own teeth writing and editing for what he recently referred to as "the controversial but irresistible magazine called Triumph." This is a good characterization of a magazine, and a bunch of Catholic writers and social critics, who were outside of every box in that era (and this era too).

It's easy to dismiss Triumph as a little nutty, because, well... they were a little nutty.

Sometimes they were a LOT nutty!

But the Triumph bunch took the conviction that Jesus really is "King" (radically, as in Jesus is the concrete reason for everything), followed it through to even the most outrageous conclusions for politics and society, and tried to put it into practice (with their Summer Institutes in Spain, for example). There was an intuition at the center of it all, a mysterious grace, but it was so easy to forget it and be diverted from it by the upheaval of the times. Christ became rarefied in ideas, some brilliant and prescient, others distracted, confused, or preposterous. It was also too easy to turn Christ's lordship over all things into a moralistic program to be implemented by human efforts. (Nevertheless, years later, after he had joined CL, he said to me with a twinkle in his eye, but not enough to be entirely joking, "Ah, Triumph! Everything they predicted has come true!")

Needless to say, the magazine offended everyone on the American political spectrum, and rather relished doing it (too much, I think). But the wild, irresistible zeal of the Triumph circle was poured out in various ways, and matured into priestly vocations, educational institutions (like Christendom College), and dedication to works of mercy (especially among the Hispanic population).

It cannot be denied that Lorenzo and other young people in the late 1960's got a taste from them of a proposal for a life centered on the Incarnation and a passion for Christ living in the Church.

Cardinal O'Malley, who presided at his funeral yesterday, is one of a group of Lorenzo's oldest friends. There are others from that group, some of whom still have a hand in the workings of Christendom College, who remember him and have many hilarious stories from those early years. They are praying for him now.

I reflect on these old friendships of his not only to do justice to those who will always hold him dear, but also because I know these people. I know these friendships and how they came out of a context that was deeply formative of Albacete's faith, character, and vocation. One of the environments that emerged from this context still forms my daily life, even as I also approach 25 years as a member of Communion and Liberation.

Almost heaven, Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains, Shenandoah river....
I belong to the movement of the Servant of God Luigi Giussani. I also live in Front Royal, Virginia, as an emeritus professor of Christendom College, an institution that I helped to build (not only metaphorically but even physically, with hammers and nails). Now I'm helping my wife build another educational institution down the road.

The "Catholic tribe" of the Shenandoah Valley and the CL movement seem like two distinct "realms" that don't intersect, not only because they don't understand each other, but also because no one has the time to shuttle between the two. Each is a phenomenon with its own peculiar history, and nothing would be more artificial than for me to try to force one to "fit" the other, or to try to extricate myself from one for the sake of the other. I don't have to do either, because they are already united. They are really, truly united in Christ, in the Church. They are also united in me. I don't know what this means, other than it being a great reminder of my need to beg Christ for grace and mercy every day. And that is not a pious cop out. That is what I do... what Eileen and I both do together.

I am irenic by temperament and now disabled by circumstances, but I do not think that a lack of boldness or strength is the reason why I haven't caused a provocative ruckus all around. I am convinced that attempts of this kind would be violent. Rather, it is something I am called to suffer. And although I often fail and forget about it all, I am grateful for this call -- because it is a suffering for unity within the Church, among the members of Christ's body.

So why do I bring this up here? Because this is one of the reasons why Lorenzo was so dear to me: he understood the tension that I live. He understood it from within, and he challenged me to live all of its factors, to resist the temptation to reduce or escape from anything. He did this, ironically, by taking me seriously in my life, my work, and its challenges. He gave no grand discourses about this "problem." Rather, he accompanied me, simply, when we had discussions, or on the phone, in making decisions about my lectures, publications, and even taking trips (back when I was able to do that kind of thing).

He also helped guide me through another environment that we both knew well: the realm of academic theology.

Lorenzo and I really became friends during his years at the John Paul II Institute. I was already a graduate student at the Dominican House of Studies, at a time when lay theology students were unusual. The Institute invaded the public space of the Dominican House and set up a coffee lounge. I began to hang around with the other lay students who came. I even cross registered for some courses, thanks to which I had the amazing experience of having Lorenzo as a teacher. His combination of genius, awe inspiring expressiveness, and epic humor have not been exaggerated.

He spoke about the Trinity with such beauty and depth. There were times when I left the classroom thinking my head was going to explode, or rather my entire finite being! 

He would bring his presentation to a very powerful and sublime moment, and then -- with a twinkle in his eye -- break off, deepen the tone of his resonant voice, and utter a thunderous joke that, like all his humor, expressed the truth while also getting us to laugh... at ourselves. He would cry out:

                           Veil your faces before the Mystery!

It was a joke. But we were discussing the Mystery, as He revealed Himself. So it was funny and also, I would have to say, beautiful.

One time we decided to bring tissues or head coverings to the classes until a moment like that came. And when it finally did, we all pulled them out and covered our faces. And Lorenzo laughed. His laugh was funny in itself, and infectious. He loved a joke that turned around on him; indeed, he was ready to turn the humor on himself if no one else offered to do it.

He saw humor as a form of play, the innocent play that needs no justification beyond itself because it is a fundamental aspect of being. In an infinite, transcendent, supereminent way, God plays. He is play.

But I can't reproduce the atmosphere of the classroom here. I can only say that Lorenzo could bring me to a point where I was worshiping the Lord and laughing to the point of tears, simultaneously.

It was like a foretaste of eternal life.

I remember watching the friendship unfold between Lorenzo and "Don Angelo" Scola. He would go on about how "I am scheming for Scola to become Pope so that I can be made a Cardinal and get a cushy job in the Vatican!" Don Angelo was still just a priest at the time.

When Angelo Scola was first made a bishop, Lorenzo was even more mirthful. But I don't think any of us had any idea of how "hair-raisingly close" the papacy would come to poor Don Angelo. Indeed, at age 71 it cannot be said that Cardinal Scola has yet succeeded in escaping the possibility. Cardinal Bergoglio, after all, had already picked out his room in the nursing home in Buenos Aires where he planned on spending a quiet retirement.

In Washington, Lorenzo taught a course that Scola had designed, called Theological Foundations of Interpersonal Communion. This was fun. He would arrive, disheveled, sometimes twenty or more minutes late, with a fistful of scribbled papers. Of course we waited for him, because no one wanted to miss the show.

When he finally arrived, he would stare at his papers on the desk and scratch his head and say, "I know absolutely NOTHING about this course; I've shamelessly plagiarized it all from Angelo Scola!" He claimed that he needed to have long conversations on the phone with Scola the night before class in order to have the slightest clue over the topic to be covered. Of course, he would then put down his notes and embark upon his usual brilliant, riveting, and hilarious exposition.

During all this time, he found himself moving from being a "friend of CL" to being a member of CL without knowing exactly when it happened. Angelo Scola had led him to Giussani, who asked him to "help" the movement in America. I remember one year we had a "Hospitality Room" for CL at the hotel where the Bishops' Conference was having its annual meeting. Lorenzo would go down during the evening reception, and come back a few minutes later arm in arm with a bishop or a cardinal (or two) and of course they were laughing as they entered the room. We met a lot of bishops that weekend. He had am amazing conviction that something was really happening in the still young and fragile Washington CL community.

Then there was the time I introduced my fiancee to him at a dinner gathering. The very first thing he said to Eileen was, "Oh, you must develop a devotion to St. Rita of Cascia. She is the patroness of women with very difficult husbands!" He delivered this in a completely deadpan voice, but I laughed, of course. Only long after, when Eileen had grown to love him too, did she tell me that when he said that she did not get it... at all.... She thought, "who is this strange, insulting man?" I do believe, however, that it became clear to her before the end of dinner.

At the very beginning of this enormous post, I mentioned what had sometimes struck me as the "lonely sensibility and brilliance" that weighed on Lorenzo for a long time, but that grew into a great compassion in his later years. I know that he was a man who suffered much, even though he claimed that the only suffering he ever had to endure was finding a parking space.

We knew how much he loved his family, how he looked after his mother in the illness of her final years, and how he cared for his disabled brother with such love and attention. Though he never told me, I would not be surprised to find that he himself had some measure of interior familiarity with that "dark night" which is not primarily mystical but rather the fruit of a large complex brain and a perceptive spirit, joined together in the human person who can't avoid experiencing the high grandeur and the deep misery of life.

He never told me anything about this, but whatever may be the case, I always felt that he looked upon me in my frailty with immense tenderness.

I could keep going here, but I think Lorenzo wants me to wrap up this gig and get this out before everyone gets tired of his "virtual wake" (after all, there's no food or drink at this thing).
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the soul of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.
It's hard just to realize that he is no longer on this earth. No matter how great our faith, we still can't help missing the person. I'm a little surprised by my own grief, but Lorenzo refuses to allow me to "cheat" or evade that experience. I must embrace the whole reality: the sorrow, the hope, the confidence, the prayers, the memories, and the humor that pervades everything like the first light of the dawning resurrection -- which is the hope of us all.

Here are a few of his words about grieving and suffering:

Grief is the crying of the heart, and the human heart will resist being soothed by ideas and abstractions.... I am consoled by the Book of Job, which derides those who tried to explain Job's suffering to him. God does not seek to console him; He just shows up, and this is enough. It was not explanations Job wanted, but solidarity, compassion, love.
I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence so to speak. I can only accept a God who “co-suffers” with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Eight Year Old Half-Pint

It's hard to believe it was eight years ago that Josefina Janaro was surprisingly born (she wasn't expected until December). She was a tiny preemie who needed surgery (and then more surgery and seven months in the NICU). How grateful to God we are that she made it! Contrast these pictures: Josefina, eight years ago in the NICU (a few weeks old), and then today. She's still tiny, but she's doing great. You've come a long way kiddo! (And so have we all.)

You're old enough to help prepare your own birthday dinner:

And to adapt the recipe of the famous Jacques Pepin for your birthday dessert: Chocolate mousse cakes with apricot jam and whipped cream. [And something that Josefina calls "corn-yak." I think she means cognac.]

As for presents? It looks like Christmas around here!

Josefina has fun with her Uncle Walter... and her presents!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

He Rescued Us

I belong to the generation that spanned the entire pontificate of the man we now know as St. John Paul II. Even now, I speak about "Pope Benedict" and "Pope Francis," but when I say the Pope I mean John Paul II.

In fact, for our generation he was always more than "just a Pope." Through him, Jesus grabbed hold of our minds and hearts. We went from being confused and weak to being convinced and ardent. John Paul II evangelized and catechized us. He showed us the face of Jesus.

It was a face we desperately needed to see.

Growing up in the 1970s was very difficult, and few of us came through unscathed. We were the children of the 60s, of all the upheaval and reevaluation that opened up in those times as the last rotting support beams of what had once been the edifice of the "modern world" gave way in dramatic fashion.

And when those last walls fell we found ourselves surrounded by fascinating and terrifying instruments for exercising power over the material world -- power to communicate and learn, to build and heal in remarkable ways, power to move from one place to another, power to manipulate our own bodies, power to shape our imaginations and those of others and to foster great illusions, power to expand our horizons and also to widen vastly the scope of self-indulgence and self-deception, power that opened up whole new categories of subtle psychological and emotional manipulation and violence, power for greater empathy and solidarity with others and also to destroy ourselves, one another, and our environment. All of this power was within the reach of our emerging personalities and freedom... a freedom that shivered in the winds of this strange new world, seemingly boundless but with no sense of direction, no idea which way to move or where to go.

So we experimented. We played with these powers like toys. We found good things and had beautiful experiences. We also did violence to ourselves and to one another; even as we worried about unspeakable weapons of mass destruction, we committed innumerable micro-atrocities that so many of us are still not ready to face.

Catholic Christians in the developed world in the 70s faced the same disorientation as the wider culture. The Church of Blessed Paul VI was heroic, but she was enduring a kind of martyrdom. She was a seed plunging deep into the earth, destined to bear tremendous fruit, but at that time far below the horizon of those of us who were thrown into the wild, primal seas of the new culture of power. We were desperate for a way to survive.

The amazing new world of possibilities and urges and speed and images was like a great flood. We couldn't direct it. We hardly knew what to do as it engulfed us. We had become lightheaded and out of focus, choking beneath the waves, dizzy from the lack of oxygen.

I can't express what St. John Paul II did not only for me but for our entire generation.

People have to understand: we were drowning, DROWNING, and he rescued us.

He showed us that we were human beings, and that following Jesus was the way to find our true selves. He held up to our gaze the image of Christ, the greatness of Christ. He convinced us that Christ could give meaning to our lives, that Christ was stronger than all the forces raging around us and within us.

With Christ, we could find the way to live in the midst of the flood, and even to walk on the water.

The Lord used St. John Paul II to rescue us. That is why my generation loves him so much, and why we will never forget him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Gaze of Love That Makes All Things Possible

I call this "21st Century Still Life."
Anyway, these are my riches, haha!
Jesus looked upon the rich young man, and loved him (see Mark 10:21). Then Jesus told him to sell all his riches, and follow Him.

If only the rich young man had not “turned away, sad, because he had many possessions.” If only he had cried out to Jesus: “Lord, how am I going to do that? I really like all of my nice stuff! How?!” That would have been the beginning of everything for him.

Jesus could have worked miracles out of that “how?”

Even a frustrated, confused, angry “how?”—as long as it is a real question and not a put-off or a self justification—carries within it a glimmer of awareness that Jesus is worth giving up whatever He is asking of me, or bearing whatever burden He has laid upon me.

I want to stay with you, Jesus. How? Help! I do not want to turn away from the face that “looks upon me and loves me.”

Of course, we do not know what happened in the end to the rich young man. Maybe he forgot about Jesus and joined the Pharisee party—after all, they claimed to love the commandments that he kept, and he only had to sell ten percent of his stuff and could still impress everybody by dumping sacks of money into the temple treasury.

Or, maybe one day he remembered the face of Jesus, and that look of love, and went out again in search of Him. How could he forget it? Jesus's “look of love” corresponded to the reason for which he was made. It corresponds to God’s gaze within the depths of the hearts of each one of us, which stirs us to enter into the dialogue of prayer, and which is the quiet light and gentle flame of the vocation to eternal glory given to each of us.

The rich man had turned away from Jesus, but Jesus had not turned away from him. “With God all things are possible,” Jesus told His disciples.

Maybe the rich man remembered the face of Jesus. And maybe he found Jesus again, later—during those wondrous days in Jerusalem after Pentecost. Maybe He experienced Jesus's loving gaze again, in the faces of His disciples.

Monday, October 20, 2014

All I Can Do is Offer

O God, I give thanks to You. How amazing is the design of Your wisdom for the human race. You have willed to manifest and glorify the Mystery of who You are by pouring Yourself out and becoming one of us. You dwell among us and give Yourself up entirely for each and all of us. You reveal that the Absolute Being is Absolute Love, and You offer that Love to each of us. In your wisdom you shape the hearts of each of us, fashioning us to be Your companions, making us capable of giving and receiving love and then placing Yourself in the midst of us so that we might love You and be loved by You and be transformed into Your likeness.

O Jesus help me.
All I can do is offer everything to You.
You have created me for Yourself.
My heart desires You,
and yet how often do I even think of what I do?
I am resolved to do the best I can.
I am resolved to seek Your will and to do Your will,
because Your will is Love,
and it will always be what will enlarge my soul,
and make me truly free,
because I am made for Love.
So I offer myself to You;
I abandon myself completely to You,
and to Your plan for my life.
I know there is weakness and resistance in me
that I do not know how to overcome.
I know there are ways I must grow that I do not understand.
I know that my life is a mystery 
hidden in Your wisdom and goodness.

O Jesus, I offer everything to You.
Convert me.
Change me.
Open my heart to the love You give me in this moment.
Carry my soul.
Give me, in Your Infinite Mercy, the willing heart
that loves You in the way You long for me to love You.
I am hindered from the freedom for which I have been made,
the freedom to live as the image and grow as the likeness of God.
And so I abandon myself entirely to Your Mercy.
For You have loved me first,
so that--by the power of Your love--I might love You
and receive You in giving myself to You.
Jesus I trust in You.
Jesus I trust in You, completely.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blessed Paul VI: The Joy of Christ

"May the world of our time,
which is searching,
sometimes with anguish,
sometimes with hope,
be enabled to receive the Good News
not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious,
but from ministers of the Gospel
whose lives glow with fervor,
who have first received the joy of Christ,
and who are willing to risk their lives
so that the kingdom may be proclaimed
and the Church established
in the midst of the world."

      ~Blessed Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 80

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Finding Mercy in Jesus

Mercy has been a topic of much discussion recently.

Sometimes it seems like we're trying to put "mercy" in a box and dole it out according to our own measure. This is an effort that cannot succeed, and it's just as well because our measure is so meager.

The mercy of other people is at best a sign and an instrument of the ineffable, overflowing mercy of God.

I trust in His mercy, because He knows me. In His mercy He knows the undying thirst of my soul; He knows my heart's longing in a way that I don't even begin to understand. I trust in Him to lead me to my destiny.

I trust in His mercy to give me what I need (because I don't know what I need -- I don't really know my true self). I trust in His mercy also to break off from me the things that keep me from attaining the real fulfillment for which I have been made, which is nothing else but Him.

I trust His tenderness and His gentleness, which endure even when all other affirmations or consolations are absent and I feel abandoned and alone. In this solitude I can only cry out to Him and long for Him in the firm conviction that He hears me, He wants me, and that the darkness and emptiness are the vast spaces of the mystery of His inexhaustible Heart that holds me.

He knows who I am, and He carries me in my suffering and accompanies me through all its depths. He has made those depths His own. His mercy is His brokenness on the Cross which He invites me to share.

The best way we can show mercy to one another is to help bear one another's burdens, to open our hearts to the mystery of the other person's suffering. This is what we need from one another. It is the way that we can discover the presence of Jesus in every person's life, not with condescension but with a great reverence for the person.

I must welcome this person, because this person is loved by Jesus. It is the great heart of Jesus that gives value and dignity to every person and to all our relationships. Whenever I speak to a person, my words should be shaped by the desire that Jesus come more fully to us both -- to heal us in His mercy and draw us together along the paths of His mercy.

As Pope Francis says, "We cannot trust in our own strength, but only in Jesus and in His mercy." Indeed, our strength is much too small to fathom the mercy of God. Our strength is too frail to bear His weakness on the cross.

Jesus, teach me to be merciful.
Have mercy on me.
Make me an instrument of Your mercy.

Jesus, I trust in You.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Don't Miss a Great Conversion Story This Month!

All Magnificat subscribers take note: There is a "Great" Conversion Story (really) between the prayers for Friday and Saturday (see pp. 263-264). I am greatly devoted to the lives and the work of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, and the story of their conversion over a hundred years ago remains moving and compelling today.

Of course, if you are not a subscriber to this wonderful journal, click HERE to find out more about it.

For the time being, I'll give you a break and just reproduce the pages of article below. I hope you are edified by this brief introduction (or review) of these dramatic events.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

More Than a Silver Lining

It's difficult to see things through the window in weather like this!

Rain, rain, rain.

My old bones don't like it much. But their complaints seem small as I look through the window and try to make out what's happening in the fog and the squall.

There are floods, and they are getting worse. And not just floods of rainwater in the Valley.

These are some hard days. The news is hard. Clouds keep gathering on so many fronts. What is happening in our poor world?

Perhaps we are going to learn in a more immediate way how much we all really do depend on one another.

The "human family" is not a cozy, tame little idea. If someone hurts, we all hurt. We can't escape this fundamental fact, no matter what happens in the crises that have gained our attention. Even if the immediate circumstances are resolved on all fronts, the human family already shares a profound bond of suffering. We all share a common affliction.

We also share a common hope.

We share a source of unity that is greater than everything that divides us -- greater than every fear.

I pray that I might remember this fact, and that it will change my mentality and transform my way of looking at the world and all of the problems and the dangers, and all the evil that has already been judged and vanquished.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Heart Does Not Die

People can ignore their hearts, or try to satisfy them in ways that don't work.

They can pretend to have achieved happiness on their own (inevitably narrow) terms, or they can try to cloud their perspective with apathy, narcissist self-indulgence, or cynical resignation.

Still, the heart does not die.

It wakes up again, sooner or later, and wells up with longing and with that insatiable thirst that dries up every illusion.

The One who sustains you every moment in your life is drawing your heart.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Earthen Vessels

"For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ. But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us" (2 Corinthians 4:6-7).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ah Goodbye, Baseball!

It was a very exciting baseball season, but alas, until March (or mid-February, if we're talking about opening of training camp) the ball will lie alone in the dry grass of winter, and so will my heart.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Remembering Words of Truth: An Unusual Rosary Story

In yesterday's post, I wrote about Mary's love, the little things of daily life, and the small beads of the rosary. If we learn from Mary's heart, and if we persevere in staying with those little beads — even in the darkest and most difficult times — we can be confident that Mary will work in our lives and in the world, helping God to overthrow the oppressors and lift up the lowly.

Mary's works often begin with silence and grow over time. And her love works itself deep into the earth, into circumstances.

It's often surprising to discover Mary's gentle hand and heart at work in unlikely places, through very humble people and their fidelity to those little beads.

I want to illustrate with the story of a prisoner in a deadly labor camp during a time when a violent ideology and a violent dictator sent millions of innocent people to their deaths.

This prisoner was an atheist. He had conceived the desperate hope that, if he survived, he would convey to the world the horror and the destruction of human dignity that took place behind the barbed wire. He wanted to remember the experience and give a testimony. But of course these prisoners  — barely living, on the verge of becoming corpses — were lucky to get bread; they certainly didn't have paper to write things down.

Perhaps he could "write things down" in his memory, and learn the words by heart. But how?

The atheist prisoner encountered something unusual in the prison camp. It sowed a seed in him. Here is what he said:
"I saw Catholics... busy making themselves rosaries for prison use. They made them by soaking bread, kneading beads from it, coloring them (black ones with burnt rubber, white ones with tooth powder, red ones with red germicide), stringing them while still moist on several strands of thread twisted together and thoroughly soaped, and letting them dry on the window ledge.
I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed one hundred beads in a ring... [and] with true brotherly love [they] helped me to put together a rosary such as I had described, making the hundredth bead in the form of a dark red heart.
I never afterward parted with this marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance.
I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my place of banishment, this necklace helped me to write and remember."
Thus, this atheist prisoner said "his rosary," and remembered — bead by bead — what he saw and heard and felt. He remembered the misery, but also the beauty that he discovered, the beauty of the transcendence of the human person. The most monstrous forces of power in this world could not erase this transcendence.

Catholic prisoners who had committed no crime, who had been rounded up like cattle along with many others and thrown into the jaws of death, were faithful to the rosary. They made coarse beads of dried bread for Mary, which meant  — of course — a little less bread for themselves.

Then a stranger came and asked for help, and they responded "with true brotherly love." And what was it that moved them to the effort to make that hundredth bead "in the form of a dark red heart"?

Perhaps it was because they loved him.

Surely, Mary loved him.

The atheist survived, and eventually wrote his 12,000 lines and thousands of pages more.

He also found God.

And he wrote the most monumental prison memoir of all time. Above all, he tore the mask off the face of Communism and revealed all its ugliness, but also its ultimate powerlessness. Years later he said, "One word of truth outweighs the whole world." Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke and wrote many, many words of truth. And the world of lies that was the Soviet Union shook under the weight of The Gulag Archipelago and heard the first rumblings of its own destruction.

The Lord "has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:52).

Solzhenitsyn, the former Marxist and atheist, eventually became an Eastern Orthodox Christian, which means that he learned to sing the Akathist and all the beautiful liturgical hymns honoring the Theotokos, Mary. He learned to pray the Byzantine "liturgical rosary" of litanies with its continual turning of the heart to the Mother of God.

Still, he probably never learned exactly how those Lithuanian Catholics in the Gulag used their precious bread beads. He may never have realized that the love learned on those beads led to the simple gesture of a gift with a dark red heart — a gift that helped him to survive and to hope and "to write and remember."

He did not know that Mary was his companion in those dark days of the Gulag. But it was Mary who heard the prayers of his comrades and sowed the seeds of truth in him.

This is only one of the countless little ways that Mary accomplishes her victory. She continues to work wisely and gently, working out the triumph of her mother's heart by leading her children to healing, renewal, and joy.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sowing the Seeds of Mary's Victory

The Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima, as guest
in our house in January of 2012.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and it is a wonderful occasion for celebrating this Gospel-centered prayer of simple gestures with beads and meditation with the mind and heart. It is an invitation to enter into Mary's school of prayer; to let her teach us how she accompanied Jesus through His life, death, and resurrection, and how she "treasured all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:51).

This day is marked in history by the successful defense of Christian Europe against the invading Turks in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Pope St. Pius V had asked everyone to pray the rosary for the success of this seemingly desperate enterprise that sought to prevent the ruthless invasion of Western Europe, and thereafter the rosary acquired a special relationship to Mary's maternal protection against the perpetrators of violence and oppression. She was given the title of "Our Lady of Victory."

At Fatima in 1917, the Mother of God once again proposed praying the rosary as the way to prevail over the unprecedented flood of horror and dehumanization that had already begun in Europe and the world, and that would dominate the 20th century.

She spoke too about her heart — the heart that had treasured everything and pondered and carried the whole world with Jesus on the Cross, the heart that suffered and remembered — her all-holy, immaculate heart.

This is the way to victory: the rosary and Mary's heart.

When we pray the rosary today, we may wonder what sort of "victory" we can hope for. The world is in turmoil, and Jesus and Mary are hard to find in our society, in the chaos that surrounds us and — let's be honest — swirls around inside of us, preoccupies us, makes us so often foolish, angry, afraid.

Have we been abandoned? Where is that maternal protection that we need so much? Mother Mary, have you left us alone?

No, she has not abandoned us!

She never gives up on any one of us, because she is our mother. She is with us even if we are sick with fever and cannot recognize her tenderness.

And she loves all her children. The world belongs to her, and she is hard at work for true peace. She is sowing miracles everywhere that will bear fruit in patience — miracles that begin like tiny seeds, like the beads of the rosary.

Our fidelity to those beads is crucial, however distracted we may be, however frustrated we may feel about our efforts to "meditate" (or even to stay awake), as long as we have the heart for it. We want to share in Mary's heart of love, at least a little bit, and then a little bit more, one bead at a time.

Our fidelity to those beads helps us to live the "beads of life," the smallness of love from one moment to the next. We take one bead with hope, and then the next bead... again, with hope.

That is how Love triumphs in the world.

Monday, October 6, 2014

How to Keep from Losing Heart and Giving Up

When I woke up this morning, I felt ready for the day – ready to accomplish all sorts of things. After one fix-it project, however, I was pooped and hurting. Back to bed.

I'm still having a tough time of it. And I wonder if I am losing heart.

It's in moments like these that Jesus asks me, “Do you believe in Me? Do you trust in Me? Do you love Me?”

I know that here my own particular wacky circumstances intersect with the drama of every person’s life. We all have this place where we suffer, where we face our own inadequacy, where we discover the smallness of our hearts and the pettiness of all our deeds.

And it is here that Jesus asks each one of us, in the most penetrating and poignant way, to believe in Him, to trust Him.

I do believe that He loves me, whatever darkness may surround me.

Why do I fail to entrust everything to this Great Lover? Why am I afraid? What more could He possibly do to deserve my trust?
Jesus, I entrust to You what seems so often to me to be such a complicated business, namely the abandonment of myself to You, the giving of everything over to You, the surrender of everything to You...even my weakness.
Jesus, I entrust "my-entrusting-of-myself-to-You" TO YOU!
That's an awkward way of putting it. But I'm sure He knows what I mean.

I will not give up. Even if I am broken, God is still God, and still Glorious – even more clearly so, for He shares in my brokenness. Here, more than anywhere, it is clear that He is worthy of all my love. He has proven Himself. Thus, in every circumstance – even in the face of the prospect that I have nothing to give, that I am worthless, that all my aspirations in life may end in failure – the only reasonable possibility for me is to love God.

So even if I am nothing, I still want to love Him. I beg that I might be able to love Him.

From nothing, God creates, God brings forth life. Jesus I trust in You. Convert me. Conquer me. Recreate me in Your merciful love. Give me a new heart.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Human Vitality of St. Francis

The feast day of the incomparable Saint Francis of Assisi brought beautiful Autumn weather with it this year.

We have a cheap statue of St. Francis on the front porch, and I took some pictures and then fooled about with my Paint program to see what I could make of it.

Not much, as you see.

When it comes to the real St. Francis, there is a lot more material to work with. I wrote about his conversion story last month, but I won't give away my telling of that story yet: you'll have to wait for the column to appear next year in Magnificat (May 2015, I think).

Instead, I'll look backwards to the words I wrote 24 years ago, on October 4, 1990. The point that Young Janaro made here remains valid, I think. Francis was never a wicked man; on the contrary it was the human vitality of the young troubadour and would-be-knight that shows forth all the more the power of grace to transfigure human nature.

The extraordinary sanctity of Francis only intensifies all of the good and generous qualities of his human personality.

Friday, October 3, 2014

When We Ask, "Why?" He Answers With His Mercy

The Pope said something in a recent homily that struck a chord with me. He was emphasizing that prayer is real, that it comes "from the heart," and that the heart is often weighted with heavy burdens. The human heart that is made for the Infinite struggles especially in circumstances that seem closed off, when human understanding sees no way forward or no way out.

"I have often listened to people who are experiencing difficult and painful situations, who have lost a great deal or feel lonely and abandoned and they come to complain and ask these questions: Why? Why? They are in upheaval against God. And I say, 'Continue to pray just like this, because this also is a prayer.' ...It is prayer in times of darkness, in those moments of life that seem hopeless, where we cannot see the horizon" (Pope Francis, homily of September 30, 2014).

There is no human person in the world who cannot pray, somehow. So often that desperate question— that apparently angry or frustrated interrogation that asks, "Why?"—is really a kind of plea, a begging of the heart for help. The human heart is searching for the mercy of God.

No human predicament is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. His mercy is working in us during the most terrible sufferings, and His mercy will help each one of us to bear those sufferings and offer them out of love for Jesus, and with Him for the salvation of the world.

We can't imagine what this profoundly personal mercy "feels like," or how it is transforming the depths of our lives. We may experience relief and consolation insofar as the good Lord knows we need it on this mysterious road toward our perfection in Him. But the anguish we bear and the incomprehension we sometimes express are full of His presence and He is changing us even through this (especially through this), if we let Him.

Of course, we can resist Him. We can try to run away and hide. We can seek out false comforts, but all of these wither eventually into husks—pig fodder—and once again our hearts are raising the awful question. Once again we are provoked by our need for the Infinite and we wrestle with the question, "Why? Why?" Resentment and yearning clash within us, but there is also grace at work.

This is a question that lives on the edge of human freedom, fraught with the temptation to give up entirely on God, but also drawn by a hope—however incoherent it may be—that wants to ask God for mercy.

No human predicament, no degree of moral and spiritual disgrace, is beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

Perhaps you may object, even vigorously, that you don’t want God’s mercy.

There are some people who really don’t want God’s mercy. Generally, they don’t even think of it, because they don't think they need anything. For these people above all we must pray.

But then there are people who say to themselves, “I don’t want God’s mercy!”

If you are roused to considering God's mercy in such a way, it is because His call is provoking you in the depths of your heart. When you recognize the possibility of God's mercy, it is because you have already begun—somewhere within yourself—to desire it.

Are you angry with the Lord? Bitter? Are you shaking your fist at God? Look at that little fist, that fist made up of human fingers. God loves that little fist of yours. I think my child's little fist is a beautiful and amazing thing, even when she is having a temper tantrum. And God your Father—He made your fist. He knows every line of every finger.

He wants so much to uncurl those stubborn little fingers and hold your hand. 

“But I don’t know how to ask God for mercy!” Ask Him to enable you to ask Him for mercy. From wherever you are, right now, ask Him to show you His mercy and give you a heart that wants His mercy. Everything good comes from Him.

So even if you look at yourself and say, “I am totally evil,” you can turn to Him and ask for a little drop of goodness and He will give it to you. “Ask and you shall receive”—what a simple promise!

So you are a sinner? Ask.

You are lonely and suffering? Ask.

You are debilitated by pain and physical humiliation? Ask.

You are a “good Christian”? Ask, and ask all the more, because there is the ever present danger that you may have forgotten how much you need to ask, every single day.

You are a saint? Then you don’t need me to tell you to ask because you have been asking for a long, long time. And you will continue to ask, from depths that I can’t even begin to fathom. While you are at it, ask Him to have mercy on me.

Thus He showers upon us His mercy, not to the demand of our measure and expectations, but because we are made for Him and we need Him. He gives His mercy beyond all measure, long in anticipation of our awareness, and then in response to our recognition that we really do need Him.

Sometimes He seems to delay, but this is only because He wants us to keep asking; He wants us to experience our total need for Him so that we can grow greater in the love He gives us.

Ask, keep asking, and never give up. You shall receive… it is a promise from God.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

St. Therese: Drawn By Love

Her sister was reading to her about the happiness of heaven, and Therese said, "That is not what attracts me.... [Rather] it's Love! To love, to be loved, and to return to the earth to make love loved..." (St. Therese of Lisieux, Last Conversations).