Monday, November 30, 2015

We are All on a Journey: Let Us Walk Together

I have been writing about the fundamental human need for prayer, and the surprising and unusual ways that prayer is experienced even amidst confusion, emotional upheaval, trauma, and every sort of human difficulty.

But there are some people who would insist that they are earnest and attentive to reality, and for that very reason they don't want to pray. They have considered the "problem of God" and/or the claims of Christianity and have concluded that they are not true, or at any rate not really compelling. Therefore, they refuse to pray, not out of negligence but out of conviction.

There are many people who--at this particular moment in their journey in life--are convinced agnostics or atheists, and are also making a serious effort to live authentically human lives. I can only acknowledge this with respect for their freedom and esteem for their deep aspirations toward goodness and truth.

There are various places where dialogue is possible here, but I want to focus on one dimension that I have found among people I know. At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to point to these non-theist convictions insofar as they arise out of, or are otherwise affected by, different kinds of violence or suffering that afflict people during important periods of their lives. Too often this suffering is linked to the sins of Christians, to wounds inflicted by Christians who misuse their responsibility for those entrusted to them.

I think that some people who take these agnostic positions are really struggling (at least in part, in some respect) with profound issues regarding the way "God" and/or "Jesus" have been presented to them, and the sometimes very painful experiences that they cannot disassociate from those terms and any kind of action connected to them.

This kind of suffering is real and serious, and those who endure it carry a burden that is deeply personal. They have been wounded greatly, and it is not their fault.

I believe that the Lord sees their suffering and hears their struggles as a very individualized form of "prayer." He alone understands the reality of the person, and He shares this suffering at its very roots: He was crucified by those who claimed to be "doing God's will" in various ways, as representatives of religious and civil authority.

As a Christian, I know that insofar as I am not transparent to the real Jesus, I can make this suffering worse for those of you who are in this position. My vanity, my excessive love for my own words, my superficiality, my reduction of faith to ideology, my laziness, my emotional immaturity and penchant for melodrama, and my pervasive lack of love are not helpful to you, my friends, my brothers and sisters.

I am so sorry. I can only say that every day I try to do better. At least, I want to try, and I beg you to bear with the weaknesses that I don't even know I have. Please forgive me. Truly, I ask for your forgiveness.

We all stand before the great need to find the real value of ourselves and our actions, to find meaning in life. We all want to be free and to grow, to find vitality and healing for our wounds. We are all wounded, broken human beings who need to forgive one another again and again, every day.

Can we walk together in this search? We need one another. If you are a person, that means you have a unique, irreplaceable way of helping me to remember that I am not alone.

Can we begin from this place, together?

For me--and forgive me for my awkward way of expressing this--for me, each step on this journey is a prayer. I know that wanting my life to be real and to have value, wanting companionship, wanting to not be alone... is prayer from the heart.

I don't want to force my ideas on you. I don't want to pound religion into you. Nor do I want to sneak my ideas into your head by cheating you, by yet another technique of psychological or emotional violence.

I just want you to know what the hunger of prayer means for me: that it is how I go forward in life, how I understand what moves my life, what awakens my freedom to anything that is worthwhile.

Please, let us walk together. Even if we walk in silence (because I really don't know what to say to you in this moment, and you might not know what to say either), let us remember that we are together.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Janaros Give Thanks

I must document the Janaro Thanksgiving with at least a few pictures, mostly of food.

Eileen outdid herself once again with a truly fantastic meal. It's hard to pick my favorite among the foods, but the brussel sprouts with bacon were certain among the highlights:

It is especially great to have John Paul with us, "home" for the Thanksgiving holiday. Even though he only lives ten minutes away, college (especially freshman year, which is why we wanted him to have the experience of living on campus) is such a new and different world.

We probably have less contact with him than if he was in college in California or Europe. There is no urgency to call or Skype with someone you know you can always drop by to see anytime you want. We have many friends who live within fifteen minutes of our house but whom we don't see often enough because we take it for granted that we can see them "anytime."

It's just as well for John Paul, however. He has plenty of space to have his own adventures without us looking over his shoulder all the time. But we're right nearby if he needs us.

Still, it's been good to spend time with him, and to have "all the kids together." The Christmas break is coming soon enough.

Meanwhile we have to adjust the food supply for John Paul's prodigious appetite (and, on Thanksgiving, for a few uncles and cousins). There was plenty of good food:

Made for a nice full plate:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"What if I Don't Want to Pray?"

Okay, here's a good question. I said in the last blog post that prayer is always possible. "But what if I don't want to pray?"

Let me begin with an chilling observation: there are people in this world who really don't want to pray. What I have observed, however, is that people who have no openness to prayer at all don't even bother to ask this question. We need to pray for these people in a special way, that they might awaken (or reawaken) to the seriousness of their own lives and their urgent need for God.

If we are asking this question in any way, however, then it means that somewhere within us there is a desire to find God, to reach out to Him, to connect with Him. That place, however fragile or remote, is a place from which prayer can begin.

So wherever we find ourselves, let us begin. Let us begin to ask with trust.

Someone might say, "I have nothing, no trust, no desire to pray--I don't want to ask for anything."

"Nothing"? God has no problem with "nothing"--He created from nothing. Give Him your "nothing." Say, "Jesus I don't want to pray, give me the grace to pray...." That's a prayer. A great prayer.

Ask Him to change your life. And keep asking. He will change your life. He will. He will empower you to change by His grace, and to live according to His will.

"But I don't want to change," some will say.

Do you wish, somewhere, that you did have the desire to change? Start there. "Jesus, give me the desire and the will to change, and to allow my life to be changed by you." Or even, "give me the desire of the desire...etc." Every person who is alive has a "place" from which they can start to ask.

Remember Jesus is God. Give Him a crumb and He will feed you with bread, and feed the multitudes besides. You have nothing? Then just stretch out your hand.

Can't even do that? Then cry out, "Lord, I'm sinking!" and let Him reach out and grab you. We must remember that God is looking at us always with infinitely greater tenderness and attention than we have for our own children. If one of our children cries out, "help!" we will go and we will do everything we can to help.

What can God do? God can do anything. If I ask for help, He will help. If I keep asking for help, He will keep helping. Where will it all end? Glory.

"Help!" What a beautiful prayer.

And we must never forget the incredible fact: God has entered history. He has a face. He has a name: Jesus. Before I even realized I needed "help," He had already come. He came into history so that He could come into my life with a special presence, so that He could amaze me by His Love....

Jesus. This is how much God the Almighty, the Lord of all Creation, wants to win my heart and your heart.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Real Prayer is Always Possible

In difficult times, in suffering, anxiety or depression, pain, exhaustion, frustration, in the midst of all our afflictions and our cares, we can still pray. Even when conventional means fail us, we can always turn to God and let our souls thirst for Him. We can let the Holy Spirit probe the deep and otherwise inaccessible places in our lives.

Never give up on prayer!

Real prayer is always possible, even when it feels impossible (maybe even especially when it feels that way). Jesus is close to our suffering, very close. He hears the anguish, the weakness, the wordless cries of our begging hearts.

When everything else is overwhelming, let us not underestimate the simple prayers. The name of Jesus is a prayer. "Jesus." It is enough sometimes. "Mary." Or the beautiful invocation, "Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni per Mariam." Or the Memorare. Or Mother Teresa's prayer: "Mother of Jesus, be a mother to me now!" Simple words, if nothing else to bring our pain before God in a gesture. It may feel like nothing but He uses it.

What does God need to feed us? It is enough to open our inner "mouths". He works, really, absolutely, but in His time and in His way... which we don't understand but which we know by faith is the way that really corresponds to our particular persons, to who each of us really is, and to the unique shape of our hearts. He is with each of us on our particular journey.

It's good to remember that the radical need for truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and love -- the religious sense -- is common to every human heart, but it is also particularized in a unique, unrepeatable, beautiful "constellation" in the lives of each of us as human persons. Jesus knows each one of us as persons. Mary knows each one of us as persons.

Each of us is a person. Each of us is loved and called by God. Each of us is worthy of love, no matter what....

Monday, November 23, 2015

We Walk With Others as Beggars

Human beings search for the Mystery ("X")
So many people and so much suffering in the world. Is it really possible that God loves them all? Why can't He just come down and heal everyone?

It would be easy enough to say, "I'm a Christian. I believe that He already has come..." but how do I say this without it coming off as a cheap answer? The love of God is not cheap. What does it mean, and how is it the hope of all humanity?

It must be true that Jesus is always, everywhere, trying to draw every human person to Himself by grace. This means that among the vast multitude of billions of people who do not know Him, He nevertheless is truly working, profoundly and mysteriously by the Holy Spirit, through whatever is true and good in their lives, their hopes, their experience, their prayers, and also in deeper and inscrutable ways that no one can see or describe.

I sometimes wonder if there are many people--simple people especially, poor people, suffering people--who are in fact very close to Christ, who really do know Him and love Him in their hearts, even if they can’t express it, even if it's a secret, even if it's so secret that they themselves can't represent it in their own minds in a discursive, reflexive way.

Maybe they try to express it as best as they can, with whatever images or concepts they have from within their own religious and cultural traditions. These expressions may be very inadequate, defective, or mixed up on the literal level with other images and ideas that are wrong or that would have bad implications if they were literally pursued.

This is a hard situation, but they are doing the best they can with the resources they have, struggling to follow the Mystery that sustains all of reality, the Mystery that calls them to intimacy and fidelity in their circumstances, that whispers love to their longing hearts. In this way, they really do love God in the depths of their hearts.

As a Christian, I know that if they love God, it must be Jesus who is empowering that love and drawing it to Himself. If they truly seek the meaning of their existence, it only happens concretely because He who is what-it-means-to-be-human has already awoken that search in them and is guiding it by His Spirit in incomprehensible ways.

And I am not saying this as a sneaky way of imposing my theory of ultimate meaning or claiming a victory for my "religious party," as if to say, "in the contest between religions, my religion wins!" The point here is not about a controversy between "different religions" that are conceived as different ideological systems, political positions, or cultural schemes that have developed in history and that we use to identify ourselves and distinguish ourselves from others. There is a lot to be said about such matters, but that is not the point here.

The point here is a fact: This man named Jesus is God! He is the Lord of every heart. Wherever there is any good, He is at work.

How could it not be true? Jesus really is God--we must never forget this. This is not "our position"--this is a fact; the central fact of the whole universe and all of history and every person's actual life. It's really true. It's not somehow "less true" because we need faith to recognize it. To affirm the divinity of Jesus is to recognize a fact. If He is really God then He is really at work, in every person, in every circumstance. Because He loves us. Really!

Does that mean we should stop preaching the Gospel, because He is "taking care of everything" Himself?

Certainly not! If we really know and love Him, our desire to evangelize the world is not weakened by the conviction that He is already at work in the world. On the contrary: all the more do we want every person on earth to be with Jesus in His great family of all times and places and peoples--the gathering in His presence and sharing in His love that is "the Church."

How could we want less for any person if we really love that person? How could we want less if we really love Christ and His plan for that person? Love impels us to let God insert us deeply into His plan of salvation. We want to communicate to others that embrace through which Jesus has embraced us in its "catholic" fullness (because it is meant for everyone). We want every person to know and to be able to express rightly to his or herself the truth about Jesus with as much clarity as faith permits in this life.

But we must remember that evangelization is not our project. It is God's work. Of course, He calls us to share in this work, to be His witnesses and His instruments of truth and love in the time given to us. He does not ask us, however, to "convert" people by reducing their humanity and tearing down the good He has already accomplished in their hearts, their lives, or their cultural traditions. He does not call us to manipulate persons and gain power over them, or to coerce them by violence.

The new evangelization is unambiguously defined by love, above all by the recognition of Christ's love for us and for each and every person.

This love cannot be contained. It sends us forth. It is also a real love. Love is patient, love is kind, love gives no offense, and love endures all things (see 1 Corinthians 13). Love constitutes relationships. Through love we give ourselves and we open ourselves up to the gift of the other. The openness of love makes us able to receive others as persons, but it also makes us vulnerable.

This leads us again and again to remember our true position of dependence on Him. Evangelization is about Jesus, and when we witness truly to Him we also discover anew how much we need Him, how small is our own love for Him, and how much we long for Him.

The new evangelization does not promise the satisfaction of human victories or the acquisition of power in this world. It is accomplished by the love that empties itself unto death, the love that reaches others in the depths of their suffering, and that enables us to accompany others and suffer-with them with an unconquerable hope.

We walk with others as beggars, as the least of human beings, begging for God's inexhaustible love and afflicted by His thirst to bring us all together in His love.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Teresa's Confirmation

Teresa was confirmed last night along with a large group in the packed church of Saint John the Baptist in Front Royal. She chose the name "Chiara," after Blessed Chiara Badano. That didn't come from any prompting from me, although I have spoken about this special heavenly friend and we have a video on her life. I am, of course, very happy Teresa chose to befriend her in this way.

It seems unusual to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation on a Friday night in November, but we were glad to be with our good Bishop Paul Loverde.

The bishop turned 75 years old this past September and recently celebrated 50 years as a priest. Last night I was remembering his installation Mass in the diocesan cathedral in 1999. Eileen and I attended along with a toddler John Paul and infant Agnese. I remember holding John Paul out, Roman style, for a special blessing from the bishop as he passed down the aisle at the recessional.

Now the family (along with the parish and the diocese) has grown during the time of Bishop Paul. He has taken good care of all of us in these years.

For my Teresa Nicoletta Chiara, I pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten her understanding and fill her heart, bestowing upon her the abundance of His gifts as she shares in Christ's royal anointing. Come Holy Spirit, open her heart and the hearts of all my children to the workings of Your grace and to the discovery of their vocational paths.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Contrasts: Gray streaks and thick lines of cloud filling up the sky, the last of the yellow maples, green meadows speckled with fallen leaves, and the muted colors of the rolling hills leading to the Blue Ridge under the sun, in the distance.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Promise of Peace From a Woman's Heart

Our Lady of Fatima
Who is always close to Jesus, to the real Jesus, the God who became one of us, who is forever truly human?

His mother. Jesus is human. He has a mother, and she never stops being His mother. Mary.

As He gives us His whole self, so also He gives us her to be our mother--the mother who brings us into the new life, the definitive life.

Mary. How we ought to cherish that name, that heart, that person, our mother. The salvation of each one of us becomes real, takes flesh, has life from a woman.

Here is Mary, less than a hundred years ago, promising peace, revealing her heart at the edge of Europe under an Arabic name. Fatima.

She promises too, that the wall between East and West will fall, that her tenderness will bring blessings to the world from the peoples of Rus who have suffered so much and whose governments have fought against the world, and now fight against one another.

The Virgin of Tenderness will bring peace and new hope for humanity.

Mary is our mother. Let us entrust all our cares to her with confidence.

Icon of the Virgin of Tenderness

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Prayer is Practical

The past couple of weeks have brought the chaos and danger of Iraq and Syria out of the headlines and frighteningly close to the daily lives of "First World" people like me.

As much as I might try to empathize with suffering throughout the whole world, I can't help feeling viscerally close to the sudden violent disruption of environments that are familiar to me, like airplanes and cafes and concert halls. The range of emotion is difficult to grapple with.

I don't know what to do with all of this experience of being overwhelmed and bewildered, this sudden reminder of the fragility of life, of the fact that events are beyond my control.

When I feel most helpless, I tend to think, "All I can do is pray." In fact, it is in these moments that I draw more closely to the truth of who I am.

Recent events have recalled me to the need for prayer.

I'm not talking about a sentimental or pious cop out, or an attempt to evade the real issues and find comfort in a spiritualistic escapism.

The real issue is always prayer. Life is prayer. I'm talking about the vital relationship with the One who has created me, who sustains me, who calls me to enter into His own Mystery.

The Mystery wants me to know Him. He became flesh so that He could share my life and draw me into the fulfillment of His eternal life. The Mystery who gives meaning to my life became human; He became a man, this man named Jesus.

That makes prayer very practical.

Jesus is real. We can't ever forget that. He is the center of history, really. He is not an abstraction or a theory inside a system. He is a Person whom we encounter. Prayer is seeking Him, remembering Him, hanging onto Him, learning to recognize Him and love Him.

Seriously. If Jesus is not a real flesh-and-blood man who is here-and-now supremely engaged in my life, then "Christianity" is a waste of time. 

But He is real. And the desire to see reality in Him, to see my life and all its circumstances as constituted by this relationship with Him and His Spirit and His Father, is the heart and the substance of prayer.

So it's okay to be confronted by an open reminder that this relationship of prayer, of belonging to Him, is the only "real life" we have. Desperate circumstances can wake us up to the recognition that we are not the masters of life, and that no level of technological power will confer this mastery upon us.
Mark Rupnik, mosaic detail.

It is good to remember that we are not the source of reality nor the power that determines it. We are given a role to play, a task in history, and we must do our best to work at that task and bring it to fruition. But at the heart of this task is the surrender of everything to the One who shapes and fulfills all things in His wisdom.

There are so many things that we don't understand and cannot control.

Do we trust in the One who makes us and holds us and calls us? There is darkness on the path, and this brings pain, anguish, feelings of confusion. We are scared.

Should we begin running in all directions? What do we hope to find in this darkness?

Let us turn to that supremely practical endeavor. Let us pray. Let us bring the desire and the searching, the anguish and fear, the questions and the judgments that need to be made, to Him.

He is real. And we have seen His face. It is the face of Love. We have been loved. Let us never be discouraged.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Saint Gertrude and the Heart of Jesus

Today is the Feast of Saint Gertrude the Great, a 13th century Benedictine nun who was a scholar, a counselor to many, and a mystic enraptured by the merciful and loving heart of Jesus.

In a vision, Jesus said to her, "My Divine Heart, understanding human inconstancy and frailty, desires with incredible ardor continually to be invited, either by your words, or at least by some other sign, to operate and accomplish in you what you are not able to accomplish yourself. And as its omnipotence enables it to act without trouble, and its impenetrable wisdom enables it to act in the most perfect manner, so also its joyous and loving charity makes it ardently desire to accomplish this end." 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

I Share in the Evil Which Seems to Prevail in the World

The Monastery of Notre Dame of the Atlas [mountains] in Tibhirine, Algeria (left) and Father Christian, right.

This Last Testament has already been cited in full on several blogs today. It had already been my intention to make it an object of meditation, and I have selected only a few portions for emphasis here.

Though this text is nearly 20 years old, words like these—words of forgiveness and hope—have been expressed repeatedly by many of the loved ones of those who have suffered so greatly from the violence of this past year.

So much violence in 2015, ... and yet there has been forgiveness offered in the face of unimaginable affliction and pain. This is a miracle, and yet it is one that shows us the true face of reality.

I cannot imagine myself looking at my own life and death, my fears, my loved ones, my enemies in such a manner, and yet with the grace of Christ it is possible. My heart tells me that this is the true position in front of life, and the only fully adequate response to violence:

"If it should happen one day—and it could be today—
that I become a victim of the terrorism...
I would like my community, my Church, my family,
to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I ask them to pray for me,
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to be able to associate such a death
with the many other deaths that were just as violent,
but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

"My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.
In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know
that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world,
even in that which would strike me blindly.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of all my fellow human beings,
and at the same time to forgive with all my heart
the one who would strike me down....

"For this life given up...I thank God
who seems to have wished it entirely
for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.
In this 'thank you,'
which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father,
my brothers and sisters and their families:
the hundredfold granted as was promised!

"And you also,
the friend of my final moment,
who would not be aware of what you were doing.
Yes, for you also I wish this 'thank you'—and this adieu
to commend you to the God
whose face I see in yours.

"And may we find each other,
happy 'good thieves,'
in Paradise,
if it pleases God,
the Father of us both.

~Father Christian de Chergé,

Abbot of the Cistercian Monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria. Kidnapped by the Groupe Islamique Arme along with six confreres on March 27, 1996 (this group later reported that the monks were executed on May 21, 1996).

The movie Of Gods and Men (2010) was based on the lives and the sacrifice of these monks.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Short Sweet Days and Fading Colors

"The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.
Through all the earth their voice resounds,
and to the ends of the world, their message"

(Psalm 19:1, 4).

As the weeks go by, scenes like this are less and less common, though the sky is still bright during the day.

But as the grasses and trees fade, the evergreens stand out, and spaces "open up" to vistas of the Blue Ridge.

The days are short and the warm sun more and more skims the treetops.

Sunset before 5:30 PM these days, but the fading light reveals the glory of elegant tree branches and streaks of contrasting clouds.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering Veterans

Today the world commemorates the armistice that ended the shooting in what was called "the Great War" 97 years ago. In America, it is a day dedicated to the the honor of all military veterans.

I thank all veterans for their service and devotion to our homeland.

God bless them, in particular those who must still bear their wounds even now (whether external or internal), and especially those whose wounds remain unknown to themselves and unrecognized by others.

God help those whose battle continues in their brains in the living hell of PSTD (and/or other "invisible illnesses," addictions, loneliness, and pain).

Please God, don't let us forget them ever! Don't let us abandon to themselves those who endeavored to serve and protect the good of us all.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Love is Here For Us

He offered Himself for us.
His heart was opened for each one of us
on the Cross, in His suffering.

He longs for each of us in this hour, 
and His desire to be with us is here,
when He dies on the Cross for our sins.

He does not stop loving us because of our sins,
but His love is here for us and offered to us
while we are still sinners,
so that we can be changed by it and saved by it.

On the Cross Jesus wants to win our love
by giving Himself totally for us.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bright Hills of November

I have a substantial photographic documentary of this beautiful day. These pictures were taken in the early afternoon in the places around our neighborhood.

The last colors of this cool Autumn afternoon are set against a blue sky and the waters of Happy Creek. I'll let most of these pictures speak for themselves. In a few weeks we will be seeing some markedly different vistas, the Winter landscape that will last several months. But first we will allow the colors to have their say one more time.

First of all, here is the Janaro Ranch on November 8:


And here's our walk around the neighborhood:

This Sycamore is grand and bare and gray in the Winter.

Sycamore branches up close, still wearing their colors.

There's still something for the horses in these fields near the Sycamore tree down the road from our house.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pope Francis Exhorts Us to Open Our Hearts

I'm hoping that you, dear reader, will give some attention to these excerpts and my reflections which follow upon them. I did not plan to spend most of the day writing these reflections, but here they are. I hope something I've written is useful or helpful to you.

"There are two paths in life:
the path exclusion of persons from our community
and the path of inclusion.

"It is not easy to include people,
because there is resistance,
there is that selective attitude... of those who judge,
who drive away people, persons:
‘No, no to this, no to that, no to that…’;
and a little circle of friends is created,
which is their environment.
It is a dialectic between exclusion and inclusion.

"God has included us all in salvation, all!
This is the beginning.
We with our weaknesses, with our sins,
with our envy, jealousies, we all have this attitude of excluding...."

Jesus, the Pope says, acts like His Father, who sent Him to save us; "He seeks to include us," "to be a family."

So what does the Pope challenge us to do?

"We think a little bit, and at least – at least! –
we do our little part,
we never judge: ‘But this one has acted in this way…’
But God knows: it is his life,
but I don’t exclude him from my heart,
from my prayer, from my greeting, from my smile,
and if the occasion arises I say a good word to him.
Never excluding, we have no right!
If I exclude I will one day stand
before the judgment seat of God,
I will have to give an account of myself to God.
Let us ask the grace
of being men and women who always include,
always, always!
in the measure of healthy prudence, but always.
Not closing the doors to anyone, always with an open heart:
‘It pleases me, it displeases me,’ [we may feel either way]
but the heart is open.
May the Lord grant us this grace."

~Pope Francis, from Daily Homily of November 5, 2015

These excerpts from today's homily by Pope Francis correspond to his overall teaching and pastoral practice.

Perhaps we should try to listen.

People might be quick to interpret these words "politically," as if the Pope were signalling his favor for one faction over another, but we have no excuse for making this mistake.

We belong to Jesus Christ in His Catholic Church. We want to be with Jesus. We have the need–and the responsibility–to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Church in a way that clarifies even as it corresponds to His whispering in the depths of our hearts.

And these words of Pope Francis are important. These words are addressed to each one of us, to our hearts. The "exclusion" he is speaking about begins in the heart and spreads out from there.

Some people might say, "The Pope is not being clear here! The press will say he is telling us to endorse immoral lifestyles and behavior."

Others might fear that the Pope is putting down faithful people who are working to build up environments and institutions that will support the Christian and human formation of their children.

For over thirty years I have been one of those latter people, those "faithful people who are working to build...." So I appreciate the concerns of those who are dedicated to forming "intentional Christian communities."

But people on a definite vocational path should not expect every pope to endorse this or that particular accent of their ways. We know what the Lord is asking of us now, in this day, in this moment. Let us be faithful to our calling.

Does that mean we can just ignore Pope Francis?

Some people might want to lay out all the distinctions of degrees of assent, obedience, or respect owed to the Pope according to the various ways in which he exercises his office. All of this is quite true and valuable in itself, and I am very familiar with it. But I am also aware of a great need for something more simple, something–if you will–more organic. I want to listen to Pope Francis, and endeavor–with the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit–to follow him.

Not because I think everything he says is infallible. Of course not! As Benedict XVI once said, "The pope is not an oracle! He is infallible only in highly specific and rare circumstances" ... or something to that effect. I don't recall the exact words. Do I have to? It's true: the pope is not an oracle, and things get weird if we start treating him like that. "Oracles" always end up having their utterances manipulated in the service of those who are grasping for power.

I don't need an "oracle."

I don't need an infallible pronouncement telling me what to do each day delivered to me along with the morning newspaper (to paraphrase William George Ward's peculiar remark from the 19th century).

I need help. I need mentoring. I need to be pushed sometimes and corrected. I need this in order to follow Jesus.

I need a "father." 

I listen to the Pope and try to follow him because he is my father.

Of course, God alone is truly my Father. But God wants me to come to experience the closeness of His Fatherhood to my life. So He sent His Son, who remains present among us in the communion of the Church.

The Church is a human reality. Life in the Spirit is not something disembodied or dehumanized. Therefore, it's not surprising that we benefit greatly from "spiritual fathers." The "Pope" has a special charism for "fatherhood" in the whole of the Church. This means that, whatever human complexities there may be (and there are human complexities because this relationship is human) we are his "sons and daughters" in a meaningful way.

Otherwise we are being stupid by calling him "Pope," or "Papa" or, even in more formal ecclesiastical language, "Holy Father."

I know what this means for me, because I know that I need this fatherhood in my life. I need it when it encourages me and I need it also when it challenges me.

It's true that in recent years the popes have tended to call us "brothers and sisters" rather than "children." This way of speaking puts the accent on our common humanity and membership in Christ's body. But we still live within the dynamic of Christ's presence embodied in a real human community. Communities are guided by leaders, who are responsible not only for preserving the community's identity but also helping it to respond to fresh challenges.

Christian community is about self-giving love. It is about service. Leadership serves us so that we might better serve one another and everyone the Lord gives to us.

Leadership is also a service of truth. And truth needs to be lived. That is why God didn't just give us a divinely inspired book of philosophy. He, the Truth, became flesh so that we could follow Him.

I need the guidance of this service, because I don't really understand the road I'm on. It's a narrow road with twists and hazards on every side, and my compass very easily spins out of control.

So I am listening to the Pope insofar as he desires to be heard. I am listening to him, not to rumors on the Internet about what his intentions might be or what his agenda might be or what his attitude toward this or that Cardinal might reveal about his ideas. I've never learned anything really helpful from all that.

I'm learning much that is helpful from Pope Francis.

I'm not saying that my listening to the Pope is a perfect "method" for conjuring the "right answer" to every question. Bah! Pope Francis is not an oracle. I don't always understand what he means, or how to apply what he says. Sometimes I don't pay attention to him, because, after all, he has his "off-days" or it may seem to me that he's mistaken. Much more often, however, I don't pay attention to him because I am lazy, vain, and selfish, and I don't want to hear him even though I know he is right.

I don't want to change my life. I don't want to let Jesus change my life. I don't even want to take a step in the direction of opening my heart to the grace of conversion. I'm stubborn.

So is Pope Francis. Thank God.

Let me tell you what I have learned from over thirty years of experience with "intentional Christian community," with building healthy environments and institutions, with living faith in friendship:

Pope Francis is right–hugely right, spot on–about the need for an open heart. Pope Francis is right that if the mentality of exclusion becomes the criterion of our hearts, it will poison our community.

He is not saying, "Don't make any distinctions based on people's behavior." We could worry about how his words about "the path of inclusion" might be twisted, quoted out of context, and manipulated, but we don't have time for that. This is too urgent and too important.

There is a constant temptation to reduce Christian community to "a little circle" determined by "a dialectic between exclusion and inclusion," i.e. a dynamic by which we decide according to our own criteria the measure of our love for the people that God places in our lives.

Our criteria. Our hearts closed to real human beings because we have allowed those hearts to become closed to the love and mercy of God. Our "measure," our plan, our ideas that–without the nourishment of prayer–are reduced to an ideology, which quickly falls into the service of our whims, our mutual self-satisfaction, our urges.

We break up into factions, and as the Pope points out elsewhere in this same homily, we end up making war upon one another. This "war" is not abstract for me. I know what he means from my own experience. Sadly, I've lived through this sort of thing more than once. I've participated in it! The danger is very real and very subtle.

We need to "include" people in the scope of our love. We need the "open hearts" that the Pope is speaking about.

We are not being exhorted here to dump standards of behavior and just open up everything to everybody without any distinctions. We need to open our hearts in accordance with our Christian vocation and mission. This means–at least–that we don't shut the doors of Christ's presence in the world, we don't drive the human person away by self-righteousness or the coldness of our lack of love, we don't decide who deserves the mercy of God and who doesn't.

We stay open to the Holy Spirit. We seek to do the will of God. We foster the good in persons and look for ways to help them. "We do our little part"–and we do it "in the measure of healthy prudence, but always"–which means not in some mushy sentimental vague manner, but according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the light of faith as it shapes our human reason. It means that we beg for the grace of the virtue of prudence, the virtue by which we engage reality in all of its particular, concrete truth.

We don't know the mystery of a person's life, their history, sufferings, trials, compulsions, or why their perception of reality may be distorted, much less what God intends for them. How can we ever close our hearts to any human person? Yet we do.

I still do this all the time. I dismiss human persons from the ambit of my love, effort, and consideration. Gosh, I dismiss whole categories of human persons without giving it a thought. Indeed, I hope that most of the time it is precisely that: a thoughtlessness that allows my own wounds and weaknesses and fears to rise up in my mind. Much of the daily battle of Christian life is waged right here. And it's a constant reminder of how much I need healing, how much I myself need the mercy of God.

It won't change tomorrow either. I will judge and dismiss people again. That includes judging and dismissing "people-who-judge-and-dismiss-other-people"–which always provides a special kind of smuggy feeling: the illusion of being magnanimous and broad minded and above the fray. It says, "I'm not like all those nasty people who distort the Pope or who criticize the Pope or who...."

Oh yes I am. I am a sinner. Lord, have mercy on me.

We are all alike in this matter: we are all completely dependent on the mercy of God who alone can heal us and bring us joy.

Let us carry on the fight for this growth of love that Jesus wants to give us, these open hearts, "inclusive," i.e. Catholic hearts.

The alternative is to exchange the glory of Christ for our own narrow human preferences, to turn community into a club, or even a cult. We ought to know this by now. High-flying language can easily turn into a cover for some very creepy stuff in the dynamics of human relationships.

I am very good at high-flying language, which is why I need to hear things like this every day.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for reminding me yet again.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Funny Faces

I keep writing things and deleting them. I can't find the words I want for these days in early November. There are a lot of memories that I can't say more about right now. I have written about them in previous Novembers. I can't write about them now. I had a hard time writing anything today.

But I have some funny pictures.

I'm always joking about how I want the girls to cut off some of their hair and give it to me so that I can make a wig for my balding head. Well, recently, Jojo and Teresa were willing to try a silly visual experiment.

Josefina is behind me with her back to me (I am of course crouching down to her level). She has flopped her pony tail over my head, and Teresa is holding it in place while also taking the picture. And there we have it!

I look... really strange.

But that's okay. I don't mind looking silly in a picture. I'm not embarrassed and I'm even willing to put it on my blog. I'm quite willing to be a ham.

The kids used to be hams too. That has changed, of course, as they grow older. We can see the change even in the history of this blog. But even Josefina plays "hard-to-get" for the camera now, although as in many other things she is influenced here by her older sisters.

Sometimes her attempts to resist a spontaneous picture will result in a picture that's funny anyway. I suspect she may just be hamming it up in a different way.

That tongue is being stuck out at me! Hey!

But just to show that I'm a good sport, I gave them the phone and told them to take pictures of me with Jojo's new birthday scarf piled on my head. They were piling it on my head anyway in an attempt to tease me, so I said, "Go ahead. Take a picture. I'll even put it on my blog!"

I don't mind looking silly. To be fair, however, this is my blog.

Meanwhile, November afternoons have been clear and warm but with the sun low on the horizon. The whole year of 2015 has reached its "evening."

The trees are thinning faster than my hair. But they are colorful.

Monday, November 2, 2015

All Souls, Many of Whom Are Dear to Me

All Souls Day.

Indeed, it is the beginning of a month dedicated especially to prayer for the souls of our faithfully departed brothers and sisters. I am glad to have a month, because the older I get, the more loved ones and friends I have who have passed from this present life onto the final journey from death to eternity, and into the mysterious "refiner's fire" through which God's mercy brings them to Himself.

I want to remember them all, and to be remembered by them.

Lord, grant to those who have gone before us eternal rest and peace in Your presence, and at our journey's end bring us also to You, that we might all "merrily meet" in the fullness of Your joy.