The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe

A beautiful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly suited to today, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Vergine Immacolata, aiutateci!


“WILD air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.”


Text: Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ
Music: Francesco Cavalli, Magnificat – Concerto Palatino
Cover Art: Jesson Mata, Office of Divine Worship, Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon

Three Windows

“During that summertime retreat, I lamented to Harry that I didn’t seem to be changing quickly enough. I knew the kind of person I wanted to be: free, open, relaxed, loose, compassionate, patient, mature, generous. But my imperfections held me back. How would God change me? When would I change? Why wasn’t it happening faster?

Harry smiled and looked out the window to the grounds of the retreat house. ‘You see that tree over there?’ he said.

I glanced at a large maple tree on a knoll, which I passed frequently as I wandered through the woods. ‘It’s green now, but in a few months it will become a beautiful red.’ Then he paused.

‘And no one will see it change,’ he said.”

—Fr. James Martin SJ, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything


“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
 We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
 We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
 We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
 And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.
 And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
 Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
 Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, from a letter to a friend on patience


“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Until We Rest in You

I didn’t always love to run. In my younger years, even my first couple of years of high school, I abhorred anything within a stone’s throw of sports or P.E. I wasn’t very good at any of them, just didn’t have the hang of things like running or jumping or kicking or throwing or catching, things most of the other kids seemed to be able to do naturally, and I figured: why waste my time on something hard, like sports, when all it would get me was the other kids’ laughing at me? “Practice makes perfect,” I had always heard, but in my mind, it was better to stick to the things I knew I was good at, safe from ridicule, than to practice what I wasn’t and risk drawing attention to the fact that I wasn’t perfect!

It’s one of the earliest concrete manifestations of pride I can point to in my life. It was also one of the first and longest-lasting manifestations of shame, feeling like I wasn’t up to scratch and hiding that part of myself away, locking it up in a dark place of my heart. A pattern which would repeat itself in many areas of my life for years to come.

As I reread my poetry from this time of my life tonight—poetry, I have to admit, even I had dismissed as stereotypical high school angst—the despair I felt then comes back to me, like the shadow of a nightmare in stark contrast to the light at noon. I remember the loneliness, and the sense that everything was really meaningless, that if you peeled off all the layers there was nothing underneath it all; the deep-down-certainty of my own inferiority, the deep and unspoken and terrible sense that every way in which I seemed to differ from other people, I was wrong and broken and everyone else right and whole, that I could never, never be like they were—the hopeless pride I built up on those shifting sands, that if I was not like everyone else, then I surely would not try to be, like Satan spitting his petulant “non serviam” in the face of God.

Indeed, to that last point, I’m surprised to find some of my poetry shows a bitterness toward “religion” acerbic enough to have made Sartre or Voltaire nod in approval:

“Even in the warm light of the day
We are frightened, and we seek deliverance,
Flocking like sheep to religion to pray
But finding only more false idols and images—

And at nightfall, they torment us, these images.
Saviors become nightmares and get in the way
Of life, demanding devotion and homage,
Promising eternity, but ne’er even a day
Of salvation can be found, and we seek deliverance
From religion itself, that greatest evil – and I pray.

Not for salvation, but for our lives I pray.
Ruled by religion, by idols and images,
Haunted by cloaked visions night and day,
At the feet of statues paying homage—
This is how it has always been. This is the way.
So I pray, but not for deliverance,

For salvation and deliverance
Are but traps and mirages; no, I pray
To break free, to cast aside these images,
To forge a new path, shun the old ways,
And to no idols will I offer homage.”

Pretty strong anti-Catholic imagery for a kid who had never set foot in a Catholic church, and whose Methodist church, as far as I recall, didn’t boast a single statue to which we could ‘pay homage’ even if we had wanted to.

I guess you could say I was God-haunted, as a teenager. I have often described my conversion to Catholicism as the climax and the culmination of a search for meaning, a journey which began when we stopped attending the Methodist church of my childhood. This is true, as far as it goes, but I certainly wasn’t conducting some unbiased search for meaning, comparing logical proofs for God against arguments for atheism, or weighing the objective merits of Christianity against Buddhism. I was fleeing the Christianity of my childhood. I was deeply suspicious of its claims (after all, “saviors become nightmares and get in the way … salvation and deliverance / are but traps and mirages,” as I spat along with Richard Dawkins)—and indeed, I was suspicious of any claims to “meaning” or “truth”:

“Printed pages filling my notebook say
I should, I will, I must, but never pay
some slight attention to my question: ‘Why?’

‘Solve these problems,’ they say, but they’re not mine
to solve – or perhaps my favorite, ‘draw this line!’
when clear-cut lines themselves are but a lie.”

I wonder where I got that. I remember my Methodist Sunday school lessons as being heavy on the coloring pages, light on objective philosophy. I certainly didn’t have a rational conception of God as absolute Truth (or Love, or Beauty, for that matter), yet somehow, it seems, I knew. Knowledge of our Creator is ingrained on our hearts. When we flee Him, we flee Him in all his aspects.

Earlier I said this poetry could be dismissed as the product of teenage angst. Maybe it’s important to point out now that the word “Angst” in German means “fear”. I was afraid of God, afraid of Truth, afraid of Love, afraid of Beauty—on a level deeper, I think, than I could even acknowledge. I felt betrayed by Him.

We stopped going to church, after all, once my mom had her first seizure. I remember waking up in the middle of the night; my dad’s tense, level voice as he told me to get dressed, knowing he was barely holding it together himself; the living room full of EMTs; my mom wheeled out of the front door on a stretcher—wondering, as much as I tried to stuff it down and lock it away, whether I would ever see her again.

I remember praying in the waiting room.

I remember, when I was very young, riding in the back of my parents’ car and the way I used to pray, talking to Him like he was sitting right next to me. I didn’t have any fear of Him then. Mostly, I would try to make deals with Him. “God, I’ll memorize the whole Lord’s Prayer if you just…”

And I remember writing this poem, the subject of which I’m not even sure I knew, or admitted to myself, at the time:

“Our one great fear has never been death
But to lose the ones we love, and
So we hide in our warm beds
From the cold and rain above.

Awakening, we glance above
To lightning lighting up the sky,
And we mutter to the ones we love
About how we don’t want to die.

We never think we’re going to die
While the world is lit by dawn’s bright strain,
But when darkness fills the sky—
We see our lives reflected in the rain.”

I was searching, after we left our church, but I forgot who or what I was searching for. It wasn’t anything so grand as meaning or truth. I already felt a horrible certainty that there was no such thing. I think I was looking for comfort, something that would make it all right, even in light of the senselessness of it all. And I drifted into a kind of syncretist New Age Taoism, the main tenet of which, for me, was “go with the flow”—but not out of any conviction that everything had a purpose or would work out in the end. More that life was like a river and it would be a wash in the end, so there was no use fighting the current. I was taken in, too, by neo-pagan ideas of “ancient rites” which would give you power over the universe, online articles about psionics and witchcraft, and worse.

But of course, the further I drifted from God, the less my heart was satisfied. Or as I concluded a fairly cynical poem on the subject of how the poet manipulates his readers’ emotions:

“Indeed, the sole power I cannot command
is closure, for my heart, by my own hand.”

The beautiful thing, looking back, is how God was leading me through all this. Like any good father, he knew his son was angry, and hurting, and scared. And like any good father, he would not force himself into my life. A father knows to give his son space. But His hand was guiding me imperceptibly through all that Angst. I had to pass through the crucible of those years of confusion, of loneliness, hopelessness, senselessness, of pain suppressed because I thought there was no relief nor meaning to it, of cynicism in the face of any claims to truth or beauty or love … I had to know emptiness, I had to know the desert and the night, so that when he first introduced Himself again to me, I would be shocked at the wonder of Him.

Eventually, I fell in love with running, too, but not until after I fell in love with God. I was required to take a personal fitness class at the beginning of my senior year of high school—a year and a half since I first stumbled to Mass, and just a few months after my confirmation—and though I dreaded it, I was in the class with some great friends who I had made during that previous year, and I found for the first time that I wasn’t afraid to make a fool of myself. I found that I really loved pushing myself to my limits. My favorite days were when we would go out into the neighborhood near the high school and run up and down the quiet streets. I would pray to God for strength, running there with my friends in my youth group T-shirt, and I would make the sign of the cross when I felt like my lungs were going to explode, and I remember how exhilarated I felt the first time I made it through the whole morning running without once stopping to walk.

Since then, I have always linked running with the spiritual life. It’s about perseverance. The more you practice, the faster and farther you can go, but what matters most is not in your legs or your lungs. It’s that drive to make it to the end. The spiritual life is like that, too. God’s grace is always there—that’s the strength you need to make it through. The conditions in which we find ourselves might be better or worse from day to day or place to place. But what matters is our response to His grace and His call.

If you think I’m going to tie this mess of retrospection and theological reflection up neatly, you must not know me very well yet.

I’ll just say this—the event which prompted me to write this post at all tonight (though I had no idea how long it would end up being) was that we had a speaker come to the seminary tonight for our Monday night conference, and she told us about her experience of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a priest.

Her journey back to the love and mercy of God took her entire life, from the age of 7 until her mid-60’s. I was bent over praying through her whole talk. She shared poems she had written which sent chills down my spine, but the worst was when she said, “The hands of a priest are anointed to do God’s work. And yet—my wounds were by those very hands.

Afterwards, I thanked her so much for sharing and gave her a hug. She was radiant, a saint, such a testament to the mercy of God and the power of His grace to heal even the deepest wounds in an open heart. Then I went to pray before the Blessed Sacrament upstairs in the abbey church, vast and dark and quiet. I wanted to praise Him for his goodness, but my heart was in turmoil. For the first time, I was confronted with not just the fact, but the personal reality that a priest, a priest of Jesus Christ, had inflicted such wounds on an innocent girl. It took her almost sixty years to trust God again. A whole lifetime spent apart from His love.

For the first time, I really understood how someone could hate the Church. I felt enraged. I felt a revulsion and a hatred toward that priest which I tried to give over into His hands, but it wouldn’t leave me. I cried. I prayed God to fill me up completely, take everything I had and make me an instrument of His healing in His broken body on earth.

And when I could pray no more I went for a run, because I knew that as much as I tried and tried to give myself over, I was feeling too much. I had to physically spend myself. So I ran down the hill and through the town in the freezing rain, and as I slogged through puddles and clenched and unclenched my hands to maintain feeling in my fingers, I told God this was my offering for everyone who had ever been hurt at the hands of a priest, an alter Christus, a representative of Holy Mother Church, and I wouldn’t stop, I swore through clenched teeth, unless I fell down and could not go on.

After about a mile, I realized with a jolt that I understood this woman’s experience, awful though it was, because my own experience, back in high school, fleeing God, was a microcosm of the same—that sense of betrayal and that fear of Him—the first time I had seen my life in that light.

About two miles in, I was able to let go of that visceral, jaw-clenching hatred that had seeped into my soul for the priests who had done this and offered my sacrifice for them, too, because in sin everyone suffers and everyone needs mercy.

Finally, as I ran back up the hill, I was praying “Jesus—“ on every shallow breath, and each time I breathed out: “—mercy,” “—power,” “—victory,” “—love.”

I came back and stood in the shower, under the hot water, feeling heat prickling back into the parts of my body that had gone numb, and kept praying. “Jesus, all goodness. Jesus, all warmth. Jesus, my strength… Jesus, sunny winter days. Jesus, long drives in the rain. Jesus, friendship. Jesus, desire of the everlasting hills…”

And then something unexpected happened, because I felt—I can’t say heard another voice—but the litany changed.

“Matthew, my beloved. Matthew, my created one. Matthew, my tabernacle. Matthew, light of my face. Matthew, who run the race to the end.”

In God alone is our peace and our hope. Or as St. Augustine put it so hauntingly, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

I have nothing more to say tonight, I think, but a prayer. May God bring the good work he has begun in all of us to fulfillment. May our hearts be open to His grace, that He may heal all our wounds, fill our loneliness, satisfy our longings… and may He find in each of us willing instruments to bear His love and healing to the world.

And together let us say: Amen.

Excerpt: Saint Teresa on Praying Beside Jesus

“Let us now return to our vocal prayer, so that we may learn to pray in such a way that, without our understanding how, God may give us everything at one: if we do this, as I have said, we shall pray as we ought. As you know, the first things must be examination of conscience, confession of sin and the signing of yourself with the Cross. Then, daughter, as you are alone, you must look for a companion – and who could be a better Companion than the very Master Who taught you the prayer that you are about to say? Imagine that this Lord Himself is at your side and see how lovingly and how humbly he is teaching you – and, believe me, you should stay with so good a Friend for as long as you can before you leave Him. If you become accustomed to having Him at your side, and if He sees that you love Him to be there and are always ready to please Him, you will never be able, as we put it, to send Him away, nor will He ever fail you. He will help you in all your trials and you will have Him everywhere. Do you think it is a small thing to have such a Friend as that beside you?”

Source: A Seminarian Story

Peace and Love

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)

An email from my brother
is a mundane reminder
of a meeting
with a bullet point agenda,
such as might be sent by any teacher,
colleague, corporate executive,
but for the closing line:

“Peace and Love”

where another might sign off “sincerely,”
or “yours,”
or “cheers,”
or “thanks!”

None of these.

But only love, and peace.

And as I read these words
and as I read them again
my heart leaps and I
laugh
read them aloud
have to sit down because
what a wonder!
contained in these words
behind and between them
lives everything worth saying at all.

Peace: we go together as pilgrims
on the camino to the altar
to receive the one body
and the one blood,

and we share a hug in the pews
in that heavenkissed moment
after the Paternoster
just before the Agnus Dei.

Love: we kneel together as brothers
in an unused classroom at 9pm
in a little sea of candlelight and guitar chords
before the image of the cross

and whisper “come, Holy Spirit”—
lay hands on our brothers’ shoulders‚
hear him lay down his deepest struggles,
let God speak through our lips.

Peace: a holy hour
spent in perfect silence
side by side before the One
who made us both.

Love: an hour spent
speaking frankly to God
side by side with your sister
who feels so far from him.

What better way to end
an email
or a conversation
or any old thing
than a reminder
and an exhortation
and a prayer
and a promise

to lay down our lives for each other
(for there is no greater love than this—)
to have no fear
(for perfect love casts it out—)
to think of whatever is true and pure and pleasing
(for then the God of peace will be with us always—)
to feed his sheep
(for he knows how much we love).

The Best Argument

There is a famous story told about St. Dominic—maybe you’ve heard it. It happened when he was accompanying his bishop on a journey from Osma, the Spanish city where Dominic lived in his cloistered religious community, to the south of France. On their first day after crossing the Pyrenees, weary and footsore, they stopped to stay the night at an inn.

Now the keeper of that inn happened to be an Albigensian: that is, someone who had embraced the new Albigensian heresy, which was all the rage in 13th century France. To quote the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great’s Life of St. Dominic, this heresy “was based on the very ancient idea that matter was evil and spirit was good. It has been around for a long time and is still with us in the form of theosophy, Christian Science and those who go in for Buddhism and other Eastern religions. It appeals to people who have vague and hazy minds and do not want to do any serious thinking. Albigenianism had the additional twist in that it did develop a logical and clear theological system. Marriage was evil, sex was sinful, flesh meat was forbidden, austerities were the in thing, and suicide was the preferred way of death.”

Of course, that set of beliefs wouldn’t appeal to many people on its own, but Albigensianism did appeal to the lords and landowners, because since it required that its adherents renounce their Catholic faith and the sacraments, it followed that if they, the lords, adopted this heresy for themselves and their subjects, they would then be free to seize the land held by the Church in their provinces. Albigensianism also expected that only a few, the perfect, would be able and obliged to live this extreme form of life. The rest were free to live as normal human beings (insofar as anyone can with such a paucity of grace). So a win-win all around for the reigning powers of the day.

But to return to the story, again quoting the Central Province’s Life: “Dominic was appalled that anyone could fall for this nonsense. He and the innkeeper got into an argument that lasted the whole night, but in the morning the innkeeper fell on his knees and asked to be reconciled to the Church.”

This was a pivotal moment for St. Dominic, who would go on to found the Order of Preachers, which utterly decimated the Albigensian heresy through prayer (particularly the rosary), austerity of life, and skillful and relentless arguing, a tradition they continue to this day with just as much skill and just as little relenting.

Why am I telling you this story?

Because today is the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order of Preachers, which, by the way, is awesome—but mostly because a few days ago I had a little Dominic experience of my own.

This past Wednesday, we had a day of recollection here at the seminary. These days, which we have from time to time, are spent in complete silence, in both the exterior sense—we have no classes, no conversation at meals, no idle chatter—and the interior sense. We are meant to cultivate silence in our hearts and use this time to listen to the voice of God. So there is also no homework, no use of technology, none of the noise which normally fills out waking hours to distract us from the work of prayer.

Of course, we still have our community prayer hours together throughout the day, as well as Mass in the morning, and we also had four short conferences, two each in the morning and afternoon, on the topic of prayer. These were meant to give us food for thought in our reflections during the rest of the day.

It happened—and I don’t know why I say “happened,” as if these things are ever random—to be the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of seminarians, and the proper reading for Mass that day was from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

The first sentence hit me hard in my lectio divina, my reflection on the readings of the day, as I read through them on Wednesday with my morning espresso. “Not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” A monk here at Mt. Angel exhorted us recently in a homily to read every word of sacred scripture as if it were addressed to us personally, in this particular moment in time and in this particular place. God was warning me of one of the enemy’s most dangerous temptations, and one I stumble into more often than I’d like to admit: the temptation to think you are better than anyone else. “That person never prays,” I’ll think to myself, “they never study,” or “they never think of God,” or “they make no effort to practice what they preach.” (All different ways of saying, with the Pharisee, “Thank you, God, for not making me like them.”)

The next few verses explain why. We are all one body, Paul reminds us. The excellence of one does not take away from another, and the failures of one do not make anyone else shine brighter. Everyone has their own gifts for the good of the whole body of Christ. If one is shining brightly, the whole body is better for it, and if one is flagging, the whole body suffers. We rejoice in each other’s gifts and assist each other in our failings—that is what the Christian life means. 

A few verses down, another warning: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” Another verse addressed right to my heart. I have been struggling these weeks with a particular sin, bringing it to confession over and over again, stumbling right back into it. St. Paul was making it clear to me what I need to do to overcome it. It’s simple, but hard to put into practice. Love goodness more than evil! Hold fast to what is good! (The very advice my confessor gives me day after day.) And never love with anything less than the fullness of your heart, he admonishes us. Sin, after all, springs from a lack of love.

These verses were setting the stage for my experiences over the rest of the day. I was feeling particularly discouraged because of my repeated sins, and St. Teresa of Ávila was not helping me feel any better as I read a bit further in her Interior Castle that morning:

“When the soul falls into mortal sin … no thicker darkness exists, and there is nothing dark and black that is not much less so than this. You need know only one thing about it—that, although the Sun Himself, Who has given it all its splendor and beauty, is still there in the center of the soul, it is as if He were not there for any participation that the soul has in Him.”

“Just as all the streamlets that flow from a clear spring are as clear as the spring itself, so the works of a soul in grace are pleasing in the eyes of both God and men, since they proceed from this spring of life … When the soul, on the other hand, through its own fault, leaves this spring and becomes rooted in a pool of pitch-black, evil-smelling water, it produces nothing but misery and filth.”

“If a thick black cloth be placed over a crystal in the sunshine … although the sun may be shining upon it, its brightness will have no effect upon the crystal.”

“O Jesus! How sad it is to see a soul deprived of [light]! What a state the poor rooms of the castle are in! How distracted are the senses that inhabit them! And the faculties, that are their governors and butlers and stewards—how blind they are and how ill-controlled! And yet, after all, what kind of fruit can one expect to be borne by a tree rooted in the devil?”

Similarly, I went to walk the Stations of the Cross, and came upon the following meditation in my Manual of Prayers, on Veronica wiping Jesus’ face as he drags His cross up to Calvary:

“My beloved Jesus, your face was beautiful before; yet, on this journey it no longer appears beautiful but disfigured with wounds and blood. Alas! My soul also was once beautiful, when it received your grace in baptism, but I have since then disfigured it with my sins.”

Not exactly cheery stuff. But then, our faith is not all sunlight and rainbows. Our faith lies on the wood of that Cross.

In one of the afternoon conferences, the speaker reminded us that we are called to be a light to the world, as Paul was, “like lights shining in the darkness in those satellite photos of Earth.” And then he said this, a quote from Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”

Nemo dat quod non habet, as the old saying goes. Nobody gives what he does not have. We are called to be salt and light, but we have to receive that salt to season our words, we have to be filled up with that light if we are going to shine brightly. And all it requires is openness, throwing off that “thick black cloth” of sin, throwing oneself into the Lord’s arms, giving Him another chance. (Confession, after all, is not about begging God to give us another chance. It is about us giving Him another chance. We don’t tell Him we’re sorry so that He’ll forgive us. He has forgiven us everything before we ever ask! Confession is the sacrament of His mercy. It is the way we return to His love—the way we let Him love us and let Him show us his mercy.)

Our speaker also talked about the many identites we build up for ourselves over time. How there are people in all of our lives from whom we seek approval, but we’re afraid that who we are is not good enough to merit their approval or their love, so we build up false identities for ourselves, fictions, which we build over our real selves—and over time, we invest so much into these masks, these fantasies, that we only reinforce our own belief that who we are underneath is not good enough, not loveable. It becomes harder and harder to break with the masks. But a major movement of the spiritual life, he told us, is breaking down this superstructure of identities we build up over who we really are. Letting ourselves be loved in and of ourselves. Embracing our identity, as Henri Nouwen put it, as the Beloved: as God’s beloved sons and daughters, the only identity that has true meaning and value.

Later in the day, I read a bit further with St. Teresa, and came upon this (emphasis mine):

“Self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility … As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God … anything white looks very much whiter against something black, just as the black looks blacker against the white … if we turn from self toward God, our understanding will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice … We shall always be glancing around and saying: ‘Are people looking at me or not?’ ‘If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?’ ‘Dare I begin such and such a task?’ ‘Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?’ … We get a distorted idea of our own nature, and, if we never stop thinking about ourselves, I am not surprised if we experience these fears and others that are still worse. It is for this reason, daughters, that I say we must set our eyes upon Christ, our Good, from whom we shall learn true humility.

And it is all connected: humility, and love—love of God, and the love of others which flows from it—and goodness, which is the fruit of love—sin, which disconnects us from love—mercy, which heals us of sin and brings us back into His love—the Cross, where He died of love for us—the demolishment of our false identities and embracing of our identity as His beloved, which makes us humble, which makes us truly love in return—and all of it only possible because we keep our eyes fixed firmly on Him, who is our beloved and the source and the summit of all our love.

“Often it is the Lord’s will that we should be persecuted and afflicted by evil thoughts, which we cannot cast out, and also by aridities; and sometimes He even allows these reptiles [temptations] to bite us, so that we may learn better how to be on our guard in the future and see if we are really grieved at offending Him. If, then, you sometimes fail, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good, just as a man selling an antidote will drink poison before he takes it in order to prove its power.” St. Teresa once again.

This is all leading up to something, I promise.

The next day, I went to an event called a “mercy night” hosted by a local parish (which happens to be named after St. Paul, I say, as if these things are ever random). A few of my seminarian brothers came as well, and two of my good friends were there leading us in praise music and playing guitar and drums. It was a night of adoration. One of our deacons from Mt. Angel processed around the church with the monstrance, blessing each person individually with the Blessed Sacrament.

And I had an intense experience of unitive prayer, kneeling there before Jesus Christ, my Lord and the love of my life. It was not totally unlike other experiences I’ve had in prayer before, but in the intensity and the physicality of it, it was unique. I felt—drawn to Him, almost magnetically attracted to Him in the Holy Eucharist, felt a stirring deep down inside of me, in ‘viscerae meae’, my innermost parts. I couldn’t break my eyes off of the tiny white host in that great golden monstrance. I felt like I was staring into His own eyes and He was looking back, and I felt this tingling sensation all throughout my face, around the corners of my eyes and mouth, not uncomfortable, but—like nothing I can describe.

It was a moment that passed quickly, but lingered. I felt such a deep and abiding peace, such a profound experience of loving and being loved, such contentment and total satisfaction in His presence that I felt sure I would never sin again, never again would I willfully do anything to divide me from that love. I would be content to rest against his breast, like St. John at the Last Supper, and never move from there until He saw fit to take me from this world to Himself.

After it was all over, four of us seminarians went out to eat together. It was a toss-up between Round Table Pizza, which was 20 minutes away, or a pub down the block called the Gallon House. The pub won out, because it was late and cold and we were starving. When we got there, it was empty except for a couple guys at the bar and one other table with two older women.

We all sat down, ordered burgers and drinks, chatted about this and that, unwinding from the experiences of the night. We had been there for maybe ten minutes when one of my friends stepped outside to take a phone call.

And one of the women from the other table came and sat down in his place. She was obviously drunk, not falling down or anything, but she had clearly had a few. She wanted to know if we had heard this term—not one I’m going to repeat, but one she said her friend had never heard before, that she wanted to know if the ‘general public’ (we, the table of seminarians!) knew about, if we thought it was offensive. Only one of us had heard it before. She explained, for the benefit of the rest. We agreed, yes, it was probably offensive, and not really respectful of human dignity, either.

She looked at us like we were from another planet (and then actually asked, “are you guys, like, from another planet?”) and then went back to join her friend.

We started to resume our conversation.

Then her friend came over. She was, if anything, slightly more drunk than the other woman. Apologized if her friend had been bothering us. But then proceeded to ask us about this same term, complete with graphic descriptions and vulgar language.

We didn’t make a big deal of it, but told her the same thing we had told her friend. It didn’t faze her. She wanted to know who we were, what our deal was, why we were all there together. (To her credit, we were a strange group, three guys varying in age from 19 to 30.) None of us wanted to be the first to say, “we’re seminarians, and we’re studying together to be Catholic priests!”

And then Emilio walked back in. “Oh, you guys made a friend!” He was all gracious, all smiles. “Pull up a chair!” he invited the other woman. “What’s your name? I’m Emilio. Who are we? We’re seminarians,” he wasted no time telling her, and explaining what that meant.

That changed the tone of the conversation, as it tends to do. The woman started laughing and apologizing about 8,000 times (although she didn’t actually change the way she was talking at all). “I’m going to burn in hell,” she said over and over again, confident above our protests to the contrary. “Who walks up to a table full of priests and asks them something like this?” she asked her friend. “Probably only us,” they both agreed.

The revelation of our identites changed the tone, but by no means ended the conversation. When people find out you’re a seminarian, things tends to move quickly to the profound—even from the vulgar. And so we found out that these women work together at a rehabilitation house for adults who had been victims of child sexual abuse, typically went on to become serial abusers themselves, went in and out of various institutions, and ended up in their care. They run this out of an actual house, not an institutional setting: very structured, tightly controlled, but a home. Of course, they were telling us all these horrific stories of the abuses these guys endured and inflicted on others, the things they had seen themselves… but I was struck by what one of them said.

“We have to meet them where they are. A lot of people in the world today think these guys should just be shot,” she said. “Like they’re just a waste of space. And sometimes I think that myself, but you know… they’re human beings deep down inside. Just like I am. Yeah, they’re broken, but so am I. You wouldn’t let these guys out in a neighborhood where kids are playing, but you wouldn’t want to let me walk through a mall with a credit card, either, you know what I mean? They’re broken, but so am I. We have to meet them where they are.”

The woman who said that had ‘no religious anything,’ as she put it. Wasn’t brought up in the faith, never went to church, nothing. The other one had been brought up Catholic, but hadn’t been to church since she was a kid.

“That’s beautiful,” I told her. “Meeting them where they are. That’s exactly how God meets us. Because we are all broken, but he doesn’t expect us to be perfect, to rise up to meet him. He comes down to meet us right where we are.”

She digested that for a minute.

“You guys are really going to be priests?” she wanted to know. Yes, we all agreed.

“And priests can’t get married?” (Everyone’s first question.) No, we all agreed.

“So you mean you guys can never even have sex except with yourselves?” Not even that, we all laughed.

She was incredulous. “How can you make that kind of commitment?” she asked. “That’s not natural!”

“No,” I agreed, “it isn’t. It’s supernatural. It’s a special gift God gives us to do this work.”

She latched onto me after that. “You look like you’re about 16 years old. What made you want to be a priest?”

“God asked me to,” I told her. (Keep it simple.)

“What, and—how did you know?”

I smiled. “Because I gave it a try, and I felt such peace, and such joy, I knew I was doing the right thing.”

“You must have come from a super religious family.”

“Actually,” I told her, “none of my family is Catholic.”

“So how do your parents feel that—you’re going to be a priest and never get married—and they’ll never have grandkids—and—?”

The rest of the sentence was implied. And never have sex. And never be happy. And never live up to your full potential.

“They see how happy I am,” I told her, addressing her real question. “They see how much joy there is in this life. So they support me 100%.” I looked her in the eyes. “You know, there is no joy, no satisfaction greater than doing God’s will.”

She didn’t have a rejoinder for that one.

We spent the next hour answering questions—she had more than enough to go around—and sharing our own stories, talking about her life, her patients, her kids. We talked about suffering, human dignity, the theology of the body. We talked a lot about sex and celibacy. Meanwhile, Emilio and the other woman, the one who had been Catholic, were carrying on a separate conversation next to me. I caught snatches of their conversation from time to time. “So what would you do if you met a girl and you just knew she was the one?” she asked him. And he answered, slowly, sincerely, “you know, I would take that to Jesus Christ—” “And ask him what to do,” she finished the sentence for him, but she was sincere too, not at all dismissive. “That’s beautiful,” she said, with a big smile. It was.

And to make a long story short, by the end of the night they had agreed that they would come to Mass at the Abbey on Sunday. The one woman, who had never been religious, was asking us to pray for her—”pray for me a lot!” she kept saying. “I’m going to burn in hell!”—and to pray for her son, who she said (in different words) was struggling with purity. We all promised we would and asked her to pray for us, too, which she did, right there at the table! The other woman, who had been raised Catholic, was joking about being a nun. “I could see myself as a sista!” she said. “Sista Mary Clarence, like in Sister Act. Could I still wear make-up?”

We ended the night with hugs all around. And the one woman, the one who had never been religious, who even began this sentence by saying “I’m not religious, but…”, said that she felt sure they were supposed to meet us that night. To bring them back down to earth, she said.

After we had parted ways, the four of us were standing outside, huge grins on all of our faces. “I’m surrounded by good men,” my brother Nathan proclaimed, something I had never been more sure of myself than I was that night. We put our fists together and shouted “Ave Maria!”

And Emilio said, “Just think, guys. We could have gone to Round Table.”

It’s mind-boggling to consider just how much God loves us—how, when we open ourselves up completely, He gives us exactly what we need. As I was reflecting on it afterwards, I thought how crazy it was, not just that He had put us in that restaurant at exactly the right time and brought those women over to talk to us, but that every aspect of that night was orchestrated by His hand. That woman was obsessed with sex and how we could possibly live our lives without it, how lonely we would be, how unfulfilled. And yet, just an hour before, God had given me such a profound, intimate, and fulfilling experience of union with Him in prayer. He gave me exactly the graces I needed to be a witness and an instrument of His love for her. To meet her right where she was.

We fall into sin, sometimes the same sin over and over again, and I know how hopeless it can seem—but we should never be discouraged. The very next day after that profound unitive prayer, after that experience of evangelization, I was back in the confessional again. I was so frustrated with myself. But I dragged myself to the Blessed Sacrament, prayed a holy hour, made my confession, prayed some more. And so we go on, fortified by the love of God, renewed by his mercy, never giving up.

God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He wants us to be perfected. 

And there’s a time and a place for making arguments, but we don’t always need to argue all night long. Sometimes the best argument is just the witness of our lives. All we need to do to be witnesses to the love of God is to let ourselves be filled up with His love ourselves, and be open to going where He leads us. “Don’t quench the spirit, man,” as my best friend loves to say.

Incidentally, this is also the friend who, when I told him “I met a girl in a bar last night,” replied immediately, “When does she start RCIA?”

A few miscellaneous thoughts…

…totally unmediated by editing, careful deliberation, or caffeine.

I spoke with Fr. Thomas, my formation director, a few days ago. He is a broad-shouldered Carmelite whose mind works fast and whose sentences often interrupt one another, who is possessed of bright eyes and a keen intellect and who is positively overflowing with wisdom, but who you are just as likely to find on any given night on the court playing basketball in his full habit as in the chapel kneeling quietly in adoration. Most nights, both.

“Are the reasons you are in seminary now different than they were when you first entered?” he asked me (in those or similar words, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal might have it.)

No, I told him—my reason hasn’t changed. Maybe intensified, or maybe I have a deeper understanding of it now, but I am still here for the same reason I came here in the first place, which is to seek the Lord’s will for my life, and to do it with an undivided heart.

“But you could be doing that anywhere,” he challenged me, his eyebrows mischevious. “You could be seeking his will by substitute teaching in Uganda. Why here?”

Ah, I said.

And I told him about the moment when my vocational discernment really started. It was the summer after I was received into full communion with the Church. I had been going to daily Mass regularly, if not quite daily, and I liked to sit in the church after everyone else had gone. There was something special about the silence and the stillness in that wide open, sacred space. The little old ladies who locked up the church would always come up to me and put one hand sweetly on my shoulder and stage-whisper, “You can stay as long as you like, just go out the side door when you’re done,” and then toodle off and pray fifteen decades of the rosary for the holy souls in purgatory, probably.

At that time, I might not have called what I was doing ‘praying’, exactly. Sometimes I might pray the rosary myself in those precious minutes after Mass, but more often I just sat and allowed my thoughts to wander, enjoying the feeling of being wrapped in silence, knowing the holy sacrifice had been celebrated here just minutes before, that God had been incarnate here, that he was still present here!, and the spirit of him hung in the very air I was breathing.

And that particular day, as I was sitting, and thinking, and silent, and still, God brought me to a sudden realization. I could see all my plans for my life, neatly laid out and built one upon the other: graduate high school, move to the city, then college, design school, B.F.A., M.A. maybe… a hip urban flat in Portland or Seattle, a freelance graphic designer, a life with a cool indie soundtrack. (The details got a little fuzzy around there, but the soundtrack was dope.)

And in that moment, for the first time, I could see the foundation those plans were built on, too. And it struck me in one great blow that that foundation, on which I had built my whole life, was gone. Not just shaken, not just painted over, but totally, irrevocably gone, stolen away as if by a thief in the night, and instead I had…

This. This Church, in all its silence and its stillness and its wonder and awesomeness and majesty. I had built a whole structure of plans and goals on shifting sands, without even realizing it, and the tide had come and washed them all away. And here I was, acting as if the structure was still standing. But it wasn’t. And I wasn’t standing on sand anymore. The tides had swept away what little I had painstakingly constructucted of sticks and reeds, and the very sand I had built it on, but it had left me standing on solid rock.

And I thought, okay.

I didn’t feel any despair. Not even a pang of sadness. Because I was reflecting back on the past two years of my life, how very much had changed already. I would never have predicted, two years before, where I would be sitting and what I would be thinking in that moment. I also would never have been able to imagine what joy, what peace, what deep satisfaction, what fulfilment!, but also what excitement, what passion, what longing, desire, would be awakened in my heart—what healing would take place from wounds I wouldn’t even have known I had yet—in short, what an incredible love story I was being swept up in. I was struck, literally struck, almost struck out of my pew by the realization all at once that God had brought me there, and not in an abstract or a theoretical way but actually, patiently, through my years of wandering, loneliness, confusion and doubt, through slow revelation, through gentle nudges from path onto path, from grace unto grace, by a quiet burning in my heart that grew greater and greater, a longing for that love which no one but Him could ever satisfy. And there I was, in His Church, having just received Him into my very self, and I felt in that moment I could die and be perfectly content.

And I prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what you have in store for me, but my life is yours. You can have it all. My plans are nothing compared to the plans you have for me. These past years are proof enough of that. So I surrender it all to you, Lord. Just show me what you want me to do.”

And in the days and weeks after that, as if by clockwork, everyone, and I mean everyone, from the little old ladies of the parish to an old ex-Catholic at an Episcopalian picnic, started asking me if I had considered that I might have a vocation to the priesthood.

And I thought, okay.

When I told him that story, Fr. Thomas immediately made a connection with Scripture which I had never remotely thought of, which is a very Carmelite thing for him to have done.

He handed me the Gospel of St. John, chapter one, pointed to the section beginning with verse 35.

The next day again John stood, and two of his disciples. And beholding Jesus walking, he saith: Behold the Lamb of God. And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turning, and seeing them following him, saith to them: What seek you? Who said to him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? He saith to them: Come and see. They came, and saw where he abode, and they stayed with him that day: now it was about the tenth hour.

“But in the Greek,” he said, “it’s all the same word. ‘Dwell,’ ‘abode,’ ‘stay’—it’s all μένω. It means something like…resting. Just being in a place, you know… Hanging out.”

Which is why I love the Thomas Koller translation of sacred scripture.

“And,” he went on, “these guys, the disciples and John, they followed Jesus, and they hung out with him, and it was such a powerful experience that St. John even remembers the exact time of day it happened, ‘the tenth hour,’ which was about 4:00 in the afternoon.”

It was a kind of proto-holy hour, I told him, that time in the church after Mass. I wasn’t really conscious of my relationship with Jesus yet, wouldn’t have characterized it as “spending time with him” or, God forbid, “hanging out with him”—that kind of thing smacked of evangelical Protestantism for me, even the whole notion of a ‘personal relationship with God’, and I wanted to distance myself from that tradition as much as I could. But God was doing what God always does, reaching out to us where we are, and drawing us gently onward, deeper into the mystery of his love, which is to say, of Him. In that quiet time in the Church, whether I knew it or not, I was “hanging out” with Him: I was staying with Him, dwelling, aboding with Him, or as the Greek dictionary helpfully adds, I was “μένων, lodging, tarrying, loitering, was idle, remaining, abiding, waiting” with Him. And His grace was working on a deeper level in my heart than I was even conscious of, until I was prepared to receive that revelation of the new foundation of my life, and the love which had brought me to it, and for me to offer him my whole life in return.

That idea, of grace working imperceptibly, reminds me of a great deal of reading I’ve been doing recently on the sacred liturgy. Many people, in our Puritan-rooted, Protestant-woven, deeply left-brain dominant society, protest that they “feel nothing” when they go to church. Or that they “get nothing out of it.” Even though they go week after week, it has no bearing on the rest of their lives. They don’t see the point. It’s irrelevant. My faith is about me and God. Why bother with church? they may ask. I can worship God at home or in the forest better.

Contra that mindset, I would like to respond first with a quote from Fr. Jeremy Driscoll OSB, a very holy monk of my very own Mount Angel Abbey, who I am altogether too privileged to know, in his book What Happens at Mass?:

“In the Eucharist, God is acting! He acts to save us. It is a huge event. In fact there is nothing bigger. God has concentrated the entirety of His saving love for the world into the ritual actions and the words of the Eucharistic liturgy.”

And then a longer quote from the inimitable Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, in the introduction of his very aptly titled companion volume, Why Go to Church?:

“But mostly it does not feel like a ‘huge event’. At a confirmation, a boy, asked by the bishop if he would go to church every Sunday, replied, ‘Would you go and watch the same movie every week?’

[…]

The ‘huge event’ of the Eucharist works in our lives in ways that are profound but often barely noticeable and hardly register as experiences at all. It is marvellous if the celebration of the Eucharist is a beautiful, emotional and aesthetic experience. It should be so, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one. Romano Guardini wrote that ’emotion flows in its [the liturgy’s] depth … like the fiery heart of the volcano. The liturgy is emotion, but it is emotion under the strictest control.’

Herbert McCabe OP compared the fruit of prayer to the subtle effects of living in a beautiful room. It does not have the immediate breathtaking effect of a glass of Irish whiskey, but it works at a deeper level. There are people, he says, ‘who do not really feel they have celebrated a Eucharist unless they get some kind of immediate experience of personal warmth and enhanced sensitivity … I agree with those who say they find the Missa Normativa (the modern post-Vatican Catholic Eucharist) a little dull, except that I do not think it is altogether a criticism. A room furnished in good taste is a little dull compared to one covered in psychedelic posters saying ‘God is Love’ and ‘Mary, the ripest tomato of them all.’

Our transformation by God’s grace is a slow business. A generation used to the immediacy of cyber communication might find it hard to believe in. A new version of Monopoly has been invented that does not take more than twenty minutes, otherwise people will lose interest and begin texting their friends. In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy says, ‘I was praying for patience but I stopped … I was afraid I might get it.’ The Eucharist is indeed ‘a huge event’, but it happens, often, at a level of our being of which we may be scarcely aware, as imperceptible as the growing of a tree. This is what John Henry Newman called ‘God’s noiseless work’. We may be like Harry Potter’s uncle and aunt and fat cousin, living boring lives, unaware that battles are being fought in the sky above them between wizards and griffins, only in our case the unobserved drama is at the core of our humanity.”

It took me a long time to understand this. Just tonight, I was talking with a friend who mentioned one of his greatest struggles in prayer is always looking for the outcomes. If he doesn’t feel different afterwards or see a change in his behavior, he confessed, he wonders if he’s been doing it right.

We can all fall into this trap. It’s part culture, part habit, part human nature. But our prayer is not about us. Our prayer is not about the effects it will have or what we may gain from it. Our prayer is about God. Our prayer is about love, like a conversation with your beloved is about love and about them and not about you—like the silent surging of your heart toward your beloved, like the deep connection, or indeed, communion, that cannot be expressed in words.

And along those same lines, I had the great privilege today of attending several lectures on the sacred liturgy, as part of my own Archdiocese of Portland’s Sacred Liturgy Conference. Here are a few selections from my notes.

First, from a talk by Dr. Francisco Romero Carrasquillo on the natural law and its impliactions for divine worship:

“Our nature demands that we personally offer and witness and unite ourselves to a sacrifice. This is lacking in, for example, Islamic and Protestant worship. Christian worship, therefore, should be seen as the perfection of the demands of our nature to offer sacrifice to God (for grace perfects nature.) And this can help us reflect on how we should worship.

We can run into a similar problem as with Islamic and Protestant worship in our own Mass when we miss the aspect of sacrifice, thinking of it primarily in terms of, e.g. a community meal or gathering, instead of what it essentially is. We need to bring that aspect of sacrifice out in the liturgy and be conscious of it. Our worship, for it to be in accordance with the natural law, must be focused on God (because that’s the whole point: giving to God out of justice what he is due). Not to say that other aspects of our worship are bad, but it must be theocentric, God-oriented: other aspects come second. Otherwise we are not really perfecting our natural inclination to worship and ‘doing what is just to give God his due.’

Next, from a talk by His Grace, Archbishop Alexander Sample, on the bishop’s role as guarantor of the sacred liturgy:

“Because far too many do not know the inner meaning of the sacred liturgy, they are tempted to impose other meanings on it, resulting in poor liturgical practice—trying to make the liturgy do something it was never meant to do. Because we don’t know what the Mass is, we try to make it relevant, to use it to communicate this or that point. No! The Mass has an inner meaning. Everything we do in the Mass must bring out the inner meaning and let it shine forth. If we know what we’re doing, that will tell us how to do it.”

Thirdly, from a talk by Fr. Pius X. Harding, OSB, on the nature of the sacred liturgy as gift and revelation:

“The relativism and subjectivism of our modern culture is a product of this modernist thought, seeing it [religion] as pious silliness or an absurd construct … One is free to choose religion, like one chooses fast food restaurants (‘give me what I want, as much as I want, when I want it, and don’t tell me no!’), subject to disputes of personal taste. If something is meaningful to me, and to my subjective pursuit of the divine, ‘why not?’

But the sacred liturgy is not subject to sentiment. Our celebration of the sacred liturgy is the response, the fiat, to the revelation of God, which in fact is an invitation to communion with him. God alway shows us how he is to be worshipped.”

There is a theme running through all of these talks. The liturgy is both gift and response. It is in itself a gift from God and it is our response to God for the immeasurable gifts he has given us. It is both the sacrifice of God on the cross and our sacrifice to God in our worship of Him. We do not decide what the Mass means; we do not innovate on it or seek to improve it; we do not impose our own meanings upon it. We do not presume to be better than the Mass or than its maker.

The Mass is what the Mass is. It is the representation of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. It works imperceptibly in us, moving us from grace unto grace, perfecting our human nature and drawing us deeper into the mystery of His love.

And one final quote (this one quite short), from a talk by Dr. Lynne Bisonette-Pitre:

The liturgy transforms our embodied nature. We are healed when we are holy. To be holy is to be healed.

Can’t say it any better than that.

A profound vocation of healing

“Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature … And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary?

[…]

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference.

[…]

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being.

[…]

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit … It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can.

[…]

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love.

[…]

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe.

[…]

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice—not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it)—your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.”

—Excerpts from A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write by Melissa Pritchard.

On Love

I have a friend from way back who recently met nine of my seminarian brothers at one time, which might be a harrowing experience for anybody, I’m sure. Afterwards, I asked her what she had thought of them, and she exclaimed with a huge grin, “You’re all such nerds!”

“Spiritual nerds,” another friend was quick to clarify, as if to soften the blow. They both laughed and agreed.

That phrase stuck with me over the next couple of days, bubbling up again and again in my mind. “Spiritual nerds.” It wasn’t meant to have any negative implications, of course—in high school, all three of us had been nerds, and if anything, this was their way of saying “these guys are like us!”: the joyful discovery that seminarians are not plaster saints, hands folded at a forty-five degree angle, right thumb over left, from the womb, but actual flesh and blood men with personalities and quirks and diverse histories and (ahem) singing abilities.

Still, it wasn’t the phrase I would have chosen to describe the group of guys who had come with me that night, which included, to pick a couple at random, a former inmate, a high school football player, and a guy whose vocation story includes words like “rodeo”. There are seminarians I could see being called ‘nerds’: the liturgy geeks among us, for example, who debate minutiae like whether we ought to say “my mouth shall” or “will proclaim your praise” at the invitatory, or whether the Dominican arc or Roman ninety-degree turn is the more ancient custom; the ones, maybe, who study the Second Vatican Council documents or read German philosophers for fun, or engage in logical analysis of Facebook memes—all of which are definitely things I have done.

But the difference seemed obvious, as I reflected on it further, between the men who were spiritual and the spiritual nerds. Nerds are people who take an academic interest in their passions. Call us the St. Thomas Aquinases. We’re likely to be converts or reverts because we undertook a serious study of the faith and were astonished to find that it was true, that it had logical integrity and historical continuity. We’re excited about how it all works, history, theology, philosophy, the lot. Study becomes a form of prayer for us.

But there are also St. John of the Cross types, who spend hours in the chapel in quiet contemplation of our Lord. There are St. Sebastians, not so interested in theory, maybe, but ready to step up and go the long haul, whatever needs to be done, no matter what pain or hardship they face. There are St. Francises, eager to get through classes so they can get back to ministry, and Blessed Fra Angelicos, always ready to go back to their rooms to draw or paint or write down some idea, express some particular beauty revealed to them in God’s creation.

There is a huge diveristy among the men God calls out of the world to discern on this holy mountain. Not all of us are nerds. None of us are easily categorized. I can see aspects of myself and my brothers in all these saints and many more besides. But one thing we have in common is that we are spiritual, which of course means that we are filled up with the breath of the Holy Spirit, who expresses Himself in a beautiful panoply of gifts and talents and graces.

A holy monk, priest and professor of Mt. Angel passed away two weeks ago, at the end of a long battle with cancer. I was so struck by these simple words he said, these heart-rending words, which Abbot Gregory related to us at his funeral homily:

“I love you so much, Jesus Christ!”

It would be easy to skim over that. It would be easy to smile knowingly and dismiss those words, we products of a post-Christian culture, who have grown up seeing the name “Jesus” and that word “love” plastered on every highway billboard, felt banner, Evangelical church poster and late-night televangelist ad. It would be easy to explain them away as sentiment or simple piety.

It would be easy to categorize the kind of men who devote their lives to the Word of God, the sacred liturgy, ecclesiology, and all the rest, as “spiritual nerds”—as if “spirituality” were just another interest or area of study, like anthropology, or linguistics, or French hats.

But Fr. Thien was just such a man, and his life is not so reducible. Others may devote their lives to a study of this or that discipline; you will not find them on their deathbeds exclaiming “O linguistics, how I love you! O anthroplogy, I love you so much!”

The essential fact about the men God calls to his holy priesthood or to the monastic life is not that they are nerds. Some are! Many aren’t. The essential thing is that we are deeply, passionately, profoundly in love with Jesus Christ. We come to the Church as who we are, academics or athletes or poets or politicans or engineers. We retain our individuality because God glories in the plurality of creation, and “Christ plays in ten thousand places / to the Father through the features of men’s faces!” But despite our different passions, personalities, abiltiies and approaches to life, we are all here because God called us out of the world into deeper intimacy with Him, and we responded. The Catholic faith is not a discipline or an abstraction or a theory. It is for us, to quote G.K. Chesterton, a love affair. Not a ‘what’ in which we’re interested, but a ‘who’, whom we love, with everything we are.

Let us pray, then, that we all might live a life like Fr. Thien’s of total self-giving love to the One who gave Himself for us, so that when our time comes to be born into eternal life, we may give our last breath just as he did. “Jesus, I love you so much.”

“Give your light to my lantern, I beg you, my Jesus, so that by its light I may see that holy of holies which receives you as the eternal priest entering among the columns of your great temple. May I ever see you only, look on you, long for you; may I gaze with love on you alone, and have my lantern shining and burning always in your presence.”

—From an instruction by Saint Columban, abbot