Feed My Sheep

I want to apologize in advance: this is going to be an informal post. I’m tired, but I have a lot of impressions in my mind that I have to commit to text so that they can become clear in my own head. And several of my friends from home have asked me to share more of my day to day experiences with them. I’m not sure what the best way to do that is going to be—I’m toying with sending a weekly email blast, but tonight I remembered I had a blog, so this is the medium of the moment.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the very last day of the liturgical year, I served a funeral with my pastor at my home parish. It was very interesting: the woman who died was a daily Mass-goer, but the whole family was fallen away from the Church, except for her ex-husband. He came up to me and gave me some advice about perseverance in the spiritual life and was all excited to meet a seminarian. The others, God bless them, hardly knew an aspergillum from a dipstick. Anyway, I served the funeral—which was fine, in essence more or less a normal Mass, just with the blessing of the woman’s ashes and an obituary afterwards. (And a man came forward and tried to demand Holy Communion. Father said “are you Catholic?”, and he said “do I have to be?” which, well, answered that question).

Then we went to lunch. But then we went to the internment. And that was a very different experience.

It was just the close family, Father Manuel and I, and a bagpipe player. And the family was so happy as we gathered there at the burial plot, laughing and cracking jokes. Father sad it was the happiest burial he’d ever been to. But there was also a real sense of loss. Father blessed the ground with holy water, then he had me lead the optional prayers for a lay minister in the Rite of Commital, and we prayed together the “we commit to the earth the body of your servant…” and the “eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord…” And he introduced me to the family as his priest in training. And I— I’ll admit, when he introduced me to the bagpipe player that way, I felt proud. When he introduced me to the family that way, I felt unworthy. 

There was a boy, who couldn’t have been more than a couple years younger than me. He was freckly and gangly and had a really poorly-fitting suit on with these high-top sneakers, and he had been yawning and stretching really obviously during the Mass, and now here he was crying at his grandmother’s graveside. And here I was, I don’t know how many years his elder, but I didn’t feel like it was nearly enough, first serving at the Holy Mystery of the altar, now assisting at the commitment of this woman’s body to the earth and the commendation of her soul to God.

I hugged the deceased woman’s sister, her best friend, her brothers, who had dug their sister’s grave, and then her grandson. And Father hugged everyone, squeezing shoulders, holding people close, holding the women’s heads as they sobbed into his stole, clapping the men on the back, comforting them. And… we left. Our duty was to that moment. The blessing of the earth, the commendation of the soul, the commitment of the body, the comforting of the grieving. We had been a priestly presence to a family who had not known the inside of the Church or the grace of a sacramental blessing in probably decades, and they welcomed us back into their family like they had been daily Mass-goers themselves, so hungry were they for…blessings, holy water, prayer, liturgy, the presence of a priest, the feeling of being loved, cared for, not abandoned by God. I mean, a man demanded Holy Communion, for crying out loud, who probably hadn’t so much as thought about Communion in 20, 30 years. And Father told me, “That’s the power of these moments. Sometimes that can be the reason for suffering. God takes a woman to Himself and saves a whole family.”

Which brings us to today. Last night, I ran into Marco, a good friend of mine and one of my seminarian brothers from the Diocese of Baker. He didn’t seem to be feeling well, and told me he had been having stomach pain all day, but now it had moved more to his side. He had had to leave Mass that morning because he felt sick, and hadn’t eaten anything all day. When he said the pain had moved, I warned him it might be his appendix. I told him to go see the seminary infirmary first thing in the morning, and to call me if it got worse.

Today, he called me during my ancient lit class. Yep, appendicitis, or so quoth the infirmarian, but they wanted him to go to the hospital to be sure.

I had only one appointment that afternoon, so I ran and got my car, weaving through a Canadian tour group visiting the abbey, picked him up, and drove him to Silverton, which is the closest hospital to our holy hilltop. They took him in for an X-ray and warned me it would be a few hours. I went back to the seminary for my spiritual direction appointment. As it was drawing to a close, Marco called me back. It was confirmed, swollen appendix, needed to be removed right away. They had scheduled surgery for 7:00. As he was calling, it was almost 5.

So I ran up to his room to get him a few things (breviary, cell phone charger, pillow), told my formation director and the president-rector of the seminary the news, and headed back to the hospital to meet him. By the time I got there, he was already on some painkillers—nothing too strong yet, but enough that he couldn’t speak English. He asked me to call his mom and tell her the news. He was scared. First surgery ever. His mom was worse. Her son was in pain, going into surgery in another country, and she couldn’t be there to hold his hand. I called her again after it was over, almost 3 hours later, and she told me tearfully she had been praying the whole time.

We had both missed evening prayer at the seminary, so we read it together from iBreviary. He insisted that we pray in English even though he stumbled over the sentences. When we were done, I put my hands on his forehead and prayed over him in Spanish, defiantly.

Then came a knock at the door—my formator, Marco’s formator, and Msgr. Betschart, the president-rector, all come to make sure that he was okay. A confused murmuring followed them all the way up the hall, three priests in a secular hospital. They anointed him there and then, minutes before the surgery was scheduled to begin, and Monsignor motioned for me to lay hands on him too, which I did. Again, I felt totally, completely unworthy, and again, like my participation in the internment made me realize how unworthy I was even to serve at the funeral Mass, my recognition of my own unworthiness to participate in the bestowment of sacramental grace upon my friend at that moment made me realize how unworthy I was to have prayed over him myself a few minutes earlier. Who am I? I thought—who am I, that I should commend a stranger to the earth and ask God to take her to his breast—who am I, that I should lay my hands on my friend, and brother, and ask God to preserve him in safety and in health—what right do I have to do any of this? To ask God to do anything?

And I think the answer is: none whatsoever.

Like the man who came to Father Manuel, demanding to receive Holy Communion.

“Are you Catholic?” Father asked him, holding the Most Precious Body of He Who Is, the Word made flesh, which the other man made a grab for.

“Do I have to be?”

“Yes,” he told him gently, “you do.”

“Well,” the other man retorted, “then I’m Catholic for today.”

Father just smiled. “May the blessing of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit descend upon you and remain with you always.” He made the sign of the cross over him, and the man went away in peace.

He had no right to receive Holy Communion. But then, none of us do. There are rules about who may receive the Most Blessed Sacrament—confirmed Catholics, of the age of reason, who have made their First Holy Communion, confessed their sins, are in the state of grace, and in full spiritual communion with the Church—and when: in the context of Holy Mass, or Anointing of the Sick, or if they are homebound or in an emergency. But nowhere in canon law does it say that those who meet the requirements to receive Holy Communion are therefore worthy to receive. No man or woman on the face of this earth could ever so much as dream to be worthy.

The whole and entirety of our faith is contained in the mystery of the Eucharist. God, He Who is, the creator of the universe, became created man in the Incarnation, which we are anticipating in this Advent season. God, He Who Is, Lord of all creation, He who set the stars in their orbits, “who taught every tree its leaf,” in the beautiful words of Virgil, He who “knit me together in my inmost parts,” in the words of the psalmist—God became man and died, died the most horrific death, suffered as much as anyone has ever suffered, and in his death bore all our sufferings.

And God, He who felt the abandonment of his friends, their betrayal, their denial, who felt his hands and feet nailed to the wood of the Cross, who felt his side pierced with a lance, who hung between heaven and earth at Calvary and surrendered his spirit up to the Father—He died, and arose to Heaven, and He continues to give Himself to us, day and night, from now until the end of the world, in the continuing, timeless, eternal sacrifice, the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist, in the breaking of the bread, which is the body, broken, on the cross.

No one is worthy to celebrate the sacraments. No one is worthy to be ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. No one is worthy to so much as pray to the Father for our intentions. St. Louis de Montfort says that even the best thing we can do, even our best works which we offer up to God, are like a peasant putting a worm-eaten apple before the king. Got that? Because we are tainted, fallen men and women, all of us. Even our best works are clouded by evil intentions. Our hearts are like muddy water, Christ’s living water mixed with the dirt of sin. No one is worthy.

And yet.

By His sacrifice, God purifies us. He sanctifies us. He justifies us. He created us perfect, and perfect He wants us to be. He created us in love, and He wants us to love Him. He wants us to be with Him in eternity forever—and none of us are worthy, but our own unworthiness is irrelevant because the God who created all things loves us personally, and particularly, and forever. We can dare to come before God with our petitions because God is our own Father, who loves us and desperately wants the best for us. Some of us are called to priesthood. We can dare to celebrate the Mass, consecrate Jesus Christ’s own Body and Blood, feed His sheep, heal his people, comfort the dying, the grieving, the sick, not out of our own worthiness, or our own holiness, but because it is the service to which God calls us and the office to which He ordains us.

And I, as a seminarian?—There are moments when I am conscious of the importance, the radicalness of my vocation, and I am proud. And there are moments when I am even more conscious of it, and I am terrified. I know that Fr. Peter, Fr. Terry, Msgr. Betschart: they’re not worthy either, but they have decades of experience and wisdom on me. They have titles in the Church, liturgical roles, they teach, they bless, they sanctify. They may not be worthy, but they seem worthy! I don’t know the interior state of their souls, but I know mine. It’s a mess in there. I can serve at the altar, or pray over a friend informally, and feel like I’m doing good, but when I’m called upon to do the work of the priest, to commit, to commend, to comfort, to lay on hands, I feel like a fraud. “I know myself,” I think. “I’m not good enough to do this.”

I forget that God knows me better than I know myself. 

I forget that it is the particular vocation of the priest to surrender everything to God: to surrender his own will, his own preferences, his own comfort, his own security. His own choice of which ministries to perform and how to perform them, and where, and when, and with whom. Everything.

“I’m not good enough!” wails my heart.

But Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

I stayed with Marco until he went into surgery, and I kept vigil until he came out again. The other priests came and went. A few of his seminarian brothers from the Diocese of Baker visited after he was out of surgery and made him laugh. Fr. Peter came back, fed him ice chips out of a paper cup, and told horror stories of his experiences in hospital when he lived in Italy, stories of unimaginable terror and unbelievable grace. And I stayed by his side. Gave him juice. Called his mom again. Brought him his pillow from home. Prayed with him. Prayed over him. Joked with him. (“They showed it to me!” he told me blearily. “My appendix! It was like I gave birth to a mouse!”) Kept his spirits up until the nurse added morphine to his IV and he finally began to fall asleep. It was almost 8 hours from start to finish.

As I was leaving he looked at me and very clearly said “Thank you. Matthew. Carnal,” which means “friend,” or “brother,” or “flesh of my flesh.”

And I’m not worthy of that kind of compliment, either.

My math professor this morning, who I’ve gotten to know pretty well over the course of this semester, told me at the end of our oral exam, “You have a way about you that is very comforting. You’re obviously very talented, and there’s a lot you can do to help others, but you do it without it feeling patronizing. And I think you’ll make a fine priest.”

I’m certainly not worthy of that. 

But that’s a kind of ministry I can embrace. I can’t wrap my head around celebrating the sacraments yet, but ordination to the priesthood, should it be the will of God that I ever get that far, is still a good seven or eight years away. I can understand a ministry of presence. I can understand dropping everything to take my brother to the hospital and staying with him til the very end. And I can understand dropping everything to be with a family of strangers the weekend after Thanksgiving at the burial of their mother and grandmother and sister, as terrifying as it might be. I can’t understand being a priest. I can’t understand the sacraments, the mystery of Heaven touching earth, of the divine communicating through fallen, mortal matter. But I can understand being a priestly presence, being the presence of God when people are at their neediest, their hungriest, their most vulnerable. And I think that might be the first step to understanding priesthood. 

Just my reflections on these past few days. More to come as they come.

P.S. Marco is fine, and should be back to the seminary by tomorrow afternoon. Your prayers are appreciated. God love you.

Liturgy of the Hours

The greatest change for me in coming to seminary has been the rhythm of life here. Life moves fast, but everything is grounded in the liturgy: morning prayer, Mass, adoration, evening prayer, benediction, night prayer. There’s a monastic sacredness to the everyday. There’s a security in the sense that, no matter what happens in between, it all centers back on God soon enough. There’s a stillness, a tranquility, a sense of waiting in readiness and openness and trust, like the servant in the Gospel of Luke who waits for his master’s return through the night.

I’m working on a less contemplative post for you guys in the near future, but for now, on this feast day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I would just like to share a little of that peace.

“We just stepped inside a big, Gothic cathedral. The lights are all out, except for one that brightly shines on the main altar. There, in the center of the altar, sending splintering rays in a thousand directions, stands a brilliantly golden monstrance with Jesus in the Eucharist enthroned at its center. Behold him there as he waits for his friends to come to him.

Now look. See that people do come and go. Many ask for something, ‘Jesus, give me this, help that person, remove this cross…’ and then they leave. The Lord Jesus, who is so kind and good, readily gives to them.

Now look. Saint Thérèse has just arrived. Observe her prayer as she looks deeply into the Heart of Jesus, truly present there in the Blessed Sacrament. What’s her attitude toward him? Interesting. Her face is full of compassion. It’s as if she sees that this good Lord who gives and gives is tired, sorrowful, and himself in need of help and consolation.

Now listen to what she says. Did you catch that? She’s not asking Jesus to give to her, rather, she’s asking what she can give to him.”

 May the Lord God bless us, protect us from all evil, and lead us to everlasting life.

Be a Saint

“Happy name day to me!” I exclaimed jubilantly to an empty chapel early this morning, when I turned to September 21st in the proper of saints, and saw the solemnity of the day. It must be the Benedictine influence—when a novice makes his solemn vows, he takes on a new name, as a sign of his new life in Christ, and from then on, he celebrates his name day rather than his birthday. I’ve never celebrated mine before, but of course, we Catholics are a “both/and” people, and we take the best from all traditions…

It’s not just that I haven’t celebrated this day before, though. I’ve never spent time in communion with St. Matthew at all. He isn’t my patron (St. Dominic holds that honor), nor even, technically, my namesake (although my mother says she chose the name because she read that it means “Gift of God” in Hebrew, so I have a sneaking suspicion the Evangelist was interceding even then).

Pictured: St. Matthew, totally evangelizing.
Pictured above: St. Matthew, hardcore evangelizing.

Frankly, of the four gospels, I might even say Matthew’s is my least favorite! I love the Gospel of John best—his focus on Mary, his discourse on the Bread of Life, the web he weaves of patterns and themes, symbols and signs, the way he lingers on Jesus’ miracles, pointing to Jesus as the Son of God—the subtlety of his writing!—the way he leads the reader to ask, from the very beginning, “who is this man?”—and the finesse with which he brings the story to its conclusion, designed to bring you to your knees in wonder, and love, and praise.

John shows us Jesus, the Son of God; Luke shows us the Son of Man, a model of compassion and prayer; Mark shows Him as a revolutionary, his gospel “like a hastily printed revolutionary tract,” as Tom Wright puts it, “stuffed into a back pocket, and frequently pulled out, read by torchlight, and whispered to one’s co-conspirators”—but what of the Gospel of Matthew? To me, it has always seemed like the driest gospel, having neither John’s subtlety, inviting you to dwell in mystery, nor Mark’s breathlessness, beckoning you to take up your Cross and follow Him, nor even Luke’s abiding kindness!—

And yet.

The Office of Readings had for us today a homily written by Saint Bede the Venerable, back in the year 700 or so.

Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men … Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps … Notice also the happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation. He took up his appointed duties while still taking his first steps in the faith, and from that hour he fulfilled his obligation and thus grew in merit.

I couldn’t help but draw the parallels. “Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words.” Why, yes he did. My conversion began by reading the words of the Church fathers and the saints, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas (that old ox, still winning converts 750 years after his death). I remember reading the Anima Christi for the first time, or St. Patrick’s Breastplate, copying them down by hand into my notebook so I could carry them with me physically, turning their strange and beautiful words over and over in my head, little knowing that like a salve they were penetrating in and through me, right into the blood, deep into my heart.

“By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace.” I came to my first Mass because I felt an unshakeable urging, impossible to ignore, beating in the back of my head like my own pulse. When I got there, when Jesus became present in the Holy Eucharist, when the people of God fell to their knees, I fell with them, and I fell in love.

“He instructed him to walk in his footsteps.” I knew my life was changed forever. I was alone in the church one day after Mass, that summer of my falling-in-love, kneeling before the crucifix, staring at my Lord, with barely the slightest inkling of how deeply I would one day love Him, and yet I knew my life was no longer my own, to plan and direct and do with as I would. I prayed, quietly, weeping, ‘Lord, I give my life to you. Lead me, and I will follow.” Little did I know I was always His. Little did I know, as the psalmist says, “you wove me in my mother’s womb,” or as my friend Jeff Wheaton told me one day, when I mentioned I had been officially accepted as a seminarian, “It’s not just now officialyou know. It’s been official since before you were born. You’re part of a story that was written before the world began.”

“The happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations…” The times I would mouth the words of the Eucharist prayer to myself and picture myself, one day, at the altar of the Lord, a thought impossible and magnificent enough to bring me almost to tears. I was in love with the idea of the priesthood long before I believed it could be a real possibility for my life. Jesus planted the seeds of my vocation early: I thought about ways I could have improved my parish’s confirmation and RCIA program while I was going through it. While I worked in the call center, I built a working prototype phone tree for an imaginary parish, just to see how it was done. I was looking forward to a priestly life in all its aspects, the mystery and the mundane, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

“No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation.” Here, at least, the parallel falters. Matthew drew a whole crowd! I’ve drawn a few a little ways, but when they falter, when they stumble, or when they stand still, looking nervously at the narrow way, the rocky path bounded by thorns up to the mountaintop—have I been there to pull them by the hand? Have I urged them onward? “Look, I know it’s hard, but the choice not to go is not worth considering, not when you consider what lies at the end of the journey”—I’ve never said. “I know you’re afraid; let me introduce you to the man who conquered fear. I can see you’re suffering; let me help you hand that over to the man who conquered death”—I’ve never done, or at least I feel I’ve never done enough.

Today marks the beginning of my fifth week at Mt. Angel Seminary. I know that might seem abrupt, since my last post mentioned I had just been accepted to apply, but I don’t believe in a lot of recapping, so let me show you this video recap of our orientation week and go from there.

Life here is incredible, which I do mean in the slavishly literal sense, “unbelievable”. We have Mass every morning, we pray the major hours of the Divine Office together every day, we have adoration and benediction before Vespers in the abbey church every afternoon, we pray the rosary together after evening prayer every night. We have a chapel in the basement of the building where I live, with a tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed. I can walk downstairs any hour of the day or night and be with Jesus, in the flesh. The classes so far are great. The feeling of brotherhood might be the greatest blessing of all. The sheer fraternity, the sense of being together on a journey, has been here almost since day one, and now, five weeks in, some of these guys have become some of my closest friends. It seems at once like the most natural thing in the world, because it fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart, and the most impossible thing in the world, that this place should exist, and I should be a part of it. I think of my life a couple of years ago, how utterly unable to imagine any of this I would have been, and I feel like dropping to my knees in wonder and praise.

I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s perfect here. The seminary is 200-odd imperfect, very consciously imperfect men, striving toward holiness. We can be uncharitable, get mad, fight, make mistakes, break rules, waste time, drive each other crazy, just like anybody else. Classes can be boring. Prayer can be dry. Days can drag on and on. But the point is, we’re striving. We’re surrounded by our brothers who are striving just as hard. Even when we’re at our worst, we’re surrounded by other guys we love and trust who will lift us up and spur us on unceasingly toward Heaven.

Boy, do I have stories to share, but I’m going to break them up into separate posts over multiple days. Let me conclude, as we should conclude all things, with a prayer—and a song:

God of mercy,
you chose a tax collector, Saint Matthew,
to share the dignity of the apostles.
By his example and prayers
help us to follow Christ
and remain faithful in your service.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

So here’s one you haven’t heard before…

It’s a cool Friday evening, and I’m sitting on a bench, reading a book by Cardinal Dolan. I’ve been fasting—though I am drinking coffee, because I’m a Portland seminarian, and it’s generally accepted that if you pierced one of our sides, blood and coffee would flow out. The bell tolls for night prayer, so I gather myself and walk up to the abbey church. It’s empty, apart from the monks in their choir stalls, and one guy in the front row.

Naturally, I go up and sit next to him. Turns out it’s my buddy Emilio. After we commend our spirits into the hands of our Lord, we step out together into the darkness beyond the church doors. It’s still cool, not cold yet. He says, “Do you want to go to McDonald’s?” My stomach says yes, but I stand firm. I tell him, “I’ve been fasting. I’ll go with you—I don’t think I want to eat anything, though.”

So we drive to McDonald’s. He turns up The Head and the Heart and sings like he’s on stage, pounding the steering wheel, conducting with one hand. I know there’s California, Oklahoma, and / all of the places I ain’t ever been to, but / down in the valley, with / whiskey rivers / these are the places you will find me hidin’. You feel like you can almost see music by watching him sing. I don’t even know the words and I can’t help but sing along at the top of my lungs.

A couple of Filet o’Fish sandwiches later, we’re heading back to the car, and we hear cheering, and a marching band. It’s coming from beyond the bushes behind the McDonald’s. “Dude,” Emilio looks right at me. “That sounds like high school football!”

Beyond the bushes are some railroad tracks, and beyond that, a fence, and beyond that, a high school, where, yes, a football game is in progress. Half-time. Homecoming night. Silverton vs. Lebanon, and the home team is doing well. It’s 28-0 by the time we join the crowd, from our vantage point in the bushes, across the railroad tracks. “Man, I miss high school,” Emilio tells me approximately one hundred times, while we watch the band play, and homies throw a football back and forth on the school track until a teacher takes it away from them. He announced a football game once, he says. He was the guy who ran up and down in front of the stands with the school flag.

We are not alone in the bushes behind the McDonald’s. There is a woman there, middle-aged, whose name is literally Latonya, watching the game with her grandson, Everett, probably 6-8 years old, who introduces himself by telling us that he plays football too, and “we have to win this game!” he exclaims, bouncing up and down with the force of his conviction. He wears his own Silverton Foxes jersey as proudly as anyone has probably worn anything, ever, in the history of the human race.

So we watch Silverton’s homecoming game, something I never even did at my own high school, Latonya and Everett and Emilio and I. She asks if we go to school there. We laugh. “Alumni?” she guesses. “No,” we tell her. “We’re seminarians, from Mount Angel.”

Oh, she knows all about Mt. Angel. She used to be a police officer in the town at the bottom of the hill. She remembers patrolling in the dead of night, up and down the winding road past the Stations of the Cross to the abbey. “Where are you from?” she asks us, and we tell her, Bakersfield, and Roseburg. “What’s your goal?” she wants to know. “Just priesthood, or…?” She trails off, unsure how to phrase her question, which is: “What are you two doing with your lives?”

We help her out, tell her our vocation stories, explain how the seminary works and where we’ll go after we’re finished. Invite her up to the abbey anytime. She says she wants to bring the little guy up there to see the museum. We all cheer when Silverton scores a touchdown. It’s a rout. Latonya says she’s never liked it when the loser doesn’t even stand a chance.

Finally, my stomach gets the better of me. “The liturgical day ends at sunset, right?” I ask, meaning “the time for fasting is over and I need some food,” only Emilio knows what I mean already without my having to explain, so we say our good-byes and exit the bush.

And who should we see in the drive through but two of our fellow seminarians? Picture, if you will: Emilio and I, disheveled, picking our way out of the bushes behind the McDonald’s, in the dark—followed by a middle-aged woman—followed by a kid. “Ooh, I’m gonna tell formation!” Ivan cackles, as they pull up to the window. “I’m gonna tell your bishop!”

We drive past them on our way out. Emilio turns up the stereo—it’s mariachi now—and sings along at the top of his lungs. I still don’t know the words. Still can’t help but sing too.

Dream of Happiness

JP2 Jesus

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness. He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you. He is the beauty to which you are so attracted. It is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.

It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”

St. John Paul II, pray for us!

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair!”

I was recently reminded of the value of thinking publicly. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one I haven’t ever practiced regularly, and not at all recently. I found myself nodding along vigorously with Clive Thompson when he says he feels like he’s losing his ability to think:

“I’ve increasingly begun to feel intellectually claustrophic. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a cabin fever of the mind. The symptoms: I’ll get obsessed with a particular line of research, chewing away at it for days or weeks, only to realize it’s a) kind of half-baked or b) super interesting but not at all useful to my work. Or I’ll read a fascinating white paper, write a bunch of notes on it, but never crystallize a solid analysis.”

You can read the whole thing over at Collision Detection, but “intellectually claustrophobic” basically encapsulates my mental state whenever I’ve sat down to write in recent memory. The problem, I think, is twofold. I’m stuck writing stories I don’t want to tell, and I can’t quite capture the stories I do. In the past, I overcame this by jumping from project to project—if floundering around in prose, I’d sketch out a poem; if stuck on a verse, I’d blast out a stream of consciousness, and there were always journal entries and essays to pad out the gaps. (Ah, education. These days, my writing is less literary and a lot more, well…)

wink

I needed a space in which my trains of thought could freely go off the tracks, in which I could expound on philosophy or pound out a half-baked poem or the middle chapter of a story I had no intent to finish, and in which I could also talk about my life and my faith (to contextualize the art, to frame the discussions, but more importantly to blow off steam). And I became convinced it needed to be public—or at least have other people reading it who might bother me if I stopped. After all, the journal I was able to keep up the longest was the one my senior English teacher was collecting every couple weeks, to keep me accountable. Bienvenue, friends, and thanks for accepting the invitation to be my support system’s support system.

"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”

Today’s title quote is, of course, my man JP2. He’s a saint now. You may have heard of him.

Mea culpa, Papa. This morning, I abandoned myself to despair. Circumstances confluenced, of course, as they tend to do—if that’s even possible as a transitive verb. Too little sleep, cloudy grey morning, grouchy Matt right after waking up, guilt over grouchiness only increasing the net grouch factor. Losing voice, a little bit. Taking calls anyway.

(I tend to identify with the world in terms of color. Most of the time, it’s painted in bright pastels—even if the background is dark, there are splashes of color standing out in counter-relief. Other days, it’s chalk and graphite all the way down. Today was the latter, heavy on the greys.)

A lady called in to say her mother passed away, and insisted we were still charging her credit card every month. We weren’t, incidentally, but she screamed and cursed until I had to hang up on her. I pride myself on almost never having a call I can’t deescalate, but this lady, this morning, made me want to walk out of the center and never come back. She shook me up. I took my lunch an hour early and went and sat in the rain, by the river, quietly despairing.

My problem, of course, was not with this random woman who took out her frustrations on a dazed voice at the other end of a phone line, nor with the company I have to defend for charging her elderly mother’s credit card in the first place, nor even with being caught in between them, uncomfortable though it was. The problem was that I hadn’t been to Mass all week.

I know the symptoms, and it’s not just that all the color leaks out of the world. All the energy leaks out of me, too. All the hope, all the joy, all the good humour. A slow, spiritual starvation, slow because I never notice it at first. On Monday, I’m still satiated from the Sunday feast. Tragedy may strike, but I bounce back. On Tuesday, I have enough energy left to debate the Mormon missionaries in the street. By Wednesday, I’m lethargic, but I soldier on. I try other ways to generate energy—I go up into the hills, I go for a run, I meet up with this friend, that friend. I try to fill myself up with food that does not satisfy. On Thursday, I drink too much coffee and just try to make it through the day, try to ignore the cynicism in my thoughts, the familiar blunt edge on my tongue, the dullness creeping back into my heart. Then Friday strikes, and it’s all I can do to hold back tears in the rain.

“We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!” 

I got an email from the Archdiocese vocations office, during this rainstorm of moodiness.  “Father John would like you now to go ahead and apply to Mt. Angel Seminary.” Just that. But the timing was impeccable, and I got up and went to Mass.

The difference afterwards would, of course, be incredible if it were not so obvious. One day last week, I woke up and went for a five-mile run without having eaten or drank anything in about 16 hours. “I wonder why I’m so dizzy and seeing black spots everywhere?” I thought, shortly before I passed out.

I wonder if it’s something about my personality, that I keep pushing and pushing, without even noticing that I’m running on empty, right up until my blood sugar is so low that I no longer have any choice but to lie down and sleep, right up until my soul is so battered and exhausted that I have to drag myself to Jesus’ feet.

Christian without joy is either not a Christian or he is sick.” Papa Francesco hit it on the head in his homily today, as per usual. “The Christian vocation is this: to remain in the love of God, that is, to breathe, to live of that oxygen, to live of that air.

Liturgy of Hours

How much easier to believe,
at a warm Thursday Mass on the first day of spring,
when a stranger takes your hand between his own
and whispers (in a voice that threatens tears)
“the peace and love of Jesus Christ be with you now, my brother”
that Our Lord dwells in the hearts of men.

How much harder to see Him
in the weathered face of the homeless man
who, walking toward you on the sidewalk,
his processional a litany of curses
concluding with “and what are you, twelve?”,
swerves only an inch to avoid knocking you into the street.

How much harder to hear Him
in the anonymity of the call
which turns abusive,
or in the rough voice of the teenager
sitting sentinel on someone else’s fence
who calls “sup, bro!”, who you ignore.

How blinding is the sin of pride!
(“If only they knew who you were.”)
How difficult to see with eyes turned down to a glowing screen,
or inward, ever inward! or to hear,
through a Bluetooth headset,
a voice, in the wilderness, crying out.

All vice is virtue twisted, laughs the serpent.
(“They will have more respect when you wear a Roman collar.”)
So wide the gulf between us, brothers all!
We brothers, tearing at each other’s throats,
or hearts, with words,
or souls, with poison thoughts.

To be Christ to a stranger takes two hands
to reach out and take hold of their own,
two eyes, to meet them where they are,
two lips to call them brother, and to say:
“peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;
not as the world gives do I give to you.”

To be Christ to a stranger takes one’s presence,
full presence, undivided
by invisible multitudes inside our phones,
real presence, unhidden
by our shields of artificial loneliness
in any company—

to be Christ to another takes Real Presence,
to be bread to the one who calls after you in hunger,
to be light to the one who stumbles toward you in darkness;
and to give peace is to give of one’s own blood, and
to wear the collar, to be a willing servant, and
the crucifix, to commend your spirit on the cross.