The enlightenment that comes from… failure

Blessed (soon to be Saint) Teresa of Calcutta is oft-quoted, “It is better to be faithful than successful.”  Of course she’s right.  Fidelity allows us to sleep peacefully at night and brings about [ultimately] the “success” of reaching heaven.  Earthly success, however grand, is fleeting.  Sic transit gloria mundi.  That which is earthly must inevitably die.  So, fidelity is preferable to success.  But this truth… true as it may be… probably comes as small comfort to anyone in the throes of failure.

Lately I’ve been exploring some of these themes in my own life/ministry.  Two classes of failure emerge… I’m calling them “surface” and “deep.”

Surface failures are things I can shrug off with relative ease… quotidian crashes that don’t knock me down for good.  A few examples: (a) I spent several weeks worth of preparation, promotion etc. trying to promote a new effort to directly serve the poor in my parish.  The idea got killed in committee… not by any ill will, but by questions and complications.  (b) One of my favorite parts of daily priesthood is working with altar servers.  The kids are so wonderful and preparing them for masses / ceremonies offers opportunities for great catechesis.  Kids here, I’m discovering, are so busy with other things, that volunteering to serve and be trained for serving usually falls to the bottom of their list.  Add to this the cumbersome scheduling software given us from our central office that folks are reluctant to learn how to use… well the long and the short is that after eight months there’s still a glaring lack of altar servers at a great parish.  Have I failed to inspire, failed to communicate?  (c) Education – I had several great brainstorming sessions with a respected and wonderful Catholic organization here in DC trying to bring a new educational opportunity to the Hill.  It all seemed to be going so positively… then digital silence… the emails halted. I finally wrangled the info out of a colleague: “We’ve been talking big picture here at the office and think we need to shelve this idea for the moment.”  Failure.

These are surface failures… some are more or less disappointing than others, but I’ll live to fight another day and keep trying to do good.  But then there is deep failure.  This is related to the others, but much more fearsome in its obscurity… it’s off in the future, yet to happen.  Maybe it’s just another word for fear; I’m not quite sure: “Do my failures contribute to a future failure of the Church?”  “Am I failing my bride, the Church?”  It might seem melodramatic… It’s not a messiah complex… I’m certainly not taking the whole future of Christendom on my shoulders… but I look at data: falling contributions, generations of uncatechized, increasingly hostile state forces, falling numbers of marriages, baptisms, etc. And while I have no pretensions about turning everything around, don’t I have a mission to turn things around my tiny corner of the Church?

I know that families face similar surface/deep failure dynamics.  Job loss, sickness, spousal relations.  When the lives of your spouse and children are depending on you monetarily, morally, emotionally, etc. it’s hard to say, “fidelity is better than success.”  Where does that leave us?

For me, this seeming impasse becomes a place of enlightenment.  When I have nothing left, no answer to the problem… all that remains is the Love of the Father.  Humanity underwent the ultimate failure when our first parents sinned in the Garden of Eden… Over and over again, he reaches out to us… Over and over again, we fail.  But the Father’s love and fidelity are greater than our failures and infidelities.

“…for Christ while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (from Romans 5:1-2, 5-8)

Because He is faithful to us… even our failures will somehow become opportunities for His ultimate victory… and so I take some small pleasure even in my failures confident no longer in my own actions, but in God’s providence.  By way of a literary take on the same theme, consider the following conclusion (emphasis added) to Evelyn Waugh’s great work, “Brideshead Revisited”.

The chapel showed no ill effects of its long neglect. The paint was as fresh and bright as ever. And the lamp burned once more before the altar. I knelt and said a prayer – an ancient, newly-learned form of words. I thought that the builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend. They made a new house with the stones of the old castle. Year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness, until, in sudden frost, came the Age of Hooper. The place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing. Quomodo sedet sola civitas – vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And yet, I thought, that is not the last word. It is not even an apt word – it is a dead word from ten years back.A small red flame, a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design, re-lit before the beaten copper doors of a tabernacle. This flame, which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out: the flame burns again for *other* soldiers far from home – farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians. And there I found it that morning, burning anew among the old stones.

Take hope… God is greater than our failures.

The Fruits of Enlightenment: Joy and Perseverance

Raphael, "Transfiguration"
Raphael, “Transfiguration”

This past week offered opportunities to reflect on the Lenten Grace of Enlightenment (see posts below and weekly reflections page).  This week, we continue something of that theme, reflecting on some of the fruits of enlightenment: joy and perseverance/obedience.

This Sunday’s Gospel recounts the story of the Transfiguration (Lk. 9:28-36).  It’s a moment of enlightenment, whose fruits are certainly joy and perseverance.  If we back up just a bit, we find that before taking Peter, James and John up Mt. Tabor to pray, Jesus reveals to the twelve that: (a) he will have to die in Jerusalem, and (b) that they will have to one day take up their own crosses if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven (Lk. 9:22-28).  The Apostles who have “left everything” to follow Christ were – naturally – upset and anxious at this news.  Jesus takes Peter James and John up the mountain and reveals a fuller picture of himself… Transfigured, he enlightens them with the vision of his divine nature.  The experience gives them the joy they need to keep going, to persevere in obedience to their call.

Abraham, likewise, receives a message from the Lord, not to be afraid of his new mission because one day God would make his descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky (Gen. 15:5-18).  This is the encouragement he needs to break away from this native country and lead his people across uncharted deserts to the Promised Land.  Joy leads to perseverance.

The two concepts are linked in a necessary sort of way.  “Obedience,” from he latin, “ab audire” means, “it flows from the hearing.”  If we would obey our call, we need to hear all sides of it first.  We need to hear the command, “do good not evil,”  but we also need to hear the delight of our Father saying to us first, “I love you.”  “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  The practice of faith and virtue (see Ash Wednesday post below), at first a rote sort of a thing becomes enlivened by joy over the Father’s love.  Faith and virtue are warmed by enlightenment, maturing from rote exercise into a habit of loving self-gift.

St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

In this regard, our great example is St. Agnes.  Agnes was a Roman virgin who loved Christ.  She was completely animated by the idea of being espoused to Jesus and Jesus alone in heaven.  It made her into a joyous Christian, a young woman of grace and virtue.  Arrested for her faith, Agnes was martyred in the last of the Roman Imperial persecutions in 304.  She heard the voice of Jesus affirming her as beloved.  She rejoiced and practiced her faith… and that joy allowed her to persevere in the faith until she offered the ultimate witness, the ultimate self-gift for the sake of faith, her own death.

As we enter the second week of Lent, we might ask, “What kinds of enlightenment has the Lord given me?”  “What are my transfiguration moments?”  “How have they moved me with joy?”  “Do I connect them with my self-giving? …and if I have not, how can I do so this Lent?”

Putting Descartes Before the Horse

This week our keys for a joyful Lent are faith and virtue… those acts and dispositions we adopt in response to God’s love for us.  One of the most Lenten acts of faith we can take up is making a good confession.  Recognizing how much our Father loves us, we desire to live in accord with that love and ask his forgiveness for all the times we have not.  This moment of reconciliation, celebrated in the sacrament is an ideal way to begin responding anew to the Father.

As a confessor …and, actually, as one who confesses frequently… there’s something I hear a lot of, “Well Father, this is what I’ve been working on.”  Few people seem to have sins anymore, just what they’re “working on.”  I say that to make a point, not to judge… because for most of us (myself included) there is a tremendous gravity influencing us… a force of culture so ingrained in us that even our best intentions can be influenced by it: Cartesian thought.

Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is the father of modern western philosophy.  In a nutshell: he asked the question, “How do I know what’s real?”  His famous answer “Cogito, ergo sum” “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes postulated that the starting point for all perception of reality is “I”… and because I can be sure that “I am thinking” (I hear that little voice in my head), at the very least “I” must be real.  This completely blew the doors off all previous thought, which recognized that all things have an objective reality of their own independent of what I may think of them.  What does this have to do with making a good confession?

Because we are basically a Cartesian people we are inclined to say that something is/isn’t a sin because “I” think/don’t think it is.  Consequently, what comes out of us in the confessional is, “Well Father, this is what  I’ve been working on.”  It’s not a bad start, but it doesn’t make for a really healthy confession because, fundamentally, “I” have put myself if the driver’s seat.  “I” am defining the Law, the truth… not God.  This is why it’s sooooo helpful, in confession, to use a good examination of conscience (Click this LINK for a good selection of examinations).  The examination is a list of questions hat help us to identify what we have concretely done or not done in preparation for the sacrament.  It is something outside of us that forces us to recognize a Truth higher than my own personal perceptions… something bigger than, “I”.

What about joy?  Joy comes into the picture when we consider a few things.  First – while personal perceptions are not necessarily bad, they are certainly imperfect.  Conforming ourselves to God’s perfect Truth revealed in the commandments and the beatitudes (for example) we are liberating ourselves from our own imperfections… a cause for joy if ever I heard one.  Second – If our goal is truly personal growth, we need someone to motivate us from the outside… to call us toward a goal that we haven’t had the internal  resources to achieve.  There’s no shame in that.  Humans are social beings.  The lonely world of Descartes’ “I” can happily be put aside for the loving support of the Church’s “We” assisting each other on the road to growth.  Finally – we rejoice that something as simple as telling the whole truth to God and doing earthly penance can win our salvation.  Consider these words from St. John Vianney (Patron saint of confessors and parish priests) had this to say:

“We should perform our penance overwhelmed with joy at being able to satisfy God, Whom we have offended, and at finding such an easy means of effacing our sins which should have earned eternal sufferings for us.”

St. John Vianney
St. John Vianney

This Lent, don’t put Descartes before the horse The world is real… our sins are real… but so are the many many people in the Church who walk in solidarity with us asking God for his very real forgiveness and love.  Likewise real is the love of your fathers at the altar who want to walk with you on this pilgrimage of joyful penance.


A Lenten Pilgrimage with the Saints

St. Philip Neri
Call of Andrew and Peter - at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Call of Andrew and Peter – at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC












Formed as we are by popular culture, most of us function under a terrible misperception: That Lent… and acts of penance are sad things.  This Lent we’re going to reexamine Lent and the concept of penance through eyes of faith.  What you’ll find – I hope – is that asceticism (i.e. Christian self-denial) can always be marked by joy.  To that end we’re going to take a pilgrimage through Lent in the company of two great saints: Peter the Apostle and first Bishop of Rome, and Philip Neri the great 16th century confessor and “Apostle of Rome” who evangelized the Eternal City for a great renewal of faith.

In the case of St. Peter, we’ll be meditating on the virtues for Christian development laid out in his Second Letter (Chapter 1 – translation by R. Knox).  To walk with St. Philip we’ll be examining the seven characteristics of his joyful asceticism presented in a great biography of him, The Fire of Joy (by, Paul Turks).  Our journey will follow (more or less) the Sunday readings through Lent.

Let’s start with today, Ash Wednesday.  In today’s first reading Joel, animated by God’s desire to save Israel, proclaims a holy season of renewal.

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.

It’s a joyous proclamation full of expectant hope.  Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians that now, today, this very instant is a time for liberating oneself for goodness and holiness,

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.

Both Joel and Paul are resolute… both are serious about what needs to happen… but neither of them seems unhappy or miserable about they work that needs to be done.  Why?  Because all our works offered to the Lord (i.e. “Penances”) are predicated precisely on the fact of his LOVE… his desire that we be with him in heaven.  Hence, our asceticism is to be joyful.  The nearest thing I can compare this to is a couple preparing for the birth of their child.  They know that a time of unparalleled love and joy is on its way.  What do they do?  They tear apart their upstairs guest room to make it into a nursery.  In the process dad will probably hit his thumb with a hammer… ouch!  He’ll realize that he’s been putting together the crib all wrong, only to have to start all over again… ugh!  But he’s not miserable about either… not really, anyway.  The pain of the hammer fall the frustration of actually having to read the crib instructions are penances offered up… things done for the sake of the greater joy: the coming of the child.

St. Philip: be joyful ascetics
St. Peter: “supplement your faith with virtue.”

Faith and Virtue are both about action… things that we do in response to knowing we are loved by God (see I Jn. 4:10).   The actions we hear about in today’s Gospel: fasting, almsgiving and prayer are all things that we do not to cause ourselves pain… but to respond to the God who loves us.  So as we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, first thing’s first, “How is God loving me today?”  and how, in action, will I respond to that Love.  It might be challenging, but it’s far from sad.

Love Divine All Loves Excelling

This week we complete our Pre-Lenten examination of the three stages of holiness according to St. Gregory of Nyssa (see posts below).  Having entered the cloud of God’s presence in the Second Stage, we now join Moses in a loving union with God.  Love is the Third Stage of Holiness. Some points for meditation as we go into this week, and Ash Wednesday:

Loving union with God is only completely achieved in Heaven itself.  So, in this world we have to settle for a dynamic of: to seek him is to love him.  Recall the words of Thomas Merton, “Lord I don’t know if I please you, but I think the desire to please you pleases you.”  Any expectation of achieving heaven on earth will, ultimately disappoint us.

Mature Loving union with God begins by HIS initiative, not ours.  St. John tells us, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have love him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn 4:10).  Furthermore, the only Love that is really capable of pleasing God is (shall we call it?) ‘God-Love’.  Our primary task is to empty ourselves.  We need to assume a posture of humble reception.  We need to be filled with the gratuitous delight of the Father, expressed in the sending of the Son.  Only then, filled with this ‘God-love’, will we be in any position to make a return to him.

Our humility will probably hurt at first.  We began to experience this in the cloud of the Second Stage.  This is the denial of the senses, the acknowledgement of our smallness, the purging of the self.  As we let our selves fall away, God fills us.  Questions naturally arises: “Am I a slave?”  “Doesn’t my ‘self’ matter to God?”  Of course God is not enslaving us… of course, our individuality is of value to him… but we have to recognize that to attain our ultimate goal we need to do the most self-possessed thing any human being can do: we must sacrifice ourselves so that His love can carry us to heaven.

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena

The nearest human experience to this is marriage.  In the third stage we enter a mystical marriage with God.  St. Catherine of Siena experienced this.  So did many of the early virgin martyrs.  In marriage there is a constant humbling of the self so that each spouse can help the other to true happiness and, ultimately, heaven.  No one would say that one spouse is a ‘slave’ to the other, but that each freely gives his/herself out of love.  Another human metaphor that comes to mind is hospitality.  When, in humble love of the guest, a host opens his/her home, sacrifices are made, the room is prepared, for the greater experience to come by welcoming in the guest… putting the guest (in some senses) in the driver’s seat in one’s own home.  This is not an experience of slavery or of devaluing the host.  It’s a beautiful gift, freely given.

Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

How, concretely, do we go about this?  We pray.  We deny ourselves through fasting and almsgiving/care of the poor. We engage in the acts of mercy.  We celebrate the Eucharist well.  “Wait a minute, isn’t this the same stuff we started out with?  Isn’t this just the same old same old?”  NO.  In the Third Stage these same acts take on a whole new character because it’s no longer living but Christ living in us (cf Gal. 2:20).  I do this now regardless of material comfort or circumstance.  My consolations are no longer external, I am now sustained by my internal identity in and relationship with the Father.  I am completely liberated from this world… FREE to give myself on the Cross as Jesus does… out of Love for the Father, filled with the Love of the Father.

This is why the Eucharist is sooooo important!  Because every Sunday becomes a microcosm of the rest of the life of holiness.  We are humble ourselves before God (Kyrie – Lord have mercy).  We acknowledge his glory in a burning bush moment (Gloria – Glory to God in the highest) .  We receive knowledge of him and meditate on that (Verbum domini – This is the Word of the Lord).  Humbling ourselves (Domine non sum dingo – Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof) we receive him (Communio – Holy Communion)… and then we go forth, filled with his Love to do his work as his mystical body on earth, his bride, the Church (ite missa est – Go announce the Gospel of the Lord!).

In art we see this beautifully in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  He began walking, lost, on a wooded road.  His own self will no longer satisfied him.

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Having passed through hell, purgatory and heaven, he is armed anew, filled with the God-love ready to return to the same world a changed man with new gifts to give to all those he meets.

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Gustave Dore, "The Empyrean" from Dante's Paradiso XXXIII
Gustave Dore, “The Empyrean” from Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII

The Cloud… not all that bad

So far this week, we’ve discussed the second stage of holiness: entering into the cloud of God’s presence.  We’ve focused on some disconcerting aspects of the cloud, and how we may prepare well for them.  We should never forget though, that the cloud is fundamentally a good thing… It is the sign of drawing closer to the presence, albeit mysterious, of GOD, Our Loving Father.  Blessed John Henry Newman once said that prayer is like being in a dark room with your beloved; you feel the presence of the beloved, the warmth of the beloved, though in a mysterious way.  The Cloud can be a place to confront our fears, yes, but always with an eye toward a deeper communion with the divine presence of our beloved.  Recalling Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel of God (Gen. 32:23-ff) a professor once reminded us, “If you have to be in a wrestling match, ‘best to be in one with God.  You’re in good hands!”

The second stage can be a time of beautiful solitude in the darkness… a time to give our senses a rest, to let the Lord do the driving… a time of trust (consider reading Caussade’s abandonment to divine providence)… It’s that special time in a relationship when all the conversations have been had.  You know your beloved’s tastes, his/her interests, how the day went etc… all that’s left is the comfortable silence of reading in the same room… walking wordlessly in the park…  Or as is perhaps more-often the case, the quiet relaxation of falling asleep on the couch watching tv together.  In monastic life, the second stage is marked by a real entry into “Grand Silence.”  (For more on this see the recent documentary of the same name).  If you’ve ever been to an active and healthy monastic community, you’ve experienced this silence when you enter the chapel.  It could be filled with people and you’ll hear a pin drop… the silence itself is life-giving, surrounding and nourishing us like fish in water.

So, it’s true… the cloud can be a little intimidating… but give it time.  You might be amazed at the mysterious relationship that blossoms in the silence when God approaches.

Preparing ourselves for life in the cloud


The second stage of holiness, “the cloud” of God’s presence, is something most active Christians experience in one way or another during their lives.  Whether we think in terms of Moses on the mountain, or St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the senses, the fact is that being in the dark can be scary.  It can also be beautiful (more on that tomorrow).

How can we prepare ourselves for life in the cloud?  Well, as we’ve already said, when sensory comforts are removed all that is left to us is an invitation to deeper love; love understood as a decision to affirm the life of another even to the point of self-sacrifice.  In the cloud, this decision is an internal affair, since all external data has been cut off.  So, the tools we bring into the cloud must be internal tools… and this brings us to our task: study.

Christian intelectual formation is great training for life in the cloud because it arms us with a self-supporting internal structure for our being.  What should we study?  The short answer is, everything… but some particular helps will be:  The study of Scripture.  As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  We can also study, very fruitfully, the lives of the saints; those cheerful givers and happy warriors who went before us into the cloud.  They’re example teaches us how to proceed.  Consider for a moment St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was wounded in battle.  During his convalescence, cut off from his accustomed secular pleasures, the only thing he had to read was a Bible, and a collection of lives of the saints.  In the solitude of his hospital room (a sort of cloud), Ignatius discovered – through study – the mode in which God was calling him to love… and from that Love sprang the Society of Jesus (thats is, the Jesuits), which went on the change the face of the world!  Study of the official teachings of the Church (i.e. Catechism, preaching by the Pope, etc.) will also yield great benefits.  And if formal theology isn’t an option, the study of the arts: music, poetry, literature, sculpture… All of these can be helpful in discovering, implicitly, the truths conveyed explicitly by theology.

Studying doesn’t seem very “holy” or “spiritual.” Pop-spirituality has, over the last hundred  years, tended to create a distance between intellectual formation and what it means to most people to be “spiritual.”  The intellect is a thing of the person… perhaps it is the most personal thing we have.  But popular spirituality encourages us to seek something outside of us… an, “out of body experience,” or zen-like state of total self-abandonment that treats our humanity, essentially, a an encumbrance to holiness.  This is NOT Christian tradition.  Human intellect, reason, choice… these most uniquely human qualities are precisely what -out of all creatures- make us resemble God the most.  We must bring these tools into the cloud of God’s presence to help us keep moving closer to his likeness.