“We need knowledge, we need truth, because without these we cannot stand firm, we cannot move forward. Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves.” -Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict XVI), “Lumen Fidei”
A Poem for Christmas
by Joseph Brodsky, translated by Seamus Heaney
Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:
use the cracks in the floor to feel the cold.
Use crockery in order to feel the hunger.
And to feel the desert – but the desert is everywhere.
Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,
the fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;
and imagine, as you towel your face in the towel’s folds,
the bundled up Infant and Mary and Joseph.
Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession
as they make for the cave, or rather three beams closing in
and in on the star; the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;
(but in the cerulean thickening over the Infant
no bell and no echo of bell: He hasn’t earned it yet.)
Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
immensely in distance, recognising Himself in the Son of Man:
homeless, going out to Himself in a homeless one.
Fr. Walter referred to our yearly nightmarish Thanksgiving travels as a pilgrimage, and I thought of the magi, who of course would have set out long before the Nativity to find the Christ Child.
This is the sixth Thanksgiving I’ll be flying home alone to Florida (non-consecutive, I spent one odd turkey day in Rome), and let me tell you, it gets old fast. I love my family dearly, but the rush-home-come-back-oh-look-it’s-Christmas shuffle has given me a the holiday blues for the past few years. I want to be cooking a turkey for my own family, and I know that that’s a big part of my discontent.
We the magi have begun our trek, and even our most intense holiday longings (for gift, family, spouse, child) cannot supersede our longing for transcendence, seeking the Infant who will save us, the God-Man we recognize even if we have yet to meet Him. The reason the holidays can disappoint is that they are only the means to a mystery that is still being lived out: the Incarnation continues.
Thank God for our unfulfilled space. If I were content, how would I know myself? How would I remain God-needing? It is lack that engenders hope of fullness.
I can only speak for myself here, but I tend to think in terms of milestones and expiration dates. How old were you when you got married? How many kids were you able to have at that time? How many degrees do you have, and how old were you when you finished the last one? When are you going to be “settled”?
I can let myself believe in the lie that at some point in time life is no longer in flux, and that that’s when my life as a Christian starts–until then, I’m just killing time. But with God there is no wasted time. He is a God who, as we heard in yesterday’s Gospel, “take[s] up what [he] did not lay down and harvest[s] what [he] did not plant” (Luke 19:21). He expects interest on his gifts at the very least! But to sit on one’s life, to bury it, is how we end up losing it completely. “I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Lk 19:26).
Yes, God has a plan for our lives; this phrase has become trite in its over-usage. That plan contains the present as well. Why do we act as though we are “waiting for something to happen”? God is now here. God is the plan for our lives, deification, being made perfect, is how we live the needlessly mysterious will of God. What is God’s will? That you love Him and be saved. We are not Disney princesses, starting every day singing a song about waiting for our lives to begin. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).
Do I allow myself to waste time with people? This is very much on my mind this morning as I look at my calendar for the week and see how I am “investing” my time. Getting over the hurdle of seeing prayer as a waste of time took years, but now I stop to look at my relationships with others. When I get home from wherever, and my roommate is studying and wants to tell me something that happened to her that day, and all I want is a gin and tonic, what is it that makes me stop to listen? Do I worry so much about the end goal of the conversation that I am not present in it at all? Do I allow the other in? Or do I simply consume, ask the other, “What can you give me?” and, if the answer seems to be “nothing,” do I consider myself a martyr for giving up my precious time to engage with the person?
Over the next few days I’ll be looking at these ideas– wasted time and wasting time. To be continued.
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to (this) mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'” (Luke 17:5-10)
Last night I had a heart-to-heart with a dear friend going through a really painful time. On the train ride home I was left with heavy, distressing thoughts and when I got to my apartment it was all I could do to be pleasant to my roommates before heading to bed. Sleep did not come easily. Every few hours I was awakened, filled with panic for my friend, and then would move restlessly for fifteen or twenty minutes before falling back into a light sleep. At 4:30 a.m., my body decided it was through trying to rest.
I was awake when my alarm went off but too exhausted to get out of bed. I heard the first roommate leave and knew I was running way behind schedule and had missed Mass. When I heard the second roommate rustling around I finally forced myself to the coffee machine.
I held my friend’s pain so close to me as I got ready. And finally I asked God, who is not confined by whether or not I made it to Mass, or my messed up prayer routine, or my sleeplessness, or my desire to push Him out when I’m not at my best, what to do. And the verse above came to my head: “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” Not exactly comforting. I thought it over during my walk to the subway. The servant does not come in from working and get sat immediately at table. He must tend first to his master. “Listen, kid,” God seems to be saying, “I’m not going to be putting you in charge of making this better. What can you do? What you are obliged to do.” And what are we obliged to do? We are beings ordered toward worship; we are followers of Christ who must proclaim Him crucified and resurrected. I am obliged to show up at work and, as my friend encouraged me last night, to “be excellent” while there. Never mind that it might go unnoticed. Someone is watching; He is the one helping, blessing, listening in the middle of the night. I can hold on to my friend’s pain, cradle it, mourn over it, refuse to let it go, or I can hand it over, get to work, and stop letting my spiritual life be a series of upheavals. My friend asked me for my prayers, not my anxiety; I ought to respect her wishes.
Today I am grateful that God is God, that I am not God, that God does not abandon, that God keeps his promises. There is toil in the fields and at the table. He did not promise otherwise. But there is unthinkable compensation that goes beyond what we have done and suffered, and it’s something we can tap into even in the moment of pain.
Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.
The heart wants no trouble. There is a fear that God might burst in and lead us along ways out of our control. There is fear of God’s visit, fear of being consoled. A fatalism of sorts sets in; horizons shrink to the measure of one’s desolation or tranquility. One fears hope, preferring the realism of less to the promise of more.” -Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, “Healing from Corruption and Sin,” 1991
The fact of the matter is we all worship something. This is one of the biggest spiritual insights I’ve been given in the past few years. My heart tends toward adoring, towards lifting people and things up onto a pedestal. This is both a gift and a weakness: I love the cult of the saints, the burning of incense, the processions and robes. The trappings of beautiful worship have never struck me as ostentatious. But I have, on many occasions, given my worship to that which is unworthy of it.
When the object of one’s worship disappoints, it causes the heart to shrink. Perhaps nothing can be trusted. It is these hard hearts that Bergoglio addresses in the quote above: the hearts that have been corrupted by worshiping something that is less than God. The heart that is full of fear cannot embrace Christ. The heart that is attached to comfort cannot embrace Christ. The heart that is paralyzed at the idea of suffering for its beloved cannot embrace Christ.
My heart is weak and yet the Lord fought a long, difficult battle for it. When I am content to remain complacent, unthinking, unmoving, I tell God, “I’m not worth it–don’t stop here. No room in this inn.” And this is the deepest insult we can give our Lord, to tell Him that we are beyond Him, beyond His mercy. I once heard a Franciscan say that one way of measuring something’s worth is to see how much was paid for it. “His bones have paid my ransom,” and so I am no longer allowed to cater to a kind of false humility that shoos God away. He wants me alive, fully, and I must respond with gratitude.
Of telling God I feel burdened by my sinfulness, I hear a homily about this guy.
Make us know the shortness of our life
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Last night I attended Mozart’s Requiem Mass, organized beautifully by the Catholic Artists Society. In November we ought to think about death, we’re told, and about the shortness of life, the passing nature of all that is earthly. Yet this is all wrapped up in our bodies, as we’re asked to take on penances for the poor souls in purgatory. I suppose I found that Mass, as I said, beautiful, but also difficult. The music is meant to take one to a heavenly place, and yet the empty catafalque brings one spinning and crashing back to earth.
I am often tempted to focus solely on what is beyond this life, and yet I revel in certain aspects of my confined existence here. In fact, I’m a pretty good example of Soloveitchik’s “homo religiosus,” happily running off into the desert for days at a time, but just as happy staying out all night in the clutches of the Big Apple. Feasts like All Soul’s Day don’t often sober those of my condition; rather, they drive us to a higher ecstasy or a deeper, peace-less place. So as I prayed Psalm 90 this morning after a tumultuous and emotional evening, I wondered, how does God show me the shortness of my life, other than by surrounding me with dramatic memento mori? How does He give me wisdom of heart?
By holding up a mirror to my own heart’s restlessness, by showing me my own fickleness. He makes me see how I flit from place to place, overbooked, under-committed, and He says, “I am not like this.” And yet He does not let my restlessness be useless. Through it I’ve learned that I can delight in good people here and can avoid, in the words of Morrison in the brilliant epilogue of Beloved, “the loneliness that rocks” like a child alone in a corner. But we can never quite escape “the loneliness that roams.” Tesknota. The deepest of longings we save for Him, because all else spectacularly disappoints. And therefore we know our life is fleeting, because it fails to fill us.