Driven vs. Desiring

For many years, others described me as “driven.” They typically intended it as high praise, and at the time I took it as such.

After all, isn’t it wonderful to strive for excellence, to persevere through repeated obstacles, and to find a way to keep coming out on top? Not necessarily – especially if it’s at the expense of the people I care about, not to mention my own dignity as a beloved child of God.

Desire and “drivenness” seem so similar, but they are radically different. Desire attracts us, allures us, draws us. It doesn’t drive us. Ultimately, all of our desires (even our disordered ones) are beautiful gifts from God. He never coerces. He always honors our dignity and freedom.

If we are “driven,” the real question becomes, by whom or by what? Where is that feeling of pressure or high expectation or coercion coming from?

In my case, there can be a felt sense of urgency: I have to, or else…

Or else what?

For years, I don’t think I slowed down enough to ponder what the “or else” even was. I was too driven, and sometimes still am. I can easily shift into a dogged determination, in which failure is not an option. When I do, if a person or situation suddenly stands in my way, my normally “calm” outward demeanor flashes with irritation, peevishness, or frustration – often surprising myself and others. Where did that burst of anger come from, that overreaction?

Now I understand a bit better. In mere milliseconds, my body mobilizes: first feeling shame; then feeling fear of exposure or abandonment; then feeling contempt toward the person perceived as a threat; then weaponizing that contempt; and finally, an eruption of anger, manipulation, or shaming behavior. All this happens in an instant – before my thinking brain has even realized that a reaction is happening.

I can’t stop such reactions from happening altogether, but I can notice and be curious and reflect. Kindness and childlike curiosity go so much further than self-contempt and a push into even more drivenness. My curiosity might go something like this: Huh – that’s interesting. I really reacted just now. What’s my body feeling at the moment? What is the intense warning trying to tell me? How old do I feel right now? When was the last time I felt like this?

I can listen to my anger, my fear, and my shame. Then I can start to notice what the “or else” is saying – even if it is irrational in the current situation. I’ve noticed in myself a fear of failing or of being exposed as not good enough. I notice a fear that others will leave me unprotected or all alone to navigate the hardest moments of life. As long as I somehow keep performing at an impossibly high level, maybe they’ll stick with me. Over time, this drivenness gets exhausting. It is not sustainable, and it definitely does not yield joy!

Hear me correctly – I’m not condemning being “driven.” It is one of the ways we human beings survive awful situations. Shame and fear are powerful motivators. They may even help us begin a journey of repentance. But only desire can abide, grow, and bear fruit. Fear and shame will never help us to have healthy, happy, and holy relationships. Fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), but “perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

I’ve written before about Augustine of Hippo and his distinction between ducere and trahere. Appealing to John 6, he describes the way in which God the Father allures and attracts us (trahere) by means of our desires. He doesn’t demand or coerce like an earthly authority tends to do (ducere – from which words like “duke” derive). We are created for communion and love, and God desires us to desire him. He allures us without coercing, without “driving.”

This is a tricky matter, because outwardly, two different human beings can be doing exactly the same thing for quite different reasons. One is driven by fear and shame, while the other is motivated from within by desire and love. One is avoiding the pain of unhealed wounds and running away from the Cross; the other has experienced dying and rising with Jesus and is bringing an unshakable confidence into a broken world. For example, two different Christians passionately evangelize. One is terrified of hell and is driven to keep all others out of hell. The other has been transformed by an encounter with the risen Jesus and desires everyone else to encounter the risen Jesus in their own ways. Two pro-lifers engage in advocacy. One is driven to keep the right people in political power and views pro-choice advocates with total contempt. The other cares passionately about the dignity of unborn humans – as well as about the dignity of the mother, and of all human beings, including those she most disagrees with. She treats all of them with honor and respect.

This is where spiritual discernment comes in. Catholics have a tendency only to use that word only in asking massive questions such as, “Am I called to become a priest?” We don’t always realize that God intends discernment to be a daily practice for us. We can notice what he is doing and engage in a response of love throughout the day.

Like a lover wooing his beloved, God is always stirring up desires in our heart. We have the freedom to grow in those desires and bear fruit. Unfortunately, our deepest and most intense desires are often buried beneath our fear and shame. That actually makes sense! The evil one HATES our God-given desires, and wars against them early and often.

The only way to uncover our deepest desires is to welcome the healing and transformation that Jesus brings. And the only way to experience that is (~gasp~) to die and rise with him. Can you see why so many of us prefer to be “driven” by fear and shame?

Are you “driven”? If so, are you ready for a change?

Communion Heals Shame

Shame secretly torments every one of us as fallen human beings. It affects every single relationship we have – with God, with each other, and with ourselves.

Recall the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The devil seduces by inviting a mistrust of God’s goodness and generosity. Once Adam and Eve choose to be their own gods, they experience the reality of that rupture. They run and hide from God (as though he were a petty tyrant eager to punish them). They sew fig leaves and begin protecting themselves against each other. Their good human passions become unruly – in themselves and their descendants. One need not read far into Genesis to experience the downward spiral of depravity. We begin to use, manipulate, envy, hate, and kill.  Shame is at the root of it all.

Brené Brown is a fellow Catholic who often speaks or writes about shame. She describes it as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It warns us when connectedness is under threat. It shows up in our bodies as a neurological warning signal, swiftly and intensely seizing our attention and launching us into a survival response. We all know the experience of “overreacting” in the present moment. What is really going on? Our body is feeling the familiarity of rejection, abandonment, failure, or humiliation. And our limbic brain is catapulting us into a survival response. Without even thinking, our defenses spring into action: fawn, fight, flight, freeze, or (as a last resort) shutting down. Depending on the situation (and on the skills we’ve learned over the years), we placate or smooth things over; we power up and begin shaming the other person; we change the subject or leave the room (or grab our phone and plunge into our screen); we freeze up and just take it; or we go numb and stop feeling anything. In intense situations of threat, these are actually brilliant responses that give us a better chance of surviving! But in everyday life they really rupture our relationships.

Unhealed shame fuels contempt. I have always found it to be the case that those of us who are hard on others are experiencing (or intensely avoiding) our own shame. Our self-contempt shifts into a contempt of others and an urge to make them pay. Just spend a minute or two on social media and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about!!

In my own life, God has provided many moments of melting my shame. One was totally life-changing.  I was a 23-year-old in the seminary in Washington, D.C. Some very challenging circumstances – including a severe lapse of judgment on my part – left me feeling intense shame for months. I remember one Sunday simply not wanting to go to Mass anywhere. I couldn’t bear being seen. That put me in an intense bind. Not going to Sunday Mass was simply unthinkable for me, but that inner conviction was in a mighty tug-of-war with my desperate urge to hide and isolate. Even attending anonymously across the street to the National Shrine felt unbearable. I slinked upstairs to a little chapel to pray, and there found two resident scholars, Romanian priests. They were offering Mass in their own language, and I had a way out of my dilemma – for now.

It was in this season that my friend Peter “saw” me and drew near to me. Peter was a 37-year-old who was about to be ordained a priest. I desperately miss him – he died in his sleep only four months into priesthood! He and I had many talks, in which – without naming it at the time – he helped me feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure (to borrow language from Curt Thompson). I didn’t want to be seen. I told him as much. I’ll never forget his words: A good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway. And that was the thing – Peter wasn’t seeing the perfectionist version of me, nor the always-succeeding version of me. He was seeing all of me, telling the full truth, and (for some reason I simply couldn’t fathom) he was still eager to have a relationship with me. It was so dumbfounding and so healing.

He provided for me what Jesus so often provided in the Gospel – with the apostle Peter, with the woman caught in adultery, with Zaccheus, with Matthew, or with the woman at the well. He saw right through them, but he saw them in their wholeness. He invited them into communion: follow me.

The Greek word is koinonia – which means not only “fellowship” (as many Protestant Bibles translate it) but a true sharing or participation in the communion of the Trinity and of the whole Body of Christ. Because Jesus has reconciled us to the Father and to each other through his blood shed on the Cross, we now have a place to belong. In a sense, our shame is speaking truth – we can never become “worthy” by our own best efforts – and we don’t have to! Jesus declares us worthy and invites us to be secure in his Father’s love. THEN we can begin growing and bearing fruit.  Apart from him we can do nothing.

But it’s never just “me and Jesus.”  He always places us in koinonia with each other. He desires his Church to be a community in which we all have ways of experiencing what I did way back when with my friend Peter. We all need fellow Christians who see right through us and love us anyway!

I invite each of us to recognize the ways that we sabotage or block real community from happening in our families and in our churches: Do we let our whole self be seen? When and how and by whom? Do others feel totally safe and secure in our presence, knowing they don’t have to hustle or hide? Why or why not?

Authentic communion heals shame. We all ache for that – and are perhaps terrified of it at the same time. Will we allow the Holy Spirit to create it in our midst?

When Worlds Collide

How do you react when your worlds collide?

For those not familiar with the phrase, it’s that moment when two previously compartmentalized “worlds” in your day-to-day existence suddenly meet each other. Your church friends unexpectedly chat with your college roommate. Your business partners walk in on you while you are jamming out to your favorite song. Your 5-year-old daughter overhears a conversation with your golfing buddies. You get the idea.

The expression goes back to a 1995 episode of Seinfeld. Every episode follows the self-absorbed escapades of Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George. This time Jerry decides it will be a great idea to introduce Elaine to George’s girlfriend. Kramer immediately declares, “That’s gonna be trouble.” When Jerry expresses bewilderment, Kramer explains, “Jerry, don’t you see? This world here, this is George’s sanctuary. If Susan comes into contact with this world, his worlds collide. You know what happens then?” For dramatic effect, Kramer brings his hands together and then “explodes” his food all over the floor.

Sure enough, the moment George discovers this new development, he is terrified and enraged. He screams at Jerry, “Anybody knows – ya gotta keep your worlds APART!!”

Scene by scene, George comes unglued as his carefully compartmentalized worlds collide or collapse.  More than once he cries out, “You’re killing independent George!!”  At one point he rattles off all the different versions of himself: independent George, movie George, coffee shop George, relationship George, liar George, bawdy George.  His conclusion? A George divided against itself cannot stand!!

Thankfully, most of us are not so narcissistic as the Seinfeld characters. But we do tend to compartmentalize our lives, don’t we?

I often experience discomfort or outright dread when people get curious and start to know intimate details about me. Even though I desire to be known and understood, it feels safer carefully curating what this or that group of people know about me. It’s more instinctive than intentional. It just happens.

There are actually reasons why it happens!

On the one hand, there is the reality that not everyone can be our intimate companion. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wisely declared that “he who has many friends has no friends.” Authentic intimacy takes much time, effort, and mutual work. It is both practical and fitting that only very few people in our life truly know all of us.

Moreover, there is the reality that some people do not deserve our trust. They will use us or manipulate us; or they will bail on us when things get hard. In the words of Jesus, it is wise not to cast our pearls before swine. It would be masochism to share vulnerably with those who will trample on us afterward. Choosing companions carefully is prudence and wisdom! But some of us are so careful that we never actually choose!

Is there anyone who knows all of us? Many of us hide parts of ourselves even from those closest to us! Why?

As human beings, we are true sons and daughters of Adam and Eve – in all their beauty and all their brokenness.  We continue to harm each other – especially in our own families. Each one of us has suffered far more harm than we care to admit!

The greater the harm, the more we become like George Costanza. Shattered by the ways that others have used us, abandoned us, or taken out their contempt on us, we brilliantly create “worlds” for ourselves. We learn how to manage and control each one, creating the illusion of safety and connection. It really seems to work – until our worlds collide or collapse. Over time, what once helped us survive begins to ruin us.

George spoke more prophetically than he knew: A George divided against itself cannot stand! Juggling dozens of separate worlds becomes exhausting – not to mention lonely. We are created for communion – to know and be known, to love and be loved. If no one truly knows and loves all of us, we will be as empty as the characters on that show!

The New Testament speaks of our Christian existence as one of koinonia. It can be translated as communion, community, sharing, participation, or fellowship – and includes all of them. By his dying and rising, Jesus reconciles us to the Father, to each other, and to ourselves. Authentic communion and community become possible. But it is hard to find – especially in our churches!

I’ve enjoyed reading the works of Curt Thompson: The Soul of Shame and The Soul of Desire. He names four characteristics of healthy Christian community, what he calls “the four S’s.” When we truly belong in healthy community, we will feel Seen, Soothed, Safe, and Secure. Do we not all ache for those four things?

George Costanza looked at his group of friends as his safe space, his sanctuary. To a certain extent, they were. None of them expected the others to be perfect or to be someone else. But they all still felt the need to compartmentalize; they all ultimately lived selfish and empty lives. None of them truly felt safe or secure; there was no authentic vulnerability or intimacy.

As most of you know, I spent my three-month sabbatical doing intensive trainings to help provide more resources for those harmed by trauma or struggling with unwanted behaviors. I have noticed a glaring lack in our churches today – authentic Christian community is exceedingly hard to find!

In our struggle with sin, with addictions, or with emotional and spiritual sickness, we will not get well without authentic community. There have to be at least a few people who know and love ALL of us; there has to be a place in which we can truthfully say I belong here. Here I do not have to pretend or compartmentalize. I don’t have to hold things together or keep worlds apart. I just get to be. I will be seen; I will be cared for; I will feel safe and secure. These companions will neither condemn me nor excuse me. They won’t see me as a problem to fix; they won’t abandon me; they won’t reject me. They will speak the truth about what they see and it will feel great because it is deep and full truth. Like Jesus, they will see me in my wholeness; they will desire all the pieces of me; they will care about ALL my “worlds.”

Again, let us listen to the “prophetic” words of George Costanza: You’re killing Independent George!!

When our worlds collide, it feels like a death threat. In our brilliant survival amidst human harm, we get seduced into the illusion of “independence.” We think we can control and manage all these self-created worlds and not need anyone else in the process. It’s so much safer that way – or so we think.

But it goes against our true nature. We are created to depend totally upon God our Father and to become interdependent, existing together as one Body and one Spirit in Christ. We long for that communion, even as (like George) we feel threatened by it! In fact, he’s right – there is a real dying that precedes our becoming truly alive! We are terrified of losing what we have so carefully crafted. Even when we are ready, we still want to know what will remain on the other side. Will anything of me be left?

God understands those fears – yet it is the only way. When we are ready to stop compartmentalizing, Jesus is ready to lead us to authentic connection and communion. It will be the end of our worlds as we know them, and the beginning of the new heavens and new earth.

Failure IS an Option

FDo you ever experience a fear of failure? I know I do!

Sometimes it’s a stew of anxiety, simmering throughout the day. Other times it’s a sudden eruption of panic or peevishness amidst what had seemed a moment of calm. When I pay attention and reflect, I can see that there is a significant fear of failure. It doesn’t drive or dominate me nearly as much as it used to, but it still shows up.

I already shared with you some highlights of Fr. Jacques Philippe’s recent book Priestly Fatherhood. Perhaps his greatest insight for us all (priests and laity alike) is when he connects our fear of failure with the rift in our childlike trust in God as a fierce and tender Father. God is a Father who will unfailingly provide for our needs. He will never reject or abandon us. But in our woundedness it often doesn’t feel that way! From the very beginning of human history, the evil one has been tirelessly at work to rupture our relationships – with God the Father, with each other, and with ourselves. Shame is the devil’s single greatest weapon. Through the lies of shame, he enticed Adam and Eve to hide from God and to protect themselves from each other.

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It’s not inherently evil (after all, the devil can’t create!). Shame actually helps us and many other mammals to survive. If they get cut off from their pack, they will die. If we humans are on the verge of a rupture of communion, shame will speak up! Unfortunately, that shame signal is so easily exploited by anyone who would manipulate (the devil being chief among them!). We are created for the purpose of sharing intimately in joyful communion. We are meant to belong and to experience that safe connection with the Father and with each other. Shame blares its alarm whenever there is a threat of rupture. It does indeed feel like a matter of life or death!

The problem is that what initially serves our survival ultimately leads us into a wasteland of isolation and ungodly self-protection. Our survival becomes exhausting! As Fr. Philippe puts it, modern man, no longer looking to God as a Father, is “condemned to success.” There is no room for failure because there is no longer a loving Father there to give us protection, freedom, encouragement, and space to keep learning and growing from our mistakes.

How do you handle it when you fail? Or when others around you fail? Are you both able to go closer to the failure and talk about it? Why or why not?

When I feel like I have failed or am about to fail, I have a tendency power up or withdraw, depending on the situation. Both are ways of distancing my shame from the other person. Both isolate rather than heal and repair.

If I listen attentively and notice in God’s presence, there are two main messages to my shame. It either warns me against being seen and exposed as a failure, or it warns me that others will flee from me and leave me alone to face it all. When both show up, it can be a challenging push-pull in relationships – inviting others to come closer, and then pushing them back away when they get too close. In both cases, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as an instinctive reaction. In both cases there is an ongoing invitation to trust God the Father and begin maturing as I abide in healthy and meaningful relationships.

Fear of failure was familiar to the twelve apostles. Just think of how they handled the Passion of Jesus. When Peter first heard of it, he swiftly forbade his Lord to speak any further of it – prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Nor did Peter have it figured out during Holy Week! He, at least, stays close(ish) to Jesus – rather than running and fleeing like the others. But he denies him three times. When Jesus begins surprising each of them on Easter Sunday, they are downcast, discouraged, and afraid. They were not yet ready to handle the “failure” of the Cross.

If God is not a loving Father who is faithful and true to his promises, then the Cross is indeed both a scandal and utter foolishness. Jesus willingly faced the Cross – though not without sweating blood first and begging the Father for another option! How did he do it? Ultimately, Jesus was secure in his identity as the beloved Son of the Father. He trusted his Father’s promise of Resurrection. The “failure” of the Cross was ultimately a great victory. It was truly “Good” Friday as Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. The very moment in which the evil one grasped at his triumph was a singular moment of human love and trust. It was the moment in which Jesus invested meaning and hope into what otherwise truly would be a hopeless and miserable human existence following the Fall.

Jesus is Lord and Savior and Messiah – not in a way that erases human sin or suffering, but in a way that transforms it. He opens up a healing path for us. When he says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is not saying “Get out of my sight!” Rather, he is inviting Peter (and us) to take up our Cross and follow him.

For us who are redeemed by his blood and in the process of being restored and sanctified, taking up our Cross and Jesus often means failing and learning, failing and growing, failing and repairing. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Will you and I have the courage to fail? Will we allow space for failure – in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in our church communities? Will we meet failure with both tenderness and truth-telling? In the person of Jesus, we see that God is clearly drawn towards our failure and our littleness. He enters into it, neither shaming us nor excusing us. He helps us to trust and to grow. May we receive that gift and learn to do the same!

Forgiveness and the Holy Spirit

“I just can’t forgive and forget.” How many times as a priest have I heard that line!

When I respond with “Of course you can’t!” or “You don’t have to!” it’s not uncommon to see a stunned expression of disbelief. Isn’t that what our faith teaches us we have to do?

No, it’s not.  In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches exactly the opposite! Paragraph 2843 tells us that it is not in our power to stop feeling an offense, nor to forget about it.

If we find ourselves battling with unforgiveness, we can be assured that it is not our feeling that is the problem, nor our remembering. They need healing and care, yes, but our emotions and our memory are marvelous, God-created human faculties that are actually standing witness to the reality and the gravity of the harm that happened. I have written before on how feeling anger is actually part of the path of forgiveness.

There is an untying or unbinding that needs to happen if we desire to forgive from the depth of our heart, as Jesus invites us (Matthew 18:35). This unbinding can only happen if we yield and surrender. But it is a divine work, made possible by the victory of Jesus in his dying, rising, and ascending. Slowly but surely – sometimes in cathartic moments, other times in painful and vigilant waiting – his victory becomes our victory. We truly become like Christ – which means we share in the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one,” and “Christian” refers to one who shares in that anointing.  It is the Holy Spirit who transforms our hearts as we walk the path of forgiveness.

The Catechism describes it this way:

It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession (CCC 2843).

Every offense wounds both the perpetrator and the victim. Unhealed wounds fester in both. It is within our wounds that the evil one tends to find his playground. Ignatius of Loyola describes the devil as “the enemy of our human nature.” In his hatred and envy, he is eager to torment us. Human scenes or harm or neglect (whether emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual) offer the devil fertile soil to sow his lies – lies about who God is and lies about who we are as God’s beloved children.

If and when we find the courage to face our deeper wounds, we can welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He is the Paraclete – the one who comforts, consoles, counsels, encourages, and soothes.

Think of a little girl with a wound. Does she want mom or dad to put ointment on it? Not normally! She probably needs a good deal of reassurance that it’s going to be okay. Is it going to hurt? Actually, yes. But it will also soothe and help it get better. She may need to breathe and calm down first before she is okay with them tending to the wound.

We are invited to approach our heavenly Father as little children, and to welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit – especially when we find ourselves feeling the wounds of past harm.

When I do this personally, I find it incredibly helpful to have visible reminders of who God is and who he has been for me. I also believe strongly that Jesus, dying on the Cross, was also speaking to me when he said “Behold, your mother!” Mary has very much been a mother to me on my own healing journey, giving me the emotional and spiritual safety to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit with confidence.

It still hurts – sometimes a lot. There’s a reason why people avoid going to doctors – even really good ones. There’s a reason why people don’t always follow through on healthy rehab. Even when we know there is new and better life on the other side, we are afraid of the suffering and surrender that precede.

But the anointing of the Holy Spirit also comforts and consoles. If we allow him to touch us where we are wounded, healing will always happen – sometimes with a cathartic release or a dramatic unbinding, but more commonly with slow and steady doses of his healing balm. That is why healthy Christian community is so important. We often need others to point out and celebrate the progress we are making. We can count on the devil to discourage whenever he sees an opportunity. The Holy Spirit works through our companions, our mentors, our spiritual guides, and our therapists to spur us on us with encouragement by celebrating every step of progress. Like little children who are learning and growing, we need a cloud of witnesses cheering us on.

Notice in the Catechism quote that healing of past harm is not a matter of erasing, but of transforming. As the Holy Spirit anoints us, we become truly Christ-like. Jesus’ wounds are not erased – he actually shows them to the apostles after his Resurrection. But those wounds are transformed, as is he. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. The more we receive true healing in the depths of our heart, the more we become like Christ. Injury is changed into empathy and compassion. Our wounds become (like Christ’s) sources of healing and transformation for others. Like him, we become powerful intercessors.

I offer a caution here! With the word “intercession” comes a risk shortcutting the process. Becoming Christ-like means willingly suffering, dying, rising, and ascending with him. We don’t like the whole powerless part, so we have a human tendency to grab onto something that gives us the illusion of control. If I can be an intercessor (praying for those who have hurt me) then I can feel in control – and I can conveniently keep all attention away from my unhealed wounds. And little or no transformation will happen. Only when I willingly and freely walk the path of Jesus, the healing path of the Paschal Mystery, can I truly experience the transformation of forgiveness.

True intercession comes from a place of already-won victory. It is the risen and ascended Jesus who is our intercessor at the right hand of the Father. As we come to share more and more in his victory, our healed wounds become a powerful place of intercession on behalf of those who have harmed us. To the extent that we resist and refuse to go into the depths of our heart – where the wounds are –we will remain bound up in unforgiveness and resentment. We can “intercede” feverishly in that case – and we will only be making an idol out of the one who has harmed us, orienting ourselves around him or her rather than worshiping the living God.

As the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us, Jesus is our great high priest who truly became one flesh and one blood with us and has now brought our human flesh and blood into the heavenly sanctuary, where he reigns victoriously with the Father. Their Holy Spirit allows all that is Christ’s to be ours. That means willingly entering into the depths of suffering and dying with him – knowing that he has gone there first. All the while we will likely find ourselves recoiling with a fear of betrayal, resisting any experience of powerlessness, and both wanting and not wanting such intense love. The Holy Spirit will comfort and encourage us. We will discover the newness of the Resurrection and power of the Ascension, and come to share more and more in the great triumph of his Mercy.

Fatherhood – Concluded

Authentic fatherhood is a sharing in God’s Fatherhood, a manifestation of it in the flesh. Loving fathers don’t seize power for themselves, but exercise their God-given authority for the sake of lifting others up, helping them to be secure and confident in their own identity as beloved children of their heavenly Father.

Whether we speak of dads or or priests or other spiritual fathers, we saw last time how damaging it is when earthly fathers are absent or severe or emotionally enmeshed with their children. All three deviant behaviors cause damage to the children’s identity. Those children become wounded in their capacity to receive and give love.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He leads his sheep into a relationship with the Father. He does not abandon his sheep to the wolves, like a hireling (cf. fathers who are absent or who abdicate their authority). He does not steal like a thief or devour like a wolf (cf. a chummy father who uses the children to meet his own emotional needs). He does not beat or abuse the sheep in severity but – as we read in Luke 15 – tenderly places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings it with joy into the feasting of the heavenly banquet.

We who are called to be fathers are called to imitate Jesus, to be loving shepherds.  To the extent we have authority, it is only for the good of the sheep, never for ourselves. It is ultimately a celebration of and with God the Father, who invites us all into the heavenly feast.

But how?

I am myself so weak and wounded. I am poor and needy. I am insecure and unconfident in my identity as a beloved child of God. How can I pour into others when I regularly feel like I have nothing to give?

Here is where we must look to Jesus, who he is and what he actually teaches. He is from the Father. His entire identity is in the Father. He is one who receives.

Jesus embraced poverty. He allowed himself to be totally and radically dependent upon his Father. In his human existence, Jesus reflected his eternal identity of being “from the Father.” He then invites us to receive from him, as branches on the vine, just as he himself has received all as gift from the Father.

I love the way Jacques Philippe connects fatherhood with the Beatitudes, especially the first Beatitude of poverty of spirit. The Beatitudes are all promises of Fatherly blessing, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If we acknowledge and embrace our poverty, if we open up in humble receptivity, the Father blesses us and confers a Kingdom upon us. If we grieve and mourn, we will be comforted (“paracleted”) by the Holy Spirit.

We men who are wounded in our identity can only be healthy and holy fathers if we are willing to grieve and mourn the ways that we ourselves have been wounded. I can only be a loving father to the extent that I am secure as a beloved son. Many of us were ourselves abandoned or abused or used (or possibly all three!). We spend much of our lives avoiding just how painful that was for us rather than grieving it and seeking healing and restoration. If we are willing to walk that path, we experience a dying and rising with Jesus. We discover his secret of relying totally on the Father. We meet God again for the first time, discovering him to be a Father who never abandons, is never harsh, and only desires to pour blessing into us. We become secure as beloved sons.

This spring, I had the joy of returning to the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee, assisting as chaplain on the “Holy Desires” retreat for priests and seminarians. There Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father in a “human sculpting” exercise. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We followed our intuitions and interacted with each other in a visual scene. We first depicted the sweet intimacy of the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus abiding in the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit. We then rearranged ourselves to sculpt a contrast: a scene of strained marriage and a wounded child. As God the Father, I felt such an ache for all three humans in the sculpt! The next day we sculpted the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s utter delight in him, followed by the baptism of someone else, who was struggling to be secure in his identity. The third day, there was a character struggling with the same sin over and over. Someone else, representing shame, began covering the person’s eyes so that he could not see my loving gaze as God the Father. Jesus and I were there, deeply desiring to love him, but he knew only shame. In my ache to love this child of God, I whispered into Jesus’ ear and asked if it would be okay for me to take the hands of shame and place them over his eyes. He willingly agreed, even though it would cost him. I moved the hands onto Jesus’ eyes, and immediately I sobbed and wept. I weep again just remembering it.

Something shifted in my heart at that moment. So often I have turned to the Father with my deep and intense longing to see his face and to receive his blessing. This time I experienced his longing for me, for you, and for all his beloved children. I know it was just a glimpse, a taste, a small measure – and my chest felt like it was going to explode. What an intense desire! It brings to mind the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est that God himself has “eros” – a passionate and intense longing as he seeks out his people in love.

When I return to that experience, I find myself having moments in which I can more fully surrender with peace into the Father’s hands. When my own call to fatherhood feels overwhelming or exhausting, when I feel powerless or feel like I am failing, I can enter the Father’s desire that is infinitely bigger than my own. I can be reminded that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. God’s fullness will prevail.

The apostle Paul describes this fullness, and our security in the Father’s love, when he names all fatherhood as deriving from God’s Fatherhood. Let us conclude with those beautiful words of Scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.