Learning from Joseph

I have to…I have to…I have to… Those words are intimately familiar to me, whether in my workaholism, my perfectionism, my aggressive driving, my people-pleasing, or my shame at “failing.”

For me, it’s not so much the words as the intense sensations in my body – the pulsing energy in my chest, the tension in my shoulders, and the drivenness that pushes forward and pushes through. Even in those many moments when I am a calm haven for others amidst the storm, if I pay attention, I am sometimes holding an enormous tension within.

Saint Joseph has shown up often this past year, teaching me a different way – a way of trust and surrender, a way of poverty and depending, a way of obedience and peace.

This January, I was back in Florida to assist as one of the chaplains at the John Paul II Healing Center for the “Holy Desire” priest retreat. Each day, Bob Schuchts and Kim Glass invited us into a human sculpting exercise. It’s an improvisational group experience in which the participants interact to embody a scene. We begin with familiar stories from Scripture, such as the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem or the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Then we shift the scene: instead of the Holy Family, we see a dysfunctional family with a strained marriage; instead of Jesus as the beloved Son of God in the waters, we see a struggling sinner buried beneath the burdens of shame and fear and confusion. The many different characters attune to their own intuition and to what the others are doing as they interact to form a human sculpture. Characters include the Father, the Holy Spirit, various humans, angels, evil spirits, Mary, and Joseph. You never know what will happen – each sculpt is unique, and it’s surprising how the Lord shows up.

Each day, Kim invited me to be Saint Joseph. Having a devotion to Joseph is one thing. Imagining being him in a living scene is another!

As typically happens in these human sculpts, we all felt a sweet connectedness when Mary and I arranged ourselves along with the Trinity and the angels at the birth of Jesus. As Joseph, I felt both a poverty and a fullness at one and the same time. In terms of skill or power or capacity. I had nothing to offer. Yet I felt how much I mattered in God’s design. I was very much a father, even though all my fatherhood was from the Father. It felt easy because it got to receive from a Father so close at hand. It seemed silly to try to make anything happen on my own, when such abundant resources were right there. I felt a warmth, a calm, and an inner peace.

We shifted to scenes later in Jesus’ life, and to the scenes involving other human characters. I became a heavenly protector, no longer living my earthly life as a carpenter, but still intimately connected with Jesus and with all who are one with Jesus. For those of you less familiar with Catholic devotion, Joseph is the patron and protector of the whole Body of Christ. Just as he was chosen by the Father to be a father and steward in Jesus’ life, he continues to play that role for the entire household of the Church, and for all God’s children in Christ.

As the scenes shifted, my inner peace remained. There was enormous agony in the room as the human characters became cut off and suffered in torment. For many, it felt like those struggling would never be free from the increasing torment by the evil spirits.

Meanwhile, I continued feeling poverty and peace simultaneously. I empathized deeply with the human suffering in front of me, and remained as close as I could, while fully honoring their freedom. The Father never barges in or coerces, and neither would I.

I felt powerlessness and power both at the same time. I was doubly powerless – from within and from without. From within, I humbly acknowledged my poverty, my radical dependence on and obedience to the good Father who was always sustaining me and ready to work through me. From without, I felt powerless so long as and to the extent that the other human characters didn’t desire God’s help.

But I felt doubly powerful, and a deep and peaceful sense that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” I continued feeling the strength and tenderness of God the Father, flowing in and through me as an inexhaustible supply. I felt a sense of something powerful about to happen, any moment, in the life of the child of God who was agonizing in front of Mary and me. Michael the Archangel was near at hand. In a split second, both he and I could step in with the power of God, and all would shift. With the smallest sliver of desire or the tiniest opening of receptivity, the victory would be claimed.

Joseph has many beautiful titles in Catholic devotion. My favorite has always been “Terror of Demons.” Joseph’s way of living in the present moment, trusting, receiving, and surrendering leaves nothing for the evil spirits to take hold of in a wrestling match. His willing embrace of poverty opens up space for divine strength and power.

I began feeling the meaning of that title (“Terror of Demons”) as I watched and waited – not in anxious hypervigilance but in the swelling anticipation of Advent. Any moment, I knew, the archangel Michael and I would burst onto the scene.

Bob paused our sculpt, checking in with the different characters to see what we were experiencing. As it turns out, the demons and I were experiencing the same sense of divine victory being immanent, with Joseph playing a role. The person playing the spirit of confusion was indeed terrified and declared, “Dude, I don’t wanna be anywhere near Saint Joseph right now!!” He sensed his time was short.

The whole experience was a gentle invitation for me to set down any sense of “I have to” and allow myself to wait amidst the mess with poverty and trust. Victory is already assured, and I don’t have to make it happen. I just get to rejoice in being part of it.

Joseph’s poverty is so different from the sense of scarcity that tends to terrify me. I have a deep-seated fear of abandonment and a sense that it’s all up to me to make something happen. I try so hard to be capable and powerful – often fooling others and myself. But I don’t have to do anything. I get to be loved securely by the Father, and allow his love to flow through me to others.

Becoming like Joseph requires a further repentance on my part – precisely from that idolatrous seduction into a false sense of power. Letting go of “I have to…” means letting go of the very power that helped me survive some really powerless moments in life. I learned to survive – even thrive – amidst the chaos, earning privilege and admiration – neither of which are the same as the love I actually desire.

Those who know me know that I don’t shy away from intense or chaotic situations. I’m often drawn towards them, like the paramedic who runs towards the gunshots. Being the strong and calm one amidst the storm is a familiar role in my story. And I can be a great gift in those situations. The question is, do I do it from a sense of “I have to” or from a place of freedom and peace? Do I do it alone, or in connection with others and with God, welcoming and celebrating the complementary gifts that the others bring?

I’ve been on path of healing for several years. I’m not nearly so much a slave of “I have to…” as I used to be. But that reaction still shows up, and (I imagine) will continue showing up. It’s part of my story. With Joseph as father and teacher, I’m learning that I can engage my daily labors in a much different fashion. I can notice that drivenness and then remember who the Father is and who I am. I can then welcome connection with others. I can be okay amidst the unresolved tension and wait in poverty and trust for the inevitable inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

What is your experience of work, rest, and play? Do you have any of your own familiar roles – ways of showing up in relationships that may have served you once, but now tend to hinder your freedom? May Joseph be both a model and a mentor for you as you learn to abide In love and truth.

Waste Not? Want Not?

Waste not, want not. So says the eighteenth-century aphorism.

Implied is a warning against the desperation of neediness. Presupposed is a sense of scarcity and a fear that there won’t be enough. Many of our families and our church institutions have lived by this adage for multiple generations.

What does Jesus have to say about wasting or wanting?

On Palm Sunday, we listen to the story of his Passion (Mark 14:1-72), beginning at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. A woman enters with an alabaster jar full of costly nard, breaks the jar, and pours the contents over his head.

Her extravagance elicits outrage from several of the guests “Why this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii! The money could have been given to the poor!”

They make a fair point. One denarius was the daily wage for a laborer. Multiplied by 300, we’re talking about somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 by today’s standards.

Yet Jesus praises the woman for lavishing this gift upon him. The poor will always be with us. Jesus will not. She has anointed him for his burial, and her good deed is to be remembered throughout the generations.

In Jesus’ view, there is a time and a place to be “wasteful” – especially when it comes to showing honor and delight to those we love. If we are dominated by a fear-based frugality, then our message to others easily becomes, “Let me calculate how much you are worth,” or “I don’t think you matter that much.”

What about “wanting”? What does Jesus have to say?  Actually, quite a lot!

When the crowds gather to hear his preaching, he begins with the Beatitudes. He invites us to experience true and unshakable blessedness by embracing poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness. He invites us to feel the ache of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It is in the depths of our needing that we are most capable of receiving.

Jesus did not merely teach us to need and depend and receive. He modeled receptivity, as did Mary and Joseph. They went in want. They lacked basic shelter as Mary’s pregnancy came to term. They fled into Egypt as immigrants, without knowing how their necessities would be met. Jesus spent thirty of his thirty-three years in relative obscurity, engaging (it seems) in far more receptivity than sacrificial giving. Nor did he stop allowing himself to need and to receive during his brief public ministry. He willingly received kindness and care from others. Even when his “hour” came and he said a free and wholehearted “yes” to sacrificing everything, he lodged in Bethany with his good friends.

“Waste not, want not” contains a small amount of wisdom, but ultimately dehumanizes. It teaches us to be terrified of going in want, of needing, of depending, of receiving – in stark contrast to the teaching and example of Jesus.

Can we be curious about where this attitude comes from?

I see it as a survivor mentality, including an inner vow (“I will never go in want again!”). Doing what it takes to survive is great in a desperate situation. If you’re stranded on a ship for months, “waste not, want not” is an outstanding motto. But when that survivor mentality becomes enfleshed in everyday life, it becomes a burden.

I think of my childhood, and pleasant-enough visits to my great grandmother on my stepdad’s side. The house was, shall we say, “cozy.” Stuff piled everywhere. Like so many, she was a survivor of the Great Depression, determined never to go in need again. When she passed, my stepdad and his sisters spent many hours cleaning out the clutter. He joked about the piles of used paper cups from McDonald’s. You just don’t know when you might need them again. Waste not, want not.

He joked, but he lived by the same mentality. Shortly after her death, he needed to move his tools out of her garage. So, we tore down our one-stall garage and built a five-stall. He cleverly salvaged the old door, turning it into a back entrance.

The new garage was huge, but we never parked cars in it.

It was way too full of stuff. Some of the things (his tools) were quite valuable.  Much of it was, well, less valuable. When my stepdad passed in 2010, my sister and I spent a few days toiling to clear out the garage. We didn’t find any paper cups, but we sure got rid of stuff. It was a great moment of triumph when we announced to our mom that she could start parking her car there.

As we cleared out the junk, I made trip after trip to the curb. I discovered the power of another proverb, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Between trips to the curb, all had magically disappeared – into someone else’s five-stall garage, apparently?

Cluttered garages and homes can be joked about – and we’ve all seen them. They range from mildly annoying to utterly disgusting and dangerous. The deeper question here is around the survivor vow that gets taken amidst heartache: Never again!

Never what, exactly? That’s the problem with vows made out of fear. Over time, they cut us off from really great things: in this case, from the capacity to receive and give love in healthy community, to flourish, and to experience abundance together.

Survivor vows are not merely individual – they entrench themselves in the collective: families, churches, schools, entire dioceses. Many of our institutions are darkened by a cloud of fearful protectiveness – and then lament that membership is so low. In one of my previous parishes, I repeatedly turned on lights that others had shut off. I was expecting first-time guests, and (with sensitivity) expecting them to be nervous. I felt like it would be kind to have them enter a warm and inviting space, rather than snake their way around dark corners. There were some in the parish who couldn’t handle such extravagance, whispered about my wastefulness, and shut the lights back off the moment I wasn’t looking.

More recently, I heard about “Plategate.” A priest friend was hosting with pizza after Masses in his church. He had the gall to use the paper plates stored by some of the church ladies. They made a point of hiding those before the next Mass. So he purchased his own plates. They proceeded to hide those. I imagine there are hundreds of priests nationwide who have their own versions of “Plategate” as they try to invite renewal in their churches.

Fear is a normal human emotion. But when fear of that happening again takes over and hops into the driver’s seat, we stifle the capacity to receive, to grow, and to bear fruit. We wind up embodying the parable of the talents, living like the fearful servant who buries his gift in the ground (Matthew 25:14-30). We cut off all vulnerability and risk, and in the process stifle any real growth or fruitfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. That choking off affects not just us, but all of our relationships.

Our God is not a God of scarcity but of abundance. When we allow ourselves to be secure in his love, we can feel confident and creative. We can collaborate and innovate. We can go beyond the math of adding or subtracting, and discover the power of multiplication – something Jesus often talked about and did.

Our God is first and foremost a God of relationship. God is an eternal communion of persons. Jesus is eternally “from the Father.” Who he is and what he has are the fruit of receiving. He desires to share the same abundance with us. He invites us to become truly blessed precisely by learning how to desire, to want, and to need.

During Holy Week, we will ponder just how much Jesus embraced our human condition of wanting and needing. I invite each of us to be curious about the ways we resist that level of vulnerability, and how he might be inviting us to conversion.

Triggers and True Kindness

These days, merely uttering the word “triggered” is likely to trigger someone.

There are many who mock today’s tendency to give a “trigger alert.” I notice intense reactions of contempt among some of my fellow Christians. I have a hard time imagining Jesus showing the same scorn. He compassionately sought out those who were weak or wounded. He met them with tender love. He did not expect them to pull themselves together before he would allow them to belong or to follow him.

At the same time, Jesus did not preface his teachings with a “trigger alert.” In his parables and conversations, you can see him intentionally eliciting a reaction from his listeners. He skillfully provokes in order to uncover what needs healing, to awaken desire, to proclaim Good News, and to invite them into a covenantal relationship in which they can grow and bear fruit.

To be triggered is to experience a bigger reaction to a situation than one might normally expect. Amidst a sudden influx of images or bodily sensations, a trigger might elicit a flash of anger, a surge of sexual arousal, a pang of dread, a paralyzing anxiety, or a dissociative numbness.

And it happens so very quickly. Hence the term “trigger.” Much like a speeding bullet, our nervous system and limbic brain have the capacity to be launched into a life-or-death response.

The reaction happens first. Rational thinking may or may not follow, depending on the intensity of the reaction. The activation or the shutdown of our body begins in a fraction of a second. We are already mobilizing, fleeing, freezing, or going numb by the time our rational brain gets the memo a few seconds later – that is, if the memo even arrives. Survival is the priority when it comes to our body’s trauma responses.

Eight centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noticed and reflected on these reactions that are common to all mammals. Deer who have memory of being hunted experience a swift reaction in the presence of humans. Our bodies and brains have a capacity to remember, to form associations, and to expect what will happen next. Without having access to the findings of neuroscience, Thomas was already observing the principle that “neurons that fire together wire together.”

In situations of threat, getting triggered is a marvelous asset. The speed and intensity of our reaction are the very thing that helps us get back to safety. In day-to-day relationships, triggers can be frustrating, as we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we love by any number of reactive behaviors: raising our voice, interrupting, berating, glaring, getting small, fawning, avoiding, withdrawing, isolating, going numb, turning to an addiction, etc.

Most of us wish we didn’t have these reactions. We wish they would just go away. Or we feel resentful at those who so insensitively trigger us. Yet every trigger is an opportunity to experience authentic connection, healing, and repair.

I began exploring my own triggers seven years ago, in my early months of healing and recovery. I remember that summer well, slowly reading Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They gave names to my behaviors and experiences. I didn’t always like it. It was painful to see how often I had been putting expectations on others and on myself, rather than acknowledging and feeling my deep and unmet needs. It was also liberating to tell the fuller truth. It opened up more and more curiosity.

Mark described triggers as an opportunity to be curious about my unmet needs, to become responsible for them, and to communicate about them – rather than expecting or demanding or resenting. Daily curiosity allowed me to notice and share with friends my various overreactions. Little by little, I grew in an awareness of what I was really feeling and needing. I noticed how present-day reactions were connected to my story.

Debbie described her preference to imagine triggers as “anointings” – meaning that we can welcome the anointing balm of the Holy Spirit any and every time we feel a strong reaction. That was such a lovely invitation, and one that I also started practicing.

There began in me a “thawing out” process. After decades of minimizing my feelings and needs, I began paying attention, allowing time and space and care. There’s a real challenge there – thawing out hurts!! Over time, I discovered new layers in my story – long years of loneliness and heartache that I had never fully felt. With the strong and tender presence of the Virgin Mary, my daily prayer became a time in which I could bring my daily triggers, allow myself to feel more of them, and welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was so painful and so consoling.

These experiences unfolded over months and eventually years. Scriptures began coming to life for me. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means I can allow myself to feel intense sensations in my gut, chest, or throat. I can welcome the Holy Spirit there. He can anoint me there. The very name “Christian” implies being a “christ” – being anointed as Jesus was anointed. Jesus promised that very anointing in the Beatitudes when he said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be paracleted.” (Matthew 5:4). I use the word “paracleted” in order to highlight the anointing of the Paraclete that soothes and encourages us whenever we are willing to experience our intense heartache and receive needed care.

Case in point: Just minutes ago, I received an unexpected and totally unwelcome interruption. It abruptly brought up all kinds of intense memories for me. So what did I do? I felt resentment and anger at the text message. I devoured an unhealthy snack, feeling shame as I ate it, along with the predictable and not-nearly-enough soothing sensation. Then I noticed myself just wanting to push through and move on. Then I felt the invitation to practice what I am preaching here. I took 5 minutes to lie down, allowing myself to feel more of it. I wept and shook and gasped for air. I realized how young I was feeling (like a 1-year old?). I realized how powerless and unprotected I had been feeling, and how familiar that was to my nervous system. I allowed time to receive comfort. I feel much more peace now.

Part of me feels frustrated at this “fragility” or that I still need so much. But if I tell the truth, what today required a 5-minute break would have set me in a rut for days or weeks in the past – and without me even being aware that I was triggered. The healing steps that I have already taken now give me a window of opportunity (usually) to notice and be aware, and to decide how to respond to the trigger. It’s a slow process that requires the faith of a child.

In healthy human development, as infants or toddlers or children, we have thousands and thousands of moments like the one I just had. Initially, that care comes from others; over time, we grow in our own capacity to notice what’s happening, to be resilient and resourceful, and to respond with good care and reasonable behavior.

As I get to know thousands of people’s stories, I am discovering an unpleasant reality. Most Americans I know did not experience myriads of moments of that kind of care as a child. We were more likely to be ignored, dismissed, judged, threatened, humiliated, attacked, or used. Many of us learned at a very young age either to keep our needs and feelings to ourselves, or that we will only get care if we perform or achieve, if we are dramatic or manipulative, or if we are giving something in exchange for it. We can expect as adults that it will take many thousands of moments of getting triggered, noticing our reaction with kindness, taking time to receive, and reconnecting. The alternative is to continue through life with unhealed wounds and unmet needs – which ultimately means remaining wounded people who wound people.

What about other people’s triggers? If we look at Jesus, we see grace and truth. Kindness seeks to heal ruptures, restore communion, and grow together in love. That requires a skillful combination of empathy and truth-telling. Jesus shows a marvelous awareness of what each person needs at a given moment. He neither backs away nor barges in. He loves them first, and then playfully engages their defenses, inviting them into more love and more truth.

To be oblivious or uncaring about what is obviously triggering to someone else is unkind or even cruel. But to expect others to tiptoe around my own triggers is egoistic and even abusive. I should know! I spent much of my life tiptoeing around others’ triggers. I’m learning that I don’t have to keep doing that. It helps neither me nor them. Their triggers and their needs are their responsibility, even if I genuinely care about them.

We all need people who care about what we need and feel, and who help us make sense out of life. Jesus needed that – and he experienced that! Not from most people, but from some.

Will we become again like little children? Will we admit and acknowledge the depths of our need, and be aware that those around us have their own stories and their own needs? Will we be responsible for our own needs and not expect others to do acrobatics around our tripwires?

May the true kindness of Jesus be an open invitation to each of us, in our own human growth, and in our relationships with one another.

Welcoming Emmanuel

God is with us. God is greater.

With these two simple statements, I invite each of us to be open and receptive to the good news of salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing in ever greater measure. It’s a simple invitation, yet not an easy one!

That is because there is tension in those statements – a tension familiar to Joseph and Mary, and to true believers in every age. God was with them. He showed up in their lives, multiple times – usually in unexpected ways, even though they were looking for him. To announce the coming of Emmanuel, God sends his angel. Each of them welcomes the good news with trust and joyful obedience. But God leaves far more questions unanswered! Mary ponders all these things in her heart. She seeks to understand, without (like Zechariah) insisting on grasping it all. Joseph promptly obeys the message of each dream. He believes God is with him, and recognizes that God is infinitely greater. He obeys with trust, not having any sense of the how or the when of the fulfillment of those good promises. God was with them. God was greater. They allowed that tension to linger and play itself out. They received and kept receiving, in a way that kept expanding with each new unveiling of the mystery.

God has shown up many times in my own life – often in surprising and unexpected ways. Again and again, he reminds me that he is truly with me. When I welcome his presence, I am aware – sometimes painfully – that he is so much greater. I am consumed with a longing that is both joyful and sad – joyful because I am truly drinking in his comforting presence, sad because I sense his grandeur and my own limited capacity to receive. The gap feels insurmountable, even when he reassures me of his goodness.


I can see, over the years, how much he has stretched me, increasing my desire and so increasing my capacity to receive and give. Sometimes I joyfully cooperate and welcome the expansion and growth.  Other times, I resist.

I notice two frequent temptations. One is to “arrive” – to have it all together and all figured out. In response to this temptation, there is the cliché telling us that it’s more about the journey than the destination. That’s not entirely true. The destination matters. It’s just that the journey is so darn long – and has to be – because God is infinitely greater! In his longing to share his fullness with each and all of us, he will offer every opportunity to stretch our hearts and increase our capacity for union with him. My ache to arrive is not bad in and of itself. The Magi felt it in their search for Emmanuel. Joseph and Mary felt it in their search for shelter.

There are moments that indeed feel like “arrival” – Emmanuel moments in which God definitively shows up with a further unveiling. These moments bring immense and intense joy – as we see in the story of the Magi and the renewed movement of the star (Matthew 2:10).  Many of us are then tempted, like Peter, to build our tents and stay there at the moment, as though we’ve now arrived. If we are wise like the Magi or Joseph or Mary, we will humbly recognize that there is still far more to be unveiled, all in due time.

My second temptation is to sabotage the expansive growth God is offering. I sometimes (even often) prefer to stay small and return to my familiar little cell – even when I see signs that those surroundings are increasingly rotting and toxic. Jesus has broken open the bars of that cell and shattered my chains. I am free to step out into expansive Hope. Yet, like so many survivors of a prison camp, the bigness and freedom now available feels unfamiliar and scary. Following the star to an unknown destination includes leaving familiar contexts behind – and I resist. In those moments, I am not so much avoiding pain as avoiding the immensity of the desire and of the increasing goodness that I am entering.

Thanks be to God, my fumbling and stumbling has not for a moment stopped Jesus from remaining Emmanuel – fully present and active. He keeps surprising me and keeps alluring me to grow into the fullness of his Kingdom.

There is a third way, one that invites a holy remembrance of past blessings and an eager anticipation of unknown blessings yet to come. This is the way exemplified by Mary and Joseph. It is the way ultimately embraced every true mystic or saint. It is also what we enter into communally in liturgical seasons and observances, indeed in every Mass. We connect with each other and with God. We confess our unfaithfulness and seek reconciliation. We remember the ways God has been with us. We profess our Hope and pray eagerly for his coming. Healed and nourished, we are sent out eagerly on mission into the world with renewed Faith, Hope, and Love.

I have also learned the importance of having my own personal ways of remembering and anticipating. In my meeting spaces, my workplaces, or my places of prayer, I allow myself to have outward reminders of the ways God has truly showed up on my journey. My friends at the John Paul II Healing Center would call these the “Emmanuel Moments” in my life. My friends at the Allender Center would call my outward reminders “Ebenezers.” Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Ebenezer is Hebrew for “a stone of help” – as in the memorial stones sometimes erected in Old Testament stories to remind people of the ways God has showed up. I can return to these moments – not to cling to them or to stay there, but to be reminded of the twofold truth: God is with us, and God is greater.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) led thousands of believers through his Spiritual Exercises – indeed, many millions if you count five centuries of retreatants. One of his greatest points of emphasis is “repetition” – returning to experiences of divine consolation in order to soak in more of the blessing and grow into fruitfulness. Here we see a strong conviction in the truth of both statements: God is with us; God is always greater.

“Consolation” is ultimately from the Greek New Testament word that means “paracleting” – that is to say, the undeniable presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. When we know that the Spirit of God has shown up and begun working in us, there is an invitation to keep returning, keep discerning, and keep receiving. In times of desolation, remembering God’s goodness offers us endurance and Hope – resisting the temptation to become discouraged and get small. In times of consolation, returning to those moments allows us to receive even more, resisting the temptation to settle or “arrive” without further growth.

These days, this invitation is especially crucial. So many are feeling afraid or discouraged by the seeming strength of evil. And the toxic currents of our smart phone / social media culture are tirelessly stealing away our rest and sweeping us along, enticing us to keep moving and keep distracting ourselves. Now, more than ever, there is the invitation to allow God to be with us. We can remember the ways he has already shown up, be open to the surprising ways that he is showing up even now, and expect him to increase and expand his blessings upon us in the days ahead. May we all be open to the good news and the salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing, until he becomes all in all.

Watching for Dawn

[Revised and re-posted from Advent 2020]

We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming, in the manger at Bethlehem; (2) his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and (3) the invisible way in which he comes to all true believers who desire him.  In the words of Jesus, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (John 14:23). Jesus desires to be present to those who desire his presence.

Advent is a season of presence. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus (“arrival” or “coming”). But adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia – often used to describe Jesus’ coming again in glory, but literally meaning “presence.”  It is easy for some Christians to slip into gloom and doom fantasies about a future apocalypse (or an apocalypse that is allegedly happening right now). It is challenging to abide in the present moment, to watch and wait with sober Hope.

That is the invitation of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37). In Greek, this command to “watch” is gregoreĩte. The Christian name Gregory is derived from this invitation to sober watchfulness, so frequent in the admonitions of Jesus as well as in other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).

Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) is one of my favorite popes and saints. He was born into a prominent Roman family – during a time in which the already faded glory of Rome was quickly passing away. Much that was good and beautiful had collapsed or was about to, and Gregory had no illusions that the clock could be turned back to “the good old days.” He answered God’s call to become a Benedictine monk, and his heart desired the peaceful prayer of the monastery. However, God and others kept tapping his talents for administration during a time of great crisis. He humbly describes his struggles to remain a man of prayer amidst the administration of stressful crises that were impossible to ignore. I can relate!

Gregory was profoundly aware that his name meant “Watchman” and that the words of Isaiah applied to him: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. A watchman is called to stand upon the heights, to keep his mind and heart in a place of calm, peace, loving awareness, discernment, wisdom, and creativity – so as to be a blessing to others. Such was Gregory’s deep desire, even though he felt and expressed his struggles: “Who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?”

Whatever his particular pain and struggles may have been, Gregory’s holy desire to be a watchman prevailed. Constantly renewed and enlightened by Jesus, Gregory’s foresight led to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries, which preserved so much of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Athens and Rome, and which became vibrant hubs of evangelization in the centuries ahead. Gregory’s sober watchfulness allowed him to continue doing works of mercy in the present moment, but without being consumed in a false fantasy to prop up structures whose time had passed. His sober watchfulness was both deeply pessimistic and optimistic at the same time – accepting the grief of definitive loss and change, while simultaneously seeing with optimistic Faith new rays of hopeful light where other more frantic people were blinded by their busyness, fear, or denial. Survival mode does not tend to bring the best out of human beings. Our field of vision narrows (both literally and figuratively), and we tend to keep going back to repetitive and predictable “solutions” – as though doing it for the forty-second time will somehow yield different results. True to his name, Gregory knew how to keep getting back into his watchtower.

When reflecting on the great mystery that is the Church, Gregory offers one of the most profound descriptions I ever came across during my doctoral research. He compares the Church to the dawn:

The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … For dawn or daybreak indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.

The Church, on her present sojourn through history, is indeed a mixture of weeds and wheat, darkness and light, sinners and saints. The same is true of our own hearts.  Gregory proceeds:

As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus, when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.

What wise and Hope-filled words! He can look truthfully at his own heart and at the Church and see truthfully both darkness and light. But there is Hope. The thing about dawn is that it does NOT turn back into night. So also with the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. He will be with her always. No matter how deep the darkness may seem at certain moments, we can look for the streaks of light and be assured that the dawn will break into full Day.

Our present age is eerily parallel to that of Gregory. So much that we once took for granted in church life or society has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. As with ancient Rome, some of what collapsed was beautiful, and some of it was already evil – using piety or patriotism to cover over greed, exploitation, or abuse. I may return to this discussion of nostalgia for the “good old days” another day. For today, the main point is that when you are standing amidst the wreckage, the only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged or cling to fantasies about how fighting “those people” will fix everything.

This Advent, we can join Gregory, not to mention the original twelve Apostles who first heard Jesus’ admonition to “watch.” Heeding the invitation of the Beatitudes, we can embrace our poverty and grieve our losses – getting past our denial and blame. We can abide in the present moment, even when it feels disorienting and scary. We can stay sober and vigilant. Jesus will open the eyes of our heart, and help us to see the new light that he always brings. As promised, his Spirit is always at work, shining in unexpected places.

Being watchful disciples means attuning to those first streaks of dawn, and allowing them to surprise us with joy. We tend to have tunnel vision about how Jesus is going to answer our prayers. Jesus frequently surprises his disciples with joy in ways they least expect. If we are sober and watchful in the present moment, our vision can be broadened again and again. Noticing with true vision the streaks of dawn, we can become eager heralds of the full light of Day that is breaking into this world.

Co-Authoring with God

We all find ourselves in the middle of a story. We have known sweet moments of delight, dark moments of betrayal, intense longing, bitter disappointment, and perhaps long seasons of feeling stuck or lost.

That is how most great tales begin – in the middle of the story in which the featured character faces a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. As we discover the character’s backstory, we gain a better sense of why the dilemma is so hard. It is only when she faces her past that she can move forward in freedom and hope.

As a follower of Jesus, I can ask an interesting question – who is the author of the story I find myself in? Is it God? Is it me? And what roles do other characters play?

Catholic teaching is quite clear about the authorship – it’s both. God is truly the author, and I am truly the author. God is sovereign and all-powerful, but he always respects and honors our freedom and never saves us apart from our wanting it and freely cooperating with it. We get to grow (or wither) in love over the course of our life.

Such are the stories of Sacred Scripture. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we hear tale after tale of human beings gifted by God, called by God, aided by God, corrected by God, rescued by God, and aided anew – but always in a way that allows the stumbling human characters to be free, to desire, to choose, and to grow (or to harden their hearts and to harm self and others). God never makes anyone do anything, yet somehow remains in charge.

The books of the Bible themselves are co-authored by God and human beings, as the Second Vatican Council taught in 1965. Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”) is the Council document about Jesus as the eternal Word of God. The Word of God is primarily a person, not a book. The Word (Jesus) is truly human and truly divine. Both his humanity and his divinity are profoundly united in the one eternal person of the Son; but neither is dissolved or diminished as a result of that union. In Jesus, all of humanity is invited into a one-flesh union with God that will be celebrated eternally.

This story of Jesus and the Church is then passed on both orally (in the proclamation of the Gospel and in Tradition) and in writing (in the God-breathed books of Scripture). Dei Verbum n. 11 clarifies that God is the true author of each book of Scripture and of the whole of Scripture. But the same paragraph teaches that various human beings are also true authors whom God chose and inspired – fully respecting their freedom, their capacities, and their abilities. God did not dictate Scripture word for word, in a way that would treat the human beings as robots or inanimate pens. Rather, he allowed his story to be told within particular human contexts. At no point did he coerce or pressure of manipulate the capacities or the freedom of the human beings he had chosen. He allowed his inspiration to adapt to the limits of a fully human context, while authentically communicating divine truth.

Fundamentalists (both in the Evangelical word and the Catholic world) tend to be afraid of human reason and academic learning. They want to put all the authorship and authority on the side of God, which lends the illusion of clarity and control. That feel safe! Never mind that God is always radically beyond our “clear” notions of him. Never mind that our feeling in control is an illusion. Fundamentalists resist facing the heartache in their own story and fantasize about getting back to the good old days when all was well (conveniently forgetting the darker deeds of those nostalgic times). They don’t tend trust that the Holy Spirit will keep showing up, and that holy human beings (or even less-than-holy human beings) in every age will answer the summons and cooperate with God’s saving action. God will never tire of saving us, but he also shows a remarkable preference to do so through feeble instruments, respecting the “yes” or “no” of those instruments.

On the flipside of fundamentalism is secular humanism. There are plenty of secular atheists, agnostics, or even practicing Christians who don’t believe that God really shows up or really authors. They see Scripture as a collection of merely human stories. They see religion as merely a human projection of needs, with the doctrines and practices as merely human efforts to make meaning in life.

Both fundamentalists and humanists are well-meaning. Both are partially correct. Both are gravely mistaken.

In the person of Jesus, God has truly shown up in human history; truly lived, truly died, and truly rose. God has really revealed himself; genuinely reconciled us to himself (in a way we could never have done ourselves). He now invites us in full freedom to be in a real relationship with him through his Son, and to follow where his Son has gone. Jesus is the great protagonist of THE human story, into which we are all invited. But he only and ever saves us by inviting us to become co-authors in our own story.

Co-authorship is hard. We will resist it and try to find another way. When we find ourselves in the middle of our story, when the plot becomes particularly intense, we tend to feel stuck. We want a solution that doesn’t involve so much vulnerability or risk. We then enter fantasy thinking – the realm of “if only…”

If only I had what that person has… If only God would send the right partner… If only I had a different job… If only I wasn’t so sensitive… If only I wouldn’t make mistakes… If only God would take this temptation from me… If only that political party got in charge… If only this person would finally pay for what he did… If only…

When we feel particularly overwhelmed in our story, may find ourselves in the broken record of an addiction cycle – which also always begins with the “if only…” of fantasy thinking. Fantasizing about a predictable pleasure may help the present moment feel less unbearable. It brings a certain soothing. But it will ultimately bring us to a familiar place of disappointment and shame. It slowly but surely ruins us.

Like the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12), we are likely to beg God to take our trials and temptations away, to rescue us by removing us from the hard spot in the story. Sometimes God does that – but ultimately, he desires us to become heroes who share in the glory of his Son. That will only happen if we follow Jesus closely in his suffering, death, and resurrection. If we do not face the full heartache of where we have come from and where we are going, we will miss out on becoming the full gift that we were meant to be. When we come to accept more fully the story that we find ourselves in, we can proceed in fuller freedom as co-authors of a future full of hope.

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