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.

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.

The Middle of the Story

It’s difficult being in the middle of a great story. It’s challenging enough to be an empathetic reader, feeling the tension in our body as we witness the drama resolving. But we as readers typically know more than the characters in the story, and are free to set the story aside. By contrast, to be the one in the midst of the tale, totally unsure of what will happen next, can be overwhelming, disorienting, or discouraging.

I recently re-read Lord of the Rings – probably my favorite story. This time around, I was captivated by the conversation between Frodo and Sam on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. They have come far in their journey, which seems more and more to be a fools’ errand. Failure feels inevitable.

Then they have a moment’s realization that they are in the middle of a great story. Not only that, they are characters entering and leaving the stage amidst an even grander story, interconnected with all the heroes and villains. Sam cheers Frodo up by imagining their tale told to children by the fireside. “Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”

Frodo laughs in a dark place that hadn’t heard laughter since Sauron came to Middle Earth. He adds to Sam’s musings: “But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”

Then Frodo names well why things are so hard for them: “You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’”

I have felt more than once in life what it is like to be at the worst places of the story. We can have long moments of felt powerlessness in which we do not see a path forward, and do not feel like we can trust anyone. Sometimes those are distorted perceptions, but not always. In the case of Frodo and Sam, the devious Gollum was their only guide, and they had no obvious options. All they could think to do was keep showing up and see what would happen next. And they did just that.

On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will assemble the entire human race, and have them hear your story and mine – which of course will interwoven with the entire human story. Others will hear all about the heroes and villains and supporting characters in our story. Our full truth will be unveiled.

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate hero of the grand human story. His dying and rising bring meaning and hope. But Jesus very much desires that we participate in his Passover (cf. Luke 22:15). He wants his story to become one with ours, and for you and me to grow as heroes in our own right. It is often in the moments of failure or adversity that we learn the most and become who we are. The apostle Paul teaches that God works all things for the good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Augustine of Hippo adds the words – even our sins.

Like the hobbits, we are apt to have more moments of foolish blundering than moments of astonishing courage or faithfulness. All the moments matter, and in his covenantal love Jesus turns every one of them into the beginning of a new and better chapter. It’s not a matter of getting it all right or figuring it all out, but of allowing the story to unfold.

We tend to imagine that the glamorous moments of our story will be those in which we fell a giant spider or troll. But when our full story is told, perhaps the listeners will perceive that our greatest moments were those in which we ourselves fell – again and again – and kept getting up and kept showing up. They will gain a glimpse into the moments when we had no idea how we could carry on, what would come next, or who would help us get there – and we chose to show up anyway.

Yes, it’s hard to be in the middle of a story – especially at the worst moments, the moments in which we feel stuck. It helps very much to allow true friends to be near us, to share bread together and sing together, even in the dark moments and places of our lives.

In every case, there is an invitation to Eucharistic renewal. Jesus assembles us, Sunday after Sunday, and we listen attentively the THE story that breathes meaning and hope into our own. We place all the broken pieces of ourselves and our lives on the altar, giving it all over to the one who offers it all to the Father. We receive the flesh and blood of Jesus – our waybread for the journey that lies ahead – even when we do not know the way, and do not know how all can possibly be well. We resist the temptation to go it alone – even when that feels easier. We definitely need community and true companions on the journey. Like Frodo, we may find the most unusual allies in the most unexpected places.

The virgin Mary models for us, again and again, what it is like to be in the middle of an unfolding story and not have all the answers. She never backs away or isolates, nor does she force a solution. She abides. She watches and waits, and when the Lord reveals next steps, she follows with trust. She is willing to abide in the middle of the worst moments. She stands with Jesus in the worst moments of his. Jesus gives us to her (“Behold your mother”) so that she can stand with us in our own worst moments. May we welcome her mothering and learn from her example as we continue into the next chapter of our story.

Check out my new blog!

Hello faithful readers. Can you believe this blog has been going for nearly five years now? Thank you to each and all of your for your support and encouragement – and especially for the courage you have shown on your own journey of healing and conversion. Rest assured, I have not run out of content yet, and plan to continue posting in Abiding in Love and Truth.

Meanwhile, I just launched a new blog entitled Brave Shepherds. It goes hand in hand with my new assignment as Director of the Rebuild My Church Initiative in my diocese.

Brave Shepherds is a blog for priests and for those who desire to support us priests in our task of growing as human beings, as disciples of Jesus, and in our self-offering as priests.

Would you consider sharing my new blog with any priests that you think might be interested?

If you or anyone you know would like to subscribe and receive emails about new blog posts you can learn how to do so HERE.

Thank you all very much!

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