Living Torches

The emperor Nero was a troubled soul. In A.D. 64, following the great fire that destroyed much of Rome, he cast the blame on the Christians and put many of them to death. The Roman historian Tacitus paints a disturbing picture: “Some of the Christians were crucified and set on fire at the end of the day, as torches to illumine the night. Nero kept his gardens for this spectacle, hiding among the crowd, dressed as a charioteer.”

Crucified and set on fire. One can only imagine the devil’s delight, just like that first Good Friday. But the devil cannot create. He can only twist or pervert the good things God makes, attempting to mock his Creator’s good designs. God can always untangle the devil’s knots, not only restoring things to their original goodness, but even bringing forth new and unimagined blessings.

As we approach Pentecost, those early Christian martyrs in Nero’s gardens can become a holy icon of our life in the Holy Spirit. If we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, if we surrender our hearts to undergo that dying and rising with Him, we shall be set ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit. We shall become living torches who light up the night of this world, bringing comfort, joy, and peace to all around us.

Do not quench the fire of the Holy Spirit. That is Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians.  The Holy Spirit is to be a flame constantly ablaze within us, drawing in and consuming all the lesser flames of our disordered and unruly passions.

When we prepared for our Confirmation, many of us learned about the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The 7 Gifts are easily misunderstood. Well-meaning catechists tend to use gimmicks or clichés to attempt to make them interesting. The deeper truth is that those Gifts are perfective (seven being the biblical number of perfection). When they are activated in us, we are truly possessed by the Holy Spirit. He becomes the primary agent, and we are willing co-operators.

Without the gifts of the Holy Spirit taking over, even the best parts of ourselves will get in the way. There is that wonderful scene at the end of “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor. The main character, the self-satisfied Ruby Turpin, discovers she is not quite so Christian as she had thought. Furious at God and not wanting to take an honest look at herself, she screams out to Him, “Who do you think you are?” In response, she has a vision. The twilight cloud in the sky overlooking the field is set ablaze, almost like a fiery bridge into heaven. Leading the procession are many of the kinds of people she would least expect to find in the Kingdom. By contrast, her own kind, the rule-following and decent kind, are the last and the least. And “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Our self-regulated attempts at virtue and holiness, our managing and controlling, protecting and striving, tend to quench that fire of the Holy Spirit.

So does codependency. Christian churches are often full of do-gooders who will jump in to help others with their problems, but resist being vulnerable and receptive themselves. Remember the story of the five foolish virgins, who ran out of fuel for their lamps – in contrast to the wise virgins, who kept their lamps well-stocked, so that they could burn brightly at the coming of the bridegroom. If we do not learn how to receive vulnerably, if we do not abide in the Lord and depend daily upon him, the fire of divine love within us will burn out. Yes, we are called to give and share, but it is the Holy Spirit that is given and the Holy Spirit that is shared. The work does not depend on us. We need only cooperate and yield.

In God’s mercy, he will offer us many invitations to surrender. Most of the time, the invitation comes in that still small voice, gently inviting us into communion. Yes, occasionally the invitation may come à la Flannery O’Connor, in the form of a violent interruption or intrusion, something that splits open a crack in our otherwise impenetrable armor. Moments of crisis can become moments of great opportunity. There is also the very human factor that some of us have to hit rock bottom before we will even think about surrendering. God knows what we need and deeply desires us to be aided by the Holy Spirit.

In whatever fashion those graces come, there is no avoiding the Paschal mystery. We must be crucified with Christ in order to rise with him. That victory needs to be extended to every part of our heart. That death with Christ opens up a space for the new life of the Holy Spirit. It is only when we give all over to God and approach him with empty hands that he can truly fill us. That includes the shameful and feeble parts of our heart that we would rather keep hidden away. It includes our most noble and virtuous parts, which are not quite as amazing as we would like to think. It includes every part of us. Then the Holy Spirt can truly take over. We can burn brightly as God’s living torches.

In our humanity, we shrink back from any form of suffering or dying. Our instincts tell us we will be annihilated. But this pain and this death is different. The fire will not consume us. It heals, unites, and purifies us as it burns. We become like the burning bush that Moses saw. We will be perpetually ablaze, and nothing of value in us will be definitively lost.

As we approach Pentecost, like those disciples in the Cenacle, we join with the Virgin Mary in prayer and beg the Lord to set us ablaze with the Holy Spirit. May we all become his living torches, shining for the world to see.


Your new vocabulary word for the day is kerygma.

Kerygma means “proclamation.” It is a very simple proclamation, and it changes hearts. Kerygma happens when one follower of Jesus, moved by the Holy Spirit, becomes a herald of good news, and the hearts of the hearer(s) catch fire as they hear the message. When the kerygma happens, one follower of Jesus becomes the instrument whereby the hearer actually “hears” the gospel as good news, and is moved to heartfelt repentance, responding with a resounding “YES!” that starts showing itself in a new way of living.

Kerygma moments happen again and again in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter or one of the other disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, stand up and boldly proclaim the Good News that Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s such a simple message. Jesus died. He died because of your sins and my sins. Jesus has risen from the dead. He has the power to forgive you and forgive me. He has the power to save you and save me from death. All we need to do is repent of our sins, get baptized and place our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. Then we can begin following him together on an amazing new journey.

Peter and the apostles, the guys who snoozed and snored while Jesus was sweating blood in the Garden, the guys who left Jesus all alone to die, the guys who denied him and abandoned him – yes, those guys –become heralds proclaiming Good News. Each time they proclaim the simple message of salvation in Jesus, hearts are moved to repentance.

Whether it moves 3,000 hearts (as on the day of Pentecost) or whether it touches just one heart at a time, the power of the kerygma is real. It’s a life-changing experience. God wants all of us to “hear” the good news in a personal way that re-orders our entire life. We change and become “all in,” surrendering ourselves to Jesus.

Notice that it has nothing to do with Peter or the other apostles being smart, or educated, or talented, or strong (they were none of those things!). Indeed, it was precisely their ordinariness and their human weakness that made the Gospel message so compelling to the hearers. These were changed men. Whatever it was that they had, the hearers wanted to experience it.

There are a few core reasons why the kerygma works.

First, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. We are cooperators, but truly led by the Spirit in the process. The same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work both in the heart of the one proclaiming and the one(s) hearing. And he does his work! He is the principal agent of all evangelizing. We all have access to that Holy Spirit through faith and baptism.

Secondly, the kerygma works because the disciple who is proclaiming has actually been transformed by his personal relationship with Jesus. He’s not just talking about Faith. He’s proclaiming Jesus. Not as an abstract idea, but as a real person who has really changed his life. The change is obvious to the hearers. It attracts them. It’s an open invitation. They hear the Holy Spirit gently whispering in their own hearts, “Wouldn’t you love to have that experience for yourself?”

Thirdly, there is always freedom in the kerygma. Whether it’s Jesus himself proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, or those early disciples proclaiming the Resurrection, they respect the freedom of the hearers. There is no forcing or pressuring, no nagging or manipulating, no guilting or shaming. If the hearers aren’t interested, so be it. Those who proclaim the kerygma only want followers who want to follow.

How different this all is from the everyday experience of so many Catholics during the last several decades. The majority of Catholics these days are simply NOT interested in talking openly about their personal relationship with Jesus. As for those who are willing (myself included), it is with deep sadness that I admit that many of us have too often been led more by fear than by the joy of the Holy Spirit. I confess that out of a fear of failure or rejection I have engaged in pressuring, manipulating, shaming, or other methods that were totally NOT used by the early disciples. It’s so hard to trust the Holy Spirit, to wait for God’s timing, and to respect human freedom – especially when it’s our own children or spouses or friends, and especially if we tie the outcome to our own personal worth, somehow thinking were are a failure if they say “no.”

I have definitely learned, slowly but surely, to be both patient AND bold. If the person is not yet ready to hear the kerygma, so be it. But when I notice that the Holy Spirit moving, as at Pentecost, when I sense the person asking “What must I do?” THEN is the moment to proclaim the Good News of Jesus – and in a truly personal way that speaks to her experience. THEN, perhaps for the first time, that person can see Jesus as his Savior.

It is such a privilege to be a herald of the kerygma. You get to be the person who announces good news of great joy to persons who are longing so deeply for it – and it changes their lives forever. What a joy!

But there’s a deeper question. Have I ever really “heard” the kerygma myself? How can I give what I have not myself received? There, I think, is a big part of why we Catholics (yes, even we priests and bishops) have struggled so much to be bearers of good news to a world that longs for good news. We may possess a great store of knowledge, we may faithfully follow many rules. Perhaps we even had an amazing experience of Jesus long ago. But if we are not perpetually being renewed in the Joy of the Gospel, if we have not truly internalized the kerygma, if others do not see in us that Jesus is truly “Good News,” then who will care?

I encourage each of us to ask today, what has been my own experience of receiving the kerygma? When has my heart burned with joy at receiving the good news?

For me personally, there have been many “kerygma moments.” I remember the first time I went to Confession at the age of nine, how honest I was despite my deep fear, and what an incredible joy I felt afterward. I remember many moments on retreats in which God comforted my heart, deepening my desire to trust and surrender to him. I remember the witness of my friend Peter, a seminarian in his late 30’s. During a few years of intense personal struggle for me in the late 1990s (moments in which I felt very unlovable) he kept gently gazing and speaking good news into the places of my heart that feared and doubted. The Holy Spirit was very much at work, consoling my heart at a time when I deeply needed it. When Peter explained that “a good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway” I not only grasped the words intellectually; I truly “felt” their truth. It changed me.

I remember Peter tragically and unexpectedly dying that fall of 1999, after only five months ordained as a priest. I remember surviving a fire a month later, losing nearly all of my possessions. Truth be told, I would have gladly thrown them all away to have Peter’s friendship back.  Then I remember astounding graces and spiritual encounters during the Jubilee Year 2000. I received deep healing as others prayed over me and stood with awe and gratitude as others receive astounding graces and healings when I prayed over them. God knew what my heart needed and gave it to me; he assured me yet again that I could trust him and surrender.

Even then, there were parts of my heart that I was keeping locked away and out of sight. I simply wasn’t ready yet to receive totally or to surrender totally. I continued through life as a perfectionist, secretly fueled by shame, secretly insecure about not being good enough or loveable. Too often, I tried to “get life right,” to try harder or work more. I slowly got more disconnected and burnt out, losing sight of the good news of Jesus and of my identity as a beloved child of God.

Theologically, I knew the teachings of Scripture – God loves us while we are yet sinners. Salvation is a gift. We cannot earn our way to receiving love. But that was not what I was believing internally. There were layers of my heart that had still never heard the Gospel proclaimed. I was not yet ready.

Eventually, the trials of life wore me down. A few years back, I reached a point of recognizing that my life was totally unmanageable. I wanted to be well. I was ready to die to self. I allowed myself to surrender and to become vulnerable in ways I would previously have thought impossible. I began letting myself be “seen” by a few trusted people – letting all of myself be seen, mind you.  It has allowed me, more and more, to believe with all my heart that I am truly a beloved child of God – no matter what. Now that I no longer felt like I had to perform (or at least much less frequently felt that way) I discovered, to my amazement, that old habits of sin melted away.

I still have a long way to go, but the more I have internalized the kerygma, the more I have discovered that the Holy Spirit is opening up new opportunities for others around me to receive the good news. I find myself more frequently able to show kindness and mercy because I have been learning what it is to receive it.

It’s an old axiom of the first universities in the Middle Ages: nemo dat quod non habet (“a thing can’t give what it ain’t got”). We will not be able to proclaim Good News to others if we are not allowing Jesus to be good news for us.

What about you? Have you experienced the kerygma? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you remember any “kerygma moments” in which someone proclaimed good news to you and the Holy Spirit totally changed your heart.

If you can think of those moments, I encourage you to revisit them with gratitude and allow you heart to be touched once again.

If you cannot think of any, would you like to be moved by the Holy Spirit in that way? Would you also like to experience the joy of the Gospel? If so, you can ask God for that. And you can seek out someone who has experienced it, and ask that person for help. The Risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit just might surprise you with what comes next.

Hosting An Unexpected Party

Have you noticed during this pandemic that some of your “old friends” keep showing up uninvited? I think you know who I mean – those behaviors so familiar for so long that you naively thought you had left behind. Maybe it’s procrastination or sluggishness. Maybe it’s peevishness or fault-finding. Maybe it’s fretting or freaking out. Maybe it’s binging on food or alcohol or YouTube. Maybe it’s slipping back into pornography or masturbation, after doing “so much better.” You get the idea.

I remember having that experience back in 2008, during my first year of graduate studies in Rome. My first oral exam approached, and lo! My inner procrastinator, whom I had killed and buried (or so I thought) was suddenly alive and well. There I was, at 32 years old, back in the old ways of avoiding studying and wasting hours upon hours of my time – not in deeply satisfying or fun connecting with other people, but in escaping and numbing that left me feeling more and more like a failure.

During the previous five years, in my bustling ministry as a high school chaplain and teacher, I totally thought I had overcome procrastination. I truly changed many habits and discovered the joy of being tidy and organized and responsible – or so I thought. During those five years, I rarely procrastinated because I simply couldn’t afford to. But given the opportunity once again…

Hello old friend.

He made himself at home in my heart as though he had never left.

I now understand that there was so much more going on than procrastination. This was not primarily a matter of discipline or a lack of discipline. The deeper truth is that I was not very connected to my emotions, nor to the deeper needs of my heart. I was feeling lonely, sad, and disconnected. I was fearing failure and struggling with shame. I was feeling very much like I felt when I was 10 or 11 years old.

A wise man I once knew always liked to say “old pain, old solution.” If I am feeling like an emotionally vulnerable 11-year-old, then it’s easy to begin acting like one.

Unfortunately, when we act like 11-year-olds (or 8-year-olds or 3-year-olds) we have a tendency to be frustrated or disgusted or self-shaming. Why do I have to be this way?? What’s wrong with me??

Children in distress need comfort and care, not shaming. We can learn to be kind to ourselves in those moments.

A year ago I was reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I was moved to tears as he described a trauma treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy. It really resonated with me. IFS describes the all-too-common human experience of having many voices and movements within our hearts at any given time. It’s almost like each of us has multiple personalities within us. We have an assortment of character roles that we can quickly assume, without even thinking about it: the procrastinator, the perfectionist, the fault-finder, the binge eater, the gossip, the worry wart, the hider, the flirt – and so many more.

Internal Family Systems suggests that our deepest, truest self is an integration of all these different “parts” of ourselves. I will give a caveat that there are (unfortunately) some very New-Age versions of IFS that risk turning us into narcissists or Gnostics or worse. But Christians like Chuck DeGroat (author of Wholeheartedness) do a marvelous job of describing the wholeness and integration that Jesus came to bring. All of these inner characters – some of them deeply familiar to us – are good parts of our good hearts, created in the image and likeness of God. Some of these “parts” are still stuck in childhood, still playing the same old role they began playing all those years ago. And they are tired and exhausted. They long to hear the Good News of Jesus.

IFS divides these inner parts or characters into three main groups: exiles, managers, and firefighters.

Often when we experience serious trauma or neglect in life, our survival instincts kick in, and we discover ways to protect ourselves and endure. We instinctively find ways to lock away the most tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves. These become the exiles.

The exiles carry heavy burdens such as shame, fear, loneliness, sadness, anger, or resentment. They also carry our deepest human potential – for trust, vulnerability, dependence, relationships, connection, creativity, innovation, fruitfulness, and self-gift. As long as they stay locked up, we will only be a shell of our true selves. But letting them out feels so scary. It seems so much safer to keep them locked away.

That is where the managers come in (sometimes called the “protectors”). They receive a commission at a very young age – work vigilantly and relentlessly to keep guard over the exiles. Make sure they do not escape!

The Hider

For myself, at a very young age, I learned how to hide myself. Better not to let my true self be seen. That is probably my oldest manager/protector. Many of my other inner characters are variations on how to hide myself – even in plain sight. I learned early and often how to dissociate from the present moment, how to daydream, how to be shy, or how to procrastinate.

The Perfectionist

Around age 11, I somehow hired an entire crack team of new managers – headed by the perfectionist.  Working for him were other high-performance managers like the “A” student, the athlete, the achiever, and the Pharisee. Performing and achieving somehow felt so safe – indeed, I stayed in that mode for about 30 more years!

The “A” Student”
The Achiever
The Athlete
The Pharisee

These characters served me so well – until they didn’t. It sure seemed like, with them working so hard, they could somehow find a way to make sure I never make any mistakes and therefore would never be unloved or rejected. It turns out that Love doesn’t work that way. But 11-year-olds still have a lot to learn about Love.

There are many manager or protector roles that we can take on – the worry wart, the future tripper, the planner, or the control freak. And then there is everyone’s all-time favorite: the inner critic – that almost undetectable whisper within that tells us we are going to fail, that we’ll never be good enough. Even that inner critic is a good part of ourselves that means well – trying so hard to protect us from the pain of feeling rejected or unwanted or unloved. Probably there was a time when that voice helped us survive. Eventually, it becomes a torment.

It’s so easy to let our managers be in charge – or live in the illusion that they are in charge. For long periods of time it feels like success! Life seems so great.

Then something truly hard happens, and it begins to feel like our cozy little life is slipping away. We notice that one of our exiles is escaping; we begin feeling bodily sensations or emotions that (according to past experience) are a stern warning of imminent danger – a serious threat is at hand.

In those situations, some of us tend to double down on our managers. I will try even harder, impose even more discipline, become blaming and demanding with others, cling desperately to control – you know the drill.

And then it fails.  The alarm goes off. Security breach. The exiles are on the loose.

Enter the firefighters.

They will put out the fire – whatever it takes. They tend to be “bad boys.” They don’t mind doing all kinds of property damage, so long as they save the exiles and get them back in their cages. Mission accomplished.

It very much reminds me of the hotel scene in Ghostbusters when they capture their first ghost – trashing the ritzy ballroom in the process. When the manager protests paying their fee, they say, “That’s okay, we can just put it right back in there…”  And the manager relents.

Within my own inner “family” of characters, I have more benign firefighters like the daydreamer or the disarming smiler or the jokester. I have more intense ones like the nail biter, the binge eater, or the drinker. Addictive behaviors of any kind definitely fall in the firefighter category.

The Binge Eater

Looking back to my teenage years, my inner perfectionist was in charge most of the time, but when he and his team got exhausted, I spent hours on end escaping into video games. The escapes changed and morphed over the years. Eventually, life got hard enough that none of them were enough. That is when I realized I needed to reach out in new ways for help. So I did. My life has been transformed by the new relationships and new adventures.

Yes, during this time of COVID-19, I have definitely had moments in which multiple managers or multiple firefighters began showing up unannounced – just like the dwarves at the beginning of The Hobbit.

If you are familiar with that delightful tale, you know how Bilbo Baggins (reluctantly at first) shows hospitality to his intrusive guests. That unexpected party ultimately opens an opportunity for Bilbo to embark upon an amazing adventure there and back again that forever changes his life. All would have been different had he driven the dwarves away in disgust.

Here we find an important lesson. These various “parts” within us, these characters or members of our inner family system are not our enemies. They’re sincerely trying to help us; they just don’t know how. This is true even for those parts of the human heart that act out in the form of sexual fantasy or lust or pornography. They are trying very hard to meet a legitimate (non-sexual) need in an illicit way. Human urges may need a lot of untangling but when we get to the roots we will discover something very good.

To be sure, like those dwarves in Tolkien’s tale, our firefighters and managers are not the best ones to put in charge. Their self-interest and narrow-mindedness will get in the way. But if properly led and rightly ordered, they are wonderful travel companions and fierce allies.

The first step, I have found, is gently noticing. Just notice that all these characters have suddenly shown up. Then wonder at why they are really there…

Some of the questions I find helpful in these situations: What’s going on? What am I really feeling right now? Is there something my heart needs right now?  I find when I slow down and truly allow myself to be in the present moment, I often begin weeping, not realizing just what a “party” my heart was having and I wasn’t paying attention to. I also find that it often helps to phone a friend and connect, to begin naming what is happening in the depths of my heart, describing the “unexpected party” of managers or firefighters who suddenly showed up.

In IFS therapy sessions, therapists will actually ask questions of these managers or firefighters. Why are you here? How old are you? What are you so afraid of? When these different characters within ourselves are seen and noticed, heard and understood, thanked and appreciated, then they behave like most real people would in those circumstances – they become more open and docile, willing to be led and guided by someone who is trustworthy. They step aside and allow the exiles to be truly cared for.

Truth is, they don’t actually like their job – it’s a crappy role they were forced to take on at a very young age. They would very much like it if a mature and wise person would step in to lead and direct. But they need lots of reassurance that it’s going to be safe – that the exiles won’t be hurt in the process.

That is why the self-loathing and self-shaming is so toxic. It increases the inner conflicts. Our managers will then become even more overbearing, and our firefighters become that much more sly and cunning. These inner characters are holding on to parts of ourselves that need to be saved. They are good and faithful servants in their own misguided manner. They need to be integrated and unified, not cast aside.

We may feel frustrated that old behaviors come knocking at our door, unwelcome and unexpected. But we can learn empathy and kindness. We can allow the Risen Jesus to enter the scene with his “Peace be with you.” Then the unexpected party can truly become a the beginning of a great adventure. The Paschal Peace of Jesus will begin to give direction and right order to our exiles, our managers, and our firefighters. He will gather and integrate and heal what had been scattered and divided and damaged.

Yes, sometimes this quarantine is really hard. But don’t let it get you down. See it as an opportunity to have tea with some old friends. Invite Jesus to the party and let him give his guidance and wisdom. Accept the help of other friends along the way, and don’t let the unruly dwarves get the best of you. It’s an invitation to a great adventure, one that will lead you to discover your deeper destiny, one that will heal your heart and allow the glory of Jesus to shine.