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!

Francis of Assisi and Fatherly Blessing

There is a famous moment in the life of Francis of Assisi, in which he dramatically renounces his earthly father and claims God as his heavenly Father. Francis gives back to his father not only the money he was demanding, but the very clothes off his back.

His furious father, the wealthy cloth merchant Pietro di Bernardone, had pressured the local bishop to call Francis to trial. Pietro demanded that his son pay back what he owed.

Francis had encountered the voice of Jesus calling to him from the cross in the hillside church of San Damiano. Jesus had beckoned: Rebuild my Church, which as you see is falling into ruin. Francis began the rebuilding effort quite literally, gathering or begging for stones to repair the dilapidated building. He also helped himself to a large bolt of his father’s expensive silk, selling it and attempting to give the proceeds to the stunned priest of San Damiano for help in the repair efforts. The priest prudently refused, not wanting to become one of Pietro’s enemies.

Pietro was a greedy man, but his rage had little to do with wealth. It sprang up from the shame and embarrassment that he felt as Francis rejected the rigid role assigned to him.

The famous friar of Assisi was actually named “John” at baptism – a name given by his mother Pica during the long months of Pietro’s absence in France. Upon returning, Pietro met his son and renamed him “Francis” (basically, “Frenchy”) in honor of the affluent country he loved visiting. In what he saw as great benevolence, Pietro planned to pass on his significant wealth to his son Francis, who would make him proud in carrying on the lucrative family business.

Instead, Francis went about begging, mingling with lepers, and sharing his father’s wealth with the poor. Disgusted and embarrassed, Pietro had him beaten and locked in the cellar, hoping he would fall in line. He didn’t. The next time Pietro was away, Francis’ mother released him, and Francis was right back to rebuilding the church of San Damiano – only now he hid himself in a cave to avoid the revenge of his father. That is when his father went to the bishop demanding justice.

The trial was public. Many witnesses heard Francis declare, “From now on I will say freely: ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘My father Pietro di Bernardone.’ Look, not only do I return his money; I give him back all my clothes. I will go to the Lord naked!”

He stripped himself there and then of his father’s robes, revealing the penitential hairshirt he had been wearing underneath.

And here is where I want to pause the story of Francis’ conversion.

Too often, the Saints are seen as these superhuman beings who quickly and easily rise to heights that are too lofty for the rest of us. The more steps I take on the road of conversion, the more I realize that the Saints were very normal and sinful human beings like you and me who walked a long and often painful path of conversion.

Most of the people who write the lives of Saints are themselves less than fully converted – so they tend to glamorize or oversimplify the journey of conversion. Sure, we would all love it if our conversion could be one simple and dramatic moment of decision and then living happily ever after. But that is rarely if ever how conversion works! Rather, there are many moments of weakness, faltering, stumbling, and struggling. There are many moments of new discovery and new growth. Consider the life of Peter in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. From early on he loves the Lord and has faith in Him. But he continues to struggle before, during, and after the dying and rising of Jesus. His maturing in the love of Jesus is gradual, but significant.

Let’s just suppose that Francis was still – at this moment in his conversion – rather immature and in need of much more conversion. That is actually what the evidence suggests! First, there is Francis’ behavior. He is fearfully hiding in a cave. Plus, his father makes a fair point – it was not okay for Francis to presume that he could just start selling his father’s possessions without permission. There is still no small amount of the entitled party boy in him.

But there is another wonderful detail. For some time, Pietro has been lashing out at Francis with curses. Francis’ solution is to call upon “a lowly, rather simple man” to help him by taking the place of his father. Whenever Pietro would curse Francis, the poor man would speak words of blessing over Francis.

Underlying these details are the fear and shame and insecurity that Francis still felt. Like all human beings, he needed fatherly blessing, and ached for it. He needed to become secure in his identity, to know who he was. That is the greatest gift that fathers in the flesh can give to their children. They can lead them to be secure in the identity that God the Father confers on them – our heavenly Father who alone can fully bless us in the way our hearts desire.

Francis’ greatest example here is not so much his outward poverty as his inward poverty of heart, including his willingness to beg for help. Rather than shaming himself for being emotionally “needy,” he humbly reaches out for words of blessing from a fellow outcast. Through the repeated reminders of another flesh-and-blood human being, Francis’ words to the bishop and the crowd begin taking on flesh.

It sounds nice to say that God is my heavenly Father and that he meets all my needs. But it can be little comfort when my old wounds of shame and insecurity whisper in the shadows that I am not enough, that I am all alone, or that nobody really loves me.

There is a reason why Francis and his followers lived in community as brothers. There is a reason why Jesus taught us to pray to God as Our Father. We cannot connect with the Father without simultaneously connecting with each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ. Only God the Father can fill the void we feel deep in our hearts. But only within healthy community, vulnerably stating needs and receiving care, can we be opened up to receive the Fatherly blessing we need and ache for.

As we become blessed by the Father, then the slow and steady change can begin to happen. Secure in the Father’s love, we can mature in Christ.

Francis’ biographer (Thomas of Celano) delights in the scene of Francis’ nakedness before the bishop and the people: Oh how free is the heart of a man for whom Christ is already enough! True enough, as long as we also remember that Francis was still in the process of claiming that truth and internalizing it – and never without help from others.

Each of us, one way or another, gets pushed into roles. Each of us struggles to discover our true identity, and to be secure in love. In our insecurity we stay stuck in our sins. We need fellow pilgrims on the journey – those who don’t shame us or fix us, but declare us to be beloved children of God. We absolutely need that repeated reminder so that we can stay secure in the Father’s love and keep walking the difficult road of conversion. Maturity will keep coming – usually quite slowly. Like little children who are growing, we need others to notice our growth, to name it, to celebrate it, and to cheer us on. The Saints in heaven certainly do so, but hopefully also some of our fellow Saints-in-the-making.

Who are the “lowly, rather simple” people in your life who remind you of your identity as a beloved child of God?

Certainty ≠ Truth

Certainty can be one of the greatest obstacles to Truth.

That claim may shock many Christians, who feel like they are clutching tenaciously to what little certainty remains in our tumultuous times. But certainty and Truth are not the same thing. When we demand or cling to certainty, our quest for Truth gets abandoned, and the Truth gets lost or distorted.

Have you ever had a moment of reckoning – a moment in which your tightly-held certainty was shattered upon the rock of reality?

My older sister never tires of reminding me of my own six-year-old clinging to certainty. My favorite show at the time was The Price is Right – only I insisted quite emphatically that it was called “Win a Car.” No amount of argumentation on her part could sway me. I had often viewed the latter half of the show at my grandparents’ house after kindergarten. I watched contestant after contestant win a car – or be foiled in the attempt.

And then came my reckoning. I passed by the television one summer morning, saw the flashing lights, and heard the familiar voice of Rod Roddy: “Here it comes! Television’s most exciting hour of fantastic prizes! The fabulous, sixty-minute PRICE IS RIGHT!”

Rod called down the first four contestants, and informed them that they were the first contestants on The Price is Right. And those same words appeared on the screen, tiny at first, but swelling until they filled the screen. I stood agape, stunned at my error. I had been so certain – so very certain.

Reality changes us – if we allow it to. Hopefully reality changes us not just once, but day after day. With childlike wonder, we discover new depths of the mystery. The more we know, the more we desire to know. Authentic growth in wisdom actually yields more wonder and more desire, not less. Those who are wise recognize how little they know and understand.

Such was the wisdom of Socrates in the face of his accusers. When he didn’t know something, he at least knew that he didn’t know. He was not puffed up with false certitude. Such was the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, who stated that “an article of faith is a glimpse of divine Truth tending towards that Truth” (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 6, sc). Catching a glimpse of Truth is different than possessing it with certainty. Those who catch a glimpse of something they truly care about feel an ache to seek more.

In describing faith, Thomas reminds us that our faith does not point to the proposition, but to the reality itself (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2). And perhaps most shocking of all, Thomas asserts that our knowledge of God is a knowledge what he is not, but that what he is remains utterly unknown to us (SCG c. 3, 49, 9).

Thomas Aquinas is not a relativist, and neither am I. But he is even more a mystic than a theologian. He intuitively understands that God is infinite. The closer we get to him, the more painfully we realize the infinite gap between him and us – a gap bridged not by intellectual comprehension or certainty, but only in a communion of love in the new and eternal covenant.

Jesus Christ presents himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He invites us to enter into a relationship with him and to follow him as disciples. Through faith, we become fellow members of his Body. We begin an ongoing journey of conversion, in which we become changed more and more into him. He invites us into communion with him and his Father. He prays that all that is his will be ours. He invites us as his bride into a one-flesh union with him. We are invited to grow into that union throughout our life.

Our demand for certainty comes from our insecure hearts. To feel insecure is one of the most difficult human experiences. The solution to not the “certainty” of Christian fundamentalism, but the intimacy of communion, and the security that is received in that relationship.

The Truth is not relative, but it IS relational. I love studying ancient and medieval philosophy, and find enormous wisdom there. That great legacy of Truth-seeking did not happen in a vacuum. It happened within the context of community. It is only within secure relationships, and in respectful dialogue with fellow humans, that we can pursue the Truth – never as isolated individuals, but as fellow children of God.

There are two opposite errors here: relativism and fundamentalism. Each in its own way refuses to surrender to reality. Relativism dogmatically asserts that there is no Truth. Those who cling to relativism ultimately refuse to allow reality to change them. They also ultimately refuse to give themselves over in a loving communion with the living God who holds all the answers to our ultimate questions.

But fundamentalism, too, is an enemy of Truth. It pretends to offer total certainty about “the truth” in a way that kills curiosity and wonder – the gifts of God that truly draw us into his Truth. There is a vulnerability and a playful engagement in the curiosity of a child. The “certainty” of fundamentalism exchanges a vulnerable relationship with the living God for an illusory sense of control.

The obsession with certainty has been particularly strong in the modern era (the last few centuries). It shows up in both Catholic and Protestant circles in some form of fundamentalism. We see this clinging to certainty it in the “once saved always saved” approach of some Protestants. We see it in an exaggerated emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture or the infallibility of the pope. I believe in both of those doctrines as far as they go – but I find that most Christians seriously misunderstand or misrepresent them! Insofar as they point us to divine Truth, both are at the service of the living and enduring Word of God, who is a person inviting us into covenantal relationship with himself and his Father.

Through faith, we share in the dying and rising of Jesus. We are securely loved as God’s children, and are able to grow into maturity in Christ. With childlike wonder and curiosity, we can humbly acknowledge and keep surrendering to a Truth that is always larger than us. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” May we never allow the temptation of certainty to hinder us from the great invitation of the eternal Bridegroom: “Come further up! Come further in!”