Fatherhood – Concluded

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

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

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

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

But how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baptism of the Lord

On Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. In Catholicism, the liturgical season of “Christmas” does not even kick off until Christmas Eve, and then continues long after the world has moved on to marketing promotions for Super Bowl snacks, Valentine gifts, and TurboTax.

I remember Father Jack, throughout my adolescent and teen years, quizzing the congregation, and kindly scolding those who had kicked their Christmas trees to the curb too soon.

It may seem odd for the Christmas Season to include a remembrance of Jesus being baptized at age 30. It is a mystery well worth pondering, and one I have had ample opportunity to ponder.

This particular celebration has held a special place in my heart – in part because it coincides so closely with my own birthday. Whenever my anniversary of birth is a Sunday or a Monday, the Baptism of Jesus falls on the same day.

During my nine years of seminary, my birthday often fell in the midst of an annual retreat, prior to the beginning of spring semester. Many people celebrate their 21st birthday at a bar, but mine was in the middle of my first ever silent retreat. Good little Pharisee that I was, I kept perfect silence the entire time. The next two years, my friends Chad, David, and Peter couldn’t resist teasing me about my monastic virtue – not even breaking silence when they surprised me with a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

On those retreats, God captivated my heart with this special moment in the human history of Jesus. The event of his Baptism is meant to be experienced by each of us as his disciples. All that is his becomes ours.

“You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased in you!” (Mark 1:11)

On those retreats, these words spoken to Jesus by his Father became words spoken by the Father to me. I desperately needed to hear them. I still need to hear them.

It is one thing to profess with my lips, “God loves me.” It is another to experience it. In terms of teaching, I seriously could not have missed this doctrinal truth that God loves me. During the “warm fuzzy” era of Catholic schools in the 1980s, it seemed to be the only content taught in our religion classes– and still it didn’t sink in! No doubt, it’s why Christmas and my birthday felt so special to me as a child. They were rare moments in which I felt like I really mattered.

To be human is to matter to God. He has sent his own beloved Son to reclaim us through the shedding of his own blood. By sheer gift, he not only reconciles us, but expresses his delight in us. The words spoken to Jesus are words meant for us.

During the baptism, the Holy Spirit also shows up with his anointing. That is what “Christ” or “Messiah” means – the anointed one. This is the moment in which the Father anoints Jesus in his humanity (cf. Acts 10:38).

To be “Christian” means to be anointed with Christ. Jesus is God’s eternal Son and has no need of repentance, no need of healing, no need of deliverance, and no need of power. John the Baptist intuitively understands, and protests Jesus’ request to be baptized. But they proceed, “so that all righteousness can be fulfilled” (Matthew 3:15). God desires his righteousness to become ours – truly our own. He desires us to grow and keep growing into the holiness of Christ, which is nothing other than a communion of love in the life of the Trinity.

In one sense, the baptism of Jesus is a past event, over and done with 2,000 years ago in that tiny and not-so-tidy river that still flows into the Dead Sea. In another sense, this event is ongoing. By God’s design, all human flesh is meant to be inserted into the flesh of Christ. All human flesh is invited to the regenerating waters of baptism. All human flesh is invited to be anointed by the Holy Spirit.

We need that renewal; we need that anointing. In the Scripture readings this Sunday, the prophet Isaiah proclaims the victory that the Messiah is destined to bring – calling prisoners out from the dungeon, opening the eyes of the blind, and helping the lame to walk – all possible because the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him (Isaiah 42:1-7).

Despite my dogged self-protection and self-reliance, God repeatedly pierced my defenses on those retreats, surprising me with the honor and delight of being claimed as his own beloved son. On those retreats, my heart burned with desire in reading the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. During those timeless moments of prayer, I was able to admit humbly how blind and lame and impoverished I was – not in self-shaming, but in a kind truthfulness. That humility made it possible to receive as free gift (like a birthday present!) the renewed cleansing of baptismal faith. I realized even then that God intended those words of Isaiah for me as well. As one sharing in the anointing of Jesus, I too am chosen and called to proclaim Good News in the darkest places of people’s hearts, to call out those held prisoner in the dungeon, to grasp them firmly by the hand, to invite them to be claimed as God’s beloved and to receive the same anointing. I knew then and know now that God has called me to be an instrument of his healing. It turns out that I wasn’t ready just then to leave behind my perfectionistic defenses. So God has gently reminded and re-reminded me  that I have ongoing need of healing and anointing myself if I am to be an instrument of healing for others. I can only give if I keep receiving.

The apostle Paul invites us to participate in the baptismal rebirth and renewal that is freely and gratuitously offered in Jesus, along with the rich outpouring of the Spirit (Titus 3:4-7). Let us come into the waters of baptism with Jesus. Let us cast off the deeds of darkness and commit ourselves to live soberly, justly, and devoutly in this present age as we joyfully await in hope his glorious coming. Let us place our trust fully in his victory, freely given to us. With him and in him, let us become God’s anointed!

Learning to Saunter

Have you ever had that experience of always assuming you knew what a word meant, only to discover that it actually bears quite a different meaning?

I had one of those moments with the word “saunter.” I had encountered it often in books, usually with the same phraseology: “He sauntered in.”  To me, in context, it always felt synonymous with “strutted,” and I never bothered to look the word up.

But one day I was on vacation, a guest at the home of friends, reading one of those life-coaching plaques in their home (I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess which room of the house it was in).   The plaque gave dozens of tidbits of advice for joyful living.

One of those sage counsels was “Saunter aimlessly.” It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the phrases on the plaque. “Strut aimlessly”??  I suddenly found myself hearing the admonition of Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means…”

So I got out my dictionary. Actually, let’s be honest – I got out my smart phone, which is ironic, because the smart phone is quite possibly one of the greatest disrupters of sauntering in all of human existence.  But it gets the job done as a dictionary. The scales fell from my eyes as I read the following:

1. walk in a slow, relaxed manner, without hurry or effort.

It was so much more than an “aha!” moment. It was one of those divine taps on the shoulder. Perhaps I had misunderstood this vocabulary word all my life because I am not so skilled at sauntering.

Well actually, that’s not entirely true. Deep down, my heart LOVES to saunter. Have you seen those Family Circus installments that trace little Billy’s meanderings with a dotted line? I definitely have a little child inside that absolutely delights in sautnering – exploring the nooks and crannies of God’s creation in a spirit of curiosity, awe, and adventure. But many other parts of me rise up to squelch that childlike longing.

My workaholic and perfectionistic tendencies don’t tend to leave space for little Derek to saunter. I experience restless urges within me – an urge to “get caught up,” and urge to be constantly productive, and an urge to meet the impossible expectations of others. My inner critic warns me that there is no time for such childish pursuits. If I stop to smell the roses, an inner alarm goes off, warning me to move on to the next thing or raising my internal level of guilt about being selfish or lazy.

I apparently did not know the meaning of the word “saunter” during my four years living in Italy, but it was often right there in front of me. I recall feeling frequently annoyed at the locals, stuck behind them as they strolled aimlessly down the sidewalk – on those few Roman streets that are actually wide enough to have sidewalks. Somehow one Italian could effectively block an eight-foot wide space, always walking down the middle, often smoking a cigarette, and veering randomly to the left or the right as they sauntered along without a care in the world. Italians are not exactly known for efficiency or industriousness, especially the further south one goes. There I was, descended from neurotic Northern Europeans – and even among my own people bearing a legendary reputation for productivity and overachieving. Needless to say, I did not blend in, nor did I try to. I found ways to beat the system and accomplish the tasks I felt driven to do – but not without resentment and frustration. I could have learned some lessons from those Italians.

In truth, we cannot live as humans without sauntering sometimes. Our ultimate purpose in life is to abide with the Lord forever. Each one of us carries deep within us a yearning for rest. If we do not honor that yearning, it will find ways to express itself – often in fruitless fantasies or mindless escapes that do not actually refresh us.

Desiring our happiness and wellbeing, God commands us to engage in Sabbath rest. He rests on the seventh day and invites us to participate in his rest. Easier said than done!

I remember the summer of 1995, at the end of my freshman year of college. I felt a conviction that, as a student, my labor was academic – which means observing Sunday as a day of rest from my studies. I made the decision not to do homework on the Lord’s Day. I thought it would be incredibly hard to “get my work done” without utilizing Sunday. I was wrong there. Those adjustments proved easy to make, and helped me be more intentional about my time the rest of the week. There was no challenge academically. Rather, what surprised me was how exceedingly difficult it proved to spend the newly found time on Sunday in real rest and rejuvenation. I found my heart restless as it tried to indulge in various kinds of entertainment or pleasure.  My prayer felt scattered and distracted. It surprised me that rest could be so hard!

I remember a similar restlessness on many of my retreats over the years – worrying about “doing it right.” I eventually learned that the Lord would bless me regardless, and now I cherish my retreat days each year. They are one of the rare times in the year that I seem to feel greater freedom to saunter. At so many other times, there is something inside of me that seeks to sabotage authentic rest. It doesn’t feel safe to be blessed and to receive. There is a vulnerability in it that is so wonderful and so terrifying at the same time.

I think “sauntering” can be even harder for me, because sauntering still includes a certain sense of movement and purposefulness, albeit in a more carefree manner.  I tend to set myself up with impossible tasks and then always feel in a hurry, always under stress. I walk fast. I drive fast. I plow through tasks. I am disciplined and driven. In that setup, there is little permission to move at a slower pace, to welcome interruptions as opportunities to receive, to wonder at and delight in the amazing beauty that surrounds me.

These moments of sauntering, puttering, meandering – whatever the right term is – are so essential for me to feel safe, to be open and receptive, to notice and to care, to be in awe and to wonder, to learn, to grow, to be generous, to appreciate, to be grateful, to affirm and encourage others, and to praise God. I am so much less human if I do not allow space for sauntering in my life.

Thankfully beauty often breaks through in spite of my defenses. It sneaks in the back door and catches me by surprise.  At those moments I have a choice to make. Will I rush on to the next thing and miss an opportunity to abide with the one who loves me so much? Or will I be kind to myself, allowing myself to take in the goodness and beauty, to savor it, to delight in it, and to praise the God who gives such good gifts?

Jesus, teach me to “saunter aimlessly” and to learn to be at peace when I do so.

Another Spiritual Communion Prayer

This summer, I shared a Spiritual Communion Prayer with you. Today I share another one, much shorter. It allows the opportunity to state a specific need to Jesus. Even though our Good Father knows what we need much more profoundly than we do, there is no question that he invites us to ask for graces in a very particular way, opening our hearts to him like little children. This prayer hopefully assists some of us in doing so, opening up space to receive from a God who is so eager to bless his children:

Jesus, my Lord and my God, I consecrate myself freely and wholeheartedly to you. I depend completely upon you to heal me and save me. I invite you into my heart today. You teach us that all things are possible for God, and invite us to ask our Father for good gifts. Jesus, today, there is one thing, in particular, that I especially ask your help with. I take a few moments now in silence to name that need to you: ____________________.  In union with your offering on the Cross, I now open my heart and surrender myself totally into the Father’s hands.  Amen.

From Wonder to Wisdom

Childlike wonder is a precious gift.

It is so much fun to observe the awe of children as they plunge into the present moment. They exhibit an eager and relentless curiosity, whether exploring the flora and fauna in the backyard or dismantling their toys to figure out how they actually work. They burst forth with such intense joy during spontaneous play as they gleefully cry out “Again!! Again!!” They tirelessly yearn for the eternal in their experience of the present moment. They instinctively and effortlessly convert a large open room into a playground or an adventure zone. They easily overlook the expensive Christmas gift their parents have purchased, instead playing for hours with the large cardboard box or the shiny wrapping paper.

The common denominator in all of these experiences is a marvelous human capacity to be wholly and wholeheartedly present in the present moment. We do not need to teach our children how to do this; they do it effortlessly. It is hardwired into our humanity. God has put the timeless into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Sadly, the trials and traumas of life often leave us splintered and fragmented, and we “grown-ups” can be much more guarded about entering freely and wholeheartedly into the present moment. We hold parts of ourselves back. This self-protection is so sad because the present moment is the only thing that really exists! The past is irretrievably gone, no matter how much we cling to it or dwell upon it. The future is not yet here and is largely unknown to us, no matter how much we try to control it. Certainly it is wise to learn from the past and plan for the future, but ultimately the “now” of the present moment is the one and only space in which we can encounter the living God. All times are simultaneously and perfectly present to him. There is no before and after, only the “now” of his eternal existence. As the most unique of all God’s creatures, made in his own image and likeness, we humans are most fully ourselves when we abide in the present moment.

We learn in Scripture that the beginning of Wisdom is to be found in the fear of the Lord (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). The “fear” that leads to wisdom is not a cowering or groveling fear, and it is most definitely not the paralyzing fear that many of us know all too well. It is what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “filial fear.”

Thomas describes the difference between “filial fear” and “servile fear.” Servile fear is a slave-like fear, motivated primarily by avoiding punishment. This kind of fear can certainly be a strong motivator, but it is not what sets us apart in the image and likeness of God. The fear of pain or punishment is something that we share with all our fellow mammals. It can be a helpful beginning to wake us up or turn us away from a destructive path. But servile fear will not lead us to grow in Wisdom. Indeed, it is much more likely to pull us out of the present moment. From a brain science perspective, servile fear kicks in our survival response of “fight or flight or freeze.” In those moments, our prefrontal cortex (the higher and more rational part of our brain) goes offline as our survival instincts take over. Survival mode is great when our life is on the line. But it does not allow for childlike wonder.

Filial fear, by contrast, is what sons and daughters have towards a loving, benevolent, and merciful father. They cherish him and their relationship with him. They desire that relationship to grow ever more intimate and shun anything that would turn them away from that joyful communion of love.

Many of us still need to make the journey of maturity from servile fear to filial fear, a journey described so beautifully by Paul in Romans 8: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Faith is a gift, utterly undeserved. It moves mountains, removing any and all obstacles that get in the way of us growing into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Restored by Faith, we can rediscover an even greater childlike wonder, which leads us to true Wisdom. We can rediscover the spontaneous joy and gratitude and praise that come from abiding in the present moment.

What a special gift to grow into during this time of COVID-19, in which many are feeling bored or understimulated. The words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind:  “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

If we become again like little children, even the smallest blessings of daily life can become an unmitigated experience of wonder and awe in God’s presence. All is gift, and his glory shines everywhere in the creatures he has made. Those who become again like little children can experience it.

What are the cardboard boxes God is dropping into your life today? Are you ready to receive them with awe and praise and gratitude? What is holding you back from being wholeheartedly in the present? Are there parts of your heart that resist, hesitate, or bail out? Will you let the soothing balm of the Holy Spirit calm you, opening all of your heart to receive the glorious freedom of the children of God? It is a freedom that can only be experienced in the “now” of the present moment.

Living and Partly Living

On December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in Canterbury by knights acting on behalf of King Henry, his former friend. The great poet T.S. Eliot memorialized this event in Murder in the Cathedral. In a previous post, we journeyed with T.S. Eliot into the human heart of Thomas Becket as he came to grips with his imminent death. But Becket’s heart was not the only one impacted by the event. Even more fascinating is the transformation that takes place in the peasant women of Canterbury. Throughout the play, they sing as the Chorus. As the plot unfolds, we witness the conversion of their hearts. Initially, they angrily oppose Becket’s return to England and the inevitable conflict that he brings. Eventually, they surrender themselves to the event, asking Thomas to pray for them and promising to pray for him.

There is a recurring refrain in their singing: “Living and partly living.” It describes their pitiful existence as they scrape by in poverty. They go on surviving, resentful of their misery. But at least the misery is manageable and predictable. It is what they know. By contrast, they are overwhelmed and terrified by the winds of change that propel the sails of Becket’s boat as he lands in Dover. Like most of us, they would so much rather stay mired in the hellhole that they know than venture out into new and scary horizons.

They beg and plead with Becket:

O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return to France.
Return. Quickly. Quietly. Leave us to perish in quiet…
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.

They describe years of plenty and years of famine; birth and death; joy and fears. Like typical humans, they tend to deny and minimize just how awful things are. They hint at dreadful realities that they regularly endure – their daughters taken by the wealthy and powerful, untimely deaths, oppression, and violence. Somehow these painful parts of life seem “okay” or manageable in comparison with a new beginning of an unknown future.

As the old saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Rather than face our pain, rather than resolving conflict, rather than humbling ourselves and asking for assistance, we are much more likely to tell lies to ourselves and deny that change is needed. We choose surviving over thriving. Living and partly living.

Or we minimize. Personally, I’ve always had a passionate commitment to Truth and Goodness and Beauty. When those realities hit me between the eyes,  I realize that I can no longer live in denial. But oh, have I been a master of minimizing! For years, I carried painful and unhealed wounds that needed attention from God and others. I acknowledged them as best I knew how. But I shaded the truth. I told myself that it wasn’t all that bad, that other people had it so much worse, that I should be grateful for what I have, and so forth. I was surviving, not thriving. Living and partly living.

Back to T.S. Eliot. As Thomas faces his spiritual battle with the final tempter, the women of Canterbury chime in. They begin shedding their denial, admitting a bit more of the truth:

We have not been happy, my Lord, we have not been too happy.
We are not ignorant women, we know what we must expect and not expect.
We know of oppression and torture,
We know of extortion and violence,
Destitution, disease…
Our sins made heavier upon us.
We have seen the young man mutilated,
The torn girl trembling by the mill-stream.
And meanwhile we have gone on living,
Living and partly living…

As they begin facing the pain, they feel a clutching panic gripping their hearts:

God gave us always some reason, some hope; but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky;
Under doors and down chimneys, flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.
God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pang, more pain than birth or death…
O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;
Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.

It is one of the oldest human stories. We recognize the need for change. We begin to accept it. Perhaps we even make a firm resolve and take some serious first steps. Then, as the familiar fades from view, we panic. We become dizzy and disoriented. We feel a fear as of death. All too often, we scurry back to our hellhole. The battered woman returns to her abuser. The addict resumes his familiar rituals, and finds himself “surprised” to be acting out, yet again.

In this case, the women of Canterbury persevere. When December 29 arrives, they choose to be courageous. Even though they feel enormous fear and dread; even though they are yet quite feeble and imperfect, they give their consent:

I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened…
I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented…
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Thomas enters the scene and affirms them:

Peace, and be at peace with your thoughts and visions.
These things had to come to you and you to accept them.
This is your share of the eternal burden…
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Indeed. Truth and Goodness and Beauty transcend us. We receive them and are received into them as we are capable. It is a slow and sometimes painful journey of conversion and growth. It is okay that we stumble and struggle so much along the way. God understands, and so do our true friends.

The play concludes. Thomas is savagely murdered, just as he and the women foresaw. They have already asked pardon of Thomas. Now they ask pardon of God. They are finally ready to confess truthfully their greatest sin – fearing the fullness of God’s love, and protecting themselves against receiving God’s blessing.

Forgive us, O Lord…
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.

God only wants to bless us. We are his dear and precious children. Any changes he asks of us, any sacrifices, any sufferings are only for the sake of stretching us, enlarging our capacity, and then filling us superabundantly with his love. We, like the women of Canterbury, cannot bear very much reality. Hopefully we will consent to put to death our old ways, to leave them behind, and to fare forward (to borrow words from another T.S. Eliot poem). Yes, we will feel fear, and probably all sorts of other emotions: shame, guilt, anger, sadness, or loneliness. Still, we can fare forward. With the support and encouragement of God and others, little by little, we can learn to leave behind our self-protective hellhole and step out into the light of God’s love, receiving grace upon grace.