Spiritual Bypass

This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the animated film Cars. The movie breathed life and personality into dozens of vehicles, including the cocky and arrogant young racecar Lightning McQueen, who unexpectedly gets stranded in the rusted and rundown town of Radiator Springs. Initially seeing no value in this long-forgotten place, he undergoes a deep conversion and learns many life lessons. He also comes to appreciate the story of the town, once great, then sliding into decline with the introduction of the I-40 bypass. Whereas travelers along Route 66 used to take their time to linger and enjoy this scenic stopping point, these days they just zoom on by along the bypass.

As many of you know, I am currently going through a few trainings for pastoral ministry to God’s beloved children experiencing unwanted behaviors or addictions. In them, I’ve come across a strikingly similar metaphor, encapsulated in the term “spiritual bypass.”

Spiritual bypass happens when you or I use our spirituality as a way of avoiding difficult experiences or undesirable emotions. In the name of being spiritual, we can actually evade and avoid the most difficult aspects of discipleship! When we do so, our bodies and souls suffer in much the same way as the town of Radiator Springs. Through chronic neglect, little by little, things begin to crack and crumble. The more this decay happens, the more we prefer to avoid, and the more alluring spiritual bypass becomes. And so the vicious cycle continues.

You can see how these cracks offer fertile soil for the weeds and rotten fruits of addictions. But addictions are only one of many such weeds. The great spiritual authors over the centuries remind us that sins of the flesh (lust, gluttony, drunkenness, etc.) can actually be less serious than envy, passive aggression, gossip, self-righteousness, or pride. Think of the story of the repentant tax collector versus the proud Pharisee (“thank God I’m not like _______”). Think of the story of the younger son and older son in Luke 15. Both are far from the heart of their father; both are avoiding his love; both are miserable.

Spiritual bypass often gets woven into the very fabric of our families and our church communities. For example, we from the upper Midwest are notorious for being “nice” – and thinking ourselves kind. Niceness is not the same as kindness! Niceness avoids conflict. Niceness pretends not to be angry. Niceness does not know how to sit with sadness, but tries to minimize or fix or anesthetize the pain of the situation. Kindness, by contrast, can be intense and messy. It takes great inner strength just to be with someone who feels deeply sad, angry, or ashamed.

In my personal journey, the Lord has definitely been inviting me and teaching me how to stay present in the face of awkward or painful situations. Historically, I did one of two things. Most of the time, I got small, hid my true self, or took the “nice” path out and compromised things that were deeply important. Occasionally I powered up, perhaps shifting my tone or raising my voice, perhaps making a subtly shaming comment that shifted the burden onto the other person. I regret those moments and the damage they caused.

But I am learning to be patient with myself as God works repairs in my heart. Healing and recovery is incredibly hard work. It’s tempting (like Lightning McQueen) to think I can re-pave the neglected and damaged street in a short time. It takes much patience and consistency – not to mention much help and encouragement from true friends. After nearly five years of diligent work walking my own healing path, I am beginning to discover that I can stay present and stay my true self even in challenging situations – without taking the bypass. Every inch of reclaimed pavement is worth celebrating.

I simply wasn’t capable for a long time because I was bypassing my own heart – including neglected streets that were crumbling in sadness, loneliness, fear, and shame. If present interactions caused me to begin feeling those things, it made sense that I would react instinctively and either flee or fight. God made us with survival instincts and defensive capacity.  For a time, we probably need these defenses. We may need, for a season, to be in a state of spiritual bypass. We can’t face everything all at once. We’re not ready until we are ready.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. So sings the psalmist. After years of preparing my heart, the Lord gently and kindly showed me how very much sadness and loneliness I had stored up. For me, the experience of coming out of spiritual bypass has been amazing, intense, and painful all at the same time. Sister Miriam James Heidland compares the experience with someone coming in from the cold with frostbite. To be in one’s heart and feeling again is both good and intense.

My prayer life has definitely shifted amidst this process. It is more tender and vulnerable, more about a love relationship with the Father, and more about receiving again and again all that I need. Ironically, I pray far more consistently. It’s less and less of a “should.” I simply need it. I need prayer. I need Jesus. I need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And I desire all these things. I ache for them. I long to see the face of the Father. That, for me, has been the very best part about ceasing spiritual bypass. Returning to my place of heartache also opens up the freedom and capacity for my heart to ache for God. It renews and deepens faith, hope, and love.

Perhaps the best discovery of all has been to realize the stunning beauty of the human heart – my own heart and that of others. Yes, there is sin there. Yes, it’s a mess. AND we are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, “very good” in his own image and likeness. You can’t appreciate the beauty of the town from the bypass. You have to slow down and spend time there. Then it captivates you. The beauty God has poured into the human heart is absolutely stunning – if we are willing to abide there amidst the mess.

I invite you to consider your own journey of following Jesus. In what ways do you take the bypass? Does it feel easier to avoid anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame? How do you react when others around you feel or express those? How do they experience you? Do they feel safe and find it easy to open up to you about the deep things of their heart? Why or why not?

Does it feel easier to “say prayers” to open up in a tender and vulnerable relationship? Do you let yourself feel the ache of longing and desiring without yet fully possessing?

Jesus reminds us that the road is wide and easy that leads us to destruction. Taking the spiritual bypass is so appealing because it is wide and easy while pretending to be deeply spiritual. Engaging our story in the town that is our heart involves a dying and rising.

Above all else Jesus commands us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Yes, we may need to use the bypass for a time in our life, especially if we do not have the support and the resources to face the hard work that will be involved. But so long as we stay on the bypass, there are parts of our heart that are not being consecrated to the Lord, and therefore not receiving his blessing.

Wholehearted discipleship is certainly challenging! But it is worth it. You and I are worth it.

Latin Lessons from Augustine

Today I invite you to learn some lessons in evangelization by reflecting with me on three Latin verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere.

I love Latin – its elegance, its symmetry, its adaptability, its precision, and its breathtaking capacity to say so many things with so few words. Above all else, what I love about Latin is how it opens a window into the hearts of so many amazing men and women – whether ancient poets like Virgil or Horace, or brilliant philosophers and theologians like Augustine or Boethius. You cannot truly learn a language without beginning to think and feel like the people who thought and spoke and wrote in that language. Latin may be a dead language that was uttered by women and men who long ago left this veil of tears, but to me some of them feel like old friends, brave companions, and wise mentors. I am grateful to have known them, and to have gained a glimpse into their souls.

Regarding the current Latin lesson, please don’t take it as a definitive discourse on the actual meaning of Latin verbs – it’s not. Rather, it’s a brief tour into the heart of Augustine of Hippo (a heart with huge desire). It’s an invitation to each of us to be open to what was so transformative for him.

I recently felt transported into “Augustine Land” while participating in a pastoral ministry workshop. The presenter drew a distinction between docere and ducere (if you are reading out loud, you can pronounce those as dough-CHAIR-eh and DOO-chair-eh, and call it close enough).

Docere means “to teach” and ducere “to lead.” The workshop invited us to examine ourselves and the methods we have used in ministering to others.  Have we have tried to operate from a posture of docere (teaching) without actually leading others? Have we given eager advice, or “talked at” the person we are ministering to, seeing ourselves as having right answers and readymade “shoulds”? Have we measured success or failure on whether or not we convince the other person?

Any outstanding teacher knows that this method of teaching will not work – except for a few who follow out of fear. Fear may be the beginning of wisdom; it may motivate us to start a journey. But it never keeps us going when the going gets rough. Only desire can do that – the desire that leads to Love. Perfect Love casts out all fear.

Teaching without leading is the way of the scribes and Pharisees – for whom Jesus saved up his strongest and sternest warnings. There is little vulnerability in that way of cultivating disciples, and therefore little Love and little joy.

I appreciated the presenter’s point, and then found myself suddenly back with my old companion Augustine, with whom I spent hundreds of hours with during my doctoral research in Rome. He offers us a third Latin verb to consider: trahere [TRAH-her-eh]. Over the centuries, it can mean many things: to draw, to drag, to pull. But for Augustine it has much more the sense of attracting or enticing or alluring. God the Father wants us to want him; he stirs us through our holy desire in a way that allows us to grow into his fullness.

Augustine is answering the objections of the Pelagians, who like the scribes and Pharisees overemphasized human responsibility and discipline – to the point of concluding quite wrongly that we humans take the first step in our salvation, that God helps those who help themselves. Augustine quite strongly condemns the notion, insisting with Paul the Apostle that we radically depend upon Jesus as our savior. From the very first moment of the gift to its tender growth and development to its final flourishing and persevering, all is God’s gift; all credit goes to him.

But – the Pelagians object – how does that leave space for real human freedom? Do we not become mere puppets of God?  That is where Augustine quotes Jesus to offer a profound answer to the Pelagians.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

God the Father draws us, attracts us, entices us, allures us – in a way that leaves us totally free to respond (or not). He sows the seeds of desire in our hearts and aids our growth – if we are willing. We are invited to become receptive soil, weeded of the obstacles the hinder us, capable of receiving and growing and bearing fruit; to be branches abiding on the vine; to be living members of his Body.

Augustine uses the verb trahere to describe God’s agency in this process – not at all “dragging” or “pulling” like a stubborn pet, but in the sense of attracting, motivating, and enticing. Just as “teaching” (docere) can become self-righteous or condescending, “leading” (ducere) can become manipulative or controlling. Augustine rejects any sense of ducere that violates the dignity and freedom of the subjects.  God does not coerce; he does not make us do things! He is a loving Father who places holy desires in our hearts and deeply desires us to become fully ourselves. He honors our dignity and freedom – even when we choose to dishonor him.

I wrote last month about religiosity as a counterfeit version of religion. Instead of freely inviting others into relationships, into joyful communion in Christ, too many of us (myself included) have resorted to pressuring, shaming, fear-mongering, or manipulating to try to convince others to follow the right path. God the Father does not operate in that way.

Each of us can consider what this means for evangelization – for inviting others to follow Jesus as disciples. If we look at him in the Gospels, we see an example of the best meaning of all three verbs: docere, ducere, and trahere. Because Jesus is truly connected to God his Father, abiding vulnerably in love, he teaches as one with authority, and not as the scribes and Pharisees. He leads without coercing or manipulating. He allows his followers to stumble, to make mistakes, to misunderstand – yes, even to betray him. He speaks deeply into the deep desires of the human heart – noticing our needs, listening attentively, attuning, and affirming. He encourages and comforts, awakens and allures. Many follow him, discovering within themselves a profound hunger and thirst they had not realized was there – a longing that God himself had placed there. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Teaching, leading, and attracting in this way can be unsettling! We feel quite powerless and vulnerable when we do it – we honor the freedom of the listener and open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. We open our minds and hearts to notice what God is doing – willing to be surprised if he takes us in a new and unfamiliar direction; respecting the God-given uniqueness of the person in front of us and that his or her path might be quite different from our own.

Augustine learned these lessons precisely because of his profound conversion. He finally and deeply allowed God to captivate his heart, to go into his places of shame, and to transform him.  He learned that desire is so much more powerful than fear or control. He came to experience the love of God the Father, and was magnetically effective in attracting others to it.

What about you and me? Will we allow our own hearts to surrender vulnerably to God the Father’s way of attracting human beings to the heart of his Son? Will we allow our churches to become places in which God easily attracts his sons and daughters, and they feel safe and confident coming alive in our presence? God, good Father that he is, will not force us to change our behaviors– but the invitation is there!

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.

Singing a New Song

Sing a new song to the Lord!

Many of us have been praising God with these words of Psalm 149 every single morning this past Easter week in the Liturgy of the Hours.

But what does it mean to “sing a new song” to the Lord?

Often, it means that we need to move on from our “old songs” – or to allow Jesus to transform them radically with the newness that he brings in his Passover victory. Our old songs, if played out to their completion, only bring slavery and misery. Jesus desires to teach us a new song in the new and eternal covenant, sealed with his blood in his Passover victory.

As in the original Passover, singing a new song means leaving Egypt and the ways of Egypt behind as we pursue God’s promises with fellowship, praise, and a deep desire to enter into the Lord’s rest.

Most of us know how well that worked out for most of the Israelites. It didn’t take them long in the desert to start pining for the fleshpots of Egypt, wishing they were back among familiar places and faces, forgetting in their fantasizing just how awful it had been to be enslaved. They reached an ultimate low point at the very moment when God was ready to form a special covenant with them on Mount Sinai. Moses comes down from his forty-day fast, bearing tablets inscribed by the very finger of God, only to find the Israelites carousing and revling around the golden calf they have fashioned for themselves.

Such sins do not come out of nowhere. They are the culmination of singing “old songs,” the melodies of which sweep us along toward old solutions to old problems. Once we get started with a catchy song, we feel the urge to finish it. Fans of The Office may remember the hilarious elevator scene in which Andy and Pam are trying to make a cold call to a potential client. Andy annoyingly sings the names and suite numbers of all the businesses he sees listed. Pam interrupts him with the right answer and urges him to stop singing. Andy complains, “Except it was going to resolve the melody, so now my head hurts. Feels like I held in a sneeze. Mmm! I hate this feeling!” Truthfully, we all do. The farther along we are in our old song, the harder it is to stop.

It is so helpful to reflect upon our experiences – including our darkest moments of sin – with kindness and curiosity. In our shame, we tend to avoid telling the full truth of our behaviors. Sadly, in that hiding and avoidance, we also miss out on the chance to learn valuable lessons and grow.

The truth is that our unholy moments of acting out are almost always preceded by unholy rituals that function much like the melodies of an old song – often a song that we learned decades ago. If we are paying attention in those moments, we will notice that we feel a certain way; that we have certain images running through our head; and that our bodies experience certain sensations. Typically, some level of fantasizing is involved. Our deep desires get hijacked by the fantasy, and some promised pleasure begins arousing us. There is sexual arousal for some, but the arousal can be ordered towards any number of fantasies: food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, envy, achivement, anger, rage, or revenge. In each case, as the anticipatory arousal grows, so does our urge to finish the song.

As a classic example, consider the devout dating couple who keep telling themselves they don’t want to get physical with each other when they hang out – but somehow always do, only to feel ashamed. They don’t always recognize early enough that they are entering into a ritual with each other – surrounding themselves with the same environment, the same sensations, and the same behaviors. They tell themselves that the outcome will be different this time, but of course it’s only natural that they begin feeling a heightened sense of anticipation for the completion of the ritual. Even if their minds are oblivious, their bodies and emotions and imagination understand what is happening. The more measures of the song that are sung, the harder it is to decide to stop. Again, this is true of sexual arousal but also of any number of other fantasies.

For some fantasies, the ritual song and dance may take days to play itself out to its finish; for others (e.g., an outburst of anger) the whole song can play itself out within milliseconds. Even then, as Victor Frankl once said, between stimulus and response there is always a space. In that space there can be power to choose, to be free, and to grow. In other words, there is the opportunity to learn a new song.

Singing a new song means calling on the newness of Jesus as we reclaim the things the Lord has made: desire, arousal, connection, intimacy, union, and joy. Every one of us is created by God to have these experiences – yes, even those of us who have freely renounced marriage and sexuality for the sake of the Kingdom. One need only see a smattering of celibate Saints to get a glimpse at the intensity of their desire, their longing, their anticipation, their delight, or their joy.  Consider Francis of Assisi, a man known for his poverty and chastity, and how intensely he enjoyed in the beauty of God’s creation. Pseudo-desires like lust and greed actually undermine authentic desire, intimacy, union, joy, and delight. It was precisely Francis’ open hands and open heart, his renunciation of lust and greed, that opened his heart up to the deep joy and peace that come as the fruit of praising of the God who delights in giving good gifts to his beloved children.

Psalm 149 speaks to all of these experiences. Singing a new song means joining in communion with the rest of God’s assembly – no longer isolating or hiding, no longer secretly stealing pleasures when we think no one is looking. It means rejoicing in God as our King and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the delight he takes in us. It means true rest with the Lord, learning just to be, basking in his loving gaze, and praising him amidst the delight we experience his presence.

It also means binding up God’s enemies in chains and fetters of iron (Psalm 149:8). Many of us have been bound up by chains for much of our lives. The evil one attacks early and often, seducing us into unholy agreements, enticing us to believe lies about ourselves or about God. These lies become cords that bind us, not to mention “chords” that keep us trapped in the same miserable old song that brings the same miserable old outcome. I know some of my own “chords” in that regard: I must hide my true self. I must not be weak or fail. I must never ask for help. I must never depend on others. If I keep playing these chords, the song won’t end well. I need Jesus to enter in with his newness and transform the song.

Some of our chords need to be eliminated from the song entirely. If we play them, they will only lead us to an evil end. Think of the alcoholic who needs to give up going to bars and part ways with some of his buddies.

Perhaps some of the old chords served us well for a time, but the song needs a change of key. Each of us have our own self-created solutions in our attempt try to make our pain go away, or try to fill the empty places of our heart, or attempt to resolve our inner conflict. Unaided and unprotected by others, sometimes it was the only viable way to survive. Indeed, some of us have survived truly hellish situations, and the measures people resort to in survival don’t always make for glamorous stories. The saddest part about survival stories is often after the rescue comes. One of the hardest thing for survivors to do is to internalize the truth that they are now free to live a full life – they don’t have to live in their joyless survival methods anymore.

If we find ourselves clinging to old ways of surviving (even when they have long outworn their purpose), we can allow Jesus to teach us new chords in a new song – even though we may, at first, find this learning process to be unfamiliar, frustrating, overwhelming, or intimidating.

Again, Psalm 149 offers the basics of the new chords needed: Connect with others in God’s assembly in joyful communion. Receive and give love together with them as we open our hearts in praise of the living God. Receive joyfully the truth that he delights in us (no matter what we have done), he rescues us, and he desires us to rest in him and delight in him. Bind up any and all evil spirits who would dare attempt to interrupt this amazing new song that Jesus brings.

God has ordained it so. This honor is for all his faithful.

When Hope Hurts

As followers of Jesus, we are people of Hope – especially during Holy Week and Easter.

This year we will experience a Holy Week like no other – gathering the family around our tablets and TVs to view the live stream of the holiest liturgies of the year.

I think back to the middle of March – which now feels like ancient history – and remember how I wept and sobbed over the cancellation of public Masses. The part that was the most painful for me was when it fully dawned on me that our faith communities would not be gathering together for Holy Week and Easter. Having had time to process my grief, I am now grateful that we’re doing our moral duty and serving the common good by joining in the shared effort of social distancing. I’m grateful for all the creativity and innovation that has opened up new opportunities. I’m getting accustomed to Mass on facebook live and Zoom meetings. But let’s face the facts: it’s still hard.

Since the middle of March, there have been far greater hardships for many than the temporary disruption of prayer gatherings and public Masses. Some find their entire livelihood in grave peril; others are under enormous daily stress; many others have died of COVID-19 or lost a loved one.

All of us have felt our daily lives turned upside down. Almost everyone I know seems to be experiencing a significant spike in anxiety or a resurgence of unwanted behaviors. So much is uncertain and unknown; so much can change so quickly. We trust God, but it’s incredibly hard at times to keep believing that it’s somehow all going to be blessed by God as part of his greater plan.

Hope is hard. The Christian virtue of Hope is not rosy optimism; it’s not a feel-good pretending like everything is just swell. Hope involves longing and desiring, watching and waiting. Hope stretches our human hearts far beyond what feels easy or comfortable. Indeed, keeping Hope alive in our heart can be painful. It’s so much easier to try to avoid, it, numb it, or even kill it – choosing instead a path of self-soothing or self-reliance. But we cannot save ourselves.

Holy Week is a time of Hope. The death and resurrection of Jesus, his Paschal Mystery, constitutes THE human story. Without Jesus dying and rising, our human existence becomes empty, fruitless, and meaningless. On the contrary, as we allow ourselves to be plunged into those saving events, we are brought to new and more abundant life.

In the “in between” of that transformation stands the virtue of Hope, like a brave soldier standing in the breach. It can be far more agonizing than we may realize. It’s quite possible that only a few Christians these days are truly steeped in Hope.

Hope is the virtue of Holy Saturday – a day that is easily overlooked. Many are bustling about preparing for Easter; others are pre-binging on food or Netflix or some other pleasure. The invitation of Holy Mother Church – rarely accepted – is to engage in fasting and silence and prayer as best we can, to continue keeping our vigil at the Tomb of Christ, watching and waiting in Hope.

Think of the various characters in the Gospels and imagine what their experience of Holy Saturday was like. Think of Peter and the other apostles, having suddenly lost their Lord and their friend Jesus – and under the shameful circumstances of having abandoned him or denied him. Jesus had recently given a glimpse of glory to Peter atop Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. Maybe that remembered experience emitted some faint glimmer of Hope amidst his overwhelming feelings of grief and disillusionment, fear and doubt, guilt and shame.

Think of Mary Magdalene and the other faithful women, holding Jesus in their hearts, continuing to love him even when it hurt so much. Their instinctive and intuitive Hope drew them to the tomb on Easter morning, even if they didn’t understand what was happening in their hearts.

Think of Jesus’ own mother Mary, who had borne him in her womb, nursed him, taught him to walk, taught him to read the Scriptures, taught him to pray, and so much more. Over the course of 33 years, she was more intimately close to him and held more conversations with Him than any other human being. Scripture does not record these, but Luke does tell us more than once that Mary kept pondering these mysteries in her heart. She is perhaps the one person who was not entirely surprised at his Resurrection.

But even for Mary – nay, especially for Mary – there was that agonizing in-between moment of Hope between the first day of Good Friday and the third day of Resurrection. If the experience was anything like the previous patterns (the birth of Jesus, the Flight into Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple), she knew and believed God’s promises, but did not know how those promises would be fulfilled.

That is what is so hard about Hope. It is an invitation to plunge into the depths of Jesus’ suffering – which involved far more than physical torments. He freely chose to dive into the depths of our fallen human experience – including the isolation, the loneliness, the fear, the shame, the rejection, and the abandonment that so many of us experience. When he cries out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” He is crying out with and for each of us from the depths of our hearts – places we are often not willing to go ourselves, because they hurt so much. Jesus allows himself to feel the pain of rupture from God and rupture from neighbor that is part of the story for each of us who are fallen.

Then it’s our turn. Like the Virgin Mary, like Mary Magdelene, like so many of the other disciples, we are invited to keep vigil at his Tomb. We are invited to keep believing his promises – even when it seems impossible anything will ever change. For each of those followers, Easter morning was a wonderful surprise. The risen Jesus brought them joy in a way they had never imagined possible.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, Catholics show up in large numbers for Good Friday, and are often moved to tears at the torments Jesus endured on the Cross. This year, only the priest celebrant will get to kiss the Cross.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, most Catholics give little thought to the experience of Holy Saturday. This year, we all have an extended Holy Saturday opportunity. We have been given a share in Jesus’ suffering and death. In the form of all this unrest and all these unknowns, we have an opportunity to share in the same disorienting and agonizing experience of those early disciples on that first Holy Saturday. Like most of them, we do not know how long it will last, whether it will get better, or how it will get better. We surrender in Hope; we wait in Hope, even when it hurts.

We are free to choose. We can plunge fully into the deep waters of Hope. Or we can keep popping up for air. There are any number of ways we can do that. Some turn to the false soothing of food or alcohol or pornography. Others minimize or deny, pretending like it’s not really that hard (thus distancing themselves from genuine Hope). Still others crack a joke or enter into fault-finding and peevishness – anything that will distract us from the present agony of abiding at the Tomb in Hope.

These are normal ways of avoiding – and they make sense. We all do at least some of them. The truth is that tt is terrifying to be under water for a long period of time! For many of us, it feels like it will be too much or too long. Indeed, that is the whole point of being plunged into the waters of Baptism – we actually die with Christ!

We Catholics think often of Good Friday and of suffering with Jesus. This year, I invite each of us to think especially of Holy Saturday, and give ourselves permission to experience the full depth and breadth and length of Christian Hope. It is not for the faint of heart! If we allow it, it will grow and crescendo into an earthquake that will finally break open the cave of our heart; it will roll away the stone so that we, too, can be surprised by the joy of the Risen Jesus.

Gradualness: Lessons from John

Some Scripture passages make conversion sound so simple, like a one-and-done deal: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20). Would that it were so easy! John’s Gospel, by contrast, is filled with encounters and dialogues that tell the story of a gradual and lifelong conversion in the heart of the disciple.

The encounters are many: Andrew (John 1:35-41), Nathanael (John 1:45-51), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-26), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and of course Simon Peter (John 21:15-19).

Each encounter is unique, yet there is a common pattern. We might called it the S.A.L.A.D. method: (1) See, (2) Attune, (3) Love, (4) Awaken, and (5) a Difficulty Directly addressed, or even a Dart thrown by Jesus.

There are also opposite encounters and dialogues – interactions that evoke a hardness of heart, diminishing receptivity, and ultimately a rejection of Christ. Consider the disciples who cease following Jesus when he declares himself to be the Bread of Life and urges them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:25-66), or the Jewish leaders who gradually turn against him (John 8:12-59), or the intriguing Good Friday dialogue with Pontius Pilate (John 18:28-40).

Let’s now take a look at the S.A.L.A.D. acronym and the gradualness that Jesus models for us.

See. First, Jesus sees. He looks attentively at the person in front of him. I hope that we have all experienced this kind of seeing. We all need it, especially in our younger years, but throughout our life. It’s a look of love, one that says “I am interested in getting to know you.” It’s a look that desires to understand, to accept, and to encourage. It is a look that is free from expectations or demands. We just get to be ourselves in the presence of that gaze.

Think of what that look must have been like, for example, to the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery. There were many other looks that they knew quite well: looks of judgment or condemnation, looks of leering or lust – or perhaps all of these at the same time! Jesus begins just by seeing the person in front of him, as one made by God, worth getting to know.

Attune. Secondly, Jesus attunes. He looks deeply into the heart of the individuals in front of him. He gets to know their story, their deepest desires and needs, their greatest joys and most painful heartaches, and so forth. You can tell from each of these encounters that each person felt profoundly understood by Jesus.

Unfortunately, not all of the characters in John’s Gospel are interested in being understood in this way. Some put up defenses. Others insist on wearing a mask and pretending. The same is true of many of us. Not all of us allow ourselves to be understood, even though we all desire it in the depths of our being. It is so easy to feel threatened. Then comes the pride, self-reliance, self-protection, control, power, anger, or blame. I am personally familiar with all of them! Thankfully, God has given me plenty of chances, and in his mercy has allowed my defenses to crack and crumble and collapse.

Love. Jesus loves the person in front of him. It is not a superficial or sentimental love. It is a love that sees right through people – and loves them anyway. Just one experience of love in this way can change one’s whole life. Shame is such an oppressive burden. Many of us are convinced that if others really got to know us, they would want nothing to do with us. The love of Jesus truly proclaims Good News in these dark places of the human heart.

These first three steps of seeing, attuning, and loving are far from a “Pollyanna” approach. Jesus is well aware of the faults of every person he encounters. Just as we have seen in Gregory, Alcuin, and Paul, Jesus chooses to tolerate the evils that still need reforming. The relationship comes first. Unconditional love comes first. First we must be free to be who we are; then we can become free in our acting and doing. Repentance and conversion will come in due time.

Awaken. Jesus awakens desire in the heart of his hearers. Now that they have experienced understanding and love, they once again dare to hope, and the real growth begins. Once desire is awakened, it can catch fire quickly. The Greek word is eros (cf. “erotic”) and it is not uncommon for a convert to “fall in love” with the Lord and show all the eagerness of a lover in a romance. Not only does a lover do anything and everything he can to get to know the beloved and to fall more and more in love, he also feels the urge to proclaim to all the world the wonders of his beloved. I have seen the same when people have a genuine conversion experience. Certainly we see it in John’s Gospel: Andrew rushes off to tell the Good News to his brother Simon. The woman at the well tells anyone who will hear about this man who unlocked the mystery of her entire life.

Difficulties Addressed. Finally – and this point is crucial in John’s Gospel – Jesus addresses difficulties. He waits until the right moment, when he knows the person is ready. Then he hurls a dart or a real zinger. It happens every time.

With the woman at the well, Jesus invites her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). He first saw her, attuned to her, loved her, and awakened her spiritual thirst. Then he confronts her with the truth. She is ready. She confesses the truth. She has no husband. The man she is with is not her husband because she has been married five times. Note that Jesus does not make concessions to the hard life and harsh treatment that she has almost certainly endured, leading her to the point of making these choices. He does not rationalize or downplay her sin. Nor does she! He has gently and gradually brought her to a moment of conversion, so that she can receive the spiritual water for which she so desperately thirsts.

There are other examples of darts and zingers, of confronting the difficulty head on. Jesus exhorts the woman caught in adultery, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). He jabs at Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). He reminds Pilate that he would have no authority whatsoever if it were not granted him from on high (John 19:11).

With Nathanael it is a bit different. When Jesus “sees” Nathanael, he perceives one who is ready right away. Jesus is immediately blunt, in an almost playful way: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit … I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:47-48). We never know what Jesus “saw” under the fig tree, but can assume it was something deeply personal and not entirely edifying. Yet Jesus affectionately accepts Nathanael for who he is, promising him much greater things. Nathanael eagerly follows.

Then there is Simon Peter, the ultimate example of gradual conversion. Peter is the epitome of two steps forward, one step back. The interesting thing in John’s Gospel is that the “dart” comes at the very end, after the Resurrection, when Peter encounters Jesus on the seashore, after the catch of 153 fish.

First there is the gentle invitation to Peter to admit and repent of his threefold denial. He who warmed himself and three times denied his master by a charcoal fire on Holy Thursday is now allowed to affirm his love three times by a charcoal fire, drawing near to true warmth.

But there is more. In the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – the ultimate gift of self in sacrifice (which Jesus had just shown in his Passion). Peter sheepishly responds that he “loves” Jesus with philia – brotherly love – and is told to feed Christ’s sheep. Peter has come so far, and still has so far to go. Jesus gently but painfully invites him to tell the full truth about his conversion. He truly loves Jesus, but is not yet ready to lay his life down for Jesus. One day he will be. He will grow stronger in due time, and will truly become the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. For now, Peter’s love of Jesus is still a work in progress.  It is enough. Jesus invites him, “Follow me.”

Thus in John’s Gospel we see the human capacity to go either direction in an encounter with Jesus. Some of the characters allow themselves to be seen and understood and loved; they grow gradually in their desire and respond step by step. Others react or resist or retreat. In every case John leaves “the rest of the story” untold. We remain free to go in either direction. One thing is certain: We are either drawing closer or distancing ourselves. In such encounters with the God’s love and truth in the flesh, there is no standing still.