With-ness and Witness

Advice is overrated.

When we are suffering or struggling or stumbling, we don’t need fixing or figuring out nearly as much as we need witnesses and companions. We need fellow human beings who are with us and for us, and who are willing to stay connected to us even when the answers aren’t obvious.

Consider the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although most of his closest companions fled and abandoned him, a few faithful witnesses remained at his side: “Standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

For almost any of us, what an agonizing and overwhelming sense of powerlessness this scene would evoke! We could not bear to watch the one we love in utter torment. We would very quickly feel like we had to fix it or make something happen. But they stood. They witnessed. They remained in a state of with-ness. They loved.

I’ve been a priest for nearly 21 years, and have found myself in the face of all sorts of human misery. As a pastor of two churches, I was one of the first to hear the shock of a cancer diagnosis, whether from the patient or from his loved ones. I preached at funerals following suicide, tending to the survivors who were stricken with guilt and shame. I had a front-row seat to family drama when it came time to seize the car keys or relocate a declining parent into memory care. I saw all the various ways people deal (or don’t deal) with the dying of a loved one. I certainly saw death – or at least the before and the after of death, since the moment itself is veiled. I met with the depressed, the suicidal, the anxious, or the scrupulous. I heard thousands of Confessions, often of people feeling shame as they found themselves returning to the same sins over and over. I met many people who were desperately striving to fix their spouses or their children (even when the “children” were older than I was). I encountered far too many burnt-out caregivers who found themselves stuck in rage or depression after months or years of trying to do it all by themselves.

How was I “with” those people? How did I witness?  I’d like to say it was with the heart of Mother Mary as she stood at the foot of the Cross, but that hasn’t always been the case.

I can think of many times, in younger years, in which I felt like I had to fix it. I had to help them feel better, or change their attitude, or help them believe the truth. I had a preconceived outcome and saw it as my job to convince them of it. I compared their situation to those of other people who had it worse. I got them to laugh. I said pious things. I bypassed their deeper heartache.

To be fair to myself, I know many people who remember with gratitude the care I provided ten or twenty years ago. I was still myself, even though less mature. I have always been curious about people and caring about their suffering. I was not always in touch with my own sadness, shame, fear, or anger. I used to minimize my pain, ignore entire sectors of my heart, and avoid looking at the full truth of my story. That kept me from a deeper “with-ness” with others.

As I look back, I actually went quite often with people into difficult or intense situations – for as long as I can remember. It’s part of my story. From a tender young age, I learned to contain my own emotions and be strong for others. If others felt shame or panic or rage, I just had to take it. So I got really good at taking it. But “taking it” is different from “being with.” I take it because I have to. I learn how to be selectively present, and feel resentful if it gets overwhelming or extreme. And as the resentment or stuck-ness sets in, I become highly susceptible to addictive behaviors once the “have to” goes away.

Jesus willingly and freely entered his Passion. He chose it. He didn’t do it because he had to or because he should. Yes, he agonized in the garden (how could he not?). But he surrendered to his Father’s will in full freedom.

No one took Jesus’ life – not the Pharisees, not the soldiers, and not his Father. Every Good Friday, we hear the story in John’s Gospel. He is very much the one in charge. At any moment he could stop it. But he doesn’t. He chooses a solidarity with our suffering, a “with-ness” that defies normal comprehension. He plunges into the depths of our human misery – all the harm others have ever done to us, all the ways we ourselves have harmed, and all the damaging effects. He freely says “yes,” willingly connecting himself to all of it.

The three Marys willingly stayed connected to him. They stood at the foot of the Cross, not because they “had to” or felt stuck, but because they wanted to be witnesses and wanted to be with.

I still have a lot of growing up to do, but I am learning to be with and be a witness. In the face of powerlessness or heartache, I still sometimes notice in my bodily sensations an urge towards cracking a joke or generalizing or spiritualizing. Those are moments in which I can be curious about why I am pulling away. More often, I choose instead to remain with. Now that I have explored far more places of heartache in my own heart, I find myself able and willing to go into deeper and darker places with others, without losing myself. That exploration often takes us beyond the presenting symptoms (addictive behaviors, relational struggles, anxiety, etc.) and down to the roots. I keep discovering that the majority of our families, though beautiful, carry far more brokenness and dysfunction than we wish to talk about.

The same holds true for our church families. So many have left our churches over the last few generations – too often because we in the Church harmed them or neglected what they really needed. Among those who remain, you will find a significant number of anxious and not-yet-converted Marthas (cf. Luke 10:38-42), or of judgy and controlling older brothers or sisters who don’t want to see that they are every bit as lost as their “fallen away” or “prodigal” siblings (cf. Luke 15:11-32).

What do hurting people experience when they come to our churches? Do they encounter loving witnesses who are ready to stand with them at the foot of their cross? If so, they will feel a sense of safety and belonging; they will discover a secure home in which they can begin to heal and mature.

Too often, both people and priests alike behave like those who don’t yet recognize our total and radical need for the Divine Physician. When we humbly and truthfully acknowledge that need, when we get serious about walking a path of ongoing healing, we will discover in ourselves a much greater capacity for with-ness and witness.

Co-Authoring with God

We all find ourselves in the middle of a story. We have known sweet moments of delight, dark moments of betrayal, intense longing, bitter disappointment, and perhaps long seasons of feeling stuck or lost.

That is how most great tales begin – in the middle of the story in which the featured character faces a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. As we discover the character’s backstory, we gain a better sense of why the dilemma is so hard. It is only when she faces her past that she can move forward in freedom and hope.

As a follower of Jesus, I can ask an interesting question – who is the author of the story I find myself in? Is it God? Is it me? And what roles do other characters play?

Catholic teaching is quite clear about the authorship – it’s both. God is truly the author, and I am truly the author. God is sovereign and all-powerful, but he always respects and honors our freedom and never saves us apart from our wanting it and freely cooperating with it. We get to grow (or wither) in love over the course of our life.

Such are the stories of Sacred Scripture. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we hear tale after tale of human beings gifted by God, called by God, aided by God, corrected by God, rescued by God, and aided anew – but always in a way that allows the stumbling human characters to be free, to desire, to choose, and to grow (or to harden their hearts and to harm self and others). God never makes anyone do anything, yet somehow remains in charge.

The books of the Bible themselves are co-authored by God and human beings, as the Second Vatican Council taught in 1965. Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”) is the Council document about Jesus as the eternal Word of God. The Word of God is primarily a person, not a book. The Word (Jesus) is truly human and truly divine. Both his humanity and his divinity are profoundly united in the one eternal person of the Son; but neither is dissolved or diminished as a result of that union. In Jesus, all of humanity is invited into a one-flesh union with God that will be celebrated eternally.

This story of Jesus and the Church is then passed on both orally (in the proclamation of the Gospel and in Tradition) and in writing (in the God-breathed books of Scripture). Dei Verbum n. 11 clarifies that God is the true author of each book of Scripture and of the whole of Scripture. But the same paragraph teaches that various human beings are also true authors whom God chose and inspired – fully respecting their freedom, their capacities, and their abilities. God did not dictate Scripture word for word, in a way that would treat the human beings as robots or inanimate pens. Rather, he allowed his story to be told within particular human contexts. At no point did he coerce or pressure of manipulate the capacities or the freedom of the human beings he had chosen. He allowed his inspiration to adapt to the limits of a fully human context, while authentically communicating divine truth.

Fundamentalists (both in the Evangelical word and the Catholic world) tend to be afraid of human reason and academic learning. They want to put all the authorship and authority on the side of God, which lends the illusion of clarity and control. That feel safe! Never mind that God is always radically beyond our “clear” notions of him. Never mind that our feeling in control is an illusion. Fundamentalists resist facing the heartache in their own story and fantasize about getting back to the good old days when all was well (conveniently forgetting the darker deeds of those nostalgic times). They don’t tend trust that the Holy Spirit will keep showing up, and that holy human beings (or even less-than-holy human beings) in every age will answer the summons and cooperate with God’s saving action. God will never tire of saving us, but he also shows a remarkable preference to do so through feeble instruments, respecting the “yes” or “no” of those instruments.

On the flipside of fundamentalism is secular humanism. There are plenty of secular atheists, agnostics, or even practicing Christians who don’t believe that God really shows up or really authors. They see Scripture as a collection of merely human stories. They see religion as merely a human projection of needs, with the doctrines and practices as merely human efforts to make meaning in life.

Both fundamentalists and humanists are well-meaning. Both are partially correct. Both are gravely mistaken.

In the person of Jesus, God has truly shown up in human history; truly lived, truly died, and truly rose. God has really revealed himself; genuinely reconciled us to himself (in a way we could never have done ourselves). He now invites us in full freedom to be in a real relationship with him through his Son, and to follow where his Son has gone. Jesus is the great protagonist of THE human story, into which we are all invited. But he only and ever saves us by inviting us to become co-authors in our own story.

Co-authorship is hard. We will resist it and try to find another way. When we find ourselves in the middle of our story, when the plot becomes particularly intense, we tend to feel stuck. We want a solution that doesn’t involve so much vulnerability or risk. We then enter fantasy thinking – the realm of “if only…”

If only I had what that person has… If only God would send the right partner… If only I had a different job… If only I wasn’t so sensitive… If only I wouldn’t make mistakes… If only God would take this temptation from me… If only that political party got in charge… If only this person would finally pay for what he did… If only…

When we feel particularly overwhelmed in our story, may find ourselves in the broken record of an addiction cycle – which also always begins with the “if only…” of fantasy thinking. Fantasizing about a predictable pleasure may help the present moment feel less unbearable. It brings a certain soothing. But it will ultimately bring us to a familiar place of disappointment and shame. It slowly but surely ruins us.

Like the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12), we are likely to beg God to take our trials and temptations away, to rescue us by removing us from the hard spot in the story. Sometimes God does that – but ultimately, he desires us to become heroes who share in the glory of his Son. That will only happen if we follow Jesus closely in his suffering, death, and resurrection. If we do not face the full heartache of where we have come from and where we are going, we will miss out on becoming the full gift that we were meant to be. When we come to accept more fully the story that we find ourselves in, we can proceed in fuller freedom as co-authors of a future full of hope.

Michael the Archangel

Michael is a mighty archangel described in Scripture as commander of God’s heavenly armies. Many of us call upon him daily as a defender and protector. But in what sense does he protect? And what is the battle really about?

Scripture describes Michael casting Satan out of heaven (Revelation 12), battling with Satan over the body of Moses (Jude 9), or battling a spirit described as “the prince of Persia” (Daniel 12).

If angels are spiritual and immortal beings, what does it even mean for them to “fight”? They cannot be wounded or killed – so how can there be any battle, any victory or defeat?

The real battleground is over human freedom, and all that is impacted by our “yes” or “no.” This battle has implications for each one of us individually, but also cosmic ones – because God makes us his stewards.

Each and every human person is created in God’s image and likeness. The devils envy and hate each one of us, and relentlessly seek to ruin us. But God also placed the entire cosmos under human stewardship. God invested us with true authority – an authority the devil has always envied and hated. He seeks to steal it away by seduction and lies. He seems to succeed – both with Adam and Eve and with each of us. They and we give away what is not his to take. And then he thinks he can hold us captive.

Enter Jesus as the new Adam. He ushers in the Kingdom of God, the new creation, new heavens and a new earth. Those who are willing to die with him and rise with him through Faith become members of his Body. Under his headship, every enemy is placed under his feet, until at last even death itself is destroyed (Ephesians 1-2). All this happens by human agency, by the exertion of human freedom – his human freedom, but also yours and mine.  In due time, our human destiny is to become higher than all the angels as we behold God face to face and become like him (1 John 3).

We tend to esteem our own dignity and freedom far less than God does! He never forces us to do anything. For that matter, evil spirits cannot force us to do anything either. Had Adam said “no” and told the devil to leave, the devil would have had to honor Adam’s God-given authority! The same holds true for us, though we need the power of Jesus to reclaim and restore that which we have given away. United with him and in him, we need never fear evil spirits. Indeed, it is they who fear us as we shine with restored glory!

When I say that God honors our freedom, that also means that he allows our freedom to have its consequences. We were the stewards of this current cosmos, and we failed in our stewardship. Though it still bears stunning goodness and beauty, this cosmos is irreparably damaged. The world as we know it is passing away.

[NOTE – I am using the original Greek word kosmos, which can be translated either as “world” or “universe”]

Jesus tells us that he came into this cosmos not to condemn it but to save it (John 3:17).  He will cast out the devil, the ruler of this cosmos (John 12:31). But in what manner? Jesus does not stop us from dying, and he does not stop this universe from coming to its just demise. His kingdom is not of this world – because we the stewards have truly ruined it by giving dominion over to the devil. The devil will have his pound of flesh. But the devil has never understood love or the new life that springs forth from love.

In his dying and rising and ascending, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. And he ushered in the new creation. Like his risen body (or rather, AS his body) this new creation is both the same and new. We already participate in it! In Christ the head, the battle is done. It is finished. Love wins.  In us the members, the battle is still playing itself out – we need only give over our freedom!

In the early Church, the Letter to Diognetus taught that we Christians are in the world, but not of the world. In one sense, we live and act just like everyone else. But we actually live in an entirely different dimension!  In the 300’s, Gregory of Nyssa observed that “the foundation of the Church is the creation of a new cosmos.” More recently, Pope Benedict XVI explained the Ascension of Jesus as opening up a new dimension of human existence.

That is where Michael comes in. He is the mighty guardian of this new creation. He is God’s answer to the devil. His name is not a name but a menacing question: “WHO IS LIKE GOD??” The devil styles himself a god, but is not. Michael brings God’s Truth and Love to full light and casts out the devil. All that is true and good and beautiful is resurrected in the new creation. All that is disordered, all that tends toward ruin or destruction, all that spirals towards nothingness – that belongs to the devil, who will ultimately be the ruler of nothing.

But back to human freedom. If we want Michael’s protection, we must choose to abide in the new creation, rather than cling to this world, which is quickly passing away. That means becoming willing to die to what is easy or familiar and trust in the newness that is coming. We gain glimpses and tastes of that newness, but are not yet ready for it in all its fullness.

It is truly challenging to abide in the “already but not yet” of Hope. Even now, we possess the Kingdom and already participate in it. But we are not yet ready to see God face to face, and not so completely transformed as to share in the fullness of the ascended glory of Jesus. We call on Saint Michael again and again to defend us in that in-between place, in which we are still vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one. Michael willingly and faithfully defends us. He safeguards the space in which grow. but only we can do the growing!

The more we become who we are, the fewer entry points the devil even has to attempt an assault. God’s light shows us the weak spots where the devil will predictably attack us. We ask Michael’s protection – but we also cooperate with Christ to repair those breaches!

Gregory the Great calls the earthly Church “the Dawn” – surely and certainly ushering in the full light of Day, but still mixed up with the darkness. We eagerly await the full Day, when Christ will always shine, and when Michael’s protection will no longer be needed. In the meantime, we engage our journey of change and growth, until Christ becomes all in all.

St. Benedict and Obedience

“Listen carefully, my child, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.”

So begins The Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the most enduring spiritual works of all time. Consisting merely of a prologue and 73 paragraphs, it is filled with spiritual and practical wisdom, and a keen insight into human nature.

It has been refreshing for me to hear from the Rule again, drip by drip, during these three months of Sabbath renewal, here in the midst of a community of twenty Benedictine monks. Each evening at the end of supper we listen to a few lines of Benedict’s instructions before closing in prayer.

Regardless of our calling in life, the threefold Benedictine vow of obedience, stability, and conversion of life bears lessons we can all learn from. During this installment, I will reflect on obedience.

Obedience is ultimately a matter of obeying God the Father, in imitation of Jesus, who said, “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:38). Christ’s obedience involved a total self-emptying, freely and wholeheartedly laying down his life in sacrifice. Monastic life allows obedience and self-emptying to take on a visible form. The monks vow obedience to their abbot (a name meaning “father”) and habitually submit their own will to the will of the abbot and of their elder monks.

Benedict has no illusions of abbots being perfect; rather, he is aware that often they are awful. Many of the instructions of the Rule are directed at the abbot and the grave responsibility that he bears. If there are problems or toxic dynamics in the life of the monastery, they are ultimately his fault – unless he has truly been just and loving and the faults are ultimately due to the obstinacy of the unwilling followers. He plays the role of Christ within the community, first and foremost by his example and then by his exercise of authority.

Benedict is clear about this Christ-like authority not being one of power or control, but one of humility – including attentive listening and consulting. The abbot is not to make major decisions without pulling together other monks and listening deeply to what they have to say. He bears the ultimate responsibility for the final decision, but not before listening with an open mind and heart.

As one who has often borne the burden of authority amidst multiple seasons of disorienting change and turmoil, I can relate. Sometimes I don’t like listening to truths that expose my failures or invite me to pour more of my already depleted energy into a problem. Other times I have put off making the right decision out of fear of domineering or manipulative people, leaving the righteous ones to suffer in silence. Still other times it is tempting to avoid making decisions and over-consult – hoping someone will “just tell me what to do” and rescue me from my responsibility. When we leaders (whether parents, bosses, pastors, or bishops) abdicate our authority, it is often more damaging than when we abuse our position of power. Either way, Benedict repeatedly reminds the abbot that he will give an accounting to Jesus on the Day of Judgment, when our full story will be told by the all-seeing God.

You may be surprised that I am spending so much time talking about the duties of those in authority, but it is essential to see obedience in the context of healthy and holy relationships, not within the context of power or exertion of will. Too many Christians have only known “authority” as an abuse of power or an abdication of responsibility. They haven’t experienced enough of the real thing – with the result that many today (including many ex-Christians) are only suspicious of authority. We need to take their pain seriously and listen to their stories – admitting fault and humbly repairing as justice calls for. AND we can model authentic authority and obedience, and the freedom they bring. Obedience is wonderfully freeing.

Obedience, lived well, directly overturns the strongholds of the evil one. He tempts Adam and Eve – and each of us – to replace the words “thy will be done” with “MY will be done!” In our pride and self-protection, in our fears and insecurities, in our shame and isolation, we resist the intimacy involved in freely submitting to another’s will.

Benedict describes the good fruit the grows in the heart of monks as a result of their obedience: “They no longer live by their own judgment, giving into their whims and appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions.” Benedict’s understanding is that those who can obey and submit to an imperfect human being will be more free in submitting to a perfect and loving Father.

Obedience balances individual and communal needs, reflecting the truth that we are not isolated individuals each doing whatever we feel like, but all interconnected in relationships and called to love and serve one another. There are times in a monastery when an individual and talented monk is asked to give up his own personal dreams in order to fill a role needed by the rest of the community. The same often holds true in married life, in the workplace, or in the diocesan priesthood. In the Rule, these kinds of decisions aren’t to be made lightly by the abbot, but only through dialogue and consultation. Hopefully in a happy marriage, in a healthy work environment, or in a healthy bishop-priest relationship, there is a similar dialogue and consultation when challenging decisions need to be made, allowing freedom to move forward.

The church bells fill the Benedictine day with moments of obedience. The bells ring, and the obedient monk promptly rises from bed. The bells ring, and the obedient monk promptly lays down his work project and heads to the chapel to pray. But isn’t it interesting that the bells are rung more than once each time?  There is always the ideal of a prompt and joyful obedience that immediately springs forth, combined with a realistic accommodation for human weakness and real-life circumstances.

Pride is the ancient sin of the devil and of our first parents. Each of us daily is tempted to cry out, “My will be done!” in a hundred different ways. Obedience chips away at our pride and selfishness and teaches us to love and serve others, freely, not because “I have to.” It looks different for the monk, the employee, the spouse, or the priest. But we all are called to Christ-like authority and Christ-like obedience in healthy and holy relationships. How do you allow obedience to set you free in your daily life?

The Conversion of St. Monica

Another rerun! This post was first submitted on March 10, 2019.

Monica is an immensely popular saint, particularly among those who fret about the sins and sufferings of their adult children.  Many a mother has fantasized, “If only I could be like Monica…If only I could pray hard enough and shed enough tears to convert my children as she converted Augustine…” In our age of addictions, no wonder she is so popular!

But perhaps she is popular for the wrong reasons. I am convinced that, if we knew her whole story, we would discover a major conversion of her own. Her son Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he tells one of the most stunning conversion stories of all time. He periodically alludes to his childhood and his parents. Knowing what we know today about sexual addiction and addictions in general, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots. I think Monica’s greatest victory was not the deathbed conversion of her pagan husband Patricius, nor even the tear-filled conversion of her son Augustine. No, her greatest victory was her own recovery from codependency.

Consider the legendary words of the bishop St. Ambrose, when she entreated him with tears about the sins of her son Augustine: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” Wow. I can relate. It is not uncommon for a priest to hear something like this: “Father, you need to help me to fix my children!” Well okay, they don’t usually put it that bluntly. But many mothers and fathers feel like their personal self-worth is on the line. If their children sin or fail, they themselves are failures. That’s a lie.

It is one thing to grieve over the sins of our loved ones. Destructive behaviors are sad indeed. It is another thing to feel personally responsible. The apostle Paul reminds us that each disciple must carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). We cannot fix other people’s problems or manage their lives.

Trying to do so leads to an array of unhealthy and destructive behaviors: perfectionism, judgmental or self-righteous attitudes, bitterness, resentment, depression, hopelessness, avoidance of conflict, self-loathing, self-punishment, manipulative comments, shaming or blaming postures, trying to “fix” others, unsolicited advice, and the like. All the while one ignores the pain and grief of one’s own heart.

These “codependent” attitudes easily thrive in homes where addictions dominate. Monica was married to an addicted husband and reared an addicted son. It is not a stretch to imagine her battling with codependency on her path to sainthood.

In our pornographic culture, I have had conversations now with hundreds of men who have a wound of sexual addiction, whose behaviors are very much like those of Augustine and his father Patricius. Some of those men, like Augustine, have found liberation and peace as they walk the path of recovery. As they heal, they get in touch with their father wounds. Often, their fathers were like Patricius – unfaithful to their mothers, verbally or physically abusive, alcoholic, absent, etc. Recovering addicts begin to realize that their unwanted behaviors are not the real problem; they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are old and unhealed wounds. As prevalent as father wounds are, I am finding it a nearly universal truth that where there is a sexual addiction, there is an unhealed mother wound. I definitely see mother wounds in Augustine’s story.

Let’s tread carefully here. Acknowledging these wounds is not about casting blame on father or mother for the sins of their children. No one gets into an addiction without himself choosing or agreeing at some point along the way. The great Jimmy Buffet teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our own sins. Additionally, sometimes children are blocked from receiving what they really need for reasons that are not the fault of the parents.

In Monica’s case, it’s not hard to imagine her playing the victim card, casting herself as a silent (or not-so-silent) martyr, subtly manipulating or shaming as she tries to guilt her husband and her son into doing the right thing. As I hear of the deathbed conversion of Patricius, I wonder just how much joy and liberation he felt in his baptism, versus a reluctant agreement mainly to appease Monica. God knows the truth.

Filling in the blanks, I think Monica’s conversion story goes something like this:

Monica is mired in misery, abused and betrayed by her husband and repeatedly wounded by the wanderings of her son. Probably the abuse and mistreatment began with her own father, and she learned how to cope from her own codependent mother. Like so many in her shoes, she fantasizes about how blessed her life would be if only her husband or her son would change. She is hyper-aware of their behaviors and constantly tries to manage the damage. Eventually, she learns to stop lecturing or shaming or manipulating. She heeds the godly advice of Ambrose and talks more to God about Augustine. She talks to God more and more often. Augustine doesn’t seem to change. She harbors a good deal of bitterness against the men in her life, yes, even against God. She won’t admit that, because good Christian women don’t get angry, certainly not at God! Still, she meditates often on the sufferings of Christ and of his mother Mary. She is often moved to tears – sometimes without knowing why. Finally, like the weeping women of Jerusalem, she learns that Jesus wants her to weep for herself (Luke 23:28). She realizes that, when Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem, he is weeping also for the ruins of Monica’s heart, so often trampled down by others, so often neglected and ignored by herself. She starts learning that God is big enough to handle Augustine’s problems – far better than she can. She learns to surrender and to live in the present moment. Little by little, her heart, numb for decades, begins to thaw. She trembles and gasps and sobs as she feels God attuning her to the swirling anger and torrential sadness of her own heart. But she finally believes that her heart matters and that those who mourn are truly blessed. She lets it happen. Like King David in the Psalms, she pours out her heart to God – all of it. She surrenders all in faith. She begins discovering an unfettered joy and peace, even as she sheds more tears than ever. She is finally free.

It could have happened that way. God knows the truth.

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!