February 25, 2018

Glory in the Shadows

This Sunday of Lent, my thoughts go to the Reverend Billy Graham. Saint John Paul II called him "Brother" and I am thankful that God sent such a brother to walk with our nation during such times as ours. He witnessed to the Gospel of Christ with a certain wholesomeness and confidence that helped me remember the goodness of God. I do not believe that his witness has been diminished by his death, that death could ever diminish his life - for he lived for God and hoped that, by suffering his own death with faith in Jesus, he might finally enter into the fullness of life that Christ came to give him.  From what I have heard, there is little doubt that he saw glory in the shadows of death, and he knew his hope would not disappoint.

The Holy Transfiguration avails the heart to a secret glory - a hope flooding contemplation in faith that we hold in our hearts as we follow the Lord. The light of Christ shows us that the love of the Father, so immense and inexhaustible, is a mountain that towers above and overshadows our lives. When we allow Christ to lead us into this shadow, His glory baths the soul in a splendor that this world cannot hold. Our hearts are finally open to hear the Father's love speak to us in the midst of this astonishing beauty that only our Savior can reveal-- the truth that the Son has longed for us to know from before the foundation of the world.

This place to which the Word of the Father leads us is an up hill climb. He knows, because He has gone before us, that His Father's love is made known at a height that challenges us out of sluggishness. Yet, just as He is drawn to the Father, He draws us upward, against the grain of our lives. Sometimes this pathway of faith leaves us with many unanswered questions - questions about death and beyond death, about a difficult hope, far beyond our power to imagine and understand. Such is the greatness of the Father's love - His merciful love draws us up into a greatness that is unfamiliar to us, so different than our own expectations, so far beyond our own sinful limits.

To be led into these heights of eternal life, to this sacred place of truth, one must renounce the easy way, and climb with acts of faith through the difficult ambiguities of life - stretching above what is merely convenient and comfortable, beyond what we feel entitled to, and beyond even what the world judges to be respectable. This is because the great love to which we are called can never be confined by what is merely comfortable or convenient.

Witnesses like Billy Graham remind us that real love goes beyond social conventions and the fears of the culturally powerful. To ache with such love for God, and for those He has entrusted to us, is to share in the love of the Son for the Father, of the Savior for the world, of the Trinity for holy humanity. Such love gives hope. It heals marriages and makes families whole. It mends broken hearts and welcomes the lost home. It brings back to life. It stands firm in the face of death because it knows that death is not the end. This is the pathway of faith - a path that goes against our sluggishness, that ascends with the Word ablaze into the Father's shadow, that is vulnerable to the command of Love, that sets out to the Cross - that place of love poured out to the end - with unfathomable hope.

PS - for those interested, I am giving conferences for a retreat on the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity in Nebraska this Spring.  For more information, click here.

February 19, 2018

Making Space for God

In these holy days of Lent, we are invited to make space for God in our lives and in our hearts. We do this by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. To give alms empties our hands of things that distract us. To fast empties our bellies of food that dulls the mind.  To pray empties our hearts of agendas that can only fall short of the glory to which God calls us.  With hands empty and ready, a mind hungry for His Word and athirst with His love, and a heart humbled and freed to welcome His presence, we give the Lord all the space that He needs to heal us, to strengthen us, and to draw us deep into the bosom of the Trinity.

February 10, 2018

Haiti and the Love of God

One of the greatest graces for my spiritual life came in the form of an invitation from the Missionaries of Charity to my wife and me to be guests at their home in Haiti. This home is a compound in the midst of a very poor and dangerous slum in Port-au-Prince. Mother Teresa's sisters are fearless in entering into areas that no one else wants to go and entering into solidarity with those most abandoned. This is because of their love for Jesus who they encounter and serve in the poorest of the poor. They believe that He thirsts for our love, and that He thirsts that His love be known to others. So they go where His love is most needed and, among those who face the most crushing circumstances, they find and make known the love of Jesus anew through silent acts of love.  In this way, by their silent witness, they draw souls to Him - both the souls of those who suffer and also the souls of those who, with them, are moved to relieve this suffering. To accompany them in this vocation is to have the joy of the Gospel re-ignite in one's heart. 

My wife had the honor of serving in their home for children.  Parents unable to provide enough food or care for their sick children, entrust them to the Missionaries of Charity until they are healthy enough to come home. Through the assistance of Haitians from the surrounding neighborhoods, Mother Teresa's sisters provide both the medical care and the loving hands that these children need to recover from malnutrition and a whole string of various serious diseases. One of my favorite memories with Agnes was holding little children who would not let us put them down. 

We also met some extraordinary people who help the Missionaries of Charity and work alongside them. Among those we met were a couple of priests - one from the US and the other from Canada.  They both were adamant that the Gospel of Christ must be enfleshed - shown in action, action that relieved the misery and restored the dignity of those whom they served in very practical ways.  Moreover, for them, the answer to material poverty was not simply providing material things.  Instead, in order to witness to the Gospel of Christ, they learned that more than anything else, those they served needed to feel respected and loved.  They needed some good guidance on both practical and spiritual matters. They needed, even more, confidence in the gifts that God has given them.

Father Dupuis self-identifies as the “Solar Priest.” The Missionaries of Charity, with whom he works, do not disagree with the handle. In the last few years, he acquired (by trial and error) a knack for installing solar panels, not only in his home diocese, but also in some of the poorest areas throughout Haiti.  He is a tireless advocate for providing this sustainable energy system because it provides electricity where it is not available or dramatically brings down the cost of electricity for those who most need it. It also provides job training for laborers eager to make a living.

Originally from Montreal, he was a student in Rome when he was invited to serve Jamaica.  He has spent his priesthood building communities of hope not only there, but also in neighboring Haiti. A believer in an incarnate Gospel, he is convinced that the love of Christ will compel generosity and mutual concern for one another in his parish family.

At one of his parishes, he worked out an elaborate food service where parishioners buy one another’s products, and strategize together on how to develop new markets for their goods. He initiates new efforts like these by creating incentives and providing a little direction on regulations and professionalism. Once the entrepreneurial spirit takes over, however, he steps aside.   

Mother Teresa’s sisters, and other communities, rely on his priestly ministry whenever he comes to visit. They also rely on his willingness to take on all kinds of maintenance and engineering projects, including his self-taught expertise with installing and maintaining solar panels. When asked about how he acquired this skill, he smiles and explains with the wry wit only a French accent can provide, “Trial and error: lots of error and also, watching how-to videos on YouTube.” 

When we met at a home for children, he had just returned from Port-de-Paix, where he provided much needed repairs to one of his solar systems that he installed five years ago for the Missionaries of Charity. He and his team discovered a wiring problem (the saline air from the sea had pulverized the electrical wires coming out of the solar panels) and worked to fix and improve the whole system. In fact, between when he had first installed that one and now, he explained, he had learned a lot. His Haitian team double-checks each other’s work, including his. If someone complains, team members explain that it is not enough to get the job done fast. Their attitude is, according the the Solar Priest, “We are professionals and people are relying on us, we must do it right.” 

This attitude has been invaluable to groups who try to be a light in the darkness of Haitians, including the Missionaries of Charity and Father Tom Hagan’s Hands Together.  Indeed, physical darkness compounds spiritual misery for many Haitians. After a recent earthquake in which 220,000 souls perished, and two years of severe hurricanes, the power grid is either unreliable or else non-existent in the poorer areas. All this has added to squalid conditions with which so many have to manage on a daily basis. Father Francis knows this and is willing to learn almost anything to give those serving in these communities better light and water. 

Fr. Tom Hagan (founder of Hands Together) has helped Haitians start several schools in the slums of Port-au-Prince that provide free education for elementary, middle and high school students. A good number of kids come to the school for lunch (food) and often that is the only meal of the day for them. Father Tom is proud of these joyful and remarkable young people in the face of such adversity. He is keenly aware that the problems they face are more than the challenge of poverty. They are made for greater things -- and he wants them to discover this. He also supports other apostolates run by the Haitian people in different parts of Haiti. He sees himself not so much as doing ministry for the Haitian people as much as he does it with them. To this end, he raises the funds thru his "Hand Together": http://www.handstogether.org/

As for donations for the work of the Missionaries of Charity, checks may be made payable to Missionaries of Charity and sent to the Miami House address listed below. Please note on the check that you would like it used for the work in Haiti and/or send a note specifying that how you would like that the donation to be used. The Sisters will honor that request as much as possible. The Sisters will always acknowledge donations with a letter to the donor.

Missionaries of Charity
727 NW 17 ST.
Miami, FL 33136

February 8, 2018

An Encounter in Burgos

Every seven years, the Church in Spain celebrates a Teresian Holy Year, and the Avila Institute of Spiritual Formation organized a journey to participate with about forty pilgrims last November. In nine days, over Thanksgiving week, we visited many of the convents that Mother Teresa founded. On one of the days of our pilgrimage we set out for Burgos. 

On the way, we stopped for Mass in the monastery in Palencia - and the sisters graciously provided us with cookies and coffee for breakfast afterward. Their joy was so contagious - we in the small parlor and they behind the grill, physically jumping up and down with glee at seeing us. Though most of us spoke little Spanish and they little English, there was a bond that we shared together… we, like them, though only laity managing our way in the world, had been touched by the spiritual doctrine of their Foundress — her teachings on prayer and on faithfulness.  With this foretaste of heaven, we climbed back on the bus and road a couple more hours to Burgos, to visit, among other sacred places, its beautiful Cathedral.  

After our arrival, we had a few minutes for a bathroom break and I was a little distracted by a hot chocolate shop nearby. I had been at this very spot once with another group of pilgrims - a memory of fun and laughter that I wanted to re-live. But like most beautiful moments of grace… they never come the same way twice.  Indeed, as I approach the shop to get my hot cocoa, an upset pilgrim approached me for help.  

With a sense of urgency in her voice, she explained that there was a man dead in the public bathroom. No one knew what to do. I am embarrassed to admit that I was annoyed at first — this was not according to plan. All I wanted was to indulge an old memory. This was the opposite of that. 

Reluctantly, I let the pilgrim lead me to a steal public restroom with automatic doors and locks. Lying on the floor was a young man. I asked another pilgrim to fetch our doctor and asked the lady at the chocolate shop to call an ambulance. Then while I waited, I heard the voice of my own conscience - it was not enough to ask others, I needed to do something myself. But I did not want to… I was afraid of what I might find. Prodded by an insistent pilgrim, I finally succumbed to that still small voice in my heart.  What I experienced was a powerful grace that has stayed with me ever since. As I prayed over the few minutes of my visit, the words of a poem emerged and it is these that I would like to share with you now:

On Him, the Door I Shut
(A Pilgrim on the Streets of Burgos)

A break for toilette, for chocolate, for “Time was tight”
In Cathedral’s shadow, I fell upon that victim’s plight
There, my selfishness recoiled before Mercy’s might.

On the ground, a naked stranger lays fetal
skin white, floor plastic and cold metal
blood bright, feces dark, under heroine lethal

Pilgrims, helpful, call aghast
Shopkeeper annoyed, excited, on phone harassed
Onlookers, indifferent, quickly passed

That sepulcher, there both shame and glory meet -
Heart lost in revulsion, righteous excuse, readied retreat
At that restroom door, prayer and pilgrims but stayed my feet

Like a corpse it lay, a youth, the image of my son
In stench fluid’s filth, needle, darkness, spoon 
No pulse, but warm, with opened wound

To our Lord, heartfelt but pathetic prayer
Then he twitched, stirred, and pulsed bare-
Ly, boom, boom, boom, as I exit to siren’s blare

Steal on steal and electric lock
Anxious tolls of ancient clock
In Burgos as in L.A., my thoughts just empty talk

On Him, the door I shut,
whose silent glories cut
short, my cold indifference.

For me, the distress of an unknown stranger became a moment of grace. In a single moment, I saw this young person as my son and at the same time as my Lord. In that encounter, I was put face to face with my mediocrity and the moral standard of the Gospel of Christ. For a moment, I glimpsed the mystery of the Father’s love of His Son in the Holy Sepulcher, and God’s desire to raise each of us up out of the filth of our lives. I tasted, for an instant, a love that is stronger than death and the mercy that circumscribes our misery. Such moments ought to live in the heart of apostolic activity, and they ought to feed our prayer. Otherwise, we remain but prisoners of the projects of our self-indulgent piety — save for the fact that the Lord never fails to come to us, even though in disguise.