Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What It Means to Suffer

The question of human suffering casts a long shadow on the human experience. If you talk to people long enough, they’ll get around to telling you that the issue of suffering has profoundly affected their spiritual journey. Either they’ll tell you it has brought them deep into the heart of God, or it has been the end of their relationship with Him. We all experience suffering. We all wrestle with it. None of us fully understands it, including me.

In my experience, suffering is oft misunderstood in Catholic circles. “He’s my cross.” I once heard a rather cranky older woman complain about her even crankier husband of many years. I’ve also heard illness, hurt, hardship, and any number of other maladies described in this fashion. Listening closely, time and again, I’ve heard the lie slip into the conversation. While not this blunt most of the time, it comes down to “this is the cross God gave me to bear.”

Comments like these betray a belief about the origin of suffering. While it may allow them to make religious sense of their pain, it is in the end a devastating lie against the very identity of God. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, clearly reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that suffering is always an evil. Let that sink in for a minute. Suffering is ALWAYS an evil. It does not have its origin in God. God, in His mercy, works all things to good, including evil (Romans 8:28).

A New Paradigm

Recently, I became acquainted with Fr. Sean Kilcawley, a priest from the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. As our conversation wandered across a number of topics, he brushed across the subject of pain and suffering. He said, “Think of pain as a physical experience. If you are working out in the gym, you endure physical pain. Suffering is a completely different experience. Suffering may include physical pain, but it is an internal experience. I suffer when I experience the gap- the gap between what is and what should be.”

I interrupted Fr. Sean at that point, dug out my notepad and asked him to repeat what he’d just said. We lingered over the subject for a few minutes as he explained in a little more detail. Suffering, he went on to say, is the experience of evil, of living in a fallen world that we instinctively know should be something other than what it is. Hence the suffering occurs in the areas of our lives where we do not experience God.

As I pondered this new construct, I first thought of Jesus and all of the theology around His suffering. Jesus, I believe, endured profound suffering, not only within the context of His passion, but every day. As the God-man, His entire human experience existed in the most acute awareness of the gap, living, in a metaphorical sense, with one foot in Heaven, and one on earth. In every person He encountered, He knew their heart in its brokenness, and knew His Father’s original intention for that person. Imagine Jesus, speaking to the 5,000, and experiencing the gap, the suffering, of each and every person there, individually and collectively. In His passion, I wonder if He was touching the gap, the chasm between what is and what should be, of every person who had, or would live across the span of salvation history.

When I Am Suffering

I don’t know about you, but there are days that dealing with my own suffering is almost more than I can bear, let alone take on someone else’s. I experience the effects of evil, and I know that it is not how it is supposed to be. I experience fear, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, powerlessness, shame. Sometimes I am willing to sit in the middle of it, experience it, bring it to Jesus. More often, I am inclined to run from it or medicate it. Who wants to suffer? Not me. In my flesh, the ache is just too much!

But now, I have a very tangible understanding of another piece of theology- redemptive suffering. Jesus, the Lord of all creation, became a man so that He could experience suffering, the gap between what is and what should be, in exactly the same way that you and I do. Not only did He experience it as an individual human, but His divinity exposed Him to the suffering of the entirety of humanity. Jesus forged into that deep abyss known as suffering, of evil, of the separation within ourselves, between us and God, for the very purpose of meeting us there.

So now, when I experience suffering in my life, I am still inclined to run or medicate. But I also now understand something that I didn’t understand before. Jesus lives in the gap. In my hurt, I do not experience Him there. But He is there already. And that gives me (on my better days) the courage forge into the darkness, to stand in the gap in my own heart between what is and what should be. After all, He is there already! He is waiting to meet me there, and to take me deeper with Him.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wrestling With the Restless Heart

One of St. Augustine’s most oft-quoted writings,  “…our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”, was penned after more than a decade of  the great saints personal wrestlings, as he looked for meaning in his life.  Those words are profoundly important, echoing the long teaching of the Church.  The human ‘heart’, which carries the very imprint of God, is only at rest when it finds itself in communion with God.  Apart from Him, we are restless, wandering searchers.  
The Catechism sheds light on Augustine’s comment, telling us “the heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live… The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision…   It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.” CCC 2563
A Broken-Hearted People?
As I ponder Augustine’s statement, and the Catechism’s profound teaching, I’m left wondering, “Why are so many Catholics leaving the Church?”  And, “Why are so many Catholics staying, yet barely practicing?”  I wonder these things, because these very facts are in evidence.  More than 80% of those receiving Confirmation leave the Church by their 23rd birthday.  Few ever return.    Of the 25 million people who have left the Church in recent decades, over 17 million of them state that the Church did not meet their spiritual needs.
These two realities seem to be incompatible at face value, that the heart is restless until if finds God, and that people are exiting the Church (and active participation) in record numbers.   The conclusion is almost inescapable, and quite sobering.  Apparently, something of western Christianity, and more particularly American Catholicism, is wanting.  Something of this particular representation of the Church, instead of drawing the restless heart of searchers “in” from the garbage dump of a secular culture, would appear to be pushing people “out.
As I listen to people who have left the Church, or the frustration of those in the Church, this is what I routinely experience- “their broken hearts”.  The deep longings of their heart, of which the Catechism speaks so intimately, have gone unmet within the walls of the local church.  They yearn for a real and intimate relationship with the living God.  They hope, maybe only in the deepest places within them, to actually encounter and know the God of the scriptures, the One who heals the sick, raises people from the dead, and walks on water.  
Simply put, our hearts are broken because we do not know Jesus.  On far more than one occasion, I have had a priest tell me, “My people don’t even know Jesus!”  Fr. Larry Richards, speaking at the North Texas Catholic Mens Conference last year, stated flatly, “Most of you don’t know Jesus, you just don’t…”  He wasn’t joking…
A Poor Substitute
If we aren’t introducing people to relationship with Jesus, and bringing them into intimate encounter with him, what exactly is it that we are offering them?  You might be thinking, “Come on, Ken, we offer people the Sacraments.  That’s what we offer.  And, that’s AWESOME!”  Well, yes, sort of, that is true.  
We certainly HAVE the Sacraments, but how are we bringing people into the PRACTICE of the Sacraments.  What does a broken-hearted world see?  In Confirmation, do they witness the power of Pentecost come upon our youth, or do they witness the confirmation of “don’t expect to experience anything when the bishop anoints you.”  Does mass look like the book of Acts, where the people worship with one heart and mind?  Or, does it seem more to be a collection of people, who may or may not know each other, practicing a tradition of their family and church?  When was the last time you saw somebody receive healing?  Have their life transformed by an encounter with God?  Bishop Barron recently stated that a church that is divorced from the supernatural is a dying church.  He went on to state that the western church, instead of miracles, encounters with the divine, and the power of the living God, often offers social justice, service to the poor and environmentalism- activities any good atheist could do.
Rabbits Foot Christianity
The Church has a word for this type of Christian expression.  It’s called “Superstition”.  The Catechism states, “Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes… To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.” (CCC 2111)
To say it plainly, to expect our religious practice to be fulfilling (efficacious) when our hearts are not disposed toward God, is to practice superstition.  Without a heart disposed toward God, we might just as well rub a rabbits foot, expecting some magical outcome. Fr. Marko Rupnik, in his book ‘Discernment, Acquiring the Heart of God’, offers a profoundly sobering insight.  The enemy attempts to separate the content of faith (sacraments, devotions, ritual) from the person of Jesus.  He asserts that this separation essentially makes one an “unbeliever”.
The Beautiful Antidote
The late great John Paul II understood this problem, and he consistently proclaimed the antidote to this illness in the Church.  The answer is a singular word- Jesus.  He understood, along with Augustine (and the entire teaching of the Church, that Jesus is the answer.  Relationship with Jesus- personal, intimate and powerful.  He is the answer to our restless hearts, and He is the antidote to superstition.  It is Jesus who is the life of the Sacraments.  Encounter Him and you will find the resting place for your restless heart.  John Paul summed it up with these words…
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted;… it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices…  It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal…”
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Monday, May 18, 2015

The “Cuban” Miracle

It had been a good regatta for my boat, K3.  We sat atop the 25 boat fleet going into the final day, 3 points ahead of the nearest competitor, an out of town boat whose skipper had nicknamed us “the Cubans” (K cubed).  Although the winds had been light and shifty, we had the boat dialed into the conditions and had sailed well.
Racing a sailboat in light winds can be grueling.  When the wind is really, really light, a sailboat tends to be uncomfortable.  The sails flop around, you constantly readjust your weight to squeeze every bit of forward momentum out of the "nothing", and you bob up and down like a fishing bobber, at the mercy of the waves and wakes of passing motor boats.
The final day of this regatta was under way, and the first of the two scheduled races had been cancelled- no wind.  The race committee squeezed off the final race in a light little whiff of breeze that wandered across the race course.  It quickly faded.  Occasionally, a little streak of wind would make itself known by gently wrinkling the surface of the water.  Any boat near that streak benefited.  We seemed to miss every one of those streaks, and eventually found ourselves buried deep in the fleet, a least 1/4 mile behind the race leader and our nearest competitor in the standings.  The 18 boats between us would easily erase our thin 3 point lead.
Rounding the final downwind mark, we turned back upwind for the finish.  The entire fleet had gone left, heading parallel to the distant shore, looking for whatever wind they could (or couldn't) find.  But, it was the favored side of the course, closest to the finish.  The advantage appeared to be all theirs.
We decided to head right, deeeeeeep right, directly toward shore- following the fleet would just cement our place in the cellar.  We went so far to the right that the race leader asked his crew. "Where are the Cubans?"   His crew had trouble finding us at first.  Once he located us he responded to the skipper- "They are gone".
Leaving the fleet and sailing to a far corner of the racecourse is not typically viewed as a smart tactic.  Sailing well requires executing in the “ordinary”.  Staying on the favored tack, keeping close to the competition, proper sail trim and boat balance become second nature.   We were atop the standings because we had done very well in the “ordinary” of the previous day.
Yet, here we were, fully committed to a tactic we didn’t like, doggedly bobbing our way toward the right (actually wrong) corner of the course, farther and farther from the fleet, seemingly headed for dead last finish.  Even the 5 boats behind us at the last mark went the other direction!  At the rate we were going, we’d have trouble getting back to shore before the visiting boats had their boats packed and were on the road home.
Then, directly ahead of us, and only in our little corner of the lake- the surface of the water wrinkled a little- WIND!  Not a lot, but definite ripples on the smooth glassy surface of the water.  We waited for it to reach us, hoping that precious breeze wouldn't lift off the surface and leave us in our current state.  First came a little whiff of fresh air, not enough to even fill a sail, but enough to feel on your face, and just enough to feel the boat move under us.  And then it arrived.  We were on the move!  The ripples on the water in front of us looked darker, a sure sign of increasing wind.  Three knots, then six, and finally a private 8 knot wind, as if out of nowhere, and intended only for us!
Being so far inshore and to the right side, we had to come back to the middle of the course to finish.  The rest of the fleet, deep to the left, saw the breeze and was slogging their way back toward us.  Looking over my shoulder I thought to myself, "They they might be too late..."  We snapped off a crisp tack, all three of us now sitting on the high side of the boat to keep it flat and moving fast in the fresh breeze.  Settling onto the new course, it was clear- they WERE too late, we would win!
It had taken a full day of disciplined sailing to work our way to the top of the leader board the day before.  That morning, it had taken us less than 1.5 hours of that same disciplined sailing to find ourselves at the rear of the fleet and completely out of contention.  And, it took mere minutes in a favorable fresh breeze to retake all the distance that had been lost and win the race (and the regatta)  by a very comfortable margin.
So, what does this have to do with the spiritual life, or life in general?  Well, everything.  Life is a lot like sailboat racing.  You can execute well, do the things you should do, when you should do them, and you still find yourself buried, far behind the rest of the pack.  Sometimes, you need more than the “ordinary”.  Sometimes, life requires a dose of the “extraordinary”.    
That morning, we eschewed doubt, despair and hopelessness (foregone conclusions in the ordinary) in favor of the miraculous!  We abandoned “common” wisdom and struck out boldly and radically, knowing that redemption and salvation would require something completely outside ourselves, something over which we had no control, and something we certainly could not see in the moment.  Had we idolized the “ordinary” that particular morning, we would not have contended for the ”extraordinary” with steadfastness and determination.  We would have accepted our circumstance and refused to leave it or look beyond it, forgetting that miracles are possible.   And my silly little sailing “miracle” a quarter of a century ago, still inspires, encourages and points me to the greater reality within it- God is bigger than my circumstances.  God comes through.  Miracles happen.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Spirituality of Work

Since the fall of Adam and Eve, work has gotten a bad rap.  Work was an essential dimension of God’s plan prior to the fall.  God told Adam that one of his “jobs” was to tend the garden.  And God, of course, tasked Adam to name all the animals of creation.  But, somehow, it’s the post-fall scripture we remember best, “By the sweat of your brow you shall toil”.  The industrial revolution, and more recently a materialistic culture that rather schizophrenically prizes leisure and hard work at the same time, has helped to drive the spiritual dimension of work from our daily lives.

Spirituality, unfortunately, has often become perceived as belonging to those who have quiet minds and bodies, and substantial amounts of time to pray, contemplate God, go on retreat, etc.  Those of us with kids, sports, careers, and active lifestyles seem somehow left out of the opportunity to experience the intimate communion with God experienced by the great saints, contemplatives and mystics.  We are left to chew on the crumbs of 5 minutes of quiet time between when we lay down and when we fall asleep.

Those of us who love and find joy in activity and work, often find a certain dryness and restlessness in quiet and inactivity.  This of course, is good for us, to wrestle and quiet our hearts before God on occasion.  But, it is not the only way to find intimacy and communion with God.  Since work belonged to the order of original creation when Adam “walked with God”, shouldn’t we be able to find intimacy with God in our work?

Not too long ago, I stumbled across the few writings of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691).   Brother Lawrence did not practice any particular spirituality, or devotion, except by obedience to his superiors.  He, instead, focused completely on “Practicing the Presence of God” in every circumstance of his life.  As I read his writings, it resonated and explained the joy that I often experience in the hustle and bustle of the workday.  In a series of interviews known as the Conversations, a biographer wrote:
“That the most excellent method he had found of going to GOD, was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of GOD.
That it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times.  That we are as strictly obliged to adhere to GOD by actin in time of action, as by prayer in its season.”

“That he had so often experienced the ready succours of Divine Grace upon all occasions… when he had business to do… he found in GOD, as in a clear mirror, all that was fit for him to do.”

“That he was more united to GOD in his outward employments, than when he left them for devotion in retirement.”

In reading Brother Lawrence, it is clear that he found the meaning to St. Paul’s admonition to “pray unceasingly”.  His words have given me a tool to use in my work, where it can be as easy to operate “in” the presence of God as “out”.  I can check my heart with a couple easy questions.  “Am I pleasing God or pleasing Man?”  “Am I united to God in this moment, in this activity?”  “Does this please Him, no matter how trivial or mundane?”

My work has found a deeper meaning, and a certain sense of justification, that God desires to be with me in the midst of my activity, not waiting for me to finish.  I will leave with one sweet final quote from Brother Lawrence, a prayer for spirituality of work…

“O my GOD, since Thou are with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me to Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.”

Thursday, January 29, 2015


“I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?...Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live -- at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!!!”
William Wallace- Braveheart

Almost every great movie carries some echo of the Gospel.  This single scene from the movie Braveheart captures a deep and profound truth, that liberty (freedom) and dignity are inseparable.  Wallace is speaking to men during the wars of Scottish Independence.  The Scots have lost their freedom to the English King, and under his heavy hand, their dignity.  Freedom, properly understood, is essential to human dignity.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says it this way, “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person."  To say it from the other direction, the dignity of the human person is always compromised without the exercise of freedom in moral and religious matters.  For Catholics, it is (or should be) deeply troubling to see advocacy for “human dignity” in the absence or reduction of “freedom and liberty”, and equally troublesome to hear the rally cry around “freedom and liberty” absent the imperative of “human dignity”.

Under the guise of “human dignity”, the Department of Health and Human Services has attempted to pry these imperatives apart.  HHS has essentially posited that a woman’s fertility is somehow antithetical to her dignity as a person, mandating that most health plans provide contraceptives, including those that are abortifacient (along with abortion counseling services).  The mandate represents a kind of “tyranny” against the religious freedoms of those who see a woman’s fertility as normal, natural, beautiful and God-given.

Pope Francis recently stated, “Religion must not be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.” The narrowness of the HHS exemption (which applies only to houses of worship) is exactly the action Pope Francis warns against- relegating religion to the inner sanctum of the personal life, and by extension, subjecting all of public life to arbitrary governmental standards of morality.

While this is not new clash, the pitch of the battle has a new urgency and intensity.  The ramifications of the loss of religious liberties, and with them, the loss of personal dignity, are far reaching.  The unintended consequences could be tragic for the faithful, and for the culture at large.  Abraham Lincoln stated in response to a reporters question, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”  Modern government would do well to heed the wisdom of this great president.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Beauty of Bad Theology

Good theology leads us into a deeper understanding and trust of the nature and persons of God.  Bad theology, on the other hand, distorts our understanding of who God is, fostering distrust.  So, how can there be “beauty” in bad theology?

My experience in ministry has shown me, time and again, that bad theology is an expression of our wounded hearts.  The steady stream of thoughts that bounce around in our heads are jam-packed full of theology, some of it good, and some of it not-so-good.  In many parts of our lives, the theology of our hearts is good theology.  We know those places through intimacy with God, others, and of course, fruits of the Spirit.  Where I experience interior peace, hope, love, joy, etc., the theology of my heart likely matches up with the truth of who God is.  Good theology, all around.

And, here is the beauty of bad theology.  Where I do NOT experience interior peace, hope, love, joy, etc., the theology of my heart reveals my distorted understanding and relationship with God.  It shows me exactly where I have been wounded and attacked by the enemy, and exactly where God desires to touch my heart and soul.  It shows me where I do not trust God.

Since our emotions are really the language of our hearts (not our hearts, just the language they speak), try this exercise for yourself.  Pay attention to the emotionally charged thoughts that come into your mind, and the issues in your life to which they are attached.  Listen for these kinds of statements/emotions:
·        I’m all alone.
·        Nobody understands me.
·        Everybody hates/rejects me.
·        It will never get better.
·        I can never have what I desire.
·        I am forsaken/abandoned.
·        I’m not good enough.

Each of these statements represents bad theology that resides in the heart, which ultimately, represent distorted beliefs about ourselves and God.  The scriptures, of course speak truth directly to these beliefs of the heart.  After all, I “know in my intellect” that I am not alone, that God understands me completely and loves me as I am.  You may well even hear the scripture citations in your head, “I knew you before you were born”, “I will not leave you orphaned”, etc.  But, the scriptures also tell us “As a man believes in his heart, so is he.”  So, while our heads may “know” good theology, the wounds in our hearts often “believe” bad theology.

So, the next time you hear one of these rotten theological apples, resist two key temptations.  Resist the temptation to “kick it upstairs” to your intellect at the expense of your heart.  And resist the temptation to shame and self-loathing.  Instead, recognize that Almighty mercy is knocking at the door to your heart.  It is the overwhelming goodness of a loving Father saying, “Let me into this place where you don’t trust Me.  I want relationship with you right here.  In this pain and hurt, I want to bring healing and mercy and grace.  My heart for you is deep and abiding intimacy- with Me.”

Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him…”.  Yes, even in the bad theology in the deepest places of our wounded and scarred hearts.  Especially in the places where we do not trust Him, where we may not even love Him, He is working for our good.  He is working for your good.  Pay attention to the beauty of that bad theology, for that is His fertile ground.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Was Ever Thus

"…Pope Francis is a man of discernment, and, at times, that discernment results in freeing him from the confinement of doing something in a certain way because it was ever thus.”  Cardinal Sean O’Malley

As Catholics, we are steeped in a deep religious tradition that is filled with meaning and symbolism.  Step inside one of the great cathedrals (even in America), and you will feel the weight of holy history.  Pick up the Catechism, and be amazed at the beautiful, almost lyrical, communion of Grace and Truth. The Church, in her wisdom, gives us countless ways to encounter God. 

Yet, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, among the most influential and respected of American prelates, points out that the Holy Father has consistently challenged a certain something in our tradition, devotion, and practice.  This “challenge” has already made more than a few Catholics uncomfortable, perhaps even irritable.  Could it be that Francis has a desire to make many, many more of us uncomfortable?

What he wants to make uncomfortable within us, I believe, are those devotions, practices and traditions that fail to move our hearts into deeper communion with God.  A devotion practiced for the sake of familiarity or sentimentality, but lacking in true meaning and intimacy would seem to be what Cardinal O’Malley categorizes as “was ever thus”, something done because we’ve always done it that way.

Francis’ own words consistently call us out of the practice of routine for its own sake, and into intimacy.  Said another way, Francis is calling us out of a certain complacency, a certain deadness of heart for deeper life in Jesus.  In a recent homily on Jesus' return to Nazareth, Francis said of the Nazarenes, “they are so confident of their faith, their observance of the commandments, that they did not need another salvation.”  The Holy Father went on to say, “This is the drama of the blind observance of the commandments…”

I believe that this pope is rebuilding the heart of a Church squarely laid on the foundation of his predecessors.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI have provided an accessible theological, anthropological and philosophical foundation on which Catholicism can speak to the world, and speak to its own, in this tumultuous post-modern era.  Francis is building a home on that foundation, where the human heart finds life and communion with God. 

In that, though, he calls us out of our comfort, our complacency, out of inertia, and into the deep.  Our observance of tradition and devotion should always take us somewhere, else we are simply practicing something because it “was ever thus”. 

In striking words, the Holy Father speaks clearly, 
“An authentic faith always implies a deep desire to change the world. And this is the question we should pose ourselves: do we too have great visions and zeal? Are we bold too? Do our dreams fly high? Are we consumed by zeal? Or are we mediocre and satisfied with our theoretical apostolic plans? Let us always remember that the strength of the Church does not reside in herself or in her organizational capacity, but is instead concealed in the deep waters of God. And these waters agitate our desires, and our desires expand our hearts.”

So, I invite you to ponder these questions:

Do I have great visions?

Am I bold?

Do my dreams fly high?

Am I consumed by zeal?

Am I content with the “was ever thus” in my life?

What desires is God agitating within me?

You can find additional blogs, resources and material at www.jpiihealingcenter.org