Monday, December 15, 2014

The Diary of a Country Priest

"Dear God, I give you all, willingly. But I don't know how to give, I just let them take. The best is to remain quiet. Because though I may not know how to give, You know how to take... Yet I would have wished to be, just once, magnificently generous to you."
"The Diary of a Country Priest" by Georges Bernanos.

I do not know how to give. The humility of this prayer is heartbreakingly beautiful. After all, it is not that I may give to Him, but that He might have me. That His will might be done, not that I might do it. That He may rejoice in making me what He wishes, not that I might become that.

Of course in actual fact the two are inseparable. He cannot make me what He wills unless I become that, and one of the things that He wills that I become is joyful, full of life. Nor is it wrong to desire fulfillment, to desire to be united with Him and to taste the joys at His right hand for ever more. As C. S. Lewis puts it, "A man is not mercenary for wanting to marry his beloved." Marriage is what the beloved is for (in a limited, human sense.) In a much deeper and more fundamental sense, Heaven is what I am for. It is not mercenary greed but deepest humility and gratitude to desire to receive all that God desires to give.

But it is very wise, and touching, and childlike, that this priest could see only his inability to give, and see the solution in God's utter ability to take. It is like the man who sees his lack of humility, and has finally come to realize not simply his lack, but his inability to supply that lack. He might be tempted to despair, but if he does then he has not learned the still deepest truth, that God's grace is sufficient unto us. God created us to receive everything that we are incapable of doing for ourselves. In other words He created us to receive Him. The proper response to that glimpse of our own powerlessness is joy, gratitude that we could provide God an opportunity to do what He delights to do, to give us what we lack.

"Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." 2 Corinthians 12:9b.

Anyway, read "The Diary of a Country Priest," prayerfully and with gratitude, and pray not to be made like the humble Cure', but made into whatever God wishes to make you.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tempted to Hatred

"Pray for me to be made more charitable: we're in the middle of a Faculty crisis wh. tempts me to hatred many times a day."
C. S. Lewis, in a Letter to Sheldom Vanauken,
Quoted in "A Severe Mercy," by Sheldon Vanauken

They provoked him at the waters of Meribah.
Through their fault it went ill with Moses;
for they made his heart grow bitter
and he uttered words that were rash.
Psalm 106:32-33

My wife and I are hosting a bi-weekly book club, in which we read and discuss Sheldon Vanauken's "A Severe Mercy." The C. S. Lewis quote with which I opened this blog is from last night's chapter. The two verses from psalm 106 were in the Office of Readings this morning. I have probably read Psalm 106 many dozens of times, maybe as many as a hundred, given its recurrence in the Liturgy of the Hours, which I have been praying daily for a couple of years. However, that particular passage stuck in my head this morning, as I prayed. It attached itself to that C. S. Lewis quote and refused to be separated.

It is easy to see how the two are related, but I didn't get the significance at first. Of course it is nice to know that C. S. Lewis was human and subject to the same petty temptations as the rest of us, but he made no secret of that. Indeed, for a careful reader, there is no doubt that he was not only tempted, but far more aware of the temptations than most of us are. 

He probably would demur my comparing him to Moses, but to me he has been a sort of Moses. He has been a prophet and a law-bearer. I thought about this for a bit, still not getting the significance. I felt that Moses should not have allowed the people to break his focus on God. He should not have allowed them to "get to him." Just like C. S. Lewis shouldn't let other people's uncharity tempt him to uncharity himself. 

But then a paradigm shift happened and I realized that what the Holy Spirit was getting at was not addressed either to C. S. Lewis or to Moses. It is addressed to me. I am not the one being tempted and tried by those under me, because I am not over anyone. I am not a spiritual leader or authority. I am not the tempted. I am the tempter.

For a brief second I saw myself, not as Moses being embittered, but as one of the children of Israel embittering him. I saw my grumbling, sarcasm, flippancy and nonchalance in a new light. How many times have I, by my behavior and words and attitude, or even just by my ignorance, tempted someone else to hatred? How often have my wise-crack comments, instead of enlightening or assisting someone, irritated them to the point where they thought unkind things about me? Probably far more often than I realize.

Doesn't that make me, in some way, partially responsible for their sin? How many times have I set out to share the great gift of Jesus; and gone from there to simply sharing "the Faith" which is facts about Jesus; to sharing "my faith" which is how I feel about those facts; to finally trying to force my views on others, or at the minimum looking down on them or judging them because they refuse to see things my way?

This is another example of psalm 90:8 "You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence." Or Psalm 19:12a "But who can discern all his errors?"

To which our response must be, "Deliver me, O Lord, from my hidden faults!" Psalm 19:12b.

His grace is sufficient.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In the Beginning

Words have lost their music, or so I hear.
Perhaps they never had any, or so they say.
I will never forget a soldier to whom I said,
“What is the most beautiful song you have ever heard?”
He stopped his talk, and looked at me in quiet,
For a precious half-a-second, before he replied,
“It never occurred to me that music could
Be beautiful.” Perhaps that is the point.
Words retain the music, but we’ve lost the ear
Because we’ve lost (or chased away) our silence.

Our silence? As if it were ever ours.
The Word draws power from the Silence Before The World,
The only power that is, the power of Music
The Music which is the Lord and Giver of Life.
When we become quiet, we begin to do the same,
But neither the words, nor the quiet, are ours;
And certainly not the Music which Is between.
Rather, we are Theirs, or else we simply are not.
Our words are lego miniatures of the Word
And even in them we play with Holy Fire.

If there be not music, then let silence reign
Or at least the rehearsal, barely attended to
By children playing bagpipes, violins,
Trumpets, drums and flutes, in eager cacophony
Always sharp, or flat. Some are merely young.
Others are always trying to play the wrong tune,
Or play their favorite tune at the wrong time.
Some expect they will likely do well enough
When the time comes, so they distract themselves
With sidebar talk; And some just like the noise.

Dead men fill the air with the burden of talk
Zombie conversations about nothing
And I, being dead myself, am fully complicit
In filling and killing the silence with empty talk
Struggling to empty words of all their silence
Lest we find ourselves confronted by
The aweful reality of nothing to say.
So conversations deaden, bore and stultify,
Wilt the critical function and reconfirm
Me in my headlong flight from bright reality.

This is not the courage of the bulwark picnic
In the cancer ward; nor yet the Socratic libation
Poured out for the gods; nor even of shaking the hand
Of a pretty girl. This is only fear
Conspiring to (just-so-happen-to) look
Out the other window at that precise time
As we pass the camo jacket with the cardboard sign,
As if we fear that poverty might be contagious.
Of course it is, but what we do not see
Is that we are already infected, and quite terminal.

Against all this we raise our timeless chats
Over tea and toast around the kitchen table;
Amid beer and pipes of aromatic smoke
In the cool of the evening, when the ancient garden echoes
Softly in the mind, tingeing words with music
Older than fig leaves. Conversations reach
Backwards and forwards into the now and always.
Silence dives still deeper in the single point
Where darkness dwells in unapproachable light.
Humility alone can bring us to this place.

Humility requires, demands, the incarnation
Of ineffable word in flesh of mortal deed.
The scandal of the particular is never more
Strongly felt than when at last we turn
From words to music, in this specific act
Of encountering the Word in scribbled sharpie ink
On a cardboard sign; or in the aching void
Between the lines of empty zombie talk;
And offering bread, not bread alone but Word
Eternally uttered forth from the Mouth of God.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chemistry, Wisdom, and Pope Francis

Yesterday was the mid-term for my first ever college chemistry course. After the mid-term, during the lecture which was on conversions of mass to moles (which I learned how to do in high school) I was amusing myself by following various forms of nuclear decay down the wikipedia rabbit hole. Before I knew it I was up to my neck in electron neutrinos, positrons, muons, tauons, and leptons and anti-leptons of all varieties. Sheesh! I remember when the only subatomic particles were protons, neutrons and electrons, and the only ones you really worried about were electrons, because they are the only ones that interact with other atoms. As far as chemistry was concerned, the rest may as well not exist.

That, of course, was high school chemistry 14 or 15 years ago.

Ah, but they do exist. And apparently they do matter (if you'll excuse the pun). These particles do interact with other particles through fundamental forces such as gravity and electromagnetism, and exert a small but measurable influence on the universe. Or perhaps even a huge influence. Who really knows?

It seems that every time scientists think they've gotten to the bottom of this whole reality thing, another layer of complexity reveals itself. In light of that minor indulgence in a little casual reading, I was particularly struck by this passage from the book of Wisdom which was the scripture for the Office of Readings this morning.

Now God grant I speak suitably
and value these endowments at their worth:
For he is the guide of Wisdom
and the director of the wise.
For both we and our words are in his hand,
as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.
For he gave me sound knowledge of existing things,
that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements,
The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,
the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons.
Cycles of years, positions of the stars,
natures of animals, tempers of beasts,
Powers of the winds and thoughts of men,
uses of plants and virtues of roots-
Such things as are hidden I learned and such as are plain;
for Wisdom, the artificer of all, taught me. 

 This just blows my mind, and reminds me of the kerfuffle in the news over Pope Francis' statements that evolution and the big bang theories are not incompatible with belief in a creator. Apparently this has some atheists and fundamentalists who understand neither evolution nor Catholic theology up in arms. The literal seven-day creation interpretation is really more of a protestant thing than a Catholic thing, and always has been. In fact, literalism itself is not Catholic. There is something striking that this passage from the book of Wisdom is to be found in the Catholic Bible, but not in the Protestant Bible.

Did the writer of wisdom know everything, or even a percent, of what we know about astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, biology, etc? No. Not even a percent of a percent. And we make a grave mistake if we think we have done more than merely scratch the surface.

The writer of Wisdom, however, did know the one thing that is proper to the true scientist. He knew enough to stand in humble awe before the majesty and complexity of creation. He kneel enough to kneel and listen and not to assume that he knew all things by his own cleverness. He knew that the Mystery continues forever. 

He knew more than we do.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola and Divine Punishment

Ebola has been much in the news, lately, so much so that even someone as relatively uncurrent as I choose to be cannot help but hear about it. Currently two nurses in Dallas, Texas who were treating a Liberian Ebola victim are diagnosed with the disease, and some nervousness ensued in Ohio after it was found that one of the nurses flew to Ohio while on quarantine and with a mild fever. She was diagnosed after returning to Dallas.

Of course she immediately became everyone's new favorite person to hate, but as it later turns out, she checked with the CDC's epidemiology office that was handling her case before flying out to Ohio and was given the green light because her overall risk category was "uncertain."

A number of American Ebola patients have recovered using an experimental new drug which I have not taken the time to consult the literature about (because at the moment I am not worried about it). Seattle's Harborview hospital, practically in my back yard, has agreed to take on ebola patients, should it become necessary. The hospital my wife works at has also begun conducting ebola training, since there is a remote possibility they could be tapped to take on overflow patients.

All in all, if you are looking for something to worry about, ebola is as good as anything.  It is scary, foreign and outside your control so if you are looking for a reason to panic, you could do worse. In fact, the fact that it is completely outside your control is a major selling point. You don't actually have to do anything about it, other than what you already wanted to do anyway.
media covers it extensively (I am not going to bother posting links because if you are reading this I am going to assume you have google capability) and both political spectrums have picked their approaches to it with incredible alacrity. In fact, his rather long, but entertaining blog examines it as a case study in politicization. 

Homelessness, or poverty, or labor trafficking, or what-they-teach-in-school-these-days, are not nearly so convenient as they seem to require some measure of engagement with the real world, and might lead to, (Oh Horrors!) responsibilities!

That being said, there is one aspect of the ebola panic that strikes me as useful and enlightening. On a hunch I googled "Ebola" and "divine punishment" and sure enough I found a few articles from Africa, a Slate Article decrying the "God's punishment" narrative, and even a couple of extreme righter's claiming that it is either God's handiwork, or an opportunity to purify America, as long as Obama doesn't use it to declare martial law.

Okay, so there are crazies in the world.

The question I want to raise is, does God, in fact, use diseases to punish people and nations for their sins?

I immediately associate the question with my Grandpa. About three years ago, as he was dying of lung, breast and metastatic skin cancer, in fact one of the very last times I saw him, I asked him how he was holding up. He gave me an answer I will never forget. He said, "Ryan, I'll tell you, most of the time I hold up just fine, but sometimes I just get angry. I told my doctor yesterday that I was angry and I just keep asking, 'Why is this happening to me?'

"But I know why this is happening to me. It's because I smoked for 30 years, and because I went out in the Pacific sun for years without a hat on, and because I worked on RADAR towers with no shielding for so many years. That's why all this is happening to me."
November 2011, Shortly after my graduation from the Q course, I got the opportunity to have one last visit with a truly great man.

There was some anger there as he said it, but on a deeper level there was courage. He was being a man, and I think, showing me how to be a man, by taking responsibility for his actions. He was dying of cancer as a result of his own choices, no more and no less.

Were they morally terrible choices? Absolutely not. When he started smoking in the 50's no one knew that it caused lung cancer. When he worked on RADAR towers in the Air Force no one knew about the harmful effects of the electromagnetic radiation. No one knew about the effects of UV rays on the germ cells in the skin. He was not bad because he made these choices. He was sick, and eventually he died.

The point that was suggested to my by the association of that memory, specifically with the news about the nurse flying to Ohio while infected with the disease, was that human actions have consequences. Ebola, AIDS, wars, pollution, poverty, etc. all of these things are, without exception, either caused, or propagated, or both, by the choices of humans. Sometimes those choices affect primarily the chooser. More often, they effect everyone else as well.

This is what we must learn from ebola (and from every other social ill). We live in a web of
causation, where our actions and inactions have real consequences that will really effect real people. Ignorance excuses the guilt, i.e. the nurse who flew to Ohio contacted the CDC and they gave her the go ahead and told her she was still clear to fly. Turns out they were wrong. She was not a malicious person, neither was the poor (probably by now unemployed) clerk who took her call and answered her question based on the risk assessment matrix on the computer screen in front of him. That matrix itself, drawn together from the best guesses of a whole bunch of really smart people, was also wrong. Turns out a whole bunch of people were wrong, no one was a "horseman of the apocalypse" trying to spread the plague. Now they know more than they did.

Ignorance excuses guilt. It does not negate the consequences. Just because I don't know I have the flu (I think it is just a cold) doesn't mean that when I give it to someone else it might turn out to be a very serious deal for them.

A hunter falls asleep in a tree stand and wakes up when he accidentally pulls the trigger. The fact that he did not deliberately aim at his partner's foot or have any intention of doing any harm will not alter the course of the bullet or its effect on the bones and tissue of the foot that it strikes.

We don't know what the consequences of that flight from Dallas to Ohio and back will be. My honest (and not particularly educated) guess is that likely nothing will come of it. If that is the case, I will praise the Mercy of God for once again minimizing the potential harm that we human beings like to do to ourselves. I would say that that is the norm of Divine Action, that He intervenes more often to prevent or mitigate the negative effects of our stupidity and malice than to enhance them.

It is in this sense that I say, yes, if ebola does spread it spreads, not as punishment for, but as a result of sins; sins and ignorance, ignorance as a result of sin. Where is ebola spreading? In Africa, among the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and the ignorant. Why are they poor, downtrodden, weak and ignorant? Because other people (black and white, this has nothing to do with race) keep them so, in order to remain rich and powerful, and to increase their wealth and power. Why do AIDS, syphillis, gonorrhea, HPV, and all the other STD's keep spreading? Is it a punishment for sin? Or is it a result of human behavior that is naturally conducive to their spread? Why does 10% of the U.S. Population have diabetes? Is it because God is smiting us with "the sugars" for our sins of unbelief and immorality? No, it is because we eat like pigs and we don't exercise.

My response to ebola, as to nearly every other crisis we choose to get excited over, and a good number than most people never hear about, is to pray. To pray and always to try to reform my life, to continue the work of conversion. If victims of this or any other disease come our way, I believe our hospitals should open their doors (maintaining all reasonable precautions) and welcome them. If in the future I am called upon to treat them (as I have treated patients with AIDS, HEP-C, TB and other terrible and contagious disease), I hope I will do so conscientiously and with mercy.

My emphasis on personal morality will not protect me or my family from the results of other people's choices. It may actually place me at a higher statistical risk of dying in horribly unpleasant ways, but when has that ever been different? Has life ever been safe? Has anyone ever gotten out of this world alive? We have a greater chance of getting wiped out in a car accident because someone chose to drink too much and then drive than we ever will of getting ebola. No amount of worry is going to keep me from becoming the victim of other people's choices. Rant and rave about how unfair that is, but that does not change the truth. "Being good" has never been a guarantee of safety. Indeed, it often seems to function rather more like a red cape in front of a bull. The most innocent human being ever to live died of asphyxiation and blood loss, hanging from his arms by nails, and cursed or abandoned by almost everyone.

I do not choose to be on the side of Mercy to protect myself, but because that is what Jesus did, and I want to be like Him when I grow up.

Monday, October 13, 2014


Crushed my soul today
With three-fifteen times forty.
Useless without love.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Last week I wrote about the need to have a morning prayer time, and the obstacles that always coincidentally show up just when you want to set aside some prayer time. Ironically, the very next morning I had an unusually stubborn obstacle to overcome.

I got up at 4:30 and was driving to church for a holy hour. My truck was almost out of gas, so I stopped at the gas station to fill it up. I swiped my card, and the machine asked me for my billing zip code, and I blithely typed it in. I am not sure what I typed in, but it started with "28," which is a North Carolina zip code.

I haven't lived in NC for three years.

Of course it rejected my card and locked up the machine for a minute. I used my other card, but still couldn't remember my billing zip code. Time after time I tried, but I could not remember that stupid 5 digit number. Old zip codes from previous apartments? Got it. Old buddy's house from two years ago? Got it. House I live in now?


After five or ten minutes I was getting later and later for the holy hour. I hate being late for holy hour! I was getting more and more grumpy, I was tired, and I thought about just giving up and going back home for a nap before school. After all, I didn't have enough gas to get to church and back home and then to school. It was clearly the fact that I was tired that was causing me to forget my zip-code.

But then I decided not. After all, who needs sleep? So I went into the gas station and paid for gas at the counter. I am not sure why it took me ten minutes to think about that. At any rate, I finally did think about that, I paid for the gas, and got to church, and indeed had a great holy hour, from my point of view.

So, as I said, there are always obstacles. The thing is not to get grumpy or uptight about it, but just accept it with a laugh and trust. In all likelihood it was my grumpiness that kept me from thinking about paying inside, and made me later for holy hour. But live and learn. That also is material to be accepted and surrendered.

Everything is.