Extremely Small Fidelities

You never know what God’s going to use. You can assume he’s going to use everything.

A long while ago, I was out watching one of my son’s soccer games. I was standing next to a guy I’d known for a few years. I’ll call him Scott. We were talking about this or that the way soccer parents do. And then Scott asked me what I was doing that afternoon. I was semi-embarrassed to admit that I planned to go to Confession, but I just rattled it off as one of my things on the agenda for the day.

“Huh, no kidding. Man, I haven’t been to Confession since I was a kid.”

“Yeah. I go pretty regularly. Good for the soul. Cheaper than therapy.”

The conversation about confession was a little longer than that, but not much. We turned to talking about washing cars or mowing lawns or something.

You can only imagine my surprise when, shortly after the following Easter, Scott saw me and told me the news.

“Hey, remember last year on the soccer field when we were talking? Well, I started thinking about it and I talked to my wife and told her that I was going to go and try Confession. And one thing led to another, and soon we were all going to Mass. And now Jane and the kids got baptized at the Easter Vigil and the whole family is Catholic and we have you to thank for that.”

Except, of course, they didn’t, at all. It was God’s work, the God who uses small things. The small thing in which I was faithful– just a tiny, brief comment, really– was used by God to grow a great thing.

Remember that little story any time you think you know better than God does, and remember it, too, when you find yourself unable to see what God’s doing with your small fidelities.


If I Say I’ll Pray for You

One of the commitments I’ve made in the last year or so is that if someone asks for prayer, I write it down on a sheet of paper.  I pray through that list every night during  Evening Prayer. Most people, I’ll admit, don’t get a lot of individual attention unless I know that something in particular is wrong– they’re hurting or unemployed or whatever. If I think things are basically going OK with you, you get mentioned to God with a “whatever he/she needs” attitude.

I came to this idea of a prayer list when I was preparing for hiking the Camino Santiago de Compostela.  I posted this on Facebook:

Facebook Prayer.png

To my astonishment, I had over 100 specific replies to this post, so I decided to enter all those requests into an Evernote document and to print it out and carry it with my passport and credenciál as I hiked the Camino.  I prayed for these people every day, morning and evening.  I added people along the way, too.  I was surprised and deeply moved by people’s responses to my offer to pray.  Several were in tears as I wrote down their names, like the owner of the hostel in France who told me that his wife had left him 25 years earlier. “But we are still married in God’s eyes,” he said, showing me his wedding band.  I promised I would deliver his petition to Jesus at the tomb of St. James.

Tomb of St James
The tomb of St. James, Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  That’s my prayer list in the center of the photo, mangled from the pilgrimage but still readable.  

Another surprise:  Many people I’d prayed for wrote to me after the trip to tell me that their prayers had been answered– some in extremely surprising ways.

There’s a guy I went to high school with who once complained on Facebook that no one who said they prayed for people actually did. So, I added him to my prayer list and now I pray for him every day. I let God sort out what the guy needs. That’s my basic attitude– let God sort it out. I pray for non-Christians, but not for their conversion. I pray for sinners, but not that they’ll stop sinning. I just pray for them, and whatever God does with that prayer is better than anything I could come up with. God’s got some mysterious stuff going on, and I don’t want to mess with it– I want to cooperate with it.

For a while I used an iPad for my breviary I opened a page in “Notes” and typed in a copy of my paper list. Nowadays, I am back to paper. I’ve got about 100 people on there. Some of them, I have no idea how they got on my list. But that’s part of the beauty of it, right?

Whatever else prayer does, it makes you pay attention to God’s ongoing work in the world and among his people.  And daily prayer provides a small but concrete way to love others, to take yourself out of the center of your own narrative and let God occupy the center. I don’t think that’s all that prayer does, but I welcome it.

What it’s Like to Baptize Your First Infant

So, here’s the first thing: I’ve never felt so blessed and so utterly unimportant as I did in the moments when I was baptizing Lala.

You understand in an instant, if you’re paying attention, why it is that John the Baptist is so frequently portrayed as pointing to Jesus.

Really, anyone can baptize. You can we a wicked SOB or a saint. You can be an atheist who’s just fulfilling the wishes of the parents or you can be the Pope. A jackass or a whiskey priest or a five-year-old girl can do it. The kid isn’t more baptized by the Pope than he would be by the atheist.

Maybe this is why Jesus made it so easy. Jesus apparently knows his people well enough to know that making it complicated is a formula for disaster. Make it easy. If you make it easy, we get more people, and that’s the whole idea. More, more, more. Jesus is profligate when you are not inclined to be profligate. More. How many people is enough for Jesus? All of them. If we get all of them, that’s enough.

So, when you baptize someone, that’s where you start. All the ceremonial– and it is magnificent ceremonial, and If you can read the blessing of the water without tears you are more of a man than I am– is just intended to heighten the awareness of this bald fact. God wants more children. He’s crazy about it. The Octomom is a lightweight compared to God. He wants you and everybody.

So, anyway, the parents are two people I’ve loved for a long time. I was filled with anxiety back in 2008 when we awaited the news that mom had applied to transfer to Colgate, and I rejoiced when she got in. I rejoiced when she and the dad got married. I rejoiced when they cooked chicken paprikash and when we had the interfaith barbecue one summer and when they graduated and, well, there’s a lot to celebrate with them, as they are wonderful.

And then she was pregnant and then the baby was born and he was impossibly beautiful and I said, “Hey, you know, I’ll be a deacon soon, and if you don’t have plans for a baptism but want him baptized, I’m game.” Thanks be to God, they took me up on it.

I practiced a number of times with one of my daughter’s dolls. I did OK. There’s a certain nonchalance when you’re practicing most things, but I will admit that when one of my students held the doll over the font and I poured water on the doll’s head, I cried. For that moment, it was about the grace that my ordination had given.

But I’ll tell you what– when you’re doing the baptism, it’s completely different, and whatever it is about it is NOT about you or your emotions. It’s about the fact that you, child of God, are able to stand and bear witness to what God is doing with your hands and with the water you poured into the font. Jesus takes over, and you’re his stunt double. If you do a half-assed job, if you missed the miracle of adoption into God’s family, well, that’s your problem. But if you just pay attention, God’s got a show for you. God’s love, your hands.

Baptizing Lala instantly transformed everything I thought I knew about the sacraments. I suddenly saw priests in a different light. Your surrender is all that’s required for the grace to be given. Well, no– even your surrender isn’t required. Your surrender is only required if you want to see it, if you want to see with your own eyes what God has given you to do.

Binge-Watching Maron

I am a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and I spend almost all my “TV” time watching comedians on Netflix or YouTube.

Recently I found myself watching the entire second season of Maron, the comedy series based on and starring comedian Marc Maron. Maron’s probably most famous for his “WTF” podcast, wherein he conducts long, generous interviews with an incredible array of comedians, actors, musicians, and other public figures. Maron’s great weapon as an interviewer and as a comedian is his absolute candor and commitment to truth. The fact that both his candor and his truth are filtered through a sometimes impossibly thick narcissism is the central tension of his work: He wants to be truthful, he even wants to be good, but there’s a ferociously selfish, wounded, self-protecting aspect to his personality that keeps it from being all good. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s quip, “The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.” The truth is not finished with Marc Maron.
I almost want to do an episode-by-episode review of this sometimes-astonishing series, but my first impression is that the whole season’s theme involves the movement from self-protectiveness toward responsibility to others. Maron’s got a growing awareness of his connectedness to others. He rails against the hypocrisy and narcissism in other characters, but almost inevitably his indignation turns toward a recognition of his own selfishness and need to change. He has a keen eye for b.s. and a rapidly evolving conscience. He’s responding more and more to the need for relationships, real friendships, family cohesion, and connection to a community. And, to my surprise, there’s even a growing sense of gratitude. I don’t know if this is Maron’s intention, but there’s almost a sense in which he’s climbing out of the hell he’s created for himself.

That said, it’s still pretty raunchy and broken, alternating between heartbreaking sadness and great comedy. Like Louie, it’s a show I wish I could recommend to parishioners, but in a world where EWTN is what people think of as “Catholic television,” this would seem jarring and vulgar. But I can’t help but think that the paschal mystery undergirds the whole message of the show. God, lead Marc Maron to whatever Sunday you have in store for him and for all of us.

On Returning to Spiritual Direction

For the last many months, I’ve been afraid that, if I called my spiritual director, Fr. Joe, he’d be angry that I hadn’t been in touch. Boy, was I wrong.

I felt so relieved when he greeted me like a long lost friend, with nothing but a sense of joy and pleasure at my arrival. You don’t get that too often in life, but when you get it it’s the best feeling in the world.

We talked for a long time. He told me a few things about how he’s doing. I told him about my life– the Camino and what it’s meant to me, the state of my spiritual life, the things that happened at Colgate this semester. There was a lot to talk about.

He gave me some good advice and told some great stories.

“You need time to get back to yourself, to a sort of baseline where you can even look at what’s going on. You need quiet. Know what I do? I go over to Onondaga Lake and stare at the water for a while. That gets rid of the noise. Then I come back and pray before the sacrament and ask Jesus what is going on in my life.”

“How long do you stare at the lake?”

“Eh, last time it was about six hours. Then I came back and prayed for four hours or so.” He said this without any hint of recognition about how unusual his behavior is.

He told me that it’s too early to know what the 19th annotation retreat I did last year (the 30 week work on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius) did for me, but that he was absolutely certain that God used it and that I’m different. “Go and sit at the lake. It’ll become clear.”

We talked about the Camino. I told him that I miss it and that I think about it every day and want to go back. “What do you miss?” he asked. I told him many things, but mostly the simplicity and the physicality and the quiet. I told him of my drive to rid myself of my possessions, and he smiled and said this was probably one of the things God was working on with me, giving me the grace to embrace that sort of freedom.

His advice:

1. Review Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, from both weeks 1 and 2 of the Exercises.
2. When I don’t perceive God’s presence in my life, I should talk to God about it directly. “Tell God, ‘I don’t feel you present with me. Am I doing something wrong or are you doing something with me?”
3. Go back to the “Two Standards” in the Exercises and spend time with that.
4. Because of how hard I am on myself, spend time meditating on the question, “Is Jesus my friend?”
On the way to spiritual direction I listened to the On Being interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Lutheran minister of many tattoos. It was interesting enough, but I did not find her to be as awesome as I’d heard she was.  Maybe you had to be there, or maybe I know a lot of her tricks from my Lutheran seminary days.  But she’s obviously connecting with some folks, so may God prosper the work of her hands. On the way back, I listened to another interview from the same podcast, this one with Paulo Coehlo. It was better.

The most important thing I heard from Coehlo is that he realized after hiking the Camino that the spiritual pilgrimage began after his arrival at Santiago. I am finding that to be true. He spoke of the character of his life changing. The elements of the pilgrimage restored him to himself and awakened a desire to have a life characterized by traveling lightly, simplicity (which he termed elegance, a linguistic turn I loved), conversations with strangers, openness to new places, long stretches of solitude, deep connections, the sheer physicality of the walk, etc. I get this, and it’s where my heart or God or whatever is pulling me.