Thursday, March 24, 2016


Two statements from Holy Thursday stir up an existential awe in my heart:

"You will never wash my feet," and "Do you realize what I have done for you?"

Like the Pharisees who saw Jesus dining with sinners and showing kindness to "wicked" women, and like the disciples who pushed back crowds and guarded Jesus from children, it is easy for those of us who hold God in high regard to be disturbed at the implication that he be made unclean or that he should associate with anything less than riches and honor and favor. We know in our humanity that sin and God are eternally in opposition to one another; to pursue the appetites and desires we have for one is to spit in the face of the other.

From the first moments of the unfolding of the fall, Adam and Eve felt ashamed. Their shame was in knowing -- not in having some sort of intellectual knowledge gained from academics or valuable experiences -- but in knowing, with a deep intimacy, the dividing factors between good and evil. They hid themselves with whatever they could retrieve from the world around them, dreading what they now knew was not merely nakedness, but vulnerability.

As soon as sin had taken root in our human nature, so did the anxious "knowing" that we are not good enough for God, that being searched by him or known by him or found by him might mean our ultimate end. Their anxieties in these moments were not too far off the mark -- we are told that no one can see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20) and that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Hebrews 10:31)

We sense this distinctness between our nature and God's innately, and it gives us a certain a hesitancy toward the sacred. We don't want to make God dirty. We don't want to profane him. We don't want to offend him (though we often do). Imagine Peter's horror, then, as Jesus, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist and proceeded to lower himself to wash Peter's feet.

But Jesus is unrestrained by our anxieties. He sees our needs and nothing in him is hindered by sin. The hesitancy we have toward God is not one he has toward us. We see a holy God and withhold ourselves, just as Peter did when he first took Jesus out in his boat. "Depart from me; I am a sinful man." But Jesus sees a hurting and fallen people, and withholds nothing of himself.

Jesus knows that if he withholds himself, it will only be to our peril. "Unless I wash you, you can have no part in me." Jesus has no fear of our feet that have trudged through the dirt and the mud of this dying world. Jesus gets down in the dirt himself, and with weary hands and dirty fingernails and sweat caked to his brow, he performs the work of a servant. The arms which will bear the weight of the world's sin first bear the sorrow and soreness we bear from holding ourselves up for so long.

Knowing who would betray him, who would deny him, and who would follow him to the death, Jesus does not partake in any sort of preferentialism. He tends to the tiredness and the wounds of the sinner and the saint.

Jesus gazes into the human condition, seeing our shame and our sense of unworthiness, searching the darkened corners of our hearts where we hide ourselves with whatever we've found in the world around us, and lovingly pleads with us: "Do you realize what I have done for you?"

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Saint of Darkness

The Vatican has officially announced that Mother Teresa will be canonized a Saint on September 4, later this year. This is incredibly joyous and meaningful news for me; the woman many see as a servant of the poor first and a powerful, albeit small, world changer second is for me an example of what it means to live the faith and love Jesus when all spiritual consolations and feelings of happiness are stripped from us in this life.
Several years after her death, Mother Teresa's private letters and writings became accessible to the public, and people were astonished at what they read. Where they expected to find reflections on loving Jesus and caring for him in the poorest of the poor -- which they did, of course, find -- they also found admissions of a dreadful and decades-long Dark Night of the Soul. It was revealed that Mother Teresa not only labored in love, but labored in the silence and darkness of a soul which felt torn from grace.
In a letter from 1961, the soon-to-be-Saint wrote: "Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can't explain."
Mother Teresa's crumbling joy and apparently constant wrestling with believing have dubbed her, for some, an atheist, but a closer reading of her letters, bearing in mind the struggles we all -- believers, that is -- so often face depicts a separate story. Where skeptics and agnostics find in her words the familiarity of doubt, believers who struggle with depression, with spiritual dryness, or other emotional, psychological, or spiritual calamities find the familiar face of anguish -- of longing for God and, in the absence of his felt presence and response, a certain bitterness, and not only a bitterness in attitude, but in taste and in feeling. It is a sour thing, we sense, for God to allow us to feel abandoned, and it is a sour thing for the soul to feel abandoned.
She once wrote of her experiences: "I did not know that love could make one suffer so much . . . of pain human but caused by the divine. The more I want him, the less I am wanted. I want to love him as he has not been loved, and yet there is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God. They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God . . . In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. That terrible longing keeps growing, and I feel as if something will break in me one day. Heaven from every side is closed. I feel like refusing God. Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness."
As Christians, we know that bad things happen, and bad people exist, in spite of God's goodness. It can often seem to us that God permits these things to spite his own goodness, and occasionally -- or, for some of us, frequently -- that these things happen not in spite of or to spite God's goodness, but as what tastes to our souls and our hearts like the spite of God himself.
Few people understand this feeling so well as Mother Teresa did. Every morning, she trudged into the streets of Calcutta, dampened by tears and darkened by death. She witnessed firsthand what longing looks like; she understood the poverties of the soul like a second language -- a language she translated to others from the poverty of the body she buried herself in for her whole life.
There are those who may die and meet God face-to-face and find their souls plunged, headfirst, into the hell they prefer to him and his glory. And there are those who may die and meet God face-to-face and feel the weight of glory press upon them with increasing joy, until their joy is completed, as promised by Jesus.
And then, there are souls like Mother Teresa, who have spent their earthly life struggling, sick, and dying on the sidewalks and in the alleyways of human suffering, longing for healing that never seems to come, until Someone comes along, bends down, and picks them up off the side of the road, carries them home, and binds their wounds with love.

Sunday, March 6, 2016


"I thirst," he pleads, from the altar of the cross. He thirsts for love, for my love, for the devotion of my heart. Day in and day out, from the altar which brings the same Calvary forward again and again -- the death of God which happened once, yet happened for all. The sacrifice which happened once in history but is all the same present at every Mass upon the altar. Jesus, slain on the altar, begs our love in few words and many drops of precious blood. Blood poured out into a chalice, held high for all to see. "Take this, and drink."

The Word of God intended to go forth and accomplish the work of salvation overflows from the cross as Lamb and from the altar as bread. Broken Jesus, who thirsts for my soul, come into the tomb of my heart. Draw near to the heart which you cause to beat, moment by moment. This empty place, darkened by the shadows of doubt and dampened by the tears of worry; this tomb of my body, my fallen humanity. Come into the tomb of this humanity which was buried with you in baptism, swept up into your death as rain is swallowed up by the ocean. This grave where I am drowning in my brokenness and misery. Come and meet me here, and if I find my heart has died let it at least have died with you.

Come to live in me so that I can live in you. This bread which is you crucified is one and the same as you who has overcome. The same God slain on the altar is alive on the other side of my sin and my doubt and my frustration and limitedness. Resurrect this wasteland you've encountered; roll away the stones of doubt and show the light of your radiant dawning over the shadows it casts. Let this blood in my veins which keeps me alive be united to the blood from your side which moves me to live.

Bring your resurrection to me. Let my life be your life. Become the rhythm in this heart and breathe your Spirit into these lungs. Let this death worth dying mean that there is life worth living. Come to live in me.