In The Valley Of The Shadow

The mother slaps her child in anger. She locks him in his room at night and lets him cry, unfed and unloved. The mother sees the child as a problem, perhaps even as a punishment. She feels trapped and she takes her anger and fear and sadness out on the boy. He is a reminder to her of all she has lost and all she will never have. We see her and her child. She is accused and despised. The system we have built rescues the child from her. He is the victim and we use the system to try and make him whole. His future is now our future.  

Another mother also feels trapped. She sees the child within her as a problem, perhaps even as a punishment. She is sad and fearful. She goes to her room at night and cries, unfed and unloved. She thinks of a solution to her problem and goes to a clinic, which is not a clinic at all but a slaughterhouse. Inside the clinic, and inside the woman, the child’s head is crushed with forceps. What was once a baby is now sold for parts in the marketplace the system props up. We see the woman but do not want to know her. We do not want to know what happens inside the “clinic” or inside the woman. It is, after all, her choice. Her choice is our choice and that choice is our future.  

We like to believe that our lives are our own. We like to believe that because the alternative to believing is too horrible to bear. What if my choices ripple out to affect the world? What if we really are part of the family of man, living here for a time, and bound to one another in ways beyond our knowing? That binding together makes us responsible for one another. What I choose to do isn’t merely my choice because every action creates the world in which we live today.

The world. Created in the beginning in love and perfection, it was our first parents whose actions brought death into being. Death, and decay, and pain, and sin. What they did, in that garden long ago, is with us every moment. The ripples of that sin infect every living soul on earth today. We carry within our hearts the seed of that turning away from Love. And sin begat sin, from Adam and Eve down to you and me.  

And so it goes. The mother kills the child in her womb. The baby is sold for scrap. Home invaders kill a sleeping couple in Seattle. A teenaged girl is beaten to death by a mob in Kansas City. In Chicago, a young man shoots a gun from his car, killing a toddler playing in her front yard. A couple in Delaware electrocutes the handicapped man for whom they’re paid to care. A boy in Boston sets fire to a dog. A woman in Miami poisons her grandmother. In Chattanooga, a terrorist guns down 5 military men at a service center. In Louisiana, a man shoots two innocent people in a movie theater before killing himself. Is all this violence connected? Does violence breed more violence? Or does living in a violent world make us so numb to murder that taking an innocent life no longer seems unusual? In the end, it doesn’t matter which is true.  

What remains true is that we have no right to be outraged by the violence. We forfeited that self-righteousness when we embraced and funded the killing of babies in the womb. Since Roe vs. Wade in 1973, we have killed more than 50 million children. The killing fields are not in some far-off land, but in our neighborhoods, in our homes. In our hearts. Every day that this murder of innocents continues, is another day of our accountability. And another day of our building a more violent world. Until we protect and defend human life from conception until natural death, we lose any credibility as a culture. We can’t fund abortions and at the same time be appalled and outraged by the violence around us. If we continue to believe that the murder and violence in our world isn’t connected to the murder of abortion, we’re lying to ourselves. We’re lying in the Face of the very Truth Who created the world and sustains our every breath. He offers us His life that ours might be saved for eternity. We can accept that grace and create a more peaceful world, or we can continue on the murderous path we’ve chosen into the wilderness, in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Beneath the bleeding Hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the 

  Healer’s art.”

           —T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” 

A Simple Healing 

We could all use some healing these days. We live in a violent world where war and crime take millions of lives each year. Abortion claims millions more. It seems no matter you look, people are suffering. Families fall apart and children’s hearts are broken. Of course, this world has always been a painful place. Jesus knew that. He saw and felt the suffering of each one of us as He lived as a man. He witnessed disease, political oppression, poverty and religious strife. His ministry of love drew Him to the people on society’s fringes: lepers, harlots, tax collectors, religious nuts, people possessed by demons and other outliers of many descriptions. In other words, you and me.  

When we look at those healing moments in the life of Jesus, it’s striking to me how simple they are. Televangelists and other “healers” these days often create a lot of dramatic theater in their services. There’s screaming and hollering and crying with folks collapsing onto the floor. Jesus healed quietly, usually with just a touch or a couple of words. He didn’t heal anyone to draw attention to Himself. His healing affirmed and celebrated the dignity of the one He was healing. It was an encounter, and not a spectacle. We all know what it feels like when someone really sees us for who we are and accepts us just as we are. That moment can be so very healing. And what seems true in these hectic days is that we rarely experience these moments in our lives.  

In the last few weeks, there’s been much talk and anticipation about the release of a new novel by Harper Lee. Her first work, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” has in it a wonderfully simple healing encounter. The town outcast, Boo Radley, is the subject of much derision and fear. Never seen, he lives in a spooky rundown house at the end of the street. As the story unfolds, it is this young man who heroically saves the lives of the two children central to the novel. Later, after the assault is thwarted by Mr. Radley, the details of the attack emerge and we see the rescued girl as she notices someone standing in the shadows behind her brother’s bedroom door. The sheriff and her father are nearby, discussing what has happened. Scout realizes who is standing in the shadow. She sees the town outcast for the first time. She sees him for who he really is—not a monster at all, but a painfully shy and reticent young man who risked his life to save her and her brother from harm. In just a few moments, she affirms his dignity and reaches out to him in appreciation and healing with two simple words. “Hey, Boo.”  

Two words that hold within them so much. Two words that were able to break down years of barriers and layers of misunderstanding. How many people around us are in the shadows, unseen, unrecognized, unappreciated. Maybe it’s someone like Boo. The neighbor no one ever sees outside, or the aunt or cousin we never see or speak to anymore. Perhaps it’s someone we may see everyday, but have never really encountered or spoken with—the mailman, the clerk at the convenience store, the teller at the bank, or the server at the restaurant. So many people that pass through our lives each day may be starving for someone to really see them and to affirm them as human beings created in the image and likeness of God.  

Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead. He rescued the outcasts and drew them back into the life of the community. His outreach recognized that loneliness can kill just as certainly as any disease of the body. Jesus met people where they were in life and lifted them up. We’re called to do the same. Sharing the Good News of the Gospel means seeking out the lost sheep, the forgotten lambs. It means recognizing and valuing the dignity and worth of every person in our lives. To do that, we have to be aware, to make eye contact, to smile, and to be kind. We have to take the risk of reaching out and maybe being rejected. It’s a small price to pay out of the abundance of grace we’ve been given to share with others. Sometimes we forget that we’re all on this journey together and that we need to be kind and loving with one another. That’s how we can change the world.  

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” 

              —Blessed Mother Teresa  

Me and Amy 

I’m really Amy Winehouse. Oh, I know we’re nothing alike on the outside. I’m old and flabby and Catholic. She was young and bulimic and Jewish. Despite years of piano lessons, I’m decidedly non-musical and can’t sing a note. Amy had so many musical gifts, including her gift for writing lyrics. Her voice–well. Her voice was one in a million. She sang like she was a hundred years old but with the energy and raw emotion of the young woman she was. She was a drug addict and an alcoholic and she died at 27. So why do I think I’m Amy? On the surface, we couldn’t be more different. But on the inside, we could be twins.  

Of course, I never knew her except through her music. I’ve never read any of the books written about her. I did see the new documentary out about her life. It blew me away. It’s a raw, hard look at Amy and it broke my heart. That’s the thing about great artists, they reveal who they are through their work. Amy laid herself bare in her music. That’s how I know that we are very much alike. Amy spent her short life desperately looking for something to make her feel whole. Like me. Like every one of us. Sure, most of us don’t turn to crack or heroin or alcohol to fill that need. We turn to other, more acceptable, but just as futile pursuits. We overeat or we work too much. We watch porn or we shop all our money away. But it’s all to make us feel something, to make us feel, somehow, okay. All of us want to feel loved and wanted. We all long to be understood and accepted just as we are. Like Amy, some people choose a path that destroys their physical bodies. Others, the majority of us, choose a slower death. We kill, not our bodies, but our souls. We slowly die just trying to find that one true love.

We bungle our way through life in a thousand different ways. We’re angry with those we care about. We’re unkind to the people with whom we work. We take easy shortcuts around the truth. We’re too quick to judge the folks around us. We don’t forgive. We find ways to feel offended and slighted by others. We gossip. We cheat on our spouses. We do anything and everything we can to fill that hole inside us and nothing, none of it works. None of it ever works.  

Every time I listen to Amy Winehouse sing, I’m stunned by her musical gifts and saddened that she left this earth so early on. I can hear her struggle and pain in her words and in that incredible, heart-rending voice. I wonder if her life would have been different if she hadn’t been a singer. If she’d worked in an office or sold real estate, would she have found what (who) she was looking for?  

How many people cross our paths each day who need to hear and to see in our lives that there IS a love that makes us whole? Am I being Christ in a way that reveals His truth and HIs love? I struggle and I fail every day. But I know the One Who saves me. I know that I am loved just the way I am and that I’m accepted and forgiven by Jesus Christ. God gave us a Church and through His Sacraments He shares His very life with us. Do I pass on that gift to the people I meet each day? That life in Christ is the answer to every question we’ve ever had. And we’re called to share that good news with everyone—even the addicts and the outcasts and the ones who push the world away at every opportunity. Especially those. Because one of those used to be Amy. And another one used to be me.  

“I cheated myself like I knew would.              I told you I was trouble. You know that I’m no good.”

               —Amy Winehouse 



A Light In The Pagan World 

Well, it’s been more than a week since the SCOTUS decision on same-sex “marriage” and the world hasn’t ended. The sun is still coming up every morning and the doors of my parish church are still open for Mass. America even took time to celebrate Independence Day. Sure, we’re still talking about the Confederate Flag and remembering the victims of the Charleston shooting while we argue about gun control, but America is pretty resilient. As a country we’ve endured many trials and have come through each one a stronger union. We fought and won our independence from a great empire. We survived a bloody and divisive Civil War. Over the years we’ve joined our allies to defeat evil and aggressive regimes all over the world. American blood purchased freedom for millions. And we’re still here, 239 years later. 

It’s been an especially trying time lately for Christians who worry that churches and ministries are going to encounter increasing government interference into their activity. This may well be true. We’ve already seen the government intrude into Catholic hospitals and healthcare agencies after the introduction of Obamacare. Even nuns providing healthcare to the poor and dying have faced legal challenges. We’re learning every day just how far our government proposes to limit the free practice of our faith. But we also need to realize just how long and how easy we Christians have had things in America. 

True, we Catholics have certainly survived prejudice in America. We endured anti-Catholic laws in the early years of our country which prevented us from owning property or voting, or even raising our children as Catholics. But that didn’t stop the Church from growing and flourishing in American. In fact, I’d say we’ve grown pretty fat and lazy and we might just have forgotten that to follow Christ means carrying a cross. We should always be in conflict with the world. And if the world embraces us with too much acceptance, then we must be doing things wrong.  

These unsettling days in which we find ourselves may just be very thing that the Catholic Church in America needs. Perhaps we need to re-examine our cozy relationship with our government. Specifically, we need to look at our tax-exempt status. Many folks fear losing this and it’s understandable. The ability to function in a community free from the burden of taxation has long been dear to churches and non-profits of all kinds. But it comes with a great price—and we find ourselves looking at that price right now. Will the government attempt to force churches to practice our faith according to what “they” say is the “right” way? In the end, if we paid taxes it would mean a smaller and leaner Catholic Church. Donations would surely go down if there was no tax break associated with giving. We’d be facing tax bills that we’ve never faced before. But it would also mean that we could be free of what we fear most: a government faith.  

What if the Catholic Church in America—the largest of all denominations with 70 million members—simply agreed to be taxed? Is it time for Catholics to “render unto Caesar” in order to worship and minister as we are called by God to do? Or do we dig in and fight to maintain our tax-exempt status? How best do we live the Gospel in this pagan country?  

“…every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.”

       —-Deuteronomy 12:21 

A Light Under A Basket


A law was passed in 342 AD which banned same-sex “marriage” in ancient Rome. This came 29 years after Christianity was decriminalized by Constantine the Great. Fast forward to 2001 when the Netherlands became the first nation in the modern world to grant same-sex “marriages.” And now, the Supreme Court has decreed that it is legal in the United States. Of course, it could be that the Court is wrong in their opinion. This has happened before in our history. The Dred-Scott and the Plessy vs. Ferguson decisions come to mind. Morally, it got it wrong in Roe vs. Wade, as well. There may be legal challenges to the recent ruling, but I think those will be of little consequence in the long run. The bigger picture, at least for me, isn’t what is legal, but what is true. As George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center says, “The marriage battle was lost in the culture long before it was lost in the courts.” 

Loosely speaking, from 342 AD until Henry VIII, marriage in Europe was seen as a covenant relationship that was ordained by God and existed between one man and one woman. practically speaking divorce did not exist. The civil law and the faith Sacrament were essentially overlapping and complementary. Priests were sometimes also civil ministers and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony was binding both in Church and in the civil courts of jurisdiction. In some places, a couple’s marriage was licensed by the civil authority only after it had been celebrated as a Sacrament in the Church. With Henry VIII, marriage first lost its sacramental identity when the king decided he wanted a divorce at any cost.  

Popular culture long ago decided that marriage was merely a civil contract that, like any contract, could be dissolved through the courts. And most Christian churches went along with the culture, despite Jesus’ teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:3-6). While many denominations may discourage divorce and remarriage, it is not a formal impediment to membership in most cases. Over time, and through our own fault, marriage has become a fluid state, even among most Christians. What culture has declared, we have unfortunately accepted.  

It should come as no surprise then that our country no longer believes that God’s word and will for our lives still applies to marriage. Americans like to define things for ourselves. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do, certainly not the Church and not some rather old-fashioned God. We define who we are, even which gender we are. We know what’s best for us and usually that means whatever we want at that moment. And if anyone disagrees with that, we should kindly shut up. We have no right to any opinion other than the groupthink of modernity.  

And we Catholics, although we have continued to uphold the teaching of Sacramental marriage, have been too silent and too compliant for far too long. We’ve allowed the world to shove us into the corner of public debate. We’ve lost any credibility as moral leaders through scandals and lawsuits and our particular gift for making the Gospel seem boring and irrelevant. God has given us the fullness of truth, the Holy Eucharist, and two thousand years of fidelity to Jesus Christ, and yet we seem to have little impact on our culture. This is the challenge facing the Catholic Church in America today. How do we continue to live out our faith in a pagan world? How will we live the Gospel in a culture seeking our demise? The lessons of history foretell persecution, isolation, and martyrdom. We must be ready.

“A religion that doesn’t interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.”        —Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen 

My Polluted Heart

 It took me a while, but I finally read all of the Pope’s latest encyclical “Laudato Si”(“Praise be to You”) released this week. The one bit that I can’t stop thinking about is that the world we live in “out there” is a reflection of our hearts “in here.” If we see chaos and disarray and dwindling resources in the natural world, we can expect to find a similar poverty of life within our souls. This intimate connection between humanity and the world is a marvelous gift from God, Who created us to live in harmony with the world He made. As we breathe, so breathes the world. It’s marvelous because it means that we can make our world less disordered by restoring the proper order in our souls.

Popular media often presents the state of the earth as crumbling, overheated, overpopulated, and facing crises in multiple systems from water to air to the distribution of resources. I’m no scientist or anthropologist. I can’t debate the claims that some folks make in these regards. I can, however, see that the weather around me is different than it was fifty years ago. I can’t remember the last time I saw a covey of quail. There seems to be a few more new diseases that pop up every year now. Society seems to be getting more and more violent and divided. Mass shootings, genocide, or murder in the name of religion or race are in our headlines almost every day. We scream at one another. We’ve forgotten how to be present and to listen to those with whom we disagree. We live in a harsh and unforgiving culture. It seems that the poet W.B. Yeats was describing our own time when he wrote these lines in 1919:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Pope Francis rightly connects the state of creation with the state of our hearts. We treat one another badly, just as we treat God’s gifts carelessly. We live in a throwaway culture, both in terms of the environment and in our attitudes toward unborn children, or the disabled, or the elderly. We see other people as things to be used selfishly and then discarded. We even use our own bodies as things we may reject by throwing away the very gender that God has given us. Respect for creation and for our human dignity go hand in hand. We combat the trade for endangered animal species but protest in favor of abortion and euthanasia. This schism adds to the chaos in which we now find ourselves. Rather than addressing the needs of the poor with real solutions, we only propose a reduction in their birth rates. Each person is infinitely valuable, regardless of their economics or abilities or age. In short, the Pope teaches us that we’ve been putting ourselves in the place of God and as a result, creation has been provoked into rebellion.

Those who may have expected Pope Francis would “soften” Church teaching on abortion, birth control, homosexual unions and transgender issues were probably disappointed by “Laudato Si.” On the other hand, those who support unfettered consumerism with a disregard for the economic, sociological, and environmental impacts that follow from that were also challenged in their beliefs. Pope Francis reminds us of the sovereignty of God and the dignity of the human person. He calls us to live the Gospel with charity and with respect in our role as stewards of His creation.

“A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion, and concern for our fellow human beings.”

—Pope Francis in “Laudato Si” 


Lourdes: The Veil Is Thin


We took the night train from Paris and rumbled south through the countryside until we arrived in Lourdes just as day was breaking. My two friends and I were in the middle of our fall break from classes at the University of Dallas campus in Rome. When we walked out of the train station, I really didn’t know what I’d see or even, to be honest, what this whole Lourdes thing was all about. I’d just become Catholic a few months before moving to Rome. Most of what I knew about St. Bernadette and the miracles at Lourdes had come from watching the movie, “The Song of Bernadette” (Note: I still love this movie and highly recommend it). We found a room at a little hotel near the train station and had breakfast. Then we walked the few blocks to the Shrine. 

Lourdes is a small village in the mountains near the Spanish border and its business is the healing waters of the spring that began to flow in 1858. The Virgin Mary appeared to the 14-year-old Bernadette on 17 occasions that year. Since that time, millions of pilgrims have made their way to Lourdes to pray for healing and to wash themselves in the water of the spring. My friends and I bought bottles at a shop and went to the spring, where we drank the water and filled our bottles to take more home. As 19-year-olds in good health, we weren’t really looking for a physical cure. Towards noon we walked up a winding path to the huge Basilica located over the cave where the Virgin appeared. The church seats 25,000 people and is truly immense. I was overpowered by the size of it. Hanging on every bit of available wall-space were crutches left there by those who have proclaimed themselves cured over the years. Religious medals and notes written in every language hang there too, in thanksgiving for answered prayers. During the days we were there in Lourdes, there were thousands of pilgrims coming to pray and to be anointed and to take the waters. The place was overwhelming and intense and confusing to me. The pilgrims seemed so devout and needy. Did I really believe the Virgin Mary came here to speak to a peasant girl and to cure sick people with spring water? I didn’t know. My visit had, in many ways, suffocated me.

It would be more than 20 years before I would visit Lourdes again. So much had changed in my life since those college days. Marriage, career, the deaths of loved ones and, thanks be to God, years of a deepening faith had made me into a much different person. I was a lot less sure of myself and a lot more sure of God. When I knelt in the cave where the Virgin had appeared to St. Bernadette, I prayed to have the eyes of faith that allowed her to see heaven on earth. When I drank the spring water, I asked God to heal me of my selfishness and doubt and, most of all, my pride. The crowds seemed smaller (they weren’t), the church more intimate (it wasn’t) and the pilgrims seemed more like me. We had all come to this place out of our need for God. All of us wanted healing. All of us wanted to be touched by heaven. I believe there are places in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is thin and, in some circumstances, even transparent. Lourdes is one of those places. If you can’t travel to France, visit your local Catholic church. At every Mass, heaven comes to earth again. In every confessional, we meet the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. These are thin places, too. Lourdes taught me that. We are all on this pilgrimage together and it is never easy. But God and His Blessed Mother walk among us along the way. We’re never alone. Heaven’s breath is always calling us home. 

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner.”

 —the last words of St. Bernadette 

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