Light makes the darkness look stupid

This time of year always reminds me of the snow-covered Narnia of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a place that is in a state of perpetual winter but where Christmas never comes thanks to the rule of the White Witch.

It sometimes feels like there is a perpetual winter in my life. There are so many things to be stressed about and so many ways in which it seems that the devil is always nipping at my heels. I don’t think I’m alone in that. There’s a lot of darkness in our world today. We live in an age of chaos and confusion. And I recognize that I’m luckier than most, being born into the middle class of a first world nation.

But tonight is different. Tonight Christmas arrives.

There is a lot of fluff that surrounds this holiday. There is so much commercialization. There are stupid, endless debates about how we should greet each other this time of year and with what words. There are folks who will have their Christmas trees denuded and out on the front lawn for the garbage man by noon on Christmas day, instead of celebrating all the way to at least Epiphany (if not all the way to the Baptism of Our Lord or even the Presentation).

There are also people for whom this is a difficult time of year. There are people hurting and in pain. There are people who are alone or in mourning. There are people struggling to cope with addiction, depression, anxiety, or any number of other things. There are so many ways in which this season can be a horror that swallows us whole.

And yet Christmas is here. The Lord has come. And in His wake, all shall be made well.

It is hard to believe that sometimes. It was probably hard to believe that on the first Christmas, as Mary bundled her son while Joseph undoubtedly contemplated just how they were going to get back home. Not long after would come the murder of so many innocent babies by Herod, a spectacle of cruelty against children rivaled only in our own day by the cruelty of abortion, abuse, and human trafficking.

But there was more to it. There’s always more to it.

Tonight I will celebrate Christmas Mass. The Lord will show up. He will enter this cruel, calloused world and shake loose the branches that have covered us in our misery. He will thaw the ice that has formed in our hearts and reignite our spirits. He will make all things new, all by being born, helpless and cold, clinging to life in His mother’s arms.

The White Witch cannot have this world. Our winter under her has seemed endless, but it is not. Christmas has arrived. There is no power of darkness that this world has ever seen that can muster even a moment’s worth of battle against the baby in the manger. Heaven and nature sing with joy. The lion lays down with the lamb. The child plays over the asp’s den.

The calendar says that winter has just begun. But rejoice, friends. Rejoice! Christmas is here. There is a light burning in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. There is a crackle of fire that burns now in the Bethlehem of our hearts – and its heat shall burn away the darkness forever and blaze a trail of light that can never be exhausted.

Light makes the darkness look stupid. All those things that we are so afraid of in this long darkness that we have suffered, the monsters that we worry will climb out from under our beds and eat us as we sleep, they all get shown for what they are at Christmas: powerless, toothless, completely unable to destroy us.

“Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus will say. And the world will scoff and say, “Prove it.”

And that’s when we get to smile and look at Him and say, “Watch this.”

Autism as a gift

I took my ten-year-old son with me to the grocery store last night. He pushed the cart himself. He cheerfully helped put things in the cart and then put them on the belt when it was time to check-out. He even helped me load the car and close the trunk. It was beautiful. I almost cried.

That probably sounds like a strange reaction to parents of typical kids. Many kids would have been doing what he did tonight ages ago. For my son, though, this was extraordinary and wonderful. Because he is severely autistic, there is much that he cannot do for himself, much that is a struggle. For that reason, whenever he is able to do something, our family receives it as a tremendous gift. It is incredibly gratifying to his mother and I to see him doing something independently, and it is also deeply gratifying for him when he finds that there are things he can accomplish on his own.

I imagine that every parent experiences some version of this. As a child reaches new milestones, there is a bitter-sweet kind of letting-go that parents do over and over again. For typical parents, the hard part of that is the realization that some day they will have to let go completely and allow the child to flourish all on his or her own.

My experience is different. My children will probably always need me to help them do even basic things. There is a kind of bitterness that can creep in with that, a despair that perhaps our children will never be able to function on their own, and a befuddlement as to what life means and what it is for when it is so perpetually limited.

Yet scattered amidst the strenuous and monotonous trials of daily life, there are these incredible moments when the joyful truth of who my children are breaks through. It is often something like a trip to the store, but it does not have to be. It can be something even simpler, like a shared laugh. It can be the way one of my sons moves to sit in my lap or touch the back of my neck. It happens in the rare but increasing number of moments in which my boys interact with each other.

My children are a gift. That gift includes their autism. That is a difficult thing for me to say. Frankly, much of the time their autism feels more like a curse. It is a hard life. I fear for them. And in my selfishness, I often pity myself for the things I do not get to experience as a father and the things I have to give up in order to care for them. But their autism really is a gift, not because autism is a good thing in and of itself, but because it forms part of the reality of who my children are, and I am a better man because I get to be their father.

Autism is not a separate reality from my children. It is not something that happened to them nor something added to them. There is not a real them that lives somewhere behind their autism, as if you could take the autism away and reveal a truer version of my children that was previously hidden. They are autistic. So to love them, in some sense, is to love their autism.

The limitations that come with autism are a great burden, both for my children and for their mother and I as parents. Nonetheless, there is a sheer joy that comes in realizing and knowing the humanity of my children, especially in those moments when they suddenly seem capable of engaging the world. I do not know that I would be moved to tears watching my ten-year-old push a cart if he were a neurotypical child, at least not every single time.

I write a lot about how hard all of this is. And it is hard. But when every day is a struggle, every victory becomes a tremendous sweetness. I wish people understood better what it is I experience as a parent and what my children experience in trying to engage with a society that was not made with them in mind. Yet I never want to be pitied and I would not want my boys to be pitied either. There is nothing pitiable about them. They are human beings, fearfully and wonderfully made, bearing the image and likeness of God. And because of that, I grow closer to my Lord every day when I serve them.

Why prayer is hard

Delicate is not a word that people often associate with God. Strong, loving, nurturing perhaps, but not delicate. In addition to sounding precious and far more feminine than many people are comfortable with, it is also a word that suggests fragility and by implication weakness. Nonetheless, while it may be too much to say that God is Himself delicate—He is after all the Lion of Judah who roared all of creation into being—it is completely fair to say that the way that we relate to God in a fallen world is delicate.

Sometimes waiting on God will make you sweat. It is possible to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours and be completely unable to focus. That danger is even greater if you are trying to pray and reach out to God in your home, at work, or while driving a car. Distractions abound. And just at the moment when you finally sense God, just as quickly you may lose it, like a bubble that pops the second you touch it.

Knowing God takes work. This ought to be a fairly obvious thing to reason out. Knowing anyone or anything takes work. You can neither learn math by simply putting a textbook up close to your head nor build an intimate and close friendship without ever inviting someone into your life. Why would it not be the same with God? Yet we often assume that it should be. We expect knowing God to be easy and obvious. Many people who say they want to know God turn and walk away the first time they realize that it is going to be hard.

Distractions are not the only difficulty either. Even the most committed monks and ascetics find it challenging to stay in and with God throughout prayer. It can be overwhelming to be in His presence and aware of Him. Sometimes we reach for the distractions as a defense mechanism because the full weight of really knowing God is too much to carry.

Why all the difficulty? It is, at least in part, because when we pray we are essentially trying to hold lava in a paper cup. It is easy to forget the radical otherness of God, especially because as Christians we sometimes take  the Incarnation for granted. But really, if we understood the implications of the miracle of God taking on flesh, we would be in constant fear and awe. God is so much more powerfully real than we are that Moses could not be permitted to see anything but His hindquarters lest he die. Almost every encounter with an angel in the Scriptures begins with human beings falling down in fear because the glow of the angels is so overpowering simply because they have been in the presence of God. Yet today we expect there to be not the least bit of friction when, as sinners and weak creatures, we ask the God of the universe to speak directly into our hearts and minds.

Of course, God wants to be with us. The good news of Jesus is rooted in that truth. The Sacraments communicate the full reality of God to us by the most ordinary and unobtrusive means. The Eucharist particularly makes it possible for us to take the full reality of God in the person of Jesus into us, His Body given into our bodies, His soul and divinity touching us deeply, regardless of whether we feel it or not, or whether we are distracted, or whether we are in the mood for it. In that sense, knowing God is easy. All we need to do is show up.

But even if we are rooted in the grace of the Sacraments, there is still a longing in our hearts to know God further in prayer. We want to feel Him, to know He is present. It is a natural desire, but it is not something that can be forced. God is not a high we can induce or a tame pet we can invite onto our laps. He is sovereign and moves as He will. But His desire is to be with us. He delights in knowing us and He delights in us reaching out to know Him.

God does the heavy lifting when we pray. We stress over finding the time to pray, fighting back the distractions, and focusing our minds. We think that means we are working hard. But think about all that God must overcome in order to enter into a place of intimacy with us in prayer. His Holy Spirit has to traverse the great gap that exists between us and Him. He has to make it possible for the paper cups that are our hearts to be able to hold the lava. Everything we do seems like small potatoes in comparison with that.

We cannot be fully aware of the fact that God loves us all the time, at least not on this side of eternity. If we were so aware, we would never be able to do anything but be struck dumb in adoration. We would not be able to drive our cars or brush our teeth or pay our taxes. But the more room we make in our lives for quiet prayer, the more that the realization of God’s love begins to color and shade even those moments of profound boredom or sadness that mark our lives. The more we pray intentionally, the more the whole of our lives become offerings of prayer.

Creating the space for adoration is tough. There is no way of knowing before we begin how God will show up to us or if He will even show up at all (at least in a way that we recognize through our limited perception). Yet the need for such prayer is deep in our hearts. We need to learn the art of prayer, to adjust ourselves to receive that which God has for us. The most difficult things we do in life are often those which yield the greatest rewards. Prayer is the most difficult thing we will ever do, but it is only when we give ourselves to prayer that we really begin to live.

A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.

What if Bishop Barron read Goodnight Moon


Let me preface this by saying that I love Bishop Robert Barron’s work. If you don’t believe me, just click here and see how often I reference him. He is one of my heroes. He is a leading light in the Church today and a true gem. I would not be Catholic right now if it were not for him. So the following satire is meant to compliment, not to insult in any way.

The idea came to me after watching one of the bishop’s newer videos with my wife. We talked about how soothing the bishop’s voice is and how wonderful it would be if we could get him to read us a bedtime story (because basically it would be wonderful to get him to read anything). And this bit of silliness just came rolling out of my brain. So have a good laugh. And if you don’t already know Bishop Barron’s work, do yourself a favor and head on over to his YouTube channel, his podcast, or read one of his many wonderful books.


Silence.

Beautiful and evocative music begins to play as a number of images of nature and beautiful churches roll across the screen. Each image is in such perfect high-definition that you feel as if you could walk right into it.

After a minute, a voiceover of Bishop Barron begins:

Many people will tell you that the way in which you tell the moon that it is time for bed is inconsequential. A lot of modern people think that saying “Goodnight” to everything in your room does not matter. And besides, what business do anthropomorphic rabbits have saying much of anything? But from the earliest days, Christians have understood the importance of the filial act of greeting their surroundings at bedtime.

Music intensifies. An image of Bishop Barron in a long coat, walking between rabbit cages at a petting zoo, observing the bunnies. Another image of him strolling through a cathedral with a whole set of board books stuffed under each arm.

Fade to black. Slowly, as the music hits a crescendo, the words come up on the screen, “Catholicism: The Pivotal Bedtime Stories.” Fade to black again. Looooooong dramatic pause.

No, really, it’s a looooooong pause.

Ok, fade back in. As more images of beautiful places pass by, a single violin begins to play. Suddenly, the camera pans to Bishop Barron, sitting in a chair in the middle of the Sainte-Chapelle. He has a large board book in his hands that he opens carefully and begins to read:

In the great green room, there was a telephone. And a red balloon. And a picture of the cow jumping over the moon.

Now notice how the cow jumps so carefully, moving through the air with such precision. See how the artist has rendered her lithe, bovine body to be for us a symbol of the lifting of the spirit. In many cultures, this would have been evocative of something pagan, but for early Christian readers of this text, the image intimated something so much deeper and richer, a connection to the divine and to a faith that would never allow pigs to fly but would always honor the soaring aspirations of beef.

And there were three little bears sitting on chairs, which as we all know are symbols of authority, meaning that these bears were about to teach the gathered people.

And there were two little kittens. And a pair of mittens.

And a little toy house. And a young mouse.

And a comb and a brush. And a bowl full of mush that was invented by people on the internet who do not know how to have a proper argument.

And a quiet old lady, symbolic of the Church, whispering “Hush.”

The camera pans out for a moment and the image becomes unexpectedly choppy, letting us know that someone off camera is about to engage the bishop in “real talk.” The bishop nods thoughtfully for a few moments, listening to something that sounds strangely like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons. Then he begins to make his reply:

See, there are a lot of people today who hear that “hush” from the Church in a negative way because they assume, you know, that the Church is just being a buzzkill or something. But nothing could be farther from the case.

You see, the Church occasionally says “hush” not to end all conversation but to allow us to enjoy a kind of eloquent silence in which we can experience the utter transcendence of God. I’m with Thomas Aquinas who said that “When the Church hushes you, the simplicity of the divine being can warm the cockles of your heart.” Of course, he’s talking about the cochleae cordis, the strange warming that John Wesley rightly identified as the Holy Spirit but wrongly attributed to grape juice instead of to the divine life of the Church.

I’m with Henri de Lubac, who said, “A single hush from the loving bunny-mother of the Church is worth more than a thousand utterances from drunken theologians.” I mean, after all, that’s what Vatican II was all about.

Fade out. More music, this time with some kind of pleasant flute joining the strings. Fade back in on the bishop continuing to read:

Goodnight room.

Goodnight moon, you wonderful symbol of Our Blessed Mother who reflects the light of Christ.

Goodnight cow jumping over the moon, which now that I think about it is kind of weird imagery, given what I just said about the moon.

Goodnight light which shows us the utter transcendence of God and the fact that God is not an object competing for space with the other objects in the room.

And the red balloon which symbolizes… um… red balloons.

Goodnight bears.

Goodnight chairs.

Goodnight kittens.

And goodnight mittens. Think about Dorothy Day for a second. Think about St. Francis of Assisi or even John Paul II. These figures were very different from one another, yet each one likely wore mittens at some point.

Or how about Mother Teresa. She’s a great example of someone who didn’t often wear mittens, because she lived mostly in a pretty warm climate, but she understood the importance of mittens as part of the Catholic ethos and made sure that others had mittens, even when she herself did not have them. That’s Catholicism, friends. That’s what so many people miss.

Goodnight clocks that express the timelessness of God. And goodnight socks that express the comfiness sin qua non of warm feet.

Goodnight little house. And goodnight mouse.

Goodnight comb. And goodnight brush.

Goodnight nobody. And do not think for a second that by saying goodnight to nobody, the Church is advocating that we ignore the intrinsic value of personhood. On the contrary, the Church does not for a moment ignore that value. When we greet all persons, even those considered nobody by others, we acknowledge a deep and holy truth about the presence of the divine light in each one of us.

Goodnight mush, most of which probably originated with that windbag David Hume.

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “Hush.”

Goodnight stars.

Goodnight air.

Goodnight noises…

Sudden flash through all the places we have been. Rising music. Now the entrance of timpany drums, then a gentle sound of water flowing over a single oboe as the bishop quietly says:

Everywhere.

Fin.