Moist Clay Nemo


Today we encounter two Bible images at Holy Mass. One: perhaps the most genuinely terrifying. The other: among the most consoling.

1. We are floating around in a vast and murky ocean, like little minnows. Of a sudden, an enormous dragnet falls from the shimmering surface above. We get yanked up into an unfamiliar, bright light.

The dragnet contains an enormous amount of junk. Mostly junk. A few good, edible items. Expert sorters go through everything. The junk gets burned. The few worthy little treasures go into a bucket.

God Almighty proposes this image to us as a metaphor by which we can understand our entire earthly existence. If that doesn’t terrify us, well…

2. Meanwhile: We, the People of God—each of us individually, and all of us collectively, the holy nation extending to the four corners of the earth—we are a moist lump of clay on a potter’s wheel.

Now, I do not throw pots. But I think we all know one of the great maxims of throwing clay. Namely, that moist clay on a spinning wheel can always get re-molded. Ugly disproportion can become a lovely circle. Lumps can be kneaded away. As long as the potter has the expertise, and the clay still moist, and the wheel still turning: there’s hope. Beauty is still possible.

In this case, the potter has the expertise. He is God. What we need is faith enough to believe: He has us—each of us individually, and all of us together—He has us in His strong, deft, and skillful hands. Molding us into something.

God Almighty proposes this, also, as a metaphor by which we can understand our entire earthly existence.

So: Yes, we float in a murky sea, most of the contents of which will ultimately burn in an unquenchable fire, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. For now we swim around in the dark, like helpless little Nemos.

But, in this case: Nemo is not just a cartoon; he’s made of moist clay. And the hands of God can mold him, if Nemo only allows it, into something like a mighty dolphin or a frolicking orca. All Nemo has to do is believe in Jesus Christ.

St. Alphonsus, Pray for Newark and Washington

Cardinal Tobin at the Basilica of St Alphonsus in Pagani Italy
Joseph Cardinal Tobin praying in Pagani, Italy, in January 2017

The pearl of great price: divine mercy. Reconciliation with God, with the truth, with justice and peace. Friendship with Jesus Christ, living in His beating Heart.

St. Alphonsus Liguori died 231 years ago today, outside Naples. The Italian province of Liguori lies in northern Italy. But St. Alphonsus’ name is like the name of a fellow I knew in Washington named Brian Boston. As far as I know, homeboy had never even been to Boston. St. Alphonsus Liguori was no Liguorian; he was a Neopolitan, a southern Italian. His relics lie in a basilica near the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

Guess who was there last month–at the tomb of the founder of the Redemptorists, the patron saint of priest-confessors?

St. Alphonsus and his companions dedicated themselves to preaching about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. I believe they always carried a crucifix in their belts, to hold up during their sermons. St. Alphonsus gave his priests a principle that I myself have always tried to follow: Be a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional.

Another American priest visited St. Alphonsus’ relics not long ago. A Redemptorist, once the Superior General of the Order. Now the Archbishop of Newark, NJ. Joseph Cardinal Tobin. He prayed at the basilica in January 2017.

Now: If my home Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. has suffered a wound because of the McCarrick scandal—and it has, to be sure–then the Archdiocese of Newark… must have two collapsed lungs. Living on a ventilator.

McCarrick served as Archbishop of Washington for 5½ years, ordained about 40 priests, confirmed maybe 1,000 young people. (That last number is a guesstimate.*) He served as Archbishop of Newark for almost fifteen years. Ordained 400 priests there. Must have confirmed at least 3,000 young people.

Washington has a deep wound. Newark… must need a double lung transplant.

So let’s pray. For the Archbishops of Washington and Newark. They have a task ahead of them that I would not wish on anyone. The bishop saint who died 231 years ago today–may he intercede.

Everyone living in the huge wake of McCarrick’s broken life—and that is a lot of Catholics on the East Coast—all of us need a miracle of reconciliation and a fresh start. Pray for us, St. Alphonsus!



* As I recall, McCarrick’s globe-trotting ways got in the way of his doing a lot of Confirmations. His auxiliary bishops did the lion’s share of the confirming during his Washington years. I imagine the same was true in Newark. So I base my estimate on 200 confirmations a year (two or three Confirmation liturgies). This is of course nowhere near the total annual number of confirmations in the Archdioceses in question. And I could be way off.

The Suddenness of the Seine-Net

Seine net fishing.jpg

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. (Matthew 13:47)

Anyone know what that kind of net is called? The technical term for a dragnet for fish? Seine. Purse-seine, Danish seine, drum seine—whichever precise kind.

What seems worth meditating on is this: The utter suddenness of capture in seine-net fishing, from the point-of-view of the fish. It’s not like bait or fly fishing, where the fish perceives something and then follows its curiosity/hunger, only to discover that this item actually means bad news for me, then a struggle ensues.

No. When a fish gets caught in a seine net, it’s like: Do-ta-do, swimming along, la la la, here in the ocean, along the colorful shoal, in the dappled sunlight, the happy life of a fish, with my friends in a nice big school, tra la la. Then: yank! The hydraulic power block that pulls the purse line pumps. And you, fish, are on the deck before you know what hit you.

With just such disorienting instantaneousness might our moment of judgment come. Do-ta-do, here I am, sunny day, easy life, texting my buddies, la la. Then: Yank. Crank. On the deck.

Good ones go into the cool, refreshing ice. Bad ones, as the Lord said, into the fiery furnace.

Redemption and Original Sin

devil sewing tares

In everyone, the weeds of sin will be mixed with the good wheat of the gospel until the end of time.  The Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation, but still on the way to holiness.

This is a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (paragraph 827)

The parable of the wheat and the tares ends with some drama:  The bundled weeds burn; the sifted wheat fills the barn with the restful smell of harvest-time. And the parable injects drama into our gathering here.  Right here, right now, some of us are good guys, and some of us are bad guys. [se haga click for spanish]

But we don’t wear jerseys to identify which team each of us is on.  Because we are all on both teams.  Good guys, raise your hands.  Bad guys, raise your hands.

God made Adam and Eve good, and He set them up well.  Even though they were made out of nothingness and susceptible to death and decay, God filled them with divine life and made them immortal.  They never would have died; they never would have experienced any evil—if they had not sinned.


And they sinned before they conceived their children.  Therefore, when they did have children, the children were born in the precarious state into which their parents had fallen.  Human nature gets handed down in this precarious state. We all received human nature in this precarious state.  In a nutshell, the precarious state is:  We are born mortal and selfish.

Since we sin all the time, it is easy for us to lose sight of just how enormous the guilt of sin is.  If you play in the NBA, and you mutter a bad word at a referee, you can be fined the cash equivalent of a brand-new Mercedes-Benz.  For offending a basketball referee.

What, then, is the penalty for offending God?  The infinitely good and powerful?  The Almighty? Well, the penalty is:  Infinity dollars.  You offend the infinite, you owe an infinite debt. And we don’t have infinity dollars.

So God became man and offered a peace offering of infinite love on our behalf. On the cross, Christ the man offered His divine love to the Father.  Behold:  the fine is paid, by the love of the Son for the Father.

Having redeemed mankind as a man, God continues to move history forward by the birth of succeeding generations of men—born in the way we have always been born. But now we can be adopted into the household of God by the blood of Christ.  Holy Baptism brings about this adoption.

God, being God, could receive us into heaven immediately upon our being baptized.  But, usually, He graciously wills otherwise.  He wills to make us partners in our own salvation; He leaves us on earth into adulthood, under the power of our own free will.  He gives us time to do battle with the lingering effects of original sin. By doing so—by fighting the battle—we come into our own and grow into the people He made us to be.

So: as baptized Christians, we are children of God.  As children of Adam, we are craven sinners.   We know we have been consecrated to become saints of Christ, but nonetheless we are moved by strong desires to do things like plop down in front of the t.v. for hours scarfing down an entire bag of Doritos.

The struggle against the residual effects of original sin sounds difficult, and indeed it is.  But getting a grip on the situation is half the battle. When we know what the battle is, we can fight it.

The Lord in His parable reserved to Himself the right to judge the souls of men on the last day.  It is not my business to condemn my own soul or anyone else’s. As long as we still have two feet above ground, harvest time has not yet arrived for us.

What I must do is weed out of my own interior garden while I still can.  And that is precisely what we are here to do.  We are here in church to praise God for the good in us. And to work to remove the bad. We all know that our own individual souls are gardens where good plants and evil weeds both grow.

And another important lesson of the parable is this: when we reach down into our souls to pull out a weed, we don’t have to worry that we might pull out too much earth and ruin the seed-bed.  Inside us, the good lies deeper than the bad.  The weeds might seem like they go all the way down to the bedrock. But, in fact, they do not. The bedrock of a human soul is God.

First and foremost, I am a beloved child of God; He made me good, and He died on Calvary to save me from condemnation.  He poured out His Precious Blood to pay the price for all my sins.  I need not be afraid, then, to confront them. I can acknowledge that this particular beloved child of God is also a weak and depraved son of Adam—a sinner who relies on divine mercy.

Where sin abounds—and it abounds in me—grace abounds all the more.

λόγον τῆς βασιλείας: Weeds No, Coffin Yes

Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico

In ancient Palestine, you had to have a path through your fields to keep people from treading all over your seedlings, because everyone had the right to walk anywhere. And rocky patches dotted all the arable Palestinian hillsides. And thistles would germinate and sprout as weeds in your fields, no matter what you did. [Click por español.]

So seeds really did face the perils that the Lord described in the Parable of the Sower. He went on to explain that the seed in the parable represents “the word of the kingdom,” λόγον τῆς βασιλείας. Like the third luminous mystery of the Holy Rosary: the proclamation of the kingdom and the call to repentance.

Thistle seeds carried on the Palestinian breezes, and farm fields had weeds. As Jesus went on to explain: worldly anxiety and the lure of riches can grow like weeds in a soul, choking the word of the kingdom, so that it bears no fruit.

Now, how would that be? we might ask. Since λόγον τῆς βασιλείας means the full fruition of human life in God. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it: “To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Father’s will is to raise up men to share in his own divine life.” (Lumen Gentium 2-3) To raise up men to share in His own divine life.

In exactly three weeks, we will keep the Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration. The boundless light of His divine nature shone through His human flesh. For a few moments on Mount Tabor, Peter, James, and John saw the divinity of Jesus.

Christ’s union with God, the inner permeation of His being by God’s infinite glory: such a union is precisely what awaits us. In the kingdom of heaven, our entire human personality will receive God’s warm and loving light–everything about us permeated by Him. Such is the meaning of λόγον τῆς βασιλείας, the word of the kingdom.

st-francis-contemplating-a-skullSo, we wonder: how could the weeds of worldly anxiety, or the lure of riches–how could anything ever choke out the fruition of something so wonderful? What success or satisfaction in this life could ever hold a candle to the glory that Christ promises us with God? Nothing can compete with God!

Wouldn’t it make more sense, we think–wouldn’t it make more sense intentionally to renounce the comforts of the earth, if they could ever interfere with us reaching heaven, like weeds interfere with the growth of good plants? Hard to believe that anyone would prefer a fancy life for sixty or seventy years over an eternity of divine happiness. Better just to become a monk who sleeps in his coffin and passes the few short decades of this pilgrim life in prayerful simplicity!

But people do make such a nonsensical choice, the choice of short-term, low-budget satisfaction over an eternity of divine communion. The danger of weeds choking the holy word–that danger exists.

Usually it doesn’t happen all at once. It happens gradually. Over time a soul can lose the taste for spiritual things, for the life of faith. One little compromise with a clear religious duty here, a little flim-flamming with the truth there, an unwholesome self-indulgence (for this once!) there…

Next thing you know, I haven’t prayed in a long time. I haven’t meditated on the inevitability of my own death and burial. I haven’t made a decision to sacrifice something, to forego a pleasure or comfort for the sake of spiritual gain. All I do is seek the approval of others, or sit around and watch tv, or over-eat, or swill liquor like a lush.

In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum spent so much time in his cave with his Precious, eating raw fish, that he forgot the taste of bread. A human soul can spend so much time staring at a little phone that it forgets the taste of silent prayer.

But: As long as we still draw breath, it’s not too late. The word of the kingdom can and will bear fruit. The wonder of Christ’s free invitation to us, to share in our Creator’s eternal and utterly beautiful Being: the wonder of λόγον τῆς βασιλείας never fades. It never tarnishes with time. It always comes as fresh and new as if today were the first day of creation.

Yes, we have let wordly anxieties and the lure of shiny trifles choke the growth of our friendship with the Lord. Lord, we are sorry! Forgive us, and give us a fresh start!

We can pray. We can cultivate our taste for the life of faith and meditation. We can grow in union with the undying light that shone in Jesus. We can live holy lives and bear fruit for the heavenly kingdom.

If we can get ourselves to Mass,  there’s hope for us yet. May the Lord help our souls grow.

Fathers on Matthew 13:52

The learned scribe brings forth both the new and the old. (see Matthew 13:52)

throne of st gregory
Sede of Gregory the Great

What does the Lord mean here?  What is “the new,” and what is “the old?”

Answering “the Old Covenant and the New Covenant!” or “the Old Testament and the New Testament,” puts you in good company.  St. Augustine interpreted the verse that way.

During St. Augustine’s time, and up to this very day, some Christians erroneously have dismissed the Old Testament as barbaric, flawed, and unnecessary.  So St. Augustine understood the Lord Jesus to be saying in this verse:  My disciples need to study and try to understand both the New and the Old Testaments.  We cannot grasp the divine mystery without both.

What about St. Gregory the Great?  He understood “new” and “old” differently.

The “old” truth, which is still true, is:  The human race deserves condemnation and punishment because of our sins.

The “new” truth is:  We can repent and be converted.  We can live in the sweetness of the kingdom of the Lamb.

Merton and Weeds among the Wheat

devil sewing tares

Satan operates in this world, resulting in evil weeds growing among the wholesome plants—that is, good, holy lives.  Therefore, we undergo strife and struggle during this pilgrimage.  The final sorting-out of good and evil has not yet come to pass.  So the battle rages, and we find ourselves in the middle of it.

We do not doubt, though, that, in the end, it is the good God Who will do the sorting.  The Good will sort good from evil.

Thomas Merton gave a little retreat to some cloistered nuns in Alaska 48 years ago this September, not long before he died.  He said to the sisters:

Never has the world been so violent and in many respects so insane, and so given to pressure and agitation and conflict.  Although men have made brilliant technological advances, they cannot handle them or use them for good.  They even seem to turn against man’s good…

In such a society there have to be specialists in inner peace and love…

It is not that society is bad or wrong, but that it is extremely complicated and fast-moving, and there is a tendency to get confused in it.  They key word in this regard is ‘alienation.’

What is alienation?  …A person who is never able to be himself because he is always dominated by somebody else’s ideas or somebody else’s tastes or somebody else’s saying that this is the way to act and this is the way to see things.  We live in a society in which many people are alienated in that sense without even realizing it.  Their choices are made for them, they don’t really have ideas and desires of their own; they simply repeat what has been told them…

What happens to a person in this condition is that, without realizing it, he does not have any real respect for himself.  He thinks that he has ideas and he thinks he is doing what he freely wants to do, but actually he is being pushed around, and this results in a sort of resentment, which in turn leads to hatred and violence…

Good father Merton could preach the same words this September, and they would ring with just as much truth, wouldn’t they?

The Lord gave us the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares for a very precise reason.  Not to inspire us to judge others or do violence in the name of weeding the garden.  Quite the contrary.

The parable instills in us the absolute, serene confidence that good will win in the end.  For those who love God and obey His commandments, the struggle with evil will pass, a merely temporary phase.  The specialists in inner peace and love continue loving–fighting alienation, and fighting the devil, by peacefully loving–until the Good Judge judges all on the Last Day.


In his encyclical on Mother Earth, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, encourages us to embrace a spiritual life like St. Francis’.  That requires “ecological conversion.”  Pope Francis writes:

First, that entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate His generosity in self-sacrifice and good works. (paragraph 220)

God has freely given us the world.  He has freely given us ourselves.  He gives, out of love, not reckoning a balance sheet or including an invoice.  If we got a bill from the Lord–for our use of His golden sun, and the earth beneath our feet, and the gravity that keeps us attached, and all the cells He knit together out of nothing to make up our bodies; for the trees we look at and take shade under…  An invoice for all these things, and everything we owe Him for, payable on 30 day terms…  What could we put in an envelope, or send via electronic funds transfer?

st_francis_receiving_stigmata-400Which means:  true life for us involves giving God thanks with love and obedience, and trying to imitate His generosity.

I think we can say that we have had a rough summer as a nation.  And I don’t just mean that the Orioles have lost three in a row to the Yankees.  We have had a rough year, as a world.

We hear about people “radicalizing.”  Such-and-such person “radicalized,” and decided that God wills a terrorist attack.

We might think:  That’s insane!  But we delude ourselves and give ourselves false comfort if we dismiss terrorism as insane; if we dismiss attacks on the police, or on any defenseless people, as insane.  The attacks themselves have required sober and careful sanity in order to pull them off.

The “radical” idea that God wills terrorism is not insane.  It is wrong.  Altogether wrong.  It is untrue.

The spring of living water, the mystery revealed to the children of the Kingdom of Heaven is:  God loves with pure generosity.  More than a mother loves the babe at her breast, more than a husband loves his new bride, with more intensity than the heat at the center of the sun:  God loves every human being.

We need to radicalize.  Not just tolerance, but love.  Not simply justice, but self-sacrificing willingness to die, even to save the guilty.  Not just peaceful co-existence with each other, but going out in search of those who live in the shadows.

There’s only one answer to the confusion and fear that has filled the summer so far.  Radicalized Christianity.  What did the Lord Jesus know on the cross?  When He said, “Forgive them, Father,” and “Brother, you will be with me in paradise?”  He knew that God’s free generosity overcomes death itself.

Wrong religion concludes:  Let me kill others and myself for God’s glory.  Radicalized Christianity concludes:  “Even though I walk in the shadow of death, I fear no evil.  Because God comforts me.”

Via Negativa, Faith through Hearing

The mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven… (Matthew 13:11)

Here’s a mystery for you: We come equipped with our five senses. By them, we attain knowledge. Mosquitoes, water, leaves on the trees, chicken-salad sandwiches, other people, etc… We know about all these because we have five senses by which to perceive their existence.

It’s impossible to imagine knowing anything other than what we perceive through our five senses, and then analyze. Granted, things like 2 + 2 = 4 are abstract knowledge, which does not require seeing or hearing or tasting or feeling or touching anything. But it is impossible to imagine that we could know that 2 + 2 = 4 without having first seen two apples, and then two more apples, and counted four apples. Or two Legos, or two baseball cards, or what have you.

earSo, the mystery: We have knowledge because we have five senses. But the one thing we exist in order to know cannot be perceived by the five senses, under any circumstances that we know of.

God brought us into being so as to know Him and, by knowing Him, love Him. But God we cannot see, smell, hear, touch, or taste. Everything that we see, smell, hear, touch, or taste is less than God. Because everything we can perceive is something that God made, like He made us.

(Remember, the most-important idea ever: there are two basic categories. The Creator and the created.)

Feel me? Maybe not. This is called via negativa—acknowledging to ourselves that the one thing truly worth knowing is the very thing we absolutely, positively do not know.

That said, the via negativa is not the only via. There’s another via, by which we can, in fact, know God somewhat, during our pilgrim lives.

The unknowable God became man and dwelt among us. The tidings of His life have reached us, by word of mouth.

So, while sight, smell, taste, and touch still have to follow via negativa very strictly; while we still have to say to ourselves that our chicken-salad sandwiches, no matter how delicious they may be, are not God; while we still have to exercise great discipline in this area, we do, in fact, have one sense that can give us solid knowledge of God: hearing.

When we believe what we have heard from the Apostles, then we truly know God. (And, just to clarify, reading counts as hearing, not seeing. Reading is like a secondary way of hearing.)

To put it in a nutshell: what we read in Scripture and the Catechism gives us knowledge of the one thing truly worth knowing, God Himself.

Trying is Succeeding to Find the Pearl

Young Solomon prayed, “Lord, you have made me the king, but I do not know how to act… Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart, so that I can judge right from wrong.”

St. Paul declared: “All things work for the good of those who love God.” Romans 8:28.

oysterThe treasure buried in the field, the pearl of great price: Wisdom. Sharing the divine mind. Understanding life. Knowing what to do and what not to do. Standing firm in the truth. The peace that passes all understanding. Union with God.

The wise person prays. The wise person begs God for help all the time. As Socrates had it, to be wise is to know that I don’t know anything. Compared to God, I don’t know much. I don’t understand much at all, compared to God. So let me pray like a madman.

By the same token: The praying person demonstrates great wisdom already, because to believe in God is the wisest act of the human mind. No thought, no knowledge, no Sherlock-Holmesian deduction can touch a more solid, a more sublime truth than the Truth we touch by simple faith.

And this all-encompassing Truth which we touch by faith: He became man to show us how good, and how kind, and how loving He is.

Continue reading “Trying is Succeeding to Find the Pearl”