Radical Transformation: Part V

Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ (Chapter 9)

On “Striving for Perfection”

Who am I?  What am I?  Where am I today?

Can you answer this question today?  I believe most of us can. Give it a try.  Briefly, write one or two sentences down now or just hold them aside for later reflection.  Here is mine:

“I am a clinical social worker, married, father of three, chess enthusiast, and avid reader.”

There are about 682,000 social workers, 70.1 million fathers, and 25 million chess players in the United States.  The typical American by self-report reads about five books a year, not quite avid readers, but not shabby either.  I can safely say I have not reached perfection in any of these pursuits.  World poverty, hunger, homelessness, addictions, and serious mental health conditions continue to plague society and individuals despite “my” efforts.  Fatherhood by definition is imperfection.     Chess I was only towards the bottom end of the top twenty-percent of US chess players.   I certainly read more than the typical American but have no claim to exceptionalism relative to other avid readers.   Crushing mediocrity!    Defined solely by my “I” you can see how if left to my own devices I could fall into the abyss of insignificant singularity.


The reader may expect a pivot point here.  Singularity insignificance of being attacks not only my core but yours as well.  I could muster up admirable accomplishments, adversities contended with and other moments in my life to counter this proposition but honestly and paradoxically the more I counter this truth the greater my insignificance will be.   And this is only relative to vast accomplishments of my current peers or perhaps even to just your accomplishments.  You may be an inventor, a published author, a great orator, possessor of great wealth or prestige, any variation or adaptation of other things that we collectively validate as valued and worthy of praise.

There is a higher plane, a higher standard.  Compare your statement not to the Olympiad of mortal men but to the divinity standard of perfection.  Have you harnessed your God given talents and potential every minute of every day into this present moment and are now, even as you are reading this, aligned with a higher calling in all your thoughts, in all your words, and in all your actions today?   Does your being supersede you and transcend to the end of a greater good, not only in your actions, but in a synergistic explosion of energy that transforms and draws out the good of others around you, sending anyone who comes into your orbit and presence, into a mind bending transformative process of their very own?  Can you do that today?

I myself come up short, very short.  This however does not permit me to descend into an abyss of nihilistic thought.  Dietrich has other ideas.  Friedrich Nietzsche once provided me a philosophical ride of descent into nihilistic thought with gripping philosophical text and a grand pronouncement of God is dead many years ago!  The amateur philosopher can easily fall victim to the philosophy of total negation, to the apparent meaninglessness and absence of objective truths in everyday life.  My early readings of Nietzsche came out the other side into a world of ontological existentialism.  Nihilism was the threat to humanity – not the answer.  I divert here to merely point out how easily we can succumb to a rabbit hole of philosophical ideas (or other worldly distractions) and lose sight of our ultimate compass and being in life.


Dietrich in much simpler terms, though not at the slightest light on theologically grounded insights, walks the reader through steps towards “Striving for Perfection.”  One very quickly is introduced to the gift of our “free will” and what we choose to do in response to God’s calling.  If you are reading this you have some desire already for sanctification and holiness.  You have a hunger in some shape or form driving you towards fulfillment of something more.

The previous chapters of his book will have introduced you to self-examination, humility, simplicity, and a readiness and overall confidence to take the great leap of faith to truly trust in God’s omniscience and omnipresence.  Now he challenges you to let go of self – not in the nihilistic fashion, though on a superficial level you could misjudge this reading, but in a revoking of the singularity of self for unity with God.  Dietrich presents another high dive into the pool of humanity.  While I am reading his work to find God, he is reminding me that finding God is nearly impossible if I am not aiming, striving for perfection by fine tuning all the time my affections (desires), my actions (deeds), in a manner which freely assents to and cooperates with God’s will.    Dietrich goes to great lengths here to teach us to avoid building a resume for ourselves or for others to view of holy deeds and virtues – but simply to just be virtuous:

“Man is not the author even of his natural life; he is not able, as the Lord says, to increase his stature by so much as an inch.”

It sounds like double talk but is not at all once explained.  Through numerous examples he paints good deeds being accomplished by the “hero” of any situation as the person simply acting on what they through prayer, meditation, and self-discipline are practicing God’s will all of the time no matter the circumstance, and if it allows them to be a hero or provider of good deeds, that is not in and of itself their deeds, but simply a consequence of living a virtuous life.  The “I” disappears and is absorbed in a greater unity with God, sometimes evidenced by spiritual consolation (moments of grace) from God, but more often performed in periods of spiritual dryness and aridity.

For most of us we are only on a path of striving for perfection both in our worldly responsibilities and our spiritual ascension. Let me recommend that we only need to do the latter and the former will take care of itself.    Our worldly responsibilities are our calling to do as best we can infuse with the presence and guidance of God.  Complete confidence and trust will provide us a foundation to face all suffering; successes, momentary confusions and fears with the trust that the mystery and mercy of God is present and we must only cooperate with God.    There is another caveat here.  We are not in charge of calling God.   At the same time we are called to act to be prepared and open to being guided by his presence.

The usual tools one might hear about are presented by Dietrich.  Find time for prayer and contemplation.  Be prepared for various experiences and challenges.   Shun the trivial and unimportant.  Empty oneself of worldly desires through ascetic practices (without becoming a nihilist) while also learning how to recognize the inherent beauty and majesty of worldly things that celebrate, highlight, or reveal scents of spiritual perfection or of God.

Our daily lives will present us with multiple moments where we can freely choose to move closer to or farther away for God.  Our calling may not be, and most are not called to live the monastic life, to be a recluse or a great martyr for God.  Sometimes the heroes are the invisible ones who, day in and day out, perform the mundane daily task of their calling sustained and driven by the mystery and mercy of God.

The greatest tool, I have not mentioned. We cannot and will not be transformed in God Christ by our own self-determination or multiple acts.  The liturgical gifts, the sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and reception of Holy Communion have been passed down for over two thousand years: these are important for sustaining and nurturing your faith.

Still the striving for perfection is an uphill battle and I will most assuredly stumble and flail my arms at many junctures, and if particularly distraught perhaps even vocalize my displeasure at apparent abandonment by God and outright injustice of my particular situation on any given day.


No fear.  The Mercy and Majesty of God who is all-knowing will wait patiently for me to choose another path.  We may not measure up to Ghandi – but we have a path nevertheless.  At the end of the day the mystery of God remains to be revealed to us in hopefully glimpses today and eternity at the end of time. However, we are here today with our sentence.  It is what we have today to work with in our spiritual transformation.  Is our sentence that we wrote above (or thought) who are divinely meant to be and if not let’s slowly get busy on changing it.  In the view of hindsight, through the many blessings and graces I have received, I could greatly expound on my sentence above.  In this writing it would be trivial and non-important!

For most of us it is to continue refining and aligning our daily activities in closer alignment and proximity to what we believe God would require rather than a radical exterior transformation.  Yesterday and tomorrow are not our concerns.  However, we are called to radically be transformed in Christ:  Saint or Sinner, Pauper or King, Priest or Lay person.    No matter our station in life or our past transgressions we are called continually to transform ourselves in Christ.  It is a life time journey and timeless.  In our singular insignificance each of us plays a great role in the most significant event ever recorded in history, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An unfathomable leap I have made in that last sentence.  Instead, imagine a ballet dancer’s smooth continuous rise towards the heavens, effortlessly extending upwards gracefully with every muscle and sinew seeking perfect expression in concert with the entire ensemble, choreographed and orchestrated to a live orchestra:


Prayer and life is meant to be this way:  Trans-formative and majestic.  Below are some references for people seeking resources on prayer and a link on the author (that is sparking this series post).  Feel free to respond with comments any resources you find valuable in your search and pursuit of living a sanctified life.

References below about Dietrich Von Hildebrand[i], Ignatius home retreat[ii], article on Catholic contemplation[iii], and Vatican reference on prayer.[iv]     Thank you for visiting my blog.

[i] http://www.hildebrandproject.org/about/dietrich-von-hildebrand

[ii] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/an-ignatian-prayer-adventure

[iii] http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201311/sit-down-and-be-quiet-how-practice-contemplative-meditation-28077

[iv] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c3a1.htm


Radical Transformation: Part IV

Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ (Chapter 8)

On “Confidence in God”

Many Christians have been waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ.  It has been over two thousand years since he walked, preached, died and was resurrected.  Our Jewish cousins have been waiting perhaps as much a four thousand years for the first coming.  Jesus did not pass their mustard test of divinity.  Christians utilize prophesies in the Old Testament as predictions that Jesus fulfilled the first prediction.[i]  Regardless of this seismic division we still share a Messianic faith: 

The term “Messianic prophecy” refers to a compilation of over one hundred predictions (conservative estimate) in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah. They have undeniable accuracy even though these prophecies were recorded by numerous writers into various books over 1000 years. We are assured that these prophecies were not conspired after the fact due to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint. These items are existed prior to Jesus’ time on earth.[ii]

The idea of “Confidence in God” given our shared four thousand year period of “waiting for God” and our collective confusion and divergent interpretations of historical events, scripture, prophets, and the understanding of the historical life of Jesus Christ is intellectually mind-boggling.  It is in this context I am hesitant to write about “Confidence in God.”

With genuine humility and intellectual honesty I can assuredly say I cannot define a personal path for anyone to come to believe and share my faith and confidence in God.  My own faith I judge to be far too fragile and temperamental.   

I can however provide testament to having common concerns and doubts about God with my fellow man that have run deep in my life and come out of the darkness with a greater faith after many trials and divergent paths.  Challenges afforded to me have included philosophical existentialism, unexpected losses of family members, experience with personal failures and traumatic situations, a deep seated wrestling with the meaning and nature of suffering, criticisms of our religious institutions practices and beliefs (past and present), alternative explanations for spiritual experiences, psychological principles of individual development and sociological explanations for religiosity,  and personal “isms” of a less lofty nature. 

How can we ask anyone to have faith in God when facing a four thousand year waiting period for a messianic coming that we cannot define with any certainty while living in a secular world driven by temporal and material goals (ranging from basic survival to unimaginable wealth)? I cannot ask you to have faith.  I can share mine.  I cannot even give faith away.  It is not mine to give.  My journey is not even my own. 


I have an oar.  It is a very small oar.  All I can do is row and aim for the greater good.   I do not know what rivers I will face, what rapids lay ahead, or when my boat will rest on calm waters.  Sometimes I will have other rowers by my side and sometimes I will be utterly alone.  God is always there but sometimes in my fear or in my self-possession I will not see him or be aware of his presence.   In the poem below it is easy to forget the line “I thank whatever God’s maybe for my unconquerable soul.” Invictus[iii]   

And yet I am writing about “Confidence in God” for myself and I hope for you the reader.  Faith, like sports, is a full contact activity.  It requires participation, determination, and perseverance. It also requires transcendence past human abilities.  That is where “Confidence in God” comes into play.

I am still daunted by this release of myself into his hands without trembling.  The willingness to accept the consequences and responsibilities of a true and on-going transformation in Christ and Confidence is beyond my spiritual imagination.  Like my middle name, I still have bouts of doubt that arise at the most unfortunate times. I do not have the luxury presented to doubting Thomas:


The apostles who lived with and followed Jesus Christ struggled to believe in the entirety of Christ message.   How can we be expected to claim that faith any better than those who lived by his side?

I believe there is an answer here to part of the mystery of Jesus Christ death and resurrection.  We are called to be active and open to a spiritual life, open to living a spiritual life guided by the Holy Spirit and his teachings, and to do so without his physical presence and performance of miracles in our presence. 

I cannot define the messianic second coming.  I cannot defend if Jesus Christ should or ought to be accepted by the Jews as the first Messiah.  I cannot debate if we are living in the Messianic period or are still waiting for the Messianic period.  These are theological concepts beyond my pay grade!  However through my Catholic faith I am taught the following:  

In him human history and indeed all creation are “set forth” and transcendentally fulfilled.551”[iv]  

I am not to wait for the second coming.  I am to live a spiritual life now, every day, every moment and to strive, within the limits of my humanity, for “spiritual perfection.”

Dietrich presupposes you have bludgeoned these obstacles and are reading his work and searching and deepening your faith.  He delves right into God being omnipotent, omniscient, truly merciful, and a personal loving God.    Perhaps your head is nodding and you are saying “Ah yes, Dietrich I readily agree that God is all powerful, ever present, and that through our prayer the Eucharist, and our church that we have a personal relationship with God.  Dietrich you are the master of the obvious!”  Dietrich answers your thoughts with a warning about some of us who may fall into never being “roused into a full awareness of man’s metaphysical situation” and being truly cognizant of being in God’s hands (which can evoke appropriate awe, fear and trepidation):

“This pitfall of a comfortable smugness masquerading as religiosity we must studiously avoid; in full awareness of the gravity of our metaphysical situation, in penitent humility we must lift our eyes to God, and in constant effort work for our sanctification.  At the same time, we must bear in mind that it is not on the basis of our nature but through Christ and in Christ alone that a real victory over our sinfulness can be obtained.”   

Dietrich after throwing the above punch, recognizing our human limitations, jumps into God’s infinite love and mercy for each of us and then takes on the intrinsically sad things and intrinsically bad things (evil) and how we are to understand them and come to terms with feelings of being abandoned by God.  

It is dizzying to recognize that in a moment of prayer I am connected to the sins of humanity past and present and to the healing and saving grace of God.    It is overpowering to consider my part or lack thereof in righting the wrongs of today (poverty, injustice, violence, abuse, murder).  My prayers for the many suffering and for cessation of the countless evils being perpetrated are somehow seemingly irrelevant in the vast tide of human misery.    

Dietrich acknowledges the “impenetrable mystery of why God permits such a passing trial of evil at all.”    How many times have we heard or asked ourselves – God, how can you let this happen?  Or as it is said in the bible: 

my god

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, KJV). 

Jesus was not accepted by the Jews as the true Messiah as they expected the Messiah to be a new King to restore the Jews as a nation (among other reasons).  There was an expectation of immediacy.  Jesus Christ was not the Messiah the Jews expected.  Not even the apostles were prepared for his death or resurrection.  Jesus Christ perhaps modeled a response for on accepting suffering: 

“My father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me, Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt.”  (Matt. 26:39)

There is a teaching here for our prayer.  We can pray out loud to the father and call him by name. We can ask for what we want in our hearts (even though we know he knows our intentions and desires already).  And we can reaffirm our desire is to do or accept God’s will, not our own will.       

Dietrich presents a compelling case for accepting suffering while maintaining confidence in God’s design no matter how incomprehensible the situation is or how reprehensible our actions have been in the past.   Our confidence must also be free of false expectations for repairing harms we have done to ourselves, providing us what we ask for when we want it, or even providing us an “enlivening touch of his grace.”  On this point I am spiritually impoverished.  I pray that I am not tested by long periods of spiritual dryness.  I beg for on-going support and revelation.  I announce my weakness and frailty at every opportunity in this regard. 

Like Thomas, I fear the loss of grace.  I fear the dark night of loss of faith.  I cannot imagine the trials and tribulations of the martyrs and saints that have went days, weeks, months, and even years without spiritual consolation. 

There is an absurdity here.  Who am I to demand spiritual consolation at all?  Who am I to take myself so seriously?     

I am a doubting Thomas – a man who believes in God but who is struck by fear and doubt.  In a moment of agony or pain I can easily forget the many graces I have received, demonstrate a lack gratitude for all that I have been given, and have a penchant (or petulance) for anger when disillusioned by a negative outcome that I perceived as not aligned with my manifest destiny.  In essence when life is going my way God is great – but let the boat rock a little and desperation can evaporate my sense of grounding and confidence.  This is not confidence in God.   Confidence in God is constant no matter what our circumstances are – no matter how dire our situation. 

When Jesus was resurrected he left us with a calling card:    

“What Jesus longs for in this post-resurrection encounter with Thomas is that we all might believe in him by handing over our hearts and our hopes that he might bring them to the fullness of joy.”[v]

Poor Thomas today still takes a chiding for what was only a natural skepticism.   If not for his skepticism how could we be taught to manage our own?    Sometimes it is simply better to just move on and take formative action or if I may say – trans-formative radical action.  Be confident in God and active in your journey no matter what your circumstance today.  


[i] http://www.clarifyingchristianity.com/m_prophecies.shtml

[ii] https://www.messianic-prophecy.net/

[iii] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/121949102384989926/

[iv] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c2a7.htm

[v] https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2013-04/doubting-thomas-didnt-doubt


Jewels of Confession (Personal Reflection)

I am in my mind’s eye an amateur, a novice, a man sentenced to be an apprentice for life.  It is the epitome of grandiosity to believe anything else.  There are just too many barriers for me to join the ranks of those considered by men to be held as examples of a devout man, much less than to even consider judgement by God’s expectations to respond to living a life aligned with his desires.

Theological, sociological, psychological, and genetic realities have reinforced my understanding of my imperfections and inability to obtain or much less so maintain sanctification – to be set apart for God’s work, to be truly live a spiritual life in everything I am.  I can expound on original sin, on my socio-economic status, my troublesome youth, and my genetic disposition ad infinitum for “causation” of my falling short, for my mediocre, for my deepest failings.  At the end of the day excuses, rationalization, or deflection is not mine to give.   My apprenticeship does not absolve me from full responsibility for “my thoughts, my words, for what I have done or what I have failed to do this day.”[i]

My greatest accomplishments and must evil acts do not afford me special status in the ledgers of holy acts or Hades hall of fame.   I have not been called by God or by Satan to champion the ideological battle of Good versus Evil.  I am humbled by many.  Everywhere I turn there are people with greater faith than I when I choose to truly look for the warriors of God.   I can see and feel the vibrancy of interior peace in many faithful, the unquestioning tranquility of those who have truly surrendered, and the energy of those who perform many acts of service with seemingly tireless commitment.  It exhausts me and replenishes me simultaneously.

I have been blessed with a vocation of helping people oppressed by circumstances, homelessness, by poverty, by addiction, or by severe and persistent mental health disorders for 29 years (including two years of graduate school).  I have equally been blessed with the vocation of the sacrament of marriage and three beautiful and healthy children.  I have also been blessed with personal struggle and immense suffering from an age that included the devastating impact of addictions, family violence, premature deaths, and utter chaos in a very confusing youth.  The blessing of suffering has humbled me to be sensitive and compassionate with every human being I encounter.

Without a portrait of my background it is difficult to give weight to the jewel of confession.  In essence, what does it matter if I bring my sins to a confessor given my sins and my accomplishments relative to others would not move the Richter scale of human morality in any meaningful measurable direction?  I am no St. Augustine or Stalin.  I am neither rich nor poor.  I am neither exceptionally intellectual, exceedingly dim, or an idiot savant.    In an existential sense, I am “being and nothingness” exemplified as is most of humanity.

There is nothing I can bring a priest that he has not heard.  There is nothing I have bought to a priest that my God does not already know.  And to make matters worse, in my belief, although my actions are important, I cannot achieve any holiness on my own merit without God’s justification or saving grace.[ii]

Furthermore, I dare to say that I have had many a confession that was ill-conceived or perhaps even ill-received!  The confessor and the penitent cannot enter into the confessional without grounded intent and inspired purpose.  How many confessions of my youth was coerced ritual? How many confessors were limited by systemic rituals from practicing true teaching in the confines of the confessional time and space allotted?

Does any of it matter?  Yes.

In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino my life story could be transformed onto the big screen into something unrecognizable to me by mere condensing of timelines, sharpening of dramatic events, and adept usage of poetic license to create an inspiring story of coming into one’s own or a depressing comedy of errors and sadness or both.   In other words, we do not truly know the impact we have on others during the arc of our short tenure of life.  Our stories cannot accurately be portrayed without capturing the offshoots and trajectories of other people’s lives that have been influenced by intersections with our own – for better or for worse.  Scorsese, Tarantino, and our very own self-defined sense of our own lives cannot accurately capture and define the individual lives we have led with any degree of certainty.

I remember an old man living in an “SRO” (single occupancy unit) on 28th street in NYC.  I saw him daily for a certain number of years before he passed.   His name was Eli.  Our conversations were never long or deep.  There was eye contact and a smile with each conversation that transcended words.   I was called one day when he had a coronary heart attack in the hall way.   I went and held his hand and looked into his eyes until the paramedics came.  I will never know what I meant to that man.  I know I knew him and he knew me as if we had a secret club, an unsaid bond.   He passed and I never fully knew his life story or how he came to be alone in New York City.

Meaningfulness:  The first principle of confession is that we have meaning beyond ourselves and our sense of self-importance or lack thereof.  What did I do for Eli or not do for Eli in those years preceding his death?  Were my actions aligned with God’s will?  How would I know it then or now?   When we accept we have a purpose and a meaning beyond our own definition we also must accept a challenge as to how we use our body, our minds, and our soul to fulfill our mission(s) in life.

There are many definitions of sin.  Most of them can be simply be defined as taking us away from our purpose in life – from what we are meant to do.   And each micro-aggressions (examples of seven deadly sins:  gluttony, lust, greed, pride, despair, wrath, glory, or sloth) against our purpose in life wears us down, deflate our strength, and weakens our resolve.  For some of us, the depletion is so complete that we are left with seeking refuge in synthetic intoxications of the worldly life as an end to themselves.

Acceptance:  The second principle is that in our fallibility we can easily be consumed and distracted from our source of purpose in this life by both external challenges and internal decay.  Where our attentions are our hearts will follow.  How many minutes, hours, days, months, or even years of our lives are spent attending to inconsequential or damaging activity that takes us away from our purpose or mission in life?  When is our pleasure or joy turned into selfishness or sin by direct action or omission of action?

Right now 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter, 795 million people are suffering from hunger, 208 million people are using illegal drugs, and 450 million affected by Mental Illness.  Let’s estimate I have directly or indirectly helped 1300 families achieve permanent housing, 14000 people with access to or support of treating mental illness or addictions, and gave occasionally to various charities and causes.    In this context, how much of my life’s activity should be directed at my own pleasure?  How much charity should I give?  What change opportunities have I shied away from during my life?   To put it simply, my work is never done if my true calling was homelessness, world poverty, and serving people with mental health issues.  The second principle is accepting my fallibility and even if I was to practice total self-denial I would not be able to end the misery associated with these conditions.  Balance and humility is called for at all times.

Informed confession (ACTION):  Accepting I cannot live a life of total self-denial, that our collective “sin” currently and historically is beyond my ability to reconcile, and that I still desire to pursue a holy life I have found that self-reflection and informed confession can help alleviate the wounds of our individual and collective failures so that we may continue on to do what we can within our sphere of influence.

An informed confession can lead to “a radical re-orientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away of evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.  It entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life.”[iii]

Confession is an opportunity for education and healing.  It is a time out to meet with another human being who is skilled in spiritual discernment (Priest) and bring your troubles (thoughts, words, deeds) to God for examination in a manner that allows you to seriously “repent, revoke, and replace” unwanted behavior, actions, or thoughts.

It is different from spiritual direction.  It is bringing to God a request to forgive your transgressions, heal your wounded self (as each transgression weakens your purpose), educate and enlighten your actions, and strengthens your resolve and commitment to continue along the road toward sanctification.   It can get down to the nitty and gritty of what is in your circle of influence to change.   A confessor help ensure you are not deceiving yourself or misguided in your application of theological applications – often to your benefit.

Scorsese and Taratino can take an inconsequential action and transform a characters destiny – imagine what God can do with a sincere and committed confession, however minute the conviction to change.

The third principle is with informed consent going to confession and partnering with a priest and God to make true amends and genuinely commit to ACTION to change as needed with the humble understanding that penance will probably be required sooner than later for similar offenses or new revelations of further refinement is required!

Spiritual DirectionThe Jewel of Confession is it informs one’s spiritual direction.  What endeavor in life does not require correction, improvement, refinement, and adaptation?  Ideally we would all have a spiritual director.

Confession and spiritual direction are not in vogue today.   Not every confessor or spiritual director is equal.  The Catholic Church holds this sacrament to be vital:  “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.”[iv]

The theological and Catholic doctrine on Penance is quite in-depth.  As a lay person I have always had mixed feelings about the sacrament of Penance.  Today I do not have the same reservations – my reservations today is on what I can bring to the confessional box or room and what the confessor can help with as we are both in dialogue with the Trinity.   Alas, it is not confidential.   The weight of my faults, the collective weight of our societies failings, and all the messiness of pursuing a holy life can be supported and guided by a thoughtfully and genuinely prepared confession that is meant for sincere dialogue with God.

Done with reverence both the confessor and penitent can benefit and be guided by the mystery of the sacrament and better serve God’s plan on leaving the ancient confessional booth.

We are meaningful in God’s eye and plan despite the existential threats that surround us in the world today.  Accepting that each human being is special including ourselves and accepting our fragility as individuals and as a collective we are dependent on both our own actions and God’s saving grace.  Knowing this we seek informed correction through confession and pursue sanctification through ongoing spiritual direction despite the immense suffering in the world, in fact, because of the immense suffering in the world!



[i] http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=1780[ii] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c3a2.htm[iii]

7 Secrets of Confession by Vinny Flynn

[iv] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a4.htm




the maid a novel of Joan of Arc by Kimberly Cutter


What would it be like to hear the voice of God or his emissaries?   Not an intuitive prayerful dialogue and raised spiritual consciousness but an actual thundering voice or even an apparition.   What lengths would you go to experience this grace if you could?  What lengths would you go to deny ever having had such an experience?  The Hollywood portrait above is inspiring.  But how about this version:

Joan at the end

Hearing the voice of God or seeing an apparition is perhaps the highest form of Mysticism.  Catholics practice mysticism every day.  An interesting Blog (the Main Event) describes our mystical beliefs in a review of the “war” between reason and mysticism.[i]  The blog interest me as its intent is to provide a forum for the proponents of each camp and sets up a dialectic that is very real in today’s world.   It presumes you cannot be both a person of reason and mysticism.   There is a cultural war to deny the existence of a “God” and all forms of mysticism on one side and to assert the existence of a God on the other.  The more extreme the mystical experience – the more extreme the attacks become by non-believers – and in some cases rightly so.   Authentic spiritual revelation is claimed by many in the course of history under many different names for many different purposes.

The story of Joan of Arc (Jehanne of Arc) exemplifies the difficulties in receiving a “Personal charism to witness god”[ii] and follow the message you have received.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church accepts people are chosen for such revelations.  They are chosen to share God’s word and vision – often at great expense to their own worldly status.

Pope Benedict the XVI excellently depicted her persecution by the Church itself as he stated on January 26, 2011 that the trial of Joan of Arc as a “is a distressing page in the history of holiness and also an illuminating page on the mystery of the Church which, according to the words of the Second Vatican Council, is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).” [iii]

This is interesting given a current controversy in the Church.  Certain Bishops have taken umbrage with the Pope on statements like “The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations.” Pope Francis went on to say priests must inform Catholic consciences “but not replace them.”[iv]  What does he mean?

My opinion is that he recognizes the church has a rich tradition and is the defacto representative of authentic scripture and revelation but it is still up to the individual to follow their consciences and free will accepting the consequences according to their own spiritual discernment and God’s grace.  The Church is a guide but you remain an apostle and responsible for your own actions whether you live within or external to church doctrine.  In essence, if you seek God and  truly use spiritual discernment including using the gifts of sacred tradition and revelation, prayer and consult, you are yourself a mystic – perhaps not on the level of Joan of Arc – but a mystic nonetheless called to pray, act, and yes, sometimes suffer.

Joan of Arc canonization process started in 1855 and culminated in Sainthood in 1920.  A peasant who opposed the Church teachings and doctrines, defied papal authority, is made a saint 489 years after her death.   Saint Joan did not receive consolation from this world but from God.   Declaring her a Saint is our consolation for our miserable attempts with wielding “Scriptural Authority” and power over the centuries and a need for continual purification with our application of Holy Scripture.  The Church has that challenge.  However, what is your challenge to be a mystic?  Do you have a charism?

As for the book, the author has successfully provided a fictional account that includes a high degree of historical accuracy combined with spiritual imagination to see the events from the eyes of a fifteenth century peasant girl called by God to perform unthinkable heroic acts.

St. Joan has a rich prayer life.  If you are interested in seeking God I find Ignatian Spiritual exercises helpful at times when prayer is difficult.[v]   One contemplative method is to take any Gospel scene of interest and place yourself in the crowd or in the shoes of one of the characters and really explore your visceral response to the scene, to the words, and how you would respond if you were actually there than or how you would respond now is similar circumstance.  Now more than ever women are called to stand strong.    Men should help when they can as they would help anyone of either gender fight for what is right and just.


[i] http://reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2014/02/what-is-catholic-catechisms-view-of.html

[ii] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c2a3.htm

[iii] https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110126.html

[iv] https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/11/11/pope-francis-reaffirms-primacy-conscience-amid-criticism-amoris-laetitia

[v] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises


Praying the Psalms, Merton, Thomas[i]

A tight rope walk with Thomas Merton on one side of the chasm and King David (and several lesser known authors) on the other still leaves me struggling with the wisdom of the Psalms.  Our busy lives present many valleys to ponder.  Thomas Merton short book explores how the Psalms can be used in prayer to traverse chasms in life.


The barriers for me I believe is the context of King David’s time and the Old Testament language and experience being applied to modern times in modern vernacular.  More than that the Psalms are not meant to be read – they are meant to be sung in praise and celebration.  Experience any psalm played by talented musicians at the Psalm Project.[iii] Surely this how King David envisioned the Psalms to be used to praise God.

You can really feel the power of the psalms when attending charismatic churches that embrace full musical choirs.  It can be a powerful experiential spiritual journey.  Yet, even alongside hundreds or perhaps thousands of believers (mega churches), you can be left with only fleeting grace, fading before you exit the parking lot.  What is missing is substance.  Your substance:

The problem is therefore not to learn from the Psalms a totally new experience, but rather to recognize, in the Psalms, our own experience lived out and perfected, orientated to God and made fruitful, by the action of loving faith. Ultimately we do this by uniting our joys with the joys of Christ in the Psalms, our sorrows with the sorrows of Christ, and thus allowing ourselves to be carried to heaven on the tide of His victory.[iv]



Merton knows just how to state things so plainly, so intuitively that you may miss the depth of what such a simple statement implies.  The substance of the Psalms applied to our own life with sincere contemplation (meditation), shared devotion (songs of praise at church or temple), and action (a continual awareness of God’s presence and ability to have all of our actions and decisions be guided by humble discernment).

This is not as hard as it sounds.  Merton describes it as merely only listening and acting to what we already know:

  “I delight to do Thy will, O my God, and Thy law is in the depths of my heart.” [vi]

But there are real human barriers for us all to content with every day:

Obedience:  It is interesting how people struggle with the idea of obeying an omniscient God.  I ask where people think their sense of right and wrong is derived from as individuals and as a collective.  When we are at our best are we not intuitively listening to “something” instilled on our nature, something profound, something universal that we have all come to recognize that all humans share across nations?  Call it the human spirit.  We know when the human spirit is distorted.  We recognize it immediately in our guts whether wrong actions are committed by the individual (Charles Manson), by extreme religiosity (ISIS today, The Crusades, and other religious wars), or by nation states (Hitler’s Germany).

Politics:  Nation states are particularly frightening today recognizing that charismatic leaders can bring their nations down the road of evil through fear, intimidation, and false patriotism with massive arsenals at their disposal. We live in and have a responsibility to be engaged in society.  You can be deceived into believing you are fighting for goodness.  In America we believe we stand for righteousness.  One TV interviewer had a Trump supporter saying whatever Donald Trump says is what God wills. This is a distortion of epic proportions.  Some other nations believe we have it deadly wrong.  Our current President has shaken the world’s confidence that we can stand for moral principles in times of turbulence.  Internally our nation is divided and torn by both politics and race.  We have put our faith in men and parties rather than our minds on truth and God.

Discernment:  It is not political.  It is not a party.  It is not a nation.  It is an individual responsibility.  It is to be actively lived and to be actively engaged with the world.

Selfishness:  How often our own self-interest is put ahead of the world’s poor.  How often are we challenged by our own desires or simply to avoid boredom?

Estrangement:  As a nation gone astray we can especially feel estranged from discernment, feeling isolated and definitively alone with our struggles where we may exclaim something akin to Psalm 12:

 “How long, O Lord, wilt thou utterly forget me? How long wilt thou hide Thy face from me?”[vii]

It can be grueling when as believers we have a “feeling” of spiritual dryness, a struggling moment or many moments piled high days on days on days on end?  Some refer to this as the dark night.  I cannot say I have experienced the “Dark Night.”  I have had many dark nights and times of misery — though I fear experiencing the depth that some saints have experienced before me or even the dark nights that others are experiencing tonight as I sit hear contemplating God and writing about psalms.

All of the above challenges and many more can take us away from truly knowing God or having a proximity to conscious awareness of God’s way from which to draw on for support and guidance.  It is a terrible lonesomeness.

“As the hind pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God: when shall I come and see the face of God? My tears have become my bread day and night, whilst they say to me daily: Where is thy God?”[viii]

Many great mystics and believers feel this same way often.  Many priest.  It is not something we can demand – it is a gift to have even a passing fragrance of God’s presence.

It is easier to fight man’s wars with man’s tools.   We can easily join the noise and fight fire with fire, anger with anger, violence with more violence — especially when we cannot “feel” God’s presence.  How weak are we that we need or year for that presence on demand when we are suffering? If we always felt God’s presence discernment and living God’s will certainly be a great deal easier.

Why turn to God’s way when revenge or counter attack seems called for and perhaps even on its surface, morally the right thing to do?

The reason why we submit entirely to His will is because He is good. We do not obey merely for the sake of obedience, but as a testimony to the supreme goodness of God Himself.[ix]

Again, Merton nails it with simplicity above.  Not with the nails of the cross, but with the reality of the majesty and unknowable goodness of God himself.  Meditating on why we should surrender to God’s way and continue to seek God’s way can be guided by spending serious time with different Psalms.  Doing so can prepare you for any circumstance every day, including the final circumstance, when our physical body surrenders to mortality.

 The Lord is my shepherd: I want for nothing; he makes me to lie in green pastures. He leads me to waters where I may rest; he restores my soul. —Psalm 22: 1-2.[x]

 We cannot by mere human ingenuity or talent exhaust all that is contained in the Psalms. Indeed, if we seek only to “get something out of them” we will perhaps get less than we expect, and generous efforts may be frustrated because they are turned in the wrong direction: toward ourselves rather than toward God.

God knows you – Psalm 139[xi]



End notes:

[i]               Citation (APA): Merton, T. (2015). Praying the Psalms [Kindle iOS version].

[ii] https://www.google.com/search?q=chasm+definition&rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiwiq-Fh_vVAhVG64MKHQigAtsQ_AUICigB&biw=1366&bih=589#imgrc=-gYZF55lwKu83M


[iii]              http://thepsalmsprojectband.com/

[iv]              Page 25 · Location 161

[v]               http://overviewbible.com/psalms/

[vi]              Page 31 · Location 208

[vii]             Page 32 · Location 224

[viii]             Page 36 · Location 253

[ix]              Page 39 · Location 277

[x]               Page 41 · Location 287

[xi] Psalm 139New Living Translation (NLT)

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!

I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
12     but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.

17 How precious are your thoughts about me,[b] O God.
They cannot be numbered!
18 I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
you are still with me!

19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
for your enemies are my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.


  1. 139:8 Hebrew to Sheol.
  2. 139:17 Or How precious to me are your thoughts.

New Living Translation (NLT)

Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


[xii] https://www.google.com/search?q=book+of+psalms&rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG4Ljqo_vVAhWIxIMKHQkbBowQ_AUIDSgE&biw=1366&bih=638


The Art of Loving God by Francis de Sales

“Discover the secrets to growing holier through the simple things in life work, play, and rest. Learn to avoid the distractions that trouble and weary your soul and you’ll soon be able to focus your energy simply on loving God!”[i]

I encountered this little book in two visits to an adoration chapel spanning the last two weeks.   The pursuit of God’s presence is really human folly.  He is present, here, now and always.  We have to actively work to run from this presence – and have been doing so, both individually and collectively since Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.[ii]


From that moment on we have spent our time seeking and desiring things of this world that could recreate the joy and peace of being one with the father.  Nothing made by man has come close.  Not to say that we have not destroyed ourselves and others trying to achieve something akin to being Godlike or obtaining the feeling of worthiness of being in God’s presence.   Great wealth, waging war, addictions, personal achievement, devastating failures, adrenaline seeking, and many other human desires and experiences serve as cheap, transitory substitutes for the real presence of God.

That is not to say all of these desires are evil or bad in and of themselves.  Some are admirable, some are necessary for self-defense, and others are testaments to the human imagination and great gifts we possess as God’s creation in areas like vocational life, arts, sports, music and literature.  And others are perhaps just evil and bad (think seven deadly sins – last post).

There is a great mediator for this if we can learn to be still.  In stillness we can listen to and be guided by the Holy Spirit. With willingness, commitment, humility and healthy desire we can learn to listen and are open to the presence of God while we are performing every action worthy of being God’s work.  God’s work is any work that is done sincerely and genuinely in his name, his true name, as driven by prayer and proper discernment, as by Providence.   This work we can do if we are careful with how we treat and love each other as we are in the presence of God — for somewhere, sometimes deeply hidden, the presence of God is written deep inside everyone you encounter.   To encounter another Human being is to encounter God.

When you achieve living in this manner, no matter the turbulence and suffering around you, the interior of your being remains calm and steadfast in the storm.  Tremendous success, miserable failure, or just plain old mediocre cannot bring you down.  You know intuitively all of these things are temporal and none of them are yours – you live for one thing and one thing only and everything else is but a means to that end.

Olympic champions like the 1936 – 9 man row American Row boat champion’s new what surrender was in action when they gave all they had and then some to each other –in blind trust and being – to transcend the sport and become legendary to this day.  Prayer and the spiritual life can be like that sometimes.  It can take great effort and provide seemingly little return for many a day.   Life can impose serious obstacles to one’s faith.  The boys in the boat faced many as well to just get to Germany – and then many more before they crossed the finish line to win the gold.   By the time they won – most of them knew they had won something far more dearly than a man-made medal and the spectacle of the 1936 Olympics.



I cannot tell you what that one thing is you can live for after reading St. Francis de Sales work or what the boy’s in the boat found in pursuit of excellence.  You have to read for yourself.  The Boys in the Boat Book is by Daniel James Brown.  One read in prayer and the other in leisure – I can say these books can inspire and change you.     The world will look and feel a little different.

Among other things, St. Francis de Sales spends sometime in this book on modesty of bearing, interior modesty, and modesty of speech.   One does not become Olympic rowing champions without excessive practice.  One does not approach a holy life without effort either.   There is a chapter on patience as you seek perfection and also a subtle tricky piece on suffering and surrendering.  The latter can potentially upend your understanding to see both suffering and surrendering being gifts we cannot afford to give away.

This little book makes things that seem very complicated very simple.   All the greats make it look that way!  It is simple if you are willing – greatness will come – though you may become to modest to show it to anyone else!


[i] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332748.The_Art_of_Loving_God

[ii] https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&tbm=isch&q=adam+and+eve&chips=q:adam+and+eve,g_3:forbidden+fruit&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjuor6LkPTVAhVESiYKHR6ZACcQ4lYILSgA&biw=1366&bih=638&dpr=1#imgrc=NDGuIGCeKADTjM:


Becoming Who You Are:  Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by Martin SJ, James

Father James Martin is a priest-author that I find writes in manner that leads one to understand the mystery of Christ and provides tools that help the believer (or unbeliever) deepen their faith.[i]  In a mere 90 Kindle pages (90 minutes) he makes the case to invite you to become a saint!  This book is a great way to skim the surface of pursuing a deeper faith.


My reflections – applying this book to my journey with God

“Find your own Calcutta”[ii]

Inevitably we will suffer in this life from spiritual, physical, and mental anguish.  Our own suffering and perhaps more importantly the suffering of others, left unattended can take us away from God.  When Mother Teresa says above, find your own Calcutta, she is speaking about helping others who are suffering.  Helping others is a powerful spiritual experience but likely will fall short of providing a sustained peace unless we have been attuned to our own suffering and our response to these trials as well.

My own suffering took the form of alcoholic parents, addictions in the family, untimely deaths, shattered confidence and self-esteem as a youngster and young adult, varying degrees of speech fluency, micro personal defeats, and my struggle with alcohol, periods of crisis of faith, and numerous bouts with the seven deadly sins.  The latter I shall define as self-imposed suffering as these biblical sins drive pain and misery in human kind.



My faults are not glamorous or dramatic enough to warrant an Augustinian biography.  My suffering is not uncommon to many.  Relative to others my ability to claim martyr status is pathetic.  They are enough though to deflate pursuit of seeking a holy life – never mind being a saint.     The dialectic of suffering imposed by external uncontrollable events and suffering self-imposed is a surgical cleaver that separates many from faith.  Not to mention failing at to carry such little weight (suffering) relative to what the Saints have carried is very crushing indeed.  How can Father Martin invite the likes of me to be a Saint?

“But no one leads that proverbial “charmed life.”  Everyone’s life is a full measure of graces and blessings, as well as struggles and challenges.  And if we consistently compare our own complicated reality with the supposed perfection of another’s life, is it any wonder that we wish we were other than who we are?”[iv]

It is easy to forget this when in the throes of life.  Father Martin mentions that Merton and Nouwen had the following in common:

“… a lifelong process of self-examination and self-criticism and self-revelations had a point; it was not simply a narcissistic quest for self-knowledge.  Rather, it was a discipline undertaken to allow them to become more loving and more centered on God.”[v]

It is here where I can take refuge, in contemplation.  In contemplation I can take stock in my calling and have gratitude for my many blessings – including my struggles.  In many ways my struggles and suffering have defined who I am today:

“More often than not, those very weaknesses are the most important paths to holiness, because they remind you of your reliance on God.”[vi]

They have provided me with humility and strength that have fueled my passion in the field of social work.  I have had, to date, an excellent career with 14 wonderful years serving homeless families and 13 years serving consumers living with severe and persistent mental illness.  The work I have done with them within my limited role and skill set is not mine.  It has been built on the struggles I have had, suffering experienced, education provided, and skillful people that have surrounded me that both enabled me to lead and provided leadership when needed.  It is daunting work and continues to evolve and call me to serve a different role – none of which has been natural to me. Yet time and time again I am provided with alliances and intelligent people that support the calling I have – to advocate and provide services to vulnerable populations in the most respectful and passionate way possible.  My vocation is one calling.  Interestingly my faith and beliefs are not on stage in my work.  I work alongside people of different faiths and no faith at all.  In a way, I am a “hidden contemplative,” in plain sight doing God’s work (provided I am doing it well).  I also have a calling as a husband, a father, and a community member.  Each of those comes with responsibilities and challenges as well.


Father Martin quotes St. Therese of Lisieux to make the point that living a saintly life within your calling in life is indeed possible.  “The Little Way” is in doing what you do, whatever that maybe, doing it well.  Whatever you do it is indeed difficult to consistently and persistently do it well over a long period of time – especially if it is deemed a little thing!   How many of us secretly want to be great writers, mystics, or the best in our fields – to do great things worthy of public admiration?  We are all not called to live the life of a hermit, to be great authors, to be priest, martyrs, or the best in our fields.  Thank goodness for that as we cannot be what we are not – we can only be ourselves.  Our strength is in our diversity and our interdependence.

Seeking a contemplative daily prayer can be very simple.[vii]    I have recommended before and will recommend again here the “Daily Examen” below from St. Ignatius.   All of the above is based on a firm willingness to seek God, and for this writer, to seek Jesus Christ.

Take a look today at all your actions and thoughts.  If you had the opportunity to change any of them by applying “What would Jesus think, say or do” would you have acted differently?  And if your answer is yes, do you have the courage to do so and the perseverance to continue to refine your being to be aligned with spiritual calling?    And if you found nothing to be changed – are you truly honest with yourself – or are you not taking on a greater calling that will present you with even greater challenges?

Are we not all fallible perfectionists at heart?


Don’t Despair – find a Daily Prayer routine:  

  1. Become aware of God’s presence. 
  2. Review the day with gratitude. 
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.


[i] https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/

[ii] Mother Teresa pg 85

[iii] https://www.google.com/search?q=seven+deadly+sins&rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicu5WE5-bVAhVJ34MKHeNSCo0Q_AUICigB&biw=1366&bih=589#imgrc=SMCez42iRpEcPM:

[iv] Pg. 30

[v] Pg. 57

[vi] Pg. 86

[vii] http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen