The Deepest Truths

With the Ordination and First Mass behind us, I’ve been struggling a bit to find my footing in this strange new reality. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the past six years learning more about priestly formation and deepening my own understanding of Catholic theology, the actual reality of Evan’s ordination caught me flat-footed.

Photo of Evan at his first Mass at St. Paul the Apostle in New York.
(Photo courtesy of the Paulist Fathers.)

On Sunday, May 26, 2019 Evan returned to St. Rose of Lima (our home parish) to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving. Two of his Paulist brothers who had served as pastors of St. Rose in the 80s joined him and concelebrated. Our pastor, Fr. Clarence Sandoval, concelebrated as well. The church was packed with our parish family as well as friends and family of other faiths who came to celebrate with us.

It was a joyful worship, but one which was – at the same time – very, very strange. Seeing Evan at the altar leading the community in prayer, making the familiar gestures of blessing and consecration, and ultimately elevating the host and the cup was beautiful. He seemed so confident; his voice calm and clear as he recited the prayers and he moved through the liturgy as if he’d been doing it for years. It was a moment of fulfilment; the manifestation of something I’ve anticipated for a long time.

It was also deeply unsettling.

On Monday, Memorial Day, Evan celebrated a house Mass for us. So there, in our living room with our cats roaming about, we three enjoyed a quiet Mass before breakfast. In his alb and stole, Evan stood behind a desk which had been pressed into service as an altar. Just before he began, he said, “This is one of the most surreal things I’ve ever done.”

“Surreal.” That was the perfect word to describe what I’ve been feeling since the Ordination in New York.

I knew it was coming, but I don’t think I’d fully anticipated the impact. I hadn’t realized that Evan’s ordination would force me to confront the deepest truths of our faith.

In the language of the church, Ordination changed Evan at an ontological level. That is, through the sacrament, he has been changed and his relationship with the community has changed. The Evan who entered the church as a deacon, left as a priest. Those aren’t simply different titles; they are different states of being. At the same time, he is still very much the child Kit and I raised.

He has been given the authority to “confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi.” Which is a poetic way of expressing that he acts in the person of Christ to consecrate the bread and wine at Mass.

At the same time, he delights in good meals, entertaining movies, and beloved video games. He groans at my bad puns and shares warm hugs with his mother.

His is simultaneously a minister of heaven and a child of this world.

This is the very heart of our incarnational faith. God isn’t some remote figure who sits in a distant heaven judging us. God is the love which forms and sustains the universe. To drive the point home, God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ; simultaneously fully divine and fully human.

This strange co-existence isn’t just something which happens only at ordination. It is the nature of every sacrament to bring us face-to-face with the truth of the incarnation. It’s just that sometimes we get so used to the sacraments that we forget exactly what’s taking place. We overlook the extraordinary truth.

In the language of the church we call this a mystery. It’s a reality we can wrestle with, but never fully comprehend.

Evan’s ordination drew me up short and sharpened my awareness of the sacraments and the mystery they express. It reminded me that I participate in a community which treats the physical and the spiritual as parts of a whole and that the rituals and practices of the church are designed to put us in touch with the Divine. It was an invitation to enter into the mystery of faith in a new and deeper way.

For this, and for the opportunity to walk with Evan on his vocations journey, I can only say, “Thank you, Lord.” (Even if it’s going to still be weird to see him saying Mass!)


Spiritual Direction

Did you know that all seminarians are required to have a spiritual director?

Do you know what a spiritual director does?

I certainly didn’t when Evan started his journey of formation.  A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the role a spiritual director plays in formation and how everyone might benefit from having one.

Back then I summed it up by saying:

A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist.  The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God.

You might still wonder what the personal experience is like.  (Which brings me to the point of today’s brief post.)

On a recent Busted Halo broadcast, Fr. Dave Dwyer talked with producer (Brett) about the experience of interacting with a spiritual director.  If you’re interested, it’s well worth your time to give it a listen.

— Dad (of Evan)

What is a Spiritual Director?

Mid-remodel. Yes, it is a mess.  Thank you for noticing.It strikes me as funny that we Americans often take a “do it yourself” attitude to spiritual development.  By contrast, we are willing to pay vast sums of money to small armies of consultants, advisors, and coaches.

When Cathy and I remodeled our home, we hired professionals to hang the cabinets, update the wiring and connect the plumbing.  (Safety pro tip: Never – EVER – enter a building where I have personally done any of the wiring or plumbing.)

When we remodeled, we were concentrating on the interior of our house — taking what we already had and improving it.  We wanted a more functional space and a more comfortable life.  I guess you could say that we wanted our house to be more of what we knew it could be.

It would be a mistake to reduce the work of a spiritual director to a mere remodeling of the soul, but there are some useful similarities.  As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “You wouldn’t think of building a good house to live in here on earth without an architect. How can you ever hope, without a director, to build the castle of your sanctification in order to live forever in heaven?”

William A. Barry, SJ, clarifies a bit in his book The Practice of Spiritual Direction when he notes that spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”

The work of a spiritual director is done in a series of private meetings between the individual seeking direction (sometimes called a “directee”) and the the director.  An article on the OSV website explains the process this way:

Since the goal of spiritual direction is to deepen your connection and commitment to Our Lord, sessions are always deeply personal. In general, you will meet with your spiritual director on a regular basis, be it weekly or monthly, but not less frequently than every two months. In your session, you will talk about your desires and struggles in the spiritual life — not confessing sin per se, unless your spiritual director also happens to be your confessor — and trends and tendencies in such areas as prayer and self-control. Your director will make suggestions for reading or devotional exercises, and help you find answers to your spiritual questions. Often you will end the session by praying together.

A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist.  The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God.  The Ignatian Spirituality website lays out four key points about spiritual direction:

Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.

Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.

Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?””

The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.

All seminarians — in fact all religious — are required to have a spiritual director.  All of the Paulist Novices and Students have one.  As do all sisters, brothers, priests and deacons.  Interestingly, while all religious are obliged to have a spiritual director, spiritual directors themselves are not obliged to be religious.  In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II’s first spiritual director was a tailor by the name of Jan Tyranowski.

More importantly, anyone can have a spiritual director.  Anyone who is seeking to improve their relationship with God, to better carry out the mission of their Baptismal call, or to deepen their spirituality can engage the assistance of a spiritual director.  Fr. John C. McCloskey reminds us:

During his pontificate, Benedict XVI several times urged faithful Catholics who desired to pursue holiness and grow closer to God to make use of a spiritual director: “We always need a guide, dialogue, to go to the Lord. . . .We cannot do it with our reflections alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.” By this means, he explained, we can avoid being limited by our own subjectivist interpretations of God and what he might be calling us to do, as well as benefiting from our guide’s “own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus.”

After.  Much nicer, isn't it?If you are interested in finding a spiritual director, a good place to start is with your parish priest.  Not that he would necessarily become your director, but he probably knows you well enough to steer you in the right director and he should be familiar with the resources available in your parish and your diocese.  Once you’ve identified a director, you’ll begin to meet with them to pray and discuss.  You may have a defined “trial” period to see if the relationship is a good fit for both of you.  You will certainly be introduced to new readings and (possibly) new devotions.

Along the way — if you are open — God will be speaking to you and helping you grow to become more of what He knew you could be.

— Dad

God In All Things

Taken from Wikipedia, provided by Piotr Bodzek, MDIt’s been a rough couple of weeks at our house.  Cathy already hit the highlights of when things started to go south.  There’s more to the story, though, and I think it’s worth sharing.

The trip to the ER followed a week of belly pain and the onset of a fever.  In short order they recorded my vitals, poked and prodded my abdomen, gave me an IV and ran me through a CT scanner.  Everyone was caring and efficient and shortly after the scan one of my nurses said, “It’s appendicitis.  If there’s a surgeon available we’ll operate tonight.  If not, we’ll admit you and operate in the morning.”

Oh.  Okay.

Mystery solved, I guessed.  The health team was clearly feeling some urgency, but nobody seemed to be panicking.  I took that as a good sign.

Sometime around midnight a doctor came into the room, introduced himself, and started talking about the procedure.

“I take it you’re the surgeon?” I asked.

“Yes,” he laughed.  “I forgot to mention that.”

He ran through what was going to happen and said he’d see me in the OR.  On the way out, he said, “They found a tumor in your bladder.  You’ll need to see a urologist about that in the next week or two.”

Oh?  Not okay.

My father died in 2011 of a type of bladder cancer.  Hearing that I had a tumor was somewhat alarming.  (Although I have to admit that my feeling of alarm may have been attenuated a bit by the morphine they’d pushed through my IV.)

When they let me go mid-morning on Monday, the discharge instructions included a reminder to contact a urologist as quickly as possible.  The night before the surgeon had provided some referrals on the back of his business card.  Both of us were exhausted having only gotten a couple of hours’ sleep the night before, so we didn’t even think about the card again until Tuesday.

We researched the providers, selected one, and made an on-line request for an appointment.  By Wednesday we’d had no reply, so I called the Urology Clinic and they said they could get me in late on Thursday — the day before the holiday weekend.

The urologist we chose is an enthusiastic young doctor who had already reviewed the CT images by the time we got to the clinic.  He outlined the various scenarios from worst (metastasized cancer that would require extensive, aggressive treatment) to the best (low-grade non-invasive cancer).  Then he had us go to his procedure room so he could check the tumor visually.

“That’s a classic smoking-gun cancer,” he said when it showed up on the screen.  He snapped a couple of reference images and told me he had an opening on his surgical schedule for Monday morning.

Another Monday, another surgery.  (Cathy has asked me to try to break myself of the habit of having surgery on Monday mornings.)

I was in the OR less than an hour and when I emerged from the anesthetic, the urologist told me that it was a low-grade cancer with a very small footprint and that it hadn’t invaded the bladder wall.  Under the circumstances, it was the best of all possible outcomes.

The pathology report (my healthcare provider has a web portal through which I can access my own medical records) officially declares the tumor as “low-grade non-invasive” and notes that it is “negative for involvement of muscularis propria”.  Confirmation that it was the best of all possible outcomes.

In less than two weeks I went from thinking I was healthy to having had two surgeries and an official cancer diagnosis.

Increasingly, I find myself drawn to Ignatian Spirituality with its finely balanced integration of the practical and the spiritual.  In particular, I appreciate how the Ignatian approach encourages us to find God in all things.

I find myself looking back over the past two weeks to see threads of Grace woven through the experience.  Certainly the brightest of the threads is the tumor diagnosis itself.  Had it not been for the appendicitis (unusual in a man my age) there would have been no reason for me to have an abdominal CT.  I was completely asymptomatic for the cancer, so it might have been years before we found it.

Another moment of Grace was receiving the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick between the Masses last Sunday.  Our pastor is on vacation and the recently-ordained Fr. Christopher Gray is filling in.  Fr. Gray performed the long form of the sacrament and it was a beautiful and moving interlude in the midst of all of everything else that was going on.  The reading for the rite was Matthew 11:25 – 30, the same as the Gospel for the Masses last weekend.

Fr. Gray noted that we should take that a sign of providence and I smiled.  I think, perhaps, he thought I wasn’t taking him seriously, but it was quite the opposite.  I did see that as a sign; yet another in the long line of signs of Grace.  (Fr. Gray also noted that I had now received six of the seven sacraments and only lacked Holy Orders to make it a full house.)

The Grace came me through the event itself and its marvelous timing; through my wife’s care and resiliency in getting me to and from the hospital and appointments and standing beside me the whole time; through our friend Amy who urged us to go to the ER; through the care provided by the many different professionals I’ve interacted with in the last couple of weeks; and through the support and prayers of my friends, family and community.

God truly is in all things and these past two weeks I’ve had the privilege of getting a glimpse of some of the unexpected places that reveal God’s presence.