Grace Bats Last

One of my Facebook friends linked this morning to a post Anne Lamott wrote the other day on the 29th anniversary of her recovery from alcohol abuse.  The honesty of the piece was compelling, and it is worth reading in its entirety, but the line that stuck with me was: “Grace bats last.  That spiritual WD-40, those water wings, that second wind – it bats last.”

Grace bats last.

When you feel like you are at the bottom of the barrel with no way out, remember: Grace bats last.

When the pain is so bad you’ll take anyway out of it, remember: Grace bats last.

When you can’t tell up from down or left from right, remember: Grace bats last.

When you despair that the world is incomprehensible, warped or on the road to perdition, remember: Grace bats last.

There are many ways to express God’s fidelity, Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  But for a short phrase to remember in times of difficulty, this is a darn good one.

Grace bats last.


The Vine and the Branches

In today’s first Mass reading from Act, Paul and Barnabus arrive back in Jerusalem and report to the Apostles and the presbyters “what God had done with them.”  Not what they had done, but what God had done through them.

That first reading from Acts (and I’ve written before about how much I love hearing from Acts every year during the Easter season) is coupled with the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that he is the true vine and we are the branches.  And, he warns them, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me…Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

For me, this is at one and the same time humbling and empowering, and it is both of those for the same reason.  What we do we do, not through our own power, but through the Spirit of God that flows through us.  Without Jesus, we can do nothing; the branch without the vine will never bear fruit.  So it is humbling.  But at the same time, it is empowering because it reminds us that with Jesus, there is no limit.  “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”

Both readings also remind us that what we do we do for the glory of God, not for ourselves.  In the words of Psalm 115, “Not to us, O Lord, but to your name give the glory.”  We need to be mindful of that we are about God’s work and God’s glory, not our own.  Once in a while, even the most well-intentioned among us loses sight of that.  We are capable of of forgetting it is not about us, but about God.  

Jesus also tells his disciples in this reading that the vine grower – the Father – prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they bear more fruit.  We might profitably reflect on the question: Where do I need some pruning?  What in me needs to be pruned so that I can bear more fruit for God?

Flannery O’Connor’s Stories

Flannery O’Connor’s once wrote in a letter: “I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to ever feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.”  She wrote a great deal: two novels and thirty-two short stories before she died at the age of 39.

Some years ago I had read a couple of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories but was not very moved by them.  The fact that Thomas Merton was one of her admirers made me decide to go back and read some O’Connor this Lent.  (After her death, Merton said he would compare her with “someone like Sophocles…I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.”)  Thus I just finished reading The Complete Stories, which contains thirty-one stories.

Much in O’Connor’s stories is dark.  Much is violent.  Much is quite grotesque.  But she has a way of making you (or at least me) keep reading even when you are not sure you want to.  And of inviting you to keep pondering after you’ve finished reading one.

At a reading at Hollins College in Virginia less than a year before her death, O’Connor talked about “what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story.” She explained:

I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.

She gave an example of such a gesture with reference to the story she read that evening,  “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  It is a story in which a family traveling by car has an accident stranding them in a gulch off the side of the road.  One by one, the family is killed by an escaped criminal known as “the Misfit” and his gang.

The last to be killed is the Grandmother who, just before she is shot looks at the Misfit closely and says “Why you’re one of my babies.  You’re one of my own children!”  She then reaches out to touch him on the shoulder.

O’Connor explained

The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.

I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.

I’m still not sure whether I would say I like O’Connor’s stories, but I did read every one of them, and sat with quite a few.  That says something.

I Will, With the Help of God

Yesterday afternoon I attended the wedding of a former student, a wonderful young woman who was my first research assistant at the the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It was a perfect day for an outdoor wedding ceremony and reception at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

I found the ceremony, conducted by the aunt of the bride, to be moving in very many ways. But what struck me most was the response she called for when she asked the bride and groom, prior to their pronouncement of their formal wedding vows, if they were prepared to give themselves to each other, to love and support each other no matter what. If they were prepared to do so, she asked them to respond: “I will, with the help of God.”

I will, with the help of God.

Marriage is not easy. No human relationship is. And the truth of the matter is that left to our own devices – to our own limited strength – we don’t always manage our marriages or our other relationships as well as we might. We need God’s grace. And I found the explicit acknowledgement of that need both refreshing and quite powerful.

I will, with the help of God.

Presence of Grace vs. Absence of Sin

As I was going through some paper I accumulated during my New York visit, I came across a parish bulletin from St. Francis Xavier, where I attended Mass and spoke about my book on the Sunday I was in New York.

The bulletin entry concerned the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that had taken place the day before. It observed that although the literal sense of the feast is the idea that Mary was born free from original sin, the broader understanding of the Feast “expresses the experience of the faithful that what we know about Mary indicates she lived a life in which she knew she was freely and completely loved by God.” The Feast is thus an illustration that “within human nature God takes the initiative to surround the life of all human beings with love and fidelity.” Thus, it suggested, although we think about the doctrine of Immaculate Conception in terms of absence of sin, it is more importantly about the presence of grace.

The explanation resonated with me for two reasons. First, I have always thought that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. The reality is that our starting point is grace – we enter the world through the love of God and are gifted with God’s grace in each moment of our existence. Grace comes first, then sin. I think that is something we sometimes forget.

Second, while Mary is an important figure for Catholics and many other Christians for a number of reasons, the explanation makes the Feast about more than Mary. What makes Mary special is that she so fully lived in the grace of God. But that grace is something that is available to all of us and we are each invited to live as Mary did – as people (to paraphrase the bulletin) who freely live and move and make life decisions within that graced horizon. In this, as in so many things, Mary is a model for our lives.

Testifying on Behalf of Jesus

Yesterday, we held the Trial of Christ – Sentencing Phase at the UST Law School, as part of our Orientation Week program for incoming law students.

My friend and colleague Mark Osler (the prosecutor) and Chicago public defender Jeanne Bishop (defense attorney) have been putting on the Trial of Christ in various locations around the country over the past couple of years. (You can read a little about the project here.) Yesterday was the second time we’ve done the trial at the law school. (You can watch the video from that trial, which occurred this past Lent, here.)

Each of the prosecution and the defense called two witnesses. Jeanne, thinking about their three upcoming trials in California, which will occur shortly before voters in California consider a referendum on capital punishment, decided to call as her second witness for the defense (the first was the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed) the woman caught in adultery (John 8). When Mark walked into my office Monday afternoon and asked if I would be willing to take the part of that witness, I had some initial hesitation, but then agreed to testify.

I suspect this story is familiar to most people. A woman caught in the act of adultery is brought by the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus, who is teaching in the temple. They are prepared to stone her, the legal punishment for her crime. When they ask Jesus what he had to say about what the law requires, he says nothing, but kneels and begins to write something in the dirt. When they continue asking, he gets up and says to them “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the men go away, leaving Jesus with the woman. When he asks her who is left to condemn her, she says no one, to which he responds “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

I found it both difficult and powerful to testify – both the preparation and the actual trial experience was an Ignatian Contemplation for me. I was the woman in that scene, experiencing what she experienced and having her interaction with Jesus. A couple of things stood out to me:

First was her recognition of the incredibly unearned gift she received from Jesus. She was guilty of her crime, she knew the punishment and she was terrified, knowing that she was going to die. (And die a painful death.) I felt her terror (not to mention the humiliation of being dragged through the streets and put before Jesus and the crowd in the temple area) and then her dawning relief as she realized she would not die. The grace of being accepted by Jesus, of not being condemned by him, despite her sin, was amazing. She (I) understood the gift she (I) had been given.

Second was the incredible intimacy of the encounter with Jesus. I testified as I experienced the scene praying with it beforehand, and what I said was (something like) this: “Jesus reached out and pulled me up from the ground. He then put one hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. No one had ever looked at me like that before. He then gestured at the empty air with his other hand, and asked me, ‘Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?’ I answered, ‘No sir, they have all left.’ Then Jesus put his hand on my face and said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.'”

As I testified, I was aware of no one in the room except Jeanne, who was examining me, and Jesus – who sits silent at the defense table during the trial. As I said that he looked at me, I looked at the student playing Jesus and saw only Jesus. The intensity of the woman’s experience of Jesus, which I felt, was almost painful it was so deeply intimate.

The final thing that struck me – this during the brief cross-examination – was the concern that I might say something that could cause Jesus to be executed. I was a witness for the defense, but what if I inadvertently said something te prosecutor could twist in his favor. That’s something I need to unpack some more. In fact, I know I need to pray with the entire experience some more; there was a lot going on there.

At some point, there will be a video of the trial. I’ll link it when there is.

Ask Big

I’ve talked before about the importance in Ignatian prayer of asking for a grace. St. Ignatius recommended that we begin each prayer period by articulating what it is we want from God, what is the grace we seek. And he encourages us to be bold in our requests for grace. As one of the people involved in my training in retreat work would say: Ask big.

I thought about that as I was reading online a sermon given by Rev. Mariann Budde, outgoing rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. (“Outgoing” because she is about to take over her new duties as Bishop of the Episcopal diocese in Washington, D.C.) In one of the sermons she gave recently, she told a story about a former British ambassador to the United States.

At the height of the Cold War, he was asked in an interview for a Washington Post feature article around Christmas what he wanted for Christmas. He replied that all he really wanted was a jar of fruit preserved in ginger, apparently a favorite of his.

The feature article was published a few days later, highlighting what various members of the diplomatic corps wanted for Christmas. The article reported that one said peace and goodwill, another said disarmament, another peace it the Middle East. And the British ambassador, reported the article, asked for his jar of gingered fruit.

Rev. Budded notes, “Sir Nicholas was surely the only one of those interviewed who got what he wanted that Christmas; but by comparison his hope, his desire, seemed to lack a bit in imagination and courage… While sometimes we may want too much; other times we don’t want quite enough.”

I think it is right to say that often we don’t want quite enough. Be bold. It is true that we need to ask the right things. But ask big when asking God for God’s graces.

Unearned Love

Continuing the theme of my post of a couple of days ago on God’s extravagant love: The opening period (sometimes called the Disposition Phase) of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius invite us to get in touch with a sense of ourselves as the beloved creatures of God – deepening our experience of God’s unconditional love for us.

I read a beautiful passage written by Richard Rohr that explains well why this is so important for us. Rohr writes

It’s quite clear that it is the inner experience of grace that liberates human beings at all levels. It’s the experience of unconditional love that really sets all humans free and heals all their wounds. Without it, human beings live in prisons of tit for tat, measuring, weighing, and counting the cost of everything. I call this the “economy of merit,” where almost all people naturally live, instead of the Gospel-given “economy of grace,” which is a world of abundance and open horizons.

Without a sense of God’s unconditional love for us, we cannot live in an “economy of grace.” As Rohr explains, “[g]race is such a humiliation to the ego, and such a surrendering for the human need to achieve, that even most of church history has lived inside of the economy of merit. We have been offered so much more, but it only makes sense to those who have personally “suffered” the experience of unearned love.”

Extravagant Love, No Strings Attached

The retreat house, which I will leave this morning (after our final Mass and then breakfast), had plenty of books available for retreatants to borrow and, as I walked past a pile on the way to my room, I noticed a copy of What’s So Amazing About Grace, by Philip Yancey. Having read a book of his before and liked it, I picked up this one to take a look at in the evenings As it happens, it was a fitting choice for retreat reading.

As the title reveals, the book is about God’s grace. Yancey views grace as the most distinctive thing Christianity has to offer the world. As he observes

The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law–each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less. Expansive, unearned love. Extravagant love with no catch.

The words are easy to say. The trick is to internalize the message deep within our being. And that is one of the things retreat always does for me – brings me more in touch with the reality of that love. Helps me to realize ever more deeply that my very creation is an act of God’s love and that God can’t not love me. (Double negative intended.) It is a realization that is key if we are to be dispensers of God’s grace in the world.

Glass Halo

For a college English major, I spend far too little time reading novels these days. Between my legal reading and reading relating to various retreats and other programs I’m preparing for, I find precious little time for reading anything else other than a newspaper. Happily, I responded positively when my friend Maria asked if I was interested in reviewing Colleen Smith’s first novel, Glass Halo. I was hooked from the first pages and started and finished the book while we were traveling this past weekend.

The two primary characters are both incredibly wounded people, one from an abusive spousal relationship that ended very badly and the other from alcoholism – the first a woman who is a lapsed Catholic and a stained-glass artist and the second a priest whose alcoholism has contributed to temptations that jeopardize his vows.

I always find it difficult to write a review of a novel, wanting and needing to say enough to encourage a reader to pick it up, but wanting to avoid saying so much as to destroy the pleasure of allowing a plot to unfold as one reads. So let me simply say several things about this well-written and compelling book.

First, the author does a wonderful job of conveying the raw emotions of her two main characters, whether it be fear, desperation, longing or love. And not just conveying, but inviting an empathy even when one might find something to criticize in the behavior of one or the other.

Second, Nora’s (the stained-glass artist) journey from sadness and solitary non-life to a place of peace and even happiness is beautifully and movingly told, as it Fr. Vin’s emergence from temptation and re-dedication to his priestly vocation.

Third, the book invites us to grapple with Nora with some hard questions about vocation and about sacrifice and encourages one to work through the important task of distinguishing what is from God vs. what is not from God (reminding us that doing so is much more complicated that determining whether something feels good).

Finally, and in a completely different vein, I have to add that I enjoyed learning so much about stained glass making and restoring. I was as drawn into the technical details of Nora’s work as I was into her spiritual and personal journey.

A beautiful story that I highly recommend.