Saturday, February 27, 2016


Seven practical exercises to boost your humility!

1.     Deliberately lose the next argument to get into.

2.     Ask someone you've offended for their blessing.

3.     Skip your next witty comment.

4.     Make a serious attempt to understand an opinion you find objectionable.

5.     Do something secretly nice for someone you detest.

6.     Thank God for the next person who insults you.

7.     The next time you're in a long line for something, wait until you're one spot from the front...then move to the back of the line.

(I don't recommend doing them all at once...)

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Birthright is an organization that helps expectant mothers bring their children to term and care for them afterwards.
    I want to begin by telling you something that will make you uncomfortable.  Well, I hope it will make you uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable.  And, as they say, misery loves company.
    At the Saint Louis Priory School, I teach a class in Apologetics, which is the art of defending Catholic doctrine.  Last week, one of my students (a child who, I have come to suspect, was created by God for the sole purpose of making me miserable) this student declared in the presence of the entire class, “The best argument against Catholicism–in fact, the best reason to not be a Catholic at all…is Catholics.” 
    I came about this close to telling him “And the best argument for euthanizing teenagers…is you” but stopped myself halfway through that sentence when I realized that he was right.  My Catholic faith may be the single most beautiful thing I have ever known, but I am a singularly unworthy advocate.  (I recognize that this sounds like false humility.  It is.  Which merely proves my point.)
    So here’s the part that’s going to make you uncomfortable; to steal words from my most annoying student: “The best argument against the pro-life movement…is pro-lifers.”   Now I don’t mean to imply that the people in this room are any better or worse than anyone else.   In fact, from where I stand, and judging by the kind of work you do, you seem like a pretty decent folk.  But your

cause is so noble, none of you could possibly match up to it. Nonetheless you must try.  And you must fail (For who can realistically expect to be more successful in their ministry that Jesus was in his?)
    You are stuck with an impossibly beautiful vocation that you can never live up to.  In the expectant mother, you serve Jesus Himself.  But it would be sheer folly to believe that Jesus is lucky to have you.
    Nonetheless, you are called.   Therefore you serve.   And you serve on the righteous side of a struggle for the very heart of our civilization.   (I don’t think I’m being overdramatic.   If human life is not the heart of our civilization, then I don’t know what it is.)  And I’ll repeat:  you will fail.   You have been tried and found lacking.
    But here’s the good news: there’s a loophole!   It will not surprise you to hear that I believe this loophole is humility (after all, I literally wrote the book on humility.)  On both sides of every abortion discussion I have ever heard, the one virtue conspicuous missing has been humility.  In practical terms, here’s what I mean:  We cannot fall into the trap—Satan’s trap—of believing that we are holier than the people with whom we disagree.  We cannot fall into the trap—Satan’s trap—of believing that we are smarter…or kinder…or cleverer than our brothers and sisters at Planned Parenthood.  We cannot fall into the trap—Satan’s trap—of believing that God loves us more.  We cannot fall into the trap—Satan’s trap—of believing that their motives are selfish or sadistic or stupid (for who among us can honestly claim to have pure motives?)  If we are to win hearts, we must approach these people—our brothers and sisters—with humility.  We must treat them like friends.  No, we must show them that they are our friends.
    In this great battle for the heart of our civilization, there is no room for self-righteous indignation—no room even for righteous indignation. In the words of Saint Paul, we must be “patient and kind, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.”  What does Saint Paul mean by “believing all things”?  Allow me to suggest that I think it means we should believe in our friends on the other side of this conflict—believe in our hearts that they want what is right—that, like us, they seek God and seek the good.  We must believe this.  We must assume it.  Don’t get me wrong.   I am utterly convinced that they are mistaken.  Tragically mistaken.  But only God is in a position to judge their motives, their hearts.
    So here is a Lenten homework assignment:  This upcoming week, I want you to research one pro-choice argument and make a serious, sympathetic attempt to understand it.  (Notice, by the way, that I said sympathetic, not necessarily open-minded.  Abortion is evil, I am convinced of that, and I don't want you to be ‘open’ to evil.  But I do want you to try to understand it.  And not just for the sake of shooting it down, but for the sake of understanding our friends on the other side of this conflict.  I want you to try to find something worthy, something admirable, something true in that argument.
    Now maybe this is something you have already figured out.  Maybe this is something you already do.  But for me, it is novel and difficult.  Nonethrless, it’s what I expect them to do, isn’t it? I want them to listen to me with an open heart.   I want them to give me the benefit of the doubt.  I want them to leave behind their prejudices and presuppositions about my motives; but I can hardly ask them for such openness if my own heart is closed against them.
    I realize I am asking a difficult thing.  I am asking you to listen with a sympathetic heart to an opinion that you find deplorable.  Well, tough.   There’s a reason I have no social life.   And besides that, you literally asked for it. 

    So that’s the uncomfortable part.  I thought I’d end with something a little more upbeat, so that if I scandalized anyone, maybe they would be distracted and forget what I said.  I’d like to tell you a true story about a friend of mine—one of the many mothers who, thanks to people like you, know how to choose life.  Your witness, your prayers, your rallies, and let’s be honest, your money has empowered women like her to face the devil down.
    (My apologies if you’ve heard this story before.  I only have one pro-life talk.  I have several on humility but as of last  Friday, Ignatius press owns the rights to them.)
    My friend is married with three kids.  Exactly thirteen years ago, and sixteen weeks pregnant, her water broke.  Ultrasound revealed that the amniotic sac had completely ruptured, that there was no more fluid around the baby.  She was told that she would go into labor within the next forty-eight hours, and that there looked to be amniotic bands within the womb. These pieces of tissue would begin to wrap around the baby's limbs and amputate them. She was sent home after a two-day hospital stay with instructions to return weekly to have an ultrasound so that they’d know when the baby was dead.  Weeks passed and still she had not gone into labor. At this point the doctors became adamant that she should—in the chillingly antiseptic language of the business—“terminating the pregnancy.” The diagnosis was that the baby was severely mentally and physically handicapped.  A second doctor informed her that there was a less than 1% chance of the baby's survival. She also said that the baby had severe club feet and would be born without lungs.  The doctor said to her, and I quote, "You have a moral duty to finish what God has started."  Five different doctors told her to "terminate" the pregnancy. They told her that this child was a threat to her life. What's more, they assured her that the child was already mentally and physically worthless. Even if it could be brought to term, they assured her, it would die in her arms. Even if it could survive delivery, it would be crippled and profoundly retarded.  "Have an abortion." they told her. One doctor even set up an appointment for her against her wishes. "Do it now," this doctor said, taking her by the arm, "Put a period at the end of this sentence."
    When my friend broke the news to her husband, this is what he said: "How lucky for this child that she would be born into a family which could love her for who she is! What better family than ours to raise a disabled child?"  I told my friend, if your husband leaves the toilet seat up for the rest of his life, let it go, because he has earned it.

    For two months, my friend lived with the knowledge that she would, at best, bear a child who would die in her arms.  She decided to name the child Mary.  In the meantime, she prayed, her husband prayed, and Rachel, Mary’s older sister, she prayed too.  She didn’t entirely understand what was going on, but she knew her sister was in trouble, and I wonder sometimes if perhaps it was the profound innocence of her prayers that reached into the great well of God’s grace and extracted a miracle.  In the 25th week of her pregnancy another ultrasound revealed something extraordinary.  "We need to call the Pope,” said the doctor.  "Not only has the amniotic sack re-sealed itself, but all the fluid has returned." He called in all the interns, all the nurses, the assistants, random people standing the hallway... The amniotic bands had disappeared. The baby was in perfect health.
    By now, you’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about my sister.   Mary is my niece.  She is an honor student at John Paul Second Institute.   Last week, she turned thirteen.   On her behalf, and on behalf of my family, I’d like to thank you for your witness and your prayers.  Surely hers is not the only life you’ve saved.  May almighty God bless you all, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thursday, February 18, 2016



In one of the greatest scenes of Western literature, the enraged warrior, Achilles, unbeaten and unbeatable, stands outside his tent on the beach of Troy, while three ambassadors beg him to rejoin the battle.  Achilles, unmoved by their appeals and their tears, answers, “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart.  So I will say it straight.  Will Agamemnon win me over?  Not for all the world…Not now that he has torn my honor from my hands.”
It is a shockingly powerful passage—shocking and heart-wrenching—but also somewhat confusing.  After all, we moderns have to ask ourselves, how could anyone steal another man’s honor?  Well, scholars have written volumes on the topic, but the long and short of it is this: The Greeks of the Bronze Age measured their honor in stuff and in reputation: time´ and kleos were the words they used—sometimes you hear it translated “honor and glory”.
Time´ was measured in stuff.  The more stuff you had, the more honor.  And if someone took your stuff, they literally took your honor.  If someone stole a Greek hero’s cow, they stole one cow’s worth of honor.  Similarly kleos (or glory) was determined by popular opinion.  So if someone insulted a Greek warrior in public, he literally damaged that man’s glory.
So when Agamemnon, the general of the Greeks, steals Achilles’ slave-girl, he literally steals one slave worth of honor, and Achilles never gets over it.  Because honor is a zero-sum game in the Greek world.  The more of it you get, the less I have.
Now the reason I tell you this story is because I think Achilles has begun to make a comeback.  I think, as a culture, we’ve begun once more to measure our honor in material, external things.  And our kids have begun to feel the stress of it.
Of course, my purpose here is not to whine about how lousy the world has become for our kids, but rather to propose solutions—to offer antidotes.  And I offer them in the form of four stories—five people; five saints, four stories.  And as I move from one story to the next, I want you to keep Homer’s invincible hero, Achilles in the back of your mind.
        He ate bugs [I could stop there, actually, and I think I would have made a pretty good point, but I’ll continue], wore uncomfortable unattractive home-made clothes, died young, and was, by his own admission, unworthy to unfasten the sandals of the man who came after him.  When his own followers decided to abandon him to follow Jesus, he actually encouraged them to do so, saying: “Well, I must decrease so he can increase.”  What a sad thing to say.  Can you imagine any politician, movie star, superhero, CEO, or even any of our favorite televangelists saying something like that today:  “I must fail so someone else can succeed.”  Like most of the prophets, John was murdered by the very people he was trying to help.  Furthermore, he was preparing them for a man they would eventually reject, humiliate, and execute.
And yet…Jesus himself said of this failure that he was “the greatest man born of woman.”  He’s one of the few saints in the Roman calendar who has two feast days devoted exclusively to him (One is his birth, the other is, ironically, his beheading).
Here are two men who owned nothing and about whom we know very little.  Saint Jude was confused with Judas so often that he eventually became the patron of lost causes. What’s more, the gospel writers themselves couldn’t seem to keep his name straight: John calls him “Judas – but not the Iscariot!” Luke calls him “Jude the brother of James,” and Matthew calls him “Thaddeus.”  Nothing is said about him in any of the gospels except that he asked one question, and not a very good one.  He says, “Lord, what’s this?” (Jn 14:22).  And that’s it.  There’s a New Testament letter that bears his name, but most scholars agree that someone else probably wrote it for him.
We know even less about Simon.  Mostly, he goes by “not Simon Peter”.  Luke calls him “Simon the Zealot,” Matthew and Mark call him “Simon the Canaanite.”
And that’s pretty much it for Simon and Jude.  They even have to share a feast day.
And yet…they were chosen by Jesus himself to lead his church.
Now for a change of pace.  Edward was a king.  By the standards of the time, he was obscenely rich and singularly influential.
He was one of the worst politicians in the history of Britain.  King Edward, son of Ethelred the Unready (an inauspicious beginning if ever there was one), was a weak, impotent, timid, and famously ugly man.  In worldly terms, a complete disappointment.  During the course of his reign, Edward lost all his money without accumulating any political power.  In fact, he allowed himself to be used as puppet by—of all people—his in-laws.  Then when they were done with him, a pack of foreign con men took over.  Furthermore despite his marriage to an intelligent and beautiful woman, he never managed to produced an heir, which is the one thing even an incompetent monarch can usually pull off.  Some claim that this was his choice because he secretly wanted to be a monk.  Others claim that his wife just could not force herself to sleep with him.  Indeed, King Edward the Confessor left to history a reputation for weakness, indecision, and financial incompetence.  And yet…he remains England’s most popular saint.  He built one of the world’s greatest abbeys at Westminster, and over a million people come every year to visit his tomb.
       I’ll just show you a paragraph from her biography by Marian T. Horvat:  The first order she entered closed; she did not feel realized in the second institution until she came to America to convert the Indians. Then, instead of carrying out this long-desired mission, she was ordered to teach girls and found convents. The work was more difficult because she never learned to speak English. She founded one convent that failed, then another that foundered. The girls there were ungrateful and worldly, and the Sisters chaffed under her governance and wanted to relax the Rule.  When she finally was permitted to go to work in an Indian mission, she was already seventy two years old, too old to work or learn the native language. But after only one year, she was denied even that great consolation - she was ordered to leave the Indian mission and return to Florissant….”  where she died, having converted exactly one Indian, who apostacised three months later.
And yet…she was utterly faithful to her call as a missionary, and a century after her death, the Pottawatomie Indians still remembered her as “That Woman Who Prayed.”

Saints like these would have baffled Achilles.  Simon and Jude died without time´ or kleos.  Edward squandered his political influence.  John the Baptist had his head cut off.  Rose Philipine Duschene died penniless and disappointed.  No honor or glory here—not by Ancient Greek standards.  In fact, these folks come up pretty short by our modern standards as well.  You kind of have to wonder at the Church’s logic when it holds them up as role models.
And yet, that is the logic of the Cross—a logic which redefines success and turns human wisdom on its head.  In the light of the cross, failure becomes promise, weakness becomes strength, the meek and humble inherit the earth.
This is why Nietzche ridiculed Christianity as a religion of the weak.  We come from a long line of failures.  Sometimes, we actually seem to take pride in that.  Mother Teresa was asked once if she could possibly hope to succeed in India when the poverty was so overwhelming.  Her answer was simply: “God does not expect us to be successful.  He expects us to be faithful.”
This quotation has come to mean a lot to me in my work—especially in my work in our high school because, in addition to my teaching and praying, I also coach a rugby team which has not had a winning season in over ten years.  Indeed, we only broke even once (we were four and four), and that year, my players tore down the goal posts because it marked the end of a twenty-year losing streak. (NOTE: Since Andy Wenger Took over as head coach we've gone to state every year!)
Now, some might argue that a losing streak of that magnitude may have had something to do with my coaching, but I prefer to look at it in biblical terms.  You see, god has a special affection for losers.  Look at all the losers, for example, in the long, baffling history of our salvation, starting with the Israelites themselves (whose finest king seemed to have a thing for other men’s wives) and continuing right through the age of the apostles (whose first unanimous decision was to run away when their leader got arrested), to our own age, and people like Saint Philipine Duchesne . So when it comes to losing, I sometimes convince myself that it is a sign of God’s special affection for my team; for every failure reminds us that Our beauty, our value, our integrity, lie not in our accomplishments, but simply in our existence as sons of God.
That said, I want to make one thing clear:  failure is bad.  Like all forms of suffering, it is a consequence of Original Sin, and it is natural—even wise—to avoid failure whenever possible.
But just as there is a tendency to romanticize suffering as though it were a thing to be sought out—or worse yet, enjoyed; so there can be a tendency to romanticize failure, as though it were just an alternative form of success.  Like suffering, however, failure can be transfigured, enriched, elevated in the light of the cross, which was, in its unique way, the fusion of humanity’s greatest failure with its greatest victory.
So…just as it was Christ’s vocation to die on the cross, so our sons and daughters may be called by God to fail from time to time.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that they will all inevitably be called to fail on some level.  But the Good News (with a capital G and a capital N) is that, if we can teach them to unite that failure with Christ’s own suffering, it transforms into a tremendous good—not just an opportunity to grow, but a participation in the redemptive sufferings of Christ.
Secondly, I’d like to distinguish between failing and being a failure.  A parallel can be drawn, I think, between sinning and being a sinner.  When we say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner,” we do not mean by that to define ourselves by our sins.  We are sinners, but our identity is in Christ.  Martin Luther used the analogy of a dunghill covered by snow to illustrate his theology of humanity’s utter depravity.  We’re all basically manure, he said, but Jesus hides this fact from God beneath the snow of his grace.  That is wrong.  It’s wrong because it does not acknowledging the fundamental goodness of God’s creation.  Our identity, in other words, is in our goodness—NOT in our sinfulness.  We may fail in our endeavors, but we are not failures at heart.  Not while we remain united to Jesus and his Church.  Which is why we can rejoice even when the hour looks darkest.
My best friend in grad school was a self-professed “bitter ex-Catholic,” and he used to say, “The problem with you Catholics is that when you’re happy, you’re happy; but when you’re miserable, then you’re really happy.”
Well, that’s true.  There’s something really beautiful about the way Christianity can transform suffering into joy.  Which is why we look to saints like Edward and Philipine for inspiration;  and why it is such a disappointment to hear people recite platitudes like, “You can do anything, so long as you put your mind to it.”  That’s just not true.  No one is omnipotent but God.
And Just once—just once, I’d like to hear a valedictorian say to his class, ‘You are all going to fail.  You will all, inevitably, have your hearts broken, experience loneliness, miss a major opportunity, lose a game, lose a job, lose some money, be abandoned and ridiculed, be humiliated and scorned.  You are destined for failure.  And that is very, very sad.  But it’s also ok because your God had his heart broken and was ridiculed by his friends.  Your God was humiliated and scorned and abandoned.  And that means that your dignity is not bound up with your success.  You are a child of God.  You have been divinized.  And in the end, when you lie on your deathbed as we all inevitably do, without trophies or diplomas or accolades or even your bodily health to comfort you, ALL that will matter is your existence as a child of God, and it will be enough.  That will be more than enough.  That will be everything.


           For forty days, the Church relives in the most literal sense the most sacred event in the history of the Cosmos, namely, the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  In forty days, the Lord Himself will resurrect in our parish church.  Indeed, it is an event so sacred that, properly speaking, none of us should be there.  Or rather, none of us deserves to be there.  That is why, in the psalmest sings: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, Guide me in your truth and teach me.”
            We have just started Lent.  That means that we get to spend the next forty days thinking about death, and that is why, on Wednesday, you came to Church and had your foreheads smeared with ash.  And while the minister applied this morbid reminder to your skulls, he said something along the lines of “Remember  you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
            So this week, we began our forty days of fasting, repentance, and self-denial. "This is the time of fulfillment,” says Saint John, “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel."
            But why all the mourning and weeping, all the gloom and doom, all the self-denial and self-abasement.  Above all, why all the talk of death? 
St. Benedict said that a monk should reflect every day on the hour of his death.  And this isn’t bad advice for non-monks either.   St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life,  “Only one thing in life is certain.  You will die.  And sooner than you think.”
At St. Louis Abbey, we had this old monk named Br. Ed.  He was a genius. At the age of 76, he taught himself to play the harmonica and drew a cartoon version of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great.  He knew absolutely everything there was to know about bluegrass music, early American cinema, and Earnest Hemmingway.  In fact, his single most treasured possession was an autographed biography of Hemmingway that he had found at a used book store about twenty years ago.  He really loved this book.  And he kept it in a special place in his room.
In addition to all this, Br. Ed was also a total nut case.  He absolutely could not endure chaos, and if even one of his utensils was slightly out of line when he came to prayer, he could spew the most vile litany of expletives, the likes of which even the most seasoned sailor or criminal would be hard pressed to equal.  Br. Ed absolutely hated chaos, so he tended to avoid people whenever he could.  And he tended avoid me too.  In fact, I think it is not too great of an exaggeration to say that I was one of his all-time least favorite people ever.  And I can’t say I was one of his greatest fans either.  Now, shortly before I left for England three years ago, I celebrated my departure by cooking a big meal for the monks, the crowning achievement of which was a chocolate walnut torte.  I did this partly with Br. Ed in mind because I knew he liked his desserts.  As a matter of fact, I made three chocolate tortes, so that there would be plenty for everyone---and as a little gift to myself, I cut a piece off of one of them and placed it in the refrigerator wrapped in aluminum foil, with the intention of coming back for it the next morning, after all the cooking and baking and feasting was done.
So that’s what I did.  On Monday morning the next day, after we’d finished matins and lauds and breakfast, I made myself a big cup of coffee, and I found a good book, and I found a big comfy chair next to a window, and I went to the refrigerator to get my slice of chocolate torte.  But when I unwrapped it, I discovered that someone had gotten there first—indeed, had taken a bite out of my chocolate torte, wrapped it back up, and returned it to the refrigerator.  I can’t describe for you the depths of rage that I felt at that moment, contemplating my half-eaten, slobbered on slice of chocolate walnut torte.  And there was no doubt in my mind who had done it.  This work of colossal insensitivity had “Br. Ed” written all over it.
            So I went back to the kitchen, cut another slice of chocolate torte, wrapped it in foil just like the first one, and placed it in exactly the same place in the same refrigerator—BUT, not before soaking it in Lea and Pepper’s Super Hot Cajun Pepper Sauce.   The next morning, after we had finished matins and lauds and had our breakfast, I made my cup of coffee, found my spot by the window, and went back into the kitchen, there discovering, to my immense satisfaction, a whole spray of chocolate torte regurgitated on the floor next to the refrigerator.  Arguably, it was one of the most triumphant moments of my life.  A few weeks later, I left for Oxford.  Br. Ed didn’t even wish me goodbye. 
And when I came back from my studies three years later, Br. Ed was on his deathbed.  As far as I know, the chocolate torte incident had nothing to do with that, but I was suddenly struck with the realization that I could have been a little nicer to him.  And now, Br. Edward is dead.  He died that Christmas.  And he left me his biography of Hemmingway.
So this is why we are asked to reflect on death during this season.  Because thinking about death has a way of putting things in perspective.  There are people here today that you may never see again.  So this is a good time to tie up loose ends.  Make some apologies or say thanks to someone who has shown you kindness.  Above all, this is the time to make amends with God.  To set straight our spiritual lives so that we can look upon the day of our death with hope and joy.  So that we may not cringe when we hear the words which some angel will inevitably say to each one of us:  “"This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Good news:  Ignatius Press just offered me a contract for "Humility Rules".  This should be a proper book within a year or two.

Bad news:  I have to take down all the material that will be in the book.

So...I'm starting over again.  If you are looking forward to steps 5 through 12, I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the book to come out.  In the meantime, this blog will have to take a new direction.  Exactly what it will look like, I have no idea.  But I'm open to suggestions…