The Great Improviser, or One Blesséd Thing After Another…

I remember watching an improv comedy group with friends in college. Each member of the troupe was a whirlwind of wit and creativity, responding instantly to audience suggestions, random props, and fellow comics’ off-the-cuff reactions.

After more than an hour of nonstop hilarity and laughter, the group took its bows, then the members spoke briefly to the audience about how they do what they do: How they keep the laughs coming at such a breakneck pace when even they aren’t sure what will happen next?

The basic answer was so simple: Say yes, and

Whatever the situation, the idea, the inane detail added by the last castmate as he passes the scene to you, say yes, and build on it. Anything else — a no, a but, a hesitation, a rejection — derails everything. The joy of improv (for both performers and audience, I’ll wager) is in the way that it embraces the unknown and absurd and builds on them, laugh upon laugh, until the entire humorous edifice is revealed and the leader says, “Aaaaand scene!”

Say yes, and build on it. Embrace the situation and move forward. Such a simple trick — but it requires practice. (If you don’t believe me, get two friends and try Three-Headed Broadway Singer.)

It strikes me today that this is good advice for life, as well. This world is tilted, spinning, ridiculous in so many ways, and at times life appears to be, as an old saying goes, “one damned thing after another.” But it’s not. The sequence of events is not damned, but blessed.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

God, in fact, must be the Great Improviser, to work out  His plan among so many free-willing, fallen creatures who are constantly doing the dead-wrong thing. God’s providence, it seems to me, must be a resounding, eternal, “Yes, and…”

Fr. Mike Schmitz shares great perspective on discerning God’s will for us, in which he reminds us that, even in scripture, when God’s appears to be taking His people by the hands and leading them, still less is known than unknown. In particular, he reminds us that, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God, Mary says “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and the very next line in scripture is, “Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:28).

Mary is left to improvise: to build upon that yes and each yes after, until the entire astounding edifice is revealed and the Master calls out, “Scene!”

Like Mary, we don’t know what’s coming: what incredible, impossible, unwieldy, absurd situation we may encounter, this moment or the next. But our response matters. In fact — since the universe is beyond our control — our response is all that counts.

It’s so simple, though it takes practice: Step with joy into the unknown. Say yes, and build upon it.

Memento Mori, or Don’t Get Comfortable!

Last week I shared a humorous post about my general lack of physical fitness, in which I declaimed, “I am weary from too much rest—so comfortable it hurts.” At the time, I meant this merely in the physical sense, but this morning the spiritual meaning resonates.

We are creatures of will and intellect, but inertia is mindless. An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and so, too, a man who behaves like an object. When we rest, we often “veg,” which is to say we give up our human and even our animal nature in exchange for potting ourselves, mindlessly, in the sun. Bloom where you’re planted is a mantra today, but we are not flowers or fruit trees. It feels good to soak the golden rays, but, lacking chlorophyll, we are not fed in this way—not for long! We are planted only at the end, and then under a stone.

Also last week, I mentioned that our family is pursuing Marian consecration. Thus far Fr. Gaitley’s book has focused on three saints who, in their separate but similar ways, gave themselves completely​ to Christ through Mary: St. Louis de Montfort, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Mother Teresa. What struck me this morning was the sense of urgency each of these saints has:

  • St. Louis de Montfort advocated Marian consecration as “the surest, easiest, shortest, and most perfect means” to become a saint.
  • St. Maximilian Kolbe formed his Marian “army,” the Militia Immaculata, with the express goal of bringing the entire world to God through Christ under the generalship of Mary, and to do so as quickly as possible.
  • St. Teresa of Calcutta sought to satisfy the thirst of Jesus for souls and love, and to do this in the best possible way.
Notice that none of these three were satisfied with merely doing a job, or even doing it well.They sought to hear God’s call, to answer it daily, and to act with urgency, in the best way possible to bring about His will. They were not sedentary, physically or spiritually. They did not bloom where they were planted, because they never permitted themselves to be planted. They acted, each moment, as Mary would—as Christ would!—with great love, and with their eyes fixed upon eternity and the fate of the souls they encountered.
Too long have I acted as though good enough is good enough, as though I have time to spend (or not) as I please. If sainthood is the goal, let us pursue it with vigor. God willing, we’ll have eternity to rest!

God’s Love Is Mercy

“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
– Jesus to St. Faustina
Devotion to Divine Mercy is not every Catholic’s thing. Some people struggle with the image of Divine Mercy: Jesus, His right hand raised to bless and heal, His left indicating his heart, from which rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, pour forth as a fountain of mercy for souls. Every version I’ve seen has been a bit mysterious and unsettling—which seems appropriate, given that it’s a vision of the resurrected Christ.
Some don’t like the chaplet, which is simpler and more repetitious than the rosary. Some consider the visions of a poor Polish nun to be private revelations: fine for her, but not necessary for us (even though she is a saint and was canonized by another saint).
And some struggle with the emphasis on God’s mercy, seemingly at the expense of His justice or even over His love. At first blush, saying that “mercy is God’s greatest attribute” (Diary of St. Faustina, 300) appears to downplay the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. It suggests—much to the comfort of some sinners—that God will invariably forego His justice. It seems presumptuous.
But let’s think about what love, justice, and mercy actually are. Love, we are told, is willing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Justice is giving another what is due. Mercy is often regarded as a bridge between these two: sparing someone just punishment for his or her benefit.
Because God is infinitely good, justice requires complete goodness from us in return. That is God’s due. But we are all sinners, and even the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to God’s infinite goodness—a grave injustice toward One who loves us perfectly.
What is our due as a result of this? Condemnation. We ought to suffer, not out of retribution, but as the natural consequence of our sins.
So God’s mercy does not deny the reality of sin or the need for repentance. Instead, it depends on these things. Without the grave reality of sin and the suffering that justly results from it, we would have no need of mercy. God’s mercy exists because of sin. There is no other reason.
But how can God be perfectly loving, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful—all at the same time? And how can mercy be God’s greatest attribute, when Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8)?
Look at it this way:
  • If God is love, then His very nature is to will our good, whatever the cost to Himself.
  • What is our good? Ultimately, it’s the end for which we were made: union with Him.
  • What is the cost to Himself? He sacrifices His claim against us for sinning against Him—He shows us mercy.

By doing this, it appears that God abandons justice in favor of love. But how can He do this, if He is perfectly just? Doesn’t sin demand punishment?

Yes, sin demands punishment. But with so much sin against so perfect a God, who could possibly bear it? Who, except God Himself?

So He becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, living, suffering, and dying for us—willing the good of each of us at whatever cost to Himself. God’s perfect justice demands a perfect price be paid, so He pays it Himself. His love is mercy.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loves us to death. All that remains for us is to return the favor.

Book Break: The Spiritual Combat

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat was recommended to me by a friend many years ago, when I was first looking into my patron saint Francis de Sales’s spiritual classic An Introduction to the Devout Life. First published in 1589, Fr. Scupoli’s book was required reading for those whom St. Francis de Sales advised, and he reportedly carried in his pocket a copy given to him by Fr. Scupoli himself.

Over the past several months, I’ve been reading and reflecting on The Spiritual Combatduring adoration. I will warn you up front: It is not an easy read. The language and structure are archaic and complex at times, and Fr. Scupoli takes sin, Satan, and the possibility of Hell uncomfortably seriously (as we should, too). Take your time; read a section and reflect on it. Re-read if necessary. This is a book the rewards patience and prayer.

I believe it will reward repeated reading, as well. Each “chapter” reads like a short reflection building upon the previous. I have read all of these reflections now, but find that, in my own spiritual life, I’m still focused on the first few reflections. Early in the book, Fr. Scupoli insists that in the battle for souls, we must fight or die—but victory can only come from recognizing our own spiritual weakness and putting no trust in ourselves and our own abilities. We must recognize our overwhelming tendency to fall and put all our confidence in a loving and merciful God, without whom we can do no good, but with whom we cannot fail.

I don’t live like that. Most days I still try to get by on my own steam and get frustrated when I stumble or fail. So in terms of spiritual combat, most days I’m still reminding myself of my weakness and striving to distrust me and trust Him instead. When this becomes habitual, it may be time to read this book again!

My edition ends with a shorter work also attributed to Fr. Scupoli, A Treatise on Peace in the Soul. This is another old fashioned, hard-hitting, and practical work, much shorter than The Spiritual Combat, and for me, much easier to apply as a whole to my day-to-day life. The overarching theme is the importance of maintaining peace in the soul and responding immediately to worries, anxieties, and fears that disturb us, recognizing that these are tools the Enemy uses to separate us from God. I read this part in about two sittings and found myself much refreshed and with much to think about and apply, even as a raw recruit to the spiritual combat.

* * * * *

Blogger’s Note: The cover on my edition is the one pictured. As a former wrestler and father of wrestlers, this image of Jacob wrestling the angel alone is worth the price of the book! Also: toward the end of the post at the following link is my brief reflection on Introduction to the Devout Life, another great spiritual book.

Poured Out In Love

 

Each year during Lent, the Church focuses more intentionally on the Passion and Death of Jesus. How strange it seems that, during the very season we are trying to examine our lives and conform ourselves to Christ, we are also focused on Jesus at His lowest: beaten, humiliated, tortured. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, to be His disciples, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him—but surely we can stop short of whips and spears, thorns and nails, can’t we?

We are each a unique image of God, and each called to follow Christ in a unique way: to pour ourselves out in love for those around us. Most of us won’t be called to martyrdom in the bold and bloody sense—though some of us may. Most of us won’t be called to leave behind family and friends for foreign missions or cloistered religion life— but, God willing, some of us will.
 
Instead, most of us will be called to holiness in the context of ordinary, everyday lives: working, raising a family, pitching in where we can. This may seem easier than facing blades or beasts in the Coliseum, but I’m convinced it’s not. St. Josemaria Escriva warns us, “Many who would willingly let themselves be nailed to a Cross before the astonished gaze of a thousand onlookers cannot bear with a Christian spirit the pinpricks of each day! Think, then, which is the more heroic.”
 
To make a once-for-all choice for Christ, in the heat of the moment, facing certain death and eternal glory, seems downright doable compared to 70, 80, 90 years of making a million moment-by-moment choices to love the person in front of us, in every circumstance. Daily discipleship is difficult—and it’s made more difficult when we attempt to carry crosses we were never meant to bear.
 

Think about it: Each of us is called to be a disciple, and each disciple is called to pick up his or her cross and follow Christ. But since many people choose not to be disciples, we have a lot of crosses lying around, waiting for someone to drag them away. All these crosses can make it difficult to discern which is ours. They can cause us to stumble and fall. They can cause us to neglect our own cross in a misguided effort to clear the path.  But if we take the time to identify our own cross—the one God made precisely for our particular strengths and weaknesses—and if we shoulder it and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who walks the path ahead of us, He will show us the way.

This, at last, is discipleship: Not to drive ourselves into the ground trying to do everything for everyone, but to ask God what He wants from us, to listen for the answer, and to resolve to do exactly that—to embrace the cross the Carpenter has crafted with each of us in mind, and leave the others.


Imagine a parish of such disciples, all doing exactly what God has asked of them—no more, no less—and all moving the same direction, pouring themselves out in love on a world that desperately needs it.
 
Such a parish would change the world, because unlike time and energy, love never runs out.