Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Thorn

Yesterday I staggered through the morning and afternoon, spiritually and physically drained. My wife and I made the 8:15 Mass, and in the middle of it I was struck by an absurdity of doubt: what if it's all a lie? What fools we are, with our candles and Bibles and incense, our vestments and altar and shrines! I considered the possibility that Jesus was only a man after all, a good Jew who wanted heart returned to his religion. Were that the case, he would be horrified by our current blasphemy, raising him to the status of God, forsaking the Mosaic law. Of course, he would say we were all only Gentiles anyway, closed off from God unless we undergo conversion to Judaism. I took communion (probably, as I think of it now, I shouldn't have, considering what was in my heart at the time) but the Host tasted stale and I felt ridiculous accepting it.

All in all, it was one of the lowest moments of my faith I can remember.

But I have a little book of devotions, My Daily Bread, and one of its lessons came to my mind after Mass. When God gives us consolation, a sense of His presence, that's a gift. We don't in any way earn it. When we feel desolate, like I did yesterday, we must carry on with faithfulness anyway. So I read my Scripture, prayed my rosary, spent what felt like a futile hour in focused prayer before bed. I went to sleep deeply troubled.

This morning before Mass began I knelt in the pew and opened my Bible, ready to read whatever opened. I knew I was searching for something, but I had no idea how to pray through my doubts. I found myself at the 4th Psalm:

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You have given me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

I read those three lines again. That's what I meant to say, of course. I read on, and felt God speaking directly to me:

O sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, but sin not;
commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

"Dull of heart." "Vain words." "Be silent." "Right sacrifices." "Trust in the Lord."

Saint Paul had a thorn that tormented him, some sin he could not extinguish and that God allowed to remain despite Paul's earnest prayers. For me, the dullness of my conscience after years of denying God is my thorn. My faith is quick to waver, and my mind to run down the old grooves of vain words and doubt. And it does make me angry---at God for not removing this trial? Perhaps, but I can easily commune with my own heart and see that these doubts are left to me for my strengthening. All I have to do is make right sacrifices----do what is good---and trust God to bear me up.

I was so moved by the power of my psalm experience that I enjoyed one of the more meaningful Masses I've participated in in a long time. Every reading seemed to be revelatory, the homily brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to fall on my knees before the Sacrament, put my face to the ground, and thank God for His mercy. Beneath all of that, I marvelled that just 24 hours ago, I wondered if I was a fool for believing. Now I saw my doubts themselves as the foolishness they were. Stupid again! Yet here was God, embracing me, letting me know His presence despite my unworthiness and hard-heartedness.

I don't know what purpose God has in letting my doubts remain, but what I experienced this morning might be a clue. I'm a stubborn and prideful man. Perhaps God uses this weakness in me to show me again and again how reliant I am on Him. And the reward, the truth of the homecoming when I pass out of doubt, is just the sort of "mountaintop" experience I need to strengthen me.

Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe. who hears the prayer of your faithful.

Friday, March 18, 2011


How has this happened? It was just Sunday, and now it's Friday. What have I done this week that makes me worthy of the name, "Christian"?

Sadly, not much. There's a question I hear sometimes, a motivational saying: "If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough outward evidence to convict you?" If these five days were examined and mined for evidence I'd go free for sure.

I had all these plans! It's spring break for me at the college, and my home schooled son got the week off, so my duties were minimal. I thought I'd hike and meditate, visit the nursing home, be up for 6:15 Mass every day, say a nightly rosary. I had a stack of books I wanted to read, a test to study for next week. I had this blog to write.

So what did I do instead? I don't know, really. I'm on hiatus from my social network on Facebook, and gave up computer games as part of my Lenten package. I know I cleaned the house. I did hang out with the family. I started a book, Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (that seems ironic, no?) I spent some good time drinking coffee and talking with my wife. And, along with the rest of the world, I followed with breaking heart the plight of the Japanese. I prayed a lot, and caught up with my spiritual director. I helped around the house more, and bought little gifts for everyone. I fasted, and I read more scripture than usual.

So how do I feel? I feel great! I feel relaxed, refreshed. When I wake up, I don't immediately get that knot in my gut thinking about the day's duties stretched out in front of me. In fact, I've realized that some of those "duties" were just self-imposed tasks that are unnecessary, more there to give me a sense of control than anything else. I feel closer to my family, closer to God, closer to the group of men I meet with regularly to plan a retreat in the fall.

There's a lesson in this for me. Sometimes, when I think the answer is to get busier, God wants me to just STOP for a bit. Breathe. Laugh. Sleep better. Think more deeply. I see that I've been trying to cram my days full when what I need to do is carve out a little more space, daily. It's hard to feel close to God when I'm fully occupied with running from one "necessary" task to another. He didn't make me a robot, He made me a man; and I need to accept the limits of my state with more grace.

In the restful silence of this week, I've meditated more than I have in months, and all of my meditations have brought me into that timeless space that accompanies God's presence. If I haven't said the Rosary this week, so be it. But I've been praying almost without ceasing the whole time.

Maybe there wouldn't be enough outward evidence to convict me of my Christianity this week. But if the jury could see what God has been writing in my heart these last few days, I'd be convicted for sure.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Suffer the Little Children

Yesterday, the first Sunday of Lent, was the Rite of Election, when all the catechumens and candidates are sent by the congregations to the Bishop, who receives their names and declares them to be among the elect.

At the Basilica in Saint Louis where the Rite took place for our archdiocese, I was stunned by the beauty of the murals in the Cathedral. I know some Protestants complain that the Church spends too much money on her Churches, money that could go to the poor, or to the pro-life movement. Judas (I tend to think of him as the first protestant, the one who refused to see Christ's authority) made the same complaint against Mary Magdalene when she anointed Christ with expensive oils. But I read the Old Testament account of God's directions for the Ark of the Covenant, and I think about the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, the Ark of the New Covenant, and I know we can never build a Church too beautiful for the Blessed Sacrament, the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, the Real Presence. As I walked through the interior, I was intensely aware that Our Lord deserves an edifice as beautiful as this.

I was totally unprepared for the effect the Rite of Election had on me. I'm sponsoring a man who's coming into the Church and I've been praying and fasting for him since last August, so being there with him was important to both of us; but I'd viewed the rest of the ceremony as rather perfunctory, something I'd need to sit through. That was a foolish notion, of course, because wherever God is active is an occasion for awe. But I'm a fool, good at foolish things. So I was surprised when I cried as the unbaptized catechumens went forward to the altar as their names were called. As I watched them, I realized that we were stealing souls from Satan's grasp: all of these people would have been condemned without baptism. I was watching salvation in action. It was a beautiful sight, one that put the Basilica itself to shame.

Why was I surprised by my reaction? Why am I always so surprised by God? When I first came to belief I sat for hours each week in prayer before the Sacrament, struggling with the sense that I was holding something back, something I wasn't willing to give to God. I've searched for years for that stiff-necked part of myself, but the feeling remains. I have a prayer I pray over and over, almost like a mantra: God, do whatever it takes to make me fully yours. Blind me, maim me, furrow my back, break me.

Scripture tells us our prayers often aren't granted because we pray for the wrong things. After yesterday, I think I'm closer to an understanding of my own problem. I'm surprised by God because I keep thinking I have Him all figured out. I suffer from a horrible intellectual pride that convinces me that I know God. So when I see something I didn't expect from Him, like His presence in those saved souls streaming toward the altar, I'm dumbfounded.

I'm not childlike with God. Children wonder at the world, but nothing surprises them. To be surprised, I have to first think I know what's going to happen, what's supposed to happen, then have something else happen instead. Yet God surprises me.

My prayer needs to change.

Not "Blind me," but "Let me see that I am blind without You."
Not "Maim me," but "Let me walk upright in your truth."
Not "Furrow my back," but "Give me a furrowed heart, ready for Your Word."
Not "Break me," but "Remake me."

Lord, I don't have any idea how You might accomplish Your will in my life, but when You do, give me the childlike grace not to be surprised.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

He's Got You and Me Brother, in His Hands

I remember sitting in front of the TV in my mother's long living room watching the news coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995. I was 34 and just beginning my Christian walk and as the helicopter rolled tape of the Murrah building I closed my eyes and thought of the souls suddenly released that April morning, all at once freed. The horrible thought came to me that not all of them were as safe after death as they had been while alive and I cried. My mother leaned over and patted my hand and said, I know. It's horrible. but she's an atheist and I knew she wouldn't understand why I was crying. I didn't say anything.

Six years later, I was giving a lecture on "Architecture as Poetry" to a group of college students one Tuesday morning in September of 2001. Before I went into the lecture Corey said Holy shit! loud enough to bring people out of their offices and down the hall to his, and he turned his computer screen to us so we could see the headlines that read, "Plane strikes World Trade Center" and we all shook our heads, talking about our certainty that it was some small plane with a novice pilot and wondering if it was just sticking out of the building or what, a thought that made us laugh. When I came out of the lecture I walked down the hall whistling, stopped at Corey's door and crowed I smoked that lecture! but stopped smiling when Corey looked up.

"They fell."
"What fell?"
"The towers. They both fell," and he walked past me toward the auditorium because they'd wheeled in all the big TVs there for people to watch CNN.

I came into the dark lecture hall behind him. On the screen was the familiar shot of New York City, except now a long dark plume of smoke was rising from the place where the Towers once stood. The announcer was saying the Pentagon had been hit, and another plane was missing. I slowly got my mind around what had happened, and when I turned to look at Corey he was gone but Dennis came in crying, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his blue oxford shirt. Our eyes locked and all I could think of to say was Nothing will ever be the same again and of course it never was. I didn't think of souls being loosed, or whether they were safe, or anything really except that I didn't want to go home and be alone. I called my wife and my mother, and that night my wife and I held each other all night without sleeping or talking. In the next weeks I wondered why God was so unhappy with my nation and I learned how to pray again.

Today I watched the videos of the wall of water crushing its way across Japan, I watched the cars and boats and buildings rolling like macaroni in a dark broth and I was awestruck by the power of what God has wrought. But then the camera zoomed in on a white car on the road just past the wave, coming to a stop and making a three-point turn in the middle of the road before tearing off across a field, trying to get away. From our vantage point, it was clear it wasn't going to make it, but I was rooting for it. Then the wave caught up to it and all we could see was a silent slow roll and bob and then the car was gone. I rewound the video over and over at that point, as if I could change the ending if I willed it hard enough. I wanted to reach out, pick up that car and hold it safe in the palm of my hand until the danger was past.

In the palm of my hand. I remember that song from Sunday school at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church, back in 1973: He's got the whole world in his hands... So I guess today I wanted to play God; when the wave was coming down on that tiny white car I wanted to play God and hold it safely in the palm of my hand.

If I was completely honest with myself I'd admit I want to play God a lot, that maybe in some way I think I'd do a better job of it than He does. I would have given Timothy McVeigh some sort of vision that made him decide he'd just give all that fertilizer to a farmer, then join the Peace Corps. Bin Laden would have been visited by an angel on September 9th who would have convinced him to call the whole thing off. And while I was at the whole "being God" thing I would have just placed my arm along the coast of Japan and let the water rage straight into the air for 6 miles then fall back into the sea.

Yeah, I sometimes think I'd be a better God than God. But not often, and never for real.

Just at moments like these.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why I Need Mortification

I fast again tomorrow. I've already planned the "menu," if you can call it that. A boiled egg and dry toast for breakfast, with a glass of milk. One piece of bread and some peanut butter, half a banana for lunch. And at supper, rice and beans, one cup each, and another glass of milk.

A missionary priest from Haiti once came to my old parish to raise money for Food for the Poor, a great charity that uses a full 95 cents of every donated dollar to put something where it's needed. He told us about his journey, how he'd been a pastor in an affluent Northeastern parish for years, with a fancy rectory and very generous parishioners making sure he had everything he wanted. Then the superior of his order called one Monday and said, John, you're going to Haiti. He answered, Well, I don't think that's such a good idea. My parish here needs me. To which the Superior, after a pause, answered, You leave on Wednesday, and that was that. Father John arrived in Haiti and was met by another priest who took him to his new quarters, a tent-shaped piece of bent tin with some grubby cardboard spread out as a floor. He lived in that for 5 years, and now was at my parish as part of a cross-country effort to raise money for Food for the Poor, for help in Haiti.

He told us about the poverty, the dictators, the topsoil washed out to sea by the last hurricane. He said at the mission camp they keep a lot of kids full by feeding them rice, beans and milk. For variety, we sometimes mix it up, he said, and give them milk, beans and rice instead.

We all laughed because we were supposed to, but I remember feeling a little queasy realizing people really do live that way, every day that I'm eating whatever I want and buying new $20 towels because we don't like the color of the old ones, and spending $50 a month on sodas alone, some swollen belly kid is saved from picking garbage out of a dump and given rice, beans, and milk instead for a full month because somebody gave Food for the Poor $5. Father John said the first time a child is given the food they cry like they'd been slapped, they're so overcome by the emotions they feel at having a real bowl of food in front of them.

So tomorrow I'll eat a little bit like them, and I won't cry. I'll probably just get crabby, like I did tonight.

I have no idea why my mood changed so suddenly tonight. There was no reason for it; I was off work, and so was my wife. My son was busy with his school work, and we were all cozy inside while it rained and gusted outside. But suddenly I was cagey as a cat, and everything got on my nerves. The feeling lasted while I made supper, while we ate, and on into the evening. I yelled at both of my kids for the smallest things and when I went to bed, I snapped at my wife and I was so tense I was grinding my teeth and couldn't sleep. Then I remembered that Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by Satan.

Oh, yeah. Satan. He's right here with me.

When I first started my formation with the Abbey out in Ava, Missouri, Brother Louis called me and we had a nice chat. At the end, he said, Watch out for Satan. He doesn't like it when a man tries to grow closer to God. He told me he didn't mean to scare me, but that he'd nearly died once when he was in formation.

I'm tempted to dismiss the idea that Satan really is watching what I do, or that he'd pay much attention to whether I chose to draw closer to God or not. But that's putting the emphasis in the wrong place, on me. What Satan hates is God. And what God gives a man when he draws closer to Him is supernatural dynamite. Every thriving, pulsing Christian is a powerhouse for God, capable of superhuman feats he could never perform on his own. Every superhuman act for God is a devastating blow to Satan. So Satan's here, and he's tempting me, and I totally blew the first round.

When I couldn't sleep, I came upstairs and decided to pen this blog entry, but first I made some notes in my little black journal I'm using for Lent, one with Saint George slaying the dragon decoupaged on the front. I did some free-writing, and what I realized was that I'm feeling discontented with several things: as soon as I decided to do some serious hiking, my heel and my knee went out within a few days of each other, leaving me hobbled up a bit. I want to go to daily Mass, so the single family vehicle becomes a problem because of my wife's new work schedule. I want to be able to use my days off class to get things done, so my son stops cooperating in homeschool. Little things, but between them (and others too mundane to mention) I feel jammed up every time I turn around. I looked at my list for a minute, and wrote "What do you want me to do, Lord?" The answer came to me immediately: PRAY. So I did. It was a short prayer, but I felt like an electrical wire that had just been plugged in. When I opened my eyes, I immediately saw how many times I'd written the word "I" in my list of complaints. At the bottom of the page, I wrote, "FRUSTRATION" and below that, "Thwarted self-will."

There was the answer, of course. I wasn't asking God what he wanted me to do; instead, I spent the day thinking about what I wanted to do, then getting frustrated because nothing was working out. Self-will. I know I have free will, and it's part of the human dignity God gave me. But my call to holiness is a call to bend my self-will to match God's will, then use my freedom to obey him. And I know that whatever God wants me to do, he'll supply what I need to do it. So I won't be frustrated.

Maybe I don't mind Satan being with me as much as I mind the superabundance of me that's tagging along.

So I'm glad that tomorrow and Saturday are fast days. I need some mortification.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stones and Wind

"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread."

I was in a physical desert, once. I was driving cross-country in an old Chevrolet with a girl named Patsy, 10 miles into the Mojave Desert in mid-July. The air temperature was well over 100 that day, and we had a six-pack of 7-Up ponies and two packs of Twinkies for the road. We were singing a Bob Seger song loudly and poorly when steam started rolling from beneath the hood and the car lost power.

I eased to the shoulder and got out to see what I could see---the heat stunned me when I stepped out onto the pavement. The shoulder felt soft beneath my feet. I popped the hood. No busted hoses, just water spitting up from the overflow and an impossibly hot radiator cap. I was only out there for 20 minutes before I started feeling light-headed and clammy. Damn. Too hot. I weaved to the passenger window and told Patsy to give me one of the 7-Ups.
"I drank them," she said.
"All of them? Just now?"
She nodded.

I told her to get out, we couldn't stay there, we'd die. We started trudging back toward Needles once I convinced her it was safe to get out of the car, that the rattlers were under rocks and even if they weren't they wouldn't rush out to bite her on the road. We were lucky; a family in a pickup truck going east pulled over and we crossed the sandy median and got in the back. A local shop towed the car and told me the radiator was clogged, that I shouldn't have filled it with water in Oklahoma because everybody knows Oklahoma water clogs radiators.

The rest of the trip up to Eureka (way up in northern CA) was a nightmare of driving 35 mph through the cold nights to keep the car as cool as possible, and sleeping in cheap motels with chugging air conditioners all day. Patsy fretted all the time, seemed she was scared of everything, and I started regretting making the trip with her. By the time we got past Monterrey, the car wouldn't go over 35 without overheating, and more than once I had to trudge back to some pond we'd passed 5 miles back to fill milk jugs with brown water just to squeeze a few more miles out of that car. We finally abandoned it in the parking lot of a bar in Los Gatos and caught a Greyhound bus the rest of the way.

But this was about the desert, wasn't it? Not Patsy, or that old car, or the wild careening ride in that Greyhound when I slept standing up, leaning against a tall Mexican lady who never seemed to notice me through her girth. I slept for 20 straight hours when we got to Eureka, and never spoke to Patsy again. She got a ride to San Francisco with some other man and flew back to Virginia. The first night after she left I wandered down to the ocean with a bunch of guys I met at the bar, and we built a fire out of driftwood and watched the phosphorescent surf curl up the sand, like a liquid glowstick.

It was cool up there, never hot, even in the middle of the day, and I said, "Sometimes a guy just needs this kind of thing," and told them to go on back without me and I slept on that beach. I woke up cold and wet, stinking of stale woodsmoke, but somewhere in the night the desert was swept out of me by the wind from the Pacific. I doubt a 7-Up would have done that.

I didn't believe in anything then, I just ran on instinct and the next best thing that came along, but I think I can look back at that night on the beach, listening to the fire and the other guys being silly and loud, but all I paid attention to was the wind off the ocean. It felt like it was blowing through me in a straight line, and behind it I felt the boom of the surf that sometimes made the sand tingle beneath me. I knew it was all way bigger than me, greater than me in a spiritual way that dumbfounded and comforted me. It was, I believe, my first and completely intuitive encounter with my God.

And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'"

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ashes and pride and a little snake's tail

Today my wife, Faye, and I and our son, James, went to the 6:15 Mass and received our ashes. In my last parish, the ashes were always pale, like cigarette ash. But here, I saw that the ashes were dark black. I had mixed feelings: today I would be in class all day, on campus from 9-3, and I knew few of the young college kids would have ashes on their foreheads. I'd stand out. Worse, I was afraid that even here, where Catholics are in the majority, lots of them wouldn't even know what I had on my face.

I remember in 1987, visiting my mother after a long time overseas, I came down with chicken pox before I got to her house. I spent the two weeks of my visit covered with sores, and when relatives came over, I dreaded their first sight of me. Sure, they knew they were chicken pox, but still my vanity gave me fits. This morning I was sad to see I'm still as vain as I ever was. Sigh. Another character flaw to pray over this Lent.

Sure enough, the first class (psychology) a young woman caught a glimpse of me and blurted out, "What happened to your face?" loudly enough for everyone to hear. One of those awkward silences ensued, all eyes on me. Off to my left, someone muttered, "They're ashes." I spent the next 10 minutes explaining Ash Wednesday, and the ashes, and Lent. The professor, a young atheist, prodded me with questions about my faith, about my desire for the family brother program at the Abbey ("Religion fascinates me," he said."But it seems like a myth to me.") I sent up a prayer for him.

But what surprised me was the overall response: lots of "Cool." and "Sweet." They seemed to be looking at me differently, like I was no longer just the old guy in the freshman psych class. What is it? I believe they're hungry, and when someone talks openly about faith and mortification, it touches that part of them that the world never touches---the part that wants something more than themselves. That's tough for these young kids, who've grown up in a culture bent on convincing us nothing transcends us, or our comfort, or our immediate satisfaction. I know it sells, but what I saw this morning confirms my suspicion that what hedonistic philosophy really does is make empty shells out of people.

I thanked God for the chance to witness to them, and for giving me the grace to keep it low-key. I don't know all their names, but God does, and I'll keep all of them in my prayers. Especially the young professor, whose fascination with religion tells me God is calling him. He's a research psychologist, though, full of science and data points, and probably surrounded professionally by other atheists. He has a long road, but God will prevail in calling him home someday.

Lunchtime was a rush to study for my lab quiz. They had fish in the cafeteria, but it looked far too good for Ash Wednesday so I settled for the cheese sandwich, dry. Tonight we had beans and rice for supper, and drank water. I was hungry when my plate was empty, and that's a good thing. Still, I can't see that it gives me solidarity with the poor, because they are hungry and don't know when they'll eat next, or if they'll eat again. That fear seems far worse to me than the hunger, and especially for the parents who don't know if they'll find enough food to keep their children alive. There's no way for me to experience their suffering.

When I think of things like that, my ashes and small meals seem almost pointless. Perhaps that's God's way of reminding me how far I have to go.

I've completed my prayer over the Seven Penitential Psalms and found they led me to a great spot to begin my Lenten reflections. I've done my examination of conscience, identified my greatest weaknesses and most common sins, and feel true contrition. Next, tomorrow I hope, will be confession.

On a bad note, I found myself being snappy this morning with my wife, who called me out on it after breakfast. I see a snake's tail in the grass. Satan won't let me go alone into the desert. He'll accompany me the whole way.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Still at the Jordan...

...dripping wet and stumbling up one bank. I can feel God calling me into the desert, but I'm afraid. What's out there? Or more correctly, what's in here? My desert is not miles wide, but wider still---the vast unknown territory of my own sinful heart.

But I'm called, and He will be with me.

So I start my forty days in the desert, the first serious attempt I've made in my 49 years to experience Lent as it's meant to be. I'm still planning, on this day of Carnival, my path through the desert. But at the same moment that I plan, I laugh because I know nothing will be as I imagine it: the beasts will be fiercer, and spring up from places I never expected. The comfort of the ministering angels will come in ways and at times that will surprise me, as well.

I've often studied the Temptation of Christ. For whatever reason, it's a piece of the Gospel that resonates with me more strongly. I think my days of homesteading had something to do with understanding that call even before I received faith. I had to pit myself against the demons I imagined were strangling me, I had to strip the world away and let my existence come down to earth, and sky, and sun, and rain. I'm not surprised that's when I stopped running from God---I had no place to hide, and He was all around me. I split wood and heard Him in the tearing grain. I watched mist roll over the low fields and felt His grace, like dew. When I broke new sod, it rolled over, rich, brown, begging for the truth of the seed to fulfill its purpose. I pulled weeds for hours and rooted out my own worldliness with it. I came to Him, finally, naked and cold, older than my years, afraid, desperate. He comforted me, fed me, gave me warmth, and I flourished.

Oh, I've had my weedy days since, even went fallow one year and nearly drank myself to death. What was I looking for then? I don't know, really. I learned that "falling away" isn't frightening like I thought it would be. If it was frightening, who would do it? I used to hear about people falling away from the faith, and I'd think of ladder-falling and dream-falling, that eerie sickness that starts in the groin and blossoms across the chest cold and sharp. I never understood how anyone would let that happen to them. But I was thinking of the wrong analogy all along. I should have remembered interviews with skydivers, how they describe falling. They say, "It feels like flying."

It does feel like flying. Falling feels like flying, and that's why we fall away without catching ourselves. It was a freedom, sudden and wild. No more caring about my soul, the tedious road to salvation, the self-checks and repentance and responsibilities. I was free!

I remember walking down a city street with my father when I was maybe 10. I looked up at one of the skyscrapers and exclaimed that falling from its top floor would certainly kill someone. He said, "Oh, no. Falling doesn't kill you!" Then he knelt down and held his hand an inch from the pavement. "Now, this last inch, that's what kills you."

I hit the last inch of my free fall one evening alone in my apartment. I ended up with my shotgun in my mouth. A phone call (coincidental, I'm sure) came in, then another, and finally a third, all of which I felt compelled to answer. After the third call it occurred to me that God might be trying to communicate something to me. I put away the shotgun and took the plastic tarp from the wall where I'd tacked it to catch the mess. Like the prodigal son, I looked back toward what I'd left behind and decided, in some weakly-formulated way, to go home.

That's a weird thing, this story of the Prodigal Son. The story doesn't really tell us much about the moment when the profligate looks up from the swine heap and decides to go home. The way it reads, he just gets up and goes. Really? I mean, really? For me, going home was a strange and awkward affair. But I went, and I wore the ring and feasted at the feast.

That was years ago, and now I find I've drifted away a bit again; not a full flight like before, but a slow tidal creeping. I don't have as far to go to get back home, but it seems as hard today as it was back then. Inertia (evil?) wants to keep me rooted here in my comfortable lukewarmness.

But it's Fat Tuesday, after all, and I find that once again, the money's all been spent, and there's a road, and a promise, and a long desert stretching from here to there.