A Culture of Emptiness

Within himself, St. Francis created
a culture of emptiness,
an empty space for God to fill.
To become empty,
we need to do nothing,
need to press the pause bottom
on our society’s addictive need to be productive,
to always be doing something.

I think we need to create
a culture of emptiness
more than Francis did,
as modern life is
so filled with busyness,
so cluttered with unfiltered information
tirelessly generated by the media and the internet,
so over-stimulated by
a dizzying array of electronic gadgets,
so pressured by the allure
of nonstop advertising,
and so driven by productiveness,
we are almost incapable of stillness
and can’t tolerate silence.
It was in stillness and silence
that Francis forged
his inner cloister of emptiness
and flamed his desire for God.

For Francis, his form of monasticism
had no walls,
for the world was his cloister;
but he was diligent
in periodically retreating
to places of solitude
where he could be renewed
and find a clear sense of direction
for his forays into the wider world
of activity and human commerce.

The Person in the Mirror

Who I am on the surface is not the true me. I’m not who I appear to be. My exterior is only the person I think I am, and the guy I put on display for others to see. The real me is buried deep within – unknown even to me, unknown to all but God. I must cast off this projected exterior image, my false self, and discover my true self, the person I was created to be. That process of losing and finding is the stuff of sainthood. I’m living in a dense forest of unreality. Finding my way out is a difficult, confusing, scary task.

The key to finding myself is finding God.

I’m transformed into my true self through the power of the One hidden in me. There is nothing I can do on my own. Even stripping myself of all that is not God will not bring me any closer to the reality of God. The only thing I can do is to respond to God’s call to enter into union with God.

I created my external self, not God. Out of the clay of my own egocentric desires, my own selfish, sinful actions, I molded the person I see in the mirror, the person who loves to flee reality. The real me, my true self, sleeps silently in the depths of my being, undisturbed by all my surface activity, waiting, patiently, to be awakened by God. My true self was created by God, made for God. And I cannot be my true self without knowing God. I am hidden in God. And God is hidden in me.

On my own I can learn something about God through reason and reading, but, as Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation: “There is no human and rational way in which I can arrive at that contact, that possession of Him which will be the discovery of Who He really is and Who I am in Him.” Merton goes on to say: “The only One Who can teach me to find God is God, Himself, alone.”

For most of my life, I was moving away from God, carried along on the tide I created. All along I had been fighting a Wind which had been trying to force me to turn in the opposite direction. My initial movement away from God was propelled by the influence of sin, and was powered by my ego and illusions. The habits acquired while traveling in the wrong direction are hard to reverse.

The superficial, fictional me I see in the mirror is far from the reality of God. The guy in the mirror is incapable of transcendent experiences. Only my openness to God’s call can put me on the path to becoming more receptive to the mystical dimension hidden within me.

This stuff doesn’t come quickly or easily…which is why we don’t bother with it. I devoted a few pages of the first edition of The Sun and Moon Over Assisi to explaining Merton’s ideas on the true and false self stuff. Mostly I quoted sources who understood. I had deceived myself into thinking I understood. In truth, my mind sort of got it – but it was just another theory neatly tucked away in a dingy corner of my brain. Slowly, I am beginning to “see” it with different eyes.

Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis mentioned in his address before Congress last week,  wrote so clearly about deep spiritual things that we think we get it. The fact is, his understanding was hidden in his words, which only point the way, showing us the right direction. But we must walk alone. Only God can teach me how to find God…which is why so many true contemplatives are so reluctant to talk about their inner life. They cannot teach us anything – aside from a few techniques to help us get started. But even those, with God’s help, we can figure out on our own.

Find a quiet place. Sit. Be still, mentally and physically. And listen. Easy? No. It is the most difficult thing in the world. Nothing seems to be happening. Results take a lifetime. Maybe even longer.

We are so far from God, it is beyond our ability to measure. Merton knew this, even after a quarter of a century as a monk. He knew he was far from his goal, and had miles to go. Perhaps he came close in Asia. Perhaps not. Only God knows.

God Provides

Recently after my early morning prayer time, I was left feeling scattered and a bit perplexed. In a word, I felt unnourished. I guess I wanted to “hear” something, something that would feed me. Instead I endured a noisy silence, hearing nothing but my own scattered thoughts, most of which reflected my concern about my inability to raise sufficient funds to effectively operate the Pax et Bonum Communications. We seem always on the brink of extinction. Then, as I pushed myself away from my desk, I spotted a little book I had not looked at in years. The book featured selected readings from the works of Ruth Burrows, an English Carmelite nun who is one of my favorite spiritual writers. I opened the book randomly and slowly read the following passage:

“We must submit our whole being to the discipline of the desert and not seek to avoid it. Like the Israelites of old we must press forward along a way we know not, trusting ourselves to God’s guidance, relying on him to supply all our needs.

Alas! Like them we grow weary of the wilderness, but let us not lose hope. Let us leave it to God to give us sufficient pleasure and comfort to sustain us. He will send us manna and make sweet water spring from the rock in due time, when we really need it.

We learn by experience that there is beauty and tenderness even in the desert, but it must be of God’s providing. Let us accept with humble love all the comforts both material and spiritual which he provides for us but let us not seek them for ourselves.

Oftentimes the silence and bleakness of the desert seems to penetrate into the depths of our souls, a desert of loneliness and aridity. We must not try to evade suffering; just trust in God to see us through, putting a seal on our lips, letting the silent peace of the desert enfold us.”

Suddenly and unexpectedly, I had been nourished. God provides. Praise God.

Turning a Blind Eye

The Pope’s recent encyclical (Laudato Si’) links both global poverty and the accelerating destruction of the environment to the destructive materialism, selfishness, and competitiveness that are rooted in the daily dynamics of global capitalism. Not many conservative politicians or bishops wanted to hear that stinging message. They want the Pope to visit the poor but not to deal with the root causes of their poverty. Many people inside and outside the Church turn a blind eye to the fact that Jesus had a truly revolutionary political point of view, and he was all about ending the suffering of people on this planet; and it was precisely that message that had made it so easy for Christianity to grow. Today that very same revolutionary message is easy to ignore.

If Jesus was walking amongst us in the flesh today, he would implore us to act together to care for the refugees fleeing the Middle East, to offer a hand to undocumented migrants risking death in the desert for a chance at life in America, to end the vast inequalities on our planet, and to save the life-support system of our planet. Any honest reading of the Gospels would make that perfectly clear…which is why the Gospels are not taken very seriously today. In the face an oppressive and planet-destroying reality, many Christians just shrug and say we must “be realistic” and accommodate the demands of the market and not force strict regulations on the backs of business in order to curtail pollution because they will also reduce profits. I guess Jesus isn’t realistic, so we don’t have to take him seriously…because conversion is always going to be a movement away from selfish ego-centricity to unconditional self-emptying love of others, which is not a journey we naturally want to embark upon because it will cost us everything.

The Sun & Moon Over Assisi

As most of you know, my life took a dramatic change between 1995 and 200 while writing my first book on St. Francis of Assisi. Prior to picking up a pen to write about this most loved saint of all time, I was probably the least qualified person ever to attempt to write about the saint who loved the poor and poverty beyond all imagination. Not only did I not know any poor people, I knew very little about Francis beyond the broad strokes of his life and the impression that he mostly liked animals. I wrote much of the book in a Franciscan friary in Rome over a nine month period spread over four years. I spent countless solitary hours in their major library which contained one of the largest collections of Franciscan literature in the world. I found most of what I read to be either overly pious or overly scholarly. I wrote the book I wished I could have read when I sought to walk more closely in the footsteps of Jesus by following the path of the one person who strove for nothing other than to imitate Christ with every ounce of his being.

Much to my surprise the lengthy, deeply personal book I penned touched many readers and garnered some prestigious awards. I didn’t really understand the buzz that surrounded the book for many years. I was amazed at all the deeply personal letters I received from readers from literally all over the world. To this day, when I give my “poverty and prayer” presentation at a school or church, someone comes up to me with their excessively highlighted book, tells me what it has meant to them, and asks me to autograph it. After a presentation at the University of Notre Dame, a priest told me that he had driven from Chicago to tell me how the book saved his vocation. In truth, I am embarrassed and humbled by all the hub-hub about the book. I personally never read it after I had submitted it to the publisher…I was too busy with the ministry to the poor that grew out of the writing of the book. But the book has been out-of-print for a number of years. I was stunned to learn that some people were paying $300 and more for used copies of the book on the internet.

I was delighted when a publisher asked me to write a new, much shorter book on St. Francis, which was published in September of 2014. But I was far more delighted when another publisher approached me a few months ago expressing a wish to re-publish The Sun & Moon Over Assisi. I was thrilled when Tau Publishing offered me the chance to revise and update the book. I deleted about 30 pages from the book and added an equal number of new pages filled with fresh material. It was wonderful for me to write about my journey with the poor since the publication of the original book and share stories of some of my filming experiences in Haiti, Uganda, Kenya, and Honduras. It was a true blessing for me to be able to enter deeply into the book again after all these years. As a result of two months of hard work, a much better book emerged. Beyond all the new and revised material, the book has a new typesetting design and layout that makes it even more enjoyable and easier to read. The cover has a new painting from Paolo Grimaldi, the talented Italian artist whose work also graced the cover of the original version of the book. The new book was released in both hardcover and paperback versions last week. In fact, the publisher has already shipped the first hundred orders for the book.

Tau Publishing has asked me to help them promote the book. They went way out on limb to re-publish the book. Many years ago, the publisher loaned his copy of the original book to someone who failed to return it. When he learned the book was no longer in print, he decided to re-publish it simply because he really loved the book. I urge you to support the great work being done by Tau Publishing to offer a large variety of books on Franciscan spirituality, both new works by noted Franciscan writers, as well as the re-release of classic Franciscan literature by such talented writers as Murray Bodo, OFM. I hope you can take a few minutes to check out their website at: http://taupublishing.org/

As we near Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States, you might want to order the book for friends to help them better understand the Franciscan spirituality at the core of the Pope’s message to the world.

Peace and blessings,


The Broken Ground of My Life

For a seed to grow it must be planted in broken ground. If a seed is sown on hard ground, nothing will happen. When the ground of our lives is broken during periods of significant trial, failure, and suffering, the seed of faith is able to grow. Life often is unfair and we are dealt serious injury or setbacks and life spins wildly out of control. When we lose control and become helpless, the grace of God begins to work in our darkness. How this works is a mystery; there are no answers. Living peacefully within the mystery without demanding answers is the essence of the spiritual life. But we want answers.

Our false self doesn’t like mystery. The false self is our ego; it cultivates the need for control, for success, and the sense of importance. The ego wants to be in charge. It is consumed with projecting a positive image. Success feeds the ego. The ego hates failure. Yet failure is part of being human; everyone stumbles, everyone falls, everyone sins. Our ego tells us to hide our weaknesses, our doubts, our confusions, our troubling questions. The ego is a mask hiding our true self. The false self, the ego-centric self, wants us to believe that the true self, the self that faces and admits our weaknesses, the self that fails and cries, is bad, because it contradicts our ego image of power, and glory, and success, and perfection…which is unreal. When the ground of our lives is broken by some catastrophe, we are introduced to our true self that is hidden in the shadow of our lives. Our shadow side is a place of tears where we are able to touch something deep inside ourselves. It is a place of fear and loneliness where we feel the need to be touched and embraced and blessed. The shadow self, the true self, is good; it shouldn’t be judged by the false self. The true self welcomes and accepts mystery. The false self, the ego, needs an answer for everything. There are no answers to the really deep, important questions of life. Why did a bright, vibrant ten-year old girl get cancer and die? Why did a 21-year-old man become so hate-filled that he entered a church and shot nine good people to death? What can make a terrorist decapitate someone? We long for answers. The ego demands answers. The broken self is a place of grace which knows there are no answers and surrenders to a higher power. Success teaches me nothing. Failure is the best teacher.

We can’t stand mystery, or failure, or weakness. We would rather hide than face our sinfulness. I hid and ignored my shadow side for a long time; I only wanted people to see the good I was doing. My ego was working overtime to keep everything working smoothly. But in time, everything fell apart. The ground of my life was broken. And in my brokenness, grace rushed in and inner healing began. When our ego image is damaged, it calls us to purify ourselves, to face our weakness, to confront our sin, to acknowledge our emptiness. In my brokenness I became more understanding, forgiving, more compassionate. Despite having written five spiritual books, I really have no answers. Publication is not a sign of holiness. I am simply facing life without any easy answers or formula for imagined happiness, but with eyes wide-open facing the emptiness waiting for a mercy I can’t give myself.

A Few Twinkling Lights

In the winter of 2000 I was graced with the chance to spend a week of solitude in Thomas Merton’s hermitage in the woods on the grounds of Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Here is an entry from the journal I kept during that week.

Sunday, December 3, 2000 at 5:45pm, Merton’s hermitage: I just made a cup of herbal tea. I turned around one of the big rocking chairs so it faced the front window. I turned out all the lights. I’m going to watch it get dark. On the distant mountain, about half way up, I can already see a few twinkling lights.

Reading this little snippet from the diary I kept during my week in Merton’s hermitage, I vividly recall the sweetness of my “hermit” experience, which offered me the possibility of pausing to drink in the arrival of the night. Each day is filled with natural wonders we don’t even see, which why seeing God in everything, even unpleasant things, is so foreign for us.

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