Thursday, August 17, 2017

Living the Hard Questions

This author has previously written about Venerable Matt Talbot, which is available at

Living the Hard Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves.
Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing,
live along some distant day into the answer.
“Be Patient Toward All That is Unsolved” by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

“God has a plan,” she said nonchalantly, shrugging her shoulders before I left the office. I cringed but forced a smile and a slight nod as I gathered my purse and quickly exited the building.

Why do these words always repulse me? I thought. They’re true. But incomplete, sort of trite and hollow, leaving me feeling the same – trite and hollow. It’s much like when people say, “Everything happens for a reason” or “Things will get better; look at the bright side.” It’s not that these sayings aren’t true in a shallow sense. It’s that they fall short of encompassing life’s mysteries and how God operates in us.

As I left my doctor’s office, I knew she was right – God does have a plan. But what was it? And why is not knowing whether or not I’m following it insufficient for me?

I thought briefly of Thomas Merton’s heart prayer: “Lord, I do not know where I’m going. But the fact that I desire to please you does, in fact, please you.” I guess that’s it – all of the wrestling within, the questions that are never answered and pleas that are met with deafening silence – it’s part of His excruciating plan for me.

It’s excruciating, because I’m left in the dark. He has chosen to withhold knowledge and clarity of His will from me, thus leaving me to grope and grasp for His hand without seeing what He’s doing or where He’s leading.

The grasping feels like drowning to me, but really it’s surrender. I’m letting go – of the need to know, to control, to feel certainty and confidence. This spiritual vulnerability is something new to me, and it’s terrifying. I am left here with a gaping wound in my heart, an unfulfilled longing to do great things for God. Yet His response is to keep me waiting, and I am in agony, not knowing if I should stay or move.

The fact that I desire to please God does, in fact, please Him. These words mean far more to me than “God has a plan” or “You are where you should be right now.” I’m learning that trust is more than repeating someone else’s mantra. It’s more than believing clichés. It’s radical, raw plunging into the abyss of the unknown. It’s clinging to God, cleaving to Him at all costs, pressing into His Sacred Heart.

Even in the unknown, the stark darkness and painful pruning of what I cannot see or determine, I please Him with my yes, renewed every day by my faithfulness to Him. My yes isn’t always straightforward; often, it’s messy and mingled with doubt and frustration. But it is nonetheless a wholehearted and honest renewal of my fidelity and commitment to serve Him in some capacity, however menial I may deem it to be.

And Jesus kneads the knots in my heart, which hurts. My ‘yes’ feels like His ‘no’ as He molds and shapes me into a more perfect and complete image of who I’ve always meant to be.

I left my doctor’s office with no real answers, as often happens in life. There’s nothing satisfactory about hearing the platitude, “God has a plan.” It’s something I intrinsically know yet fail to understand. And it’s because I’m in the midst of this inner tempest that vies for my soul. I cannot see or know or feel the truth of “God has a plan,” but I choose to accept it. And with that acceptance, I walk away.

I keep moving forward, wherever that may lead me. “Always forward,” St. Juniperro Serra claimed as his life’s motto. Indeed. Always forward, never back. To look behind me would be pointless and leave me in the wake of defeat and despair. Now I must accept the not knowing, live the questions themselves, and move ahead of where I am standing in this moment.

Though I want definite solutions, I don’t need them. What I need is to bask in God’s goodness, to throw myself into Him with unbridled trust and to dwell there until He bids me to begin again and again.

The deepening of one’s spiritual growth is not so much succeeding in the possession of unfailing answers to impossible questions. It’s more about living the mystery and becoming Mystery. It’s a way to heaven by obscure faith that is unclear but certain.

I’ve learned enough to know God may or may not make me privy to what He is doing in and with me at any given moment. But it’s enough for me to rest in this hard, messy, disjointed, and jarring place of what is incomplete. Life is incomplete until I journey beyond earth, so I shrug my shoulders in resignation as I look at the emerging twilight and say, “I know You have a plan, and that’s enough for me.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

"No Prayer is Useless"

St. Augustine reminds us that no prayer is useless.

We learn as children that praying doesn’t always “work”: we prayed and still failed that math test, we prayed and still were ignored by our crush, we prayed and our sick grandmother never got better. As adults, our worries increase, as do our disappointments in prayer: we pray and still don’t get hired, we pray and still our spouse wanders, we pray and we ourselves never get better. So, what’s the point? Why pray for things that we want if we don’t always get them? Is God listening? Does God care?

Of course, he does. But not in the way that we might expect. To correct the common notion of God as an invisible granter of wishes, Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount: “When praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7–8).
This is a profound statement on the nature of prayer. Jesus teaches that God never learns of our needs. Our prayer reveals nothing to him, for he already knows everything. Thus, we shouldn’t pray like the pagans, who think that their prayers introduce human need to the divine mind. Rather, our prayer should acknowledge the fact of God’s omniscient providence. “Pray then like this,” Jesus says: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …” (Mt 6:9–10).
Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father as the all-knowing and all-powerful creator and governor of the universe. In other words, we are to pray knowing that nothing occurs in creation that escapes God’s notice. 

There is no birth nor death, no gain nor loss, no joy nor sorrow of which God remains ignorant. As Jesus says elsewhere: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” No, not one of them; all unfolds within God’s providence. It can’t be otherwise. 

Consequently, Jesus assures his disciples: “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:29–31). As creatures, we possess nothing that God fails to count.

This is a consoling truth, but our question still remains: why pray? If God is the all-knowing and all-powerful ruler of the universe—if all unfolds under his watchful eye, and if he knows what we need before we ask—then what good can praying possibly do? 

Well, it depends on what we think prayer should do. If we think that praying should change God, then our prayer is indeed useless. We’d sooner yell the bark off a tree than change God’s mind about something. But if we think that praying should change us, then we pray as Jesus taught.

Centuries ago, St. Augustine explained the mystery of Christian prayer to a noblewoman named Proba. A young widow who fled the Sack of Rome (410 AD), Proba wrote to Augustine and asked how she should pray, her life spiraling into ever greater chaos.

Augustine responded that she should pray for a happy life, which the holy bishop described thus: “He is truly happy who has all that he wishes to have, and wishes to have nothing which he ought not to wish.” 

When we offer to God all of our desires for a happy life, Augustine explained, over time our offering is purified. As we draw closer to God, and as our wills align to his, we wish more for what he wants to give us and less for what we want to give ourselves. Praying does not change God, therefore; it changes us—in our hearts and in our desires. 

“The Lord our God requires us to ask not that thereby our wish may be intimated to Him, for to Him it cannot be unknown,” Augustine explained, “but in order that by prayer there may be exercised in us by supplications that desire by which we may receive what He prepares to bestow.” 

In other words, we pray always and in every situation not to alert God of our needs, but so that we might grow in our desire for the good things that God wants to give us for a happy life, leading up to eternal life.  

The mystery of Christian prayer as Augustine described it unfolds even in situations of great distress. In moments of trouble or trauma, we might not know how to pray as we ought, asking God simply to remove the cause of our trouble. Augustine granted that this prayer is natural and common. But in those moments, Augustine continued, “we ought to exercise such submission to the will of the Lord our God, that if He does not remove those vexations we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness.” 

When troubled, we pray for the removal of our trouble, though acknowledging all the while that the trouble itself may provide a path to some greater good. In order to pray this kind of prayer, we can look to a reliable model: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).

No prayer is useless, therefore. At any given moment, our prayer manifests either a heart aligning to God’s will or a heart already aligned to it. In either case, we pray confidently as creatures of a provident God, who wills that nothing of his ever be lost (Jn 6:39).

Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., serves as senior editor of Aleteia English.

Note:  For some very simply prayers see 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Praying for Ourselves and Others

"Today we pray for ourselves, that we may know our addictions and admit them. We pray that we become detached and free from whatever holds us back and kills our joy that comes from God. We pray that every day, we may attach our spirits in humble prayer to the God who made them and the God for whom they were made. 

We pray for all those whose lives are being destroyed by addiction here and beyond. May this be the time when new hope is born and many souls turn back again to God. Matt Talbot, pray for us."


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Venerable Matt Talbot: From Addict to Ascetic

From Addict to Ascetic

One Saturday in 1884, twenty-eight-year-old Matt Talbot stood outside O’Meary’s pub in Dublin, Ireland. He was low on cash. Workers streamed by him, men with whom he had often labored, and he waited for one of them to invite him in for a drink. Work hard; drink hard—this had been his rhythm of life since he was a young man. All his money went to pubs. And when he was out of work and had no money, he found ways to get it—selling his shoes or clothes, or, once, stealing a fiddle from a blind street performer and pawning it. But this Saturday no one stopped to invite him in.

Something inspired Matt to leave his post by the pub door that day and return home to tell his mother that he would make the pledge—a promise to give up alcohol for three months. He went to a nearby seminary for confession. Three months later he renewed the pledge and never had a drink again. After over a decade as an obstinate drunk, Matt dropped the habit.

He lived his remaining years in quiet, hidden penance, growing in the spiritual life through prayer, the sacraments, and acts of charity. His life was so quiet, in fact, that he probably would be forgotten today except that when he died on the way to church on June 7, 1925, he was discovered to be wearing chains of devotion and penance under his clothes. Though his struggle from alcoholism to asceticism was mostly unknown to others, after his death Matt became recognized by the universal Church as a holy man, a role model and inspiration to those struggling with addiction.

I learned about Matt Talbot’s story this summer, which I have spent in Baltimore working at a soup kitchen with the poor and homeless. This city has been called the U.S. Heroin Capital. Every day I see people stooped over, swaying, stumbling to their seats, unaware of the ground under their feet, and falling asleep in their food. In Baltimore, an estimated one out of every ten citizens is addicted to opioids. And the city is only one hotspot in an epidemic that killed fifty-two thousand Americans in 2015.

Lives consumed by substance abuse make particularly obvious the misery of sin. Sin leads to more sin, and a life of sin leads to destitution and a profound unhappiness on the edge of despair. Those of us who personally know people being destroyed by addiction may begin to wonder how, or if, such darkness can be overcome. But Matt Talbot’s life shines a light into this darkness. He is reported to have said, “Never think harshly of a person because of the drink. It’s easier to get out of hell than to give up the drink. For me it was only possible with the help of God and our Blessed Mother.”

Matt only could address his perverted love of alcohol when he encountered a greater love—the love of the Father who welcomes home a wayward, profligate son; the love of the King who searches out the neglected to come celebrate his son’s wedding feast; the love of the shepherd who seeks the one wandering lamb, who prays that none may be lost. Matt Talbot’s story shows that this love is real and efficacious, able to free us from even the strongest of sinful bonds.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Review of ‘Holy Desperation’

The subject of this book review is Heather King, an essayist, memoirist, blogger and former lawyer. She writes a monthly column, "Credible Witnesses," in MAGNIFICAT  and "The Crux," a weekly column on arts and culture in TIDINGS, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of L.A. One of the many holy persons she has written
about is Venerable Matt Talbot as well as conducted a Matt Talbot Retreat. 

In her 11th book, the relentlessly honest and passionate writer talks about praying as if one's life depends upon it.

Heather King knows all about praying as if her life depended on it, because her life literally did. After spending 20 solid years in what she calls “a twilight-zone alcoholic haze,” King’s knees finally hit the ground in desperation after a moment of “clarity” during which she realized she had to give up the drink or die.
I was strung out and half-drunk, and I had a cigarette in my hand.  I was thirty-four and it was the first time in my life I had ever sincerely prayed.
 That desperate prayer over 30 years ago got King sober, and the prayers she’s prayed ever since have converted her, healed her and awakened her to God and to life—a story she tells in her 11th book, Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depends On It.

King’s jagged journey eventually led her into the Catholic Church, where she now spends her days as a “contemplative laywoman” and a writer—with the passion that’s consumed her ever since she “woke up” from a “semicomatose haze of loneliness, depression, self-pity, neurotically self-centered fear, and paralysis.”

King doesn’t hold back, whether it comes to sharing her struggles or her love of the Catholic Church:
One thing I love about the Catholic Church is that it attracts nutcases. Otherwise, how could there be a place for me? 
I love it all: Mass, the angels and saints, holy days, incense, candles, bloody statues, relics, pilgrimages.  I especially love that miracles—and the “simple,” “deluded” people who claim to have experienced them—tend to drive nonbelievers mad.
Aside from the radical honesty and profound wisdom with which Holy Desperation is filled, this book is a must read for the sheer joy of savoring King’s prose, which offers a thoroughly relevant, fresh presentation of the Gospel that is both humorous and theologically astute. King writes:
I used to think I was open-minded because I’d invite the cabdriver upstairs. No, no, that’s not open-mindedness. That’s promiscuity. That’s looseness.
The open-mindedness, honesty, and willingness required in our quest for God seem to involve an imagination that’s willing to catch fire: a capacity to be moved, to be touched, to have a sense of humor about ourselves, a taste for the wild-card surprise; and a profound awareness of our vulnerability, brokenness, and need.
Beyond King’s clarity and honesty, Holy Desperation is a deep tome on prayer, conversion and inner transformation.  So much so that I’d say it’s the most challenging, daring articulation of the Gospel I have read in a long time.  In fact, I found myself stopping to pray and reflect on practically every page as I was prompted to take a personal inventory of my own willingness to let God love me, transform me, and use me as his instrument to love and serve others. King’s book drove me not just to prayer but to change, which she proposes should be a major fruit of a relationship with Christ and a life of prayer. As King puts it:
We’ll come to agree with the Church’s teachings, including those on the family, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, capitalism, usury, war, and violence of all kinds.  We won’t arbitrarily pluck out one or two isolated issues that happen to be easy for us to follow and ignore the many teachings we’d rather not look at too closely because they might require the very kind of radical change we so vociferously demand of others.
With utter orthodoxy and blistering accuracy—and without being the least bit preachy—King names and critiques many of the idols we must confront and stare down in ourselves and in the culture if we are to become more Christ-like. Her point is that prayer is meant to equip us to do just that: by giving us hearts that more readily seek God, eyes that more easily see God, hands that more willingly share God and the humility to openly admit that we’ll never really “get” God. As the contemplative writer observes, “Prayer doesn’t make us more excellent. If we’re lucky, prayer makes us more human.”

Amen, Heather King.  And thanks for not only a great read, but for a beautiful, timely and sorely needed enunciation of the central truths of our faith.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Exploring our Powerlessness

Although we have not had a label titled “powerlessness,” a word  search of this site will link multiple articles that relate to this word.

An extensive newsletter article that is not listed that may be beneficial to consider at this time is "Step One: We Admitted We Were Powerless" by Fr Emmerich Vogt, O.P. at


Sunday, July 23, 2017

For the Healing of an Addiction, One Day at a Time

The following prayer was posted ( in the weekly bulletin of Our Lady of Hope Parish, a Jesuit ministry, in Portland, Maine:
For the healing of an addiction, one day at a time

This day I have within me the resolve of Matt Talbot.
    This day I have within me the disciple of St. Brigid. 
    This day I have within me the triune faith of St. Patrick.     
    This day I have within me the courage of St. Brendan. 
    This day a pilgrimage, one step at a time.
    Let me walk with Matt Talbot and the pioneers of sobriety. 
    This day a pilgrimage, one step at a time.
Let me walk with Brigid, her staff a guide and discipline.
    This day a pilgrimage, one step at a time. 
    Let me walk with Patrick, his breastplate my daily shield.     
    This day a pilgrimage, one step at a time. 
    Let me sail with Brendan, safe, sober, and clean at day's

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Pope approves new path to sainthood

Pope approves new path to sainthood: heroic act of loving service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis has approved a fourth pathway to possible sainthood -- giving one's life in a heroic act of loving service to others.

In a new apostolic letter, the pope approved new norms allowing for candidates to be considered for sainthood because of the heroic way they freely risked their lives and died prematurely because of "an extreme act of charity."

The document, given "motu proprio" (on his own initiative) went into effect the same day of its publication July 11, with the title "Maiorem hac dilectionem," which comes from the Gospel according to St. John (15:13): "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes, said the addition is meant "to promote heroic Christian testimony, (that has been) up to now without a specific process, precisely because it did not completely fit within the case of martyrdom or heroic virtues."

For centuries, consideration for the sainthood process required that a Servant of God heroically lived a life of Christian virtues or had been martyred for the faith. The third, less common way, is called an equivalent or equipollent canonization: when there is evidence of strong devotion among the faithful to a holy man or woman, the pope can waive a lengthy formal canonical investigation and can authorize their veneration as saints.

While these three roads to sainthood remain unchanged, they were not adequate "for interpreting all possible cases" of holiness, the archbishop wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, July 11.

According to the apostolic letter, any causes for beatification according to the new pathway of "offering of life" would have to meet the following criteria:

-- Free and willing offer of one's life and a heroic acceptance, out of love, of a certain and early death; the heroic act of charity and the premature death are connected.
-- Evidence of having lived out the Christian virtues -- at least in an ordinary, and not necessarily heroic, way -- before having offered one's life to others and until one's death.
-- Evidence of a reputation for holiness, at least after death.
-- A miracle attributed to the candidate's intercession is needed for beatification.

Archbishop Bartolucci wrote that the new norms arise from the sainthood congregation wanting to look into the question of whether men and women who, "inspired by Christ's example, freely and willingly offered and sacrificed their life" for others "in a supreme act of charity, which was the direct cause of death," were worthy of beatification. For example, throughout history there have been Christians who willingly put themselves at risk and died of infection or disease because of aiding and serving others, he wrote.

Pope Francis approved the congregation carrying out an in-depth study of the new proposal in early 2014, the archbishop wrote. After extensive input, discussion and the work of experts, the cardinal and bishop members of the Congregation for Saints' Causes approved in 2016 "a new pathway for beatification of those who offered their lives with explicit and recognized Christian" reasons.

Archbishop Bartolucci wrote that the new provisions do nothing to alter church doctrine concerning Christian holiness leading to sainthood and the traditional procedure for beatification.
Rather, the addition offers an enrichment, he wrote, with "new horizons and opportunities for the edification of the people of God, who, in their saints, see the face of Christ, the presence of God in history and the exemplary implementation of the Gospel."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How to Slay Your Goliath

by Fr. Michael Najim

12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have helped countless people around the world to win the battle over addiction.  The 12 Step program, which is really a lived spirituality, helps people to see their Goliath, to name their Goliath, and, with God’s help, to overcome their Goliath.  I call it a Goliath because most people in the grip of addiction feel that the giant is just too big, that they can’t defeat it.  And the truth is that they can’t defeat it, not with their own will power.  But more on that point in a moment.

You need not have a serious addiction to benefit from the 12-Step program.  We all have Goliaths in our lives: things that keep us down, that we feel are too big to be defeated.  So what does this biblical story (1 Samuel 17) teach us about defeating the Goliath in our lives?

The young and fearless David is determined to fight the experienced Philistine warrior, Goliath.  Saul admonishes David that he’s too young to fight Goliath; but David is confident that the Lord will give him the strength for victory.  David says to Goliath: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of hosts…For the battle is the Lord’s, and he shall deliver you into our hands.”

We know the end of the story.  David strikes Goliath in the head with a stone from his sling.  Goliath drops, and then David cuts off his head.

The first step in the 12-Step program is: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable.”  The second step: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  Isn’t that what David did?  He never claimed he was going to take out Goliath by his own power.  David made it clear that the Lord was going to be the one to win the victory.  David wasn’t relying on willpower; he was relying on the Lord.

Sometimes we try to fight our Goliath with will power.  That doesn’t work.  It’s humbling, but we must admit we are powerless over it, whatever “it” is.  We must believe what David believed: “The battle is the Lord’s.”  This is why the third step in the 12-Step program is so important: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

So, what is your Goliath?  Is it a particular sin or habit?  Is it an addiction?  Is it a memory?  Is it a thought pattern?  Is it a situation or problem in your life?

It’s important to name your Goliath.  Honesty is really important.  Find someone you can confide in and name it.  You see, if we live in fear of our Goliath we empower it; but if we name it, if we look it in the face, we begin to experience freedom.

Make a decision to let go and let the Lord fight your battles.  I know, it seems counterintuitive: when we face a giant we feel we need to fight or flee; but in our lives with the Lord we do neither.  We surrender to God and let him fight for us.  He takes care of us (step 3).  And if we let him, he will slay our Goliath.

It’s okay to give up. No. I don’t mean to give in to despair or to give in to your addiction or bad habit.  I’m simply saying it’s okay to give up the battle and to tell the Lord that you can’t fight anymore, that you’re tired, that He has to do it for you. To overcome sin, addictions, bad habits, or any other situation in our lives, we must throw willpower out the window.  The only decision we need to make with our will is to surrender to the Lord and let Him take over.

Don’t be afraid of your Goliath. Look at it.  Name it.  Admit that you can’t defeat it.  And then surrender your life and will to the Lord.  Let him take care of it for you.  He wants to take it from you.  After all, it’s His job.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Feast Day of a Martyred Saint Who Died an Active Addict

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was an opium addict. Not had been an opium addict. He was an opium addict at the time of his death. 

For years, Tianxiang was a respectable Christian, raised in a Christian family in 19th-century China. He was a leader in the Christian community, a well-off doctor who served the poor for free. But he became ill with a violent stomach ailment and treated himself with opium. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Tianxiang soon became addicted to the drug, an addiction that was considered shameful and gravely scandalous.

As his circumstances deteriorated, Tianxiang continued to fight his addiction. He went frequently to confession, refusing to embrace this affliction that had taken control of him. Unfortunately, the priest to whom he confessed (along with nearly everybody in the 19th century) didn’t understand addiction as a disease. Since Tianxiang kept confessing the same sin, he thought, that was evidence that he had no firm purpose of amendment, no desire to do better.

Without resolve to repent and sin no more, confession is invalid. After a few years, Tianxiang’s confessor told him to stop coming back until he got clean. For many, this would be an invitation to leave the Church in anger or shame, but for all his fallenness, Tianxiang knew himself to be loved by the Father. He knew that the Lord wanted his heart, even if he couldn’t manage to give over his life. He couldn’t stay sober, but he could keep showing up.

And show up he did, for 30 years. For 30 years, he was barred from receiving the sacraments. And for 30 years he prayed that he would die a martyr. It seemed to Tianxiang that the only way he could be saved was through a martyr’s crown. 

In 1900, when the Boxer Rebels began to turn against foreigners and Christians, Tianxiang got his chance. He was rounded up with dozens of other Christians, including his son, six grandchilden, and two daughters-in-law. Many of those imprisoned with him were likely disgusted by his presence there among them, this man who couldn’t go a day without a hit. Surely he would be the first to deny the Lord.
But while Tianxiang was never given the grace to beat his addiction, he was, in the end, flooded with the grace of final perseverance. No threat could shake him, no torture make him waver. He was determined to follow the Lord who had never abandoned him. 

As Tianxiang and his family were dragged to prison to await their execution, his grandson looked fearfully at him. “Grandpa, where are we going?” he asked. “We’re going home,” came the answer.
Tianxiang begged his captors to kill him last so that none of his family would have to die alone. He stood beside all nine of them as they were beheaded. In the end, he went to his death singing the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And though he had been barred from the sacraments for decades, he is a canonized saint.

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang is a beautiful witness to the grace of God at work in the most hidden ways, to God’s ability to make great Saints of the most unlikely among us, and to the grace poured out on those who remain faithful when it seems even the Church herself is driving them away. 

On July 9, the feast of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, let’s ask his intercession for all addicts and for all those who are unable to receive the sacraments, that they may have the courage to be faithful to the Church and that they may always grow in their love for and trust in the Lord. 
St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, pray for us!

Note two related articles:

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Phenomenon of Craving Based on the "Big Book"

The Phenomenon of Craving
by Barefoot Bill
The Big Book on page xxiv (The Doctor's Opinion) says that an alcoholic has an "allergy to alcohol." An allergy is an abnormal reaction to any food, liquid or substance. If nine out of ten people have one reaction and one out of ten people have a different reaction, then the reaction of the one out of ten crew is abnormal. It also says on page xxvi that "the action of alcohol on an alcoholic is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is LIMITED to this class and NEVER occurs in the average temperate drinker." (A phenomenon is something that you can see but can't explain). "These allergic types can NEVER safely use alcohol in ANY FORM AT ALL."
Then on page 22, "We know that while the alcoholic keeps away from drink, as he may do for months or years, he reacts much like other men. We are equally positive that once he takes ANY ALCOHOL WHATEVER into his system, something happens, both in the bodily and mental sense, which makes it virtually impossible for him to stop." This includes substances that contain alcohol like mouthwash, cold remedies, some chocolates, food prepared with alcohol, etc.). Your body doesn't know if you are having a drink or taking Nyquil for a cold, it only senses alcohol and begins to process it. 

It also says on page xxviii that,"all the different classifications of alcoholics have ONE symptom in common: they CANNOT start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving. This phenomenon may be the manifestation of an allergy which differentiates these people, and sets them apart as a distinct entity." Dr. William D. Silkworth, M.D. who at that time had nine years experience specializing in the treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts, wrote this in the late 1930’s. He called it a "phenomenon of craving" because at that time there was no way to study metabolism. Since then, science has proven his theory as correct.
The following is an explanation of what happens when alcoholics put alcohol into their bodies, and how it is a completely different experience compared to non-alcoholics. No wonder why non-alcoholics can't relate, and make statements like, "Can't you just stop after one or two drinks?" It shows why alcoholics can use their willpower against everything EXCEPT alcohol.

Alcoholics make up about 12% of the population.The body of the alcoholic is physically different. The liver and pancreas of the alcoholic process alcohol at one-third to one-tenth the rate of a normal pancreas and liver. Now as alcohol enters the body, it breaks down into various components, one of which is acetone. We know now that acetone triggers a craving for more acetone. In a normal drinker, the acetone moves through the system quickly and exits. But that doesn't happen in an alcoholic. In alcoholics, the acetone of the first drink is barely processed out, so by staying in their body, it triggers a craving for more acetone. The alcoholic then has a second drink, now adding to most of the acetone of the first drink, and that makes them want a drink twice as much as the normal drinker. So they have another. Then, having almost three times the craving as a normal drinker, they have another. You can see from that point how alcoholics have no control over how much they drink. The craving cycle has begun and they have no choice but to keep drinking. Once the acetone accumulates in their body, and that begins to happen with only ONE drink, they will crave another. And how many times does an alcoholic think it would be nice to have JUST ONE drink to relax, but has many more? Now you see why. AND THIS CAN NEVER CHANGE!

On top of THAT (like so far it's not bad enough), alcohol is a poison because it destroys human tissue. The two organs that alcohol damages the most are the liver and the pancreas. So the more the alcoholic drinks as time passes (or doesn't drink, because the liver and pancreas also deteriorate naturally as we age), the less their body is able to processes the acetone. THAT is why alcoholism is a progressive, fatal illness. Bill W. says on page 30, "We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better." Pretty revealing, huh. It explains many things I never before understood.

But if you think about it, we never have to deal with ANY of this if we DON'T put alcohol into our bodies in the first place. So the MAIN problem of the alcoholic centers in their mind and in their spiritual condition. My mind tells me it's okay to TAKE the first drink and doesn't see that what I'm about to do is harmful (otherwise known as the obsession or powerlessness), and if I'm NOT spiritually fit I can't STAND being sober because it's too uncomfortable (otherwise known as unmanageability). Coincidentally, the Steps deal DIRECTLY and EFFECTIVELY with both.

So that's what it means to be an alcoholic - I can't handle drinking, and I can't handle not drinking. 

Note:  Also see

Insatiable Craving

In his early years of life, Venerable Matt Talbot craved drink, but from the moment of a turning point at the age of 28, his craving focused increasingly on God for the remaining 41 years of his life.
What is the meaning of insatiable craving? How does drunkenness seem to be an experience of the divine? How is it different? How can Catholicism make sense of the joys and sorrows of the drinking life? What, if anything, can an alcoholic in recovery offer to the Church?

The first three questions are addressed in the 2012 documentary film “Bill W.” about the life of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) co-founder, Bill Wilson. The film discusses Bill’s friendship with Fr. Ed Dowling – a non-alcoholic Jesuit priest and an early proponent of the fellowship of AA – who served as Bill’s spiritual director. It recounts a conversation that Bill and Fr. Dowling had once, in which Bill asked Father whether his thirst would ever be quenched. Father replied that, no, Bill’s thirst would never be quenched, because we are meant to thirst; what matters is where we aim what we thirst for. 

This understanding of a profound thirst, an emptiness sometimes described as a “God-sized hole,” is the beginning point of recovery for many. In the 12 Steps of AA, it is described as an admission of powerlessness and a recognition of unmanageability in one’s life. Though this is a good beginning, one needs more for recovery; one needs to “come to believe”, to encounter God and to begin to set aside self-will for God’s will. 
By our Catholic faith, we see that God has created us for happiness – for union with Him – and that He has instilled in us both a capacity and desire for Himself so that we might seek to do His will and to draw ever closer to Him. This desire and capacity seems to have two dimensions or aspects, which I call "unitive" on the one hand, and "infusive" on the other. The "unitive" aspect is one in which we desire and seek after unity or oneness with God, with other people, and with creation; it could be characterized as contemplative, peaceful, quiet, or restful. The "infusive" aspect, as I call it, is a desire to be filled with and transformed by the Holy Spirit; this aspect could be characterized as charismatic, active, or apostolic. This twofold capacity and desire for unity and for infusion I call the "mystical impulse."

Although this "mystical impulse" can be found in each one of us, the effects of sin and concupiscence often direct our desires away from God throughout our natural lives. Alcoholism – the habitual, chronic, and compulsive use of alcohol – is one of the ways in which we see sin express itself in the world. While alcoholism has been described in many ways, one of the most illuminating descriptions of it can be found in the beginning of "Alcoholics Anonymous": the so-called "Big Book," from which the name of the fellowship of AA is derived.

In the section entitled "The Doctor’s Opinion", written by addiction specialist Dr. William Silkworth in the late 1930s, one sees alcoholism described as the operation of a type of allergy to alcohol within the body of the alcoholic. Dr. Silkworth notes that the alcoholic experiences a "phenomenon of craving" that is triggered when he takes a drink. In addition to this physical craving, he experiences a mental obsession with drinking that defies reason or willpower. He seeks after a sense of "ease and comfort" that becomes ever more elusive over time, even in the face of a relentless and fatal progression. If he is fortunate, the alcoholic will come to discover that: a) once he takes the first drink, he is unable to stop, and b) that he has no effective mental defense against the first drink. So why does he do this? The best way to explain is for me to recount my own experience of drinking and recovery.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father showing me the coin he received upon his reaching 90 days of sobriety in a Minneapolis alcoholism treatment facility; I was perhaps 5 years old at the time. For as long as I can remember, I was aware of and obsessed with alcohol. On the one hand I was afraid of alcohol knowing that my father had problems with drinking and I did not want to end up in a hospital; on the other, I wanted to experience release from a painful self-consciousness and fear that mounted all throughout my childhood. I recall watching with rapt attention the TV commercials which depicted the Budweiser Clydesdales pulling their fully-laden coach through bucolic, snowy landscapes, wishing for their promised good cheer to break through the sad fog of familial strife that unfailingly settled over my house from mid-November to mid-January every year.

As I entered adolescence, I became aware of a shyness and awkwardness with others that impeded me from forming relationships with my peers, and also of a mental obsession with alcohol and drinking. The knowledge of my father’s alcoholism, along with that of his father and other relatives, gave alcohol a dreadful power over my imagination. It is of little surprise that I experienced a thrill when, at the age of 14, I had my first drink; I experienced a release, an instance of what the American psychologist William James described as alcohol’s "power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him, for the moment, one with truth." (James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York. Modern Library, 2002, p. 421.)

When I entered college, I immediately took to drinking; with a beer in hand, my self-consciousness and dissociation from others, particularly members of the opposite sex, melted away to reveal a convivial, affectionate and uninhibited young man who could easily and boisterously joke and talk with seemingly anyone. Seven years later, living in New York – where I was unencumbered by familial obligations and Midwestern business hours – I found a city made for drinking: the bars were open until 4 am (not counting the illegal "after-hours" clubs); the subways and taxis went anywhere at any time; the city was teeming with the lonely and the adventurous; and its citizens were remarkably tolerant of erratic and inappropriate behavior.

There I blossomed in misery; the very thing I consumed to allow me to escape loneliness – to overcome anxiety and self-consciousness – was also causing daily hangovers, nausea, vomiting, bad decisions, and "blackouts," such that I would wake up not knowing where I had been or what I had done the night before. The thing that had taken away the fear, trauma, and memories of non-contact childhood sexual abuse turned me into a voluptuous pleasure-seeker, unable to truly love the lonely and broken women I ended up with. Infused with false spirits and falsely united to friends and lovers, I chased after sensations without joy.
There I blossomed in misery; the very thing I consumed to allow me to escape loneliness – to overcome anxiety and self-consciousness – was also causing daily hangovers, nausea, vomiting, bad decisions, and "blackouts," such that I would wake up not knowing where I had been or what I had done the night before. The thing that had taken away the fear, trauma, and memories of non-contact childhood sexual abuse turned me into a voluptuous pleasure-seeker, unable to truly love the lonely and broken women I ended up with. Infused with false spirits and falsely united to friends and lovers, I chased after sensations without joy.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the entire city seemed plunged into the darkness and despair that I had felt for about a year. The autumn and winter months were all a blur of smoke, ash, tears, heartaches, illness, and pubs filled with boisterous firefighters and cops in their dress uniforms hanging out after their colleagues’ funerals. And suddenly, on my 28th birthday the following August, I heard a voice say with an unfamiliar clarity and authority that I was about to have my last drink; the unreal and false began to give way to the Real and the True. I was suddenly imbued with a previously-unknown desire to stop drinking, and to believe the message I had heard.

That experience was precisely the type of spiritual experience that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous describe as being at the heart of recovery from alcoholism. Bill Wilson saw in his own life, and in the lives of the alcoholics that he sought to help, that alcoholism was a mental, physical, and spiritual disease; recovery from alcoholism was dependent, not on medical or psychological treatments, not on moralistic arguments, but rather on an encounter with God. Why is this? Why does a spiritual program of recovery work in ways that incarceration, temperance movements, lobotomies, shock therapy, exercise regimens, and countless other approaches do not?

I would suggest, as Fr. Dowling did to Bill Wilson all those years ago, that we have a profound thirst that can only be satisfied by God. The alcoholic drinks in order to experience something of the divine, as William James discussed. This theme of thirst for God recurs throughout Sacred Scripture, such as in Psalm 42 (which begins, "As a hart longs/ for flowing streams,/ so longs my soul/ for thee, O God./ My soul thirsts for God,/ for the living God.") and Psalm 63 (where the Psalmist says, "I seek thee,/ my soul thirsts for thee,/ my flesh faints for thee,/ as in a dry and weary land where no water is."). Qoheleth, in the book of Ecclesiastes, recounts how he "kept from [his] heart no pleasure" and yet "all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun."  And yet, God did not create us to be unsatisfied; we see in the fullness of revelation that Jesus promises to give us living water: "whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:14).

When he comes to drink of this living water, the sober alcoholic can show the world and the Church in a particularly dramatic way the transformative power of God’s love. Where once he sought joylessly and compulsively after a false and fleeting sense of ease and freedom in drinking alcohol, he can experience true peace, unity, and joy in Christ. To encounter Christ, and to be infused with the Holy Spirit, is after all, an intoxicating experience. The Apostles appeared to be drunk when the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost; the Heavenly Kingdom will be not, as many fear, a place filled with the grim, the self-righteous, and the moralistic, but rather an eternal wedding banquet, where the saints behold their Creator and where the wine will never run out.

Spiritual masters throughout the centuries have described the relationship with God as a type of intoxication: the Anima Christi prayer implores, "Blood of Christ, inebriate me"; Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St. Dominic’s successor as master of the Order of Preachers, likened the Lord to a friend who wants to sit down and have a drink with us, hoping that we become drunk on the "new wine" of the Gospel. In being filled with that new wine, one then begins to overflow, to share that new wine with others in the hope that they, too, might become intoxicated by it. 
Fr. Hermann Cohen – a 19th century Jew who became a Carmelite priest after years of drinking, gambling, promiscuity, and associating with the rich and famous – preached this very thing when he said, "I am overflowing with joy. Yes, I am so happy that I come to offer it to you. … Faith brings us to happiness in God and in Jesus Christ his Son. … [T]o find Jesus Christ, one must watch and pray. … So pray, ask, and you will receive this intoxicating wine of immortality which flows from the winepress of prayer." (Schoeman, Roy, "Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ." San Francisco. Ignatius Press, 2007, p. 52.)

In coming to know Christ and in becoming "drunk" on this new wine of the Gospel, the alcoholic comes not only to experience the unity and infusion that he has always sought, but he also is given the chance to testify in an explicit way to the truths of the faith that might otherwise seem too remote or abstract to be believable. An example that comes to mind for me is that of the resurrection and glorification of the body; in becoming sober, I was able to witness in a profound way the healing power of God’s love, and yet I can also see that my condition as an alcoholic abides with me. I can foresee, with hope and faith, a time when that ailment of mind, body, and spirit will be healed and I will be made new.

Beyond this, however, the alcoholic discovers that, in the light of sobriety and washed clean in Christ’s love, his entire life can serve to give hope and encouragement to others. Hermann Cohen preached about this when he baptized one of his Jewish friends, saying: "Do you believe, my brothers, that God converted us just for our own benefit? No – a thousand times no. It is for others as much as for ourselves, that they may avoid the reefs against which we were shipwrecked. Yes, He has nailed us as signposts before the gates of Hell to say, ‘Don’t go this way.’" (Schoeman, p. 53.)

This insight is taken up in the Big Book to good effect. The alcoholic comes to see, paradoxically, that his recovery is contingent upon his remembering the past and being "willing to turn the past to good account." In doing so, he can help bring encouragement and hope to all who suffer, be they alcoholics or not. One of the most hopeful passages of the Big Book describes the culmination of personal transformation resulting from the long-sought relationship with God: "Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life seem so worthwhile to us now. Cling to the thought that, in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have – the key to life and happiness for others. With it, you can avert death and misery for them." (Alcoholics Anonymous. New York, 2002, p. 124.)

In laying down his life in such a way for the good of others, the alcoholic is given the grace to enter into a deeper unity with Jesus and with the Church by speaking from an abundance of the Spirit. In this, and in the Sacramental life of the Church, he finds the mystical impulse beginning to be fulfilled, filled with hope for a future at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Colin O’Brien is currently works in the Communications Department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and has previously worked as a litigation paralegal in New York City. He completed a six-week observership with the Trappist community at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa in spring 2013, and is affiliated with the monastery as a layman through its Monastic Center program. He periodically updates his personal blog, "Fallen Sparrow," and also sings in his parish choir.

Note:  Also see


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Relapse Toolbox for Catholic Alcoholics

"FYI. This is what happens when we relapse: another DUI, divorce filing from our spouse, living alone in an apartment away from our children, losing trust with home group friends, interlock device in our cars, more therapy, more medicine, more white chips, more disappointed faces of loved ones, more pain for everybody—least of all ourselves. But ourselves is all we think about when we’re in the midst of it all.  Not worth the buzz, I promise.

I’m gathering my Catholic tools to make another go at it. Yes, another. It’s worth it, I know. You know how I know? You know how I know it’s worth it?

I’ve had it. I had sobriety. I touched it, lived it, experienced it, loved it. I relished it, appreciated it, was grateful for it, humbled by it, in awe of it. Witnessed the dynamics-change within my family. Then, I took it for granted and lost it.

I have my reasons/excuses. But are there really any valid reasons for giving up the gift of sobriety? Not this gift. This gift is precious, priceless. Special. Something non-alcoholics will never understand. The gift of sobriety in the life of a true blood alcoholic is priceless.
It truly must be ONE. DAY. AT. A. TIME. A cliché I’ve always disliked because I am an enthusiastic dreamer of future dreams. 

Entrepreneur. Optimist. An “anything is possible” person. But I’ve met my match. The liar of lies finds our weaknesses and beats us down. That’s when God’s gift of humility can open our eyes to new lives.
Here’s to a(nother) new life, friends.

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All of my Catholic alcoholic tools to embark back on the path of sobriety are rooted in the love of Christ and Christ’s special love of sinners:

Rosary: I was broke but paid $100 for this Rosary because I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, it was handmade by a local very elderly woman who carefully chose each bead and prayed as she made it.

Matt Talbot medal: Venerable Matt Talbot, still in waiting for official sainthood. Patron of alcoholics. He’s been there with us in the fight.

Brown scapular: my sister gave me this after my first relapse and I wore it for two months. Now it hangs from my rear view mirror in my car. I never asked her if she wanted it back. I know that was selfish of me but it is so beautiful to me because it’s worn and not brand-new looking.

Prayer card to Saint Jude, patron saint of impossible causes: None other than the alcoholic can understand the utter impossibleness of recovery.

Prayer card of Saint Mary Magdalen: I think that Mary Magdalen isn’t the Mary who was saved from adultery or the demons or at the well…but I still think of her this way when I ask her to intercede for me with her Lord. I believe Mary Magdalen is actually the one at the feet of Jesus listening to him talk while her sister Martha is doing the dishes. That would totally be me lol. If any of y’all smarter than me can educate me on the real Mary Magdalen please do?

White chip: my Aa white chip. Seriously. I KNOW recovery is possible without AA. But not for me. I need AA. And I need daily AA. Not trying to offend any Catholic purists out there. Just speaking my own truth here.

Sacred Heart badge: the ORIGINAL white chip, sister Ignatia (friends with  Bill W and Doctor Bob) would give this sacred heart badge to each alcoholic who left the hospital after detox and told them they must return it to her if they drank again.

My one-year medallion– one of my most prized possessions. I picked this up on September 18, 2007 in the presence of my mother and my five sisters who flew into town for the occasion.

“Lord what do you want me to do with my life?” prayer card: One of my most favorite Irish priests, father Brian Higgins, was head of seminarians in the early 2000’s here in Atlanta. He was also a priest at my parish. He gave the best and most convicted pro-life sermon I'd ever heard. He gave these prayer cards out and I kept two. Over ten years ago but it’s always been in my fridge since. Great question to ask myself each morning right?

Saint Michael the Archangel prayer card: i also  have his medal on my key chain. who better to fight for us than the angel who fought satan himself. Defend us in battle against this disease.

Our Lady of Knots: i like this title of Mary, the untier of knots. She calls on her son for us to untie the knots in our hearts and minds that keep us from coming into closer relationship with Him.
If you happen to come across this post out there, then add your own tools that help you in your recovery path!"

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Viewing Addiction and Recovery as a Gift

Understanding Addiction

The Christophers’ Vice President, Mary Ellen Robinson, recalls a powerful sermon she heard a number of years ago at a healing Mass for alcoholics, drug addicts, and their families and friends.  Delivered by a Carmelite priest, his words will stick with her forever.

The priest said, “All of you that are sitting here today who suffer from addiction, look at it as a gift - then turn your addiction into an opportunity to help others.  There comes a time when an addict can be close to death and another addict who is in recovery has the gift of breathing life into that human being.  That is a gift in itself.” 
Having witnessed addiction among family and friends, Mary Ellen is one of the 130 million people in the United States affected by this disease.  She explains, “It’s something that rips to the heart of everyone connected to the person suffering from addiction.  They have to endure the secrets, the lies, and the abuse that go along with this lifestyle.  It is beyond imagination unless you’ve experienced it first-hand.” 

Thankfully, there is hope for addicts because of twelve-step programs around the country and institutions like St. Christopher’s Inn, a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Graymoor, New York.  For over 100 years, St. Christopher’s has been a beacon of hope for those who find themselves homeless because of addiction.  At their recent Board of Directors dinner, a young man shared the story of regaining his sobriety and his life due to their work.  

It’s also important to remember that addiction moves you away from your relationship with God  - though God, of course, is always right there waiting for you to re-connect.  In fact, it’s His power that uplifts the human spirit and lets the chains of addiction fall away.

A popular intercessor for addicts is the Venerable Matthew Talbot who lived in Ireland during the late 1800’s.  At the age of 28, Matthew took “the pledge” and never drank again. He had a great love and devotion to the Blessed Mother, went to Mass daily, and financially supported many religious organizations. He filled his spare time reading about the lives of the saints, especially Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Catherine of Siena.  He died at the age of 69 on his way to Mass.  Here is a quote from Matthew:

      “Three things I cannot escape: the eye of God, the voice of    conscience, the stroke of death. In company, guard your tongue. In your family, guard your temper. When alone, guard your thoughts.”

In order to help the millions of people in the U.S. affected by addiction understand and overcome it, The Christophers recently published a special News Note on that very topic.  As with all of our material, its purpose is to offer help and hope.  And we think the words it includes from a recovering drug addict named David say it all:

“I was a heroin and crack addict and alcoholic for 20 years.  I would steal on a daily basis and have been to jail several times for drug and alcohol-related offenses.  I got sick and tired of being sick.  I am only seven months into recovery, but now I wake up every morning just happy to wake up.  My most difficult day in recovery is a thousand times better than one in active addiction.  I want to make sure every addict knows there’s a solution.  No addict needs to feel helpless.  I want to give addicts hope that there is something that works.  There is recovery for everyone who wants it.”