Archive for January, 2010


A Lenten Path

January 29, 2010

The grinding power of the plain words of the Gospel story is Like the power of millstones; and those who can read them simply enough will feel as if rocks had been rolled upon them.

A Look Inside by Edna Hong

“DID YOU EVER LOOK inside yourself and see what you are not?” the crippled daughter in one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories shouts at her spiritually crippled mother. Few of us have looked long enough into ourselves to see that what seems to us and to others as normally attractive is actually as graceless as a scarecrow and even repulsive. It is an easy matter for the physical eye to spot physical deformity and blemishes in others and in oneself. It is not so easy for the eye of the spirit to spot a spiritual dwarf, hunchback, or cripple, although it is easier to see these spiritual deformities in others than in oneself

This X-ray look at others is called “naked truth,” “unvarnished truth.” In literature and art it is called realism. But to spot it in one’s self is not only difficult but painful, and no one wants to take the descending path to that naked, unvarnished truth, with all its unacceptable humiliations, It is much more comfortable to stay on the level of the plain and ordinary, to go on being just plain and ordinary. Yet it is to this path that Lent invites us.

The reason Lent is so long is that this path to the truth of oneself is long and snagged with thorns, and at the very end one stands alone before the broken body crowned with thorns upon the cross. All alone — with not one illusion or self-delusion to prop one up. Yet not alone, for the Spirit of Holiness, who is also the Spirit of Helpfulness, is beside you and me. Indeed, this Spirit has helped to maneuver you and me down that dark, steep path to this crucial spot.

“But I’ve been to that place before,” the born-again Christian may protest. “Of course, the non-Christian and perhaps the brought-up Christian need to be brought to that crucial spot, but of all people, we who are born again should not. Is it not a kind of heresy to say that we need to go there again and again and again? Is it not to doubt our salvation, the power of our Savior to deliver us from the dominion of darkness?”

Lent would indeed be a futile liturgical farce if the redeemed were henceforth sinless and if the tides of human nature were not always moving even the twice-born, who have not shed their human nature, in the direction of complacency and taking it all for granted. The tides of God always move in exactly the opposite direction — toward an ever deeper skepticism about ourselves (that we may have all the more confidence in God), toward an ever deeper self-distrust (that we may trust in God all the more). The high tides of human nature, even of the twice-born, move to drown the conscience. As long as the consciences of the born-again are housed in human flesh and bone, they are prone to the sleep of death and need continual rescuing.

Our self-indulgent and self-flattering age looks upon the self-maltreating and self-hating practices of the monastic and desert ascetics as pathetic and futile. We shiver to think of Suso making himself a cross with thirty protruding nails and wearing it on his hack like a porcupine skin day and night. We laugh to think of him never taking a bath in order to mortify his comfort-seeking body. But for us who feel the need for daily showers (because soap has not broken dirt’s dominion), it most certainly is not spiritual self-mortification and asceticism that convince us we no longer need spiritual shower baths. It is rather our comfort-seeking spirits.

But the spirit of truth does not seek comfort. The purpose of Lent is not to escape the conscience, but to create a healthy hatred for evil, a heartfelt contrition for sin, and a passionately felt need for grace. This continuous movement of faith from a sense of sin to grace and forgiveness ends only when the spirit is ultimately released.

ROBERT HERRICK, a 17th-century poet, wrote these striking lines in “To Keep a True Lent,”

Is this a Fast, to keep
the larder lean?
And clean

From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
of flesh, yet still
To fill

The p’atter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show

A down-cast look and sour?
No: ‘tis a Fast to dole
Thy sheat of wheat
And meat

With the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife
And old debate,
And hate;

To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Robert Herrick was moving the keeping of Lent in the right direction, away from mortifications of the flesh — fasting, hair shirts, pebbles in the shoes, burrs next to the skin, dour faces, and all that, But he stopped somewhat short of the true purpose of Lent, which is not to starve one’s sin but to get rid of it. And then then comes the spiritual energy, spiritual activity, spiritual eloquence…

These do not come from ecstasy but from a humbly grateful heart. Forgiveness of sins is what the gospel is all about. Forgiveness of sins is what Christ’s death upon the cross is all about. The purpose of Lent is to arouse. To arouse the sense of sin. To arouse a sense of guilt for sin. To arouse the humble contrition for the guilt of sin that makes forgiveness possible. To arouse the sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sins. To arouse or to motivate the works of love and the work for justice that one does out of gratitude for the forgiveness of one’s sins.

To say it again — this time, backward: There is no motivation for works of love without a sense of gratitude, no sense of gratitude without forgiveness, no forgiveness without contrition, no contrition without a sense of guilt, no sense of guilt without a sense of sin.

In other words, a guilty suffering spirit is more open to grace than an apathetic or smug soul. Therefore, an age without a sense of sin, in which people are not even sorry for not being sorry for their sins, is in rather a serious predicament. Likewise an age with a Christianity so eager to forgive that it denies the need for forgiveness. For such an age, therefore, Lent can scarcely be too long!

“I have found only one religion that dares to go down with me into the depth of myself,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. And it is true. No other religion dares to take me down to the new beginning. Hence Lent is not a tediously long brooding over sin. Lent is a journey that could be called an upward descent, but I prefer to call it a downward ascent. lt ends before the cross, where we stand in the white light of a new beginning. So fresh and new, says Chesterton, waxing lyrical, “that one can be grey and gouty — but only five minutes old!” The spirit that shuns this downward ascent all its livelong days eventually ends up an aged fetus. There is an infinite difference between being brand-new and five minutes old and being an aged fetus!



January 28, 2010


John Updike

Norman D. Kretzmann remembers John Updike as a young Harvard graduate who sought out Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Mass., because it “nurtured the roots of faith he had grown up with in Pennsylvania.”


Kretzmann, pastor of Marblehead at the time, proudly recalls that Updike was among the 96 adults who entered the congregation’s Religious Arts Festival in 1960 — and that his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, won $100 for “Best of Show.”

“People in the parishes I served became quite accustomed to my quoting his poem in my Easter sermons at least every few years,” says Kretzmann, who lives in a Minneapolis retirement center and regularly contributes to the Metro Lutheran newspaper.

Kretzmann closely follows Updike’s work, which includes more than 50 novels and books of poems. In a Metro Lutheran review of John Updike and Religion (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) he wrote: “I was John Updike’s pastor during the time which the writer later described as his ‘angst-besmogged period.’ Who was the rabbi and who was the disciple of our years together is hard to say.”

The pastor still has Updike’s 41-year-old typed copy of Seven Stanzas — “marked up with all sorts of irrelevant notes by me, instructions to me for homiletical purposes or for various secretaries,” he said. And Kretzmann has one more fond memory from the festival: Updike gave the $100 prize back to the congregation.
Kathleen Kastilahn

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake; if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was nor as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.



January 27, 2010

When it comes to the deadly sins, there is something more to the one called sloth than meets the eye. It is more than just simple inactivity or even laziness. The ancients called it “accidia” and the observations on this post belong to Kathleen Norris, whose book, Acedia & Me, explores the topic brilliantly. If the sin of pride involves man placing himself above God or rejecting God, then Sloth works at a much more insidious level: the “capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.” Of all the things we advocate paying attention to, this is the singularly most modern of all the sins and Ms. Norris observations are right on the mark.

In Good Times or In Bad
One thing that was familiar was my acedia. It was the same as it had been the year before , and the year before that. Acedia, it seems, is my companion in good times and bad. No matter what happens in my life, or how I am feeling, it is my primary temptation. The desert monks would recognize in my annual Advent blahs a textbook case of the struggle with acedia, when prayer seems not only a useless activity but also an impediment to freedom. This is truth as the devil tells it, using the lure of being free to be myself to enslave me in a sterile narcissism. For acedia is not merely a personal vice. Left unchecked, it can unravel the great commandment: as I cease to practice my love of God, I am also less likely to observe a proper love of my neighbor or myself.

The Original Sin Of Sloth?
If the Church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as a society. The Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan believes that passivity and indifference that make us less able to engage in vital occupations and concerns are as problematic today as intentional evil. But they are also an ancient curse. The Judeo-Christian story places it in Eden, where the primal sin involves refusing to take responsibility. Put on the spot, Adam tries to excuse himself by blaming Eve, and Eve then blames the serpent. Neither cares where the buck stops, as long as it rests with someone else. God responds to this display of sloth by sending the first people, who had been intended for the holy leisure of paradise, into a land where they must labor for their sustenance.

Religious vocabulary is demanding, and words such as sin and repentance carry so much baggage that even many Christians are reluctant to employ them. In a culture marked by theological illiteracy it is tempting to censor terms that are so often misconstrued and misused. Many people who would not dream of relying on the understanding of literature or the sciences they acquired as children are content to leave their juvenile theological convictions largely unexamined. If they resented religion when they were young, as adults they are perplexed and dismayed by its stubborn persistence in the human race. But religions endure because they concern themselves with our deepest questions about good and evil, about the suffering that life brings to each of us, and about what it means to be fully human in the face of death.

The Concept Of Sin
We are right to distrust the idea of sin as it is often presented, but are foolish indeed if we throw out the living baby with the old church bathwater. The concept of sin does not exist so that people who may need therapy more than theology can be convinced that they are evil and beyond hope. It is meant to encourage people to believe that they are made in the image of God and to act accordingly. Hope is the heart of it, and the ever-present possibility of transformation. The doctrine would not have remained a living tradition for such a long time if it had not been, as the theologian Linda Mercadante describes it in her book Victims and Sinners, “a rich, holistic way of conceptualizing the human dilemma – one that functioned to steady and inform thousands of generations.” Were I to deny this, and discount the wisdom of my ancestors, I would grow not wise but overconfident in my estimation of myself and in what passes for progress.

Were I to listen with an open ear, I might come away from a Lenten sermon on fasting better able to spurn the tempting feast of malicious gossip and the satisfying art of maligning others in order to feel good about myself. When the church speaks in this way we do well to pay attention. Or when a master preacher such as Fred Craddock defines the sin of sloth so clearly that it stings like a slap in the face: “What we casually dismiss as mere laziness, he says, is “the ability to look at a starving child. . . with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, it’s not my kid.’.. . Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’ It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”

The sin of sloth in this sense is all too recognizable in the United States, where the term “granny dumping” is used to define the practice of anonymously depositing our elderly on the doorsteps of nursing homes and where urban hospitals have been known to abandon indigent patients on skid row, some still in their hospital gowns and with IVs in their arms. But even as such outrages are exposed, we are beset by a curious silence: the more that society’s ills surface in such evil ways, the less able we are, it seems, to detect any evil within ourselves, let alone work effectively together to fix what is wrong. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre finds that while our “present age is perhaps no more evil than a number of preceding periods…it is evil in one special way at least, namely the extent to which we have obliterated…the consciousness of evil. This…becomes strikingly apparent in the contemporary modes of instant indignation and denunciation. “It is marvelous,” he adds, to observe “how often the self-proclaimed defenders of the right and the good do not seem to have noticed [in themselves] the vices of pomposity. . . exaggeration, and self-righteousness.” Such behavior is not new to human history, Macintyre concludes; but “it was left to our time for what had been an eccentric vice . . . to become a dominant social mode.” Acedia, which is known to foster excessive self-justification, as well as a casual yet implacable judgmentalism toward others, readily lends itself to this process.

Though we may think ourselves far too liberated to be considered prigs, the writer Marilynne Robinson insists that this is exactly what we have become. She points out that the polarized tenor of our social discourse epitomizes the dictionary definition of priggishness, as “marked by overvaluing oneself or one’s ideas, habits, notions, by precise…adherence to them, and by small disparagement of others.”

It may be easy to profess not to believe in sin, but it is hard not to believe in sinners, so we embrace the comfortable notion that at least they are other people. “I’m a good person, but God hates homosexuals.” “I’m a good person, but God condemns homophobes.” “I’m a good person, but the homeless are irresponsible bums.” “I’m a good person, but those who denigrate the homeless are evil.” “Good people like me support our president.” “Good people like me oppose the president.” The loud litany of self-aggrandizement that reverberates through our culture convinces me that, for all of our presumed psychological sophistication, we remain at a primitive stage in our capacity to understand the reality of sin. It’s as if we believe that if we just don’t talk about it, it will go away, and we’ll all be nicer to one another. As a Christian, I beg to differ. Our bad thoughts are real, and they lead to bad acts. Check any newspaper.

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer warned that “a great heart is needed against acedia, lest it swallow up the soul.” But in a priggish culture such as ours, this magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect meaningful change. Robinson wonders, in fact, whether we have made such a fetish of social concern and criticism that we have eroded our belief that genuine reform is possible. Anger over injustice may inflame us, but that’s a double-edged sword. If our indignation feels too good, it will attach to our arrogance and pride and leave us ranting in a void. And if we develop full-blown acedia, we won’t even care about that.

Paying Attention
At bottom, to dismiss sin as negative is to demonstrate a failure of imagination. As the writer Garret Keizer asserts in Help: The Original Human Dilemma: “Everyone believes in sin, the people who charge their peers with political incorrectness and the people who regard political correctness as the bogey of a little mind.” He adds, “What everyone does not believe in, as nearly as I can tell, is forgiveness.” It requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain.

Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity. This mentality may be of some use in business, but in a family, including the family of faith, it is a disaster. It permits us to treat our churches as if they were political parties instead of the body of Christ, making them vulnerable to crass manipulation by ideologues. It allows Christian seminarians to give the psalms short shrift, and to assume an attitude of superiority toward these ancient poems, as relics of a more primitive time, when people still had enemies, and still wished them ill. “I can’t pray that.” I have heard pastors say of the cursing psalms, or the confessional ones, which admit to loving lies more than truth, to resenting others or desiring revenge. We’re not like that. We’re good people, or good enough, having willed away the prejudice, tribalism, and violence in our hearts. We are at a loss to explain their presence in the world around us.

Yet if we pay attention to what is going on, we may come to the uneasy realization that the root meaning of acedia, as ‘lack of care,’ could serve to define our present state. We grow inured to the horrendous violence engendered by suicide bombings and genocidal “little wars” around the world, and sigh when we hear of road-rage fatalities at home, or of the murder of a teenager for the trendy jacket or athletic shoes he is wearing. A refusal to care about the needs of others marks the unapologetic incompetence of a government worker or call-center operator, and also the disregard of corporate executives for the pain caused by a move to a place where cheaper labor might be exploited and more dangerous working conditions accepted. In the elderly, acedia expresses itself as a resigned withdrawal in a society indifferent to the ravages of aging, while in the young, it is a studied boredom with all that the world has to offer.

In April 1999, two teenage boys in a Denver suburb slaughtered thirteen people at their high school before killing themselves. The numerous homemade bombs they placed in the building convinced police that their intent was to destroy the school and kill everyone in it, well over a thousand people. Whatever disaffection these young men had felt among their peers, they were in the throes of a lack of caring so severe as to be pathological. A student who had considered himself a friend of the pair said in an interview that as awful as their action was, he couldn’t help feeling that “they finally did something.”

An astute observation, in a time of acedia, when murder on a large scale may be counted as something to break up the everyday routine and grant notoriety to teenage outcasts. In a culture crazy for celebrity and careless of basic needs, it should come as no surprise that a pair of teenage “losers” might come to value “doing something,” even something unspeakably violent, over life itself. The actions of the Columbine duo confirm what the criminologist S. Giora Shoham says of acedia, that it is more than a “breakdown in meaningful interaction among human beings, it is a thorough disengagement.” “The accidie,” he writes, “is an ‘outsider’ who is completely detached from both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides of the value continuum.”

They “finally did something.” In some ways the two teens at Columbine were only taking their culture’s excessive attachment to irony to its logical and deadly extreme. The essayist Benjamin Barber reminds us that, “like sentiment, which has been called unearned emotion, the new irony is a form of unearned skepticism.” The theologian Henri de Lubac puts it another way: “Cynicism is the reverse side of hypocrisy. It does not give us the truth about ourselves.” But the jaded adolescent, confusing cynicism with maturity, may ask, “What is truth, anyway? And why should I care, if no one cares about me?”

Slavery From Within
As a viable sense of sin has eroded in modern times, acedia has become more acceptable. In his pithy essay on the subject, Aldous Huxley explores why, although boredom, hopelessness, and despair have always existed, in his own time “something has happened to make these emotions respectable and avowable; they are no longer sinful, no longer regarded as the mere symptoms of disease.” It may be that after two world wars people could not presume that the great technological advances of the industrial age would lead to cultural and moral advancement as well. Chemical weapons, forced-labor camps, gas chambers, death marches, the firebombing of civilian populations in Spain, England, Japan, and Germany, and nuclear attacks on two Japanese cities revealed that while human beings had become more efficient at genocidal violence, it was not easy for us to consider ourselves civilized, let alone “good.” Leszek Kolakowski, once Poland’s top Marxist philosopher, and now, according to the theologian Martin Marty, “a friend to faith;’ notes that “the absence of God became the ever more open wound of the European spirit when it became clear that “the new shining order of anthropomorphism” — which, it was hoped, would take the place of “the fallen God” — never arrived.

The German Jesuit Karl Rahner, writing in a devastated Munich shortly after the end of World War II reflected that “it has gone strangely with [us] in the recent decades of European intellectual history.” While many felt that, having “struggled passionately against the tutelage of Church, state, society, convention, morals,” they could now claim true autonomy, they often found it an empty freedom. What had originated as “a great, honest struggle” devolved for many into “a foolish protest that mistook licentiousness and unrestraint, the freedom of error and ruin, for true freedom.” Far from finding release, Rahner concluded, modern people fell into “a very odd slavery…slavery from within.”

Slavery from within, in all of its manifestations, was exactly what the early Christian monks were contending with, and Rahner mines a vein well-known to these ancients. His contemporaries, he writes, seem more helpless than ever in struggling with “the powers of desire, the powers of egotism, the hunger for power, the powers of sexuality and pleasure and simultaneously the impotence caused by worry which undermines….from within, by insecurity, by loss of life’s meaning, by anxiety and disappointment.” Not exactly the eight bad thoughts, but close enough. Having lost the sense of a useful religious tradition, and with the insights of the early monks obscured over time, Rahner’s self-proclaimed “free” person was ill equipped to take note of what Aldous Huxley, who was decidedly not a Christian, warned was the noonday demon emerging as the primary sin of the age. “It is a very curious phenomenon:’ Huxley observed, “this progress of accidie from the position of being a deadly sin…to the position first of a disease and finally of an essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature.”

In the nineteenth century, Baudelaire could write, coolly, of a young, urban man as monarch of his own small kingdom: “Bored to nausea with his dogs and other creatures, nothing amuses him: not chase, nor falconry, nor people dying opposite his balcony.” More than a century later Andrei Voznesensky speaks of the heart itself as an Achilles, and comments, “In these days of unheard-of suffering, one is lucky indeed to have no heart.”

Human Capital
The effects of “eroding the spirit” can’t be quantified and are therefore not significant. Neither are individuals. Our diminishing value can be traced through corporate jargon; businesses that once referred to employees as “personnel” rechristened them “human resources” and have now adopted an even chillier term, “human capital.” People who are “capital” are readily disposable, and in recent years corporations have been emboldened to regard full-time employees as liabilities, and thus limit or altogether eliminate health care, pensions, and other once common benefits. But these same corporations do need consumers, and they spend prodigious amounts on advertising campaigns (the military terminology is no accident) intended to seduce us into thinking that freedom is the ability to purchase what Sears once promised as “The good life. At a good price. Guaranteed.” As the concepts of good and freedom, for centuries the province of theology, become small arms in the ever-expanding arsenal of marketing tools, the purpose of life itself can change. One Internet multi-billionaire recently stated that his goal is to die with more toys than the next guy. He may do just that. Thomas Merton said it starkly and prophetically in the 1960s: that in a society focused and “organized for profit and for marketing . . . there’s no real freedom. You’re free to choose gimmicks, your brand of TM your make of new car. But you’re not free not to have a car.”

Once considered suitable only for marking animals and slaves as property, branding is now a social norm, and for a price, some Americans have agreed to have brand names tattooed on their foreheads, necks, and pregnant bellies. One man was looking to replace the family car; a woman wanted the $10,000 for private school tuition for her son, another was paying medical bills. And how readily we have relinquished the sanctity of our own names, in order to walk down the street as Calvin, Tommy, or DKNY, willing to be free advertisements, if only our choice of clothing and shoes might impress others as to our superior character and worth.

Resentment Leading To Avarice
The sixth-century theologian Gregory the Great would recognize our condition as an outgrowth of acedia, which can foster deep resentment that leads to avarice. If the psychological connections that were obvious to Gregory remain obscure to us, we might recognize ourselves in the observation of the contemporary Benedictine Hugh Feiss that “the confused heart, having lost joy within itself, seeks…consolation outside itself. The more it seeks exterior goods, the more it lacks interior joy to which it can return.”

It is indeed acedia’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. Now more than ever we need contrarians like Thomas Merton, who once told a Louisville store clerk who had asked what brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Merton was intrigued by the man’s response. “He almost dropped dead:’ he wrote. “I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest or something with five colors. And they all have a secret ingredient. But I didn’t care about the secret ingredient.” Merton concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”

We should care that as the public sphere becomes increasingly chaotic and threatening, what we think of as freedom consists of retreat and insularity. Marketers welcome this development, but a consumerist mentality allows us to turn spiritual practices, which traditionally have been aimed at making us more responsive to the legitimate needs of the wider world, into self-indulgence. We can pay good money to seek advice, which is plentiful, about finding the prayer method that best suits us and deciding where best to position our meditation space: in a custom-made gazebo, or over the three-car garage.

One glossy advertisement I have seen shows a woman facing the ocean in a yoga position; off to the side is a beachfront high-rise with condominium apartments costing from $1 to. $5 million, and a sales pitch: “The outer world is frenzied. The inner world needn’t be.” When people pray over finding the color scheme, carpet, candles, images, and incense that will best enhance their spiritual life, they would do well to recall the literal meaning of the third commandment, against blasphemy. In Hebrew, it is an admonition against offering nothingness to God. As Graham Greene observes in the novel A Burnt-Out Case, “[People] have prayed in prisons…in slums and concentration camps. It’s only the middle-classes who demand to pray in suitable surroundings.”

In England, the television show Spirituality Shopper offers a variety of religious experiences in a sense that William James could not have imagined. One woman, when asked to select something from the spiritual superstore — among the choices were an introduction to Buddhist meditation, a Jewish Sabbath-eve meal, and a Christian Lenten charity — chose Sufi whirling. Missing, of course, was any sense that religious traditions build up meaning only over time and in a communal context. They can’t be purchased like a burger or a pair of shoes.

As we grow more reluctant to care about anything past our perceived needs, acedia asserts itself as a primary characteristic of our time. “Given the state of our world,” Alasdair Macintyre writes (and, I would add, not just the state of our inner “wellness”), we might ask whether it is time to “restore the concept of evil that it once had in Western culture. It is clear that we lack an adequate concept of evil, because we lack any adequate concept of good.” The danger for us and our society, he points out, is that “inadequate thought and speech always translate into inadequate action.” If sloth means, as the pastor John Buchanan contends, “not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious, prudent, digging a hole and burying our treasure, it is critical that we take into account what this means for society at large.

Historians, Buchanan writes, “observe that whenever totalitarianism of any kind rears its ugly head, it’s because ordinary people have stopped caring about the life of the community and the nation.” He cites Simone Weil, who declared that Hitler’s rise to power would be inconceivable without “the existence of millions of uprooted people” who could not be roused to care about anything except their immediate circumstances. It is all the more appalling that these were often people who believed that human progress had made them more advanced and free than any who had come before. This common fallacy allows us to complacently measure the world by the scope of our own limited outlook; but as the Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald reminds us, our failure to acknowledge our inner blockages can make us incapable of recognizing the blockages we have created in the culture. “We see cold reason, devoid of imagination;’ she writes, “heading with deadly logic toward violence, hardness in the face of misery, a sense of inevitability, war, and death.” Even worse, we come to assume that these conditions — injustice, poverty, perpetual conflict — are inevitable, the only possible reality, and lose our ability to imagine that there are other ways of being, other courses of action.

One such blockage — I’ll call it acedia — seems to me to be at the heart of the question of what we will tolerate as a society. The problem of homelessness in this country now seems intractable, but it scarcely existed, apart from skid row alcoholics, only decades ago. For many people, the problems of homeless families whose children go to bed hungry every night, or the at least 40 million Americans who do not have medical insurance and adequate health care, are just “the way things are” beneath the radar of their concern, The writer Wendell Berry laments the extent to which economics has been elevated to a position that God once held, as “ultimate justifier.” We have come to “treat economic laws of supply and demand” as though they were “the laws of the universe.” If there is a religion that encompasses all the world, it is the pursuit of wealth. But Christians must recognize that in slothfully acquiescing to its petty gods, we deny Christ a place on earth even more effectively than do the loud atheists and antitheists of our time.


Rabbi David Wolpe on Reading the Bible

January 26, 2010

The Bible In Life
Many times I have sat by the bedside of someone who is sick and read the Psalms. Psalms are the personal prayers addressed to God, often by one who is in trouble or peril. They act as a remarkable channel for the anxieties and hopes of one who is ill.

When the time came for me to be the one in the bed, not beside the bed, I turned to the same source: Knocked out by the chemotherapy and unable to carry on the usual tasks of the day, one verse kept recurring in my mind, Psalm 118:5. It is usually translated “from out of the depths I called unto God; He answered me and set me free.” But the “depths” can be translated as “narrowness” and free as “expansively.” A literal translation is – “From my narrowness I called to God and I was answered by breadth, O God.” My world grew through pain and the increasing recognition of the ways in which it both opened my heart and helped me draw closer to others in pain. A single verse offered a world and way of seeing that gave me strength and the breadth promised by the verse itself.

My spirit opened to an infinitely larger Spirit. When in pain, we tighten up like a fist. It is easy to push others away — after all, they are not feeling the pain — and to turn increasingly inward. Only I matter; only my pain is real. The Psalm urged me to expand, allowing me to embrace others, to understand that pain need not always be private, unshared. Open up, the Psalmist taught; both in heaven and on earth you are not alone.

The Psalmist also connected my pain to the human community throughout the ages. Thousands of years ago a poet gave words to what was deep within me. A hand reached across the generations to take my own. That, too, seemed like more than just a human gift; it was a gift from God.

Biblical sufferers touch us through their shared pain. In our fractured and difficult lives, reading a chronicle of difficulty and failure can be encouraging and even healing. The heroes of the Bible are not perfect, their marriages are not storybook, their relations with children not friction-less. All of us who struggle with real problems of families, of work, can look to the Bible not as one looks at a fairy tale, but with the recognition that everything has changed since the time of Abraham and Sarah except human nature

Great Readers
Walt Whitman wrote that in order for there to be great books there must be great readers.

For a book to remain powerful throughout generations it cannot have a single meaning. Scripture, like great poetry, is not reducible to other words; that is, one cannot paraphrase it and capture the totality of its meaning. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil” simply does not mean the same thing as “even if I come close to dying I am not worried that something bad will happen.” The words, particularly in their original Hebrew, contain nuances and resonance that go beyond any attempt to simplify them. T. S. Eliot was once asked by a woman the meaning of the following line in his poem ‘Ash Wednesday”: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.” Eliot’s response was “Madame, what the line means is ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.” Eliot must have known that any explanation of meaning would make the line less than it was, so he resisted all explanation. Interpreters of scripture, understanding the infinitude of meanings, take the opposite approach from Eliot. Instead of refusing to interpret, they never stop.

Nor do the commentators always read the Bible literally. For example, the militarism of the Bible’s language has not been taken at face value. The exhortations to conquer the land of Israel did not incite violent plots or wars throughout the middle ages.

Those who decided that settlement and, if necessary, armed conflict would restore the Jews to their land were the early Zionists, very few of whom were religious. In other words, those Jews who took the Bible most literally were not themselves observant Jews. And those who most revered the Bible did not read it literally. When war broke out, religious communities were vastly underrepresented in the army. Rather, those who were far more influenced by secular society — while nourished by the biblical vision of the Jews resettling in their land to be sure — were the ones who ended up fighting.

If you read only the Bible you would not expect such a result. The secularists should be the pacifists and the traditionalists should be the ones prepared to fight. That the reverse is true tells us something we already know — the Bible offers different messages depending upon the care with which it is read and upon the reader’s approach.

Another example of how the Bible must be read in the context of the culture is offered by Matthew 10: 35-36: “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

Someone who reads this verse in isolation will assume that Christians have very poor family relations. Moreover, they will assume that it is considered laudable by Christianity to have poor family relations. I have yet to find a serious interpreter who believes the desire of Jesus in this passage is to cause families to fall apart. Many contend that it is a sometimes sad and inevitable result of one following a path of faith of which others disapprove. Whether that is the correct interpretation matters little.

What does matter is that all traditions agree that in order to read scripture there must be some understanding of the overall intent of the Bible. With the question of war above and family here, the Bible is not Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, a place where a single verse can be isolated from all that precedes and follows it. The Bible both reflects the culture in which it is read and helps shape that culture. One sentence is no more reflective of the whole Bible than one gesture is of an entire personality.

At times it appears religion’s detractors believe nothing in the Bible except for accounts of cruelty. But in order to understand any book or any idea we have to see what it means as it is reflected through lived lives, through an individual’s and a people’s journey.

How Did They Judge The Bible?
How did ancient readers judge the Bible? The answer is — by the Bible.

Let us take the infamous verse of the rebellious son of Deuteronomy chapter 21. The Bible instructs parents of a gluttonous, drunkard, disobedient son, who will not listen to his parents, to declare his rebelliousness before the community and stone him as punishment. The ancient rabbis, whose entire lives were defined by immersion in the biblical text, could not abide the idea that a parent could be responsible for the stoning of his own child. They knew quite well that in ancient societies children were routinely stoned and sacrificed, the idea that parents would never put their own children to death is contradicted by the ancient world as well as innumerable dynastic struggles where family was often the first to be killed.

But the rabbis were conditioned by the morality of the Bible itself. Other cultures did sacrifice children but not those shaped by scripture. When confronted with the question of a rebellious child, the Talmud unambiguously states, “A rebellious son (as defined by the Torah) never was and never will be.”

The Bible’s most devoted readers understood that the Bible as a whole forbids the savagery of children being stoned for disobedience. So they declared it should not be taken literally. For the Bible was then as now to be understood as a guide to God’s goodness in this world. Those sections that seemed to contradict such a reading were considered improperly understood, and had to be reinterpreted to enhance the Bible’s message of holiness.

Among the most notorious of all the troublesome passages in the Bible is the narrowly averted sacrifice of a child. The binding of Isaac (a more accurate name than “the sacrifice of Isaac” since Isaac indeed lives) is one of the most commented-upon stories in biblical history. In the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, God calls upon Abraham to take his son up to an altar and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham: gets up early in the morning, walks three days with his son, climbs with him up the mountain, binds him, and lifts the knife when he is stopped just in time by an angel. This story, reflected in the story of Jesus in the New Testament (carrying the cross as Isaac carried the wood up the mountain, each about to be sacrificed) and retold (with changes) in the Koran, is central to all the Western monotheistic traditions.

Christopher Hitchens adverts to it as follows: “There is no softening the plain meaning of this frightful story.” Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion elaborates, “By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense. “I was only obeying orders.”

Let us leave aside that Abraham never makes any such claim or feels the need to do so. What strikes me is Hitchens’s almost offhand comment leading up to his condemnation of this story: “Before monotheism arose, the altars of primitive society reeked with blood, much of it human and some of it infant.” Just so. That infamous practice ended with monotheism, and the binding of Isaac tells us how it happened.

The story is about the willingness of a believer to admit that the One who created all can ultimately decide the fate of everything in the created world. Abraham is not by nature slavish or cowardly; in a previous chapter he vigorously argued with God to spare the inhabitants of Sodom, who have no moral claim on him save that they are fellow human beings (Genesis 19). But he takes Isaac to the altar. In this he acted as did all the pagans around him, showing that this new God, the real God, the intangible God whom one cannot see or carve of stone, can command the same devotion as the ancient pagan gods. He does this only to learn, however, that while his passion is honored, the action is not permitted. The true God would not claim such a sacrifice. As both ancient and modern scholars of the Bible explain, the story teaches that one does not need to offer the ultimate sacrifice to feel the ultimate sense of devotion.

Sacrifice is at the heart of religious ideology. It can be perverted into cruelty or a misguided martyrdom. But it can equally prove to be the mainspring of goodness and nobility. It is instructive to hear Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King Jr., an atheist and a preacher, respectively, on the willingness to be sacrificed. When asked in an interview once if there is anything for which he would be willing to die, Russell wryly answered, “Of course not. After all, I may be wrong.” King, on the other hand, said, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” Sacrifice is not about a foolish willingness to give up one’s life, or the life of another, for oppressive ideology; that is simple tyranny. Sacrifice is the belief that one has duties to the world that go beyond simply existing in it.

The bible presses upon us core issues of life, which we too often choose to evade: the relation of parents and children, what we cherish and what we sacrifice, whether there are ideals for which we are willing to give our lives. Reading the Bible moves us to deepen our lives by reflecting on ultimate issues. Part of the resistance to religion, and to the Bible, is that it entails grappling with profound questions. It is unlike any other book; not only eternal but urgent, a book that returns us to the world more alive to its wonder and more compassionate for its pain.

Who Wrote The Bible?
ome understand the bible as collaboration, as a record of how human beings experienced God. For others it is the literal word of God. In no case is it the only path to knowledge of God.

God speaks through nature, including human nature and through history as well as through scripture. Science helps us understand God by unraveling the subtleties of nature. Sociology and history help us understand God by looking at patterns through time. Psychology and art illuminate human character and experience. Scripture enables us to understand the way in which these insights can contribute to the Divine mandate to live with compassion and seek; peace.

In the past few hundred years, biblical criticism has challenged the idea that the Bible is the literal word of God. Powerful arguments have been advanced based on new techniques of analyzing texts and other discoveries from archeology and social sciences. Whatever one’s conclusion, reading the Bible can still be an experience unlike any other in literature. It is simply not equivalent to reading Gilgamesh and Homer, Milton and Shakespeare. The Bible speaks from a particular historical moment, but also from beyond the ages. As I experience this with the Hebrew Bible so does the Christian with the New Testament and a Muslim with the Koran. For thousands of years people read the Bible with a deep sense of wisdom imparted and peace granted. They returned to it, as millions across the world do today, again and again, knowing that there was more to understand than they had yet understood.

Strange and powerful sections of the Bible, rather than being candidates for ridicule, are opportunities for insight. Such possibilities may not unfold to the casual reader and indeed there are things that take a lifetime to understand. Quite often, different understandings of the book are appropriate for different stages of life. For much of the world the Bible calls to mind what the Greeks said of Plato — whatever road of life you walk down, you find him on the way back. To take one example: Several of the anti-theistic works ridicule the final commandment “Thou shalt not covet.” It is reckoned tyrannical because one cannot legislate emotions. In the Hebrew Bible the famous commandments are not termed commandments but sayings (Devarim). That permits a nineteenth-century rabbi to explain it as follows:

Thou shalt not covet is not a command, but a promise. Observe the other nine and you will live a life that is not wracked by desire for things you cannot have. You will be at peace with what you were given. Once again the Bible yields wisdom and serenity when approached not as an “ordinary book” characterized by what Sam Harris calls “obscene celebrations of violence” but as a guide through the obstacles of life. The Bible can be mocked, just as all seriousness and insight can be mocked. The mockery does not advance the skills we need to live; cynicism makes a good sword but a poor shield.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett writes that some believers think that to ask questions like “Does God have eyelids?” is to be insulting. Meaning no disrespect, I don’t find it disrespectful. It is simpleminded, however. People who pledge allegiance to the physical world may not appreciate that everything nonphysical requires metaphors. The Bible’s descriptions of God are not intended literally. To ask if God has eyelids is as sensible as asking if kindness has a pancreas.

There is no escaping physical description; in talking about spiritual matters we use words taken from the physical world, as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in his essay “Nature”:

Every word which is used to express, a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow. We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature.

God communicates with human beings, so we speak of God having a mouth. God shows love, so we speak of God having a heart. Faith is the reality that can only be spoken of in poetry.

The Bible’s poetry encourages us to see the world in super mundane — more than material or physical — terms. Religious perception is a poetic faculty, keeping alive within us the reality of a world that cannot be understood by logic or reason alone. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” writes the Psalmist (Psalms 19), encouraging. us to see the stars as conveying something of the grandeur and beauty of the world. They do not literally speak, of course, but the world has been re-enchanted through the poetry of faith.

The Bright Book Of Life
The bible tells of carnage, cruelty, inexplicable evil. In part this is because the Bible is in fact what D. H. Lawrence called the novel — the big bright book of life. Everything is here: Stories of heroism and pettiness. Selfishness and deceit. Desperation and triumph. It is not always clear what derives from the dark heart of humanity and what is a teaching from God.

Underneath the tumult is the lived reality of God. Through warfare and family relations, lawgiving and discipleship, inspiration and disappointment, the current of God’s will pulses through the lives of biblical characters. The Bible presents God but does not seek to “prove” God. Faith is not a proposition but an orientation to the universe, a certainty that accompanies the characters through their days and nights, and if he is fortunate, accompanies the reader as well. Recall the first time childhood friends made an observation about your family. Or perhaps when you were married and your spouse began to tell you what your family of origin seemed like to her or to him. Some of their observations were eye-opening. You never noticed before how your mother shut down when asked personal questions or how your father’s reminiscences did not correspond with your own. But at the same time, there were things you could not explain that you understood: why your sister was treated differently by your parents, or the undercurrent of love beneath apparent conflict.

Why is your understanding different? It is not only because you are part of the family. Being raised in the family has given you a perspective that cannot be achieved from the outside.

Those who read the Bible inattentively do not understand that the Bible equips its readers with the means to under-stand it. To read through it once is not to know it. Immersion allows a new kind of understanding. The same is true of religious system: one can’t evaluate them on first acquaintance. Tourists visiting a foreign country easily find flaws or oddities: The way people eat, the food they serve, their dress or speech, or their child-raising techniques may seem alien and unorthodox. In time, however, one begins to see it with different eyes. Theory gives way to experience. Knowledge becomes personal. We can only see with our own eyes.

Not even science, contrary to what many think; strips away this subjectivity. As the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi notes, all knowledge is inevitably personal knowledge. Knowledge gets filtered through individuals, all of whom were brought up in a certain family, culture, language, and place. There is no perfectly objective view. Religious traditions do not just offer propositions to evaluate by the light of reason. To embrace a tradition is to stand in a new place. Each of us brings to the tradition our own matrix of understanding and the tradition alters and colors it, creating something new. Standing inside a tradition, the world looks different. To call it simply “true” or “false” is to reduce a world view to a multiple-choice exam.

As a junior in college, I spent a year in Scotland at Edinburgh University. One of the first days of walking to class there was a small, steady drizzle. I did not yet know that there was almost always a small, steady drizzle. I grabbed an umbrella and started on my way.

The Scottish students with whom 1 walked, once they stopped laughing, ripped the umbrella from my hands. They explained that the drizzle was simply part of the world, and soon would be part of my world. Only an outsider would carry an umbrella.

Naturally I thought that was ridiculous. Rain, after all, is rain. Wet is a fact. You cannot pretend wet is dry—at least not if you are sane. But I was new and wanted to be liked, so I went along. Sure enough, in a short time I was walking with everyone else and not noticing the rain. It had become part of the world in which I lived, and seemed natural.

There are two ways to see this sort of experience. I could be sadly deceived—these Scottish rakes fooled the naïve American. Or you could imagine that in fact the world began to look different because I was given new eyes. Reality did not change, but my understanding of it and adjustment to it changed. I was not now “wrong” when I had been “right.”

When we read the Bible, there are some passages that sound savage to our ears. Still, a lot depends upon how we are taught to read the Bible, and whether we allow the Bible’s own voice to condition our reading. What seems at first wild and fraught proves to be a window through which we can take the measure of our own world. We have to decide how the Bible fits in our lives; as the Scottish poet Andrew Lang said about facts, some people use them as a drunk uses a lamppost, more for support than for illumination, You can find much in the Bible to support any reading of it, but if you read it for illumination, the world changes.

The Talmud tells of an idolater who is interested in converting to Judaism. He approaches the Rabbi Shammai with the request that the rabbi teach him Judaism while standing on one foot. Shammai, believing that he is being mocked, or his faith belittled, chases the man away. The same man then approaches Hillel. Hillel lived more than half a century before the birth of Jesus, and he spent his life immersed in the Bible and rabbinic interpretations.

What for this rabbi is the essence of the tradition? Here is his response: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole of Torah — the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”

With all we hear about the presumed cruelty and barbarity of scripture, how could someone whose entire life was the Bible answer in such a way? Where did Hillel learn that this was “the whole of Torah”? Hillel is one of the two or three greatest authorities of the rabbinic period. This is the word of a great sage who did not read simply a sentence or story or pluck at random from a sacred text, but lived the full text. Even the greatest book relies on being read with an understanding heart. Hillel demonstrated what the book can mean.

One who reads the characterizations of the Koran, similarly, may not realize that the five pillars of Islam are belief, prayer, giving (tithing to the needy), fasting, and pilgrimage. The test will always be how the book plays out in life. For Jews, Christians, and today most poignantly for Muslims, the measure of meaning for scripture will be the way in which its adherents act in the world. Whatever gifts God gives us have value in life only as they are filtered through a human soul.

The Bible is preeminently a book about righteousness. Again and again we hear concern for the widow, the orphan, the one who is bereaved, bereft, hopeless, alone, No one can say the Bible is meaningful to them if they do not feel a mandate to lessen poverty and alleviate suffering. When the prophets criticize Israel it is in the name of Israel that they speak — what Israel should be, what faith demands. For all the assaults of unbelievers, the ones who are hardest on the faithful are the faithful, for the world sorely needs passionate goodness, and we so often fall short.

More than thirty years have passed since I left the empty synagogue sanctuary of my youth. I thought I was closing the door forever on its teachings. A part of me needed to do just that; faith seemed too childish and I thought myself an adult.

Even more, I could not truly come to faith until I had left. The Bible was to me a fairy tale because I had not lived long enough to catch up with some of its teachings. Coming to it anew years later, having lived, having accumulated some scars and drawn close to others who were far wiser than I, the words of the prophet appeared as a challenge to me, explaining what God asks of us: “To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Decades after walking out of the sanctuary, I have grown to believe faith enables us to do this, and so I have gratefully returned.


Faith Questions

January 25, 2010

Rabbi David Wolpe is a renaissance man and this little book on Why Faith Matters is filled with thoughtful quotes, stories, and erudition on the topic of faith. I’ve made a couple reading selections from it and hope it will encourage you to find the book and read it. For even if you have faith, as a Christian you will interact with many who do not and it is important to know what you may have missed in the journey to faith.

A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believes things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing any other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
Milton, Areopagitica


FAITH BEGINS WITH A QUESTION, the first question in the Bible. In the garden, God asks Adam, “Where are you?” This is a question addressed to each of us at every instant, at all times.

The Bible answers the first question with the second. The second question in the Bible is asked in the aftermath of murder. When Cain kills Abel, God asks of Cain, “Where is your brother?” We find out where we are, the first question, by discovering whether we care for others, the second question. Cain’s response to God is also, revealingly, a question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?” Though he intends the answer to be “no” it is a question that we understand needs to be answered “yes.”

Bertrand Russell’s wit and mockery (which I soaked up as a teenager) was intended to subvert faith and end the discussion. Instead, as I outgrew Russell, I pursued the questions he raised: Because religion is ancient, must it, therefore be outdated? Is it possible for an entity to exist that cannot be seen or measured?

There are questions that open the heart and questions that close it. “Oh yeah?” closes it down — it is not even a true question. “How can I understand this?” is a question. “Will I have the strength to go through this?” is a question, one of the deepest a human being can ask. “Doubt,” as the theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

Part of what kept me from God was the assumption that I understood what religion was. To ask, ‘Am I religious?” presupposes that one understands what it is to feel God and to have faith. In fact, the question, properly asked, is an invitation to a journey, not an answer.

I began to ask myself questions about faith that I have, in subsequent years, asked thousands of lecture audiences:

1.  Do you believe only that which is tangible—that which you can see or touch or measure — is real, or do you believe there is an intangible reality?

2.  Do you believe that there is a mystery at the heart of the universe that we will never be able to fully understand, not through lack of effort but because it cannot be understood?

The first question is about scientific or philosophical materialism. We know that the world contains much that we cannot see with the naked eye — cells, atoms, molecules, the ephemeral quarks of modern physics. But all of them are in some way measurable, tangible. They exist in the physical realm. They may be measured through the space they leave behind, as a child holds his hand against a wall and sprays paint so that when he steps back the outline of a hand is visible. Particles may only suggest their presence or even change when we observe them, but still, they exist in the world.

For a religious person, there is an unseeable order, an intangible reality. Obviously such an order cannot be measured. Detection will never be possible, even with more refined instruments. When Khrushchev declared in a speech to the Soviet plenum that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew into space but didn’t see God, his was a crude variety of “disproving” God with the instruments of science. The first question for a believer is not “Can the tools of humanity demonstrate the reality of God?” but rather “Is there more than we can ever see?”

The second question uses the word “mystery” in a specific sense. One might understand the world to be a puzzle, not a mystery. A puzzle can be figured out. Our intellect may not be equal to the task, but that is not a statement about the nature of the world, but about our inadequacy. The solution exists and we just cannot get there. Mysteries, as we are using the word here, remain unsolvable; they are beyond the capacity of intellect. 

Human beings get great satisfaction out of solving puzzles. Generally we are taught to think of the world in terms of puzzles and solutions. A detective novel is satisfying because at the end the characters are assembled and what seemed a mystery is solved. Everything becomes clear.

Faith rejects the rational perfectibility of our science. We may think we’ve got all this figured out, but it does not add up as neatly as a detective novel. From its earliest days, religion has taught that at the heart of everything is not a puzzle but a mystery. We do not throw up our hands and simply confess ignorance. Each of us is charged to add to the collective wisdom. Slowly it dawned on me, however, that making sense of everything is not an obligation or even a possibility. So much of what goes on in the world, so much of what goes on even inside ourselves, is beyond our grasp. Acceptance of mystery is an act not of resignation but humility.

My experience reading Russell made clear that the same people who propose to understand the universe do not understand each other or indeed themselves. The ability to confess to bafflement struck me as a kind of spiritual. triumph, a victory of truth over ego. In elementary school one of my favorite teachers used to quote the Talmud to us:

“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.”

Clearer and sweeter than Bertrand Russell’s sharp certainty is the example of the poet Robert Browning. Browning, whose verse is famously obscure, was once approached by a woman who asked the meaning of a particular stanza. “Madame,” he answered, “when I wrote that only God and I knew what it meant. Now, only God knows.”

I searches for a way to deepen my questions. The more I understood about faith, the more it seemed to me built on searching as well as finding. The Hebrew Bible is full of warnings against idolatry but has none against atheism. False belief is dangerous, but the art of questioning is important — if the questions are honest, persistent, and deep. Faith does not ask “Which medicine will cure this disease?” but “How can I use the experience of illness to help others?” It does not map the orbits of planets but does ask over and over again about the inexplicable twists of the human heart.

Asking questions of another is not only a sign of relationship, it is a means of establishing relationship. Abraham challenges God with a question: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). Jesus on the cross also challenges God with a question from the Psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1, Matt. 27:46). Each draws closer to God by asking a daring, powerful question.

So long as I asked dismissive questions, faith seemed to me impossible. As life softened some edges and granted some wisdom, I began to ask out of genuine seeking, out of curiosity and not contempt. The very nature of a question opened my eyes to the possibility that what we cannot touch, what we cannot see, may indeed still be real.

Questions are insubstantial. You cannot see a question or touch or measure it. This is true not only of questions; our lives are built on the intangible. Right now you are reading marks on a page. They do not physically enter your brain. Yet in the interaction between the ink blots on the page and your brain, understanding is conveyed. Is the understanding tangible? What moved from the page to your brain? Can you point to it? How much of our lives take place in the elusive spaces of this world — how much is conveyed, like the artistry of the master musician, in the silence between the notes?

Ask a child to point to love. He will point to his heart, or perhaps to you, but there is no “place” for love. It is intangible.

When I learn something new, a scan may locate physiological changes in the brain, but the change is not the idea. You can map the currents in my brain when I feel a rush of emotion, but is the mapping the same as the feeling? Who really believes that the idea of justice or the meaning of morality is nothing more than a chemical change in the prefrontal cortex?

Consider the story ofyour life. Where you were born, where you grew up, what your home life was like, how you met the important people in your life. When someone asks you about yourself you make a careful selection from the countless facts of your life to portray a picture of yourself, to tell your story.

Now, where does that story exist? Does it have a physical existence? Although it may, in some sense, correspond to the synapses developed in the brain, does it actually have a physical existence? Did the story exist before you told it to someone?

We speak of things that exist “between” people. Is there indeed a “between”? If so, it exists in no physical space. The world is, so to speak, full of nonphysical entities that baffle our understanding. When the Psalmist asks, “Where is the place of God’s glory?” he is wondering if we can speak of a place for that which is not physical. As we are accustomed to acknowledging what we cannot see, the idea of God seems less strange. Nonphysical things are real; they are the stuff of life. Our lives pivot on real things that are non-material: ideas, emotions, imagination, memory, relationships, intuition, suffering, joy, and faith. To believe only in what you can see seems a peculiar form of blindness.


Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader puts it this way:

“Do you believe in voices? How about haircuts? Are there such things? What are they? What, in the language of the physicist, is a hole — not an exotic black hole, but just a hole in a piece of cheese, for instance? Is it a physical thing? What is a symphony? Where in space and time does ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ exist? Is it nothing but some ink trails on some paper in the Library of Congress? Destroy that paper and the anthem would still exist. Latin still exists but it is no longer a living language. The language of cave people in France no longer exists at all…One doesn’t have to believe in ghosts to believe in selves that have an identity that transcends any living body.”

While this is the stuff of freshman philosophy or late-night dorm room debate, it is also the battleground of neuroscience and modern thought. To speak of an idea is to speak of an intangible with tangible effects. To speak of consciousness (perhaps the hottest question in neuroscience) is to wonder how substance, mere matter, becomes aware of itself.

Not only do we live in constant company of the nonphysical, we cannot even adequately describe what is physical. Bertrand Russell begins his classic book Problems of Philosophy by demonstrating how hard it is to decide if there is a table in the room, and to describe the table if there is. After examining its texture, color, and shape, Russell writes: “Two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?”

All we know of Russell’s table is what we experience, and our experience differs from that of others and is dependent on where we are standing, what part we touch, how hard we touch it, and on and on. We are the blindfolded men around the elephant, each feeling but a small part of the whole. Some are arrogant enough to believe we can whip off the blindfold and see everything. But since the blindfold is the brain, it is not possible.

As I began to appreciate how much of our world moves in the spaces we cannot see, the possibility of a nonphysical reality, a greater reality, took hold of me. If we, who are creatures with bodies moving in a physical world, are so dependent on things that cannot be seen, did I conclude too quickly that the nonphysical world, a nonphysical God, was an impossible illusion?

Honest people recognize the limitations of their own knowledge. God’s perfection does not extend to God’s creatures.

Intuiting the unseen is a gift of perspective. Albert Einstein said there are two ways to see the world: as if everything is a miracle or as if nothing is a miracle. Living with an awareness of the miraculous re-enchants the world. From a flower to a star, it is easy to confuse knowing what a thing is made of with knowing what it is. Significance overspills the physical description; mastering botany is not the same as appreciating beauty. Acknowledging that overflow, what a flower means or what a human being is, not in chemical composition but in spiritual significance, is seeing everything as a miracle.

I joked with friends that I was going to rabbinical school “on spec.” I needed to understand more about God and about myself. When I asked my brother what he thought of my going to rabbinical school, he said, “It’s a phase.” He knew that Russell’s version of reality still lived in me: that faith was just my emptiness projected on the world; that science disproved the claims of religion; that religion caused the world’s wars; that if only people would get rid of these unsupported beliefs, they would be happier and more prosperous.

I thought I had to surrender my questions, doubts, and intuitions of darkness in order to believe again. Increasingly, I learned that the great spirits of religious traditions do not solve all questions but live in the questions, and return to them again and again, not as a circle returns, but as an ascending spiral comes to the same place, each time at a higher level.

Studying and teaching brought me to confront the reality of God in the lives of those I met. An intuition of God’s presence can come to us in closeness to another whose spirit touches our own.

I cherish the memory of a remarkable teacher, filled with learning and gentleness, precious to me despite the ridicuious conditions under which we met.

I was a new rabbinical student and in my reading had come across the phrase “noch einmal.” I approached Dr. Slomovic, knowing he spoke several languages, and introducing myself, asked him what “noch einmal” meant. “Once again,” he answered.

Well, he was old, and probably hard of hearing. So I repeated, a little louder, “What does ‘noch einmal’ mean?” He said, a bit more emphatically, “Once again.”

Poor man, I thought, must be difficult on him to make people repeat themselves all the time. “WHAT DOES ‘NOCH EINMAL’ MEAN?” I screamed. He looked at me with compassion, and placing his hand on my cheek, said, “‘Noch einmal’ means once again.” -

Sitting in his class, day after day, listening to him weave together stories of his life in the Eastern European home in which he grew up, listening to legends of the tradition and faith that survived the shocks of the twentieth century, was more powerful than any line of reasoning. Before me was faith as it is lived.

An argument looks different when it vibrates through a living person. Repeatedly in religious circles I came face to face with the force of faith, a faith that is not self-satisfied or closed-minded, but is a strength grounded in humility. Meeting such people reinforced the truth that faith is not an idea but a way to live, not a logical proposition but an outcome of encountering a noble soul. Russell made belief a question of logic; I was learning that it was a question of life.

Increasingly I was less concerned with what God might be than with what faith in God might make of me.


The Satiation Of The Spirit With Truth

January 22, 2010

Josef Pieper in 1981

The final consideration Josef Pieper brings to his discussion of St. Thomas on temperantia is a subtle distinction on the power of chastity.

We have spoken of the destructive power of unchastity and of the preserving, perfecting, fulfilling power of chastity. Something more must be added to this subject. Christians have always had a very dicey relationship with celebrating the sensual in life — particularly the appreciation of sensual beauty and the sexual. Christian doctrine does not exclude sensual enjoyment from the realm of the morally good (as against the merely “permissible”).

On the contrary, think of Jesus and the  account of a woman who performs an extravagant act on the beginning of the Passion narratives in Mark: “While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.” This gesture wasting something as expensive as an entire jar of perfume — is sniffed at by the bystanders, who complain that, at the very least, the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But Jesus is having none of it: “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.” Authentic religion, ultimate concern, can never be hemmed in by reason alone. Flowing from the deepest place in the heart, religion resists the strictures set for it by a fussily moralizing reason (on full display in those who complain about the woman’s extravagance). At the climax of his life, Jesus will give himself away totally, lavishly, unreasonably — and this is why the woman’s beautiful gesture is a sort of overture to the opera that will follow. And it is rooted in the sensual and the extravagance of man’s response to it. No Manichean response for Jesus.


Without chastity, not only is the satiation of the spirit with truth rendered impossible, but also actual sensual joy in what is sensually beautiful. That Christian doctrine does not exclude sensual enjoyment from the realm of the morally good (as against the merely “permissible”) does not need to be specifically stated. But that this enjoyment should be made possible only by the virtue of temperance and moderation — that, indeed, is a surprising thought.

Yet this is what we read in the Summa Theologica, in the first question of the tractate on temperance even if more between and behind the lines than in what is said directly. In the case of animals, it is said there, no pleasure is derived from the activity of the other senses, such as the eye and the ear, except as they affect the satisfaction of the drives of hunger and sex; only because of the promise of food is the lion “happy” when he spies a stag or hears his call. Man, by contrast, is able to enjoy what is seen or heard for the sensual “appropriateness” alone which appeals to the eye and the ear — by this, nothing else but sensual beauty is to be understood.

One frequently reads and hears that in intemperance man sinks to the level of the beast — a dictum to be used with caution, for intemperance (like temperance) is something exclusively human; neither angel nor animal can know it. But keeping this distinction in mind, the sentence becomes meaningful: unchaste lust has the tendency to relate the whole complex of the sensual world, and particularly of sensual beauty, to sexual pleasure exclusively. Therefore only a chaste sensuality can realize the specifically human faculty of perceiving sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty, and to enjoy it for its own sake, for its “sensual appropriateness,” undeterred and unsullied by the self-centered will to pleasure. It has been said that only the pure of heart can laugh freely and liberatingly. It is no less true that only those who look at the world with pure eyes can experience its beauty.

Unlike all other virtues, it has always been the strange fate of the virtue of temperance and moderation, especially in its aspect of chastity, not to be valued and practiced or scorned and ridiculed more or less at its face value, but to be overestimated and overvalued in a very specific sense. This is something altogether unique. There have, of course, always been theoretical discussions about the hierarchy of the virtues and one or the other has been shifted to a higher rank.

But the stubborn and really quite fanatical preference given to temperantia, especially to chastity, which runs through the whole history of Christian doctrine as a more or less hidden undercurrent or countercurrent, has a very special aspect. No one, at any rate, has attached to justice or prudence or to any of the three theological virtues such an emphatic and evidently not simply factual, but emotionally charged evaluation.

Of course, there would not be the slightest objection against such an evaluation per se — for strictly speaking, virtues as such cannot be overrated. But here we are speaking of an evaluation and over evaluation based on a false premise; of an evaluation, therefore, which implies a misunderstanding of what is supposedly valued so highly. And against this we must object strongly.

In the province of temperantia, as we have said before, it is man’s attitude toward creation which is decided, and most incisively. And the “wrong premise” upon which rest the over evaluation and erroneous value given to temperantia in general and chastity in particular amounts to this, namely, the explicit or implied opinion that the sensual reality of the whole of creation, and above all the non-spiritual element in man himself, is actually evil. To sum up: the “wrong premise” is an explicit, or, more often, an implicit, even unconscious and unintended, Manichaeism.

That man must eat, that he must sleep, that the origin of new human life is linked to the physical union of man and woman — all this, especially the last, appears, in this presumably ineradicable apprehension of the• world, as a necessary evil — perhaps not even a necessary one — something unworthy of God the Creator and of man as well. The specifically human task, or better still, the specifically Christian task, would consist in rising above this entire “lower” sphere and mounting by ascetic practice to a purely spiritual way of life.

Not only do fasting, vigils, and sexual continence take on a very special importance from this basic approach, but they move necessarily into the center of attention of the man striving for perfection. This evaluation, however, shares and indeed intensifies the errors of its origin; and despite all outward similarity, it has as little to do with the Christian evaluation of those three things as the heresies of the Manichees, the Montanists, and the Cathari have to do with the Catholic dogma that proclaims that created reality is good in all its spheres, and is not subject to the arbitrariness of human evaluation; indeed, it is the basis and the point of departure of all evaluation as well as of all realization of value.

That “wrong premise” with its effects on ethical doctrine is particularly evident in the Montanist writings of Tertullian, who, by reason of his ambiguous status as a quasi-Father of the Church (St. Thomas speaks of him only as a heretic: haeretints, Tertullianus nomine) has continued to this day as the ancestor and the chief witness of that erroneous evaluation of temperantia. One need only enumerate the subjects of his works: “On Modesty,” “On the Veiling of Virgins,” “On the Adornment of Women,” “On Fasting,” “Admonition to Chastity,” “Concerning Stage Plays,” or mention his rejection of second marriages after the death of wife or husband, in order to show that the realm of temperantia is very prominently under scrutiny.

For Tertullian, unchastity is to such a point the primal form of sin that according to him the sin of the angels was unchastity, and thus they fell from God; this is what he thought St. Paul had in mind when he said that women should veil themselves “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 4, 10). To the same frame of reference belongs the cause of Tertullian’s separation from the Church only a few years after his baptism: he could neither comprehend nor condone the fact that Pope Callistus welcomed back into the ecclesiastical community those sinners against chastity who had done the required penance contritely.

Tertullian denounces the encyclical with which the Pope proclaims this measure as a blot upon the Church, fit to be read “in those dens of vice, beneath the signboards of the whorehouses rather than in the house of God. It is characteristic, also, that already with Tertullian the emphasis on external action appears which customarily and as if from inner necessity accompanies the erroneous evaluation of temperantia, and more especially of chastity: he calls for more obligatory fast days; for the veiling of women and girls; and he sees the hallmark of a Christian in his abstention from public entertainments.

Blindness only can deny that this Manichaean undervaluation of the sensual reality of creation (let us repeat: not as a formulated opinion, but as an inarticulate attitude) tinges and surreptitiously qualifies the current Christian notion of the virtue of temperance, and more especially of chastity. This becomes evident in innumerable small traits pertaining to the thinking and speaking habits of Christian folk, and also not infrequently in the accents and shadings of moral preaching

If, for example, one speaks with special emphasis of the defilement of unchastity, this implies a different and weightier blame than the defilement pertaining to any other sin. (Actually, the term “defilement” is almost never applied to other sins.) What is censured is not only the specific “vulgarity” inherent in any form of self-indulging pleasure; there is also almost always a persistently audible undertone suggesting the idea of contact with something in itself impure, with a reality defiling per se.

The current notion of the “Immaculate Conception” — current even among Christians — refers this immaculateness not so much to the person of the Virgin Mary as to the process of conception, of begetting (and often enough, as anyone can test, not to the conception of Mary, but to that of the Lord in the womb of His mother). Among people generally, this immaculateness is in any case not understood as it is understood by the Church and by theology, namely, as signifying that Mary was free from the stain of original sin from her mother’s womb.

The current popular notion, rather, is this: by a special grace of God, that conception remained free from the impurity and taint which naturally adheres to it, as to all begetting and conception. And even if this immaculateness is correctly referred to the person of the Virgin Mary herself, as in the appellation Mary “Immaculate,” we find on close listening that the concept has been totally deprived of its universal, inclusive significance, and has been limited to the province of chastity alone.

Something similar is true of the concept of purity, which, also viewed Biblically, is much broader in scope than chastity. For the average understanding it has become entirely natural to refer the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart” exclusively, or at any rate principally, to chastity, though neither the immediate Biblical meaning nor the interpretation of these words of the Lord in classical theology favors such restriction; Aquinas, for example, by no means assigns the beatitude of the pure in heart to the virtue of chastity, but to the supernatural virtue of faith.

Finally: Try to ascertain what the average Christian associates with the sentence: To the pure all things are pure. First, he will not readily imagine that this phrase is to be found in the New Testament (Titus 1,15) and that it only affirms what was said by Jesus Himself (Matthew 15, 10-20); On the contrary, the average Christian, such as we find him in every walk of life and on every educational level, would sooner have guessed at a non-Christian, liberal author. And it is scarcely ever thought of that aside from and indeed predating its misused liberal interpretation, this sentence has a sound and important Christian significance. Of course here again purity is confined to chastity, in evident contradiction to the sense of the context. And since the presumably Christian sense of the Biblical sentence is supposed to imply that even to the pure man not everything is pure, we find here again the effects of the notion of the essential impurity of the reality of being.

These misconceptions, which miss the actual Christian meaning of things — and examples of which could be multiplied — can only be partially attributed to ignorance. They propagate themselves, in the form of inarticulate opinions and attitudes, beneath and beyond and even in spite of formal instruction; as a rule, the average Christian we here have in mind will, after some concentration on the relevant article in his catechism, be able to give the “theoretically” correct answer. Decisive, however, are not so much the explicit words as the atmosphere in the province of moral education and teaching; and it must be admitted by even the most cautious judgment that this atmosphere is plainly not entirely free from the germs of Manichaeism.

And no cleansing can be effected by mere theoretical knowledge and cognition, or by instruction only. What is required is that the dogmatic truth of God the Creator and His works be wholly appropriated in humbly confident assent, and that this truth obtain the radiant and vivifying power which is the exclusive property of genuine vitality.

But the “world” exists not only as God’s creation. There is also the “world” which, as St. John the Apostle says, “lies in evil” and prevails in the “gratification of corrupt nature, gratification of the eyes, and the empty pomp of living” (1 John 22, 16); there is the kingdom of the “Prince of this world” (John 12, 31, Luke 4, 6); there is the world for which Christ the Lord did not want to pray (John 17, 9). There is not only the reality of creation, but also the perversion of the order of creation, which has taken on form in the activities of men and the objective “creations” which grow out of these. And this “world” also comes up for judgment in the sphere of temperantia, in a very specific sense. It is in that which aids and abets the self-indulging lust for pleasure that the inversion of the order of creation may most obtrusively be realized, filling the foreground of the “world” completely with its seductive call. (Though of course the core and substance of that world which lies in evil consists primarily in the realization of injustice and above all in the actual denial of faith, hope, and charity — a telling counterpart to the hierarchy of the virtues!)

From this point of view the evaluation and educational emphasis put on the virtue of temperance rightly achieves special significance. This sort of estimate of temperantia, however, has to be carefully distinguished from the previously mentioned “Manichaean” variety (not always an easy task, as the Manichaeans constantly adduce the valid arguments of the other side together with their own). Even the rigorist attitude of the Carthaginian Tertullian is partially conditioned by his constant experience of metropolitan life.

“It is bad to live in cities: there are too many lecherous people,” reads the beginning of the chapter on chastity in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. What Nietzsche asserts with hard-hitting precision was also known to Thomas, who formulates it more dispassionately and abstractly “There is not much sinning because of natural desires….

But the stimuli of desire which man’s cunning has devised are something else, and for the sake of these one sins very much.” Intemperance is enkindled above all by the seductive glamour of the stimuli provided in an artificial civilization, with which the dishonorable team of blind lust and calculated greed surround the province of sexuality. All training and self-discipline aiming at chastity will find itself constantly faced with this situation. The resulting “overemphasis” on temperantia is in a certain sense fully justified (even though, on the other hand, the ethics of the so-called “fight against public immorality” seem to be a precarious and debatable business — and not only because of their ineffectiveness). Even St. Thomas assigns to temperantia primacy before fortitude and justice — though in a circumscribed, non-actual sense — since it must be most often proven in the world. We say in a circumscribed, non-actual sense, for the hierarchy which is actually and essentially valid is of a different kind.

But first a comment is necessary to avoid facile misunderstandings. In these considerations it is not a question of minimizing the gravity of the sins against chastity. No attempt at palliation can lessen the fearful weight of the willful turning of man from God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the essential nature of sin lies exclusively in this willful turning away from God. On the other hand, the opinion (again founded on Tertullian) that unchastity is the gravest of all sins seems to base the gravity of this sin not so much on the turning away from God as on the turning of man to the goods of the sensual world; or, more directly and revealingly expressed: on defilement by a reality presumed to be impure and evil in its essence. St. Thomas, however, states that even a disordered turning of man to a transitory good, if it does not include a turning away from God, cannot be a mortal sin.

But even the Summa once quotes the sentence of St. Isidore of Seville according to which the human race succumbs to the devil more through unchastity than in any other way. In the moral teaching of the last hundred years this thought has played a dominant role, to an extent where it is over refined to a definiteness of statement exceeding all human competence. How could a mere human being be able to know that — as a widely read theological writer of our times asserts – “there are ninety-nine people our of a hundred who will be damned for this very sin!” For St. Thomas, by contrast, the proposition of St. Isidore merely proved that in the sin of unchastity the compelling force of sensual desire is most, effective; this very fact, however, mitigates the gravity of the sin, “because the sin is more venial the more overwhelming the sensual passion that drives one to it.”

But let us return to the consideration of the hierarchy of the virtues and the place of temperantia in that hierarchy. Over and over again Thomas has raised the question of the hierarchy of the virtues. His reply is as follows: “Man’s good is rational good. But this good is possessed in its essence by prudence, which is the perfection of reason. But justice is the agent which makes this good real. It is the portion of justice to establish in all human affairs the order of reason. But the other virtues maintain and protect this good, insofar as they order the passions, lest these turn man away from rational good. In the hierarchy of these virtues fortitude has the first place. It is followed by temperance. That which concerns being is higher than that which concerns operation; and this again is higher than that which concerns maintenance and protection, inasmuch as only that which hinders is removed. Consequently, among the cardinal virtues prudence is the noblest; justice is the second, fortitude the third, temperantia the fourth.” “Justice and fortitude are higher virtues than temperance; but they are all exceeded by prudence and the theological virtues.”

Temperantia in its strict and ultimate sense is not “realization” of the good. Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal. Without it, the stream of the innermost human will-to-be would overflow destructively beyond all bounds, it would lose its direction and never reach the sea of perfection. Yet temperantia is not itself the stream. But it is the shore, the banks, from whose solidity the stream receives the gift of straight unhindered course, of force, descent, and velocity.


St. Thomas on Chastity and Unchastity

January 21, 2010

Josef Pieper continues with his summary of St. Thomas’ thoughts on Chastity and Unchastity. As someone who has fallen and who has continued to fall despite his conversion, I find in the following some powerful tools for self-understanding. There was a time in my life when Unchastity had totally undone my powers of Prudence. Yet to all who may have observed me, I appeared greatly in control. The highlighted “This second mode of chastity is not the perfected virtue of temperance and moderation, but a strenuous control; and this mode of unchastity is not a consummate intemperance, but a mere lack of control. “ could be read as a kind of nonsense but not if you have lived it. Having lived it, I found those sentences truly profound.

IN CURRENT TREATISES OF chastity and unchastity, the air one breathes is not always bracing.

This state of affairs may have various causes, one of which is certainly this: in contradiction to the true grading and order of things, the realm of sex — again for many different reasons — has moved to the center of attention in the general moral consciousness. In addition to this, and despite all contrary statements of principle, a smoldering subterranean Manichaeism casts suspicion on everything pertaining to physical reproduction as being somehow impure, defiling, and beneath the true dignity of man. From all these and other hidden discords are brewed the oppressive mists of casuistry and distortion, of embarrassment and importunity, which frequently pervade discussions of chastity and unchastity.

On the other hand, it is a refreshing and emancipating experience to read the tractate on the same subject by Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, written with truly holy candor and concise cleanness. Then we realize with joy that we have the right (and more than the right!) to adhere to the principles taught by this “universal teacher” of the Church.

To begin with: for Thomas it is plainly self-evident — indeed so self-evident that it need hardly be mentioned even to those but moderately instructed (while it may still be well not to remain silent on this point) — that the sexual powers are not a “necessary evil” but really a good. With Aristotle, he says incisively that there is something divine in human seed.’ It is equally self-evident to Thomas’s thinking that, “like eating and drinking,” the fulfillment of the natural sexual urge and its accompanying pleasure are good and not in the least sinful, assuming, of course, that order and moderation are preserved. For the intrinsic purpose of sexual power, namely, that not only now but also in days to come the children of man may dwell upon the earth and in the Kingdom of God, is not merely a good, but, as Thomas says, “a surpassing good.” Indeed, complete asensuality, unfeelingly adverse to all sexual pleasure, which some would like to regard as “properly” perfect and ideal according to Christian doctrine, is described in the Summa Theologica not only as an imperfection but actually as a moral defect (vitium).

At this point, a deliberate digression is called for. The progenitive purpose of sexuality is not the sole and exclusive purpose of marriage. Yet marriage is the proper fulfillment of sexual power. Of the three goods of marriage — community of life, offspring, and sacramental blessing (fides, proles, sacramentum) — it is the mutually benevolent and inviolable community of life which, according to Aquinas, is the special benefit conferred on man “as man.” [Note that none of these “goods” is available to what is called “gay marriage”]

This affirmative position is clear to Thomas beyond any doubt because, more perhaps than any other Christian teacher, he takes seriously the fundamental thought of revelation, “Everything created by God is good,” and thinks it through to its conclusion. These words were used by the Apostle Paul in order to reprimand, with the same reference to creation, those “hypocritical liars” who carry a “torch in their conscience” and “forbid men to marry and to enjoy certain foods” (1 Timothy 4, 2f.). Heresy and hyper-asceticism are and always have been close neighbors. The Father of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, has expressed this with great emphasis; in a sermon he links the words of Scripture concerning “two in one flesh” to the physical union of the spouses and adds: “Why do you blush? Is it not pure? You are behaving like heretics!”

“The more necessary something is, the more the order of reason must be preserved in it. “For the very reason that sexual power is so noble and necessary a good, it needs the preserving and defending order of reason.

Chastity as a virtue, therefore, is constituted in its essence by this and nothing else, namely, that it realizes the order of reason in the province of sexuality. Unchastity as a sin, on the other hand, is in its essence the transgression and violation of the rational order in the province of sexuality.

There is something uncomfortable about the straightforward use of the terms “reason” and “the order of reason” for us modem Christians. But this mistrust, for which, by the way, there is ample cause and reason, must not prevent us from a frank inquiry into what Thomas would have us understand by “reason” and “the order of reason.”

Four facts have to be borne in mind if we wish to escape the danger of simply missing St. Thomas’s meaning, even before taking a position ourselves. We must consider that Thomas’s concept of “reason” and “the order of reason” is to be taken realistically, not idealistically; that it is free of all rationalistic restrictions; that it has none of the connotations of the ratio of the Enlightenment; and, finally, that it is not in the least spiritualistic.

  1. The concept “order of reason,” first of all, does not signify that something must agree with the imperative of an “absolute reason” detached from its object. Reason includes a reference to reality; indeed, it is itself this reference. “In accord with reason” is in this sense that which is right “in itself,” that which corresponds to reality itself. The order of reason accordingly signifies that something is disposed in accordance with the truth of real things.
  2. Secondly, ratio is not that reason which arbitrarily restricts itself to the province of purely natural cognition. Ratio here signifies — in its widest sense — man’s power to grasp reality. Now, man grasps reality not only in natural cognition but also — and this reality is a higher object of knowledge and the process of grasping it a higher process — by faith in the revelation of God. If therefore the Summa Theologica states that Christ is the chief Lord (principalis Dóminus), the first owner of our bodies, and that one who uses his body in a manner contrary to order, injures Christ the Lord Himself. Thomas is not of the opinion that this proposition exceeds the pattern of “mere” rational order, but rather that for Christian thought to be guided by divine revelation is the very highest form of “accord with reason” — this in spite of the fact that elsewhere Thomas knows how to distinguish sharply between natural and supernatural cognition. “The order of reason,” accordingly, is the order which corresponds to the reality made evident to man through faith and knowledge.
  3. Thirdly, the emphatic and ever recurrent stress on reason and the order of reason in works of Aquinas is obviously not to be understood in the sense which the Enlightenment has given to these terms. “To realize the order of reason in the province of sexuality” is a proposition which one most certainly would not want to understand as an incitement or permission to lift that which natural feeling and propriety surround and protect with the sheltering obscurity of concealment and silence into the crude and artificial light of a shallow “know-it-all” view. Rather, Thomas expressly co-ordinates modesty with chastity, whose function is to see to it that this silence and this obscurity are not destroyed either by shamelessness or uninhibited rationalizing, or spotlighted by the methods of “sexual instruction.” This, therefore, forms part of the “order of reason” too.
  4. Fourthly, the Thomistic concept of reason might be misinterpreted spiritualistically, a facile temptation to some. The proposition that “the essential and proper good of man is existence in accord with reason” could be read to mean: “Constant spiritual awareness is what distinguishes the specifically human condition; everything that clouds this awareness is unspiritual, consequently unworthy of the human condition, and therefore evil.” Applied to the province here under discussion such a spiritualistic interpretation might easily lead to the following conclusion: “In the act of procreation, reason is so overwhelmed by the abundance of pleasure that, as the philosopher says, spiritual cognition becomes impossible…thus there can be no act of begetting without sin.”
    Now this last sentence is actually to be found in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas — but as an “objection,” that is, as an expressly confuted opinion, as a negation to which a clear affirmation is opposed. The affirmation is worded as follows: “As long as the sexual act itself corresponds to the rational order, the abundance of pleasure does not conflict with the proper mean of virtue…And even the fact that reason is unable to make a free act of cognition of spiritual things simultaneously with that pleasure does not prove that the sexual act conflicts with virtue. For it is not against virtue that the workings of reason sometimes are interrupted by something that takes place in accordance with reason: otherwise it would be contrary to virtue to sleep. Do we need any further explanation in order to show how much St. Thomas’s concept of reason has regard to the whole man — to body and soul, sensuality and spirituality?
    St. Thomas designates as “not in accord with reason” the opinion of some Fathers of the Church that “in Paradise the propagation of mankind would have taken place in some other manner, such as that of the angels”; indeed, St. Thomas says: The pleasure that accompanies intercourse must have been even stronger in Paradise — since mental awareness was unclouded and because of the greater delicacy of human nature and the higher sensitivity of the body. But enough of this.

Only on the basis of these four delimitations and refutations is our vision liberated so that we can see the true core of the proposition that chastity, by disciplining sexuality, realizes the order of reason.

The order of reason, however, implies, first, that the immanent purpose of sexual power be not perverted but fulfilled (in marriage, with its threefold “good”); second, that the inner structure of the moral person be kept intact; and, third, that justice between men be not infringed. What we are concerned with here is the purpose of sex as it was intended originally in the first creation, and ennobled by Christ in the New Creation; what we are concerned with is the existential structure of the moral person, as established in nature and in grace; what we are concerned with is order among men as guaranteed not merely by natural justice, but also by the higher justice of caritas, that is, supernatural love of God and man.

Chastity realizes in the province of sex the order which corresponds to the truth of the world and of man both as experienced and as revealed, and which accords with the twofold form of this truth — not that of unveiled evidence alone, but that of veiled evidence also — that is, of mystery.

It is not adultery only which touches upon the provinces of both temperantia and justice; rather, any unchastity has these two aspects: to be at once intemperance and injustice. St. Thomas relates the totality of all sins against chastity to the “commonweal” — taking this term in a very profound and far-reaching sense — and to justice as well; similarly, he relates all the Ten Commandments, not excepting the sixth and the ninth, to justice.

We have become used to see in adultery, and even more in adulterous desire and cupidity, as in sexual transgressions generally, almost exclusively the element of lust, neglecting almost completely the element of injustice. Yet it is very important that the collective moral consciousness of Christianity should again assign greater weight to this objective side of chastity, which is concerned with the commonweal and with justice, as against a view limited exclusively to the subjective factor. To restore the proper emphasis is evidently important not only because it corresponds to actual fact and truth, but also because the neglect or insufficient observation of the objective element of justice in chastity and its opposite derives from an erroneous conception of man and at the same time causes and perpetuates this error.

In this book, which treats of temperantia and not of the sixth commandment nor of marriage nor of the Christian idea of man as a whole, nor of justice, it is quite enough that this thought has been given emphatic expression.

Here, however, it is our purpose to consider chastity and unchastity expressly from the point of view of moderation and its opposite, being fully aware, at the same time, of the limitations inherent in the subject. We shall speak first not of its outward repercussions, but of its root in the inner man: of the disciplining of the sex urge by the spiritual directing power of reason, and also of the abdication of the spirit, which opens the way for sex to destroy the moral person.

In what way and why does unchastity destroy the structure of the person?

Unchastity most effectively falsifies and corrupts the virtue of prudence. All that conflicts with the virtue of prudence stems for the most part from unchastity; unchastity begets a blindness of spirit which practically excludes all understanding of the goods of the spirit; unchastity splits the power of decision; conversely, the virtue of chastity more than any other makes man capable and ready for contemplation.

All these propositions of St. Thomas do not refer to isolated effects and consequences; if the spirit is blinded by unchastity, it is not by a process similar to the wilting of a plant in a rainless period. This blindness is of the essence of unchastity itself, which is by its very nature destructive. It is not its outward effect and consequence, but its immanent essential property.

“The being of man in its essential significance consists in this: to be in accord with reason. If therefore a man keeps to what is in accord with reason, he is said ‘to keep himself in himself.’ Unchastity destroys in a very special manner this self-possession and this human “keeping of oneself in oneself.” Unchaste abandon and the self-surrender of the soul to the world of sensuality paralyzes the primordial powers of the moral person: the ability to perceive, in silence, the call of reality, and to make, in the retreat of this silence, the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action. This is the meaning inherent in all those propositions which speak of the falsification and corruption of prudence, of the blindness of the spirit, and of the splitting of the power of decision.

Now all this is not to be understood as if the corruptive effect of unchastity derived from the fact that the spirit turns to the “sensual” and “inferior” in general. On the contrary, such turning is altogether inevitable for any decision. It is indeed of the essence of the virtue of prudence that it face squarely all those concrete realities which surround man’s concrete actions. Accordingly, it is not the reference to the province of sexuality that produces the blindness and deafness brought about by unchastity; such an opinion would be Manichaean at bottom, and therefore anti-Christian.

Rather, the destructiveness lies in the fact that unchastity constricts man and thus renders him incapable of seeing objective reality. An unchaste man wants above all something for himself; he is distracted by an unobjective “interest”; his constantly strained will-to-pleasure prevents him from confronting reality with that selfless detachment which alone makes genuine knowledge possible. St. Thomas here uses the comparison of a lion who, at the sight of a stag, is unable to perceive anything but the anticipated meal. In an unchaste heart, attention is not merely fixed upon a certain track, but the “window” of the soul has lost its “transparency,” that is, its capacity for perceiving existence, as if a selfish interest had covered it, as it were, with a film of dust. (We cannot repeat too often: only he who is silent hears, only the invisible is transparent.)

This kind of interestedness is altogether selfish. The abandonment of an unchaste heart to the sensual world has nothing in common with the genuine dedication of a searcher for truth to the reality of being, of a lover to his beloved. Unchastity does not dedicate itself, it offers itself. It is selfishly intent upon the “prize,” upon the reward of illicit lust. “Chaste,” says St. Augustine, “is the heart that loves God without looking for reward.” One further comment: For anyone whose function it is to lead and counsel young people, it is extremely important to keep in mind and to make known that it is this selfishness which characterizes the inner nature of unchastity (as intemperance). Where the selfish motive is absent, we may speak of thoughtlessness, curiosity, or of impulses so completely natural that they lie outside the scope of moral judgment — but not of unchastity.

This perversion of a genuine process of knowing is all the more destructive the more immediately a given knowledge concerns man himself and the more it can be the foundation of moral decisions. Not only is the cognitive process thereby poisoned and perverted, but also the power of decision itself, and even more so; “most of all prudence,” says Aquinas. It is prudence, however, which, as the perfection of conscience, is the innermost source-region of the moral person. Prudence implies a transformation of the knowledge of truth into decisions corresponding to reality.

This transformation is achieved in three steps: deliberation, judgment, decision. Upon each of these three steps the destructive power of intemperance manifests itself: in place of deliberation guided by the truth of things, we find complete recklessness and inconsideration; a hasty judgment that will not wait until reason has weighed the pros and cons; and even if a correct decision were reached, it would always be endangered by the fickleness of a heart that abandons itself indiscriminately to the surging mass of sensual impressions. This is inevitable: if you do not move a knife in the plane of the thing to be cut, it cannot cut at all. So without a direct, innocent, and selfless vision of reality there can be no interior order of the moral person and no honest moral decision.

Chastity, on the other hand, renders one able to perceive reality and ready not only for the perception and thus also for decision corresponding to reality, but also for that highest mode of relating oneself to reality in which the purest dedication to knowledge and the most selfless dedication in love become one, namely, contemplation, in which man turns toward the divine Being and becomes aware of that truth which is at once the highest good.

To be open to the truth of real things and to live by the truth that one has grasped is the essence of the moral being. Only when we recognize this state of things can we likewise understand the depths to which the unchaste heart permits destruction to invade its very being.

This dark portrayal of the destructive force of unchastity applies in all its harshness only to unchastity as intemperantia, but not to unchastity as incontinentia; just as that which has been said of chastity is fully pertinent only to chastity as temperantia but not to chastity as continentia. This significant distinction must be briefly explained.

Because it is not always the same thing when two people do the same thing, a moral doctrine which regards only the actions of man but not his being, is always in danger of seeing only the sameness (or the difference) of the actions, and missing important differences (or samenesses) at a greater depth. Since, however, the moral theology of the universal teacher of the Church is a doctrine of virtue — that is, a doctrine of the being of man as the source of his actions — the difference between temperantia-intemperantia on the one hand and continentia-incontinentia on the other hand could not easily escape him.

Chastity as temperantia, or unchastity as intemperantia: This means that each, respectively, has become a deep-rooted basic attitude of man, and, as it were, a second nature to him. Chastity as continentia, or unchastity as incontinentia: This means that neither is necessarily based on what might be called a natural inclination of being; neither has as yet grown firm roots in the existential core of man. This second mode of chastity is not the perfected virtue of temperance and moderation, but a strenuous control; and this mode of unchastity is not a consummate intemperance, but a mere lack of control.

Chastity as control is only a tentative sketch; chastity as temperantia is perfected realization. The first is less perfect than the second, because by the former, the directing power of reason has been able to mold only the conscious will, but not yet the sensual urge, whereas by the latter will and urge are both stamped with “rational order.” In Thomas’s explicit opinion, the effort of self-control pertains only to the less perfect steps of the beginner, whereas real, perfected virtue, by the very nature of its concept, bears the joyous, radiant seal of ease, of effortlessness, of self-evident inclination.

On the other hand, unchastity in the form of lack of self-control is less pernicious, less sinful, than unchastity the form of actual intemperance. In the first case, as Aristotle and St. Thomas say, the best is not lost; the principle, the ground of being, subsists, namely, the right conception of the direction of will toward the true goal; and through this unblemished rightness even the sensual urge can be reintegrated again and again into its order: he who sins from lack of control is quick to repent; and repentance is the repudiation of sin. On the other hand, he who sins from a deep-rooted basic attitude of intemperance directs his will expressly toward sin; he does not repent easily; indeed, “he is happy to have sinned, because sinning has become ‘natural’ for him.” The merely uncontrolled can be “recalled” to order; actual intemperance, however, is not easily revocable. To sin from a basic attitude of one’s will is real malice; to sin in a gust of passion is weakness — infirmitas. One who is merely uncontrolled is not unchaste, even though he acts unchastely.

It is no doubt easy to see that to stress this difference is not to indulge in the pleasure of theoretical hair-splitting. Rather, it is an attempt to establish a contrast which acquires an immediately practical significance, both pedagogical and pastoral.

It is temperantia, the virtue that realizes the inner order of man in himself, which St. Thomas has in mind when — in contrast to justice, in whose province that which is “properly and in itself right” can and must be determined — speaking of “the other moral virtues which refer to the passions and in which right or wrong cannot be determined in the same fashion, because men vary in their attitudes toward the passions,” he says, “therefore it is necessary that what is right and reasonable in the passions should be determined with reference to ourselves, who are moved by the passions. But especially in the province of temperantia “we ourselves” have the choice of innumerable possibilities: for example, to desire halfheartedly or wholeheartedly, to tolerate, to let things take their course, to give in to pressure or to be carried away. “Who could determine,” writes the perceptive Thomas, H. D. Noble, in his commentary on the French edition of Aquinas — “who could determine when lack of control ends and when actual intemperance begins?”

St. Thomas says that the realization of temperantia varies too much according to individuals and periods to allow the establishment of hard and fast, universally valid commandments on temperantia. The whole realm of “unchaste thoughts, desires, words, looks, etc.,” which in the casuistic manuals occupies so much space, is treated ill the Summa Theologica in a single article not quite one page in length. It determines the general principle only, that it is not the accomplished sinful act alone that is sinful, but also the willing consent to the pleasure imagined and implicit in this act; for this willing consent is inconceivable without an attitude of acceptance toward the accomplished act itself; everything, therefore, which derives from such willing consent is likewise a sin.


St. Thomas on Temperance And Intemperance, Discipline And Dissoluteness

January 20, 2010

Josef Pieper

Josef Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues deals with Temperance last. This is the cardinal virtue under which chastity is subsumed and one that has occupied a great deal of my attention. Pieper went to Aquinas to consider the virtues because he felt that in Aquinas one encountered the most disciplined, dynamic and penetrating independent thinking — yet a kind of thinking that spoke less to the individual writer, meaning Thomas himself, than to a great tradition of wisdom itself. That wisdom shines through in this post and it is one I am presently reflecting greatly upon.

Temperance and Moderation
WHAT HAVE THE WORDS “temperance” and “moderation” come to mean in today’s parlance?

The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably- to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess. Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content. Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.

Nor does “moderation” correspond to the meaning and rank of temperantia. Moderation mainly relates to admonishing the wrathful to moderate their anger. Though the moderation of anger belongs to the realm of temperantia, it is only a part of it. If we leave the tepid atmosphere of a moral theology mistrustful of all passion to enter the more realistic and bracing climate of the Summa Theologica, we find, surprisingly, that the passio of anger is defended rather than condemned.

Further: the current concept of moderation is dangerously close to fear of any exuberance. We all know that the term “prudent moderation” tends to crop up when the love of truth or some other generous impulse threatens to take an extreme risk. This emasculated concept of moderation has no place in a doctrine which asserts that the love of God — fountainhead of all virtues — knows neither mean nor measure. “Moderation,” also, is too negative in its implication and signifies too exclusively restriction, curtailment, curbing, bridling, repression — all again in contradiction to the classic prototype of the fourth cardinal virtue.

A study of the linguistic meaning of the Greek term, sophrosyne, and of the Latin temperantia reveals a much wider range of significance. The original meaning of the Greek word embraces “directing reason” in the widest sense. And the Latin stays close to this far-ranging significance. In St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (12, 24f) we read: Deus temperavit corpus. “Thus God has established a harmony in the body, giving special honor to that which needed it most. There was to be no want of unity in the body; all the different parts of were to make each other’s welfare their common care” The primary and essential meaning of temperare, therefore, is this: to dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole

Selfless Self-Preservation
AQUINAS SAYS THAT the second meaning of temperance is “serenity of the spirit” (quies animi).  It is obvious that this proposition does not imply a purely subjective state of mental calm or the tranquil satisfaction which is the by-product of an unassuming, leisurely life in a narrow circle. Nor does it mean a mere absence of irritation, or dispassionate equanimity. All this need not go deeper than the surface of the intellectual and spiritual life. What is meant is the serenity that fills the inmost recesses of the human being, and is the seal and fruit of order. The purpose and goal of temperantia is man’s inner order, from which alone this “serenity of spirit” can flow forth. “Temperance” signifies the realizing of this order within oneself.

Temperantia is distinguished from the other cardinal virtues by the fact that it refers exclusively to the active man himself. Prudence looks to all existent reality; justice to the fellow man; the man of fortitude relinquishes, in self-forgetfulness, his own possessions and his life. Temperance, on the other hand, aims at each man himself. Temperance implies that man should look to himself and his condition, that his vision and his will should be focused on himself. That notion that the primordial images of all things reside in God has been applied by Aquinas to the cardinal virtues also: the primordial divine mode of teniperantia, he states, is the “turning of the Divine Spirit to Itself.”

For man there are two modes of this turning toward the self: a selfless and a selfish one. Only the former makes for self-preservation; the latter is destructive. In modern psychology we find this thought: genuine self-preservation is the turning of man toward himself, with the essential stipulation, however, that in this movement he does not become fixed upon himself. (“Whoever fixes his eyes upon himself gives no light.”) Temperance is selfless self-preservation. intemperance is self-destruction through the selfish degradation of the powers which aim at self-preservation.

It is a commonplace though nonetheless mysterious truth that man’s inner order — unlike that of the crystal, the flower, or the animal — is not a simply given and self-evident reality, but rather that the same forces from which human existence derives its being can Upset that inner order to the point of destroying the spiritual and moral person. That this cleavage in human nature (provided we do not try to persuade ourselves that it does not exist) finds its explanation only in the acceptance by faith of the revealed truth of original sin, is too vast a subject to be discussed here. It seems necessary, however, to consider more closely the structure of that inner order and disorder.

Most difficult to grasp is the fact that it is indeed the essential human self that is capable of throwing itself into disorder to the point of self-destruction. For man is not really a battlefield of conflicting forces and impulses which conquer one another; and if we say that the sensuality “in us” gets the better of our reason, this is only a vague and metaphorical manner of speaking. Rather it is always our single self that is chaste or unchaste, temperate or intemperate, self-preserving or self-destructive. It is always the decisive center of the whole, indivisible person by which the inner order is upheld or upset. “It is not the good my will preserves, but the evil my will disapproves, that I find myself doing” (Romans 7:19).

Also, the very powers of the human being which most readily appear as the essential powers of self-preservation self-assertion, and self-fulfillment are at the same time the first to work the opposite: the self-destruction of the moral person. In the Summa Theologica we find the almost uncanny formulation: the powers whose ordering is the function of temperance “can most easily bring unrest to the spirit, because they belong to the essence of man.”

But how can it be that the very powers of self-preservation are so close to becoming destructive? How can it be that the man who seeks himself can miss himself in his very seeking? And how, on the other hand, can self-love be selfless?

A narrow gap of understanding is wedged open by a proposition of St. Thomas’s, which may confidently be called the basis of a metaphysical philosophy of active man. It states that to love God more than himself is in accordance with the natural being of man, as of every creature, and with his will as well.

Consequently, the offense against the love of God derives its self-destructive sharpness from the fact that it is likewise in conflict with the nature and the natural will of man himself. If he loves nothing so much as himself, man misses and perverts, with inner necessity, the purpose inherent in self-love as in all love: to preserve, to make real, to fulfill. This purpose is given only to selfless self-love, which seeks not itself blindly, but with open eyes endeavors to correspond to the true reality of God, the self, and the world.

The force of this metaphysical truth formulated by Aquinas strikes so deep that, in a sense, it becomes even nonsensical to desire the preservation of the inner order for its own sake and consequently to will even genuine self-preservation as such. (That the temperantia of the miser, who shuns debauchery because of its expense, is, as Aquinas says, no virtue, need hardly be mentioned.)

It is known how little, for example, a medical directive alone can do to establish true inner discipline; not unjustly has it been said of psychotherapy unrelated to either religion or metaphysics that it tends to produce an “anxiously fostered middle-class tranquility, poisoned by its triteness,” — a result which evidently has nothing to do with the essential serenity of genuine temperance. This failure is no accident, but rather an inevitable consequence. The discipline of temperance cannot be realized with a view to man alone.

The discipline of temperance, understood as selfless self-preservation, is the saving and defending realization of the inner order of man. For temperance not only preserves, it also defends: indeed, it preserves by defending. For since the first sin man has been not only capable of loving himself more than he loves God his Creator but, contrary to his own nature, inclined to do so. The discipline of temperance defends him against all selfish perversion of the inner order, through which alone the moral person exists and lives effectively.

Wherever forces of self-preservation, self-assertion, self-fulfillment, destroy the structure of man’s inner being, the discipline of temperance and the license of intemperance enter into play.

The natural urge toward sensual enjoyment, manifested in delight in food and drink and sexual pleasure, is the echo and mirror of man’s strongest natural forces of self-preservation. The basic forms of enjoyment correspond to these most primordial forces of being, which tend to preserve the individual man, as well as the whole race, in the existence for which he was created (Wisdom 1:14). But for the very reason that these forces are closely allied to the deepest human urge toward being, they exceed all other powers of mankind in their destructive violence once they degenerate into selfishness.

Therefore, we find here the actual province of temperantia: temperateness and chastity, intemperateness and unchastity, are the primordial forms of the discipline of temperance and the license of intemperance.

But we have not, as yet, fully explored the range of the concept of temperantia — in “humility,” the instinctive urge to self-assertion can also be made serviceable to genuine self-preservation, but it can likewise pervert and miss this purpose in “pride” — And if the natural desire of man to avenge an injustice which he has suffered and to restore his rights explodes in uncontrollable fury, it destroys that which can be preserved only by “gentleness” and “mildness.” Without rational self-restraint even the natural hunger for sense perception or for knowledge can degenerate into a destructive and pathological compulsive greed; this degradation Aquinas calls curiositas, the disciplined mode studiositas.

To sum up: chastity, continence, humility, gentleness, mildness, studiositas, are modes of realization of the discipline of temperance; unchastity, incontinence, pride, uninhibited wrath, curiositas, are forms of intemperance.

Why is it that one reacts with involuntary irritation to these terms which express the essence of temperance and intemperance, discipline and dissoluteness? Since it can hardly be caused by resistance to the good, this irritation must stem from the thick tangle of misinterpretations which covers and smothers each one of these concepts. This mesh of misinterpretations has its roots in a distortion and falsification of man’s ideal image which we can properly term demonic, all the more so since Christians and non-Christians alike regard them as characteristics of the Christian image of man. Worse, the root cause is not just a misconceived image of the good man, but a misconceived view of created reality. Temperantia is intimately related to the ordered structure of the being of man, in which all gradations of creation unite; as the history of heresy shows, it is quite particularly in the sphere of temperantia that the attitude toward creation and “the world” is most incisively decided.

The attempt to reconstitute the genuine and original meaning of temperantia and its various modes of realization must embrace a variety of tasks. It will have to go beyond the strict limits of the subject, in order to anchor the true image of this virtue in the fundamentals of Christian teaching concerning man and reality.


Christian Marriage And Virginity

January 19, 2010

Fr. Romano Guardini holds court on what for many is one of the most confounding of Jesus’ teachings – that concerning Christian marriage and virginity. Yet it follows in line with our most recent posts on the Cardinal virtue of temperance as exemplified by Mother Teresa and Dawn Eden’s writings on the chaste life.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 2:27-32

We have already pointed out that Moses’ Law was not an expression of original divine will (as this was revealed to Abraham, or in Paradise), it is the expression of a new order of things given fallen humanity by God after the original order of faith and freedom has been made void

The disciples are aghast Perhaps they are reminded of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ But I say to you that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5: 27) Then what a terrible bond marriage is. To be tied to one woman without hope of release, and the mere lustful glance at another already adultery. To this Jesus replies as he so often has. Not everyone can grasp this, but only he to whom understanding is given. It is another form of “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15), and it means that what he has just said cannot be taken purely intellectually, humanly juristically, but can be understood and obeyed only with the help of faith and grace.

Then the thought continues there is an order of things for those to whom understanding is “given” that is even farther removed than marriage from the usual conception of the relationship between man and woman renunciation of all sexual intercourse. And that there be no misunderstanding, Jesus differentiates clearly between the involuntary celibate whom either man or nature has rendered physically unfit for marriage, and the voluntary celibate “for heaven’s sake.” There exists an order and form of existence in which, a person directs the entire strength of his love to God and his kingdom, returning through these to his fellow men. (There is still less about such love in the law-books — mystery even greater than that of marriage; let him understand who can!)

Both orders stem from the same root. Both uphold a great mystery in the face of mere nature. Both are greater than what the average intellect can grasp. Neither can be simply traced back to the senses, or to the heart, or to the law of human society; both are truly recognizable only through revelation, acceptable only through faith, realizable only with the aid of grace.

It is said that Christian marriage is well suited to the nature of man. This can be correctly, but also incorrectly interpreted. It is appropriate to human nature, certainly, but to that nature as it was when it still bore the clear stamp of divine will, when it was directed Godwards and permeated with his grace. To men and women living in Paradise it would have been natural that marriage, which is contracted in the freedom and love of hearts obedient to God, must be unique and perpetual. But for fallen man?  Is the life-long bond between two people today something we can accept as natural — not after long rationalizing, sober consideration of its ends and values, its physical and spiritual advantages, but spontaneously, in affirmation of our own experience?

Primarily, nature is drive: the ceaseless urge to preservation and multiplication of self. But man’s fallen nature has become divided, insubordinate, discordant, dishonest with its conscience, blind, violent, inconstant and perishable, and consequently these characteristics color the relationship of any two people founded on it. The heart too is “natural,” vouching only for what it knows: the evident, present moment — not for what lies buried deep in the subconscious or in the future. The great theme of world literature is that of the heart’s fickleness.

Is it then natural for a person, and possible on the basis of his own strength, to remain bound life-long to another in the face of changing events and circumstances of his own development and that of his marriage partner? The bond made in unredeemed freedom is apt to be loosened by that same freedom

And man’s conscience? His judgment, power of decision, loya1ty? Are they still honest and dependable? He who claims they are shutting his eyes to the truth. And even if it were true that moral liberty is enough to guarantee a moral bond, marriage is so much more than this! Its sense lies over and above the flow of instinct, the existence of something that comes from elsewhere: a unifying energy that is not only stable and “good,” but also eternal and holy. That two human beings after the advent of sin into the world, variable as they are, confused, ready to revolt against the grace in their hearts, receive this sacred unity into their conscience and will, that this bond maintains and transfigures their community of life in spite of all its human shortcomings and tragedy — this is not “natural” but conceivable only to him who has faith.

Assuredly, indissoluble marriage conforms to the most profound sense of nature, and in the final analysis, even with all the destruction and suffering it sometimes entails, is the only practicable form of marriage Even so, it is an over-simplification to call it “natural.” We only risk distorting its sacred sense, and degrading it to an ethical social institution.

On the other hand, marriage comprehended in light of faith and lived in grace becomes ‘natural’ in a much higher sense, as the fruit of grace, the harvest of faith. It is not beginning , but end of Christian effort, and must be formed by the same power as that behind virginity: renunciation made possible by faith. Christian marriage is constantly renewed by sacrifice. True, it fulfills and enriches the lives of both partners through fertility and a ripening of the personality beyond the limits possible for each individually; not only through the fullness and creativeness of the joint life, but a1so through the sacrifices necessary to weather the temptations of brute instinct, inconstancy, never-ending disappointments, moral crises, changes in fortune and the general demands of a common life.

Marriage is not only the fulfillment of the immediate love which brings a man and woman together, it is also the slow transfiguration of that love through the experiences of a common reality. Early love does not yet see this reality for the pull of the heart and senses bewitches it. Only gradually does reality establish itself, when eyes have been opened to the shortcomings and failures revealed by everyday life. He who can accept the other then, as he really is, in spite all disappointments, who can share the joys and plagues of daily life with him just as he has shared the great experience of early love, who can walk with him before God and with God’s strength, will achieve second love, the real mystery of marriage.

This is as far superior to first love as the mature person is to the child, as the self-conquering heart is to that which simply allows itself to be conquered. At the cost of much sacrifice and effort something great as come into being. Strength, profound loyalty and a stout heart are necessary to avoid the illusions of passion, cowardice, selfishness and violence. But how many long-married couples succeed in breaking through to this really triumphant love? We well understand why Jesus’ words about marriage pass on to the alternative virginity.

Here the quality of non-naturalness already present in marriage breaks out into the open.

Man is certainly not encouraged by nature to renounce his desire to love and be loved, to sacrifice his fecundity. Yet what Jesus means by virginity is not the mere uncomplaining acceptance of a physical handicap or the duress of harsh circumstance — that would be making valiant but scant virtue of necessity. Jesus means the voluntary renunciation of marriage, not out of weakness, or indifference, or for any philosophy of life, but solely “for heaven’s sake.” Once more precisely: not because any ‘religious duty’ commands it, but because is a unique opportunity of becoming the participant of an immeasurable love offered by God to anyone who desires to belong to him entirely. Today with psychology turning its beam upon the hidden root and background of all human behavior, it is necessary to mention something further.

One might object that Christian virginity was simply a transplanting of the object of affections, that often for very complex reasons a human being unable to attain his natural partner seeks him in the sphere of religion. In other words, that when he loves “God” or “heaven” he unconsciously means the person he has lost. Whether this is true (not only in falsely experienced isolated instances, or as the light accompaniment to the genuine religious motivation, but as the actual core of a man or woman’s virginity) that virginity is a terrible thing. Then the human is only being cheated of the most vital part of his existence, and is offering God a disposition that is dishonest and unclean. It is in this light that non-believers usually regard virginity; and there are certain aspects of Christian life which sometimes justify their attitude; however, the essence of genuine virginity is quite other.

What Christian virginity is cannot be deduced from our knowledge of man, but only from revelation. Christ says that it is possible for the human being to concentrate all his powers of love honestly, purely on God, for he is such that he can be loved with all the plenitude of life; that he can become everything, beginning and end, of man’s existence. Not as an Ersatz, not as a cloak for something else, nor as the object of a deflected human affection, but for his own sake. God is the sovereign Lover, he who loves and can be loved absolutely — indeed, in the last analysis, the only one who can be love without reserve. Doesn’t the experience of every loving heart, ever the richest and happiest, concede the impossibility of complete fulfillment?

Is it perhaps so, after all, that love cannot harness its entire force for any human need because no human is big enough to receive it; that it is impossible to embrace an earthly lover with perfect intimacy, because essentially he is always distant? Perhaps precisely through the never completely satisfactory experience of human love, man begins to sense the presence of another love, unrealizable on a merely earthly plane, to whom we not only can but must surrender our most intimate being — the love revealed by revelation. Here lies the secret of virginity. Compared with its tremendous mystery, all objections of psychology and ethics dwindle to pathetic presumption. This certainly does not mean that every individual is capable of realizing such love, and there is no fixed rule as to how it may be realized. “Not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given.” The passage is valid here in its strictest sense. Christian virginity is a special garden within the reservation of grace in nature as it exists in Christian marriage.

The power that has created both states of life is the power of Jesus Christ. Christian marriage, like Christian virginity, is not the product of sociological truth, however evident; nor of moral and personal strength, however valuable; nor of immediate, personal religiousness, however genuine. None of these even touches the essential. Both states are tenable only through the strength of Christ. Christian marriage is possible only when between the two “gathered together for my sake” is Christ “in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:18-20). He gives them the strength to bear and forbear, love, overcome, forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).

This same strength, and no abstract “heavenly kingdom,” makes virginity possible. Not “God” generally, but Christ and all that radiates from his specific person: the ineffable fulfillment of all our aspirations. There is no collective word for such wealth, neither ethos nor any other. The only word large enough to contain him is that by which he is called: Jesus Christ, living Son of God and supremely beautiful offspring of men, personification of life and love. Both Christian marriage and Christian virginity become incomprehensible the moment the Nazarene ceases to be their essence, their norm and their reality.


The Eucharist in the Church and the World

January 18, 2010

The Eucharist is the secret of the Church’s heart and is her comfort in every generation. Beyond some very rudimentary instruction on the liturgy in RCIA, I have virtually no knowledge of the mass or the Eucharist. That is why I was fascinated with Francis Cardinal George’s writings here. Having read this, I feel like a fully informed Catholic for the first time in my Christian life.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Prologue of the Gospel according to St. John proclaims that the Eternal Logos, the only-begotten Son of God, chose to enter into the very heart of God’s temporal creation so that everything can be a sign and invitation to enter into the communal love of God’s Trinitarian life. Jesus Christ, our Savior, does not stand apart from creation; he enters into its very life so that all God has accomplished can be seen to exist for the sake of our salvation. Too good to be true? Yes, except for those who, with the eyes of faith, see the world as Christ sees it.

The Scriptures also tell us that the one born of the Virgin Mary suffered, died, and is now risen. Jesus, who was nailed to the cross, has risen from the dead and lives forever. He has overcome the chains of sin and of death, the ultimate barrier, and now lives in total freedom. We notice how the Risen Lord appeared to those who knew him best before he was crucified. It is truly Jesus, with the wounds of his crucifixion still visible in his risen body. Nonetheless, he is so different that his closest companions often fail to recognize him immediately. Yet it is truly Jesus who eats breakfast and supper, although locked doors cannot confine him. He comes and goes at will. He is perfectly free.

The Risen Lord is therefore free to keep his promise to his disciples: “I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). The Risen Lord will never abandon his people. Those who find their personal identity in relation to him will never be alone. How could they be? Having assumed human nature as the new Adam, he now fills the cosmos as Risen Lord. Too good to be true? Yes, unless our aspirations have been transformed by the hope of the glory in which the Risen Jesus lives and which he offers to us.

This Jesus has also promised: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). The Risen Lord has established a community of believers to be a sign and instrument of salvation, to be the means for God’s saving love to transform all creation. ‘When the Church lives visibly through, with, and in her Risen Lord, she is revealed as his living body in every generation. ‘When the Church gathers to celebrate the sacraments, Christ continues to act among us. The Risen Christ baptizes and forgives sin and sends the Holy Spirit to seal our membership in the Church, It is Christ who comforts and heals the sick, who unites a man and woman together for life, and who ordains pastors for the Church. It is Christ who makes present his own self-sacrifice on the cross, so that we can join to it our very selves. Each of the sacraments is an action of the Risen Christ gathering with his body, the Church. In a unique fashion, the Eucharist is both the action and the abiding presence of the Lord.

In the Eucharist, Christ gives himself as food for our journey, as our daily bread, as a banquet, which brings us together as pilgrims. Christ never comes to us alone. Christ comes to us with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Mary, the mother of Christ and our mother in him, accompanies her Son. All the angels and the saints, who have gone before us in faith, together with the souls in purgatory, join in the great communion. Moreover, all those who are the visible body of Christ throughout the world today are united in the divine gift of love. We never go to Jesus alone. In the Eucharist, we are most clearly members of a body, living stones of a temple, a gathered people of God. Too good to be true? Yes, except for those whose hearts have been turned inside out by the unity given to those who know they are loved by God and who have come to sense their unity with the multitude, who are their brothers and sisters in the Risen Lord.

Eucharist in the Life and Thought of the Church
Today, questions of Eucharistic faith and practice are strongly contested in many areas of ecclesial life. At least in the United States, some have been too neglectful of Eucharistic preaching and teaching. Some have discouraged Eucharistic devotion apart from the celebration of the Mass itself. Liturgical practice sometimes suffers from lack of prayerful preparation and devout attention. Some are confused in knowing and expressing precisely what the Church teaches about the Holy Eucharist. Whatever the reason, there is a growing desire among many Catholics for greater clarity and insight into our Eucharistic faith and practice.

In some ways, contemporary tensions and confusions about the Eucharist should not surprise us. Tension and confusion were there from the beginning: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:60, 66). The tension became unbearable when Jesus began to use realistic language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In the face of his disciples’ confusion, Jesus only intensified his language; he made no attempt to soften or dilute its meaning.

This Eucharistic realism was clearly understood and accepted by the apostolic Church. By sharing in the real, sacrificed, and risen flesh of Christ and in his blood shed on the cross, the Church becomes a living body, brought, into existence by the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:16 ff.). In the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria, precisely through the Eucharist, through “eating the flesh of Christ,” we are made into “living flesh.” Cyril’s realism even compares the union between Christ and the recipient of the Eucharist to a “fusion of two globs of sealing wax.” Christ desires to be as close to us as nourishment is to our bones.

In the Eucharist, the Life of Christ is poured into our lives so that we may have new life as living members of a new body in the world, the body of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. A.D. 110) emphasizes this ecclesial, corporate context of the Eucharist and its attendant gifts. He exhorts the community “animated by one faith and in union with Jesus Christ to show obedience with undivided mind to the bishop and the presbytery, and to break the same Bread, which is the medicine of immortality the antidote against death, and everlasting life in Jesus Christ” (To the Ephesians 20, 2). In fact, for Ignatius, the Eucharist is inseparable from the ministry that gathers people visibly together and is responsible for maintaining Christ’s sacramental presence in the Church (To the Philadelphians 4). No one, Ignatius of Antioch says, can (validly) celebrate the Eucharist apart from the bishop, “or anyone to whom he has committed it” (To the Smyrnaeans 8, 1).

This inseparable link between Eucharistic realism and ecclesial union gives rise to the great patristic vision of the Eucharist as the bond of charity unity; and peace, signs of an authentic civilization of love. St. Augustine, in particular, placed strong emphasis on this “social” function of the Eucharist, “social” in the sense that the bond of love, unity; and peace among the baptized is a participation in the divine communio of the Trinitarian life of God. The Eucharist is the secret of the Church’s heart and is her comfort in every generation. In this most blessed sacrament, the divine communio is disclosed. The Holy Spirit, who works through the Church, makes the Eucharistic elements holy. In the Eucharist, the sacrificial death of Christ is truly present, and its saving power is alive and life-giving. In the Eucharist, the Father is worshiped in spirit and in truth. In the Eucharist, Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection restores us to the bonds of unity and peace with the Father (justification), and makes possible the outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s love into our lives (sanctification).

St. Augustine’s central idea is this: through eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood, we become one with him and with each other. In Eucharistic communio, the City of God, God’s great civilization of love, is visible on the earth; for “in what [the Church] offers, she herself is offered” (De Civitate Dei, X, 6). All of this is possible because Christ is risen from the dead. The Eucharist is his glorified Body and Blood which, having suffered and died, now shares in the eternity of the celestial Eucharist, “the glory given to the Father by the Son who redeemed the world.” In Catholic consciousness, faith in the Eucharist as embodying and presenting the Risen Christ, who suffered and died for us, must be seen against the background of creation, specifically, a creation leading to Incarnation (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20). The Creator God enters into his creation and becomes part of it. This presence continues in a Eucharistic and sacramental manner. It is this intrusion of eternity and transcendence into the created world that establishes both the time and the space of the Eucharist. The Eucharist discloses the divine communio of Trinitarian love and invites our participation. In this sense, it is a perpetual proclamation of God’s transcendence and power, manifest most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord (Philemon 2:6-11).

This is true both when the Eucharistic liturgy is being celebrated and breaks the limits of time and history and also when the Eucharist is in the tabernacle, where the drama of salvation is not immediately being reenacted, but where Christ is still present for our contemplation and prayer. St. Thomas expresses this contemplative dimension of the Eucharist in a phrase redolent of Aristotle:

“It is the law of friendship that friends should live together” (Summa theologiae III q. 75, a. 1). This is why devotion to the Eucharist, apart from the Eucharistic liturgy itself, is an indispensable element of Catholic spirituality It is also why all devotional life should, in some way, be linked to the Eucharist.

In Christ Jesus, the Father desires to dwell in the heart of reality down to the very depths of our being. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is “the presence of the full mystery of God’s being and work.” Christ accomplishes two things in this sacrament: he glorifies his Father and he shares his life with us.

The Eucharistic Liturgy as the Locus for Evangelization
The Risen Jesus is the Eucharistic Lord. Free himself, he wants us to be free. Free to do what? We are made free to worship and to glorify God. We are given the freedom to evangelize and convert human hearts and thus to transform the world. The very structure of the Eucharistic liturgy discloses the dynamics of a new culture.

The Second Vatican Council reminds us that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of all evangelization” (Presbyterorum ordinis, II, 5). I would suggest that one way of understanding this profound, evangelical depth in the Eucharistic liturgy is to “track” the presence of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy. It is the Holy Spirit who groans to set us free and who is present in all the decisive moments of Christ’s life. In our Savior’s incarnation, life in the world, death, and resurrection, Jesus is seen as doing the Father’s will under the guidance, direction, prompting, and assistance of the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament word for invoking the Holy Spirit is epikalein, “to call upon/to call down.” “Calling upon” or “calling down” is an Epiklesis . Imagine ourselves now at Mass. During the celebration, there are at least eight moments when we explicitly or implicitly call upon the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit who sets us free and who renews the face of the earth.

The Epiklesis of Forgiveness
The first moment is the Epiklesis of Forgiveness. The Penitential Rite is always an implicit invocation of the Holy Spirit because it is a prayer for forgiveness. The Spirit is sent among us for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:22-23). This moment of forgiveness is essential to the new culture of Christian life and, at Jesus’ express command, it is essential to liturgy (Matthew 5:23-24).

We must constantly remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. If, as individuals and as community; we are unaware of our faults, or if we simply ignore them, invariably, we cast them into the lives of others, and we have no true claim on God’s mercy and forgiveness. Then, the true drama of God’s salvation revealed in Jesus Christ is muted; the humility necessary for authentic worship “in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23) is undermined. Reconciling love is, thus, the first fruit of the divine communio.

The Epiklesis of Word
The second moment is the Epiklesis of Word. This refers to the point in the liturgy when we proclaim directly from the Sacred Scriptures, “inspired and useful for instruction and for growth in holiness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Our profession of faith describes the work of the Spirit: “He has spoken through the prophets.” We respond to the inspired Scriptures and conform our lives to the teaching of Jesus, but, in doing so, we are in fact encountering Jesus through the Spirit that breathes through the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit conforms our lives to the Word of God in human words. The homily, which expounds the Scriptures and relates them directly to the lives of the people in the assembly, is a word integral to Eucharistic worship.

The Epiklesis of Intercession
The third moment is the Epiklesis of Intercession, which encompasses the reading of Scripture. It begins with the opening prayer of the Mass and concludes with the General Intercessions. This is another implicit invocation of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit carries all prayer into the sight of God (Romans 8:26-27). To pray is to accept the grace that changes us. Our spirit, united with the Holy Spirit, enters into the drama revealed in Jesus Christ. We are taken into God’s saving action in history, where the Holy Spirit transforms our personal and social history.

Prayer itself is a form of instruction and evangelization. Prayer purifies our desires; it opens the world to God’s transforming action, which waits upon our human freedom. God does not impose himself upon us; we have to ask. Our prayer must therefore constantly reach out to the farthest corners of God’s creation. It must mourn in every human misery and rejoice in every human joy.

The Epiklesis of Offering
The next moment is the Epiklesis of Offering. We take two material gifts — bread and wine — and, through the power of the Spirit, we ask that they may become “the bread of life” and “our spiritual drink.”

On the one hand, these gifts represent ourselves, as we long for ever greater Eucharistic transformation. The bread represents all our united human efforts that contribute to the building up of a civilization of love on this earth in preparation for the final coming of God’s kingdom. The wine represents all the pain, suffering, and death involved in the discharge of this holy task, all once again embraced by the Eucharistic body of the Lord.

On the other hand, the bread and wine represent material creation itself, which awaits its own Eucharistic transformation, “a share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-23). The Spirit’s presence in this moment of offering is often made explicit in the Prayer over the Gifts, which concludes the preparation of the altar and the gifts.

The Epiklesis of Consecration
The Epiklesis of Offering points directly to the next invocation, the Epiklesis of Consecration. The Holy Spirit effects the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The word consecratio, which means “to be holy together with,” carries the most profound sense of the experience of the Holy Spirit in the individual person, in the Church, and in the world. The Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier, the one who makes us holy in the sight of God. The mission of the Holy Spirit in the world is to sanctify to consecrate each person and community for worship “in Spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In the transforming power of consecration, the outpouring of the divine communio reveals the clear form of the new culture, a life and world suitable for the indwelling of the Trinitarian life of God.

The Epiklesis of Memorial
Next, there is the Epiklesis  of Memorial: “Do this in remembrance of me.” We do not simply live out of the present; we live with an acute awareness of the past, of all that the Father has done for us in Jesus Christ. When we celebrate this memorial of God’s saving action, that saving reality is encountered again through the presence of the Spirit, who brings us into the life of the Risen Lord. In this memorial, the future of the world is anticipated, and the new culture of life is received.

The Epiklesis of Communion
The consecration, sanctification, and memorial effected by the Holy Spirit prepare us for the Epiklesis  of Communion. Before receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord we pray:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,
but only say the word and I shall be healed.

(Roman Liturgy, Communion Rite)

This short prayer sums up all the previous moments of Epiklesis  forgiveness, word, intercession, offering, and consecration. Communion with the dying and rising Jesus is also communion with the Spirit who gives life (Romans 8:9-11).

The Epiklesis of Mission
The final invocation is the Epiklesis of Mission. The Spirit of God is the energy and dynamism of all mission in the world. “Mission” is the way we live out our baptismal consecration in the world: as married persons; as bishops, priests, or deacons; as single persons; as those consecrated by religious vows, with the energy and prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Having been prepared by the persistent invocation of the Holy Spirit of God and having been nourished with the Body and Blood of the Lord, the baptized are now sent out, by the power of this same Holy Spirit, to evangelize and to transform society itself. The People of God dwell in this “evangelical form.” Together as pilgrims gathered in the Eucharist, we walk every day the journey of forgiveness, word, intercession, offering, consecration, communion, and now of mission. What is the context of this mission today? ‘What world is the Eucharist to inform and to transform?

The Eucharist in the World
In a world always in search of freedom, we live more and more in a globalized society. In economics and in politics, in culture and in communication, the human race is more connected than ever before. But a connection is not necessarily a personal relationship. The scope of economic and political activity today brings with it the opportunity of uniting the human family in justice and love. It brings with it as well the danger of an order in which the poor are cut off from participation in the goods of the earth and are unable to enjoy the freedom that God desires for all. Globalization will not be globalization with solidarity unless the Church evangelizes in a new way. It is the Eucharist that gives us the courage to evangelize, because the goal of our human unity is already present in the Eucharist itself. Because of the Eucharist, the Church can be the “sacrament of the unity of the human race” (Lumen Gentium).

In giving himself freely for our salvation and in sending the Holy Spirit, Christ makes us free; but Gospel freedom is greater than the freedom this world understands. In Christ, we are free to act, to do what we need to do, what we should do. The world understands this freedom to act. But if freedom is reduced to actions willed by each of us alone, the world becomes a brittle place. Each one’s freedom is limited by the action of others; and each action is then negotiated, often in a court, of law, with the consequence that life becomes a contest of wills: On the streets, this contest is often violent.

Freedom in Christ is more than freedom to do. It is also freedom to give totally, even to the point of self-sacrifice, as Christ freely gave himself to death on the cross. The world understands generosity and often rewards it. The world has a more difficult time understanding self-sacrifice. The crisis in Christian marriage, consecrated life, and ordained priesthood is a crisis of Christian freedom, the freedom to give oneself totally to God, to a spouse, to the Church.

Gospel freedom is freedom to do, freedom to give, and finally freedom to receive. This dimension of freedom in Christ is even more problematic today, for receiving means admitting we are needy, and no one likes to admit poverty. Yet, if we are not free to receive, we cannot be free in Christ, for in Christ all is gift: the Gospel, the sacraments of the Church, apostolic governance the Church herself– it is all gift. To be free is to receive the gifts that Christ bestows on us. If we are not free as well to receive all those persons whom Christ loves, we are not free in Christ. Each human difference is a gift for all, and it must be welcomed, desired, received by all. In Christ’s body, everyone gives and everyone receives. Everyone has something to share, and everyone is needy.

Freedom to do, freedom to give, freedom to receive — all this is freedom in Christ, who died and rose to set us free and calls us to experience this freedom in each Eucharistic celebration, offered for the salvation of the world. Too good to be true? No, not for those who have been set free by Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit in order to be leaven for the whole world. In proclaiming a Eucharistic Lord, we discover again and again who we are and are called to be. It is all gift, and it is all true. “He who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (John 3:2 1).

The Eucharist is the great deed wrought in and by God. It will be clearly seen to be true when the whole world, through the evangelizing mission of the Church, is a Eucharistic assembly, a new culture of grace, composed of all those whom Christ loves and has set free.


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