Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category
In my takeaways from the Communio Study Group I mentioned the nature of Catholic communion and the internal unity of the Church that John XXIII was expecting to act as a as a leaven in order to restore the unity of the human race. John XXIII saw the world of the mid-twentieth century as a place of grave crisis. One of the more tragic periods of history, he said, was marked by a great disunity among the peoples of the world. “History that had been marked in recent decades by war and fratricide, by Nazism and racism, by Communism and class warfare,[it] had forgotten not only God; it had forgotten that the human race is one human family.” 50 years later one could be snarky and say not much has changed but in some ways the challenges to the Catholic Church are more clearly defined. And perhaps even easier to understand in this America of the 21st century.
A question that occurred to me was how my relationship with my country is different from my relationship with the Church. How is being a Catholic different from being an American? As an American I am an individual who participates in a democracy that grants me a privileged status as a Vietnam Veteran. Thanks to my war service I receive disability benefits and thanks to the payments I made to social security I get retirement benefits. In both those cases I belong to a group that the secular society has chosen to reward.
As a Catholic however I am marginalized by my government. My government supports abortion and uses my taxes to fund it both here and overseas. I find Catholic Charities, hospitals and social service agencies under siege as they attempt to fulfill the conscience and teachings of Matthew 25 in the public square.
Were gay marriage to become the law of the land I worry that the courts may direct my Church to perform the marriage sacrament so as not to be prejudicial against gay Americans. I have seen Catholic Charities in Boston close its doors to its adoption agencies for refusal to place children with gay couples. Will Churches be next? What about hospitals after Obama Care kicks in with its proscriptions against health care workers who wish to exercise a conscience clause and not participate in abortions or providing contraceptive medications?
HHS Secretary Sibelius has already gone on record to say that if they (Catholics) have a problem with doing those things they shouldn’t be working in health care in the first place. Will Catholic hospitals be sold so as to continue under the new Obama plan: At a public hearing on the sale of Caritas Christi, the health-care system of the Boston archdiocese, the director of the 6-hospital system admitted that he could not guarantee the continuation of the institution’s Catholic identity after the transfer. James Karam argued in favor of the sale, to the Cerberus capital firm, because he said the only alternative would be closing the hospitals
This article in the WSJ recently on events in Chicago as Obama Care rolls out:
On Monday, Catholic Charities of Chicago — the social-welfare arm of the archdiocese — joined other Illinois Catholic organizations to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s mandate that would force these Catholic groups to offer free contraceptives through their insurance, in violation of church teaching. The suit’s message is direct: Mr. President, your mandate will make it impossible for us to do our jobs.
Judging from how President Obama now sounds like George W. Bush when he talks about the Catholic Church, the president appreciates the political harm his mandate is doing. At a campaign stop last Thursday in Ohio, he repeated what has become a stock line: “When I first got my job as an organizer for the Catholic churches in Chicago . . . they taught me that no government program can replace good neighbors and people who care deeply about their communities [and] who are fighting on their behalf.”
In terms of religious liberty, the new lawsuit breaks no new legal ground. What it does is offer a window into how much the decency of daily American life depends on churches using their free-exercise rights. Our nation’s third-largest city provides an especially compelling example.
Chicago’s Catholic Charities employs 2,700 full- and part-time staffers delivering relief aimed at helping people achieve self-sufficiency. They do everything from stocking food pantries to helping people with HIV/AIDS, resettling refugees, housing seniors, and training people for jobs.
Last year alone, that translated into 19 million meals in the form of groceries for single moms, another 2.5 million meals served to the hungry or homeless, 458,000 nights of shelter for families and children, and 897,481 hours of homemaker services for seniors. And these numbers don’t include the thousands of inner-city children served by the archdiocese’s Catholic schools but not on the Catholic Charities budget.
When you ask the Rev. Michael Boland, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, what percentage of those he serves are Catholic, he answers that he doesn’t know, because they don’t ask. The Obama administration’s mandate would change that. Particularly galling, he says, is the charge that his church is engaged in a “war on women” — when 80% of those his organization serves are women and children.
As the lawsuit puts it: Enforcing the mandate could soon require Catholic Charities to “stop providing educational opportunities to non-Catholics, stop serving non-Catholics, and fire non-Catholic employees — actions that would betray their religious commitment to serving all in need without regard to religion.”
Yes, the bulk of the Catholic Charities budget these days comes from government funding. There’s a perfectly legitimate public question about what accepting that funding means for both society and the church.
It’s not, however, the only public question. Another important one is this: Will our society rely on civic institutions or the government to deliver these services? Does anyone really believe we would be better off turning over the work of Catholic Charities to states or the feds — with their higher costs, greater bureaucracy, and loss in efficiency?
In a recent report, Catholic Charities notes that it costs Medicaid (read: taxpayers) $43,000 per year for every senior in a nursing home. By contrast, Catholic Charities provides day care for seniors at $6,461 per year, home-delivered meals at $1,188 and services such as housecleaning for $4,028. Any one of these services can keep an elderly citizen in his own house instead of being sent to a nursing home (one of the great drivers of Medicaid’s escalating costs).
Overall, 92 cents of every Catholic Charities dollar goes to recipients, which is one reason Catholic Charities is so often chosen for contracts. The church can provide such value because for every staffer, it has nearly seven volunteers. That works out to a volunteer army of 17,000 people, larger than Chicago’s police force.
It’s worth asking what Chicago might look like if these religious volunteers were limited to employing and serving only those who share their faith. And not just Chicago. Across America, volunteers with other faith groups are also reclaiming lives and neighborhoods in a way that even Mr. Obama says is far superior to any government program.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York recently wrote:
Coercing religious ministries and citizens to pay directly for actions that violate their teaching is an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience. Organizations fear that this unjust rule will force them to take one horn or the other of an unacceptable dilemma: Stop serving people of all faiths in their ministries — so that they will fall under the narrow exemption — or stop providing health-care coverage to their own employees.
The Catholic Church defends religious liberty, including freedom of conscience, for everyone. The Amish do not carry health insurance. The government respects their principles. Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone, and the new health-care reform law respects that. Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the government respects that principle for conscientious objectors. By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.
This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.
So how does my life as an American contrast with my life as a Catholic? If the former features my identity as an individual with rights and privileges divvied up by my secular masters and fellow citizens then the latter is one where I explore my personhood and an anthropology that derives its power from who I am and the spiritual character of my soul. This is what John XXIII wanted to pass on to the world.
Our Lord’s account of redemption, restoring human nature from original sin and winning back for us what we had lost, has bought us something much greater than we could ever have lost. “And where sins abounded, grace did more abound (Romans5:20). Through Jesus Christ, who is the way to eternal life, anew creation was called into being. Man redeemed has become the brother and co-heir of the Son of God. This is why the Church begins one of her prayers in the Mass with the words, “O God, by whom the dignity of human nature was wondrously established and yet more wondrously restored.”… Original sin had destroyed man’s bridge of access to God, and only from God’s side could that bridge be rebuilt. Jesus Christ rebuild it.
Josef Pieper and Heinz Raskop, What Catholics Believe
As a Catholic, my religious tradition explodes from the Jewish Old Testament:
The divine Will is perfectly good and righteous and holy and just. God is the only god you can’t bribe. And since that is the character of Ultimate Reality — and since in order to be really real we must conform to the character of Ultimate Reality — therefore the meaning of life is to be holy, to be a saint. Morality flows from metaphysics because goodness flows from God. “You must be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.”
The connection is repeated like a liturgical formula in the Torah. Unlike the gods of the polytheists and unlike the god of the pantheists, God has no dark side. And that is why we shouldn’t have a dark side either. The consequences of the Jewish metaphysics for ethics have been world-shaking. The whole world got a Jewish mother, a Jewish conscience, because the world got the Jewish Father.
This divine goodness is not just perfect, it is more than perfect. It spills out beyond itself like sunlight. It is agape, generosity, altruism, self-giving, self-sacrificial love. God seeks intimacy with Man, God seeks to marry Man. “Your creator shall become your Husband,” says Isaiah (54:5). To that end, He makes covenants, to prepare for the fundamental covenant, marriage. No pagan ever suspected the possibility of such intimacy, even with their finite, anthropomorphic gods: that is, the relationship scripture calls “faith,” or fidelity. And therefore no pagan ever understood the deeper meaning and terror of “sin” either, for sin is the breaking of that relationship. Sin is to faith what infidelity is to marriage. Only one who knows the wonder of marriage can know the horror of infidelity.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician
How else, but for Christ, could we have known that God loves us? I mean really loves us, not just with proper philanthropy but with utterly improper passion. Even if any man dared to hope this, what ground could there possibly be for such a crazy hope? What data do we have? What evidence? Certainly not nature (“nature red in tooth and claw” Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam AHH), or human life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan), or human history (“the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples is sacrificed” Georg Hegel). The only data we have to know that God is love is Christ.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician
That knowledge comes from our personhood and our very being:
Being is not just presence, but active presence, tending by nature to pour over into active self-manifestation and self-communication to others. And if personal being is really being itself only at its supra-material levels, then it follows that to be a person as such is to be a being that tends by nature to pour over into active, conscious self-manifestation and self-communication to others, through intellect and will working together.
And if the person in question is a good person, i.e., rightly ordered in its conscious free action, then this active presence to others will take the form of willing what is truly good for them, which is itself a definition of love in its broadest meaning, defined by Thomas as “willing good to another for its own sake.” To be a person, then, is to be a bi-polar being that is at once present in itself, actively possessing itself by its self-consciousness (its substantial pole), and also actively oriented towards others, toward active loving self-communication to others (its relational pole). To be an authentic person, in a word, is to be a lover, to live a life of interpersonal self-giving and receiving. Person is essentially a “we” term. Person exists in its fullness only in the plural. As Jacques Maritain puts it felicitously:
Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of this intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.
Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent
Thus subjectivity reveals itself as “self-mastery for self-giving… by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.”
Jacques Maritain, Challenges and Renewals
Josef Pieper has also caught well the intrinsic bipolarity of personal being as spirit, when, commenting on a brief sentence of St. Thomas, he unfolds it thus:
The higher the form of intrinsic existence, the more developed becomes the relatedness with reality, also the more profound and comprehensive becomes the sphere of this relationship: namely, the world. And the deeper such relations penetrate the world of reality, the more intrinsic becomes the subject’s existence. . . These two aspects combined — dwelling most intensively within itself, and being capax universi, able to grasp the universe — together constitute the essence of the spirit. Any definition of “spirit” will have to contain these two aspects as its core.
Josef Pieper, Living the Truth
Transpose “spirit” into “person,” as being itself existing on the spiritual level, and Pieper and I are both expressing the same insight.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas
Call it human soul or person or spirit, this is who we are and how we need to treat each other. It is precisely what the atheist secular society rejects in its insistence on the “individual,” “rights,” and “fairness” code words for excusing the worst sort of morality and behavior.
What would underlie the dialogue between Church and World? I will address that in my next post.
Mythopoetic thinking approaches cosmic reality first through a sure instinct that there exists a spontaneous accord between our spirit and that reality, then through the very quality which allows our spirit to grasp reality, not only from one specific and superficial viewpoint, but by means of a deep sympathy with its inner structure and its fundamental evolution.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought
I have a favorite poem that echoes experiences of mine. Did I have the experiences and recognize them in the poem or did I read the poem and then view my experiences through its powerful lens? Does it matter? The verses I recall are part of a reverie on death written by Conrad Aiken many years ago. I met Mr. Aiken when I was 14 or so (also many years ago) and became familiar with his story thanks to my best friend’s father, the poet Charles Philbrick. Mr Philbrick has passed some 40 years ago but many of my fondest summer memories of my youth were spent at his house on Blackfish Creek in South Wellfleet MA, growing up as the fifth boy in his family.
His son Steve had asked him to tell us the story again of Mr. Aiken and I recall his watching me as the tale unfolded. While I recall the overall narrative, the son finding his mother dead, shot by his insane father, the telling was punctuated by the words “Shot dead” and delivered in such a manner that in the stunned silence that followed there was great appreciation for the story teller who had mesmerized us with the telling. Steve was immensely proud of his Dad and I know that I had completely fallen under his powers, which tickled his fancy further. See, he seemed to be saying: This is what poets do. Some forty years ago and I can still recall the moment.
Meeting Mr. Aiken some time later was anti-climactic and finding some of his poems in my 20s was another byproduct of my youth. Tetélestai was a poem I memorized and could speak from memory. I read it at my father’s funeral, although it had little to do with us and more with my own darkness and sense of abandonment and despair.
Listen! …It says: ‘I lean by the river. The willows
Are yellowed with bud. White clouds roar up from the south
And darken the ripples; but they cannot darken my heart,
Nor the face like a star in my heart! …Rain falls on the water
And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,
The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart
Is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent.’
Listen again! …It says: ‘I have worked, I am tired,
The pencil dulls in my hand: I see through the window
Walls upon walls of windows with faces behind them,
Smoke floating up to the sky, an ascension of sea-gulls.
I am tired. I have struggled in vain, my decision was fruitless,
Why then do I wait? with darkness, so easy, at hand?
But tomorrow, perhaps… I will wait and endure till tomorrow!’…
Or again: ‘It is dark. The decision is made. I am vanquished
By terror of life. The walls mount slowly about me
In coldness. I had not the courage. I was forsaken.
I cried out, was answered by silence… Tetélestai!
I recalled it again when I read C.S. Lewis’ comments on mythopoeia: myths are ‘lies, he had thought and therefore worthless, ‘even though breathed through silver’. No,’ said Tolkien. ‘They are not lies.’ At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.’ Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.
Breathed through with silver… Rain falls on the water And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent… At some point we realize with Lewis: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.
Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”
Is this not when, slowly, inevitably, we begin to read Scripture spiritually – in the sense of “in the spirit” – and then comprehend the “totality of the one Scripture,” as Benedict XVI calls it, not merely the mass of details contained in the Bible, but precisely the Gestalt-like pattern that it expresses itself in, and constitutes all such details. This pattern, in and through its details, is meant to illumine and transform our lives — as if every word of the Bible were written for us personally.
“Myth is a narrative or story, but it is no mere fable or expression of infantile consciousness. Its referents are objective reality and the innermost experience of man’s subjectivity. Myth moves in both of these ultimate directions at once as it narrates the sacred history of the origin of the world and of man. How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth.
As John Paul II writes, “Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term “myth” does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content. Without any difficulty we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative. It is really marvelous.”
It really comes about because human consciousness is fundamentally oriented to seeing ultimate reality as a unified whole and as essentially personal. The myth of the Fall is like this: much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well as regards the qualities and the condensation of the truths contained in it. It took me a long while, all the way through my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50’s before I came to see that the poetry and stories I so deeply loved was the same stuff of scripture.
The new age nitwit in me had challenged scripture with some impossible to satisfy historical critical standard that held its existence as fact in abeyance while not understanding what mythopoeia actually was. When I finally linked the two, I became me, a Christian man fully alive in Christ. I think differently now. Still the same stupid brain, I guess, but one that stands alongside a bend in the river as the rain pelts my umbrella, transfixed by the face like a star in my heart.
and July, berries,
enough berries, more
than enough, berries for the birds
and us! Each morning
we’d go out in the still
and savor, marveling
in low sunlight at their burgeoning
the ripest, the best.
Now Carolina August
and only a few
remain — ones we’d have passed
over, or thrown away, it only seems
moments before. Yet we pluck,
and find, in their barely
bitter, a remembered
flavor — then happen upon one
cluster our soured mouths swear
the sweetest of the season.
When I was a boy I picked blueberries. We would walk over to a swampy lowlands and step into another world of mosses and fallen trees. If the mosquitoes weren’t bad we could spend an afternoon. My mother would spread a blanket and we would scurry off to fill out coffee cans that father had fashioned with a handle of string. It was a perfect afternoon for mother because each of us was off on our own and she could sit and read a book, one of her period romances no doubt. Purple tongues betrayed the child who was not working for a blueberry pie or a blueberry upside down cake. We all dutifully reported from time to time with our coffee cans filled and dumped them into the larger basket that mother had brought with her. There was also a picnic with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and devilled eggs. We made careful to pick only the largest berries leaving the smaller ones to grow for later in the summer. Everything seemed perfect.
Nutritional scientists, I’m given to understand, have always been intrigued by the enteric nervous system, composed as it is of some 500 million nerve cells, “as many as there are in a cat’s brain” it said in a recent WSJ article. I have a couple of the latter running around the apartment here and I can attest that a cat’s brain, Siamese anyways, while it more than qualifies to be called brainless is also endlessly interesting and complex — something like a woman’s, but I digress.
For the human, the enteric nervous system helps to control muscular contractions in the gut as well as the secretions of glands and cells. More intriguing still, those glands and cells help balance hunger to satiety and communicate those states to the big brain:
“In the quest to balance hunger and satiety, the gut brain and big brain communicate via neural signals. When food enters the stomach, the stomach stretches, and the gut brain sends a neural message to the big brain. The gut brain also knows when there are nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract, stimulating the release of peptides into the blood and resulting in another message to the brain. A peptide release is also part of the “ileal brake” mechanism. The ileum is the lower part of the small intestine. Fat penetrates there when there’s too much for the body to process, triggering an “I’m full” message to the big brain.
Nestle has run some early-stage experiments on foods using its artificial gut model. In a paper published in the journal Food Biophysics last year , Dr. Watzke and colleagues described one such experiment using olive oil. They first measured how long it took an artificial (laboratory) gut to digest olive oil at the natural rate. Then, they added a compound called monoglyceride, which formed a protective coat around the oil molecules, making it harder for the gut’s juices to break through and digest the oil.
The Nestle scientists monitored the oil’s progress as it gradually went through the system. They found it took eight times longer for the machine to “digest” the olive oil-monoglyceride combination compared with the olive oil alone. This resulted in more undigested oil reaching the small intestine. In the human body, this could lead to a stronger ileal brake signal of fullness to the big brain.”
Gautam Naik Vevey, Hungry? Your Stomach Really Does Have a Mind of Its Own, WSJ article January 25, 2011
The sense of being full is the operative thought to take away and consider here because I can’t think of anything greater that contributes to our sense of well-being more and the lack of which contributes to an inability to be generous. Generosity becomes lacking when we are in pain – not just pain-pain as in toothache or backache (that, too) but the low rent versions thereof, the gnawing back-of-the-mind stuff that says “God I’m so exhausted, I ache all over. I don’t want to move.” or “If I only had a few more hours of sleep I could deal with whatever.”
Now these scientists have relabeled the enteric nervous system as the “gut brain” and although I have no scientific background whatsoever (Do my 18 months of computer science courses qualify?), I would volunteer the gut brain for not only food related urges but sex as well. Women have always accused men of thinking below their waists and now we appear to have a good culprit to step up and take the blame for our splendid penises here. Recently PBS ran a diet series that featured it and even Steven Colbert gave it a send up recently.
Although many of our modern sins (booze, drugs) didn’t make Dante’s levels or cornices of the mountain of purgatory the seven that did (pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust), are emblematic of the principal manifestations of Sin. As he entered the purgation process, Dante received the mark of seven “P’s” on his forehead, a sign of the seven deadly peccata (sins), meant to reveal that our sins are much more visible to others than to ourselves, as plain as the letters on Dante’s forehead.
Yet another reason for why loving our enemies makes perfect sense, by the way: their hatred for us is the mirror in which we can see our own dysfunction. Never ask how someone knows you’re a fraud and an asshole, it precedes you’re revealing anything – sort of a gut-to-gut communication as it were. When you become a sex addict you LOOK like a lounge lizard and gluttons are fat slobs. A drunk can never fool another drunk. There is no way to dodge it. Ask your enemy, the person who hates you, they know and are usually more than happy to let you know.
So imagine my horror when I became a glutton. Most of my life I had been a well muscled lounge lizard, overly proud of my physique on which I had devotedly spent countless hours exercising in the gym. As diabetes became my Original Sin (the one you can’t overcome on your own) I was laid low by the incessant urge to feed my depression, medicating what I couldn’t control. I’m reminded here by a Dorothy Sayer’s anecdote about immorality:
To the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only…A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity:’ I did not know there were seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, pride, sloth, wrath, envy): please tell me the names of the other six.
Much like that young man, on becoming Catholic, I thought the only sin was lust so I got my ladies act together by seeking chastity. However I found my core lack of temperance expressed itself in whack-a-mole fashion as food, specifically a sugar addiction. As a body builder I knew how to diet, so after tipping the scales at 300 I dieted by way back to 240 in six months – everyone marveled and I strutted. Along the way the blood sugars came down and I no longer needed the medications that had brought them under control in the first place.
But then something disastrous happened. As a true wise-guy I began to use the medications as a way to over-eat again. I could sneak back to 280 whatever and use the metformin (a glucophage that helps to control the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood) to both anaesthetize the depression of diabetes and have my Ben & Jerry excesses at the same time. But at some point the gut brain kicks in and controls your life and the medicine no longer works. Like a drunk who hides the bottles, I always had cake, cookies, whatever, in one of the cupboards. I couldn’t get out of the store without carting all the crap that was ruining my life.
I would beg the nutritionist to help me with what I saw as an addiction but all they did was go back to counting calories. I watched “Intervention” on TV, understanding how the various addicts were ruining themselves. I saw a program on PBS about the enteric system or “gut brain.” It amazed me that all this research was being conducted at Mass General Hospital, who knows, perhaps a few floors above where the nutritionist and I used to sit going over menu choices but no one I spoke to seemed to have a clue about it. So I quit the nutritionist and even the doctor.
Would God save the poor souls on Intervention or me, I wondered. I prayed for deliverance. Wouldn’t some TV crew descend on me and whisk me away to the Berkshires and some spa treatment for my addiction. It didn’t happen because it wasn’t meant to happen. Somethings I think God lets us work out on your own without TV crews or therapists like Dr. Phil.
And as if to parody my despair and that last sentence, it WAS Dr. Phil who featured several months ago a company called Bistro MD. It belongs to a group of fast growing recession companies called gourmet meal home delivery companies. I googled the term when I heard about it on a business report and it turned out to be EXACTLY what I needed. No more food shopping outside of buying a few items like coffee or fruit or fresh veggies. Everything is delivered and it’s all frozen.
I quickly discovered this is not microwave stuff like in the supermarket. These are meals a gourmet chef put together. There sure as hell isn’t a lot of it but all I needed was something that tasted good that I could look forward to. I’m back to my five small meals (three + two snacks) a day and the weight is melting off again. And the blood sugars are magically coming down also.
I can’t tell you how many start-and-stop failures I had following the nutritionists at MGH. All that sacrifice following diets that didn’t work and lacking the will power to walk by delis and take outs near my job in downtown Boston. Getting laid off solved that problem and Bistro MD has taken care of the supermarket while eating at home now.
It has taken me nine years of suffering to finally find the key on this and it is God’s providence and will that accomplished it. My inability to listen to that is a reflection on how bad a spiritual Catholic I am but hopefully the lessons get easier. Will I ever learn?
A chapter from the classic The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I’ve lost my job, am getting laid off Friday.
I’m not good at losing jobs. When I worked in Japan, I worked sometimes three or four jobs. If I lost one I would slot in another. It wasn’t until returning to the States that I got into this merry-go-round of losing a job every few years.
When I hit 55, things changed. The jobs don’t come that easy anymore and I found myself underemployed, doing temp stuff or working part time. I’m 63 now. The last job I got took me two years of waiting. Getting over the pride of work has been an immense challenge for me. I know I still haven’t put that pride behind me.
Getting laid off is a bruising experience, even when you know its coming and the reasons are more than reasonable. The company is cutting expenses, finding ways to do the same work cheaper and more efficiently. The new computers can be imaged remotely from headquarters, they no longer need anyone to look after the classrooms here. So it’s off to a new location and new machines. I won’t be part of that new order. They can use my salary to open a new location.
I’ve learned that in times like these I can go to Thomas à Kempis and find a prayer to comfort myself. I am ashamed of my desolation. God has been so good to me, you have no idea the blessings I have garnered and how graceless and grasping I remain, so ungrateful.
Help me find peace again, Lord and deal with the poverty that grinds within me. Help me to live among your riches.
DISCIPLE: Lord God, holy Father, may You be blessed now and forever! As You will it, so it is, and all that You do is good. Let Your servant find his joy in You and not in himself or in anything else. You alone, Lord, are the true joy; You alone are my hope and my crown, my happiness and my honor.
What does Your servant have that he has not received (I Corinthians 4:7) from You, and without meriting any of it? All that You have made and all that You have given me is Yours. Everything is Yours!
I am wretched and have been afflicted since my early youth (Psalms 88:15). Sometimes my soul is sad even to the point of shedding tears and it is often troubled because of trials that threaten.
I look for the joy of Your peace. I fervently pray for the peace that belongs to Your children whom you nourish with the light of Your consolation.
If You grant me this peace and pour Your holy joy into my soul, I will be filled with music and wholeheartedly will I sing out Your praises. But if You take Yourself from me, as You often do, I will find it difficult to walk the pathways of Your commandments (Psalms 119:35). I will fall on my knees and strike my breast bewailing that today is not as fine a day as yesterday or the day before when Your lamp kept shining on my head (Job 29:3), and when I found, in the shadow of Your wings (Psalms 17:8), protection from temptation’s assaults.
Father, all just and worthy of everlasting praise, the hour has come for Your servant to be tested.
Father, worthy of all love, it is only right that at this hour I should suffer something for Your sake.
Father, worthy of endless honor, the hour is now here which You foresaw from all eternity when I, Your servant, should be struck down and for a time be overwhelmed though, through it all, I continually live in Your presence. For a short period I am to be ridiculed, rebuked, and have my reputation ruined; I am to be worn out by weariness and sufferings, only that I may rise again with You at the dawn of the new day and receive heaven’s glory.
Father, all holy, this is the way You have designed it and desired it and since You have commanded it, it has come to pass.
This is the grace You grant Your friends; to suffer and endure distress in this world for love of You — as often as You allow it and only from sources You permit. Nothing happens on earth without Your wisdom and providence, and nothing ever happens without good reason.
It is good Lord that You have humbled me so that I may learn Your justifications (Psalms 119:71)and that I may cast from me all pride and presumption of heart. It is for my own good that shame has covered my face and that I seek my consolation in You rather than in men. From this I have also learned that I am to reverence Your unsearchable judgments which affect both the good and the bad, but always with justice and equity.
I thank You for not having spared me for my sins and for having punished me with bitter stripes. 1 thank You for inflicting pain on me and for sending me trials that assail me within and without.
Under the heavens there is no one who can console me except You, my Lord God, heavenly physician of souls. You wound and You heal;(Deuteronomy 32:39) You take down to the depths but You also raise up.(1 Samuel:2:6). Your discipline corrects me and Your very rod is my teacher.
Beloved Father, I am in Your hands (Psalms 31:15) and I bend my body to Your correcting rod. Strike me across the back and neck so that I can twist my crookedness into something straight and in accord with Your will. Make me a holy and bumble disciple as You have done to others, for I wish to walk in line with Your least desire. To Your correction I give myself and all that is mine. It is better to be punished in this life than in the one to come.
You know each and every single thing,(John 16:30) and there is nothing in man’s conscience that escapes You. You know the future before it happens and need no one to tell You or to inform You about what is happening on earth.
You know what I need for my spiritual progress and You know how effectively trials serve to scrub away the rust of sin. Do with me as Your good pleasure wills and do not disdain my sinful life which is better and more clearly known to You than to anyone
Grant me, Lord, to know what I ought to know, to love what I ought to love, and praise what pleases You the most. Let me hold in esteem what is most precious to You and detest all that is foul in Your sight.
Let me not judge according to what my eyes see nor decide according to what my can hear (Isaiah 11:3)) from ignorant men, but let me, with true judgment, discern between matters material and spiritual, and always and above all seek Your good will and pleasure.
Our senses often lead us into making erroneous judgments, and the worldly minded are likewise deceived because their only love is the world.
Is a man any better because other men think him better? When one man praises another it is like a liar speaking to a liar, or a flatterer congratulating a flatterer, or a blind man leading a blind man, or someone feeble giving a helping hand to someone equally feeble. So pointless is this praise that it only brings shame on the individual who falls for it.
The humble St. Francis said: “A man is only as great as he is in Your eyes and no greater.” (St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, Chapter 6)
A mishmash of poetry and readings intended to communicate my understanding of Revelation — a speech I gave to a bible study group a few years back. A Godawful Mess, those poor people.
Sacred Scripture uses the image of the vine in various ways. In one, the vine serves to express the Mystery of the People of God, what for Christians St. Paul referred to as the Mystical Body of Christ. From this perspective which emphasizes the Church’s internal nature, the lay faithful are seen not simply as laborers who work in the vineyard, but as themselves being a part of the vineyard. In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Part of our responsibilities as lay faithful is to not only to accept the gospel in faith but to proclaim it by word and deed.
The Boston Archdiocese, through the facilities at St. John’s Seminary has prepared a program called The Master of Arts Ministry to help build an informed laity that fulfills the vision of John Paul II in Christifidelis Laici. I finished up another course this past fall in Fundamental Theology and one of the assignments I had was to prepare a “reflection paper” on the meaning of Revelation. The paper was intended to serve as a basis for making a presentation to a group like ourselves here to help us explore the topic of Revelation.
It is in many ways a vast topic, Fr. Paul Ritt who was my professor for the course, told us that everything, Faith, Hope, Charity, God and Man and his Salvation, Redemption, Scripture, Tradition, the whole kitchen sink of Catholic Theology begins and ends with Revelation. We read an encyclical Dei Verbum, devoted to the topic and written by the late Pope John Paul II. I thought I would begin my little presentation tonight by asking what Revelation means to you and how you would attempt to express that to others and see what we get as our group definition (Five Minute Group Discussion).
- Self communication of God in history: God manifesting and giving us no less than God and in the process imparting knowledge about God.
- God’s free gracious, efficacious (producing or capable of producing the desired effect; having the intended result; effective an “efficacious drug”) self-disclosure in words and deeds and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ
- General (God disclosing God in all created things, in all people) and special (God revealing God in the unique, unrepeatable revelations which is recorded in the Old (“dabar”) and New Testaments as handed down by the Church. Culminates in the Incarnation of God in Christ)
- The word made flesh: scripture is the Word consigned to writing. Tradition is the word passed on in the life, doctrine and worship of the Church.
- Revelation as inner mystical experience imparting the grace of communion with Jesus Christ
- God’s self-communication that elevates humanity’s self consciousness allowing it to see itself and the world in a new light
- Revelation as symbolic disclosure (the Fig Tree) “The Fig Tree Parable:The point of the fig tree parable is the damnableness of an outward show of religion with none of the fruit of religion, which is the love of God and man. He is teaching not about fig trees but about men. It is always the season for men. There is no off season in which it would be against the order of nature for men to do their duty to God or their fellows. There is something here not altogether unlike the condemnation passed upon Satan for the Fall of our first parents – that henceforth he should go on his belly. How could a pure spirit go on his belly? But God was talking to Satan in serpent language. And our Lord is warning men in fig tree language.”– F. J. Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus
Fundamentally the concept of Revelation is an answer but I think it is always important never to forget the question. Many of us have been blessed by strong families and good upbringings and we may forget the question from time to time. And never to forget also that smugness, said the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, is the great Catholic sin.
I always find the question all around me in this secular world and never better expressed by Philip Larkin, an English Poet Laureat of the 1950 and 60’s. This is a shocking poem and I don’t mean to offend anyone but it displays a certain sneering cynicism that is high art:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larken, This Be The Verse
So if this is the ethos (the characteristic and distinguishing attitudes, habits, beliefs, etc. of an individual or of a group) of those whom we are going to speak with, I think we are going to need some kind of attention grabber to start the conversation.
A Swedish Catholic Theologian, Soren Kierkegaard said that if he were a doctor and were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, he would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed, it would not be heard or heeded, for there is too much noise and busyness in our world. I often use poetry when I’m trying to communicate. Nothing quite like a man breaking into verse to stun those around him, particularly when he’s talking about death:
How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead,
The great man humbled, the haughty brought to dust?
Is there a horn we should not blow as proudly
For the meanest of us all, who creeps his days,
Guarding his heart from blows, to die obscurely?
I am no king, have laid no kingdoms waste,
Taken no princes captive, led no triumphs
Of weeping women through long walls of trumpets;
Say rather, I am no one, or an atom;
Say rather, two great gods, in a vault of starlight,
Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end
One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor
And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece
Forgotten there, left motionless, is I. . .
Say that I have no name, no gifts, no power,
Am only one of millions, mostly silent;
One who came with eyes and hands and a heart,
Looked on beauty, and loved it, and then left it.
Say that the fates of time and space obscured me,
Led me a thousand ways to pain, bemused me,
Wrapped me in ugliness; and like great spiders
Dispatched me at their leisure. . .Well, what then?
Should I not hear, as I lie down in dust,
The horns of glory blowing above my burial?
Conrad Aiken, Selection from Tetélestai
Blaise Pascal, the Catholic apologist, planned to begin his book, the Pensees, by talking about death because death creates silence – not just when it happens but also before that, when we contemplate it. This poem by Conrad Aiken which I quoted before does just that, contemplates death. Here’s a bit more, so I can get back to speaking about Revelation:
Morning and evening opened and closed above me:
Houses were built above me; trees let fall
Yellowing leaves upon me, hands of ghosts;
Rain has showered its arrows of silver upon me
Seeking my heart; winds have roared and tossed me;
Music in long blue waves of sound has borne me
A helpless weed to shores of unthought silence;
Time, above me, within me, crashed its gongs
Of terrible warning, sifting the dust of death;
And here I lie.Roar now above my decaying flesh, you winds,
Whirl out your earth-scents over this body, tell me
Of ferns and stagnant pools, wild roses, hillsides!
Anoint me, rain, let crash your silver arrows
On this hard flesh! I am the one who named you,
I lived in you, and now I die in you.
I your son, your daughter, treader of music,
Lie broken, conquered. . .Let me not fall in silence.I, the restless one; the circler of circles;
Herdsman and roper of stars, who could not capture
The secret of self; I who was tyrant to weaklings,
Striker of children; destroyer of women; corrupter
Of innocent dreamers, and laugher at beauty;
I, Too easily brought to tears and weakness by music,
Baffled and broken by love, the helpless beholder
Of the war in my heart of desire with desire, the struggle
Of hatred with love, terror with hunger;
Who laughed without knowing the cause of my laughter, who grew
Without wishing to grow, a servant to my own body;
Loved without reason the laughter and flesh of a woman,
Enduring such torments to find her! I who at last
Grow weaker, struggle more feebly, relent in my purpose,
Choose for my triumph an easier end, look backward
At earlier conquests; or, caught in the web, cry out
In a sudden and empty despair, ‘Tetélestai!’
Pity me, now! I, who was arrogant, beg you!
Tell me, as I lie down, that I was courageous.
Blow horns of victory now, as I reel and am vanquished.
Shatter the sky with trumpets above my grave.
Conrad Aiken, Selection from Tetélestai
“Tetélestai” is the name of the poem. Do you know where that word comes from or what it means?
“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” [John 19:30] It is the Greek translation of that last word that Jesus utters from the Cross. Much of what is in that word, Tetélestai, its meaning and grammar, sum up a lot of what Revelation is: To end, to be finished, completed, fully executed, to discharge a debt totally and completely. Jesus is the completion of revelation, the slow and gradual process of God revealing himself to Moses and the Prophets, the story of the Old Testament. It began with the burning bush and his name “Yaweh.” It ends on the cross.
It’s in the Perfect tense — Tetélestai. The grammar that says finished in the past with the result that it stands finished forever, a completed action with emphasis on existing results of that past action: “I have baked a cake.” Action of baking finished; result the cake is here. The passive voice represents the subject, Jesus Christ, as being acted upon by someone else, God the father, who imputed our sins to Jesus Christ and judged every one of them. The mood of the verb Tetélestai is declarative for a dogmatic statement of doctrine; salvation is totally complete. The present state: Eternal salvation life is available. The past action: Jesus Christ was judged for our sins. There is both good and bad news in this: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”[John 3:36]. So it is decidedly not a cry of despair (like that which emanates from the poem, the man falling into silence) but one of triumph when we think of Jesus on the Cross. And belief in him will shatter the sky with trumpets above your grave. Thousands of years of salvation history, untold numbers of saints and believers marching to their deaths with joyous hymns on their lips, proclaim that victory.
One of the propositions of Revelation is that of eternal life, a life with Jesus sharing in the life of God the Father. Malcolm Muggeridge, another English writer and like all of these I’m quoting here, a guardian angel of mine, wrote this thinking about that moment, on the cusp of reaching eternal life:
Our Transformation At Death
So at last I may understand, and understanding believe; see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter, muddy and marred with being trodden underfoot, and hover over it, myself, like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely pained wings? If told, do they believe it? Is it conceivable to them that so constricted an existence as this should burgeon into so gay and lightsome a one as a butterfly’s? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads – no, it can’t be; it’s a fantasy, self-deception, a dream. Similarly, our wise secular voices. Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clock tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of grey, I hear those words; I am the resurrection, and the life, and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace.
Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus
How can we apprehend this meaning of revelation? There is so much to guide us and it begins in communion with others at the sacred store where we can read scripture, learn traditions and be in communion with the saints who have passed before us. We need to create for ourselves a space where we can come to understand the nature of Jesus’ministry: the pronouncement of the kingdom of God and the demand to repent our lives of sin and death in order to save our immortal souls.
Is it not the nature of our experience of the world that gives rise to Revelation in the first place? Listen to Blaise Pascal:
We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.
Since no one can change human nature, no one can make us stop desiring truth, happiness or goodness; and no mere human being can give them to us. We can get these two things in crumbs and droplets while wishing for great loaves and waves, but we cannot create them; we are aqueducts not fountains, creatures not the creator. As C.S. Lewis said: “Human beings can’t make each other happy for very long.”
The fundamental truth of all addicts and all men is that we do not create happiness or goodness. GK Chesterton, another guardian angel of mine, felt a “haunting instinct that somehow good was not merely a tool to be used, but a relic to be guarded, like the goods from Robinson Crusoe’s ship—for even that had been the wild whisper of something originally wise — according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.” That is the story of original sin.
How can we apprehend the meaning of revelation?
Consider this poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, by Wallace Stevens, the subject is the voice of poetry but to me it is really considering nature and the transcendent (God), all from a walk along a sea wall at Key West and a view of the harbor as night falls:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.
But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea. It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West
I used to listen to this poem on a recording I had and when Stevens finishes reading, “keener sounds” seems to reverberate and if anyone were to ask me what revelation has meant to me, I can only think of this poem and “keener sounds:” a keener realization of what the truth is and an awareness, at times frightening, of how I must live and be held accountable to that truth.
Ghostlier demarcations: revelation is an unfolding of God’s self-disclosure whether it be in the words and deeds recorded in the Old Testament and ultimately in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ or as an inner experience imparts the grace of communion with God (Avery Dulles). The latter is what I know and sense through this poem but it is the same as what is written and taught in my church, which calls herself the body of Christ.
I am speaking to you here tonight on her behalf because as Avery Dulles has said, “the fruits of this process of God’s self disclosure are transmitted to believers by education in the church and in the living community of faith.” We all have stories or we damn well should have stories of our faith. And when you share them with others you do proclaim the gospel by word and deed. We become part of God’s self disclosure, a part of the unfolding of revelation itself.
Here is Malcolm Muggeridge again proclaiming his moment of faith:
“I want to cry out with the blind man to whom Jesus restored his sight: One thing that I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How not to mhave understood that the grey-silver light across the water, the cry of the sea-gulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear is telling me about God.”
This life’s dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’, the Eye.
Thus William Blake distinguishes between the fantasy that is seen with the eye and truth that is seen though it.
There are two clearly demarcated kingdoms; and passing from one to the other, from the kingdom of fantasy to the kingdom of reality, gives inexpressible delight. As when the sun comes out, and a dark landscape is suddenly glorified, all that was obscure becoming clear, all that was incomprehensible, comprehensible. Fantasy’s joys and desires dissolve away and in their place is one joy, one desire; one Oneness—God.
In this kingdom of reality, Simone Weil tells us, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy as goodness; no desert so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. There we may understand what St. Augustine meant when he insisted that ‘though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone, and how, in the light of this realization, all human progress, human morality, human law, based, as they are, on the opposite proposition – of the intrinsic superiority of the higher over the lower – is seen as written on water, scribbled on dust; like Jesus’ scribble while he was waiting for the accusers of the woman taken in adultery to disperse.
What will it mean to you? What happens when you realize that there has been a God all throughout history who has tirelessly sought to show you the way and who exists at this very moment like an expectant father waiting for a son to return home after years of waste and sinful acts against the very life he gave him. Let others know it will become their very life and it is a life of joy.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
I am in awe every time I read that. Chesterton has written: “There is perhaps nothing so perfect in all language or literature as the use of these three degrees in the parable of the lilies of the field; in which Jesus seems first to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colors into all the palaces and pavilions full of the great name, Solomon, in national legend and glory; and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels into nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you…
It is like the building of a good tower of Babel by white magic in a moment and in the movement of a hand; a tower heaved suddenly up to heaven on the top of which can be seen afar off, higher than we had fancied possible, the figure of man; lifted by three infinities above all other things, on a starry ladder of light logic and swift imagination.
Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in the libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pull a flower.”
Talk show host Laura Ingraham had a terrible moment fighting breast cancer and chemo therapy, facing the end of her career when she sought the advice of a Catholic priest who took the time to speak quietly with her about her faith. She never forgot his comforting words: “Don’t worry, everything is going to be OK.” In her story I heard the echo of “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” People need to be comforted.
In speaking of revelation to others, remember who they are, counsel from your heart and give comfort to those who are seeking. Above all, it is a message of love to be communicated lovingly and not something to be preached by argument. I hope you will find some of my poems and quotations useful. Thank you.
The other day a fellow made a list of all the things that would be necessary (for him) to believe in the Resurrection. It so happened that day I had posted a favorite quote of mine from Michael Novak: “Gathering force over many years, one discovery has hit me with the force of a law: If you make mistakes about your own nature, you will make as many mistakes about God, and quite properly then, reject what your inquiries put before you. The god you fantasize will appear to you not very great, a delusion, a snare from which others ought to be freed. You will despise this god.”
I saw in his “list” a recitation of all the things most important in this person’s nature: chief amongst them a highly analytical nature, a no-nonsense approach to life, a refusal to engage in any metaphysical thought, etc. etc… I thought that I would reply in kind just to contrast what a believer’s nature looks like. It is, of course an incomplete list – most of it has at one time or another been the subject of a post on Paying Attention To The Sky:
(1) I have been loved into existence. My life has been a gift from God and I believe I have lived it under His most profound providence and generosity. Michael Novak writes: “Our intellects, our will — these can reach out to God, like arrows of inquiry shot up into the infinite night. These are not shot in vain. They mark out a direction. Waiting in silence, in abandonment, even in the dry sands of the desert, one comes to know His presence. Not believe in it. Know it. In a 1959 interview with the BBC, C. G. Jung once made the same point. Asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied, “I don’t believe — I know.” This is a dark knowledge. One cannot expect anyone else to know it, unless they have also walked the rocky and darkling path — or somehow by God’s grace been brought to it by a different journey, along a different route.” This is how I “know” things about God. I’m afraid it is of little use to anyone else. I can offer no one a scientific proof of God but can provide a number of paths to Him.
(2) No matter how I struggle or wish it to be different, I know exactly what St. Paul meant when he wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” I know at some deepest level of self-awareness that I am a sinner.
(3) I believe in Dostoevsky’s creed: “One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy,” he wrote from Siberia. “And yet God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple, here it is: “I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Savior: I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.”
(4) “The creative action of a Christian’s life is to prepare for his death in Christ.” Flannery O’Connor wrote that. I wish I knew what that will mean for me. I’m hoping to make it something wonderful.
(5) Josef Pieper emphasizes the close connection between moral and intellectual virtue. Our minds do not — contrary to many views currently popular — create truth. Rather, they must be conformed to the truth of things given in creation. And such conformity (obedience) is possible only as the moral virtues become deeply embedded in our character, a slow and halting process (especially in my case). We have, Pieper writes, “lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity.” That is, in order to know the truth we must become persons of a certain sort. The full transformation of character that we need will, in fact, finally require the virtues of faith, hope, and love. And this transformation will not necessarily — perhaps not often — be experienced by us as easy or painless. Hence the transformation of self that we must — by God’s grace — undergo “perhaps resembles passing through something akin to dying.” This is training in the divine school of obedience.
(6) A Half Dozen Things that Blaise Pascal taught me:
- We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness…Pensées 401
Since no one can change human nature, no one can make us stop desiring truth and happiness; and no mere human being can gives us truth or happiness. We can mediate these two things (and get them in crumbs and droplets while wishing for great loaves and waves), but we cannot create them; we are aqueducts not fountains. (C.S. Lewis: “Human beings can’t make each other happy for very long.”)
- Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms and crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.
Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well: that is the basic principle of morality… Pensées 200
Man is unstable. His nature is double (body and spirit), his consciousness is double (exalted and wretched) and his potentiality is double (heaven or hell). In all three ways he is unlike all the things in nature, which rest stably within their nature. Roses can no more be unrosy than a triangle scan be nontriangular; but humans can be inhuman…man’s essence does not determine his existence but his existence determines his essence. We determine our nature, our character, our personality, by the free choices in our existence our life, our career in time, our history. Everything in nature has its life and history determined by its timeless pattern, plan or essence; with us it is the reverse. This formula – existence determines essence – is Sartre’s and the Christian will not buy into everything Sartre means by it (for instance, that we have no essence at all because there is no God to design it) but in itself it is true and profound.
- Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched…Pensées 114
Thus the greatness and high dignity of Greek drama. It is not only that the wise sufferer is rewarded in the end, like Oedipus (and Job), but that even in the act of suffering well there is dignity, because the suffering is not just a negative event in the physical world but also a positive event in the spiritual world, by the sufferer’s understanding and will, his suffering is granted entrance into this second world. It becomes not merely an event in space but an event in consciousness. It is taken up to Heaven. This is part of is training in the divine school of obedience.
- If God had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day with such thunder and lightening and such convulsions of nature that the dead will rise up and the blindest will see him. This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness, because so many men had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency, that he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire. It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them. Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. ‘There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”
- We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are to and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.
Let us each examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
Pensées 47 [Matthew 6:34: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”] I wish I had learned that years ago.
- Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble impotent reason! Be silent feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master our true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God… Pensées 131
Our reason and our nature contradict each other. Our reason insists on doubt, our nature insists on certainty. Our reason is a skeptic, our nature is a dogmatist. Our reason insists on assuming nothing, or nature insists on assuming innate principles. The point of the lesson now follows: Both nature and reason must learn faith, silence, humility, listening to God. Without this there is no fulfillment of our reason or our nature, and no solution to the dilemma between them….Only Christian “abnormalism”, only the Fall, explains these two primal truths: we are unhappy and ignorant, and that we long to be happy and certain. We cannot stop demanding our two foods, happiness and certainty. Nor can we ever attain them. They are the only two innate desires that are never satisfied, the only hungers for foods not found here on earth and in time….Aquinas declared all his writings mere “straw” and would not finish the Summa – not out of laziness but in light of God’s face seen in a graced mystical vision. Job, too, put his finger to his lips when he saw God [Job 42:1-6]. This is the chief use of reasoning, questioning and genius: that we may have something to quiet. The chief use of philosophy is to have something to immolate on the altar. The ultimate purpose of speech is to frame the great mystical silence.
Philosophy is after, the love of wisdom and wisdom is alive like a woman. So how could we think our courtship of her is a one-way activity? This is true only for the pursuit of things and abstract ideas, but never for persons, not even human persons, and much less the Divine Person who is Wisdom [1Corinthians 1:30]
(7) Enormous Things Depend On Tiny Things: Nothing in the world has such tiny and invisible causes, and such great and visible effects, as human love….enormous things depend on tiny things. “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a battle was lost; for want of a battle, a war was lost; for want of a war, a kingdom was lost.” This is the nature of the world’s data. Anyone who cooks knows this to be true.
As Thornton Wilder says, in the Bridge Of San Luis Rey, “Some say that to the gods we are like flies idly swatted by boys on a summer day. Others say that not a hair falls from our head without the will of the Heavenly Father.”
(8) No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart.’ This profoundly human truth is what Augustine will always tell his readers: they must look into the Scriptures, ‘the eyes of their heart on its heart’. …let the scriptures be ‘the countenance of God’…a mind that once hoped to train itself for the vision of God by means of the Liberal Arts, would now come to rest on the solid intractable mass of the Christian Bible…‘Complete your work in me O Lord and open those pages to me‘… Seek His Face Evermore …Therefore let everyone who reads these pages proceed further with me, when he is equally certain as I am; let him make enquiries with me when he is as hesitant as I…Thus let us enter together, in the path of charity, in search of Him of Whom it is said: seek his face evermore.” With friends like Augustine, I can never go wrong.
(9) Thomas Merton on the death of his father: “We went into the ward. Father was in his bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.
And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of him living much longer His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.
I said: “How are you, Father?”
He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.
But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprang to my eyes., Nobody said anything more.
I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do…
What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.
Indeed the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt., The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being that is at once the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”
This is what my life was like before faith. Diabolists live lives of dumb animals. I say that with no sense of condescension or enjoyment. It is a simple fact of my observations of having lived this long.
I know the notion of becoming a Saint or achieving Holiness is one that may provoke disbelief or wry smiles to even those who may consider themselves “the faithful,” not to mention the hoots of derision from the pagans in our midst. But it was the singular thing I learned after my conversion that I never knew or expected on the way to my becoming Catholic. And it didn’t come by way of RCIA classes or even at the Masters in Ministry classes I am taking at St. John’s Seminary. It was totally gratuitous in a way, something I came across in my readings: first in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and then in Fr. Robert Barron’s And Now I See.
I subscribe to an Amazon Discussion Forum called “What Makes Us Catholic?” and unfortunately I have to say this is NOT the answer to that question. But this is what fully confirmed me in my faith: It is what made ME a Catholic, although oddly enough it happened after I had already taken the step. I see it almost as if God came along cleaning up after my messy first attempts, saying, “No, no, this is why you are here.” And lest anyone misunderstand here, having achieved this is NOT what I’m talking about; realizing it is perhaps the first step.
I’m going to dedicate this post to Sr. Kathleen at St. Luke’s in Belmont MA who gave me just what I needed when I needed it.
So I ask you to consider an anecdote that Thomas Merton relates in The Seven Story Mountain when he first encounters the thought of becoming a Saint from his friend Robert Lax:
Therefore, another one of those times that turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned, was when Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The Street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out. with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and ex pressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say”—he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”
The Seven Storey Mountain pp 236-7
Fr. Robert Barron reflects on this moment in his book And Now I See:
“Merton said that this strange answer (Becoming a Saint by wanting to) changed his life: from that moment on, he knew that Christianity was not primarily a matter of getting his ideas straight but rather getting his life straight. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the only true theologians are the saints — those who have practiced the life of Jesus.
Christianity — like baseball, painting, and philosophy — is a world, a form of life. And like those other worlds, it is first approached because it is perceived as beautiful. A youngster walks onto the baseball diamond because he finds the game splendid, and a young artist begins to draw because he finds the artistic universe enchanting. Once the beauty of Christianity has seized a devotee, he will long to submit himself to it, entering into its rhythms, its institutions, its history, its drama, its visions and activities.
And then, having practiced it, having worked it into his soul and flesh, he will know it. The movement, in short, is from the beautiful (It is splendid!) to the good (I must play it!) to the true (It is right!). One of the mistakes that both liberals and conservatives make is to get this process precisely backward, arguing first about right and wrong. No kid will be drawn into the universe of baseball by hearing arguments over the infield-fly rule or disputes about the quality of umpiring in the National League. And none of us will be enchanted by the world of Christianity if all we hear are disputes about Humanae vitae and the infallibility of the pope.
Christianity is a captivating and intellectually satisfying game, but the point is to play it. It is a beautiful and truthful way, but the point is to walk it.”
Ralph Martin in his book Called to Holiness elaborates more on this theme:
JESUS SUMMED UP His teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfect in purity of heart, perfect in compassion and love, perfect in obedience, perfect in conformity to the will of the Father, perfect in holiness – when we hear these words we can be understandably tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible. And indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is — just as impossible as it is for rich people to enter heaven, or for a man and a woman to remain faithful their whole lives in marriage. But with God, all things are possible, even our transformation.
John Paul II — and he himself may be among those recognized as a Doctor one day — in his prophetic interpretation of the events of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first Novo Millennio Ineunte, points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church’s consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He points out that the Jubilee of the year 2000 was simply the last phase of a period of preparation and renewal that had been going on for forty years, in order to equip the Church for the challenges of the new millennium.
Pope John Paul II speaks of three rediscoveries to which the Holy Spirit has led the Church beginning with the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. One of these rediscoveries is the ‘‘rediscovery of the universal call to holiness.”
All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.
John Paul further emphasizes that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.
To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)… the time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.
Before we go much further in our examination of the spiritual journey, let’s take an initial look at what “holiness” really means. In the Book of Ephesians we read, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). To be holy is not primarily a matter of how many Rosaries we say or how much Christian activity we’re engaged in; it’s a matter of having our heart transformed into a heart of love. It is a matter of fulfilling the great commandments which sum up the whole law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor, wholeheartedly. Or as Teresa of Avila puts it, holiness is a matter of bringing our wills into union with God’s will.
Thérèse of Lisieux expresses it very similarly:
Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be…who resists His grace in nothing.” As she said towards the very end of her life: “I do not desire to die more than to live; it is what He does that I love.”
John Paul II goes on to call the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where “training in holiness” is given.
“Our Christian communities must become genuine schools of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love.” . . . It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.”
John Paul cites several reasons why this turn to holiness of life and depth in prayer is important. Besides the fact that it is quite simply part and parcel of the Gospel message, he points out that the supportive culture of “Christendom” has virtually disappeared and that Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this world-wide secularization process there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality, which is sometimes met by turning to non-Christian religions. It is especially important now for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and “show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead” (NMI 33, 40).
Recognizing how challenging this call is, John Paul makes clear that it will be difficult to respond adequately without availing ourselves of the wisdom of the mystical tradition of the Church — that body of writings and witness of life that focuses on the process of prayer and stages of growth in the spiritual life. He tells us why the mystical tradition is important and what we can expect it to provide for us.
This great mystical tradition…shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.
How is this extraordinary depth of union with the Trinity possible? It. is indeed the answer to this question that the Catholic mystical tradition gives us. John Paul makes clear that this depth of union isn’t just for a few unusual people (“mystics”) but is a call that every Christian receives from Christ Himself “This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (John 14:2 1).”
“It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?
John Paul identifies four principles that are basic to a proper understanding of the spiritual journey
- Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life. Yet we know also that God is eager to give this grace and bring us to deep union. Without Him, we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible (cf. John 14:4-5, Luke 18:27, Philemon 4:13). Without God, successfully completing the journey is impossible, but with Him, in a sense, we are already there, He is truly both the Way and the destination; and our lives are right now, hidden with Christ, in God (Colossians 3:3)
- At the same time our effort is indispensable. Our effort is not sufficient to bring about such union, but it is necessary. The saints speak of disposing ourselves for union. The efforts we make help dispose us to receive the gifts of God. If we really value something we must be willing to focus on doing those things that will help us reach the goal. And yet without God’s grace we cannot even know what’s possible, or desire it, or have the strength to make any efforts towards it. It’s God’s grace that enables us to live the necessary “intense spiritual commitment “You will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
- As the Gospel tells us, it’s important to assess what’s required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower, or entering into a battle in war) if we want to successfully complete it. Much has to change in us in order to make us capable of deep union with God. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep and need to be healed and transformed in a process that has its necessarily painful moments. The pain of purification is called by John of the Cross the “dark night.” It is important not to be surprised by the painful moments of our transformation but to know that they’re a necessary and blessed part of the whole process. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
- And finally, we need to know that all the effort and. pain is worth it! Infinitely worth it. The pain of the journey will appear in retrospect to have been light, compared to the weight of glory that we were being prepared for (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).Deep union (the “nuptial union” or “spiritual marriage” or “transforming union”) is possible even in this life. Teresa of Avila tells us that there’s no reason that someone who reaches a basic stability in living a Catholic life (“mansion” three in her classification system) can’t proceed all the way to “spiritual marriage” in this life (mansion seven).
We all probably know in some way that we’re called to holiness but perhaps struggle to respond. Feeling the challenge of the call and yet seeing the obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted and immediate response. Everyone seems to pass the buck on this: lay people pass to those priests and nuns, priests and nuns who feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and have such a busy pace of life might suppose that it’s the cloistered orders who are truly in a good position to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness.
What really holds us back is not really the external circumstances of our lives, but the interior sluggishness of our hearts. We need to be clear that there will never be a better time or a better set of circumstances than now to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness. Who knows how much longer we’ll be alive on this earth? We don’t know how long we’ll live or what the future holds. Now is the acceptable time. The very things we think are obstacles are the very means God is giving us to draw us to depend more deeply on Him.
The source of all our unhappiness and misery is sin and its effects, and the sooner the purification of sin and its effects can take place in our life, the happier we will be and the better able to truly love others. Only then will we be able to enter into the purpose God has for our life. Truly, in this case, better sooner than later.
Finally, it’s important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations, and if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the sight of God. Holiness isn’t an “option.” There are only saints in heaven; total transformation is not an “option” for those interested in that sort of thing, but is essential for those who want to spend eternity with God.
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is so that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for union; we were created for union; we were redeemed for eternal union. The sooner we’re transformed the happier and the more “fulfilled” we’ll be. The only way to the fulfillment of all desire is to undertake and complete the journey to God.
I know when our little RCIA group finished up at St Lukes, we all wanted to continue in some way and I realize now we were asking for our parish to become a school of prayer so our “training in holiness” could continue. I moved on to another parish and entered another program, neither which really answered this need. Perhaps the closest I have come to it is this self-argument I have mounted here on this blog.