On the Need for Moderation, Even in Learning.

A while back on this blog we reflected on the puzzling truth that we can endure more pain than pleasure. We seem to be able to endure a lot of pain, but we can endure only a little pleasure at a time. In fact, too much pleasure actually brings pain: sickness, hangovers, obesity, addiction, laziness, and even boredom.  You can read more of that HERE. But the point is that pleasures and good things are only enjoyed in moderation.

Something similar may be said for wisdom and knowledge. We learn best in small portions. For example, consider a teaching by St. Bernard, who is reflecting on a verse from Sirach:

If you have found wisdom, you have found honey. But do not eat so much that you become too full and bring it all up. Eat so that you are always hungry. Wisdom says: Those who eat me continue to hunger (Sirach 24:31). Do not think you have too much of it, but do not eat too much or you will throw it up. If you do, what you seem to have will be taken away from you… Solomon says: A man who eats too much honey does himself no good. – From a sermon by Saint Bernard, abbot (Sermo de diversis 15: PL 183, 577-579)

And so it is that we learn and gain wisdom slowly and in stages.  A kind of four-fold moderation is suggested here.

    1. The Moderation of Material– Too much, all at once, overwhelms us. It is a little like the image of trying to fill a small paper cup from an open fire hydrant. Most of water escapes and is wasted. The cup is better filled at a small faucet. Learning occurs best in small bite-sized potions.
    2. The Moderation of Time– Most teachers know that an hour-long class is best, and ninety minutes is the maximum. Any longer and eyes glaze over and the diminishing returns set in quickly. Further, we all need time to reflect on what we learn. Acquiring information is not the same as learning. Reflection and consideration as to what something means and how it relates to other things is what makes for knowledge and wisdom.  
    3. The Moderation of Mastery – We learn in stages. Foundational principles must be mastered before more complex realties can be understood. Personal development also plays a role. I have found, for example, that certain scriptures suddenly make sense to me, or stand out in ways they did not before. This is often due both to our growth in knowledge and also to our personal growth in maturity and holiness. The Latin Fathers of the Church said of Scripture that it is non nova, sed nove(It is not a knew thing but it is understood newly). And thus, as we make our journey and if we are faithful, our understanding of Scripture deepens.
    4. The Moderation of Novelty– There is a saying, “Repetition is the mother of studies.” While learning new things is important, so is remembering and recapitulating what we already know. One of the things that most deeply ingrained Scripture in my soul are the repeating cycles of readings in the Mass and in the Divine Office.

Yes, moderation is the key, even in learning the things of God. A slow steady, life-long learning is what makes for a wise soul. Though wisdom comes from God, it, like all graces, interacts which our nature, and it is our nature to grow slowly and in stages. There are surely growth spurts, but the general rule is slow, steady and in stages. Thus in your prayer and spiritual reading, a little each day adds up. But always remember to spend time reflecting on what you read and reviewing from time to time what you have read and learned in the past. Yes, a little each day helps keep the devil away.

Twelve Steps to Humility

In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.

St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider today. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, while my meager commentary is shown in plain, black text. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing the book Steps of Humility and Pride.

(1) Fear of God – To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe. It is to be filled with wonder at all God has done, and at who He is. Cringing, servile fear is not recommended. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride. It is looking to God and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies that begins to break our pride.

Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside oneself and upward to God.

Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.

(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to His father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). This is what abnegation of the will means: to surrender one’s will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to override one’s own.

Pride demands to do what it pleases, to determine what is right or wrong. In this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “Why can’t I have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”

On the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to Him and to submit to His vision for us.

(3) Obedience – Having attained a humbler disposition of heart, we are now more willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying His holy will, to surrendering our stubborn will to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to put it into action.

(4) Patient endurance – Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride, and striving to hear and understand God’s will and obey, we can surely expect to fact both external and internal obstacles.

Our flesh—that is, our sinful nature—does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. It resists prayer, resists being subject to anything other than its own wishes and desires. Thus, we suffer internal resistance from our sinful nature.

Little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.

We also often encounter external resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps friends seek to draw us back into our former ways. Perhaps the structures of our pride remain: willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intention to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.

Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. It often takes years—even decades—of patient and persistent action for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.

(5) Disclosure of the heart – As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).

Recognizing our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities requires a lot of humility. We must often resurrect unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. In our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.

We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a humbling but necessary part of the journey down the mountain of pride.

(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance; it is a great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:

External contentedness is rooted in the ability to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that are not to our liking. Acceptance does not imply approval of everything. There are many things in the world that we ought not to approve of, but acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully in accordance with our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. Even with those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them as quickly as we would like. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus cautioned us not to act hastily to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.

Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. Pride demands that our agenda be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”

(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.

Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, but remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.

With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). As we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be; our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do and of how we interact with God and others, but we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.

(8) Submission to the common rule – The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.

As our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others. We must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches us that the world does not revolve around us and what we want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than our own. Humility helps us to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws typically exist to protect the common good. Humility also makes us more willing to submit our personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.

(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say or that what he has to say is more important. As our humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.

(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened, for fear begets anger.

As we discussed yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered. As we grow deeper in humility, though, we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.

Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, and rumor. We are less stirred up by the machinations of marketers, less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the media. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us. The humble person trusts God and is thus not easily unsettled by these things—and it is thoughts that generate feelings.

As our thought life becomes more measured, our conclusions are drawn more carefully and humbly, our emotions are less volatile, and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.

(11) Restraint in speech – As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, that serenity is reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are satisfied with staying in the conversation, with just sowing seeds to be harvested later, perhaps even by others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking; we are more content to speak the truth in love, with both clarity and charity.

(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word hypocritas refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role rather than being who they are.

The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. As humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.

This is because the gift of humility opens us to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.

By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.

Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. As we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.

A Picture of the Transformed Human Person – A Homily for the Sixth Sunday of the Year

The Gospel for Sunday’s Mass is from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), specifically 5:17-37. In a way the Lord is drawing a picture for us of the transformed human person. He is presenting a kind of slide show of what sanctity really is. In understanding this rather lengthy text we do well to reflect on it in three parts.

I. The Power of New Life in Christ – We have discussed before that an important principle of the Christian moral vision is that it is received, not achieved. Holiness is a work of God. The human being acting out the power of his flesh alone cannot keep, and surely cannot fulfill, the Law. The experience of God’s people in the Old Testament bears this out. True holiness (not merely ethical rule-keeping) is possible only by and through God’s grace.

We must understand the moral vision given by Jesus as a description rather than a mere prescription. Notice what the text says here: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law]. It is Jesus who fulfills the Law. And we, who are more and more in Him and He in us, do what He does; it is His work.

Jesus describes these signs that we are transformed human beings:

  • Jesus Christ really begins to live His life in us (Gal 2:20).
  • The power of His cross goes to work in us and puts sin to death (Rom 6:2).
  • Jesus increases and we decrease (Jn 3:30).
  • Our old self is crucified with Him so that sin will no longer master us (Rom 6:6-7).

This is a work of God; the power is in the Blood and the cross. The power comes to us by grace. It is all a work of God.

Hence, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is not giving us a rigorous set of rules to follow (and they are rigorous), but is describing what the transformed human person is like. His description is not an impossible ideal, but is set forth as the normal Christian life. The normal Christian is a transformed human person. The normal Christian man has authority over his anger and sexuality, loves his wife and family, and is a man of his word. All this comes to him as the fruit of God’s grace.

It is very important to understand that this is a life offered to us by God. If we do not see it in that we, we are simply left with moral rules: Don’t be so angry or unchaste; don’t get divorced; and don’t lie. Rather, what is offered here is new life in Christ such that, on account of an inner transformation by the power of grace, our anger abates, our unchastity diminishes, our love of others increases, and we speak the truth in love. The power to do this comes not from our flesh but from the Lord, through the power of His cross to put sin to death and bring forth new life in us.

II. The Principle of New Life in Christ – Jesus’ moral vision is that, by His grace, we do not merely keep the Law, but fulfill it. The key word is “fulfill,” meaning to fill something until it is full, to exceed the minimum requirements. When we fulfill the Law, we enter into the full vision and meaning of the Law.

Thus, to use Jesus’ examples from today’s Gospel:

  • It is not enough to refrain from killing. True life in God means that I harbor no vengeful hatred. I love even my enemies and am reconciled with people I have wrongfully hurt or offended.
  • It is not enough to avoid adultery. True life in Christ means that I am chaste and pure even in my thoughts. By God’s grace, I have authority over what I am thinking and shun unchaste thoughts.
  • It is not enough to follow proper divorce law. True life in Christ means I have no desire to divorce my wife. I love her and my children. I am reconciled to her and accept that she is not perfect, just as I am not perfect.
  • It is not enough to refrain from swearing false oaths. True life in Christ means speaking the truth in love, being a man of my words. The grace of God keeps me from being duplicitous and deceitful.

In all these ways, the Law is not merely kept; it is fulfilled. It is filled full in that all these implications are abundantly and joyfully lived out as Jesus Christ transforms me. Christ came to fulfill the Law, and as our union with Christ grows more perfect we also fulfill the Law. For what Christ does, we do; we are in Him and He in us. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

III. The Picture of New Life in Christ. – The Lord then continues on to provide six descriptions of a transformed person. Today’s Gospel contains four of them. These pictures are often called “antitheses” because they are all formulated in this way: You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …. The key point is to see them as pictures of what happens to a person in whom Jesus Christ is really living. Let’s look at each.

A. On Anger You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. The Lord teaches us that the commandment not to kill has a deeper meaning. What leads to murder? Is it not the furnace of anger, retribution, and hatred within us? We may all experience a flash of anger and it passes. Further, there is such a thing as righteous anger, which is caused by the perception of injustice and sin. The Lord Himself exhibited this sort of anger on many occasions. This type of anger is not condemned. Rather the anger that is condemned is that which is born of hate and vengeance, anger that goes so far as to wish harm to another or to deny his human dignity; this is what leads to murder.

That the Lord has this sort of anger in mind is revealed in the examples He cites, which use the words Raqa and fool. These words express contempt and hatred. Raqa has no clear translation, but seems to have had the same impact as the “N word” does today. It was a very hurtful word expressing deep contempt. Such utterances cannot come from a person in whom the Lord authentically lives. And to the degree that we allow Christ to live in us, they will not. Increasingly, we cannot hate others, for the Lord is in us and He died for all of us out of love. How can I hate someone He loves?

The Lord makes it clear that if we don’t rid ourselves of this anger, we are going to jail: Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. Either we allow the Lord to effect this reconciliation in us or we’re off to jail! Whether the jail is Hell or purgatory (for it would seem that there is release from this jail after the last penny is paid), it is jail. We are not going to Heaven unless and until this matter is resolved. Why delay the issue? Let the Lord work it now. Don’t go to jail because of your grudges and your stubborn refusal to admit your own offenses.

B. On LustYou have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The Lord teaches us that the commandment against adultery has a deeper meaning. It is not merely about transgressing marital boundaries. To fill this Law full means to be chaste in all matters, in mind and in heart.

It is certainly wrong to engage in any illicit sexual union, but if one is looking at pornography or fanaticizing about others sexually, one is already in adultery. What the Lord is offering us here is a clean mind and pure heart. He is offering us authority over our sexuality and our thoughts. For those who are in Christ, self-mastery increases and purity of mind and heart become a greater reality. Our flesh alone cannot do this, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ. It is His work in us to give us these gifts.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. We have to be serious about these matters. The Lord is using hyperbole to make a point: it is more serious to sin than to lose your eyesight or one of your limbs.

Most people don’t think this way; they make light of sin—sexual sin in particular. God does not make light of sin. Jesus teaches here that it is worse to lose our soul than to lose a part of our body. If we were to lose our eyesight or a limb to cancer, we would probably beg the Lord to deliver us. Why do we not think of sin in this way? Why are we not horrified to the same degree? We are clearly skewed in our thinking. Jesus is clear that these sorts of sins can land us in Hell (which is here called Gehenna). Lustful thinking, pornography, masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception, and homosexual acts are not part of life in Christ, who wants to give us freedom and authority over our sexual passions.

Many people today are in some pretty serious bondage when it comes to sexuality. Jesus stands before us all and says, “Come let me live in you and give you the gift of sexual purity. It will be my gift to you. It will be my work in you to set you free from all disordered passions.”

C. On DivorceIt was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. At the time of the Lord Jesus, divorce was permitted in Israel, but a man had to follow certain rules. But the Lord says that to fulfill marriage law is to love your spouse. He teaches that when He begins to live His life in us, love for our spouse will grow; love for our children will deepen. Divorce won’t even occur to us! Who wants to divorce someone he loves?

If the Lord can help us to love our enemy, then He can surely cause us to love our spouse. Some of the deepest hurts can occur in marriage, but the Lord can heal all wounds and help us to forget the painful things of the past.

The Lord is blunt here. He simply refuses to recognize a piece of paper from a human judge approving a divorce. God is not impressed by a legal document and may well consider the couple married despite it.

The Lord says, “Come to me, bring me your broken marriage, your broken heart. Let me bring healing. Sometimes one of the spouses simply leaves or refuses to live in peace. In such a case, the Lord can heal by removing the loneliness and hurt that might drive one to a second “marriage” in which there is more trouble waiting. Let the Lord bring strength, healing, and a restoration of unity. He still works miracles and sometimes that is what it takes.

D. On OathsAgain you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one. The people of Jesus’ time had lots of legalism associated with oaths and lots of tricky ways of watering down the truth. The Lord says, just be a man or woman of your word. When Jesus begins to live His life in us, we speak the truth in Love. When we make commitments, we are faithful to them; we do not lie; we don’t “play games” with the truth. God is truth. As He lives in us, we become the truth, speak the truth, and live the truth. This is the gift that Jesus offers us here.

So, then, here are four pictures of a transformed human being. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is filled more with promises than with prescriptions, descriptions more so than prescriptions. The Lord is telling us what He can and will do for us.

I am a witness to the transformative power of Jesus’ grace and love. I promise you, brethren in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He will do everything He offers us here. It is already happening and is taking deep root in my life. How about you? Are you a witness?

This song, “Breathe in Me,” speaks of the power of Jesus to transform us and of our need for His grace.

You breathe in me, and I’m alive with the power of your holiness.
You breathe in me, and you revive feelings in my soul that I have laid to rest

Chorus: So breathe in me, I need you now.
I’ve never felt so dead within, so breathe in me. 

Maybe somehow you can breathe new life in me again

https://youtu.be/9k5Ep24Br7U

An Amusing Look at Familial Love in a Commercial

The commercial below shows a glimpse of the special kind of love that we call familial love. The Greeks called it storge (στοργή), and the Romans called it pietas. Both words refer to familial love, the natural or instinctual affection between parent and child. Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” depicting Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus with tenderness and sorrow, demonstrates beautifully the meaning of pietas.

Familial love has some unique qualities. For example, we don’t choose our family; we are born into it. We can choose friends, and for the most part we select them because they are agreeable to us. Not always so within the family! And when couples marry, although they establish their own nuclear family, each brings to the marriage his or her own family and extended family.

Because we don’t simply pick our family, some of God’s most important lessons can be found in family life. There is often a lot of tension in day-to-day family life due to all the different personalities and viewpoints, not to mention the different historical dynamics. But if there were no tension, there would be no change! The Lord surely means some of these tensions and differences in order to help complete us and purify us. We need to learn patience and show a lot of love and forgiveness within the family—but that’s good for us!

Familial love is especially oriented toward raising children and bringing us all to maturity. I remember once, in a fit of anger, telling my mother that she was kinder to strangers than she was to me. She responded, correctly I now see, “I’m not in the same sort of relationship with strangers as I am with you. I don’t the same obligations to them that I have to you. I’m your mother; it’s my responsibility to correct you and help you to grow up well.”

As we all know, no one can drive us crazier than our family members, yet at the same time no one can bless us the way they do. Familial love is a mysterious mix of fondness and frustration, conflict and care, shared memories and shared melodrama.

Ah, family! Can’t live it; can’t live without it. The song in this commercial beautifully puts it: “I don’t know why I love you, but I do.” Enjoy this glimpse at the ups and downs of familial love.

How Does Pride Grow in Our Life? Pondering a Teaching by St. Bernard of Clairvaux

022415So you think the idea of the “Twelve Steps” is new? Well, if you think you’ve got a new idea, go back and see how the Greeks put it, or in this case how the Medieval Latins put it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux identified twelve steps up the mountain of pride in his work Steps of Humility and Pride.

In today’s post, we focus on the Twelve Steps of Pride. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the Twelve Steps of Humility (from St. Benedict’s rule).  Below, I list the Twelve Steps of Pride briefly and then provide some commentary (it’s my commentary, so don’t blame St. Bernard :-)). Again, the list is his; the inferior comments are mine.

Note how the twelve steps grow progressively more serious and lead ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps tend to build on one another, beginning in the mind, moving to behavior, then to deepening attitudes of presumption, and ultimately bringing forth revolt and slavery. For if one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.

There are twelve steps up the mountain of pride. Think of these like escalating symptoms:

(1) Curiosity – Although there is such a thing as healthy curiosity, we often delve into things we ought not: other peoples affairs, private matters, sinful situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity to be annexed to pride is that so often we think we have a right to know things we do not. And hence we pridefully and indiscreetly look into things that we ought not: things that are not for us to know, or that are inexpedient and distracting for us, or perhaps that are beyond our ability to handle well. But casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged sense, we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not, as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.

(2) Levity of mind – Occupying our mind with inappropriate things grows, and we tend to become playful in wider matters. Here, too, a reasonable sense of humor and some recreational diversion have their place. A little light banter about sports or pop culture may provide momentary diversions that are relaxing. But too often, this is just about all we do, and we pridefully cast aside matters about which we should be serious, instead pursuing only light and passing things. In ignoring or making light of serious things pertaining to eternity and delving only into entertaining and passing things, we pridefully ignore things to which we ought to attend. Watching sitcoms and “reality” TV for hours with no time for prayer, study, instruction of children in the faith, caring for the poor, and so forth, shows a lack of seriousness that manifests pride. We lightly brush aside what is important to God and substitute our own foolish priorities. This is pride.

(3) Giddiness – Here, we move from levity of mind to the frivolous behaviors it produces, behaviors in which we overemphasize lightweight experiences or situations at the expense of more important things having to do with profundities. Silly, vapid, foolish, and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We pridefully maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We find plenty of time for frivolity but no time for prayer or study of Holy Truth.

(4) Boasting – Increasingly locked into our own little world of darkened intellect and foolish behavior, we begin to exult in baser, carnal activities and consider them a sign of greatness; we begin to boast of foolish things. To boast is to speak and think of oneself more highly than is true or reasonable. While we should learn to appreciate the gifts we have, we ought to recall that they ARE gifts given to us by God and often developed through the help of others. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) But the boaster thinks too highly of himself, either asserting gifts he does not have, or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride. In addition, as we have seen, our boasting tends to be about foolish and passing things.

(5) Singularity – Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves even greater. We are king, all right, king of an ant hill, rulers of a tiny speck of dust sweeping through the immensity of space. But as our pride grows, we too easily forget our dependence on God and others for who and what we are. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are all contingent beings, dependent on God and others. Further, we also too easily withdraw into our own little mind and world, tending to think that something is so just because we think it to be so. Withdrawing only to our own counsel, we discount the evidence of reality and stop seeking information and advice from others. The man who seeks only his own counsel has a fool for an adviser, and a prideful one at that! Singularity is pride. Yet this pride swells in us as our world gets ever smaller and more singular, focused increasingly only on our own self.

(6) Self-conceit – Here is described an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world gets ever smaller and our pride ever greater, our self-focus and delusion grows ever stronger and we become increasingly self-referential. Now, something is so merely because I say so. I am fine because I say so. Never mind that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, sanctity and sinfulness. Too easily we grow blind to just how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we find faults in others but fail to see them in ourselves. Further, we too easily seek to compare ourselves to others favorably, thinking, “Well, at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” But being better than a prostitute or a drug dealer is not the standard we must meet. Jesus is the standard we must meet. Rather than comparing ourselves to Jesus and seeking mercy, we compare ourselves to others on whom we look down, and give way to pride.

(7) Presumption – At this stage, even God’s judgements must cede to ours. I am fine and will be saved because I say so. This is a sin against hope, wherein we simply take salvation as granted and due to us no matter what we do. In effect, we already claim to possess what we do not. It is right for us to confidently hope for God’s help in attaining eternal life; this is the theological virtue of hope. But it is pride that makes us think we have already accomplished and possess what we in fact do not already have. It is further pride for us to set aside God’s Word, which over and over teaches us to walk in hope and seek God’s help as beggars rather than as possessors or as ones legally entitled to glory in Heaven. Presumption is pride.

(8) Self-justification – Jesus must now vacate the judgment seat because I demand His place. Not only that, He must also vacate the Cross because I don’t really need His sacrifice. I can save myself, and, frankly, I don’t need a lot of saving. Self-justification is the attitude that says I am able, by my own power, to justify (that is, save) myself. It is also an attitude that says, in effect, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” St. Paul says, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:3-4). But the prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable, even to God. The prideful person forgets that no one is a judge in his own case.

(9) Hypocritical confession – In Greek, the word hypocrite means “actor.” In certain settings, some degree of humility and acknowledgement of one’s faults is “profitable.” One can get “credit” for acknowledging certain faults humbly and calling oneself a “sinner.” But the prideful man is just acting. He’s merely playing a role and doing his part, more for social credit than out of real contrition or repentance. After all, he’s really not that bad off. But if posturing and playing the role of the humble and contrite sinner will get him somewhere, he’ll say his lines, play the part, and look holy. But only if the applause from the audience is forthcoming …

(10) Revolt – Pride really begins to get out of control when one revolts outright against God and His lawful representatives. To revolt means to renounce allegiance to or any sense of accountability or obedience to God, his Word, or His Church. To revolt is to attempt to overthrow the authority of others, in this case God and His Church. It is prideful to refuse to be under any authority and to act in ways that are directly contrary to what lawful authority rightly asserts.

(11) Freedom to sin – Here, pride reaches its near conclusion, as it arrogantly asserts and celebrates that it is utterly free to do what it pleases. The prideful man increasingly rejects any restraints or limits. But the freedom of the proud man is not really freedom at all. Jesus says, Whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). The Catechism echoes, The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin (Catechism 1733). But the proud man will have none of this, arrogantly asserting his freedom to do as he pleases, even while descending deeper and deeper into addiction and slavery.

(12) The habit of sinning – Here we see pride’s full and ugly flower: habitual sin and slavery to it. As St. Augustine says, For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity (Conf 8.5.10).

And thus we have climbed the twelve steps of the mountain of pride. It begins in the mind with a lack of sobriety, rooted in sinful curiosity and frivolous preoccupation. Next come frivolous behavior and excusing, presumptive, dismissive attitudes. Last come outright revolt and slavery to sin. The slavery results because if one refuses to serve God out of pride, he will serve Satan. Pride is now in full flower.

We have seen an escalation in these steps that is not far from an old admonition: sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

 

Consider Moderating Your Smartphone Usage for Lent

 

As Lent approaches consider that it is often easier to abstain from something entirely than to moderate its use. It’s also easier to measure the success or failure of abstinence. When I “give up something for Lent,” my approach is to stay away from it entirely during Lent. I don’t exempt Sundays or solemnities that occur in Lent. The “on again, off again” approach just doesn’t work for me.

However, there is something to be said about using Lent to moderate behavior as well. There are some things we cannot simply abstain from, and learning to moderate them is an important virtue to cultivate. Some folks give up using Facebook for Lent. That’s certainly small, manageable, and achievable, but for most of us unplugging our smart phones entirely during Lent is neither possible nor wise. It is in areas like this that working toward moderation might be an important Lenten practice.

Most of us will admit that we spend too much time staring at our phones. We allow them to interrupt us when we should not. During meetings, conversations, and family gatherings, the pesky devices buzz, ring, or light up and end up taking priority over the human relationships with those around us; we let the urgent eclipse the important.

Lent can be a time to learn to moderate our use of smartphones and limit their disruptions to our life. A number of things occur to me that can help in this regard and may be good Lenten practices to adopt.

  1. Decide how often each day you really need to check your device. If you’re honest about it, you probably don’t need to check it as often as you’re accustomed to doing. Suppose you set the number at four times a day; now you need to stick to that. At the designated times, check for messages, emails, and missed calls. Make a few quick follow-ups and then be done with it until the next time. Discipline yourself; resist the urge to break your rule. In between those times, live as if your device doesn’t even exist.
  2. Turn off all those sounds that alert you of a message or an email. They don’t just distract you; they annoy others around you and may sabotage your efforts to moderate your usage.
  3. Consider making use of the “Do not Disturb” function. This allows you to set up times during which the phone will not ring, and texts and other messages won’t light up the screen. In effect the phone, the phone is offline during these times. You can set up a list of contacts whose calls/messages will come through at all times; these would be people who might really need to get in touch with you immediately in an emergency.
  4. Limit the use of notifications and badges.  These appear at the top of the screen or collect on the home screen alerting you to all the latest messages and news.
  5. Don’t believe those “Breaking News” headers. It’s almost never that important.
  6. Even when you’ve silenced it, some things still cause the screen to light up. When you’re not using the device, put it away in a pocket or a drawer—or at least place it face-down.
  7. If you have a smartwatch, consider retiring it for Lent or at least disabling most of its interruptive features.
  8. There are certainly some functions to consider exempting from the four times a day rule. For example, many people need to use a GPS map application to get places. Perhaps you’re going to use the phone to call a friend or family member who needs consolation. Real conversations, even if not face to face, have their place in our life and can serve the good. Sometimes when in a meeting we need to look something up for the purpose of that meeting. Even though these situations might be exceptions, try not to cheat by using this time for non-essential purposes as well.
  9. Some people will be annoyed that you don’t answer their texts and emails right away, but such expectations are unrealistic, selfish, and rude. The kinds of quick replies many insist upon is unrealistic. It wasn’t that long ago that such constant availability wasn’t even possible. I didn’t even own a cell phone until I was about forty years old. Somehow, we managed to survive in those antiquarian days.

I would be grateful if you would add your ideas to this list. Lent is a good time to work on moderation.  It’s a lot harder than abstinence, but it’s a necessary skill to acquire. It requires a clear commitment to abide by the limits you set for yourself.   Good luck and good Lent!

Truth Precedes Love and Mercy

 

One of the problems with modern Western culture is the tendency to prioritize feelings and emotions over truth and reason. This has infected the Church as well; not offending often takes precedence over the unambiguous teaching of doctrine and the truth of the faith.

In his recent book, Christus Vincit, Bishop Athanasius Schneider writes,

The crisis in the Church today is due to a neglect of the truth and specifically a reversal of the order of truth and love. Today a new principle of pastoral life is being propagated in the Church, which says: love and mercy are the highest criteria and truth has to be subordinated to them. According to this new theory, if there is a conflict between love and truth, truth must be sacrificed. This is a reversal and a perversion in the literal sense of the word (p. 166).

This makes an important point about the order of truth and love. As the Bishop reminds us, truth precedes love. It also serves as the foundation of true and perfect love.

Bishop Schneider roots this insight not just in the nature of things but in the action of God. God first sends forth his truth in the Law, through the prophets, and, perfectly, through His Son, the Word made flesh. Then, having rooted and established us in the truth, He sends forth the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Holy Trinity most associated with love. God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us(Rom 5:5). Thus, truth precedes love and frames its demands and blessings.

The precedence of truth is important for another reason: today, love is often reduced to kindness. While kindness is one aspect of love, so are correction and rebuke. In our culture, if we do not kindly approve of anything others want to do, we risk being called hateful. Love is often equated with approval, with being “nice.”

This attitude that has infected the Church holds that upsetting people, hurting their feelings, or making them feel “excluded,” is almost the worst thing we can do. Never mind that the biblical Jesus upset more than a few people; he “excluded” those who “[could not] be [His] disciples” because they would not carry their cross and would not love Him above all others. In the Church today, we walk on eggshells to avoid giving offense and talk endlessly about being a “welcoming community.” In order to achieve this, too many clergy and leaders of every rank in the Church seem willing to deform the truth of our doctrine through selective teaching, silence, or even outright misrepresentation of what the Lord and Scriptures teach. Mercy is frequently taught without any reference to repentance—but repentance is the very key that unlocks the door to mercy! The Lord links the summons to repentance with the good news of salvation (e.g., Mark 1:5).

Of course, it is not our goal to offend, but the Gospel has a strange way of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted; each of us is a little of both. We cannot forget that we serve a Lord who was killed for what He said even though no one ever loved His enemies more than He.

We need to summon clergy, parents, and all leaders in the Church to beware of the problem so accurately described by Bishop Schneider.We must not ignore the proper order: truth precedes love and is its foundation. Things in the wider Church are often disordered, for by reversing the order, things become—by definition—disordered.

All of us must be more courageous in speaking the truth. When I am preaching on a difficult or controversial issue, I often prepare my listeners by saying, “I love you too much to lie to you.” I then go on to speak the truth of God’s teachings even if they are “out of season.” I do this not only to prepare them but to illustrate that the truth of the Gospel precedes and frames my love for them. I cannot really say I love them apart from the truth of the Gospel. To lie or to be silent as the wolf of deception devours them is not love; it is hate, or even worse, indifference. It is neither loving nor merciful to deprive people of the truth that can set them free.

Love and mercy are beautiful, but they must be preceded by the truth. I am grateful to Bishop Schneider for this reminder.

Pass the Salt and Turn on the Lights – A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel today the Lord describes metaphorically what a Christian is and what He expects of us. Note five things about what God says:

I. The Definitiveness of His Proclamation The text says, You are the Salt of the earth. … You are the light of the World. … But if salt goes flat it is good for nothing. … No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.

The Lord is definitive in two ways. First,He says, “You.” He is not talking just to people long ago or to the person next to you. He is not merely talking to your pastor or the Saints. He is talking to you. Youare salt. Youare light. You. It’s too easy to say, “Look at what the Lord is saying to those people long ago near the lakeside.” It’s not long ago; it’s now. It’s you.

The second way that the Lord is definitive isin saying that bothimages depend on us; if we are not salt and light then no one else will be and we will have utterly voided our worth.

The metaphor of salt: You are either salt or you are nothing; in fact, you are good for nothing. As Christians, we have signed up to be specialists. This means is that if we go off and do something else instead, we arenothing and are good for nothing. It’s an all-or-nothing scenario. Jesus says that if you have decided to be His disciple you are either going to do that or else be nothing. You may go on to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, laborer, or social worker, but the Lord has plenty of those (and so does the devil). Your first and only mission is to be a true and uncompromised Christian; everything else is mere commentary. You may be a great doctor, but if you don’t do it as a clear and visible Christian you are nothing. You may be a skilled social worker, but if you don’t do it as a Christian you are good for nothing. Any non-believer can be socially useful as a doctor or social worker, but only a Christian can be a Christian. If you don’t do “job one,” you are nothing. If you supply your children with every good thing, but do not act as a Christian witness to them and bring them to Christ, you are good for nothing. Any parent can provide his children with material things, but only a Christian can give them Christ. Got it? You’re either salt (a true Christian) or you are nothing.

The metaphor of light: The Lord says that you are thelight of the world, not merely alight. What this means is that if we do not shine, the world is darker; no one can take our place. If we don’t shine by living our faith and proclaiming it, the world is in darkness. Buddha can’t help. Mohamed can’t pull it off. Science and humanism can’t substitute. Either we are light or there is none. Some may call this arrogant, but I just call it Scripture. The Lord said it, not us. We are either light or else the world is dark. And if the world is getting darker, whose fault is that? We need not go far. Too many Christians fulfill Isaiah 56:10, which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. You may be an exception, but too many Christians are not.

Therefore, notice the definitive pronouncement the Lord makes here. We Christians are either with the Lord or we’re nothing. We’re either light or the world is in darkness.

II. The Dynamics of Salt– When Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, what are some of the lessons we can learn? Consider these four things:

Salt seasons.Christians are called to add spice to life, to bring beauty, joy, and hope to the world. Joy is the surest sign of a Christian. Even our keeping of the Commandments is a source of joy, as we experience God’s power to put sin to death in us and bring forth order, self-discipline, and holiness. Hope, too, ought to distinguish us from a world that is often cynical and thinks sin is inevitable. To this world we are not only to declare that the Commandments are possible and bring joy, but to demonstrate it in our lives. We are to be zesty, passionate, alive, and free from sin in Christ. Yet, sadly, we Christians are known more for what we are against. Too many Christians are not spicy; they do not really add flavor. They are more like bored believers, depressed disciples, fearful faithful, and frozen chosen. In our best moments, look what spicy things the faith has contributed: Art, music, churches, hospitals, universities, the scholastic and scientific methods, and holidays (a mispronunciation of Holy Days). Our tradition and Scriptural teaching of justice, mercy, love, and the dignity of the human person has blessed the world. Do you bring spice to the lives of others? Do you bring hope and joy? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you(1 Peter 3:15). That means that people notice hope in you! Do they? How?

Salt preserves. Before refrigeration, people often used salt to cure or preserve meat. The salt killed bacteria and other microorganisms that caused rot and decay. As Christians, we are called to prevent further decay in this sin-soaked world. The truth that we proclaim is meant to preserve people from the decay of sin and overindulgence. Chastity, justice, generosity, and the proclamation of the truth, are like salt that preserves this world from decay. We must be salt. If we are not, nothing else is. Youare the salt.

Salt heals. In the ancient world, salt was used on wounds. It helped to stop bleeding, killed bacteria, and prevented further infection. So, too, the Christian faith. Through our doctrinal and moral teaching, and our living of it, we are called to bring healing to this world, which is wounded by sin, strife, war, jealousy, anger, bitterness, retribution, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, greed, and countless other errors. The Word of God and His plan is a healing medicine for what ails this world.

Salt burns. Yes, salt stings when applied to wounds. We Christians aren’t just sugar and spice and everything nice. When salt is applied to wounds it burns and often brings out loud protest. The truth stings, too. The truth of the Gospel can be irritating to a world that is wounded by sin. But despite the protests of the world, the sting is a healing one. It is driving out the disease of the world and preventing further infection. Just because people protest the Church and howl in complaint at the truth of the Gospel does not mean we have done anything wrong. In fact, protests often show that we are doing exactly what we must.

III. The Destination of Salt The Lord says that you are the salt of the earth. He did not say that you are the salt of the Church. For salt to be effective it has to get out of the shaker! Too many Christians are bold in the pew but cowards in the world. They will speak of the faith in the relative security of the Church and among certain friends, but don’t ask them to preach to their spouse, their co-worker, or even their children; that’s too scary. And don’t even thinkabout asking them to knock on doors, or to go to the local mall and witness, or to stand in front of an abortion clinic.

Salt in the shaker is useless. It has to come out of the shaker in order to make any difference. You don’t salt salt. Witnessing to fellow Christians may have a limited benefit, but it is not really the true destination of salt. The salt has to go forth. When the priest or deacon says “The Mass is ended go in peace,” he might as well be holding up a salt shaker and shaking it!

It’s long past time for the salt (you and me) to go forth. Consider these observations about life in our country today:

    • In the last fifty years there has been an increase of more than a 500% in violent crime.
    • There are more than half a million abortions each year.
    • Since 1970, the divorce rate has quadrupled. The overall number of divorces may have declined recently, but it is due more to people not getting married in the first place.
    • More than 40% of children today do not live with both their biological parents. Since the 1970s, the percentage of children living in single-parent homes has tripled.
    • As the family has broken down, here is what has been happening to our young:
      • a quadrupling in juvenile arrests,
      • a 400% increase in births outside of wedlock,
      • one million teenage pregnancies annually,
      • three million teenagers treated annually for sexually transmitted diseases,
      • a 200% increase in the rate of teenage suicide,
      • a drop in average SAT scores,
      • two-thirds of high school students have experimented with illegal drugs.
    • In the schools, one cannot pray or mention religion, yet condoms are freely available and all sorts of aberrant and alternative lifestyles and philosophies are openly promoted.
    • Parental consent is required for a child to go on a field trip or to get an aspirin, but in many states abortion referrals can be made without parental consent.
    • Our neighborhoods are devastated by poverty, injustice, crime, and despair.

All of this has happened on our watch. It’s time for the salt to work. The world needs the salt to get out of the shaker and do its work of seasoning, purifying, and preserving.

The Designation of Pure lightYou are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.You don’t light light; it is the darkness that needs the light. Light is meant to be seen. There are too many undercover Christians, secret agent saints, and hidden holy ones. Jesus didn’t light our light so that we could hide it under a basket out of fear. He wants the Church, you and me, to shine. The Lord wants every Christian to be a light so that it’s like a city on a hill! He wants us to shine so that we can’t be hidden.

The Details of Light Jesus goes on to say, Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. Let’s consider four things about this light:

The CAUSE of the light – Notice that little word: “Let.” We are to yield to Christ, to allow Him to shine through us. He is the cause of our light. Let your light shine. There’s an old gospel song that says, “When you see me trying to do good, trying to live as a Christian should, it’s just Jesus, Jesus in me.”

The COST of the light– The light is to shine, but there is no shining without burning. Shining costs us something. It may be Christ’s light, but it shines through us. This means sacrifice. It means letting Him use you. It means not always sleeping when you want to. It means not just sitting at home and saying, “Ain’t it awful.” It means getting out and getting involved. It means getting “out there” and risking a few things. It means being visible, targeted, and identified with someone (Jesus) who is hated by many. And in a world that prefers the darkness to light (cf.John 3:19-21), it means being called harsh, out-of-touch, and hateful. There is no shining without burning.

The CONCRETENESS of the light –Letting our light shine is no mere abstraction. Jesus speaks of deeds. Shining involves concrete behavior. Your light shines by the way you live, the choices you make, the behavior you exhibit. It shines when Christians get married and stay married, stay faithful to their commitments, and are people of their word. Our light shines when we tell the truth instead of lying, live chastely instead of fornicating, are courteous and respectful instead of rude. It shines when we respect life, drive safely, and shun reckless and risky behavior. Our light shines when we clean up our language, give to the poor, and work for justice. It shines when we refuse to purchase pornographic, violent, or other degrading materials. Our light shines when we love instead of hate, seek reconciliation instead of revenge, and pray for our enemies instead of cursing them. It shines when we walk uprightly and speak the truth in love, without compromise. That’s when our light begins to shine.

The CONSEQUENCE of the light– God is glorified when our light shines. We do not act or get involved merely to vent our own anger or to fight for our own sake. We are light to glorify God. It is not about our winning, it is about God shining and being glorified. When we do get involved, too often we seek merely to win the argument rather than to glorify God. Often we act in order to garner praise rather than to have God glorified. We need to pray for good intentions, for it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The desired result is God’s glory not our glory.

OK, now pass the salt and turn on the light!