A reader recently alerted me to an article in Slate Magazine that is so bizarre that, as you read it, you think it is a joke, an April Fools farce, or someone illustrating absurdity by being absurd. Yet, as far as I can tell, the author means every word she says.

I must say, I have never read anything stranger in my life (except a couple things in Mad Magazine, but they actually were jokes). If you dare to read the excerpt below, prepare for your brain to explode.

And yet too, nothing I have read is such a perfect catalogue of the growing absurdities of the cultural radicals who are increasingly losing touch with reality. So bizzare and out there is this article that some of you will say, “Oh well, no really takes this seriously, why give publicity to such fringe lunacy?” But if that is your view I would ask to to think again. Even just ten years ago most people did not think the notion of “Gay marriage” would ever go anywhere. And yet. what was thought by most as a fringe lunacy then, is now celebrated by many and the “law of the land” in a growing number of States.

Watch out, things are getting dark very fast. Make sure you have a strong stomach before you read what follows. And beware, it may be coming soon to a maternity ward near you. An article such as this surely illustrates what St. Paul said of the unbelievers and sexually depraved of his day: they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. (Rom 1:21)

As usual the words of the author are in bold, black, italics. My comments are in plain, red text.  If you have a very strong stomach and a brain that does not easily explode you can read the full article here: Slate Magazine article

Imagine you are in recovery from labor, lying in bed, holding your infant. In your arms you cradle a stunningly beautiful, perfect little being. (being…? “Baby” is the usual term is it not? Consider this your first warning dear reader) Completely innocent and totally vulnerable, your baby (thats better)  is entirely dependent on you to make all the choices that will define their life for many years to come. (OK, here’s another sign of trouble. This woman has succumbed to fearing her own philosophy. Let me state for the record that it does not pertain to the human person to “define the life” of another person. That is what God does. This is a central error of the cultural radicals. They claim the right to “define life, and the lives of others. This woman is going to go on to describe her anxiety about the fact that a parent can “define the life” of their child. Again, her fear is based on a flawed and prideful notion she carries). 

Suddenly, the doctor comes in. He looks at you sternly (oh please), gloved hands reaching for your baby …“Is it really necessary?” [you ask]. ….The doctor flashes a paternalistic (oh please) smile. “No, no … but….This is a standard practice. People just wouldn’t understand why you didn’t go along with it,” he says, casting a judgmental (oh please) glance.

Look out here it comes…

…The imaginary [scenario] I described above is real. Obstetricians, doctors, and midwives (well at least its not all stern, paternalistic, judgmental male doctors!) commit this procedure on infants every single day, in every single country….without even asking for the parents’ consent, making this practice all the more insidious. It’s called infant gender assignment: When the doctor holds your child up to the harsh light of the delivery room, looks between its legs, and declares his opinion: It’s a boy or a girl, based on nothing more than a cursory assessment of your offspring’s genitals. It just gets stranger every day. Again this story is so insane that I was certain this article had to be a joke. But it seems the “woman” (can I call “her” that without giving offense?) is quite serious.

We tell our children, “You can be anything you want to be.” We say, “A girl can be a doctor, a boy can be a nurse,” but why in the first place must this person be a boy and that person be a girl? Your infant is an infant. (No, the sex of a baby in not incidental, it is integral, the infant IS male or IS female AND it is deeper than genitals, despite our author’s flippant reductionism. “Gender” or as most of us used to say the “sex” of a person goes all the way down to the DNA, and I would argue to the soul, which is the form of the body)….  As a newborn, your child’s potential is limitless (No it isn’t. Human beings are limited, contingent beings. We are not God. Here too, the strange notions of the cultural radicals are on full display. The simple fact is, no matter how unpleasant some think it is, human beings ARE limited and thus our potential is also limited. No matter how much our author might wish to leap a tall building in a single bound or be “genderless” (to use her term), she cannot. There are just some stubborn facts that get in the way of her pipe dream. Namely, we are not of unlimited potential and we ARE male or female. The world is full of possibilities that every person deserves to be able to explore freely, receiving equal respect and human dignity while maximizing happiness through individual expression. I wonder if our author would allow “offspring” to “explore freely” the owning of slaves, or the thrill of “maximizing happiness” through the “individual expression” of engaging in human trafficking or leading a genocidal campaign in a foreign land. Just asking. But her vague and wide open notions here allow such a question. Surely “she” (can I call her that) has some lines in mind that should not be crossed? But if she does, does it not mean she is limiting the “limitless potentials” she celebrates for every newborn?  

With infant gender assignment, in a single moment your baby’s life is instantly and brutally (Oh please) reduced from such infinite (there’s that word again)  potentials down to one concrete set of expectations and stereotypes, and any behavioral deviation from that will be severely punished (Oh please) —…That doctor (and the power structure behind him) plays a pivotal role in imposing those limits on helpless infants, without their consent, and without your informed consent as a parent. This issue deserves serious consideration by every parent, (no it doesn’t) because no matter what gender identity your child ultimately adopts, infant gender assignment has effects that will last through their whole life. I would like to say that I think the author is seeking to “limit my infinite potential” by trying to coerce me into ignoring the obvious, she is  “imposing” silliness on me and then (as the cultural radicals are more than capable of doing) threatening to “severely punish” any “behavioral deviation” by me against their politically correct agenda. In other words, doesn’t she want to break the very rules she announces? Does she not seek to impose an agenda on doctors and folks like me, whom she says commit the crime of imposing an agenda on others?

….Infant gender assignment might just be Russian roulette with your baby’s life. (Oh for heaven’s sake, such over the top rhetoric. But since she raised the issue of taking life I would like to point out that the cultural radicals are the one who have the body-count, in the hundreds of millions, through their advocacy and funding of abortion which really DOES kill babies). 

For the sake of thy sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Today we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than in Christian antiquity, to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In today’s brief post I’d like to review that idea and then add a new insight I gained recently from Fr. Francis Martin.

As we have noted before, our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved. And thus the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. In the typical mystery novel, some event (usually a crime) takes place and it is the job of the hero to discover the perpetrator of the crime or the cause of the problem. And if he does not do so he is considered a failure. And frankly, if word got out that, in a certain mystery movie, the mystery was not solved, there would be poor reviews and low attendance. Imagine if, in the TV series House, M.D., Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery—ratings would drop rather quickly.

But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Mystery is that which opens up the temporal meaning of an event and gives it depth. It also introduces a vertical dimension to an event and thus makes it a time of revelation, of unveiling. (Fr. Francis Martin says more about this in the video below.) In this sense, mystery is something we are meant to discover, thereby appreciating the depth and richness of both things and people. Because of this, mystery should be savored, respected, and appreciated.

However, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful as well as prideful. Though we are meant to discover and appreciate mysteries, we must remember that much more remains hidden to us than is understood by us. The claim that we can “solve” mysteries of this sort implies that we are capable of seeing them in all their fullness. This is prideful and, frankly, rude.

Why is this so?

One reason is that the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different than the worldly one. To the world, a mystery is something that is currently hidden, something that must be found and brought to light.  The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.

Further, in the Christian view, some or even most of what lies hidden ought to be respected as hidden and appreciated rather than solved. Surely we can seek to gain insight into what is hidden, but, we must do so respectfully. And we dare not say that we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For even when we think we know everything, we seem to forget that there are still greater depths beyond our sight. Thus mystery is to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved.

Perhaps an example will help. Consider your very self. You are a mystery. There is much about you that you and others know. Certainly your physical appearance is revealed. There are also aspects of your personality that you and others know. But, that said, there is much more about you that others do not see. Even many aspects of your physical nature are hidden. For example, no one sees your inner organs. And as for your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth are mostly hidden. Some of these things are hidden even from you. Do you really know and fully grasp every drive within you? Can you really explain every aspect of yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.

Now part of the respect that I owe you is to respect the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to appreciate that there are deep mysteries about you caught up in the very designs of God. To reduce you to something explainable merely by words is both disrespectful to you and prideful on my part. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have each other figured out.

Hence, mystery is to be both respected and appreciated. There is something delightfully mysterious, even quirky, about every human person. At some level we ought to grow in our appreciation of the fact that every person we know has an inner dimension, partially known to us, but much of which is hidden.  This gives each person a dignity and a mystique.

Another example of mystery is the Sacraments. In fact, the Eastern Church calls them the “Mysteries.” They are mysteries because while something is seen, much more is unseen, though very real. When a child is baptized our eyes see water poured and a kind of washing taking place. But much more, also very real, lies hidden. For in that moment the child dies to his old life and rises to a new one, in which all his sins forgiven. He becomes, in that moment, a member of the Body of Christ; he inherits the Kingdom and becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. Spiritually dead before, he is now alive and the recipient of all of God’s graces. These things are hidden from our eyes but they do in fact take place. We know this by faith. Thus there is a hidden, mysterious dimension to what we see. What we see is not all there is—not by a long shot. The mystery speaks to the interior dimension which, though hidden from physical sight, is very real.

So a mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to “get to the bottom of.” Rather, mysteries are to be appreciated, revered, respected, and accepted, humbly, as real. Some aspects of them are revealed to us but much more is hidden.

That said, neither are we to remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is deeper penetration into the mystery of who we are, the mystery of one another, the mystery of who God is, and the mysteries of creation, the Sacraments, and Holy Scripture. To be sure, as we grow spiritually we gain insights into these mysteries. But we can never say that we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever-deeper meanings that we should respect and revere.

In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin explains how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see or what our other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things.

Fr. Martin gives the example of  a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets another man, Jones, with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shake hands; so what? But what if I tell you that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah, now that is significant! Knowing that the handshake has an inner dimension to it helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular gesture. To the average observer this inner dimension is hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery revealed to us, we appreciate more than what appears on the surface. But still we cannot say, “Ah, I have fully grasped this!” For even knowing this background information, we have grasped only some of the mysteries of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner  lives of these two men. Mystery has a majesty all its own and we revere and respect it best by appreciating its ever-deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God Himself.

Here is a video in which Fr. Martin speaks about mystery:

Most Catholics are unaware of the fact that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. Their designs stretch all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our church layouts still follow that plan and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Our traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.

There is not time to develop these roots at length in this post today, though I hope to do so in a series of future posts.

Sadly, in recent decades there has been a casting aside of these biblical roots in favor of a “meeting house” approach to church design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith,  and follow biblical plans. Rather, the idea was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.

In some cases the liturgical space came to be considered “fungible” in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This thinking began to be set forth as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. And even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.

Thus churches began to look less and less like churches and more and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.

That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the meaning of church art as something more than merely that it is “pretty.” They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture as revealing the faith and expressing heavenly realities.

Take stained glass for instance. Stained glass is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.

Stained glass depicted biblical stories, saints, Sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. And so the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.

But stained glass also served another purpose: acting as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. Now among other things, Heaven is described in the Book of Revelation as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in the foundations of those walls:

One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).

Thus because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. And in the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.

The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now. In my own parish church, the floors are a green jasper color, and the clerestory walls, red jasper. On the clerestory are painted the saints gathered before the throne-like altar in Heaven (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7).

Yes, it’s amazing! I stand in my church and realize its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries: sursum corda (hearts aloft)!

The photo above is of the Sainte-Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel located in Paris, France.

Here’s a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ you are the Light of the world).

Here’s another video I created. Many of the photos in the video can be found here:

http://www.romeofthewest.com
http://viewfrombackpew.blogspot.com/


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And finally, if you are interested, here is a video I made some time ago featuring some of the architectural details of my own parish.
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trioThere’s an old saying in Latin: Omni trinum perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). It is a saying that emerges from the Trinitarian Theology but is meant somewhat playfully.  The other day, however, something was announced that definitely is not perfect in threes. A frightening piece in the BBC News describes three where there should be two, or, two’s company but three’s an unnatural crowd. Here are some excerpts from the original article along with my comments in plain red text. The full article is available here: Three’s a Crowd!

A public review into the three person IVF technique has been broadly supportive, says the Department of Health. In other words, this technique involves taking genetic material from one sperm and TWO eggs. That equals three parents in case you hadn’t noticed.

The move would be restricted to mitochondrial disease, affecting one in 6,500 UK babies born each year.  Now you know that what the radicals propose as a rare and unique procedure is going to be available to anyone who wants it for any reason within a few short years. Some of us are old enough to remember that abortion was initially proposed only for those rare cases in which the life of the mother was threatened. But that was just a placeholder in order to get the approval. Approval having been granted, now here comes everybody! And those who sought to keep the awful procedure safe, legal, and rare, are now proposing it as a kind of sacrament of the women’s movement to which everyone should have access. So let these latest “safe, legal, and rare” proponents be aware that many of us don’t believe their “thoughtful limitations” approach. 

[Mitochondrial Disease]  may lead to muscle weakness, blindness, and heart failure. Using the parents’ sperm and eggs plus an additional egg from a donor woman should prevent such conditions, say scientists at Newcastle University.  And here is the proverbial sheep’s clothing. I suppose that all of us would like to prevent every possible negative outcome in life. And all these nice people want to do is to prevent bad things from happening to other nice people. All this is praiseworthy but it does try to make a good thing out of tampering with DNA and turning human life into a technology or a “deliverable.” There are many unintended consequences that go along with such approaches. For example, how will this further affect the way we regard the disabled? As it is, up to 90% of babies with poor prenatal diagnoses are aborted. So beware—all of our “niceness” about trying to make life more pleasant and perfect has created pressure to abort what is regarded as imperfect life if we can’t “fix it.” It is hard not to describe the massive number of abortions of disabled children as a bloodbath and a kind of genocide. It all parades around under the pleasant guise of trying to alleviate suffering, but at the end of the day our insistence on perfect outcomes take us to some pretty dark places. 

Any children born using the procedure would not be able to find out the identity of the mitochondrial donor. Why not?  Whom are the proponents trying to protect and why?

Opponents say it is unethical and could set the UK on a “slippery slope” to designer babies … Dr. David King, director of Human Genetics Alert said: “Looking back 15 years from now in the midst of a designer baby marketplace, people will see this as the moment when the crucial ethical line was crossed. Exactly!

Well, there you have it. Heather has three parents. Why should this be opposed? For many of the same reasons we must oppose in vitro fertilization. (Since most of you, my readers, are Catholic, I put forward here a religiously based argument. I will leave arguments based on natural law to others.) We have gotten into the very bad habit of trying to play God when it comes to human life. Clearly the most egregious example of this is abortion. There, we play God by sentencing innocent life to death. This is life that God has created (cf Jer 1:4; Psalm 139). In effect, we snatch the life from God’s creative hands and say, “This shall not be.” But we also play God by insisting that infertile couples have a right to conceive and bear children when nature and nature’s God have said no. With in vitro fertilization we go beyond assisting fertility and then depending on the marital act. Rather, we sideline the God-given manner for conception and turn it into a technology in a petri dish. This, too, is a way of telling God, “This shall not be” (in reference to infertility and normal conception). There are many problems with in vitro fertilization that have caused the Catholic Church to forbid it.

  1. Life as a consumer product - In IVF, a fertilizable ovum is removed from a woman’s ovary and put in a petri dish (the Latin for dish is vitrum), to which a few concentrated drops of sperm are added. This separates human conception from the marital act, its sacred and proper place, where God acts to bestow life.  IVF places conception in the laboratory, where man controls the process, treating it as a technology and as a consumer product rather than as part of a mystery of fruitful love caught up in the marital embrace and the love God.
  2. No person and no couple has a “right” to a child. A child is a person with rights; he or she is not merely an object, a possession, or a technological product.
  3. God is Wrong! From a faith perspective, IVF refuses to accept God’s “failure” to act in accord with the wishes of the couple to conceive and so tries to remove Him from the decision. God may be teaching something to them through their infertility. Perhaps He wants them to adopt; perhaps He has special work for them to do or a cause to which He wants them to be devoted. But IVF suspends such discernment and forces the solution.
  4. There is a strong bias today toward caring only about what is best for adults. This is widespread in our culture. If adults are unhappy they can divorce regardless of what this does to children, who have no legal voice or say in the matter. Further, if a child comes at an unexpected or inopportune time, many just abort. Again, it is the adults who matter. In IVF there is also some of this thinking since what seems to matter most is that the adults want a baby. Never mind that IVF may encourage us to think of life as a technology to be exercised at our whim rather than as a sacred mystery. Never mind that imperfect embryos are discarded or frozen. Never mind that many IVF procedures lead to selectively aborting later on. Never mind that IVF children are more often born prematurely and suffer higher rates of birth defects. What matters is what adults want and demand.
  5. Fix the disabled … or else! - In recent years a kind of genocide has been occurring against the disabled. Because we can often predict deformities and hardships and because we “can” abort them, we do—in huge numbers. The attitude is that imperfect or disabled life must go. Today, as many as 90% of babies with a poor prenatal diagnosis are aborted. Some might argue that this procedure will help prevent disabled or imperfect babies. But what we are really doing is insisting on our “right” to be without imperfect babies. And we seem to be willing to go to any lengths (including three parents) to achieve it. Pretty soon, having babies outside “the factory” will be frowned upon and insurance policies will refuse to care for handicapped children born in the “traditional” way. More abortions, more bloodshed is sure to follow our insistence on perfect babies.
  6. Discarding Embryos - As already stated, it is standard practice to fertilize more eggs than are needed. This is because not all embryos survive. If “too many” embryos survive, the rest are either discarded (i.e., killed), mined for stem cells (i.e., killed), or frozen for future use.

For reasons such as these, the Church considers IVF to be gravely sinful.

You can read more here: INSTRUCTION ON RESPECT FOR HUMAN LIFE IN ITS ORIGIN AND ON THE DIGNITY OF PROCREATION.

There are certain procedures allowable to Catholics that enhance fertility but do not remove or replace the marital act. But for the reasons stated above, IVF is far beyond what is approved.

So here we are with another cultural showdown. IVF and abortion have this in common: they both involve playing God and saying that I have a right over life, that I call the shots. Further, though many of the proponents of IVF services may choose not to think so, discarding embryos is killing; it is aborting. Freezing them is a cruel delay and a further indignity. Imagine keeping children on ice until their arrival is more convenient. And what if they never become convenient? The “big chill” continues until they become stale (i.e., dead). Disclaimer: There are likely many well intentioned couples who may never have thought through all of this, or have been misguided, or are just so desperate for a child that they’ll do almost anything. But in the end, IVF is problematic and morally wrong for the reasons outlined above. We live in times in which too many think that they can just have whatever they want. Many think that if we can do something, we should be free to do it. But there are other things at stake than just what people want. There is reverence for the sacred mystery of life; there is concern for the common good; there is the matter of what happens to imperfect or “superfluous” embryos; there is the matter of what happens to the disabled; and finally, there is the matter of where this will ultimately lead. This latest proposal goes another hideous step forward by tinkering with life in such a way that now three parents will be involved in the petri dish. Who’s your Daddy? Or in this case, who’s your Mommy? Natural family ties will be affected. And don’t tell me that there won’t be lawsuits if two mothers start to fight over the baby. Even Solomon would have a hard time sorting all this out!

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works (Psalm 139:13-14).

The Gospel today asks a fundamental question: “What is it that you value most?”  In other words, “What is it that you most want?” Now be careful to answer this question honestly. We tend to answer questions like this the way we think we “should” answer them rather than genuinely. But when we’re with the doctor (and Jesus is our doctor) the best bet is to answer honestly so that we can begin a true healing process. And the fact is, we all need a heart transplant. That is, we need a new heart, one that desires God and the things waiting for us in heaven more than any earthly thing.

So let’s take a look at this Gospel, which sets forth in three fundamental movements the Picture and the Price of the Kingdom of God along with a Peril that reminds us that we have a choice to make.

I. The Picture  - The Gospel uses three images for the kingdom, two of which we will look at here, and the third of which we will examine later. The first two images are that of the buried treasure and the pearl. Both of these images have some significance elsewhere in the Scriptures and studying them will be helpful in fine-tuning our understanding of the gift of the Kingdom, which Jesus is discussing.

A. Buried Treasure – The concept of treasure (buried treasure in this case) is mentioned elsewhere by Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19-21).

Hence although we tend to think of treasure as a bunch of “stuff,” this image of treasure that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel is more of an image for the heart and for our deepest desires, because our treasure is linked to our heart. One of the greatest gifts that God offers us is the gift of a new heart which values most what God is offering, namely, holiness, and God himself. One of the most fundamental prophetic texts of the Old Testament announces what Jesus has fulfilled:

Oh, my people, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Thus, the great treasure of the Kingdom of God gives us a new heart, for by choosing this treasure our heart is changed. To have a new heart is to see and experience our desires change. We are less focused on passing, worldly things and more interested in the lasting treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven. We begin to love what and whom God loves. We begin to love holiness, justice, chastity, goodness, righteousness, and truth. We begin to love our spouse, family members, the poor, and even our enemies the way God loves them. Our hearts become alive with joy and zeal for the Kingdom of God and an evangelical spirit impels us to speak what we believe and know to be true.

Yes, the buried and hidden treasure of the Kingdom of God unlocks our heart and brings new life coursing through our veins and arteries, through our very soul. In choosing this treasure we get a new heart. For where our treasure is, there also will be our heart.

B. Pearl - The second image, the pearl, comes from the Wisdom tradition, in which holy Wisdom is likened to a pearl. And here, too, is described one of the most precious gifts of the Kingdom of God: the gift of a new mind through holy Wisdom. And what is the new mind? It is a mind that begins to think more and more as God thinks, a mind that shares His priorities and His vision, a mind that sees as God sees; it is the mind of Christ (cf 1 Cor 2:16). With this new mind we see through and reject worldly thinking, worldly priorities, and worldly agendas. We come to rejoice in the truth of God and to grasp more deeply its beauty and sensibility. What a precious gift the new mind is, thinking with God and having the mind of Christ!

So here are two precious manifestations of the Kingdom of God: a new heart and a new mind, which is really another way of saying, “a whole new self.” God is offering us a new life, a new self, a complete transformation. This, then, leads to the next movement of the Gospel.

II. The Price - What are these offerings of the Kingdom worth and what do they ultimately cost? The answer is very clear in today’s Gospel: they cost, and are worth, EVERYTHING. Regarding the hidden treasure and the pearl, the text says that both men went and sold all they had for these precious offerings. They were willing to forsake everything for them.

Now be careful not to reduce this Gospel to a moralism. Notice that these men were eager to go and sell, to forsake, everything else. They did this not so much because they had to, but because they wanted to. They wanted to pay the price and were willing to do so even with eagerness because they were so enamored of the glory they had found. And here is the gift to seek from the Lord: a willing and eager heart for the Kingdom of God, so eager that we are willing to forsake anything and everything for it.

For ultimately the Kingdom of God does cost everything and we will not fully inherit it until we are fully done with this world and its claims on our heart.

But the gift to seek from the Lord is not that we, with sullen faces and depressed spirits, forsake the world as if we were paying taxes. No! The gift to seek is that we, like these men, be so taken by the glory of God and His kingdom that we are more than willing to set aside anything that gets in our way, that we should be so eager for the things of the Kingdom that the world’s intoxicating and addictive trinkets matter little to us and the loss of them means almost nothing.

Do you see? This is the gift: a heart that appreciates the true worth of the Kingdom of God such that no price is too high. Scripture says elsewhere:

  • What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:8).
  • For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17).
  • I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).
  • No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).
  • But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).

Yes, the Kingdom of God is more than worth any price we must pay, and ultimately we will pay all for it. Pray for an eager and willing spirit that comes from appreciating the unsurpassed worth of the Kingdom!

III. The Peril - The final movement contains a warning about judgment. For ultimately we either want the Kingdom of God or we don’t. Hence the Lord speaks of a dragnet that captures everything (and this is the summons all have to come to the judgment). Those who want the Kingdom and have accepted its value and price will be gathered in. Those who do not want the Kingdom of God and do not accept its value will be escorted off.

For there are some who do not value the Kingdom. They may desire Heaven, but it is a fake “heaven” of their own making, not the real Heaven of the fullness of the Kingdom of God. The true Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. The Kingdom of God includes things like forgiveness, mercy, justice, chastity, the dignity of life, love of the poor, love of one’s enemies,  and the celebration of what is true, good, and beautiful.  The Kingdom of God has God, not me, at its center.

Now there are many who neither want nor value some or even most of these things. When the net is drawn in, the decisions are final. And though we may wish for a magic, fairy tale ending in which the opponents of the Kingdom suddenly come to love it, God seems to say, quite clearly, that at the judgement one’s decision for or against the Kingdom is final and fixed forever.

An old song says, “Better choose the Lord today, for tomorrow, very well might be too late.” Thus we are warned: the judgment looms and we ought to be earnest in seeking a heart from the Lord that eagerly desires the Kingdom and appreciates its worth above all people and all things. In the end you get what you want. Either you will have chosen the Kingdom or not.

So pray for a new heart, one that values the Kingdom of Heaven above all else. We ought to consider ourselves warned.

The Gospel today is about what we truly value, in three movements.

This song says, “You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.”

Photo Credit AIRO via Creative Commons

Recent news has brought to the forefront the great cost of war. During the very time I was in the air flying to the West Coast, another airliner was shot down over Ukraine. Perhaps it was a foolish accident, perhaps not. Regardless, 300 people who had no real involvement in the military conflicts between Ukraine and Russia were killed.

Some say that this is what happens when the USA sleeps. Like it or not, we are the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and if we don’t take an active role in world conflict this is what happens.

Other voices counsel that we should stay out of other nations’ affairs and regional conflicts that date back centuries. I leave it to you to decide where you think our mission lies.  At Walter Reed, I have seen men with missing limbs, with brain injuries, men who went to save the Iraqis from themselves. Now it seems that little was accomplished.

This is not a political blog or a military one. However, it seems clear to me that every course of action or lack thereof has its consequences; the devil will extract his pound of flesh either way.

But spiritually we are more answerable for the current state of affairs. The cauldron of Europe that exploded in two World Wars and a long cold war that is lately being reinvigorated happened in “Christian” Europe. Further, the widespread abandonment of the Faith in Europe does not bode well for anyone. We in the West love to cite the disarray and corruption in places like Africa. But Europe has been the site of bloodbaths for thousands of years. And at least the last two thousand years of bloodshed have happened on our watch—in a theoretically Christian Europe. In the past several decades we have seen an utter moral rebellion in the wake of a century of European war, both hot and cold. Yes, we who would preach Christ cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility for the condition the world.

When I saw the commercial below I was struck by a twinge of guilt. The words of a poem by William Butler Yeats came to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yes, something struck me. In the commercial anarchy, destruction, injustice, violence, and pure chaos are shown. And yet all the while our superhero, with his “Bat Phone” screeching in the background signaling a call for help, is wholly distracted, mindlessly flipping through the channels unaware that the world around him is descending right into Hell. He is turned inward, wholly focused on his own little world.

Is this what we are like? Are we the superhero slouching on the couch while the world and Western culture descend into a maelstrom? We see the things of which Yeats wrote: lost innocence, the blood-dimmed tide of the 20th Century, perhaps more than a hundred million people put to death in war and for ideological reasons, and moral anarchy swept in on the four horsemen of the apocalypse—relativism, secularism, individualism, and the sexual revolution.

And while the wicked were marching with passionate intensity, the good were largely asleep, lacking the intensity for battle. All around us are divorce, abortion, teenage pregnancy, skyrocketing numbers of sexually transmitted diseases, broken families, increasing lack of self-control and discipline, declining school test scores and graduation rates, inability to live within our means, rising poverty rates for children, increasing drug and alcohol addiction, plummeting Church attendance—the list could go on and on.

And where have we been as a Church, as Christians in a world gone mad? Where, for example, was the Church in 1969, when the “no-fault divorce” laws began to be passed? It would seem we were inwardly focused: moving furniture around in our sanctuaries, tuning our guitars, and having endless debates about liturgy, Church authority, why women can’t be ordained, etc. These are not unimportant issues, but while we were being rather wholly focused on them we lost the culture.

Yes, it happened on our watch. I am now past the age of fifty and I cannot say that it is all the fault of the previous generation. Even during my relatively short lifetime, I have seen the world as I knew it largely swept away, especially in terms of family life. And now it is up to me to try to make a difference.

How about you? It will take courage and an increasing conviction to live the Catholic faith openly. No more of this “undercover Catholic” stuff; no more of the desire to fit in and be liked. It is long past midnight for our culture, our families, and our children.

In the commercial there is something very wrong with the scene: a superhero ignores the cries for help as the phone screeches its warning. It’s time for our superhero to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work. It is interesting to note that the movie he is watching shows a wolf being set loose. Jesus says, Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matt 7:15). Indeed many wolves speaking of (false) tolerance and other pleasantries have badly misled and spread error: calling “good” what is sinful and misrepresenting the biblical tradition.

Well, fellow superheroes, the last time I checked, we are supposed to be salt and light for the world. It’s time—long past time—to bring Christ’s power back to this world. It’s time to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work.

Don’t just watch culture; direct it.

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_ApostlesIn the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which we are currently going through in daily Mass, there are a number of parables that Matthew seems to have collected from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Among them are the parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and tares, the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the yeast.

Another structure employed by Matthew, likely recording the actual practice of Jesus, is the mention of  “the house.” Chapter 13 begins with Jesus going “out of the house,” and speaking to the crowd in parables. Midway through the chapter (verse 36), Jesus goes back “into the house” and explains the parables to his disciples at their request. While the exact location of “the house” is not mentioned, it seems reasonable to assume that it is Peter’s house in Capernaum, which was Jesus’ home base for his ministry in Galilee.

With this background we do well to consider a four-staged teaching of Jesus on the centrality of the Church in evangelization, catechesis, and understanding the Word of God.

I. The Place of Pedagogy –  Plainly put, the Church is the place of pedagogy, the place of teaching and experiencing the deeper mysteries of Christ.  While Jesus’ teachings and words may in fact go out among the multitudes, it is necessary to come “into the house” in order for them to be fully understood and explained at length. Outside the house there are parables, snippets, riddles, and puzzling stories, if you will. But inside the house there is teaching that respects the subtleties and extended meanings of the sayings, parables, and utterances of Jesus.

And if we can allow for the identity of the house as being that of Peter, then we are not just talking about any old house, or any gathering place. We are talking about Peter’s house, the Church.

More on this in a moment, but first let us consider what takes place “outside the house” and why it is important to bring people “inside the house.”  To do this we must ponder the paradoxical quality of comparables, and the sad picture painted by Jesus of the condition of many.

II. The Paradox of Parables – Early in Matthew 13 the disciples approached Jesus, who was still outside the house, and asked him, Why do you speak to the crowds in parables? (Matthew 13:10)

Their question may puzzle us just a bit. For the fact is, we moderns tend to think of parables as ingenious devices by which to teach. And it is true that parables can and  do contain memorable teachings, at least to us who have had 2000 years to ponder them. Thus, we expect Jesus to answer the disciples simply by saying, “I use parables in order to teach them.”

But the question of the disciples presupposes another dimension of parables less familiar to us, who have had these many centuries to ponder their meaning. And Jesus understands the puzzlement of the disciples, who see parables as a sort of inferior brand of teaching, and he will answer them accordingly.

What is inferior about parables?  Stated plainly, the aspect of parables that we often miss is that  parables are largely like riddles that have to be figured out by those who hear them for the first time. Consider the following “parable” by me and note to some degree how it is like a riddle.

A man went out to clean his car. And as he went, he took with him a bucket, water, and soap, along with some sponges. And as he washed the car, some dirt came off immediately; some dirt came off only after scrubbing. But some dirt remained even after he was finished. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear this.

Note how this parable has something of the quality of a riddle. In some sense, you know what I’m talking about, but you’re not exactly sure. The parable makes you think, but you may well struggle to apply it perfectly to your life or to your situation. If a group were to hear me relate this, people might become rather divided over the root meaning of the parable. While most to present might understand dirt as a metaphor for sin, many would struggle to understand the fact that some of the dirt remained, even after the washing. Is this concupiscence? Is it impenitence? Is the man who washes the car Jesus? If so then why did he fail to get all the dirt off? Perhaps then the man is a human who can overcome some but not all of his sins. Debates and opposing camps might well set up among those who heard my parable.

And thus parables are a bit like riddles: ultimately most of them need some explanation. As already noted, most of us moderns miss this aspect of the parables of Jesus because they have been explained to us for over 2000 years now. But of themselves, parables, like riddles, need some explanation.

And thus the question of the Apostles as to why Jesus speaks to the crowds so often in parables is both poignant and instructive for us. The parables, indeed the whole of the Word of God, cannot simply be presented or announced to the multitudes;  they require extensive teaching and careful explanation. The parables and all the Word of God cannot be simply published as a book. It is a Church book and must be read within the Church and in the context of the lived experience and faith of the Church.

Therefore, Jesus goes on to say to his Apostles in response to their question, The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them, it has not been granted (Matthew 13:11). So inside the house there is instruction, and knowledge as to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is granted there; outside the house this knowledge is not granted. In the house of the Church there is knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but outside there is not. And this leads us to the third point that Jesus makes.

III. The Picture that is Painted – Jesus goes on to paint a rather sad portrait of those who are “outside the house.” His portrait is not merely a picture of their condition but it also serves to explain why most of them remain outside the house.

Jesus says of those outside, They look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand (Matt 13:14) He goes on further to quote Isaiah in reference to them saying, Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, lest they hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, so that I would heal them (Matt 13:15; Is 6:9-10).

And here Jesus describes the sad condition of many who willfully remain outside the house. And the number today is large. Being outside the house, they hear the Word, the utterances and positions of the Church and Scripture, but they do not understand. Frankly, most do not want to understand.

And being outside the house, and thus lacking understanding, they ridicule God’s Word.  They often misquote it and/or  quote it out of context. Further, they ridicule the Church, speaking of her as being out of touch, old-fashioned, intolerant, bigoted, etc.

Much of this dismissive arrogance toward the Word of God is explained by the fact that many in the world simply do not understand the Word of God.  They do not understand it because they are outside the house, outside the Church.

Perhaps a brief reflection on the meaning of the word “understand” will help explain why this is so. The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίουσιν (syniousin), which more literally means to put the pieces of something together, to synthesize  (sýn, “together with” + hiēmi, “to put, or send”) . There is a modern expression, “to connect the dots.” So, “understanding” is an act of knowledge whereby one patiently acquires the many pieces that make up a teaching and, almost like a puzzle, put the pieces together and see the picture emerge. This is understanding.

One can see that with faith, as with any discipline of knowledge, long study and patience are often required in order to master the material, in order to understand it properly. One does not pick up the discipline of particle physics through sound bites, but rather through long, careful study of all the elements, which are gradually pieced together and bring understanding to the one who masters the material. It is this way with faith as well.

Thus many outside the house, outside the Church, lack understanding of our teachings because, they have not undertaken the careful and lengthy study required. This struggle is common even to many inside the Church. Too many today, both inside and outside the house, want to reduce the faith to sound bites, to bumper sticker slogans, and so forth. Yet the faith does not consist of a collection of clever sayings, but rather it is a whole discipline of life, mind, and heart that must be mastered after careful study.  Through this study one approaches understanding through syniousin (the synthesis that is understanding), by collecting the pieces, connecting the dots, and seeing the picture emerge.

Jesus sadly notes that this is a discipline many are not interested in shouldering. For many this is too much work, and the whole topic is not that interesting to them anyway. If they go to Church at all, they want simply to be entertained with clever little stories, quick sayings, and so forth. But to do the careful work of a disciple, to study the teachings of Jesus over a lifetime and come to understanding is too much work for many.

So Jesus describes them  as having hearts that are gross, that is, heavy and weighed down with passions and preoccupations. Elsewhere God describes us as being stubborn and stiff-necked, as having necks of iron and foreheads of brass. It is a lamentable diagnosis of so many in the human family. It is something that can only be remedied through the power of grace, leading us to fulfill the fourth aspect of what Jesus teaches here.

IV. The Prescription for the Problem - To his Apostles, Jesus turns and says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear (Matthew 13:16). This is more than mere flattery; these words of Jesus’ amount to a prescription for the problem.

In effect, the Lord announces that the problem of the lack of understanding is resolved by coming “into the house,”  coming into the Church with open ears and heart, listening carefully and with faith, and having our eyes open to behold the mysteries of God. This takes place “in the house,” in the Church.

This is exemplified in verse 36: Then Jesus left the crowds, and went into the house; and his disciples approached him saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field’ … (Mat 13:36). Jesus then goes on to teach at some length as to the meaning of the parable which, outside the house, seemed to them as a kind of riddle. But now, inside the house, it is carefully explained.

Therefore Christ’s prescription for our problems—our lack of understanding, our spiritual deafness and blindness, our darkened intellect—is to come into the house, into the Church, where there will be careful and persistent teaching. It is not enough to have parables and proclamations, to have a biblical text sitting on a bookstore shelf that someone opens. Alone, this is insufficient, though it may have something of an inviting quality, something of the quality of the seed. But more than proclamations, more than parables, there must be what the Scriptures call didache (teaching).

And thus in our evangelization we cannot simply put information, tracts, or paperback Bibles into people’s hands. We must invite them “into the house,” where Jesus teaches; we must invite them to Peter’s house, the Church.

Put another way, we must invite them into a life-changing transformative relationship with Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus is found in the Church, in Peter’s house, where He teaches and celebrates the mysteries for us. And the Church contains the whole Christ, not the head only, but also the members of His body, us, the Church.

To evangelize is not simply to get the Word out, although that is a good beginning. Without understanding, many fall away from the Word, or even outright ridicule it. To evangelize is to invite people to a lifelong walk with Jesus in His Church, head and members together. True evangelization summons everyone “into the house,” where Jesus is found and is teaching; it summons all into the Church.

To those who say, “Yes,” comes the blessing of Jesus: But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. 

In modern times, we tend to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to circumstances and happenstance. And thus we think that happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way and quantity we like.  If we can just get enough money and creature comforts, we’ll be happy and have a better sense of mental well-being.

And yet it remains true that many can endure difficult external circumstances while remaining inwardly content, happy, and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content and are beset with great mental anguish, anxiety, and unhappiness. Ultimately, happiness is not about happenstance or circumstances; it is an “inside job.”

St. Paul says,

For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want (Phil 4:11-12).

Note that Paul wrote these words from jail, so these are not merely “throwaway” lines.

Earlier in the same chapter he tells us the “secret” to this contentedness, joy, and mental well-being whatever the circumstances. He lays out a kind of “five-point plan” that, if worked, will set the stage for a deeper inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review St. Paul’s five-point plan. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterative list, though the substance is my own reflection.)

Here is the full text of St. Paul’s five-point plan for better mental health:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:4-9).

Now let’s examine each of the five points.

Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord - The text says, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

Of supreme importance in the Christian life is to request, receive, and cultivate the gift of the presence of the Lord. Too easily, we turn inward and forget God’s presence. To become more consciously and stably aware of God’s presence is to be filled with joy and peace.

Note that although the text mentions joy (χαίρω) it also mentions moderateness. The Greek word used here is ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes), which means to be gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, or moderate. Epieíkeia relaxes unnecessary strictness in favor of gentleness whenever possible. Such an attitude is common when one is joyful and unafraid.  By contrast, an unbending and unyielding attitude often bespeaks fear.

There are of course times to insist upon precision and to not give way easily. But often there is room for some leeway and for the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit, which are gifts of the presence of God, can often allow for this leeway and presumption of good will. There is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to try to control and manipulate conversations and outcomes in order to win on every point.

As we become more aware of God’s presence and thus are more serene and less conflicted within, we no longer need to shout or to win in every moment and on every point. We can insist on what is true while still expressing ourselves more moderately and serenely. We can stay in the conversation, but be content to sow seeds rather than insisting on reaping every harvest of victory.

Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God and reaping the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits are the first step toward greater contentment and improved mental health.

Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord – The text says, Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition … present your requests to God.

There are very few things as destructive to our mental health as worry. Worry is like sand in a machine. It not only hinders the working of the machine, but damages it as well.

But simply being told not to worry isn’t very helpful. In this case, St. Paul is not simply saying, “Don’t worry.”

He has already laid a groundwork for the diminishment of worry in telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. Some years ago, when I was a small boy, my Father left for the Vietnam War. During the year he was away, I spent many anxious nights worrying about a lot of things. But when my Father returned my fears went away. Daddy was home; everything was all right.

And for all of us, to the degree that we really experience that God is near so do many of our fear recede. My own experience is that as my awareness of God’s presence has grown my anxieties have significantly diminished.

Paul also says that the power of God is only a prayer away. Here, too, I and many can testify that God has a way of working things out. He may not always come when you want, or handle things exactly the way you want, but when I look back over my life and think things over I can truly say that God has made a way for me. And whatever my struggles and disappointments, none of them has ever destroyed me. If anything, they have strengthened me.

Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. Ponder deeply how He has delivered you in the past, how He has made a way out of no way, and how He has drawn straight with crooked lines.

Let the Holy Spirit anoint your memory to make you aware of God’s saving power in your life and recall how God has delivered you. These memories give us serenity when we consider how prayer is both effective and an ever-present source of power.

So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness, just goes away to the degree that we experience that God is present and that His power is only one prayer away.

And here is the second step to greater mental health: knowing by experience that God can and will make a way.

Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord – The text says, “… with thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving is a way of disciplining the mind to count our blessings. Why is this important? Because too easily we become negative. Every day about a trillion things go right and only a handful of things go wrong. But what do we tend to focus on? You bet—the few things that go wrong. This is a form of mental illness that feeds our anxiety and it arises from our fallen nature.

Gratitude disciplines our mind to count our blessings. As we do this, we begin to become men and women of hope and of confidence. Why? Because what you feed grows. If you feed the negative it will grow. If you feed the positive it will grow. And the fact is that God richly blesses us every day; we need only open our eyes to see it.

Step three is disciplining our fallen minds to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals us and gives us great peace and serene minds.

Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord - The text says, And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

As we begin to undertake these steps, our mental outlook and health improves. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that not only will this serenity be present, but it will “guard” (or as some translations say, “keep”) our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words, as this serenity grows it screens out the negativity of this world and the demons of discouragement. Having this peace allows us to see the Lord, and seeing the Lord deepens that peace … and the cycle grows and continues!

It has been my experience that not only has the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years gone away, but also the serenity I now increasingly enjoy makes all that anxiety unlikely to return. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.

Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord – The text says, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.

And as this serenity, this sense of well-being, this mental health comes to us, St. Paul finally advises us to follow a kind of “maintenance plan” wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is Godly, true, good, and beautiful.

While it may be true that we need to stay up with the news of the world, be careful of too steady a diet of the 24/7 news cycle. They focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and adversarial. If it bleeds it leads. Too much of that and you’re unsettled before you know it. Limit your portions of this and focus on the greater, better, and lasting things of God. Ponder His plan, His truth, His glory, His priorities.

An old song says, More about Jesus would I know, more of his saving mercy show, more of his saving fullness see, more of his love who died for me.

Yes, more about Jesus and less of this world. How can we expect to keep our mental health and serenity on a steady diet of insanity, stinking thinking, wrongful priorities, endless adversity, darkness, chaos, and foolishness?

Do you want peace? Then reflect on the Lord’s plan for you.

So, then, here are some steps to better mental health. Recognize the presence of the Lord, call on His power, be grateful for His providence, savor His peace, and then inevitably our attention will turn more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.

Here’s to good mental health for us all!

I spent today high in the Cascades of Washington State.  I was near Mt. Baker, one of the volcanic peaks in the range along the “ring of fire” that comes up the coast along the Pacific plate. Despite the nearness of the volcanic cone, snow and glaciers were what we most noticed today, July 25th.

As I stood on the snowy heights looking at these sleepy but still inwardly fiery volcanic heights, it occurred to me that some of God’s gifts come in strange and terrifying packages. And I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I read the following lines from the book of Job (in the Office of Readings):

The earth, though out of it comes forth bread, is in fiery upheaval underneath (Job 28:2).

We live just above a fiery cauldron, separated from it by a thin membrane of earthly crust rife with cracks through which fire routinely flares from volcanoes through fissures. It is a crust that is always shifting and even shaking violently during earthquakes.

And yet were it not for this violent cauldron beneath us it seems unlikely that we would have life here at all. Volcanoes and other tectonic activity keep our soil rich and recycled. In this fiery cauldron are brewed some of our most useful minerals and most beautiful gems. Whole island chains and land masses are formed by eruptions, and geothermal energy is a resource we have just begun to tap. These beautiful heights on which I stood today were thrust upward by the same upheavals. Many scientists also think that volcanoes had a profound influence on the formation of an atmosphere in the early Earth period, and that the molten core of the earth has an important influence on the Van Allen radiation belts, which keep the harmful radiation of the sun’s rays away from the earth’s surface.

Yes, Job had it right: some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. The earth’s capacity to bring forth bread is directly connected to the fact that it is on fire beneath. And yet what a strange and terrifying package this gift comes in! For volcanoes and other seismic activity have claimed an enormous number of lives and vast amounts of property.

Water, too, such a rich source of life and blessing, can turn in a moment and destroy life in huge numbers. Floods and tsunamis can sweep away large areas in a startlingly short period of time.

And yet who could ever deny that without water life would be impossible? Ah, water—nothing more life-giving, nothing more deadly! Some of God’s gifts come in strange and terrifying packages.

I have often wondered why so many cities throughout the world are built on or near floodplains and/or along the “ring of fire,” with its volcanoes and fault lines. But of course the answer is plain enough: it is in these very areas that some of the richest soil and greatest resources are to be found.

God and nature’s most life-giving gifts are but 3° separated from disaster and instant death. We live on the edge of an abyss because that is where life is found.

Such a thin line, really. Mors et vita duello, conflixere mirando! (Death and life compete in a stupendous conflict!) To live is to cheat death.

All the basic elements and forces—earth, air, water, and fire—can be so deadly and yet at the same time so life-giving. Somehow all are part of the great cycle of living and dying that God intends.

Only God is existence itself; the rest of us are contingent beings and part of a cycle. Only in union with Christ, who said, “I am the life,” will we ever cheat death. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “Christ gave the earth the only serious wound it ever received, the wound of an empty tomb.” And with Christ—and only with Christ—will we one day give the earth that same wound.

For the time being, we live above the cauldron, upon a thin crust. Beneath us burns a tremendous fire. But somehow, mysteriously, it is the source of our bread:

The earth, though out of it comes forth bread, is in fiery upheaval underneath (Job 28:2).

Yes, some of God’s greatest gifts come in strange and terrifying packages.

OBAMA_47786037In another show of selective tolerance from those who support the “gay” agenda, President Barack Obama on Monday gave employment protection to “gay” and “transgender” workers in the federal government after being convinced by advocates of what they called the “irrefutable rightness of your cause.” However the “tolerance” of the administration does not give religious organizations any exceptions in terms of considering sexual orientation or gender identity. While Churches are able to hire ministers as they see fit (based on a 9-0 Supreme court decision against this administration, which sought to require churches to hire practicing gays even in ordained ministerial positions), there is little leeway given in the new executive order to permit churches to determine prudentially the employment of openly practicing “gay” employees.

One might argue that excluding homosexually-oriented people from working as, say, janitors or cafeteria contractors in a Catholic setting is unjust discrimination. And in this the Catechism does affirm that unjust discrimination against those of homosexual orientation is to be excluded. However, there are many other positions that, while not explicitly “ministerial” (i.e., requiring no ordination), are integral to the ministerial stance of the Church (e.g., catechists, pastoral associates, etc.) Letting the courts and the administration determine who should be included in the definition of the category “minister” is intrusive, a violation of religious liberty, and intolerant of those who hold a moral stance on homosexual activity long attested to in the Judeo-Christian heritage and unambiguously in our sacred texts.  

But, welcome to “tolerance” as defined by secular radicals. In their lexicon, “tolerance” is “your right to agree with me.” “Live and let live” means, “you have the right to live only where I say.” “Bigotry” applies only those speaking out against the classes they say are oppressed. “Phobes” (as in homophobes) applies only to those who oppose their  agenda. “Hate” only exists against the classes they say are “protected” and that they have defined as oppressed. It is never possible for religious or social conservatives to be the object of hate since hate only comes from social conservatives.

Yes, welcome to the tolerant utopia founded by proponents of gay sex, gay “marriage,” and other social inventions.

Pope Benedict spoke frequently of the “tyranny of relativism.” Essentially this means that when a culture decides there is no fundamental basis of truth (whether from Scripture or Natural Law), the result is that there is no real basis for discussion or resolution of issues. Thus, who “wins the day” is based not on reason but on who shouts the loudest and/or who has the most power, money, or political influence.

The way forward in a relativistic world is not to appeal to reason by reference to Natural Law (in philosophy), or to constitutional principles (in political discourse), or to Scripture and Tradition (in theology). Rather, the way forward is to gain power and to implement an agenda that binds.

Farewell to reason rooted in agreed upon principles; hello to tyranny rooted simply in opinion and power.

Revolutions that ride in on the train of “freedom” more frequently usher in a reign of terror, as those who claimed to be oppressed and repressed take up their new power and then, themselves, turn to oppression, suppression, and repression of any whom they thought, or think, to be on the wrong side of the issue.

Expect more of this “tolerance” from social radicals. The tyranny of relativism has ushered in a very poisonous and dangerous climate, which has little room for any true discussion or tolerance. And remember, what social radicals mean by tolerance has nothing to do with tolerating you  if you do not belong to a class or group favored by them.

It will require greater and greater courage from those of us who still think of truth as something higher than ourselves. And if you think that an exaggeration, just try to point to Natural Law, the Constitution, or (gadzooks) Scripture and brace yourself for the immediate scorn that will be heaped upon you.

There are some among the Catholic right who will argue that we should never have accepted Government money in the first place. Fine. But there is a long history to the rise of Catholic Charities as a federally funded provider of social services. Frankly, we were one of the best providers, and the government recognized this by partnering with us. The poor were the ones who benefited. And now, as Catholic Charities is increasingly marginalized and excluded from receiving federal funds, it will be the poor who suffer most. It should trouble liberals and even conservatives just a bit that the “rights” of homosexuals are trumping the service of the poor by what is arguably the best and most efficient of social service agencies.

Call it “tolerance” if you wish, but at least admit it is selective tolerance.

A heavy post needs a little levity. Enjoy this video from a Christian humorist.

In my life, I have learned that music is powerful beyond words and often does what words alone can never do.

Historically, when my soul was asleep morally, it was music that called me back. Although I joined the church choir in order to meet girls, it was through the music that the Lord showed me a deeper desire in my heart for goodness, beauty, and truth—indeed my desire for God Himself. The music awoke my sleeping soul to God.

More recently, and in a particular way, music often awakens my soul to the deeper meaning of Sacred Scripture. I have often heard or read a certain Scripture passage that had only a marginal impact on me. But then the choir takes it up in song and it is pressed into my heart like never before, such that I can never forget it. Through the music, my heart and soul are awakened to a deeper meaning of a text.

With humility I have also learned that though I may preach boldly, it is often the choir’s sung response that makes the thought catch fire. I have learned to link what I preach to what is sung and work carefully with the choir and musicians. For while the spoken word may inform and even energize, the sung word strikes even deeper, engraving the word not only in the mind, but touching the deepest parts of the heart.

There is an old saying,

Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. — quote from outside a German opera house

Scripture says that the Lord puts music in our hearts and that many, by it, will be summoned to faith. The Lord set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD (Psalm 40:3-4).

Yes, music can often reach where mere words cannot.

In the remarkable video below, there is a older man, Henry,  who, likely due to a seizure or other age-related factors, had largely turned inward. In fact his very posture illustrates well St. Augustine’s remarkable diagnosis of our problem: curvatus in se (turned in on himself).

Henry’s daughter remembers a lively vivacious man who quite literally danced through life and had such a joie de vivre. But in the last ten years he had shut down and turned inward.

Then came the miracle, a miracle in something ordinary yet mystical: music. Wait until you see how it awakens Henry! Quite an astonishing difference. Yes, suddenly there came the discovery by the staff of the nursing home and Henry’s daughter that there was still someone “alive” inside Henry’s aging body. Alive indeed, the human soul still deeply touched by the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Henry says that when he hears music, “I feel loved … the Lord came to me and made me a holy man … so he gave me these sounds.”

It’s the old Henry, the real Henry, alive and joyful. Where mere word’s fail, music speaks. Where therapy struggles, music soars.

I am mindful of an older woman I used to visit, Ms. Lorena; she died some years back at age 104. And when I’d visit, there wasn’t much she or I could say. But suddenly, gently, I’d start singing one of those old hymns, “Hmm … by and by … yes, we’ll understand it better by and by.” And Ms. Lorena would light up and join in. She’d sit up straight and be young again.

An old spiritual says, Over my head, I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere. Yes, Mr. Henry knows. Yes, Ms. Lorena knows. There IS a God somewhere! And when words alone fail, He still calls through music.

Enjoy this powerful video.

We live in difficult times for the Church, and from many sectors the very legitimate cry for reform goes up frequently. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching, lukewarm and nominal Catholics, an overall lack of discipline among Catholics, and a lack of disciplining by the bishops and clergy of those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. In a way the list is quite long and has been well discussed on this blog, which is overall sympathetic to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

But today’s Gospel issues a caution against becoming overzealous in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. It is the memorable Parable of the Wheat and Tares. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. “Wait,” says the Lord, “Leave it to me. There will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now; wait till the harvest.”

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or never to rebuke a sinner. There is need for discipline in the Church and other texts call for it (see below). But today’s Gospel is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, or a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to turn the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on a lot of patience and mercy from God if any of us are to stand a chance. Summoning the wrath of God to come on (other) sinners, as some do, may destroy them as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

So let’s allow today’s Gospel to give us some guidance in finding the right balance between the summons to reform and the summons to patience. The guidance comes in four steps.

I. WAKE UP – The text says, Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”

Notice in this text that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. There is a great mystery as to why God allows Satan to sow the seeds in the first place. But there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. And part of the reason is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Now don’t just blame the Church leadership (though we share plenty of the blame). But the fact is that too many in the whole Church have been in a moral sleep. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” and live unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents have little knowledge of what their children are watching and listening to, where they are surfing on the Internet, who their friends are, etc. We hardly think of God or His plan for our lives, and collectively, we have priorities that are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged; we take little action other than to shrug; we seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the world’s ways.

Church leadership, too, has been inwardly focused. While the culture was melting down beginning in the late 1960s, we were tuning guitars, moving the furniture in the sanctuaries, having debates about Church authority, engaging in gender wars, and having seemingly endless internal squabbles about every facet of Church life. I do not deny that there were right and wrong answers in these debates and that rebellious trends had to be addressed, but while all this was going on Satan was sowing seeds and we lost the culture.

We are just now emerging from 50 years in a cocoon to find a world gone mad. And we who lead the Church (clergy and lay) have to admit that this happened on our watch.

It is long past time to wake up to the reality that Satan has been working while we’ve been bickering and singing songs to ourselves.

And lots of hollering, and blaming one side of the Church or the other, and faulting this kind of liturgy or that is not very helpful because the focus is still inward.

It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the Gospel to a world that has lost it.

Step one in finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wake up.

II. WISE UP – The text says, When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

Part of the sobriety we have to regain is to understand that we have an enemy who hates us—Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have too long been dismissive of his presence, as though he were a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him, for we connive with him and also suffer weakness of the flesh and the bad influence of the world, Satan is real; he is an enemy and he hates you. He also hates your children; he hates the Church; he hates anything and anyone that is holy or even on the path to holiness.

We have to wise up and ask the Lord for an anointing. We need not utterly fear the devil, but we need to understand that he is at work. We need to learn and know his moves, designs, tactics, and tools. And, having recognized him, we need the grace to rebuke him at every turn.

Now be careful here. To wise up means to learn and understand Satan’s tactics. But it does not mean to imitate them in retaliation. Upon waking up and wising up, some want to go right to battle—but in worldly types of ways. But the Lord often proposes paradoxical tactics that are rooted in the wisdom of the cross, not the world. Wising up to Satan and his tactics does not often mean to engage in a full frontal assault. Often the Lord counsels humility to battle pride, love (not retaliation) to conquer hate, and accepted weakness to overcome strength.

To wise up means to come to the wisdom of the cross, not the world. As we shall see, the Lord is not nearly as warlike in His response to His enemy as some zealous reformers propose to be. We may be properly zealous for reform and want to usher in change rapidly, but be very careful what wisdom you are appealing to. Scripture says, Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor 3:19-20).

Step two in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wise up.

III. WAIT UP - The text says, His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest … “

We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. And yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner, every ne’er-do-well, every bad theologian (and there are many), and who call for an increasing and severe clampdown by the bishops across the board, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

There is need for discipline in the Church and even for punitive measures from time to time. The Lord himself proposes excommunication in certain instances (e.g., Matt 18:17); St Paul does too (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5). Yet texts such as those need to be balanced by texts such as the Gospel today. Fraternal correction is an essential work of charity (I have written more on that here: Fraternal Correction) but it must be conducted with patience and love.

But the Lord is patient and in today’s Gospel directs us to also to be prepared to wait and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rarer) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely. But there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and tares to grow together. After all, sinners may repent and the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

So while there is sometimes need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance such notions: leave it be; wait; place this in the hands of God; give time for the sinner to repent; keep working and praying for that but do not act precipitously.

We have had many discussion here on the blog about whether and how the bishops should discipline certain Catholic politicians who, by their bad example and reprehensible votes, undermine the Gospel and even cost lives through abortion and euthanasia.

And while I am sympathetic to the need for them to be disciplined; how, when, and who remains a judgment for the Bishop to make. And as we can see, there are certain Scriptures that balance one another. In the end, we cannot simply make a one-size-fits-all norm. There are prudential aspects to the decision and the Lord himself speaks to different situations in different ways.

In today’s Gospel the Lord says we should wait. And generally it is good advice to follow. After all, how do YOU know that you don’t or won’t need more time? Before we ask God to lower the boom on sinners we ought to remember that we are going to need His patience and mercy too. Scripture says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matt 7:2& Luke 6:38). Be very careful before summoning God’s wrath, for who may endure the Day of his coming (Mal 3:2)?

Step three in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wait up” and balance zeal with patience.

IV. WASH UP – The text says, Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

So you see there is a harvest and those who have sinned or led others to sin and have not repented are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.

The Lord is no pushover and he does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait, he does not mean to say that judgment will never come. But his general advice is, “Leave it to me.” And to us he says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready too. For judgment day is surely coming and every knee will bend to me and everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up! You’re either going to be a saint or an “ain’t.” For now, the wheat and tares grow together. But later the tares and all the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

So here’s the balance: God is patient, but there is a harvest, and by God’s grace we have to get ready for it. To the overly zealous, God says, “Wait.” But to the complacent and sleepy, God says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up!”

Here is a great exposition of this Gospel from Fr. Francis Martin. Don’t miss it!

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