When I was younger and through my seminary years, I had usually seen the crucifix and Jesus’ suffering on the cross in somber tones. It was my sin that put him there, that had made him suffer. The cross was something that compelled a silent reverence, and suggested to me that I meditate deeply on what Jesus had to go through. Perhaps, too, I would think of Mary and John and the other women beneath the cross, mournfully beholding Jesus slowly and painfully dying.
These were heavy and somber notes, but deeply moving themes.
In addition, the crucifix also called forth memories that I must carry a cross and go through the Fridays of my life. I needed to learn the meaning of sacrifice.
Liturgically I also saw the crucifix as a way of restoring greater reverence in the Mass. Through the 70s and 80s, parishes had largely removed crucifixes and replaced them, quite often, with “resurrection crosses,” or just an image of Jesus floating in midair. I used to call this image “touchdown Jesus” since he floated in front of the cross with his arms up in the air as if indicating a touchdown had just been scored. In those years we had moved away from the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice and were more into “meal theology.” The removal of the crucifix from the sanctuary was powerfully indicative of this shift. Many priests and liturgists saw the cross as too somber a theme for their vision of a new and more welcoming Church, upbeat and positive.
A cross-less Christianity tended to give way to what I thought was a rather silly, celebratory style of mass in those years, and I came to see the restoration of the Crucifix as a necessary remedy to restore proper balance. I was delighted when, through the mid-80s and later, the Vatican began insisting in new liturgical norms that a crucifix (not just a cross) be prominent in the sanctuary and visible to all. Further, that the processional cross had to bear the image of the crucified, not just be a bare cross.
Balance Restored – I was (and still am) very happy about these new norms because they restore the proper balance in seeing the Mass as a making-present of the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is also a sacred meal, but it is the sacrifice that gives it its power. I further thought that such a move would help restore greater and proper solemnity to the Mass, and to some extent this has been true.
All of this background is just to say that I saw the Cross, the crucifix, in somber, serious tones, a theme that was meant to instill solemnity and sobriety, a meditation on the awful reality of sin and on our need to repent. And all of this is fine and true.
But the Lord wasn’t finished with me yet and wanted me to see another understanding of the Cross.
In effect, he wanted me to also experience the “good” in Good Friday. For while the cross is all the things said above, it is also a place of victory and love, of God’s faithfulness and our deliverance. There’s a lot to celebrate at the foot of the cross.
It happened one Sunday in Lent of 1994, one of my first in an African-American Catholic Parish. It being Lent, I expected the highly celebratory quality of Mass to be scaled back a bit. But, much to my surprise, the opening song began with an upbeat, toe-tapping gospel riff. At first I frowned. But the choir began to sing:
Down at the cross where my Savior died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
There to my heart was the blood applied;
Glory to His name!
Ah, so this WAS a Lenten theme! But how unusual for me to hear of the cross being sung of so joyfully. (You can hear the song in the video below; try not to tap your toe too much).
It was something quite new for me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been, but it was. The 70s and 80s Catholicism that had been my experience found it necessary to remove the cross in order to celebrate. But here was celebration with and in the cross! Here was the good in Good Friday.
The Choir continued:
I am so wondrously saved from sin,
Jesus so sweetly abides within;
There at the cross where He took me in;
Glory to His name!
Congregation and choir were stepping in time and clapping, rejoicing in the cross, seeing it in the resurrection light of its saving power and as a glorious reflection of God’s love for us. Up the aisle the procession wound, and the last verse was transposed a half-step up, an even brighter key:
Oh, precious fountain that saves from sin,
I am so glad I have entered in;
There Jesus saves me and keeps me clean;
Glory to His name!
Yes, indeed, glory to his name! A lot of dots were connected for me that day. The cross indeed was a place of great pain, but also of great love; there was grief, but there was also glory; there was suffering, but there was also victory.
Please do not misunderstand my point. There IS a place and time for quiet, somber reflection at the foot of the cross. All the things said above are true. But one of the glories of the human person is that we can have more than one feeling at a time. We can even have opposite feelings going on at almost the same moment!
The Balance – Some in the Church of the 70s and 80s rejected the cross as too somber a theme, too negative. They wanted to be more upbeat, less focused on sin; and so, out went the cross. There was no need to do this, and it was an unbalanced reaction. For at the cross, the vertical, upward pillar of man’s pride and sin is transected by the horizontal and outstretched arms of God’s love. With strong hand, and outstretched arms the Lord has won the victory for us: there at the cross where he took me in, glory to his name!
And the Balance is for the individual and for the Church. For some prefer a more somber meditation on the cross to prevail, and others feel moved by the Spirit to celebrate joyfully at the foot of the Cross. The Church needs both, and I suppose we all need some of both experiences. Yes, it is right to weep at the cross, to behold the awful reality of sin, to remember Christ’s sacrifice. But rejoice, too, for the Lord has won the victory for us, right there: Down at the Cross. There’s a lot of good in Good Friday.
Here is the song I heard that Sunday in 1994, sung in very much the style I heard.
I have often thought that the second greatest prayer ever written is the Universal Prayer attributed to Pope Clement XI. Most people have never heard of it. But it is magnificent. Its sweeping themes cascade like a fountain and it is comprehensive without being too detailed so that it loses its poetry.
So many themes are covered in its short verses: faith, trust, beginnings and ends, wisdom, justice, mercy, mindfulness, purity, repentance, journey, judgment, authority, greed, gentleness, generosity, apathy, fervor, prudence, courage, justice, temperance, fortitude, vigilance, and our last end, just to mention some.
If you are among the many who have never heard of this prayer, click here to see it:
And yet as I pray it, the prayer is so sweeping that I often feel overwhelmed by its sheer volume. It’s as though I am standing before an open fire hydrant with a little Dixie cup trying to capture the water. Most of it rushes past me.
So for Lent I have thought to pray this prayer every day but also to take one line and meditate on it in particular. Here is a version of the Prayer that I have numbered so as to focus on a particular line for each of the forty days:
I hope the Universal prayer will bless you as much as it has blessed me. Consider this practice. Print out the PDF files and use them when you can. I think you’ll find that the prayer provides a lot on which to meditate.
In case you would like the Latin original with a literal and poetic translation it is here:
The Gospel today says that Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. Hebrews 4:15 also affirms: For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
How exactly a divine person, with a sinless human nature, experiences temptation is somewhat mysterious to us. And yet the text affirms that He does experience it. A Lenten antiphon from the Breviary teaches that he did this, or allowed this, for our sake: Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, who for our sake endured temptation and suffering (Invitatory Antiphon for Lent). Hence, even without pondering too deeply the mystery of how he was tempted or how he experienced it, we can still learn what Jesus teaches us about how to endure temptation and be victorious over it. (More on the question of how Christ was tempted HERE.)
Before we look at each temptation, we might learn a few general aspects of what the Lord teaches us in electing to endure temptation.
1. Temptation and Sin – The fact that the Lord is tempted, but did not sin, tells us that there is a distinction to be made between temptation and sin. Too often the very experience of temptation makes us feel sinful, makes us feel that we have already sinned. But that is not necessarily the case. For Jesus, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore experiencing temptation is not simply to be equated with sin. One of the tactics of the Devil is to discourage us into thinking that the mere experience of temptation is already sin. It may be true that some of our past sins influence the amount and degree to which we feel tempted, but, in and of itself, we need not conclude that we have already sinned, or newly sinned, merely because we are tempted. Rather than to feel shame and run from God, we ought to run to him with confidence and seek his help. But do not conclude you have sinned merely because you are tempted.
2. Temptation and Scripture – Notice how, to every temptation, Jesus responds with Scripture. This is not to be equated with merely proof-texting, or pronouncing biblical slogans. Rather we ought to see it as indicative of the fact that Jesus was deeply rooted in Scripture, in the wisdom of the Biblical vision. In rebuking temptation in this way, Jesus is teaching us to do the same. It will not be enough for us to know a few biblical sayings. But, to the degree that we are deeply rooted in the wisdom of God’s truth available to us through Scripture and the teachings of the Church, we are able to strongly rebuke unholy, worldly, or fleshly thinking. Half the battle to defeating temptation is knowing instinctively its erroneous vision and stupidity. Having our minds transformed by the teachings of Scripture and the Church is an essential weapon in fighting temptation. Scripture says, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). Ephesian 6:17 also speaks of the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit” with which we are properly armed for spiritual warfare. Thus, we are taught here by the Lord to be deeply rooted in his Word.
3. Temptation and Strength – Notice that Jesus is tempted three times, after which the devil leaves him. In a certain way the spiritual life is like the physical life, in that we grow stronger through repeated action. After lifting weights repeatedly, our physical strength increases and we are able to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. An old Gospel songs says, Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Scripture says, Resist the Devil and he will flee (James 4:7). We need not conclude here that Jesus needed to be strengthened (he did not) in order to understand that he is still teaching us what WE need to do. The battle against temptation is not a “one and you’re done” scenario, but an ongoing battle wherein each victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. Eventually, as we grow stronger, he stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas. At times the battle may weary us, but in the long run it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this with his threefold battle with Satan.
Having reviewed a few general principles, let’s look at the three temptation scenes.
Scene I: The Temptation of Passions. The text says. At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
Hunger, as a desire, is a passion. It is not evil per se, for without it we would perish. The same is true with other natural desires for things like life, drink, and propagation (sexuality). Other sorts of passion also exist in us such as anger and love, joy, aversion, hatred, hope, despair, fear, courage, and so forth. In and of themselves, these passions are neither good nor bad, but become so only in relation to their object, or insofar as we allow them to become inordinate.
Hence there is nothing wrong with Jesus as he experiences hunger. What the devil tries to do is to draw Jesus into sin by yielding to his hunger and using his power inappropriately. Remember, Jesus had been led into the desert to fast and pray by the Spirit. This is his call. His hunger is real and without sin, but now he is tempted to set aside his call, and to yield to his hunger in an inappropriate way, by rejecting his call to fast. He is tempted to serve himself. Now he has the power to do this, to turn stones into bread, and so a second aspect of the temptation is to use his power inappropriately, not to glorify His Father, but rather to gratify and serve himself.
What about us? We too have passions. And they are not wrong in and of themselves. But what can happen is that we freely allow them to become inordinate, or we gratify them in unlawful ways. Remember we, like Jesus, are called to fast. Our fast is from things like sin, injustice, unrighteousness, sexual impurity, unlawful pleasures, excessive indulgence, and so forth. And we too have it have it within our power to choose to reject our fast and to gratify our desires by rejecting our call to serve God. And the devil says: reject your call and use your power to gratify your passions: lie, cheat, steal, vent your anger, fornicate, be gluttonous, greedy… and so forth.
But notice how Jesus has recourse to God’s Word: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus says to Satan that He would rather live and be sustained by the Word; that his food is to do the will of his Father.
What about us? Can we say with Job: Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12)? Can we, like Jesus, say that God’s Word is more to me than my desires for satisfaction, sex, self-preservation, popularity, worldly joys, power, prestige, or possessions? My strongest desire is for God and things waiting for me in heaven, and I will gladly forsake all I have for it.
Scene II. The Temptation of Presumption – The text says, Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
There is a value in trusting God, but this is not an invitation to act recklessly. There will come a time when Jesus will throw himself down on the Cross in complete assurance that the Father will raise him. He has this command from his Father. But now is not that time and he must act to preserve and protect his life so as to accomplish his full mission.
For us, too, there is no sin in trusting in God’s care for us. But that is not a license to act recklessly. Presumption is a terrible problem today. Too many people think that they can go on sinning and that there will be, or should be, no consequences. This is true in worldly ways and in spiritual ways as well. Too many people engage in risky and ruinous behavior and figure, “I’ll be OK….I’ll escape….I won’t be a statistic….I won’t get caught….I won’t lose my job. Many say, “I can use drugs and not get addicted, I can have evil friends and still stay good and live morally, I can skip school and still get good grades and get into college, I can be promiscuous and won’t get an STD or AIDS….I won’t get pregnant. They think, I can drive recklessly and won’t have an accident or kill someone…I can be disrespectful and still be treated with respect.” In all this, people are simply “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”
And regarding the moral presumptiveness of thinking that no matter what I or others do, heaven will still be the result, the Lord warns
- Sirach 5:4 Say not I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bides his time. But of forgiveness be not overconfident adding sin upon sin. …Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day for mercy and justice are alike with him.
- Gal 6:7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well‑doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
- Hosea 8:7 For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
- Psalm 81:11 “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices. “If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways, how quickly would I subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!
God is clear to warn us that sin sets us on a path that hardens our hearts and makes our final conversion increasingly unlikely. He is pleading with us in this Lenten season to be serious about sin and its consequences. Sin renders us not only unfit for heaven, but simply incapable of entering it.
Bad idea – Simply presuming that everything will be fine is not only a poor strategy, it is a temptation and snare of the devil, who seeks to cloud our minds with false hope and unreasonable expectations. Jesus has a very clear message for the devil and for any of us who would engage in presumption (a VERY common sin today): “Don’t you dare put the Lord your God to the test in this way. Obey him out of love, but do not put Him to the test.” Presumption is a very bad and foolish idea.
Scene III. The Temptation of Possessions – The text says, Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
There is here the obvious temptation of worldly possessions. Everything, EVERYTHING, is offered by Satan to Jesus in exchange for a little worship of the devil. Now, it may seem strange to us that having an abundance of things would be linked to worshiping the devil and forsaking God, but scripture attests to the connection elsewhere:
- Adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
- Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
- No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24)
All pretty blunt. We want to have both, but the Lord is clear in rebuking the temptation by insisting that we have to serve God alone, to adore God alone. The inordinate love of this world causes us to hate God more and more and to bow before Satan in order to get it. Don’t kid yourself. If this seems extreme, then we are calling God an extremist. The Lord is warning us that there is a major conflict here that steals our heart. For where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart (Matt 6:21). It is not wrong to desire what we really need to live, but it is our wants that get us into trouble. And the desire for riches ruins us and makes God seem as a thief, rather than a savior. This is a very severe temptation and Jesus rebukes it forcefully. Him ALONE shall you serve.
We need to beg God for a single-hearted devotion to him. The Book of Proverbs has a nice prayer in this regard: Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest in my poverty I steal or in my riches I say “Who is the Lord?” (Prov 30:8-9 gloss).
In the end, temptations are real, and we either accept God’s grace to fight them, or else “we are going down.” The Lord wants to teach us today about the reality of temptation and how to fight it, by his grace. Remember, the battle is the Lord’s, and no weapon waged against us will prosper if we cling to God’s grace. But in the end, the choice is clear: either tackle temptation (by God’s grace) or risk ruination (by Satan’s “ministrations”).
(Photo credit above right: Evolutionary Times (right click on photo for URL))
This song says, Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Fight valiantly onward. Evil passions subdue. Look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through. Ask the Savior to help you, comfort strengthen and keep you; he is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.
There was a tendency in ancient plays in Greece and Rome to introduce something that was called a deus ex machina solution (literally “God from a Machine”). For very often, the playwrights had concocted a plot so complicated, with so many subplots and difficult situations, that they themselves really couldn’t resolve the mess they’d written. Thus, “gods” (marionettes or actors really) would be lowered down onto the stage from above, using winches and other machines. These “gods” would simply and magically solve all the problems. Hence the expression deus ex machina (god from out of a machine) has come in English to mean “a contrived or unlikely solution.”
Somehow, I thought about that as I saw the cartoon below. I also thought a lot about the mess that we’re currently in in our culture, and throughout the whole world. For where, really, aren’t things just an awful mess. Marriage, family, sexuality, and the meaning and purpose of life, are all confused. Social order, self-restraint, and any moral consensus, let alone the practice of virtue or even common sense, are becoming hard to find.
How are we ever to clean up this mess? The depth of confusion and increasing social chaos, along with base and reprehensible behavior that many actually celebrate, make it hard to imagine that we’re going anywhere, except to a very bad place, and with increasing rapidity.
Yes, it’s a little bit like the ancient playwrights of Greece and Rome who had written themselves into such a chaotic corner that they had to use fake gods to bail themselves out. As for us, only the one, true God can snatch us out of the quicksand.
In the cartoon below, there is a secret agent man who seems to think he has everything under control. But even as the cartoon opens, we can see he’s a bit foolish, unsteady on his feet, and can barely cross the street without getting killed. Let’s call this secret agent man “Modern Man.” He thinks he amounts to something, but he ain’t all that.
There comes into “Modern Man’s” life a pesky pigeon that he just can’t beat. Let’s call the pigeon “Consequences.” For all Modern Man’s gadgets and apparent smarts, the pigeon Consequences just keeps outsmarting Modern Man. In fact, it is exactly Modern Man’s technology that the pigeon, Consequences, is able to exploit. In effect, the pigeon hoists Modern Man with his own petard.
And though utter disaster is ultimately avoided by Modern Man, as the video draws to its conclusion the pesky pigeon is still there. He’ll never go away! Then comes a surprise ending, a kind of deus ex machina solution.
What does all of this have to say to us modern men (and women)? Well, very much like “Modern Man” in the cartoon, we too have been hoisted with our own petards. Despite our bravado and our prideful self-assurance, we ain’t all that. We can barely cross the road without getting killed. In other words, it is only by the sheer mercy of God that we have not annihilated ourselves with nuclear weapons, etc.
But like Modern Man in the cartoon, we are increasingly dogged by the consequences of our many bad choices. Like the man in the video that just can’t beat the pigeon, we just can’t seem to get away from the consequences that afflict us. And it is often our modern way of life and technology that are the very things that cause the greatest harm.
And while we have somehow avoided complete disaster, it becomes increasingly hard to imagine how we can ever get out of this mess that we are in. Yes, only a solution from above, only God, can save us.
How he will do it? I don’t really know. I am afraid that the only way I can see of pressing the “reset button” in a world gone mad would be for some awful calamity to happen that would so rock us back on our heels that we would actually have to start living ordered lives again.
But of course, I am not God, thanks be to God! God has in the past effected great reforms, seemingly out of the blue. For example, even as the Roman Empire crumbled in the 4th Century and the Church lost all of North Africa to the Muslims in the 7th Century, God worked the miracle that the Barbarian tribes of the north suddenly began to embrace Christ.
At another great crisis in the “Dark Ages,” when much seemed lost to plague and social disorder, suddenly people like Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic appeared on the scene. And later came St. Bernard, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, ushering in great reforms in response to the Protestant Revolt. And when millions walked out of the Church in Europe, nine million came in in Mexico, through Our Lady of Guadalupe.
We can only pray that God will do it again; namely, effect a great reform, as if out of the blue. Lord knows we were in an awful mess emerging from the Satanic 20th-century. It’s going to take a miracle, or a calamity (I hope not), to reset and restore the modern world seemingly gone mad.
For the sake of Thy sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.
Anyway, enjoy the cartoon. It’s a good little allegory about a prideful secret agent who thinks he’s all that, but he ain’t; and how a little pigeon practically pecks him to death. Only a solution from above can save him from the awful bird called “Consequences.”
Help us Lord!
The themes of early Lent are pretty basic. The ashes of Ash Wednesday announce the simple truth that we are going to die, and thereafter we will face judgment. Hence we need to repent and come to believe the good news the Jesus (alone) can save us.
The reading for Thursday after Ash Wednesday features Moses laying out the basic reality that we all have a choice to make. He says to us:
Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom…
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you:
I have set before you life and death,
the blessing and the curse. (Dt 30:15, 20)
So there it is, our choice, life or death, prosperity or doom. An old Latin expression says, Tertium non datur (no third way is given). We often like to think we can plow some middle path. But in the matter of the last things, there is no middle path, no third way. Either we choose God and his kingdom, and then back-load that decision into all of our smaller decisions, or we do not.
For those who think a middle path is possible, it is in effect the way of compromise, ambivalence, tepidity a lack of real commitment and a refusal to witness to Christ. But these are not virtues that belong to God’s Kingdom, they pertain more to the kingdom of darkness. Jesus says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matt 5:37). He also says, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matt 6:24)
So we are back to a choice, for the Kingdom of Light, for the kingdom of darkness; for the world and its ways or God and his ways; to gratify the flesh or nourish the spirit; to serve Satan and his agenda or to serve Christ and his will and plan.
You are free to choose, but you’re not free not to choose. That is to say, you must choose. And if you think you can go on simply not choosing one or the other, I’ve got news for you what you are thereby choosing.
While it is true that many do not directly choose Satan, but rather indirectly choose him by following his ways, we are asked to directly choose God by accepting the gift of faith, basing our life on what the Lord commands. Faith is not some sort of “default position” we can have by accident. Faith is the supernaturally assisted and transformed human decision for God and all that the Choice implies. Faith is a gift freely offered, and one which we must also freely accept; a choice which will not be forced us. And through many daily choices, we are called to reaffirm by grace the Choice we have made for God.
So again, life is about choices, the fundamental choice of Faith, and all the daily choices with either affirm or deny the reality of our faith.
We live in times were people like to demand choice, but also like to evade the responsibilities that come with making choices. But Moses goes on in the reading today to describe the fact that the choice we make for or against God will have consequences:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life
on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy. (Dt 30)
Yes, choices have consequences. And even little daily choices have the cumulative affect of moving us in one direction or the other; toward God and our goal or away from it.
Many little choices have a way of forming our hearts. Deeds become habits; habits become character; and character becomes destiny. Many little choices form our hearts, establish our character and move us into one future or another.
And while it is true that sudden and dramatic conversions are possible as long as we live, it is also true and more common that, as we make our journey, our hearts become more fixed and our fundamental character is less and less likely to change. As we get older, its harder to change because that’s what choices do to us, they move us in a certain direction, down a certain path. And the further along that path we go, the less likely we are to turn back.
Therefore daily choices are important, and making frequent examinations of conscience and frequent confession are essential. Each day we ought to ask and consider the question, “Where am I going with my life?” If we go on too long living an unreflective life, too easily we find ourselves deeply locked in sinful habits and patterns that are harder and harder to break. Thus frequent reflection is necessary, and we ought not make light of daily decisions.
We live in times where, to some degree, it is more possible to temporarily insulate ourselves from the immediate consequences of many choices we make. Medicines, technology, social safety nets, etc. are all good things in themselves, but they do tend to insulate us from immediate consequences; and they help cultivate the illusion that consequences can be forever evaded.
We also live in times where perhaps more than ever before the community is often willing to bear the burdens of many bad individual choices. Again, this is not of itself all bad, but it does easily become the enabling of bad behavior, and fosters the illusion that consequences can be avoided forever. They cannot.
Our own culture is currently under the weight of a colossal number of bad individual choices that have added up to a financial, spiritual, moral and emotional debt that we cannot pay. Sexual misconduct, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, STDs, the use of hallucinogenic and addictive drugs, the casting off of of discipline and parental responsibility, the rejection of faith and ancient and tested wisdom, rebellion, silence in the face of sin and injustice, greed, consumerism gone mad, factions, envy discord and on and on…. All of this is creating a toll. The consequences are mounting and it is becoming clear that even the most basic functions of society such as raising the next generation, preserving good order and stability, and ensuring the common good are gravely threatened.
And what is true collectively is also for us as individuals. Lots of bad little choices quickly draw us into self destructive patterns that get deeper and deeper. And without regular reflection and penitential seasons like Lent we too easily lose our way! St. Augustine noted this in his Confession where he described himself as being bound, “not by another’s irons, but by my own iron will…For in truth lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity” (Conf 8.5.10)
Moses’ warnings are before us as never before.
Back in 1917 a beautiful and holy Woman (Our Lady) appeared to three little children. She explained that the horrifying war (WW I) was finally coming to an end. But, she warned, if people did not turn back to her Son Jesus and start praying, a worse war would ensue, Russia would spread her errors and great disaster would befall this world. Do I need to tell you what happened? Of course not, any even casual assessment of the 20th Century would find it hard to conclude that the Century was anything but satanic.
Life and Death, prosperity and doom. What will you choose? What we will choose?
From heavy to a little humor:
Traditional Catholic theology has distinguished the “Four Last Things” : Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. We are admonished to meditate upon these things frequently. We WILL die, be judged, and spend eternity either in Hell, or in Heaven (likely after some time in purgatory).
Beginning with the end, or starting with the last things, is paradoxically, a good place for Lent to commence.
Regarding Death All men are appointed to die once, and after that face The judgment (Hebrews 9:27) The video posted below is of a song by Johnny Cash on the topic of judgment. Here are some of the words:
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time,
run on for a long time
Sooner or later
God’ll cut you down
Go tell that long tongue liar,
go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler,
the back biter
Tell ‘em that God’s
gonna cut ‘em down.
We will all one day die, or as the song puts it, be cut down.
Regarding Judgment - Scripture says, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10). And of the unrepentant St. Peter says, but they will have to give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). And in Hebrews: For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31). And of this salutary fear we should have of our Judgment Scripture says, Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13). And Jesus himself warns, But I tell you that for every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. (Matt 12:36)
Regarding Heaven - It is our true goal, not all the other stuff we endlessly run after. The heart of heaven is to be with God, to look on his beautiful and serene face and become fully alive with him for all eternity. As Scripture says, there is a deep longing in us for this look: My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I seek! (Psalm 27:8). This is really what all our desires are about, God, and the healing, fulfilling and beatific glory of being in His presence for evermore, transformed by the Look and the glory of his love.
So glorious is this promise that it cannot be reduced to words, eye has never seen it, nor ear heard it. Scripture says, Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. (1 John 3:2).
Jesus said to St. Catherine that if she ever saw the state of a human being fully alive with him in heaven, she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at him (Jesus). This is our dignity and our call. Heaven is beyond what we could ever imagine in its glory and beatitude.
Regarding Hell - The teaching of Hell bothers a lot of modern Christians who have had God’s love emphasized to the exclusion of just about everything else about God. For example that He is Truth, and utterly Holy, that nothing unholy can tolerate His presence and so forth. No one loves you more than Jesus and yet no one warned of Hell and judgment more than Jesus. In parable after parable, warning after warning.
God wants to save us all and have us live with him forever. This is clear in Scripture. But God has made us free and wants us to freely love Him and accept His invitation. This is His respect for our freedom.
And though everyone wants to go to heaven, it is a heaven as they describe it. But not everyone wants to go to the real heaven which is God’s Kingdom in perfection. You see, in heaven, God’s Kingdom, there is love for the truth, love for chastity, love for the poor, love for justice, love for one another, mercy and forgiveness are esteemed, and God is at the center. But NOT EVERYONE wants these things. Not everyone wants the truth, wants to be chaste, not everyone wants to forgive and love everyone. Not everyone wants God to be at the center, they prefer that spot for themselves or some other idol. Many people can’t stand to go to Church at all, or if they do, they want it to be as short as possible. If we don’t want to spend time with God here, what makes us think we will want to do so after death? If the liturgy is boring or loathsome to someone now, what makes them think they will enjoy the liturgy of heaven? And The Scriptures clearly describe heaven as primarily a liturgy of praise (cf esp. Rev 4-8) centered on God.
So God invites, but not all accept or are interested in the real heaven to which God invites them. In the end, God respects our choice and this is why there is Hell, it is for those who do not want what the Kingdom of God is.
We ought to pray for a deepening desire for heaven. Death is on the way, sooner or later we will all be cut down. And the Lord Jesus will judge us among other things with this question: “What is it that you want??” Do not think that we will magically change at that moment. By that time our choice for the Lord and his Kingdom or for something else will be firmly fixed. Behaviors become habits, habits become character, character becomes destiny.
The Four Last things are actually a pretty good place to begin, our Lenten reflections.
Ponder this video:
At the opening of Lent, Bishop Paul Loverde has written an important and encouraging pastoral letter on the disturbing and increasingly pervasive issue of pornography. The full letter was released today and you can read it here Bought With a Price
It is good to see bishops address moral issues with clarity. And Bishop Loverde surely does that here. There are many things I like about the letter but let me highlight a few things here.
1. We live in a culture that makes light of sexual sin, in general, and pornography in particular. Many people speak of it as a victimless crime etc. it is not, producing and peddling of pornography, is a grave offense against human dignity and a complete distortion of one of God’s greatest gifts. Bishop Leverde is extremely clear on this point drawing from both Scripture and the Catechism. He emphasizes very strongly that the peddling and use of pornography is a grave, mortal sin, a sin which severs our relationship with God. It must be repented of. For those who struggle with compulsive or addictive behaviors, help must be sought. The bishop is clear, whatever one’s struggles, we must not go on calling good, or no big deal what God calls gravely sinful.
Jesus says we ought to be more willing to endure serious bodily harm than to intentionally look with lust at another.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’e But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt 5:27-30)
The good Bishop also uses other arguments and scriptures to strongly refute arguments that make light of the serious sin of pornography. It is good to read these strong teachings unambiguously articulated. Bravo.
2. While not failing to address all the faithful, He addresses the letter with a special emphasis on men. He does this not only because men are more prone to access pornography, but also because he summons men to a leadership in seeking to protect their family from the great damage of pornography.
This approach comports well with my own pastoral experience. For though men can and do experience temptations to pornography, men also respond well as a general rule to being summoned to battle for what is right. Men do have a protective instinct that can be appealed to. Sadly, many in recent decades in the wake of feminism, have shamed men for this instinct or sought to discredit it.
As a pastor and confessor it is evident that the struggle with internet pornography has reached epidemic proportions and many confessors struggle to know how to counsel those who struggle with compulsive and addictive tendencies. Among the approaches I use is to call these men to battle and to remind them that when they view pornography they are playing on the wrong team and lining Satan’s pockets with money. Even if they don’t actually buy it, each time they click on a site or picture they increase the page ranking for the site. And this increases its revenue.
To arms! Fight the good fight of faith. Do not provide recognition or resources for Satan’s evil design. Pornography is clearly a satanic attack on our families, on Matrimony, on women, and on children. It is a great darkness on our land. It must be resisted. Our families must be protected. Yes this is a great battle and the Lord is looking for some good soldiers strong enough to resist the tide. An old gospel song comes to mind. ‘Im a soldier in the army of the lord
3. Bishop Loverde makes good use of Scripture as well as sociological and natural law arguments. In the past I have read too many statements from the Bishops conference that make little or no reference to scripture. About ten years ago the conference issued a statement on the problem of cohabitation and did not use one scripture quote. When have asked certain bishops about this they indicate that since they are addressing the world it is important to use sources all agree on. But of course the world includes Christians. I realize using only Scripture Less effective. But any document from the Bishops ought to quote The boss from time to time! bishop Loverde gets the balance right here.
Please take time to read the whole letter. There are many other good aspects in the letter such as a pastoral exhortation to priests, and to parents as well as a helpful study guide.
Some final thoughts, from the Wisdom tradition that we have been sampling in the Liturgy of the Hours just prior to Lent’s arrival. The following two Proverbs come to mind from Ecclesiastes, along with some concluding advice at the end of that Book. These sayings seem especially apt for those of us who engage and struggle with our troubled culture and helps us keep things in perspective.
Do not in spirit become quickly discontented, for discontent lodges in the bosom of a fool.
We certainly do live in times that challenge our sense of well-being. There is much to lament in these times of broken families, confused sexuality, secularism, and greater hostility the teachings of our holy faith.
And yet, in all of this we must not yield to the temptation to become too sour. Or as the proverb says, we ought not become too quickly discontented.
At the center of every Christian heart should be a deep and abiding gratitude to God for his many, indeed his countless gifts. Into every life, into every family, every community, every culture and nation, there are admixed many beautiful blessings, along with struggles and hardships.
The proverb here warns us against “discontent.” The word comes from the past participle of the Latin word continere meaning to contain or hold. And thus, to be discontent amounts to a refusal to contain hold the joy and gratitude that ought to be within us for so many rich blessings, even in the midst of difficulties.
Every day, ten trillion things go right and about a half a dozen things go wrong. It is no exaggeration to speak of ten trillion things going right when we consider that every aspect of every cell of our body, every molecule that makes up ourselves, every atom that makes up the molecules which make up our cells are up and running, and functioning, all by the grace of God.
Beyond our bodies, is a vast ecosystem with myriads of complex interactions, such as photosynthesis, The Gulf Stream, the Van Allen belts protecting us from harmful radiation of the sun, Jupiter and Saturn are out there catching comets, and the Earth’s orbit maintains itself carefully, a mere 3° from being a perfect circle (which keeps our temperatures more stable. The sun remains stable, unlike many other stars, and we live in a relatively quiet section of the Milky Way galaxy free from the usual space debris that flies about other areas.
And troubled though America is, people are still (literally) dying to get here. We drive on paved roads, have a functioning and reliable electrical grid, stable government, and a good market system.
We ought to be filled with immense gratitude, with large doses of wonder and all at the countless, the trillions of blessings from moment to moment that God bestows.
To become quickly discontent, and even more, to allow discontent to lodge in our hearts, is deeply foolish. It is foolish first of all, because it is so myopic. To refuse to see, or reflect frequently on our manifold blessings is a kind of self-imposed blindness.
Consider a rich man who thought himself poor. Consider that only a fool would close his eyes and refuse to see the $10 million he actually had in the bank. Why live poor, and run from creditors? There is no one would not agree for a man of such resources to declare bankruptcy claim to be poor makes him either blind, or a fool, or both.
So much more so for us with even more blessings. And yet how easily we become discontent, and negative
Thus, even though there are things about which we must be very sober, there are many other things about which we must be exuberantly joyful. Without this balance, we are, as a Proverb says, foolish.
Do not say: How is it that former times were better than these? For it is not in wisdom that you ask about this.
Here too is an important caution for those of us who lament many things in these difficult days. We may tend to look to previous decades see them as more idyllic than they were. But all ages have struggles particular to them, and blessings too. Some look to the 1950s with nostalgic affection and yet they forget the nuclear arms race, the Korean War, and the Cold War. The 1940s, had the second World War, the 30s had the depression, the 20s was a time of rather widespread morality, prohibition, and widespread organize crime. The 1910s had another major world war. The 1900s was a time of great economic recession, and waves of immigrants were often made live in horrifying conditions only slightly less horrifying than their working conditions. And so forth, with every decade going backward. Each of these decades also had blessings.
The fact is, whatever strengths or struggles from the past, whatever strengths are struggles we have now, we are here, we are assigned to live now. Do not be amazed at this; simply accept your assignment with humility, and seek to influence positively the many difficulties faced in these current times. And do not fail to be grateful for the many blessings such as medicine, technology, and many creature comforts that make life pleasant.
Be actively grateful, and gratefully active.
Finally then, comes this word from Ecclesiastes as we look to Lent, and to essential goal of our life:
The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.
Yes, look to your own judgment. Have a healthy Fear of God and a sober appreciation that judgment looms for us all. Prepare for your won judgment and help others prepare for theirs insofar as it is your duty to remind and prepare them.
If you have suffered injustice, or grow weary of these sinful times, remember God sees all and others will answer to God for what they have done if they have not repented. Pray that they do, for nothing will be unrequited and every idle word will have to be accounted for (see Mat 12:36).
Do not delay your own repentance either. Tomorrow is not promised, but judgment is.
Jesus our Judge says: For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen. (Luke 8:17-18)
Jesus gets the last word!
This video is an allegory of a woman who rejects the order and offer of truth. Truth offers his friendship, and after rejections, warns, admonishes and offers again. Her rejection of truth persists and great is her ruin.
When we read today’s Gospel we must be careful not to misinterpret its basic vision. Jesus is not telling us what to do, but offering us something to receive. The wrong way to interpret this gospel is to simply hear Jesus say, “Stop worrying.” We all get this advice from people every day and it isn’t very helpful. This is not what Jesus is saying. For, remember, in the Sermon of the Mount which we are reading, Jesus is describing what a transformed human person is like. And what he is teaching us here is that, as He begins to live his life in us many of our anxieties will diminish and go away.
The transformed human person trusts God, and is even able to see God’s hand in the difficulties of life. It is this trust growing in us by God’s grace that ultimately diminishes and removes fear. Trust God and fear diminishes. This is the gift that Jesus offers in this Gospel.
We can distinguish three particular aspects of anxiety that Jesus sets forth: The Problem of Possessions, the Problem of Paternity, and the Problem of Priority. Let’s look at each and see how the Lord want to free us from them.
1. The Problem of Possessions – The text says, No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is variously understood as riches, greed, or possession. In an extended sense, it can refer to the agenda of the world which is focused essentially on material things and which ties our dignity only to those things.
Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that we cannot serve mammon if we wish to serve God. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein) which more specifically means to “serve as a slave.” We tend to miss the strength of the text when we miss the slavery aspect. For it may happen in our culture that one serves in a job or some capacity yet, after work hours, goes home and is free of obligations. Hence we tend to figure we CAN serve God and mammon. But the Greek here speaks, not of a mere servant, but a slave. And a slave is wholly given over to the will of another. The Greek thus is more intense than the English.
What the Lord is saying is, Look, you’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or you’re going to be a slave of the world.” And the honest truth is that most people are a slave of the world, a slave of mammon, riches, greed and the agendas associated with it. These worldly things tend to completely overwhelm us and then, when we hear of some demand of God, we feel overwhelmed, even angry that something “more” is required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are a slave to mammon.
We are usually too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but the fact is most of us are, to a large extent. The world and its demands press on us, and take up nearly all the oxygen in our life. It is this terrible slavery that is a huge source of our anxiety and from which the Lord offers to free us. The Lord’s describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to Mammon, to the world, it’s riches and agenda:
I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear….. Why are you anxious about clothes? Do not worry and say, What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’
Still anxious! For us who live in the Western World, the anxieties about merely HAVING such things may have receded a bit. We are well supplied and may not worry IF we will have clothes, food etc. But even having them in abundance, still we obsessively worry them. For example, we worry if we have the right clothes, if they are in fashion, if they look good on us, etc. We worry that we eat too much salt, too much fat, indeed, many are quite obsessed about what they eat. We have never lived so long, and so healthy, and yet we have never been so anxious about our health! It’s amazing when you think of it, we have plenty of food and still we worry about food! Worry, worry, worry. Anxiety about these things is a sign that we are slaves to them. Scripture says, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Eccles 5:12)
What the Lord offers us here to live his life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but slaves to him. We may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: We are so small and powerless, we are going to be slaves of someone. It might as well be the Lord. Being wholly devoted to the Lord and what pleases him breaks our obsession with the world, money, possessions, popularity, fashion and the like.
As the Lord’s life and His will begin to replace our own life and will, our obsession with the world’s demands diminishes and it’s power is broken. As we grow in to a deeper relationship with the Lord, our ties and concerns with worldly agendas fade. And as the ties are broken the anxiety diminishes.
You and I, in our flesh are not going to stop worrying. But the Lord, living his life in us, isn’t worried at all. And as His power and influence over us grows, the worries lessen, the anxiety goes.
This is the gift the Lord is offering if we but let him take greater possession of our hearts. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, sacraments, daily doses of scripture and spiritual reading. Gradually the Lord’s heart, mind, and will transform our heart, mind and will to be like his own.
2. The Problem of Paternity – The Lord Jesus wants to draw us to deeper relationship with his Father. It remains a common spiritual problem that, even those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, still find the Eternal Father to be distant or remote. To many, the Father is a stranger. They have surely heard of Him and read of Him in the Scriptures. But he is stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of him. There are Old Testament texts that may come to mind, or perhaps some people struggle because their earthly Father was either stern or remote. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus want to lead to us His Father. Note that the phrase, “your heavenly Father” occurs twice in this passage and four times in Chapter 6 overall. There are two other references to the Father as “God” in today’s gospel, and, it is in Chapter 6 of Matthew, that Jesus teaches us the “Our Father.”
Now all of these references to the Father, in close proximity to the invitation, “do not worry,” cannot be overlooked. There is a to be seen here an antidote to anxiety in having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need. He cares for birds and flowers and countless other things, and thus he is able and willing to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening in anxiety.
Perhaps an illustration will help. When I was six years old, I had something of a fear that someone would break in to our home, or that perhaps something bad would happen in the night. But when my Father was home I did not have these fears. In 1968 he left for Vietnam and was gone a year. In that year I had an extended bout of on-going fear that something bad might happen in the night. Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. But in 1969 he returned and my fears went away. I did not cause them to go away. It was not an act of the will on my part, that was able to dismiss my fears. It was simply this, Daddy was home.
And thus, you and I may not simply be able to dismiss our fears and anxieties by a simple act of the will. But, to the degree that our “Daddy-God” is near, and we feel his presence, our fears just go away.
Here is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep, personal experience of, and love for his Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. But when we experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we experience our fears melting away.
Seek this gift from Jesus that his Father will be known and loved by you, that His presence will be close at hand. And then, watch your fears melt away. The Lord Jesus can do this for us. Take time and slowly read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), and realize that the parable is really about the Father, more than the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.”
3. The Problem of Priority. The Text says, But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. One of our greatest struggles is to have proper priorities and, in the end, to do just one thing. This third matter is not unlike the first but it is more about choices and directions rather than things and allegiances.
The simple truth is that we have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and how to make good decisions. This causes a lot of grief and anxiety for us. We want too many things. We want to please too many people. We are too easily distracted from our goal. In many ways we have not even fully clarified our goal.
What is it that you want? What is the one thing that really guides every other thing you do? Now be honest! You may say “God.” You may say “the world” or “the career.” But the fact is, a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer as to what the one thing they want is. The fact is they want a lot of things, and have never really sat down and reflectively determined the one, over-arching goal of their life. And thus they run about, chasing butterflies and experiencing lots of anxiety.
Imagine a man driving north to New York from Philadelphia. And he knows this is his destination. Along the way he sees lots of signs but is able to quickly determine which ones pertain to his journey, and which ones are to be ignored. If he sees a sign that says, 95 South Baltimore, he is able to simply ignore the sign and experiences no anxiety about it at all.
But now imagine another man who is not sure where he is going. It may be New York, or maybe somewhere else. He just isn’t all that sure. Frankly, he hasn’t thought about it all that much and just sort of lets life happen. Now HE sees the sign 95 South Richmond and struggles to know if he should take it or not. The sign makes him anxious. It is a fork in the road and he is not sure what to do. Should he take it, or not? And even if he does finally make a choice, he wonders if he did the right thing. His choice only heightens his anxiety. He made a choice but keeps looking back, second-guessing and wondering. Yes, he is anxious, for he has not sought first to determine his real destination.
Many live this way today. They have no real priority, no definite choice. And even if they have some vague direction (e.g. “I want to be happy”) they have little idea what it really takes to get there. And frankly, they don’t want to know the specifics all that much. Commitments and decisions are eschewed. But, strangely, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they are not less anxious, they are more anxious. Every intersection is bewildering: “What should I do?”
Now the Lord wants to save us all this anxiety and thus offers us the grace to become clear about what we want and where we are going. As He begins to live his life more fully in us, our mind gets clearer, our heart desires with greater clarity. When Jesus’ own life begins to replace our own, we want what He wants. And he wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves his Father and everyone and everything His Father loves.
And so do we. By grace and by degrees the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us and increasingly our life becomes about only one thing: “That I want to die and leave this world loving God and his kingdom….That I want to be him forever.”
Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not merely saying to us that, by our own flesh power, we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depends on us, it will last twenty minutes (max).
No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person, and what we will increasingly experience if we let him live his life in us and transform us by stages. This work begins in us and continues when we get on our knees and beg the Lord to do it. It begins and continues when we are serious about having a steady diet of prayer, scripture, Church teaching, Sacraments, Holy Mass and holy fellowship.
Now if you want to just stay anxious and fretful, fine, you can have all my turns. But, if you seek serenity, then ask the Lord into your life, re-invite him every day. Stay faithful to spiritual practices. And if you do, I promise you (I am a witness), you will see anxieties lessen, fears abate, serenity grow and confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.
This video illustrates the Scripture: but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Eccles 5:12)
And this Video speaks of the doing just one thing (pardon the slight profanity):
As a teenager I remember resenting how adults would try and prevent me from doing what I pleased. They would often warn me not to “learn the hard way” that something was wrong. I would often be told that I should learn from them and their experiences not to make the same mistakes they did. The rebel in me thought that it might be fun and pleasurable to “make a few mistakes of my own.” Of course I pridefully thought that I would escape the consequences.
In the end of course they were right, and one the most valuable gifts I have received from others to have learned from their experience. As a pastor too I must say that my staff has preserved me from innumerable errors through their expertise and long experience with the parish.
The word “experience” comes from the Latin experientia, meaning the act of trying or testing. More deeply it comes from two Latin words, ex (out of) + periri (which is akin to periculum, meaning peril or danger). Hence “experience” refers to those have endured trials, perils, testing, and dangers, and speak out of these to us so we don’t have to endure such things. It is a very great gift!
The Church too offers us the great gift of long experience. Indeed, one of the great advantages of making our home in the Catholic Church is that we are at the feet of a wise and experienced teacher who has “seen it all.” The Scriptures, the Catechism, the lives of the Saints, all the Church’s teaching, is a wealth of knowledge and collected experience for us. Through this vast treasury The Church, as a good mother and teacher, helps us to learn from the experiences of others.
At this point I would like for G.K. Chesterton to do the talking:
The other day a well-known writer, otherwise quite well-informed, said that the Catholic Church is always the enemy of new ideas. It probably did not occur to him that his own remark was not exactly in the nature of a new idea. …Nevertheless, the man who made that remark about Catholics meant something….What he meant was that, in the modern world, the Catholic Church is in fact the enemy of many influential fashions; most of which … claim to be new. [But] nine out of ten of what we call new ideas, are simply old mistakes.
The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves….There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and nearly all errors.
The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them. On this map of the mind the errors are marked…[but] the greater part of it consists of playgrounds and happy hunting-fields, where the mind may have as much liberty as it likes. But [the Church] does definitely take the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction…
By this means, it does prevent men from wasting their time or losing their lives upon paths that have been found futile or disastrous again and again in the past, but which might otherwise entrap travelers again and again in the future.
The Church does make herself responsible for warning her people against these; she does dogmatically defend humanity from its worst foes… Now all false issues have a way of looking quite fresh, especially to a fresh generation. ..[But] we must have something that will hold the four corners of the world still, while we make our social experiments or build our Utopias. (From Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (1926). Reprinted in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 3 Ignatius Press 1990)
Yes, what a gift. Many may take of the role of a pouting teenager and be resentful at any warning from the Church. But in the end, It’s a mighty fine gift to be able to learn from others and benefit from their experience.
Here’s a funny commercial that shows the value of learning from others experiences.
We are reading through some wonderful “Wisdom Sayings” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours at this time. Several of the sayings speak to the relationship of suffering and wisdom. And in this way the foolishness of our age is disclosed which is so hyper-focused on avoiding suffering at all costs. Perhaps the link of suffering and wisdom is not the most pleasant of associations, but it is no less true for its difficulty. Lets consider a few of the sayings.
The tone was set in the psalm of the day which says,
Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart. (Ps 89:3)
At every funeral, in the last portion of my sermon, I say to the faithful very plain terms, “You are going to die, and you don’t get to choose when.” I then ask them what are they doing to get ready to meet God.
For indeed, in our culture with all of our medicines and the fact that many of our elderly die in nursing homes away from our sight, we have tended to ignore, and hide the reality of death. And this creates the illusion that death is remote, that we can somehow stave it off indefinitely. Death to many people seems almost theoretical. And in our fallen state, of course we willingly entertain the illusion that death is remote.
And yet, in our almost unprecedented ability to maintain this illusion it is also evident how foolish our collective behavior has become. Many people live with almost no thought that they will one day die and appear before the judgment seat of Christ and have to render an account for what they do. Too many of us have wrongful priorities and spend most of our time in passing, uncertain unimportant things. And we spend little or no time on eternal and certain things like death, judgment, heaven and hell. Too many go on living in unrepentant mortal sin. All of this is foolishness on an almost colossal scale.
When I speak it funerals and say to people “You are going to die,” there is a visible reaction throughout the congregation. Some look anxiously amused, some look annoyed, and a few look knowingly and nod. But almost all are surprised, even shocked to hear something they almost never hear anymore.
As the Psalm verse implies by its logic, this silence about death is at the source of a great deal of the foolishness of our modern times. As most surveys indicate, it is evident that upwards of 75-80% of the people are not living in any discernible way that acknowledges that they will die and must prepare for it. Most are not praying, they not reading Scripture, they are not getting to Mass, or any church, they are not receiving Communion, and many are in serious and unrepentant mortal sin. All of this is a foolish neglect giving the judgment that is coming upon them.
Sadly when they do confront death and find themselves in a church for the funeral of a friend or relative, they are more likely to hear a “sermon” about what a great guy Joe was, but little of anything of their need to pray for him, and prepare for death themselves.
And thus the verse from the Psalm is indeed poignant, beautiful and necessary: Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.
There then comes a number of wise sayings in the book of Ecclesiastes which also speak to this theme.
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting, For that is the end of every man, and the living should take it to heart.
To be sure, there is a time to celebrate and to feast. We ought to rejoice with those who rejoice. We ought to celebrate the goodness of God. But as the saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is also a place for morning, and suffering, and that in some sense it is better for us.
The text goes on to say why.
Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.
Yes, mirth and celebration brings joy, but sorrow and suffering brings wisdom. And though joy is wonderful, it passes in this world, yet wisdom perdures draws us to God. Wisdom is of God, and the things waiting for us in heaven, it draws us to that place were true joys are, joys which never end.
And then text drives the point further home:
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth….For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the fool’s laughter.
Yes, jokes and lighthearted laughter have their moment and they have their place. But too much of them draws us into foolishness. For the need to laugh if we are not careful, comes to take an almost addictive quality.
Any look at the “Comedy Channel” will disclose this. Most of the humor there is edgier and edgier, more and more bawdy, filled with sexual content and the demeaning of many human values such as family life, sexuality, and any number of human virtues. Comedians stand before large crowds in theaters and have them laughing about deeply foolish behaviors, such as drunkenness, adultery, lust, greed, pornography, etc. Comedians also spent a great deal of time demeaning well-known figures, and many important human institutions and activities. At most comedy clubs, almost nothing is sacred, and people will laugh at some of the most hurtful and hateful things.
And thus the text from Ecclesiastes warns that the heart of fools is in the house of mirth, as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the fool’s laughter. Though mirth has its place, it must be balanced with sobriety and respect for others, for what is holy, decent, admirable, and pure. This is seldom the case with comedy today.
Is all this too harsh an indictment? The text from Ecclesiastes goes on to say:
It is better to hearken to the wise man’s rebuke than to hearken to the song of fools;
Yes, some who read all this, may consider this biblical wisdom to be “negative,”too judgmental, and too rebuking.
Before rushing to this judgment one ought to consider that too many of us have had a steady diet of “the song the fools.” Whether it is the filthy comedy just described, or the often insipid music, movies and other media of pop-culture which celebrate things like fornication, rebellion and gratuitous violence. One ought to consider that a steady diet of this sort of stuff makes God’s word seem too severe, too rebuking.
Is the problem God’s Word which summons us to sobriety, or is the problem sin which makes us foolish and hypersensitive to any correction? Light is only obnoxious to those who are accustomed to the darkness.
Is God’s word unbalanced, or are we? You decide for yourself, but as for me and my soul I will strive to listen to the Lord and seek balance on his terms not on the world’s terms, which are already the outer extreme. God’s Word is the reference, not the world’s excesses.
We must look at more Wisdom sayings next week! Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Pray for us.
Here’s a song about meditating on what is good, true and beautiful which, having been discarded are not sought as a pearl of great price:
It is late on the east coast of the United States, the 23rd hour (11 pm) of the day we have called Feb 25. But where my Uncle, Fr. George Pope lives, (he is a priest in Bangladesh), not only is it Feb 26th, but it has been so for some time. It is 9 in the morning there and they are likely arriving at work just now; on a day that has yet to begin for me. Further to the east, in Sydney Australia, it is 1pm in the afternoon of feb 26th and they are returning from lunch; before I have even gone to bed. In Wellington, New Zealand, their work day is almost over, it is 3pm and many are looking to wrap things up in couple of hours and head home from a day that doesn’t even exist for me yet.
Time, what could be simpler than for me to look at the clock and say, It is 11pm June 15. And yet what could be more mysterious than a simple thing like 11pm, Feb 15; for time interacts with space and folds back on itself. It is simply a human reckoning of a mysterious passage.
And yet the mystery is also beautiful. At any given time some of us sleep, and some of us are at noonday. There is a wonderful verse in an old English hymn that says:
The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
Other verses beautifully say:
We thank Thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.
As o’er each continent and island,
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away.
Magnificent lines, a beautiful and poetic description of the Church, always praising, always sighing, always at worship. While some sleep, the praises continue. One of the psalms says, Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations. (Psalm 113:2-4). And yet the praises never end for the sun is always rising, even as it is setting somewhere on this earth.
And Malachi, prophesying the glory of the Mass celebrated worldwide says, My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 1:11). At any one time, Mass is surely being offered somewhere on the orb of this earth. The Liturgy of the Hours too, always uttering forth from the lips of the faithful, somewhere on this spinning orb of the earth. Yes, in the mystery of time this planet of ours is a perpetual place of praise. And our praises join the perpetual praises of heaven for as the Liturgy proclaims (in the words of the new translation): And so, Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the host and Powers of heaven, as we sing the hymn of your glory, without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy Holy Lord God of hosts…..
Yes, the mystery of time and our praises caught up in the ever moving sweep of time. What St Paul says to us as individuals is also fulfilled by the worldwide Church. And the advice is so simple and yet profound. He says, Pray always (1 Thess 5:17)
Photo Credit: Snapshot from Daylightmap.com
Here is the full hymn (The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended) that was quoted above. The full text is here: The Day Thou Gavest.