The late columnist Joseph Sobran once pondered the special hatred of the world for Christ. He wrote,
Great as Shakespeare is, I never lose sleep over anything he said … By the same token nobody ever feels guilty about anything Plato or Aristotle said … We aren’t tempted to resist them as we are tempted to resist Christ (Joseph Sobran, Subtracting Christianity, pp. 1-2).
I have often contemplated this hostility toward and resistance to Christ and His Body, the Church; it is unparalleled. Few of the Protestant denominations experience this hatred. The Buddhists don’t seem to be subject to it. Even the Muslims are exempt despite the distinctly non-Western views that predominantly Muslim countries have on many social issues important to the American Left.
There is an almost visceral hatred for Jesus Christ and His Church that is so over the top, so irrational, that one has to marvel at it. The world doth protest too much. Why?
Is it fear? Perhaps, but the Church is not powerful enough to “force our views” on everyone, as some who hate us say that we do.
There is no rational explanation for the world’s intense fear of and hatred for Christ and Catholicism except to echo the words of Christ Himself:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without cause’ (Jn 15:18-25).
Yes, they hated Him without cause—at least any rational cause. There must be a cause, but it is so irrational that I surmise it must be that Satan himself is interacting with our flesh. Satan hates Christ in a way that he doesn’t hate Muhammad or Luther. Christ is a true threat, so Satan rages; the world and flesh draw from this rage and fear.
Think I’m exaggerating? It seems to be fine for excerpts from the Quran to be studied in public schools, but just try to put anything from one of the gospels into the curriculum and the outrage (closely followed by lawsuits) is nearly instantaneous. The annual “Christmas war” now targets not only nativity scenes and Santa Claus (a secular remake of St. Nicholas, by the way) but even the colors red and green!
Sobran said it well: Christ makes people lose sleep in ways that others do not. His words and teachings touch a core that others never do. That the world bristles is a compliment. Jesus Christ must be taken seriously. You may be mad, or sad, or glad, but no one goes away from Jesus Christ unchanged or merely “informed.” His words have an authority that demands a response. The world seems to know this and thus bristles. Some love Him and some hate Him, but few are neutral.
Why is this so? Could it be that Christ really is who He says He is: Lord and God? Could it be that it is His voice echoing in every conscience? This strange, irrational, excessive fear; this anger toward and even hatred of Christ attests to the truth of His claim to be the one whom we will either love or hate. One cannot serve two masters (cf Mat 6:24).
Shakespeare’s words don’t make anyone lose sleep; neither do Plato’s or Aristotle’s. Why is that?
To every secularist and atheist, I direct these questions: Why do you protest Christ and His Church so much? Why do you exaggerate our power? If we really are irrelevant, if our “day is over” and we are laughably outdated, then why the fear, anger, and protest? Do our “myths” scare you? If they are mere myths, then why fear them? Why don’t you direct the same anger toward Buddha or Muhammad? Is it that still, small voice in your conscience?
What is it? Why your sleepless wrath?
Sobran observed the odd spectacle that there is greater intensity for Christ from His opponents than from His friends:
Sometimes I think the anti-Christian forces take Christ more seriously than most nominal Christians do … [Indeed] Such a strong and unique personality [as Christ had] could only meet strong and unique resistance. That is why Christians shouldn’t resent the resistance of those who refuse to celebrate his birth [and protest us doing so]. In their way, these people are his witnesses too (Joseph Sobran, Subtracting Christianity, pp. 7-8).
So, while it is irksome, take the special hatred of the world toward Christ and His Church as a compliment. Somehow, we are viewed as a unique threat. Despite all the scandals, despite the timidity of our clergy and laity, we apparently still pose a threat. It must be Christ shining through in spite of us. Shine, Jesus, shine!
At daily Mass this week (7th week of the year) we are reading from the Book of Sirach. God inspired Jesus ben Sirach to pen advice so beautiful and wise that the early Church used it to instruct catechumens in their first year. Consider the following passage:
My son, when you come to serve the LORD, stand in justice and fear, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, incline your ear and receive the word of understanding, undisturbed in time of adversity. Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not; thus will you be wise in all your ways.
Accept whatever befalls you, when sorrowful, be steadfast, and in crushing misfortune be patient; For in fire gold and silver are tested, and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and God will help you; trust in him, and he will direct your way; keep his fear and grow old therein.
You who fear the LORD, wait for his mercy, turn not away lest you fall. You who fear the LORD, trust him, and your reward will not be lost. You who fear the LORD, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy. You who fear the LORD, love him, and your hearts will be enlightened. Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his commandments and been forsaken? Has anyone called upon him and been rebuffed? Compassionate and merciful is the LORD; he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth (Sirach 2:1-11).
We can see in this text a prudent description of reality along with some remedies and rewards. Let’s ponder them.
The text speaks plainly of the things that befall God’s people: trials, adversity, sorry, crushing misfortune, and humiliation. Therefore, we are not exempt from the cross but deeply associated with it. We have been crucified with Christ and to the world. There will be times of joy and victory to be sure, but this world is not our ultimate home. Satan is the prince of this world and God mysteriously allows him significant influence and power—for a time.
This world, then, is a place of trial and testing for us. It is a crucible, an exile, a valley of tears. Worldly victories are not promised, but heavenly ones are, provided we persevere to the end. Jesus said, In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). To the Church at Smyrna He said, Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will suffer tribulation for ten days. Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev 2:10).
This is our reality. The world has joys and God grants many blessings and consolation, but on the whole, this life is a time of testing and significant pain.
The text goes on to set forth certain requirements, admonitions, and remedies. Let’s look at some of them.
Stand in justice and fear. We must do what is right out of a holy reverence for and obedience to God; this will secure our inheritance in the heavenly kingdom. Without the holy fear of God, we will fear the world and its punishments. If you’re going to fear something, it might as well be the God who loves you! The world’s blows are only temporary; God’s promises are eternal. We must be actively engaged in doing and trumpeting what is right rather than passively sitting in resignation. Stand! Do your work, revere God, and prefer His favor to the trinkets this world offers.
Be steadfast. The world constantly bombards us with what is new, trendy, and flashy. Do not be mesmerized. Stand firm, stably rooted in the time-tested wisdom of God; it has lasted millennia for a reason. When difficulties come, remember that “troubles don’t last always.” You may weep for a night, but joy will come with the morning light. Stand firm; do not be easily moved.
Incline your ear to the Word. Be deeply rooted in the Word of God. Let it dwell within you richly. The Word of God is a prophetic declaration of reality. It tells us what is really going on and what shall ultimately be. Savor God’s word; let it become the very substance of your thoughts. Our minds are going to be polluted if we immerse ourselves in so much filth and error. The mind is like a sponge. If you put a sponge in dirty water, it is going to come out dirty. How do you clean a dirty sponge? By plunging it into clean water, wringing it out, putting it back into the clean water, and then wringing it out again. The Word of God is that clean water for us, for our mind. If we are going to make it through this world of error, confusion, and misplaced priorities, we need the steady, cleansing influence of God’s Word. Put on your gospel glasses and see the world through them!
Be undisturbed. Do not be drawn in to the turmoil of the world. If we are rooted in God’s Word and have our heart fixed on Him, then even if there are storms on the surface of our life, deep within is a serenity that the world did not give and thus cannot take away.
Be Patient. The word patience is rooted in the Latin word patior (I suffer). Thus, patience is the capacity or willingness to suffer in the moment for the sake of some greater good. Patience is rooted in the perspective that comes from faith. We may have to suffer for a time, but those sufferings will produce a harvest of virtue and many other good fruits.
Cling to the Lord. Run to the Lord. Hold to His unchanging hand. Pray every day and always keep Him on your mind. This is essential lest we lose our perspective.
Accept what befalls you. The word accept is rooted in the Latin word coeptare (to carry). To accept something is thus to pick it up and carry it for a time. Acceptance does not mean approval; neither does it mean resignation. It simply means being willing to carry what the Lord asks. We might rather that things be different. We might pray that the burden lessens or goes away, but for now, we must be willing to take up this or that cross and carry it for a while. Acceptance is a virtuous middle ground between delight and despair. To accept is to trust God and the truth that He asks this of me for now.
Turn not away. When the road gets difficult it is easy to become angry at God or to look for an easy way out. Doing what is easy today, however, often serves merely to postpone troubles to tomorrow. Do not turn aside from the Lord. He knows what is best; we do not. Trust Him. Keep following Him, and do not turn away.
Hope. Hope is more than a vague wish that things get better; it is the confident expectation that God will provide me with the blessings necessary to get me home, that He will help me to attain eternal life. Therefore, hope points to and empowers fortitude and courage.
Love the Lord. Pray earnestly for the gift of a tender and deep love for God. Love lightens every load and disposes us to want what our beloved wants. A deep, tender, and grateful love for God helps us to endure and to run joyfully toward our goal of being happy with Him forever.
If we do these things, the Lord promises rewards, both here in this world and most perfectly in Heaven, where joys unspeakable and glories untold await us. The text from Sirach speaks of present and future rewards: thus will you be wise in all your ways. A worthy people are helped and directed by God through their trust in Him. Lasting joy and the fruits of mercy will be ours. Our hearts and minds will be enlightened. We will not be disappointed, but will be saved, protected, and always with the Lord.
In the Office of Readings for December 26th (Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr) there is a meditation by Saint Fulgentius of Respe describing love and forgiveness as the way by which the heavens were opened for St. Stephen. Saint Fulgentius commends the forgiving love of St. Stephen for his enemies and calls love a stairway to heaven:
My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together…. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end (St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop, Sermo 3, 1-3, 5-6: CCL 91A, 905-909).
This is solid biblical advice, for God is love, and Heaven is union with God. Hence, we must walk in love and become God’s love to enjoy the perfect communion with God that is Heaven.
The 1971 Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” is among the most popular rock songs of all time. When asked about the lyrics, the author, Robert Plant, said that he thought that their popularity stemmed from the fact that they are an “abstraction.” He added, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way — and I wrote the lyrics” [*].
Some of us back then wanted the almost mystical opening section of the song to have religious meaning. After all, it spoke of a stairway to heaven and of the “May queen.” If there really were a stairway to Heaven but a highway to hell, it would explain life well. However, there are many problems with the song’s lyrics. Its notion of that stairway to Heaven is ambiguous at best and antithetical to religious and biblical teaching at worst.
The lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” are shown below in bold italics, while my commentary (much of it lighthearted) is presented in plain red text.
There’s a lady who’s sure All that glitters is gold And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
One can’t buy a stairway to Heaven with mere gold, and even if it were theoretically possible, we would never be able to accumulate enough. So maybe the lady should be less sure in her gold and more trusting in and dependent on God. Maybe she should concentrate on loving the light that makes her gold glitter rather than the glittering gold itself. There’s an old gospel song that says, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.”
When she gets there she knows If the stores are all closed With a word she can get what she came for
No, actually, she can’t. Only Jesus opens the door, and He will be our judge. No one forces the heavenly gates open. Of Jesus, Scripture says, What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (Rev 3:7). The woman’s gold is no good in Heaven; all that matters is knowing the gatekeeper, Jesus.
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it.
There’s a sign on the wall But she wants to be sure ’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings In a tree by the brook There’s a songbird who sings Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving.
To some degree we love ambiguity because it allows us to avoid making decisions and being obedient to what is taught. However, sometimes words are very clear in their meaning and we must decide either to accept and live by them or to reject them and suffer any consequences. This is especially the case with God’s revealed word. As for our thoughts, we love to rationalize and make excuses, but deep down we hear the voice of God echoing; we know what we are doing and whether it is right or wrong.
Ooh, it makes me wonder. Ooh, it makes me wonder.
Well, don’t wonder forever. Sooner, rather than later, we have to make some decisions. Do you want what God is offering or not? Do you want to be holy or not?
There’s a feeling I get When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
Don’t look to the west; Look to the east where you will see Christ come again in glory. The west is the land of sunset and darkness. The east is the land of sunrise and light, Jesus, the Light of World. Above all, make sure that when your spirit is leaving it leaves to the east, to the light! Do not yearn for the darkness.
And it’s whispered that soon,
If we all call the tune Then the piper will lead us to reason And a new day will dawn For those who stand long And the forests will echo with laughter.
Yikes! Don’t ever think that if we call the tune we will be led to utopia. No, no, no! Let God call the dance; let Him set the tune and the path. Utopianism led to the horrifying killing fields of the 20th century. The forests are certainly not echoing with laughter; if anything, they are being consumed by the lustful blazes of a world insistent upon marching to its own tune rather than God’s.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow Don’t be alarmed now It’s just spring clean
for the May queen
Well, I suppose that alarming movements in our life can alert us to trouble and summon us to positive change. Let’s let this verse stand, but the May queen referred to here can’t be Mary because she doesn’t need spring cleaning.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by But in the long run There’s still time to change the road you’re on
It is true that there are just two paths; there is no third way given! Conversion is still possible if you’re on the wrong path. But be sure to switch paths only if you’re not walking with Jesus.
And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go In case you don’t know The piper’s calling you to join him
Danger, Will Robinson! We learned that the piper is a symbol for the world. Do not follow this piper. Ignore his tunes!
And as we wind on down the road Our shadows taller than our soul There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
Ah, here is Mary! See, I told you this is a religious song!
How everything still turns to gold
Oops, where did that come from? I guess this isn’t Mary—unless she’s into the prosperity gospel.
And if you listen very hard The tune will come to you at last
Now there’s that crazy piper again with his worldly tune, still trying to mesmerize me and give me an earworm of earthly tunes!
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
No, sorry, only God can be all in all. We might all be one, but even together we could never be all. It’s great to be a steady rock, but that is only accomplished by building our house on the solid rock of Christ’s teachings.
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven
No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it—but she can ask Jesus!
Well, I guess we’re just going to have to accept that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the religious song we’d like it to be. Whatever “Heaven” is alluded to, it isn’t our heaven.
It’s better to listen to St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, who reminds us that the true stairway to Heaven is the way of love—and not mere human love, but divine love infused in the soul. It is God’s love that animates our actions and lifts us higher as we accept its movements in our heart. This love cannot be bought; it is offered freely.
It does “cost” us, however, as our favorite sins fall away, and our priorities and passions change for the better. As the fruit of love, these changes are accepted not because we must but because we want to.
Yes, love is the stairway to Heaven. An old song, older than this 1970s song says, “Love lifted me … When nothing else could help, love lifted me.” There is our stairway to Heaven, not purchased with gold but with the precious blood of Jesus.
One of the dangers in presenting New Testament moral teaching is reducing the Gospel to a moralism, a rule to follow using the power of one’s own flesh. This is an incorrect notion because for a Christian, the moral life is not merely achieved; it is received. The moral life is not an imposition; it is a gift from God.
The Gospel chosen for Thanksgiving Day features the familiar story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of whom returns to thank Him. The ingratitude of the other nine prompts an irritable response from Jesus, who more than suggests that they also should have returned to give thanks. Reading this Gospel on the surface, it is easy to conclude that it is a moralism about being thankful to God and others. Well, that’s all well and good, but simply reminding people of a rule of polite society isn’t really the Gospel.
True thankfulness is receiving from God a deeply grateful heart so that we do not merely say thank you in a perfunctory way, but are deeply moved with gratitude. We are not merely being polite or justly rendering a debt of obligation; we actually are grateful from the heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift from God, which proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, but because it naturally flows from a profound experience of gratitude. This is the Gospel. It is not a moralism, but a truth of a transformed heart.
An anointing that we should seek from God is the powerful transformation of our intellect and heart such that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from God.
Permit me a few thoughts on the basis for a deepening awareness of gratitude. Ultimately, gratitude is a grace, but having a deeper awareness of the intellectual basis for it can help to open us more fully to this gift.
We are contingent beings who depend upon God for our very existence. He holds together every fiber of our being: every cell, every part of every cell, every molecule, every part of every molecule, every atom, every part of every atom. God facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body. God sustains every detail of the universe: the perfectly designed orbit of Earth so that we do not overheat or freeze, the magnetic shield around Earth protecting us from the harmful aspects of solar radiation, and every process (visible and hidden) of everything on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy. All of this, and us, are contingent; we are sustained by God and provided for by Him. The magnitude of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge! Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful.
Every good thing we do is a gift from God. St. Paul said, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had achieved? (1 Cor 4:7) Elsewhere, he wrote, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us. On judgment day we cannot say to God, “Look what I’ve done; you owe me Heaven.” All we can say on that day is “Thank you!”
Gifts sometimes come in strange packages. There are some gifts of God that do not seem like gifts at all. There are sudden losses, tragedies, natural disasters, and the like. In such moments we can feel forsaken by God; gratitude is the last thing on our mind. But Scripture bids us to look again: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good, something better. He is paving a path to glory—perhaps through the cross—but unto glory. We may have questions, but remember that Jesus said, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way.
Yes, all is gift. Absolutely everything is gift. Even our failures are gifts, provided we are in Christ and learn humility from them. For what shall we give thanks? Everything! There is an old saying, “Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.” Like you, I am asked many times a day, “How are you doing?” I’ve trained myself to respond, “More blessed than I deserve.”
The word “thanks” in English is unfortunately abstract. In Latin and the Romance languages, the words for thanks are more closely related to the concepts of grace and gift. In Latin, one says thank you by saying, “Gratias ago tibi,” or simply, “Gratias.” And although gratias is translated as “thanks,” it is really the same root word as that of “grace” and “gift,” which in Latin are rendered as “gratia.” Hence in saying this, one is exclaiming, “Grace!” or “Gifts!” It is the same in Spanish (Gracias) and Italian (Grazie). French has a slightly different approach: Merci comes from the Latin merces, which refers to something that has been paid for or given freely. So all of these languages recognize that the things for which we are grateful are really gifts. The English word “thanks” does not quite make the connection. About the closest we get in English are the words “gratitude” and “grateful.” All of these words (gratias, gracias, grazie, merci, gratitude) teach us that everything is gift!
Gratitude is a gift to be received from God and should be asked for humbly. One can dispose oneself to it by reflecting on some of the things described above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift that springs from a heart moved, astonished, and deeply aware of the fact that all is gift.
The Thanksgiving holiday that is upon us, while religious in theme, has a secular origin. Two presidents, Washington and Lincoln, are most responsible for its existence on our national calendar in late November. Here is President Washington’s proclamation:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and
Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness”:
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3rd day of October, A.D. 1789
George Washington, President
This is Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
Yes, there once was a time, in a galaxy far, far away, when presidents of the United States could make proclamations exhorting Americans to their religious duties without being accused of offenses against the “wall” that some think should separate faith and civic life.
At Mass for Tuesday of the 18th Week of the Year, we read from one of the later chapters of Jeremiah the Prophet, who wrote during the time of the Babylonian exile. He serves as a kind of “tour guide” through a land of ruin, one that seems all too familiar to us today.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, ignoring numerous warnings and calls to repentance, later experienced the same fate; the Babylonians laid siege and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Just prior to this destruction, Jeremiah saw the glory of God lift from the Temple and move away to the east. The city and even the Temple now lay in ruins. The Ark of the Covenant was lost and the survivors were deported to Babylon.
Yes, it was a terrible destruction, but one that could have been avoided if the Lord’s people had only heeded the warnings of the prophets and returned wholeheartedly to the Him and His commandments. With the Lord and within the safe walls of His commandments there is strength and protection. Outside the walls and His presence, Judah was a sitting duck, easy prey.
Let’s consider what the Lord says through Jeremiah in today’s passage and ponder how this historical event speaks to our times.
Ruin –Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Incurable is your wound, grievous your bruise.
Simple medicines or bandages are not sufficient. These wounds are deep, foul, and festering. Sin does this to us spiritually as its evils go deeper and deeper. A simple skin cancer, left untreated, can find its way into inner organs and even reach our bones. So, too, does sin, untreated by repentance, grow more serious. It renders us vulnerable to deeper and more serious sins that bring spiritual ruin, darkness, and a stubbornly unrepentant demeanor in which the cancer of pride is in its final stages. Judah has reached this stage and the only medicine that is left is for the people to experience the full ramifications of their rejection of God.
What of the once-Christian West? What of America? Can we possibly think that our cultural revolution, rooted in sinful rebellion against authority, sacred Tradition, the moral vision of the Scriptures, and the meaning of human sexuality and marriage can yield anything but corruption? Can our greed, our insatiable desire for more no matter the human (or monetary) cost, forever mortgage our future? Have not our wounds multiplied and gone deeper? The blood of our aborted children cries out to Heaven. Our broken families multiply due to promiscuity and rampant divorce. Broken families yield a bumper crop of broken children as the cycle deepens. Are these wounds curable? Do we even show any willingness to take the necessary medicines of self-control, fidelity, and obedience to God’s vision? It seems not. Midnight fast approaches. As Jeremiah once warned the people of his time, so must we in the Church today send up the warning cry that our wounds are getting worse, the intellectual and moral darkness is growing ever deeper, and our time to repent is getting shorter. Soon enough, as with Ancient Israel and Judah, the full bill for our sin will come due.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:7-10).
Rejection –There is none to plead your cause, no remedy for your running sore, no healing for you. All your lovers have forgotten you, they do not seek you.
Among the things that the ancient Jews did was to run after other lovers and other remedies. They were entangled in foreign military alliances and became enamored of pagan culture and religion. God spoke of their running after pagan gods as infidelity and adultery, for they were espoused to Him.
As for us in the formerly Christian West, while we are not espoused to God as a nation (though surely as members of the Bride of Christ), we too have often sought solutions far from God or even opposed to Him. We have cast aside God’s plan for our happiness and bought into the notion that worldly indulgence and sin will bring us happiness and health. In so doing we call God a liar and forsake our covenant with Him. We run after other lovers, trusting the world, the flesh, and the devil instead of our God, who made us and saved us. Secular mindsets and even outright atheism have made deep inroads into our culture. Church attendance has plummeted while attention to the “bread and circuses” of the modern world has reached new highs. We trust our affluence, power, medicine, and science (all themselves great gifts of God), but we do not trust the true Shepherd and Lord of our souls, the only one who can really save us.
What are these philosophers that pose as healers and lovers, who have ushered in this ruin, doing now? They are doubling down on their false prescriptions and going ever deeper into darkness, repeating the lies of these worldly philosophies, glorying in the flesh, and marginalizing the vision of God. Moderns cry out “Love!” and speak of compassion, but it is a false love and a false compassion.
The text essentially asks, where are these lovers now? Where is the happiness and fulfillment they promised with their false notions of freedom?
Reason –I struck you as an enemy would strike, punished you cruelly; Why cry out over your wound? your pain is without relief. Because of your great guilt, your numerous sins, I have done this to you.
The consequences of sin cannot forever be postponed. Even if God mercifully protects us from some of them, He will not do so forever. God’s patience is directed toward our salvation. He gives us time to repent, but at some point (known only to Him) our presumptiveness eclipses His patience. The boil must be lanced; gangrenous tissue must be cut away. Only strong— even desperate—measures will work. They may seem to us to be cruel, but to do nothing would be to lose all, and that is far more cruel. Our sins and unrepentance “force” these difficult measures, so that at least a few might be saved.
When does a person, a culture, or a nation reach such a point? Only God knows, but why test the situation? The Lord says,
“… O Israel, if you would but listen to Me! ‘You shall not have in your midst a foreign god; you shall not bow to an alien god. I am the LORD your God Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’—open wide your mouth, and I will fill it.” But My people did not listen to My voice, Israel did not yield to Me; so I set him free with their stubborn heart, that they could follow their own counsels. O that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would follow My ways! At once I would subdue their enemies, against their foes bring back My hand. Those who hate the LORD shall cringe before Him; their doom will last forever. But He would [rather] feed him the finest wheat: and sate you with honey from the rock. (Ps 81:9-17).
Restoration – Thus says the LORD: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob, his dwellings I will pity; City shall be rebuilt upon hill, and palace restored as it was. From them will resound songs of praise, the laughter of happy men. I will make them not few, but many; they will not be tiny, for I will glorify them. His sons shall be as of old, his assembly before me shall stand firm; I will punish all his oppressors.
God permits these terrible ills to befall His people so that He might save at least some, a faithful remnant.
The people of Israel spent eighty years in Babylon, and then as if miraculously, God brought them back. The Babylonians were defeated by the Persians; Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted them to return to their land and even offered to help rebuild Jerusalem! Now that there is a purified remnant, God will begin again with His people. Future purifications will also be necessary.
What of us? In times of old, there was a faithful remnant that did not fully succumb to the darkness of the days. There were others who did repent; it is for their sake that God acts to bring an end to widespread evil lest all His people be consumed. Though none of us has lived a perfect life, through repentance we should seek to be the faithful remnant God acts to save. We are likely going to see even darker days before the evil of our times plays out and is purged. The battle is the Lord’s. For our part, we should seek to stay faithful, repent when we fall, and look to the day when God will restore this world or come again in glory.
The Church has survived many ups and downs in this world. Empires have risen and fallen, nations and cultures have come and gone, but we are still here proclaiming the gospel, in season and out of season, until the Lord shall come.
What is your mission and mine? Be the remnant! Yes, Lord, do what you need to do, but please, help us to stay faithful!
Reunion –His leader shall be one of his own, and his rulers shall come from his kin. When I summon him, he shall approach me; how else should one take the deadly risk of approaching me? says the LORD. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Here is the endgame. The Lord’s ultimate work for each of us is to restore ourselves to union with Him. Jesus came to give us access to the Father through the shedding of His Precious Blood. Jeremiah’s message to us is to stay faithful unto death, when we will be summoned to the Father, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus approach Him with the confidence of holiness granted to us by that grace. The Book of Hebrews describes this and gives us both hope and an exhortation:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:19-25).
Thus, a quick tour through a ruined land, but with our eyes set on a glorious reunion.
Meanwhile, be the remnant and stay faithful, by His grace. Let God do His work. Maranatha!
Physical hunger is a serious problem; We are obliged to assist the starving and malnourished. But even more prevalent these days is spiritual hunger, if not outright starvation. As is the case with physical hunger, the source of spiritual hunger is not God, who has given us abundant grace and truth; it is we who are the source. It is a strange starvation to be sure, for it is largely self-inflicted. Further, it seems to be at an advanced stage.
I am told that as physical starvation advances there comes a time when a kind of lethargy sets in. Although a person knows he is hungry, he lacks the mental acuity to want to do much about it. This seems to be the stage of spiritual starvation at which many Westerners find themselves today. Most people know they are spiritually hungry and are longing for something, but through a kind of lethargy and mental boredom, they don’t seem inclined to do much about it.
I’d like to look at the progressive stages of physical starvation (gleaned from several medical sources) and then speak of their spiritual equivalents. Please understand that when I use the pronoun “we” I am not necessarily talking about you, but rather about a large number, perhaps even a majority, of people in our culture today.
Weakness – In our time of spiritual starvation, a great moral weakness is evident. Self-control in the realm of sexuality and self-discipline in general seem increasingly lacking in our culture today. Many are too weak to keep the commitments they have made to marriage, religious life, or the priesthood. Addiction is a significant issue as well: addiction to alcohol, drugs, and pornography. In addition, we seem consumed by greed; we are obsessed with accumulating possessions, and the more we have the more we seem unable to live without them. Increasingly, people declare that they are not responsible for what they do and/or cannot help themselves. There is a general attitude that it is unreasonable to expect people to live out ordinary biblical morality, to have to suffer or endure the cross. All of these demonstrate weakness and a lack of courage, signaling the onset of spiritual starvation.
Confusion – As spiritual starvation sets in, the mind gets cloudy; thinking becomes distorted. There is a lot of confusion today about even the most basic moral issues. How could we get so confused as to think that killing unborn babies is OK? Sexual confusion is also rampant, so that what is contrary to nature (e.g., homosexual acts) is approved and what is destructive to the family (e.g., illicit heterosexual behavior) is widely accepted as well. Confusion is also deep about how to properly and effectively raise, train, discipline, and educate our children.
Irritability – As spiritual starvation progresses, a great deal of anger is directed at the Church whenever she addresses the malaise of our times. In addition, there is growing resistance to lawful authority and a loss of respect for elders and for tradition. St. Paul describes well the general irritability of a culture that has suppressed the truth about God and is spiritually starving: They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:29-31). Because we are starved of the common meal of God’s Word and revealed truth and because we have rejected natural law, we have been reduced to shouting matches and power struggles. We no longer agree on the essentials that the “food” of God’s truth provides. Having refused this sustenance, we have become irritable and strident.
Immune deficiency – As our spiritual starvation grows we cannot ward off the increasing attacks of the disease of sin. We more easily give way to temptation. Deeper and deeper bondage is increasingly evident in our sin-soaked culture. Things once thought to be indecent are now done openly and even celebrated. Many consider any suggested resistance to sin to be unreasonable, even impossible. Sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, abortion, the consumption of internet pornography, divorce, and cohabitation are becoming widespread. Like disease, sin spreads because we are less capable of fighting it off.
The body begins to feed on its own muscle tissue (after fat cells are depleted) – In our spiritual starvation, we start to feed on our very own. We kill our children inutero; we use embryos for research. We euthanize our elderly. Young people kill other young people in gang violence. We see strife, power struggles, and wars increase. In tight economic times, we who have depleted the fat cells of public funds and amassed enormous debt fight with one another over the scraps that are left and refuse to give up any of our own entitlements, instead of restraining our spending and re-examining our priorities. Starving people can be desperate, and desperate people often turn on others. In the end, we as a body are consuming our very self.
Internal organs begin to shut down – In the spiritually starving Western world, many of our institutions are becoming dysfunctional and shutting down. Our families are in the throes of a major crisis. Almost of half of all children today no longer live with both parents. Schools are in serious decline. Most public-school systems have been a disgrace for years. America, once at the top of worldwide academic performance, now lags far behind. Churches and parochial schools also struggle as Mass attendance has dropped in the self-inflicted spiritual starvation of our times. Government, too, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional; strident differences paralyze it, and scandals plague the public sector. As we go through the stages of starvation, important organs of our culture and our nation are shutting down.
Hallucinations – St. Paul spoke of the spiritually starved Gentiles of his day and said, their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools … Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:21-22,28). As we in the West spiritually starve, our thinking becomes increasingly bizarre, distorted, fanciful, silly, vain, and often lacking in common sense. Since our soul is starving, we hallucinate.
Convulsions and muscle spasms – Violence and turmoil run through our culture as basic social structures shut down and become dysfunctional. The breakdown of the family leads to many confused, incorrigible, and violent children. This is not just in the inner cities; violence, shootings, and gangs are in the suburbs as well. Even non-violent children have short attention spans and are often difficult to control and discipline. Although ADHD may well be over-diagnosed, overstimulated children with short attention spans are a real problem today. Adults, too, manifest a lot of convulsive and spasmodic behaviors, short attention spans, and mercurial temperaments. As we reach the advanced stages of spiritual starvation in our culture, convulsive and spasmodic behavior are an increasing problem.
Irregular heartbeat – In the spiritually starving West, it is not as though we lack all goodness. Our heart still beats, but it is irregular and inconsistent. We can manifest great compassion when natural disasters strike, yet still be coarse and insensitive at other times. We seem to have a concern for the poor, but abort our babies and advocate killing our sick elderly. Our starving culture’s heartbeat is irregular and inconsistent, another sign of spiritual starvation.
Sleepy, comatose state – Our starving culture is sleepy and often unreflective. The progress of our terrible fall eludes many, who seem oblivious to the symptoms of our spiritual starvation. St Paul says, So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thes 5:6). He also says, And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom 13:11). Jesus speaks of the starvation that leads to sleepiness in this way: Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap (Luke 21:34).
Death – Spiritual death is the final result of starvation. We become dead in our sins. Pope Francis remarked that the lights are going out in Europe. As Europe has forsaken its spiritual heritage and embarked upon a self-imposed spiritual starvation, its birthrates have declined steeply. It is quite possible that during the lifetime of some of the younger readers of this post, Europe as we have known it will cease to exist. Western liberal democracies that have starved themselves to death will be replaced by Muslim theocratic states. This is what happens when we starve ourselves: death eventually comes. America’s fate is less obvious. There are many on a spiritual starvation diet, but also many who still believe; there are signs of revival in the Church here. Pray God that the reversal will continue! Pray, too, that it is not too late for Europe.
Thus, while we know little of physical starvation in the affluent West, spiritual starvation and its symptoms are manifest. Mother Teresa once spoke of the West as the poorest part of the world she had encountered. That is because she saw things spiritually, not materially. Some years back, Cassidy Bugos, a student from Christendom College in Virginia, spent a few weeks working among the poor in Mexico with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Recounting a conversation with one of the nuns there, Miss Bugos wrote,
In the East [India], the soul is different. It is stronger, as she put it, and solid. Whether a person is Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, he is a solid Christian, a solid Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. He will not lose faith because he is hungry, or because he is well-fed. And in India, if people are hungry, they are still happy. The poorest people on the streets, she said, are the happiest. If they have food today, they are happy; they do not wonder if they will have food tomorrow. Their joy, she insisted, is something unlike anything you see on any face in the West …
Here in the West, she said, it is different. Here most poor people have enough [materially], even though they don’t understand how little “enough” is. But they are unhappy, she said. … They are unhappy, because they have no God. That is the real poverty. The farther North you go in America, she added, the more wealth you see, and the less joy you find. Those people … the depressed, and the sad people “with no God and a great big house”, are the poorest of the poor. That’s what Mother Teresa meant. It is hard, she added with a sigh, to find Christ in them. … We must put Him there. …
More than that, she wanted us to understand whom we were serving, when we served anyone’s spiritual or material needs. We were serving Christ. When one of “the Grandmas,” blind and deaf, cried out from her wheelchair, “Agua, por favor,” on the wall over her head we were bound to see a crucifix and beside it the motto of the Missionaries of Charity, the two words, tengo sed. “I thirst.” 
Be well-fed spiritually! Spiritual starvation is an awful thing; it is the worst thing.
This post has been a bit heavy, so I hope you won’t mind if I inject a little humor in the form of the video below. Though humorous, it makes an important point: you’re not you when you’re hungry. Spiritual starvation can rob us of our identity as joyful children of God, meant to be fully alive and fully functioning. Ultimately, we are meant to be Christ, to become what we eat in Holy Communion. When we do not eat, we are “not ourselves.” This video is trying sell Snickers bars, but please understand that I am talking about Jesus. If you’re hungry, you’re not yourself.
To most modern minds, freedom is a very detached concept; it is an abstraction of sorts, a free-floating power unmoored from any limits or defining standards. Freedom today is often viewed as personal and self-referential, with little consideration as to how one’s “freedom” might affect that of someone else. A healthy sense of the common good suffers mightily in a world of deeply conflicting personal freedoms.
I have written before on the paradoxes of freedom and will not repeat all of that here, but one point to reiterate is that for us (who are limited and contingent beings) the only true and healthy freedom is a limited one.
I was free to write this column and you are free to read it, but for shared communication to occur, we must each limit our respective personal freedom by following certain rules. I had to post the article in the expected place and you had to go there to read it. I had to follow many grammatical and linguistic rules in order to be intelligible, and you must apply similar norms in order to understand. As soon as either of us starts to cop an attitude and say, “I won’t be told what to do; I’ll do whatever I please,” communication suffers. Therefore, each of us limits his freedom in order to communicate.
Another example can be found in the realm of sports. Rules, in a sense, make the game. The players and spectators limit their freedom by accepting that a given game has a specific goal. Further, there are boundaries and rules of play. If some or all of these limits were removed, there would be no framework. Players would start moving aimlessly about the field and teams would break apart. Spectators would argue about everything and even forget why they were in the stadium to begin with. All order on the field and in the stands would break down; even the distinction between the field and the stands would start to lose meaning. Chaos and conflict would result.
To some degree this picture describes our modern age. Cultures, like the microcosm of a sports event, need agreed upon goals and rules of play in order to function properly. In the modern Western world, we are currently engaged in a misguided experiment as to whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus.
Obviously, the word cultus is at the heart of the word culture. In Latin, a cultus is something for which we care or about which we are concerned; it is something of worth, something considered valuable. It describes the most central, fundamental values of a group. In later Latin, cultus came to describe the worth or value we attribute to God, who is our truest goal.
Remove the cultus from culture and you get the breakdown we are seeing today. While pluralism and diversity have value, they must exist within a framework that is shared and agreed upon. Otherwise pluralism and diversity are unmoored and become like ships crashing about in a stormy bay.
In order for a culture to exist, there must be a shared cultus, a shared focus on what is good, true, beautiful, and sacred. Our modern experiment shows the failure of trying to have a culture without this.
Bishop Robert Barron, himself commenting on Pope Benedict’s analysis, writes the following:
The setting aside of God can take place both explicitly (as in the musings of the atheists) or implicitly (as in so much of the secular world where “practical” atheism holds sway). In either case the result is a shutting down of the natural human drive toward the transcendent and, even more dangerously, the elevation of self-determining freedom to a position of unchallenged primacy.
[Pope Benedict elaborates] here a theme that was dear to his predecessor, namely, the breakdown of the connection between freedom and truth. On the typically modern reading, truth is construed as an enemy to freedom—which explains precisely why we find such a hostility to truth in the contemporary culture. Indeed, anyone who claims to have the truth—especially in regard to moral matters—is automatically accused of arrogance and intolerance.
Society will be restored to balance and sanity, Benedict argued, only when the natural link between freedom and truth—especially the Truth which is God—is reestablished. … Behind all our arguments about particular moral and political issues is a fundamental argument about the centrality of God [Vibrant Paradoxes, pp. 217-218].
Thus, freedom cannot be an abstraction. It cannot be unmoored. It is not an unlimited concept. Freedom can only exist in a healthy and productive way when it is in reference to the truth—and truth is rooted in God and what He has revealed in creation, Sacred Scripture, and Tradition. This is the cultus necessary for every culture. True and healthy freedom is the capacity to obey God. Anything that departs from this necessary framework is a deformed freedom, on its way to chaos and slavery.
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733).