It is common to think of detachment as something the poor easily have and the rich seldom have. Whatever the statistics on detachment as related to wealth, it is certainly true that there are some poor folks who are greedy attached to this world’s riches, while there are some rich people who are quite generous and unattached to the possessions their wealth affords.
Two stories come to mind. I do not recall the sources, and I have likely adapted them over the years. They speak to the difficulty of maintaining a healthy detachment from material wealth regardless of one’s financial health.
A wandering monk moved about preaching. He owned only the clothing on his back and, strangely, a golden begging bowl, gifted to him by a benefactor who was also his disciple. One night as he was about to lie down among the ruins of an ancient monastery he spied a thief, lurking among the columns. “Here, take this,” he said, handing the golden begging bowl to the thief. “That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.” The thief eagerly took the bowl and ran off. But the next morning he returned, saying, “You have made me feel poor, giving me the bowl so freely. Teach me to acquire the riches that make this sort of lighthearted detachment possible.”
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Among the wandering shepherds was a leader who lived in riches, with luxurious tents, surrounded by servants. So lavish was his wealth that his tent pegs, driven in the ground, were made of solid gold. A poorer shepherd came by one day with his wooden begging bowl, cracked and warped. Seeing such wealth, he begged from the wealthy man but also upbraided him for such conspicuous wealth. Nevertheless, the wealthy man welcomed him, served him a fine meal, and permitted him to rest in his expansive tents. Early the next day the wealthy man said to the poorer one, “Come, let us go up to Jerusalem.” Staff in hand, the wealthy man left his wealth and luxury behind without a thought or care. A short way into the journey the poor man realized that he had left his wooden begging bowl behind and wanted to go back and get it. But the rich man said, “I left all my wealth behind without care or worry. Yet you are so attached to a cup of little or no worth that you cannot go up to Jerusalem without it. You upbraided me for my wealth, but I want to assure you, the golden tent pegs to which you objected were driven into the earth, not into my heart.”
Yes, detachment is ultimately a matter of the heart. It is not wrong to enjoy the good things of life, but too often they possess us, and we come rely on them so heavily that we cannot imagine living without them. We who live in these times of widespread comfort sometimes discover that we lack the freedom to live without them. Further, though surrounded by abundance, we see to be more fearful, not less. Though this age is filled with luxuries and creature comforts, we seem more anxious than ever; we just have too much to lose. The tent pegs that belong in the earth are so often driven into our heart.
St. Paul describes the grace we should seek:
I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Phil 4:11-13).
Without this grace, it is clear how quickly our hearts enter bondage and we go astray. Help us, Lord, to enjoy what you have given but not so much that it becomes a substitute for you. May trust and gratitude be our guide to detachment.
In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.
Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?
In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.
We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.
The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.
Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.
Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.
Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.
Promptness (readiness)–The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”
Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.
It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!
There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
…behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).
That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.
There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”
Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.
Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!
We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.
What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.
The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.
As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.
Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:
Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).
All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.
But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:
Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).
Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!
I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.
At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.
Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.
On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.
Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”
Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.
There was something awful about the year 1968. Fifty years later we are still reeling from its effects. Perhaps we do well to ponder the deep wounds that still fester today.
I was a young lad at the time, and almost everything I saw on the television news terrified me. Harrowing nightly reports from Vietnam (where my father was stationed) detailed that day’s casualties; I always feared that my father had been one of those killed. There were frequent riots and anti-war demonstrations in America’s cities and college campuses. There were two high-profile assassinations: Dr. Martin Luther King in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. Riots and burning cities followed Dr. King’s assassination. I remember my mother, who was teaching on the South Side of Chicago, having to flee for her life and finally be rescued and escorted out by police. The first stirrings of militant feminism were occurring.
The growing “hippie” movement was fresh off 1967’s “Summer of Love”—which was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high and fornicate while deluding themselves that they were somehow doing a noble thing. This ramped up to the even more hideous Woodstock festival in August of 1969. It popularized the sexual revolution, drug use, rebellion against all authority, and a lot of just plain bad behavior.
In the Church, sweeping changes were underway, adding to the uncertainty of those times. Even if one argues that such changes were necessary, they came at an inopportune time and fed into the popular notions of revolution. The revolt against Pope Paul VI’s magnificent and prophetic Humanae Vitae, published in July of 1968, ushered in a spirit of open dissent that still devastates the Church.
Yes, 1968 was a terrible year. When I mention that year and shake my head, I often get puzzled looks. I stand by my claim: 1968 was a cultural tsunami from which we have not recovered to this day.
Some years ago, I read an article by James Francis Cardinal Stafford, who also singled out 1968 as being a year of intense darkness. He focused particularly on the devastating effects of angry and open dissent, set loose by theologians and priests who rebelled against Humanae Vitae. The Cardinal asserted that the violent revolution raging outside the Church decisively entered within her during that time and that we still stagger from the effects today. Here are some of his observations of that year, when he was a priest in Baltimore:
English historian Paul Johnson dubs 1968 as the year of “America’s Suicide Attempt.” It included the Tet offensive in Vietnam with its tsunami-like effects in American life and politics, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; the tumult in American cities on Palm Sunday weekend; and the June assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Southern California. It was also the year in which Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter on transmitting human life, Humanae Vitae (HV). He met immediate, premeditated, and unprecedented opposition from some American theologians and pastors. By any measure, 1968 was a bitter cup. …
The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour. The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood, ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church. It was a Peirasmòs [i.e., a trial or test] for many.
During the height of the 1968 Baltimore riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I had made an emergency call to [an] inner-city pastor … He described the view from the rectory while speaking on the phone … his parish was becoming a raging inferno. He said, “From here I see nothing but fire burning everywhere. Everything has been set ablaze. The Church and rectory are untouched thus far.” He did not wish to leave or be evacuated. His voice betrayed disillusionment and fear. Later we learned that the parish buildings survived.
Memories of the physical violence in the city in April 1968 [following the King assassination] helped me to name what had happened in August 1968 [the explosion of dissent against Humanae Vitae]. Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content.
What do I mean? Look at the results of the two events. After the violent 1968 Palm Sunday weekend, civil dialogue in metropolitan Baltimore broke down and came to a stop. It took a back seat to open anger and recriminations between whites and blacks. The … priests’ August gathering [against Humanae Vitae] gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy … became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. Fears abounded. And they continue. The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations. 1968 marked the hiatus of the generational communion … Priests’ fraternity had been wounded. Pastoral dissent had attacked the Eucharistic foundation of the Church. Its nuptial significance had been denied. Some priests saw bishops as nothing more than Roman mannequins.
Cardinal Shehan later reported that on Monday morning, August 5, he “was startled to read in the Baltimore Sun that seventy-two priests of the Baltimore area had signed the Statement of Dissent.” What he later called “the years of crisis” began for him during that hot … August evening in 1968 … Its unhinging consequences continue. Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies.
The violence of the initial disobedience was only a prelude to further and more pervasive violence. … Contempt for the truth, whether aggressive or passive, has become common in Church life. Dissenting priests, theologians, and laypeople have continued their coercive techniques. From the beginning, the press has used them to further its own serpentine agenda (The Year of the Peirasmòs – 1968, J. Francis Cardinal Stafford).
Yes, a terrible year 1968 was, and we have yet to recover. Discussion in the Church has often retained its painful, divisive, “spiritually violent” tendencies. Clergy at every level are divided—priests against priests, bishops against bishops, cardinals against cardinals. Division is everywhere. The laity often see bishops as more resembling elected official than the anointed leaders and fathers they are. Sadly, politics do seem to infect ecclesial matters. Cynicism—whatever its source—has crushed our openness to be taught. Many today are neither docile nor loving and supportive of the Church. Discourse in the Church, which should be marked by charity and a family love, is instead modeled on angry political debate and the pursuit of power; an atmosphere of suspicion and scorn is in the air.
Our faith has been divided and politicized even within. Catholics who are passionate about the family, life issues, and sexual morality go to one side of the room; those passionate about the social teachings of the Church to the other. From their respective sides they hurl blame, venom, and scorn, debating who is a true Catholic and who really cares about what is most important. We do this rather than appreciate the work that each of us does, failing to understand that the Church needs two wings to fly.
Add to all of this the wars over the liturgy; scorn and contempt are often evident in discussions of something that should be the source of our greatest unity. Legitimate diversity has become adversity; preferences are dogmatized; arrogance is too easily on display.
It seems that it is easy to get Catholics to fight among themselves. We take the bait every time. The media know it; many politicians know it. Shame on them for doing it, but shame on us for being such an easy target.
To a large extent it goes back to those angry days in 1968, when priests and laity took the violence and discord of that awful year and made it the template for Church life, when there emerged a kind of spiritual violence and discord, when there developed a hermeneutic of suspicion, and when there was an embracing of a distorted ecclesiology of the Church as a political entity rather than the Body of Christ.
Perhaps such tendencies were decades in the making, but as Cardinal Stafford notes, there was something about that hot and fateful August of 1968. Something in that awful year infiltrated the Church and has grown like a cancer. It is still with us today and has infected us all. Somehow, it’s still August; the scorching heat wave lingers, and the hazy air reminds us of the summer of our discontent—that awful, fateful year of 1968. Usquequo Domine … usquequo? (Ps 12:1)
This song says, “I need you, you need me. We’re all part of God’s Body. Stand with me, agree with me, you are important to me, I need you to survive.”
A rather succinct and accurate summary of our current malaise is that we live in the age of “the imperial, autonomous self.” In effect, many if not most people claim an authority, a right, to craft their own reality and live according to their own notions of it. Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that reality was something outside ourselves, something that we had to go out to meet, study, and obey. There was a certain “is-ness” to things. Conformity with the basic and revealed nature of things produced thriving and the kind of happiness that comes from being in harmony with what fundamentally is.
Recently however, there has been the ascendency of the notion that reality is what I say it is. The “soft garments” version of this is, “That may be true for you, but I see it differently. You live your truth and I will live mine.”
A Supreme Court decision of the early 1990s gave voice to this notion in its ruling defending a woman’s “right” to abort her baby:
Such vapid language from the highest court in the land undermines the very concept of law. If someone can just define abortion as good, or define even the very nature of the universe, why can’t someone commit mass murder and call it good? This is the exultation of the imperial, autonomous self with almost no qualification! No family, community, nation, or culture can exist as a collection of imperial, autonomous individuals; it would be moral and political anarchy! Something outside ourselves (e.g., reality, the real (not imagined) universe, divine law, natural law, agreed-upon legal norms) must unite us.
The imperial, autonomous self cannot stay soft when, as the court suggests, the heart of liberty is neither the truth nor law (divine, natural, or civil). As we have seen in recent years, the imperial, autonomous becomes the imperious, combative self; the battle is not won by those with the most reasonable stance but by the most powerful, richest, loudest, fiercest, most exotic; or by those with most access to the media and popular culture.
The soft version of the imperial, autonomous self marches under the banners of tolerance, kindness, and open-mindedness. The fiercer version that has emerged more recently substitutes tyranny for tolerance. Few of these tyrants will admit their tyranny; they prefer to call it tolerance, but they have substituted a new meaning for the word.
Tolerance used to be understood as “a measured willingness to live with differences.” Today it has come to mean “agreement” and even “approval.” Of course, if I agree with you and approve of what you do, I do not need to practice tolerance. Thus, the redefinition of tolerance vacates the original meaning of the word entirely. Interestingly this new definition still permits calling others intolerant using the original meaning! It illustrates the “brilliance” of the cultural left in refashioning our very vocabulary and harnessing the power of words. I have written more on this matter here: Misunderstood Tolerance.
We ought not to be mistaken; the “tolerance” of the cultural elites is in fact tyranny. This is evident time and time again when anyone dares to stray from the acceptance and approval that are demanded by this new meaning. If one transgresses by not approving whatever previously sinful behavior currently demands approval, the repercussions include denouncement and demonization. The person or group is labeled unkind, hateful, intolerant, bigoted, phobic, discriminatory, and/or guilty of aggression (or the newly coined “microaggression”) and is accused of making people “feel unsafe.”
Having successfully demonized people or groups, the next move is to silence and suppress any expression of alternate views. Speakers delivering oppositional lectures on campuses are not merely protested, they are interrupted, shouted down, and even subjected physical disruption. All of this is deemed acceptable because the protesters are silencing the views of “bad” and “intolerant” people. In this way, the cultural left—which once held free speech as among the highest freedoms—is increasingly silencing oppositional speech.
The next stage is not merely to denounce opponents, but to legally punish them and criminalize their non-cooperation in the latest cause-du-jour. They are threatened legally, hauled into court, decertified, fined, and/or shut down for failing to approve of whatever the theoretically tolerant people say they should.
A recent Supreme Court case granted some relief to a Colorado baker who was subjected to this. This does not mean that such actions are going to stop. The cultural elites and self-appointed enlightened ones will just keep at it until they reach their objectives. Wearisome, lengthy, and expensive lawsuits, along with increasingly severe legislation, will likely continue until complete compliance has been achieved.
Thus, we see how the imperial, autonomous self gradually becomes the imperious, authoritarian self. Tolerance becomes tyranny. Our current Pope warns of ideological colonization. Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI warned of the “tyranny of relativism” and subjectivism. When we shift the locus of truth from the object (reality) to the subject (the individual), “truth” becomes about power and who has more of it.
that there are deep truths built into the world, into human beings and into human relationships;
that these truths can be known by reason;
and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily (p. 124).
With these three great ideas weakened, we are left with a very small world; we are turned inward and have become self-referential. These are the ultimate parameters of the imperial, autonomous self: it is a small world, closed on itself, with a population of one. It is centered on me and whatever I think. Forget about anyone else. Forget about heritage. Forget the collected wisdom of millennia. Because little can be agreed upon (even the patently obvious sex of male and female bodies), we are left with a fierce power struggle between competing visions of “reality.”
If Western culture was the fair flower of the Judeo-Christian vision, the post-modern world is an ugly dandelion with deep tap roots. It is a dandelion that has gone to seed, and its white, cotton-like seeds are blowing in the breeze and taking root everywhere.
What are we to do? First, we must see the revolution for what it is. There is a hopelessly fatal shifting of the locus of truth away from what is revealed by God in biblical revelation (Divine Truth) and in the Book of Creation as grasped by reason (Natural Law). This is our Judeo-Christian heritage; it was what grounded us and united us. Having removed and denied the efficacy of this, our modern world has become unmoored and unraveled, mired in hopeless power struggles.
Only a return to our roots can save us. Therefore, St. Paul’s mandate to Timothy must also become ours:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-5).
This is true not only for bishops and priests, but for parents, Catholics in general, and all believing citizens of this land. America remains a great country, and our religious sensibilities are not completely lost. There is time, but the door is closing, and our cultural opponents are more fierce and bold than ever before. This is a good fight, and if you find a good fight you should get in it.
Pope Leo XIII penned an insightful analysis of three trends that both alarmed him and pointed to future problems. He wrote of these three concerns in 1893 in the Encyclical on the Holy Rosary entitled Laetitiae Sanctae (Of Holy Joy). The Pope laid out these three areas of concern and then offered the Mysteries of the Rosary as a remedy. Let’s look at how he described the problems and then consider what he proposed as a solution. His teaching is presented in bold, black italics. My remarks are shown in plain, red text.
There are three influences which appear to us to have the chief place in effecting this downgrade movement of society. These are—first, the distaste for a simple and laborious life; secondly, repugnance to suffering of any kind; thirdly, the forgetfulness of the future life (# 4).
Problem 1: The distaste for a simple and laborious life – We deplore … the growing contempt of those homely duties and virtues which make up the beauty of humble life. To this cause we may trace in the home, the readiness of children to withdraw themselves from the natural obligation of obedience to the parents, and their impatience of any form of treatment which is not of the indulgent and effeminate kind. In the workman, it evinces itself in a tendency to desert his trade, to shrink from toil, to become discontented with his lot, to fix his gaze on things that are above him, and to look forward with unthinking hopefulness to some future equalization of property. We may observe the same temper permeating the masses in the eagerness to exchange the life of the rural districts for the excitements and pleasures of the town … (#5).
One of the truths that set us free is that life is hard. Along with the progress we can and do experience come trials, arduous work, and setbacks. Few things of true value come to us without significant cost. Coming to realize and accept that life is hard is freeing, for it minimizes or even removes many of our resentments. Many today expect that life should be peachy all the time and when it is not become angry and resentful; some even threaten lawsuits. It is common today to think of happiness as a God-given right. Our Founding Fathers recognized the pursuit of happiness as a right, but many think happiness itself is a right. When they are not happy, the system has somehow failed them. Many today expect to live lives in which there is little risk and things come easily. This has been one of the factors influencing the growth of government. As insistence on a comfortable life grows and hard work begins to seem an unreasonable demand, we expect government to ease our burdens and provide comfort and happiness; we are less willing to work hard for these things. Rather, we see happiness and comfort as things to which we are entitled.
Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments. With unrealistic expectations, people quickly grow resentful. Our ancestors of a mere 150 years ago had different notions. They looked for happiness, too, but largely expected to find that in Heaven. Many of the old Catholic prayers bespeak a vision that this world was a place of travail and exile, a valley of tears where we sighed and longed to be with God. Many Catholics of those earlier times lived lives that were both difficult and short; they lived with far fewer creature comforts than we do today. There was no electricity or running water; medicines were few and far less effective. Entertainment was limited, houses were smaller, and transportation was far more restricted.
We live so well in comparison, yet despite being more comfortable, there is little evidence that we are happier. Indeed, we seem more resentful, probably because we expect more—a lot more. As Pope Leo noted, young people resent discipline and seem to expect to be spoiled. Most parents seem more than willing to indulge them while shirking their duty to correct, as that would bring tension and difficulty.
The value of hard work and the satisfaction that comes from it seem lost on many today. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick used to counsel us priests that if we did not go to bed tired, something was wrong. All of us need some rest and relaxation, but hard work actually brings greater satisfaction to times of rest.
The high expectations we have today breed discontent. We really insist on living in a fantasy that this world is, or can be, paradise; it cannot. A better strategy is to accept that life is at times difficult and to meet its difficulties with courage. Though this is a hard truth, accepting it brings peace.
In response to this first error, Pope Leo commended to our attention the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary and in particular a meditation on the implicit lessons of the home at Nazareth:
Let us take our stand in front of that earthly and divine home of holiness, the House of Nazareth. How much we have to learn from the daily life which was led within its walls! What an all-perfect model of domestic society! Here we behold simplicity and purity of conduct, perfect agreement and unbroken harmony, mutual respect and love … devotedness of service. Here is the patient industry which provides what is required for food and raiment; which does so “in the sweat of the brow,” which is contented with little …. These are precious examples of goodness, of modesty, of humility, of hard-working endurance, of kindness to others, of diligence in the small duties of daily life, and of other virtues …. Then will each one begin to feel his work to be no longer lowly and irksome, but grateful and lightsome, and clothed with a certain joyousness by his sense of duty in discharging it conscientiously … home-life … loved and esteemed … (# 6).
Problem 2: Repugnance to suffering of any kind – A second evil … is to be found in repugnance to suffering and eagerness to escape whatever is hard or painful to endure. The greater number are thus robbed of that peace and freedom of mind which remains the reward of those who do what is right undismayed by the perils or troubles to be met with in doing so …. By this passionate and unbridled desire of living a life of pleasure, the minds of men are weakened, and if they do not entirely succumb, they become demoralized and miserably cower and sink under the hardships of the battle of life (# 7).
Today more than ever there is almost a complete intolerance of any sort of suffering. This has been fueled by the fact that we have been successful in eliminating much suffering from daily life.
We are largely protected from the elements, medicines alleviate much of our pain and bodily discomfort, appliances and advanced technology provide unprecedented convenience and make most routine manual labor all but unnecessary.
This leads to the unrealistic expectation that all suffering should be eliminated. There is almost an indignity expressed when one suggests that perhaps some things should be endured or that it is unreasonable to expect government, or science, or “someone” to eliminate every evil or all forms of suffering.
Further, we seem unwilling to accept that accidents happen, and unfortunate circumstances occur. Instead we demand more and more laws, some of which are intrusive and oppressive; we undertake lawsuits that discourage the very risk-taking that makes new inventions, medical breakthroughs, and scientific techniques possible.
We often hold people responsible for things over which they have little to no control. Economies have cycles as do climates. Governments and politicians cannot be expected to solve every problem or alleviate every burden. Sometimes things just happen and there’s no one to blame and no one that can fix it.
Life is not a cushioned room. While we can and should try to fix unnecessary hazards and seek to ease one another’s burdens, suffering, sorrows, accidents, and difficulties are all part of life in this valley of tears. Acceptance of this truth leads to a kind of paradoxical serenity. Rejection of it and indulgence in the unrealistic notion that all suffering is unreasonable leads to resentment and further unhappiness.
In response to this second error, Pope Leo commended to our attention the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
If from our earliest years our minds have been trained to dwell upon the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lord’s life … we [may] see written in His example all the lessons that He Himself had taught us for the bearing of our burden of labor– and sorrow, and mark how the sufferings…He embraced with the greatest measure of generosity and good will. We behold Him overwhelmed with sadness, so that drops of blood ooze like sweat from His veins. We see Him bound like a malefactor, subjected to the judgment of the unrighteous, laden with insults, covered with shame, assailed with false accusations, torn with scourges, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, accounted unworthy to live …. Here, too, we contemplate the grief of the most Holy Mother … “pierced” by the sword of sorrow … (# 8).
Then, be it that the “earth is accursed” and brings forth “thistles and thorns,”—be it that the soul is saddened with grief and the body with sickness; even so, there will be no evil which the envy of man or the rage of devils can invent, nor calamity which can fall upon the individual or the community, over which we shall not triumph by the patience of suffering …. But by this patience, we do not mean that empty stoicism in the enduring of pain which was the ideal of some of the philosophers of old, but rather …. It is the patience which is obtained by the help of His grace; which shirks not a trial because it is painful, but which accepts it and esteems it as a gain, however hard it may be to undergo. [Men and women of faith] re-echo, not with their lips, but with their life, the words of [the Apostle] St. Thomas: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John xi., 16) (# 9).
The cross is part of this life, but Christ has made it clear that it yields ultimately to glory if we carry it willingly and with faith.
Problem 3: Forgetfulness of the future life – The third evil for which a remedy is needed is one which is chiefly characteristic of the times in which we live. Men in former ages, although they loved the world, and loved it far too well, did not usually aggravate their sinful attachment to the things of earth by a contempt of the things of heaven. Even the right-thinking portion of the pagan world recognized that this life was not a home but a dwelling-place, not our destination, but a stage in the journey. But men of our day, albeit they have had the advantages of Christian instruction, pursue the false goods of this world in such wise that the thought of their true Fatherland of enduring happiness is not only set aside, but, to their shame be it said, banished and entirely erased from their memory, notwithstanding the warning of St. Paul, “We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one which is to come” (Heb. xiii., 4) (# 11).
I am increasingly amazed at how infrequently most people think of Heaven. Even Churchgoing believers talk little of it; priests rarely preach on it. Our main preoccupation seems to be making this world a more comfortable and pleasant place. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers bespeak a worldly preoccupation: Lord, fix my money problems; improve my heath; get me a better job. It is almost as though we are saying, “Make this world pleasant enough and I’ll just stay here.” It is not wrong to pray for these things, nor is it wrong to work to make this world a better place, but our true home is in Heaven and we ought to seek its shores eagerly. We should meditate on Heaven frequently and the deepest longing of our soul should be to be with God forever. Instead we fear getting older; our culture tries to keep death hidden away. It ought to be that we can’t wait to see God. Sure, it would be nice to finish a few things we’ve started, but as Heaven and being with God draw closer, we should be happy that the years are flying by faster. Each day means we are one day closer to God!
Our prosperity has misled us into having an unhealthy love of this world. A friend of the world is an enemy to God (James 4:4). We are distracted and too easily forget that this world is passing away; we are all going to die. Only a proper longing for Heaven can correct the absurdity that an obsessive love for this world establishes in our soul.
Meditate on Heaven frequently! Read the scriptures, such as Revelation 1, & 4-5, 20-21. Ask for a deeper longing from God.
In response to this third error, Pope Leo commended to our attention the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary as a medicine for both our absurd attachment to this passing world and our forgetfulness of Heaven:
These mysteries are the means by which, in the soul of a Christian, a most clear light is shed upon the good things, hidden to sense, but visible to faith, “which God has prepared for those who love Him.” From them we learn that death is not an annihilation which ends all things, but merely a migration and passage from life to life. By them we are taught that the path to Heaven lies open to all men, and as we behold Christ ascending thither, we recall the sweet words of His promise, “I go to prepare a place for you.” By them we are reminded that a time will come when “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes,” and that “neither mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow, shall be any more,” and that “We shall be always with the Lord,” and “like to the Lord, for we shall see Him as He is,” and “drink of the torrent of His delight,” as “fellow-citizens of the saints,” in the blessed companionship of our glorious Queen and Mother. Dwelling upon such a prospect, our hearts are kindled with desire, and we exclaim, in the words of a great saint, “How vile grows the earth when I look up to heaven!” Then, too, shall we feel the solace of the assurance “that this momentary and light affliction produces for us an eternal weight of glory beyond measure, exceedingly” (2 Cor. iv., 17).
Here, then, are three diagnoses and three remedies. It is interesting that the roots of these problems were already evident in 1893. How much more they press upon us over a century later! It is helpful to have a doctor of souls to help us name the demons that afflict us. Having named a demon, we have more power over it and can learn its moves more easily.
Demon, your name is “laziness” and “distaste for hard work.” By the joyful mysteries of the Lord’s life, be gone.
Demon, your name is “refusal of any suffering” and “resentment at the cross.” By the sorrowful mysteries of the Lord’s life, be gone.
Demon, your name is “forgetfulness of Heaven” and “obsession with the passing world.” By the glorious mysteries of the Lord’s life (and our Lady’s, too), be gone.
This week in daily Mass we read of the struggles of Elijah the Prophet, who spent his life fighting the influence of the Canaanite god Baal in Israel. Up on Mt. Carmel, Elijah was strong and fearless, but he also had moments of deep discouragement.
Many of us today are discouraged in these times of cultural confusion, times when so many Catholics have fallen away from the practice of the faith or so easily dissent. It makes me think of the prophet Elijah at his lowest moment: he was in a cave, anxious and fretting, so depressed he could barely eat.
Those were very dark times, when huge numbers of Jews fell away from the exclusive worship of the LORD and bent the knee to Baal. Jezebel, the foreign wife of the Jewish King Ahab, was instrumental in spreading this apostasy. Elijah fought against it tirelessly and at times felt quite alone.
There he was, fleeing from Queen Jezebel (who sought his life) and deeply discouraged by his fellow Jews, who were either too confused or too fearful to resist the religion of the Baals demanded by Jezebel. Perhaps he thought he was the last of those who held the true religion. In the cave, Elijah pours out his lament.
And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Ki 19:9–10).
God will have none of this despair or complaining. He says to Elijah,
Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have seven thousand in Israel, that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal, nor kissed him with the mouth (1 Ki 19:15–18).
There are others after all! It is a small remnant to be sure, but Elijah is not alone. A small remnant remains faithful and God will rebuild, working with them.
Elijah is commanded not to give way to discouragement, but rather to keep preaching and to anoint leaders and a prophet who will keep preaching after him.
This is a lesson for all of us.
In times like these, it is hard not to feel like Elijah: deeply disappointed and even discouraged in the face of our current cultural decline. How many of our countrymen and even fellow Catholics have bent the knee to the Baals of our time, accepting the doctrines of demons? How many have been led astray by the Jezebels and the false religion of the Baals of our time, setting aside the cross and substituting the pillow of comfort and selfish desire? Now, like then, many are told to immolate their children, to kill the innocent through abortion (and call it “choice,” “women’s healthcare,” or “reproductive freedom”). There is widespread misunderstanding of marriage, rampant divorce, cohabitation, fornication, children being born out of wedlock, sweeping approval for same-sex unions, and even the open celebration of homosexual activity. All of this causes grievous harm to children by shredding the family—the very institution that needs to be strong if they are to be raised well.
Euthanasia is back in the news, and the legalization of polygamy may be on the horizon.
So here we are today in a culture of rebellion. Sadly, too many in the Church (including clergymen and those in the Church hierarchy) seem bewitched, succumbing to false compassion.
Lest we become like Elijah in the cave, discouraged and edging toward despair, we ought to hear again the words of God to Elijah: I have seven thousand in Israel that have never bent the knee to nor bowed to Baal.
God has a way of working with remnants in order to rebuild His Kingdom. Mysteriously, He allows a kind of pruning, a falling away of what He calls the cowards (e.g., Judges 7:3, Rev 21:8). With those who are left, He can achieve a great victory.
Consider that at the foot of the cross there was only one bishop (i.e., one priest, one man) who had the courage to be there. Only four or five women possessed such courage. But Jesus was there; and with a remnant, a small fraction of His followers, He won thorough to the end.
Are you praying with me? Stay firm! Stay confident! Do not despair! There are seven thousand who have not bent the knee to the Baals of this age. With a small group, the Lord can win through to the end. Are you among the seven thousand? Or do the Baals hold some of your allegiance? Where do you stand?
Elijah was reminded that he was not alone. Hearing of the faith of so many of you readers reminds me that I am not alone. When I hear the Amens coming from my congregation as I preach the “old time religion,” I remember that I am not alone. When I gather with other coalitions of believers, I am reminded that there are many good souls still to be found. Seek them out. Build alliances, and stand ready to resist, to fight the coming and already-present onslaughts.
I cannot be certain of the fate of Western culture (frankly, it doesn’t look good). I am not sure if these are the end times or just the end of an era. But of this I am sure: Jesus wins and so do all who stand with Him and persevere to the end. Get up, Elijah. Go prophesy, even if you are killed for it. Keep preaching until the last soul is converted..
Memorial Day for many means the beginning of summer. To others, it is a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of this country. Here are some thoughts based on two words that arise on a day like this: “memorial” and “monument.”
The word “memorial” comes from the Latin memorare, an imperative that means “Remember!” Therefore, Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present to our mind and heart so that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different because of it.
This is a day to remember that there are men and women who died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.
In a secondary sense, we can also honor today those who currently serve in the military because they also place their lives on the line for our security and peace. On Veterans Day we will have a second opportunity to thank those in the military who are still living.
God bless them all and may the dead rest in peace. We must remember that freedom is not really free—others paid the price for our freedom.
The second word is “monument,”which comes from the Latin words monere (to warn, remind, or advise) and mens (mind). Hence a monument exists to admonish or advise us to remember the dead and/or what they have done. Not only do we owe a debt of gratitude to our fallen soldiers, but we must also hold in our memories all they have done for us.
There are many memorials and some monuments as well honoring our fallen soldiers. Here in Washington, D.C. and in most cities, there are memorials to the soldiers who died during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. Soon enough there will be monuments to the fallen from the Gulf War and to those who gave their lives in other wars. The Tomb of the Unknowns is a poignant monument to the many fallen who remain unknown to us. And who can forget the deep impression that the rows of white crosses in a military cemetery make?
Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,
It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).
The Lord Himself makes it plain: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).
We must never forget the price that others have paid for our freedom. Pray for our fallen soldiers from every generation and for their families.
Here is the text of the song “Mansions of the Lord”:
To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord
No more weeping,
No more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just Divine embrace,
In the Mansions of the Lord
Where no mothers cry
And no children weep,
We shall stand and guard
Though the angels sleep,
Oh, through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord
Perhaps you might use the following video as a way to meditate on the sacrifices they have made: