Over a month ago I was blessed to get an early view of the new movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ. It is indeed wonderful — beautifully filmed and with a moving ending. It is not a simple retelling of the Acts of the Apostles; such films have already been made. Instead, it is a moving portrait of St. Paul (James Faulkner) and St. Luke (Jim Caviezel).
The setting is Rome during St. Paul’s last days. Great persecutions are underway, taking a heavy toll on the Christians there. The movie presents the humanness of these struggles, both individually and communally. It weaves many of Paul’s writings in, but not in an artificial way. It also depicts a personal dimension of Paul by developing certain painful memories he carried with him. While these memories are mentioned in Paul’s writings, their creative treatment in the movie leads to its powerful conclusion.
To avoid having to issue a “spoiler alert” I will not say any more about the movie, but I strongly encourage you to see it. Expect less of a retelling of Acts or a presentation of Paul’s writings and more of a treatment of Paul, Luke, and the early Christians, who endured so as to hand the faith on to us.
We live in a secular age. Religious utterances by government officials are greeted with surprise or even indignation by some. While the primary role of civil leaders is not a religious one, insisting that never express religious sentiment is a form of extremism rooted in exaggerated conception of the idea of the separation of Church and State. In fact, “separation of Church and State” appears nowhere in the United States Constitution.
On Presidents’ Day we do well to look to history to clarify that these extreme, modern concerns were not shared by Washington, Lincoln, and many other leaders.
Religion and the First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While the First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing a law respecting an establishment of religion (the “Establishment Clause”), but it also specifies that it shall pass no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion (the “Free Exercise Clause”). This second pillar, protecting the free exercise of religion, has been eroding over the years, with the definition of “exercise” ever-narrowing. Increasingly, the claim is made that religious bodies (especially the Catholic Church, it seems) are seen to have no right to attempt any influence in the legislative process. This, of course, would limit our ability to freely exercise our faith, a major tenet of which is that we should evangelize, be a light to the world, and testify to the truth. More and more, secularists are proposing that the only acceptable place for religious expression of any kind is within the four walls of a church building.
Many argue that America’s founding fathers wanted it this way, that they wanted a “wall of separation” because most of them were either irreligious or deists. It is interesting to note that despite this most of them spoke freely of God, including appeals to Him and His will in their remarks. This is true even of Thomas Jefferson (who famously referred to a “wall of separation between Church and State” in a letter). Of the five inscriptions on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, culled from his writings, three refer God and one to the Creator. Most of the founding fathers (who purportedly wanted this dramatic separation of Church and State) were involved in drafting the Constitution.
Many people love to point out that God is never mentioned in the Constitution. Oh, but He is! The final line of the Constitution reads as follows:
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty-seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof, We have hereunto subscribed our Names
“In the year of our Lord …” where did that come from? I guess the drafters of the Constitution never got the memo that God is not to be mentioned in government documents or at government functions. The Lord referenced here is none other than Jesus Christ, for the year corresponds to the number of years since His birth.
The first signature on the Constitution is that of George Washington. Apparently he also never got the memo about keeping God and religion out of all things governmental because he mentioned God frequently in his writings and speeches. Below are just three examples. The first speaks of our obligation to give thanks to God; it is a decree declaring a Day of Thanksgiving in the United States on November 26, 1789. The second is from a speech to an assembly of Delaware Indian Chiefs in 1779 (it would be considered highly politically incorrect today). The third is from his last speech to the U.S. Legislature.
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 3d day of October, A.D. 1789 George Washington, President.
You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are (Speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779).
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would … most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion (Last Official Address of George Washington to the Legislature of the United States).
Abraham Lincoln also often referred to God and faith:
On Faith as among the civic virtues – Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861).
On Divine Providence – In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid—but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it (Letter to Eliza Gurney, October 26, 1862).
On Religious Liberty – But I must add that the U.S. government must not, as by this order, undertake to run the churches. When an individual, in a church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest, he must be checked; but let the churches, as such take care of themselves. It will not do for the U.S. to appoint Trustees, Supervisors, or other agents for the churches (Letter to Samuel Curtis, January 2, 1863).
On the Justice of God – Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).
These are just a few samples showing that the aversion to any religious reference is relatively new and is a disposition largely unknown to our founding fathers as well as to those of Lincoln’s era. These quotes do not “prove” that Presidents Washington and Lincoln were perfect Christians or that they were never critical of any aspects of religion, but they do indicate that they both understood the importance of religious faith to our country and were quite comfortable articulating both the need for faith and its benefits.
Extremism – Recent attempts to completely ban any religious expression, any spoken appreciation for religion, or any encouragement of its practice, would surely seem extreme to these men—extreme and far removed from the embrace our country has historically extended to faith.
Washington and Lincoln did not hesitate to invoke God, ask His blessings, and exhort their fellow citizens to prayer. Let us pray for our country and for all of our leaders. Happy Presidents’ Day!
Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins; that is certainly true. St. Paul said, The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1 Tim 1:15).
St. Paul mentioned another truth, however, one we too often forget. It came during a benediction to the people Galatia:
We wish you the favor and peace of God our Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from this present evil age, as our God and Father willed—to him be glory for endless ages. Amen (Galatians 1:3-4).
So Jesus came to rescue us from “this present evil age.” What is this evil age? It is more than a mere period of time. It is the collection, the confluence of philosophies, ideologies, powers, illusions, and sinful attitudes that are arrayed against us. The world and its prince seek to draw us into their realm, to win our loyalty, our very heart.
This is our foremost daily battle. We live in a world filled with loud sounds, flashy lights, vivid imagery, and enticing morsels. In an age dominated by various media, there is rarely a moment that is not filled with distractions and “come hither” seductions that appeal to our fallen nature. Although it is orchestrated by Satan, the prince of this world, many willingly connive in the deal, for there is enormous profit to be made and the glory of power to be had by those who participate in the system.
Behind the bait of glittering lights and tempting morsels is a hook that easily ensnares us and can only be removed with pain. While there are lawful pleasures from God to be enjoyed, too often what is offered is not from Him. This can be discerned by the fact that the fake gifts of this evil age are distorted by excess or are directed to the wrong end.
Christ Jesus came to save us from our sins as well as from this present evil age. Is this clear to us? Does the idea even appeal to us? Most Christians seem quite content to expose themselves completely to the age and accept even its most sinful propositions without question. These views are accepted uncritically because they seem popular, while the gospel is criticized as irrelevant or even hateful. We willingly spend hours exposing our minds and hearts to this world and its values yet find it challenging to pray for even ten minutes a day.
St. John said,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17).
St. James added,
Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility with God? Therefore, whoever has chosen to be a friend of the world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Thus we do indeed need to be saved from this present evil age. Our hearts are weak and we are easily swayed by apparent, passing goods away from what are true, lasting, true goods. Without Christ we are easy targets.
Help us, Lord; our wounded hearts pine for all the wrong things in all the wrong places. Save us, Lord, from this present evil age!
We all have certain phrases that annoy us; oddities creep into the language that invite comment or could use correction. To that end, I propose below a list of ten annoying and/or misused words and expressions.
Please accept this list in the humorous vein in which it is intended. I am playing the role of an irritated curmudgeon, but it’s just my shtick. Have some fun with me as I complain and then feel free to add to my list.
So, can we talk? He’s my list of annoyances.
1. “With all due respect …”– This phrase is typically followed by something that isn’t going to respect the recipient at all! When you open an e-mail and it begins, “With all due respect, Mr. Jones, …,” don’t you just wince at what you just know is coming? In a way, the expression is a form of lip service. It’s a way of saying, “I want to dispense with that silly tradition of having to accord you a modicum of respect and get on to what’s really on my mind, namely, that you’re wrong and probably clueless as well.”
2. Decimate – Today the word has come to mean “to destroy completely.” For example, “Our culture has been decimated by no-fault divorce.” The original meaning, to reduce something by a tenth, has been relegated to a secondary definition in many dictionaries. The word came from the Roman practice in which, after conquering a town that was guilty of some sort of uprising, the Romans would line up all the men of that town in the public square, and kill every tenth one. In effect, the message was, “This is what you get if you mess with us. It’ll be worse next time.” Alas, trying to recover the original meaning of this word may be a lost cause at this point. It may be destined to go the way of other Latin-based words such as “manufacture,” the literal meaning of which is handmade (manu = hand, facere = to make). Today something referred to as manufactured is typically not handmade. There are other English words that seem to have reversed meanings. For example, we drive on parkways and park on driveways.
3. Service – There is a tendency today to take the noun “service” and turn it into a verb. It is common to hear someone say, “We service our clients.” or, “We serviced fifty people last month.” No! People are served, not serviced. Perhaps you may speak of a car as being serviced, but people are served. It’s hard to know where this manner of speaking came from, but I suspect it crept in from the world of prostitution, where prostitutes often speak of “servicing” their “Johns” (i.e. clients). We do not service people, we serve them; people are not serviced they are served.
4. Not unlike – This strange expression, in a way, cancels itself out as a double negative. For example, someone may say, “This car is not unlike that one.” If you put a few of those sorts of expressions into a sentence, trying to figure out exactly what the sentence means can make your head explode. In fact, it strains the meaning of the word “sentence,” which refers to a string of words that makes sense. Unless the person misspoke, this seems to just be a fancy way of saying, “This car is like that one.” Try to avoid making heads explode by not using the expression, “not unlike.”
5. Proactive – This is another strange word that has crept into our vocabulary. How is “proactive” different from active? One might argue that there’s a temporal dimension here: one who is “proactive” is one who is ahead of his time. To be honest, I’m not sure what is meant when someone is called “a proactive person.” I think it is a compliment, in that the person is “ahead of the curve” or something, but it’s just not all that clear to me — but maybe I’m just being reactive.
6. Utilize – Why not just say “use”? This oddity seems to be waning in usage, and not a moment too soon as far as I’m concerned. I live for the day when we no longer use “utilize” things.
7. Intellectually dishonest – How is being “intellectually dishonest” different from being just plain dishonest? Is not honesty or dishonesty rooted in the intellect and manifested in speech? I’ve never heard other qualifiers attached; I haven’t heard of physical dishonesty or verbal dishonesty. “You’re being intellectually dishonest” seems to me to be just a highfalutin’ way of saying “You’re being dishonest.”
8. Dialogue – Why not just say “discussion”? Instead of saying, “I’m having a dialogue with him,” why not just say, “I’m having a discussion with him”? An even more egregious abuse of this word is to “verbify” it: “Let’s dialogue about this problem.” Why not just say, “Let’s discuss this problem?” Even worse is “We’re dialoguing about this issue” instead of “We’re discussing this issue.” Turning nouns into verbs or verb forms generally produces strange results. To quote a classic line from Calvin and Hobbes, “Your verbing is weirding me out.” So, let’s talk; let’s have a discussion, but let’s limit our usage of the noun “dialogue” and certainly avoid using it as a verb or using the strange construction “dialoguing.”
9. Using “so” as an interjection – I have seen this most often in academic settings. Typically, the word “so” tends to be placed at the beginning of the answer to a question. For example, “What do the data show in relation to this problem?” The response might be, “So … the data seem to indicate that things are going to get worse.” (People sometimes use an interjection as a delaying tactic while feverishly formulating an answer in their head, but that’s not the usage to which I’m objecting.) In this case, though, I’m suspicious that it is emblematic of the relativistic climate that pervades today’s academic settings. The interjection “So …,” expressed gently and slowly, seems rather more designed to make the person seem thoughtful and somehow not arrogantly certain of what he is about to say. So … I don’t want to come off is too nasty, but would you please stop saying “so” all the time?
10. “Are you suggesting …?”– This is a preamble to a question and is often used by members of the mainstream media to indicate incredulity at an outlandish statement or position. A reporter writing a piece on the Catholic Church might ask me, “Are you suggesting that people who don’t follow the teachings of the Church are in error?” There’s a part of me that wants to answer, “I’m not suggesting anything; I’m saying it outright!” Here, too, the relativistic climate rears its head. People don’t say things or claim things; they “suggest” them. Let me be clear: as one not heavily influenced by relativism, I can say that when I am asked a question, I state an answer. I do not “suggest” an answer—and neither should you, at least when it comes to faith or morals. Do not suggest the faith, say it. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.
OK, can we talk? This is my short list; what do you want to add?
A priest friend of mine who immigrated to this country from Jordan back in the 1970s is often asked, “Where are you from?” He humorously answers, “I am from my mother’s womb.”
True enough! There is an even more fundamental answer, rooted in Scripture, which speaks to the origin of every human person: You are from the loving will and heart of God. Before you were ever formed in your mother’s womb, God knew you and thought about you (see Jeremiah 1:5). He set into motion everything necessary to create you. He didn’t just get your parents to meet, but your grandparents and great-grandparents, going all the way back. All of this so that you could exist just as you are. Having thought of you and conceived you in greatest love, He knit you together in your mother’s womb. You were skillfully wrought in that secret place of the womb and you are wonderfully, fearfully made. Every one of your days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (See Psalm 139).
This biblical answer is true of every one of us. Whatever our nationality, ethnicity, or race, our truest origin is from God, from His heart and His loving “yes” to our existence. This means that I am your brother and you are my brother or sister. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:
Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” … [F]ears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness … will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.
The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (CCC # 1931-1932).
This is Catholic and biblical teaching. One day we shall have to account for how we recognized and treated the Lord in others. God is our Father; you are my brother or sister. Christ the Lord is our brother, too, for He joined our human family; He is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Hebrews 2:11). Wherever you’re from in this world, this origin from God is deeper and older than any earthly origin.
Here on this earth, human movement is constant. We emigrate and immigrate, as individuals, families, and groups. Wars, famines, persecution, economic conditions, the desire for freedom, and educational opportunity all play a role in this movement. Although the phrase seems clichéd, we really are a nation of immigrants. Most of us are from somewhere else, often only a couple of generations back.
Catholics bring a significant experience and witness to immigration to the United States. Many came here during a huge wave of immigration that lasted from about 1880 to 1950. When we came in those years, we were often coming from troubled lands and were extremely poor. There was famine in Ireland; economic and political turmoil in Poland, Lithuania, Italy, and parts of Germany. Many came here not knowing English and at first lived in tenements in large cities. With that poverty went many of social problems: crime, drinking, and so forth. The work of those first generations was anything but easy: laboring in coal mines, laying railroad tracks, working in steel mills, tedious work in textile factories mills. The jobs paid poorly and required long hours; they were jobs that no one really wanted. Additional scorn was heaped upon Catholics due to our faith. The Protestant majority of the time was troubled to see the country suddenly teeming with Catholics, whose religion they often scorned and whose loyalty to the United States they doubted. Slowly, that first wave of Catholics took its place and moved up into better paying jobs. They moved into more slowly into positions of political leadership. Yes, Catholics have endured great scorn in this land, both on account of their religious as well as their status as European peasants.
Prior to 1865, most African-Americans in this country had been brought here against their will. They then suffered great disdain and racism at the hands of the very country that brought them here in chains. The many Black Catholics I have known over the years, especially the older ones, remember well the double scorn they felt for being Black and Catholic.
The most recent wave of immigration into our country is largely from the south. Similarly, poverty and/or persecution are often part of what draws them here. Most of them are Catholic, and like so many immigrants before them, they perform essential services and often take jobs that no one else wants. As was the case during the 19th and 20th centuries, there is crime. And yes, some immigrants are successful, and others remain trapped in poverty.
It is alleged that recently our President, in a moment of anger, said some unacceptable, hurtful things. He spoke not only of nations, but implied that certain nations bring us better immigrants than others. I am not so sure that we have the scales to say who is “better.” Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart. It is true that people with technical, scientific, or academic knowledge contribute a lot to our country, but it is also true that we need immigrants at every level of the economy. We need those willing to do all sorts of work, and those with all different kinds of practical know-how.
Personally, I am quite happy with the immigrants who have come to the United States in recent decades. I think that they have added a lot to the economy and to the Church. They are hardworking and want to share in the American experience. By the second generation, most of them speak English well. While I cannot countenance those who enter the country illegally, I am perhaps more willing than many to view their illegal entry as stemming from desperation rather than flippant disregard for our laws.
I recognize that immigration reform is needed. It is a complex issue and concerns for border security are legitimate. We cannot take the whole of the world’s poor or be overrun with every refugee crisis, but we also cannot ever forget that these are our brothers and sisters. Whatever dysfunctional countries or economies they come from, remember that many of us came from similar ones. People don’t typically leave an idyllic environment.
I do not know all the possible legal and social solutions, but something of a picture emerges in Catholic parishes of what things could look like. Cardinal Wuerl paints this picture:
The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world. On almost any Sunday, we can join neighbors and newcomers from varied backgrounds. We take great pride in the coming together for Mass of women and men, young and old, from so many lands, ethnic heritages, and cultural traditions. Often we can point to this unity as a sign of the power of grace to bring people together (The Challenge of Racism).
Indeed, our parishes are ethnically and racially diverse. The rich beauty of diversity in the unity of our faith is manifest everywhere. “Catholic” means “universal” and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C (as in many other regions) that Catholics come from everywhere! This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights to unite us all in His Church.
“Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called ‘Mother’ for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples, he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home” (Psalm 87:1-7).
Dr. Martin Luther King remarked on the role of the Church back in the days of the civil rights movement:
There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood (Letter from Birmingham jail).
We are currently locked in many fierce debates. Our discourse grows ever more contentious, our language ever coarser. Anger (some of it quite understandable) reaches new levels. In the midst of the ugliness, consider this reminder:
Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are members of one another. … Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, outcry and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph 4:26-32).
We who are Christians should lead the way in helping to lower the temperature. We are past the boiling point now and we are getting scalded more and more.
Maybe the answer begins in asking this simple question: “Where are you from?” Know the answer to this question theologically and religiously rather than nationally. The truest answer is this: “You are from God and so am I.”
If what I have written angers you, I am sorry. If you think me naïve, I ask you to remember something else about me: I am Charles, your brother.
In the Liturgy of the Hours this week we read a remarkable attributed to St. Macarius, a bishop of the early Church. I marvel at its vivid imagery, and yet at the same time, questions arise in my mind as to the general application of the text. In effect, the text states that if the soul does not have Christ living within, it falls into utter disrepair and a contemptible state.
Allow me to have Bishop Macarius speak for himself and then I would like to pose a few questions.
When a house has no master living in it, it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse. So too is a soul which has lost its master, who once rejoiced there with his angels. This soul is darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame.
Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin. Woe to the house where no master dwells, to the field where no farmer works, to the pilotless ship, storm-tossed and sinking. Woe to the soul without Christ as its true pilot; drifting in the darkness, buffeted by the waves of passion, storm-tossed at the mercy of evil spirits, its end is destruction. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ to cultivate it with care to produce the good fruit of the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, it is choked with thorns and thistles; instead of fruit it produces only what is fit for burning. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ dwelling in it; deserted and foul with the filth of the passions, it becomes a haven for all the vices. (St. Macarius, bishop, Hom. 28: PG 34, 710-711).
This is a remarkably vivid, creative description of the soul without Christ, of one who has turned aside from the faith. To be sure, St. Macarius speaks in a general sort of way. Each person’s personal journey will be affected by any number of factors: how absolute a person’s rejection of the faith is, how influenced he is for better or worse by the people and culture around him, how operative he has allowed their natural virtues to be, and so forth. Hence, we ought not to simplify the lives of unbelievers. They come in many forms and degrees.
If, however, the “person” in question is a culture or nation, St. Macarius’ words are especially accurate. We have clearly seen how our own Western culture has suffered gravely as it has “kicked God to the curb.” It is not an exaggeration to describe the Western world as a house that has no master living in it … dark, vile, and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse … darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame. Increasingly, this is our lot in the West, our daily fare.
As the recent spate of sexual abuse allegations and revelations demonstrate, we as a culture engage in some degree of self-correction. Too often, however, our outrage is both selective and short-lived. There is little evidence that we are willing to consider the overall “pornification” of our culture as an underlying problem. It seems unlikely that the current celebration of sexual misconduct, confusion, and immodesty in movies, music, and popular culture is going to be included in our national examination of conscience.
Thus our culture remains in great disrepair. As St Macarius describes, we are adrift like a pilotless ship, foul with the filth of the passions, and a haven for all the vices. While lust and greed predominate, it is clear that our jettisoning of the faith and of biblical norms is having increasingly devastating effects on every level. We have become more coarse, base, angry, and disrespectful of one another; we are exploitative, wasteful, and often ungrateful for what we have; we are increasingly impatient, resentful, and sullen at even the slightest inconvenience or problem. By jettisoning the first three commandments that refer to our relationship with God, the seven commandments that regulate our relationship with one another are undermined as well. This is central to St. Macarius’ point. When a house [or culture] has no master living in it [because collectively we have shown God the door], it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse.
Help us, Lord, to rediscover the beauty of your truth. We have suffered by casting you to the margins. Though even in more religious times we were not free of sin, we have only suffered more by departing from you. Bring us back as a nation, O Lord! Keep us more faithful and help us enjoy more than ever before the beauty of your truth and order. In Jesus’ name!
One of the more irritating and sadder characteristics of our times is that we seem to have lost our collective sense of humor. Our ability to laugh at ourselves appears to be gone, replaced by “frowny-faced” political correctness; there are seemingly endless rules about what can be said about whom, when, where, and using what terminology. On college campuses, young people demand “safe zones,” where nothing can be said that might cause them to feel “unsafe.” In media circles, outrage is a commonly expressed reaction to what used to be called ordinary disagreements.
We are too easily hurt and take offense in these thin-skinned times. We like to think we are more enlightened and sensitive than our boorish forebears (we’re allowed to scorn them because they’re dead), but I suspect the problem is more rooted in pride. The capacity to laugh at ourselves is referred to as “humor” and humor has the same root as “humility.”
In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas posed the following question: Whether there is a sin in lack of mirth? He answered as follows:
In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. … Now a man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently, they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states (Ethic. iv, 8) (ST, II, IIae, q. 168).
St. Thomas is careful not to make mirth an absolute virtue. He does not envision a foolish running off at the mouth and indiscriminate mirth at the foibles and qualities of others or groups. Thus he adds,
[However], it follows that “lack of mirth is less sinful than excess thereof.” Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix, 10): “We should make few friends for the sake of pleasure, since but little sweetness suffices to season life, just as little salt suffices for our meat.” (Ibid).
In other words, mirth is a virtue to be had in moderation. A little salt goes a long way; a lot of salt will likely raise blood pressure. St. Thomas is not affirming hurtful or harsh humor here.
I would argue that today we do not have moderation. Rather we exhibit a prudish, hypersensitive fretting about every offense, perceived or actual. In a word, we are “uptight.” We have become all too precious and fragile, like snowflakes. There are a lot of party-poopers around today; they frown at any levity and take offense at every insight that suggests we human beings are funny, inconsistent, predictable, and just downright silly at times. Stereotypes can be funny because they contain an element of truth. It is not that there are no exceptions, but they are generally observable. They make the simple observation that group dynamics exist in the human community.
Why can’t we just have a good laugh at some of our foibles and admit that there is at least some truth in how others see us? The most straightforward answer is that it is because we lack humility. A second reason is that we engage in “identity politics,” in which our political positions are based on the interests of a group with which we identify. Hence, even if we could laugh at a joke made at our own expense, we do not feel free to laugh at any “insult” to the larger group. All of this is a subset of the “tyranny of relativism” and subjectivism, in which the truth is a matter of opinion rather than an external or objective fact; the locus shifts from the object to the subject. In this environment, if you find humor in or disagree with an observable object, you are laughing at or disagreeing with me. Thus enters the phenomenon of taking everything personally. Too many people have become narcissistic, boring, fragile snowflakes. Some become so angry at mere mirth that they threaten lawsuits; they seek to silence anything that they perceive to be “hurtful” (and they are easily hurt). St. Thomas well describes this sort above: [They are] burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment. … Consequently, they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude.
This does not mean we should give blanket approval to every form of humor. Poking fun at our quirkiness is one thing, but ridicule, demeaning talk, derision, and racial/ethnic scorn are quite another. As is the case with most things, moderation is key.
The ability to laugh at ourselves is a sign of security and trust. Security and trust anchor us in God’s love. We are funny and we are quirky, but we are loved.
Here is a video that pokes a little fun at our Catholic identity. When I posted it some years ago, about 25 percent of people took offense, saying that he was belittling sacred things. I think he was merely celebrating the fact that we are distinguishable by our traditions. He’s poking a little good-natured fun at our Catholic culture. Lighten up and watch Deacon Dan, whose car dealership is at the end of Water St., right before it turns in to Wine!
Here’s another celebration of being Catholic, by Justin Stroh:
Every Person Has Unique Gifts and Belongs as a Full and Equal Participant in the Community by Mary O’Meara
As a society, there is a renewed awareness of the need to acknowledge the value of the diversity of our human family. It is encouraging to see more and more people calling for our culture to embrace all people, to draw them into the fabric of social life, and treat them as equal, full and active participants in the community. Yet, perhaps the most marginalized segment of society has been largely left out of the discussion.
Historically, persons with disabilities have found themselves if not excluded, then limited from society – on the outside looking in and seen as “other,” rather than as members of the community. Too often are they made to feel unwelcome in places and activities that are routine parts of everyday life for their “typical” neighbors. Too often do they face in society attitudes that disregard their human dignity and the positive contributions they have to offer.
While some progress has been made, much more needs to be done. For a long time we talked about persons with disabilities in terms of access, such as providing sign interpreters or ramps under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but what we need to see now is a culture of belonging and full inclusion. Our neighborhoods, schools, government agencies and our entire community should be places where everyone in their diversity – including physical, intellectual, cognitive and mental diversity – feels welcomed as contributing members without limiting or patronizing them.
One step in that process is the annual White Mass hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 22, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
Named for the white garment worn at baptism, this liturgy celebrates the gifts and giftedness of all persons in their physical, intellectual or developmental uniqueness as integral members of the community. It is a beautiful expression of a welcoming culture where no one is an afterthought and everyone participates in the life of the community: People who are Deaf or have a disability serve as lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, gift bearers and they lead prayers.
Beyond being a celebration of the harmony of God’s family, the White Mass is also a summons to dialogue and action to promote human dignity and inclusivity in the greater community. Human life is like a great orchestra, marked by variety and also marked by limitations. We are all different in the way we look or sound. We each have things we can do and things we cannot do. Each of us has our own qualities. And in this is beauty which benefits us all.
This difference is precious, Pope Francis reminds us. “Everyone brings his or her own, what God gave them, to enrich others.” As public awareness is raised to the need to overcome prejudice and exclusion in society, it is crucial that we treasure too as full and equal participants those who might differ in certain ways physically or cognitively.
Belonging starts here. We are all equal in dignity and we all have gifts to offer, even if some of us need support to participate more fully. We want all persons to belong. We need all persons to belong. Persons with disabilities are a positive presence in society. Ensuring that everyone with their uniqueness truly belongs starts with each one of us.