Gratitude is More than an Attitude; It is a Discipline

There is perhaps no greater benefit to mental health than gratitude. Grateful people are different. They are more joyful, for gratitude is a form of joy. They are more generous, kind, patient, forgiving, confident, and trusting.

Gratitude is a discipline of the mind wherein we commit to counting our blessings every day and expressing thanks to God. Our blessings are countless and our burdens, though real, are far fewer and of a passing nature. Consider the following meditation from St. Gregory of Nazianzen:

What benefactor has enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship?

Who has given you dominion over animals, those that are tame and those that provide you with food? Who has made you lord and master of everything on earth? In short, who has endowed you with all that makes man superior to all other living creatures? (Oratio 14, De Pauperum amore, 23-25)

Indeed, it is God who gives all this and so much more, things seen and unseen, known and unknown.

Our flesh is wired for negativity and looks about warily for threats. But we are not debtors to the flesh to live according to its promptings (Romans 8:12). Thus, in obedience to our spirit, we must cultivate gratitude rooted in wonder and awe at what God has done and continues to do for us. If we do not, we easily become fearful and stingy; our mental and emotional health quickly deteriorates.

When was the last time you really counted your blessings? When was the last time you looked about in wonder and awe and just sighed, saying, “Thank you, Lord; you have done so much for me that I cannot tell it all”?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  Gratitude is More than an Attitude – It is a Discipline

Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?

Noah – Lorenzo Monaco (1410)

I occasionally get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider the ages at which these figures purportedly died:

  • Adam – 930
  • Seth – 912
  • Enosh – 905
  • Jared – 962
  • Methuselah – 969
  • Noah – 950
  • Shem – 600
  • Eber – 464
  • Abraham – 175
  • Moses – 120
  • David – 70

How should we understand these references? Many theories have been proposed to explain the claimed longevity. Some use a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while still children themselves. Another theory proposes that the purported life spans of the patriarchs are just indications of their influence or family line, but then things don’t add up chronologically with eras and family trees.

Personally, I think we need to take the stated life spans of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer than we do in the modern era. I cannot prove that they actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live to be that old. But if you ask me, I think it is best just to accept that they did.

This solution, when I articulate it, causes many to scoff. They almost seem to be offended. The reply usually sounds something like this: “That’s crazy. There’s no way they lived that long. The texts must be wrong.” To which I generally reply, “Why do you think it’s crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:

  1. People didn’t know how to tell time accurately back then. Well, actually, they were pretty good at keeping time, in some ways better than we are today. The ancients were keen observers of the sun, the moon, and the stars. They had to be, otherwise they would have starved. It was crucial to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to hunt (e.g., the migratory and/or hibernation patterns of animals through the seasons). They may not have had timepieces that were accurate to the minute, but they were much more in sync with the rhythms of the cosmos than most of us are today. They certainly knew what a day, a month, and a year were by the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars.
  2. They couldn’t have lived that long because they didn’t have the medicines we do today. Perhaps, but it is also possible that they didn’t have the diseases we do. Perhaps they ate and lived in more healthy ways than we do today. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are many things we cannot possibly know. The claim about our advanced technology (medicine) also shows a tendency of us moderns to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter than we are. While we surely do have advanced technologies, we also have things that make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are many ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world. It is also quite possible that the strains of disease and viral attacks have become more virulent over time.
  3. Those long life spans just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean that he attained great wisdom? But wait, David wasn’t any slouch and he only made it to 70. And if Seth was so influential (living to 912), where are the books recording his influence such as we have for Moses, who lived to be a mere 120? In other words, we can’t just propose a scale indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
  4. Sorry, people just don’t live that long. Well, today they don’t, but why is something automatically false simply because it doesn’t comport with today’s experience? To live to be 900 is preternatural, not supernatural. (Something preternatural is extremely extraordinary, well outside the normal, but not impossible.) In other words, it is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most people today die short of 100 years of age, but some live longer. Certain closely related mammals like dogs and cats live only 15 to 20 years. Why is there such a large difference in life expectancy between humans and other similar animals? There is obviously some mysterious clock that winds down more quickly for some animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the longevity of various living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounted to preternatural gifts.

So I think we’re back to where we started: just taking the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.

There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans of the Old Testament. The Scriptures link sin and death. Adam and Eve were warned that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die (Gen 2:17), but they did not drop dead immediately. Although they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the age listing above shows, as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.

Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years, but right afterward they dropped by about a third (Shem only lived to 600), and then the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached 200, and by the time of King David, he would write, Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong (Ps 90:10).

Scripture says, For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Indeed they are, especially in terms of lifespan. Perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long life spans of the patriarchs, for what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. This truth is surely made clear by the declining lifespan of the human family.

Does this prove that Adam actually lived to be more than 900 years old? No, it only shows that declining life spans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. God teaches that sin brings death, so why should we be shocked that our life span has decreased from 900 years to about 85? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth about which God warned us. Thanks be to God our Father, who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!

How or even whether the patriarchs lived to such advanced ages is not clear, but what is theologically clear is that we don’t live that long today because of the collective effect of sin upon us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?

A Reflection on a Sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Refuting Atheistic Materialism

World Telegram & Sun photo by D. DeMarsico

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we commemorate on Monday, is best known as a civil rights leader who worked to end racial injustice, but he had other things to say as he preached each Sunday, first in his own assembly and later as he spoke around the country.

Among his recorded sermons is one in which Dr. King addressed the problem of unbelief, of materialism and atheism. His reflections are well worth pondering today because the problem is even more widespread now than it was when he made these remarks in 1957. A complete transcript of the sermon is available here: The Man Who Was a Fool.

In this sermon, Dr. King commented on Jesus’ parable of the wealthy man who had a huge harvest and, instead of sharing it, just built bigger barns to hold the excess. The Lord called him a fool for thinking that his material wealth could provide security.

Following are excerpts from this sermon, with Dr. King’s words shown in bold, black italics and my comments displayed in plain red text. After discussing several reason why the man was a fool, Dr. King said,

Jesus [also] called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. He talked as though he unfolded the seasons and provided the fertility of the soil, controlled the rising and the setting of the sun, and regulated the natural processes that produce the rain and the dew. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature.

Having discovered the inner realities of many processes, the materialistic atheist fails to ask more fundamental questions such as “Where does the cosmos ultimately come from?” and “What is the ultimate destiny of all things?” Having found some answers, he mistakes them for the ultimate answers; they are not.

There is no problem with a scientist saying that these sorts of questions lie beyond science, that science is only focused on material and efficient causality. Each discipline does have its area of focus. The error of scientism is in its claims that science alone explains all reality; it does not.

The usual response of those who ascribe to scientism (not all scientists do) to questions that science cannot answer is to dismiss them or to say that one day science will find an answer. When we, who are obviously creatures and contingent beings, dismiss our Creator, we are displaying either hardness of heart or a form of madness. Such a dismissal is neither rational nor reasonable.

This man-centered foolishness has had a long and oftentimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism, which contends that reality may be explained in terms of matter in motion, that life is “a physiological process with a physiological meaning,” that man is a transient accident of protons and electrons traveling blind, that thought is a temporary product of gray matter, and that the events of history are an interaction of matter and motion operating by the principle of necessity.

Dr. King describes here the problem of reductionism, in which things are reduced to matter alone and attributed entirely to material causes. This view holds that even concepts such as justice, meaning, and beauty must somehow be explained materially in terms of their cause. The human soul that knows immaterial things does mediate its thoughts through the brain and the central nervous system, but it does not follow that the medium is the cause. It does not pertain to matter to be the cause of what is spiritual.

Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism. This materialistic philosophy leads inevitably into a dead-end street in an intellectually senseless world. To believe that human personality is the result of the fortuitous interplay of atoms and electrons is as absurd as to believe that a monkey by hitting typewriter keys at random will eventually produce a Shakespearean play. Sheer magic!

Many atheists think they have solved this conundrum, but I think that they “solve” it with a set of assumptions so outlandish and unproven that it requires far more “faith” to accept them than to believe in an intelligent designer and creator.

The statistical possibility that things could come together “by chance” to form complex life—let alone intelligent life—and not just once but at least twice (for reproduction’s sake) is minuscule! (As Dr. King says, “Sheer magic!”) Those who demand we accept this explanation are far more credulous than are believers, who observe the intricate design of creation and conclude (reasonably) that there is an intelligent creator.

It is much more sensible to say with Sir James Jeans, the physicist, that “the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine,” or with Arthur Balfour, the philosopher, that “we now know too much about matter to be materialists.” Materialism is a weak flame that is blown out by the breath of mature thinking. Exactly! The universe shouts its design and intelligence.

Another attempt to make God irrelevant is found in non-theistic humanism, a philosophy that deifies man by affirming that humanity is God. Man is the measure of all things. Many modern men who have embraced this philosophy contend, as did Rousseau, that human nature is essentially good. Evil is to be found only in institutions, and if poverty and ignorance were to be removed everything would be all right. The twentieth century opened with such a glowing optimism. Men believed that civilization was evolving toward an earthly paradise.

The Catholic faith defines this error as utopianism and pseudo-messianism.

Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism (Catechism of the Catholic Church #675-676).

We all know what a bloodbath the 20th century became—so much for man being his own measure!

Herbert Spencer skillfully molded the Darwinian theory of evolution into the heady idea of automatic progress. Men became convinced that there is a sociological law of progress which is as valid as the physical law of gravitation. Possessed of this spirit of optimism, modern man broke into the storehouse of nature and emerged with many scientific insights and technological developments that completely revolutionized the earth. The achievements of science have been marvelous, tangible and concrete. …

[But] Man’s aspirations no longer turned Godward and heavenward. Rather, man’s thoughts were confined to man and earth. And man offered a strange parody on the Lord’s Prayer:

“Our brethren which art upon the earth, Hallowed be our name. Our kingdom come. Our will be done on earth, for there is no heaven.”

Those who formerly turned to God to find solutions for their problems turned to science and technology, convinced that they now possessed the instruments needed to usher in the new society.

Scripture says, Claiming to be wise they became fools and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:22).

Then came the explosion of this myth. It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and in the fierce fury of fifty-megaton bombs. Now we have come to see that science can give us only physical power, which, if not controlled by spiritual power, will lead inevitably to cosmic doom.

Atheists are forever pointing out how many lives were lost in the name of religion. However, those numbers are not even close to those claimed in the bloodbath ushered in by atheistic materialists.

The words of Alfred the Great are still true: “Power is never a good unless he be good that has it.” We need something more spiritually sustaining and morally controlling than science. It is an instrument that, under the power of God’s spirit, may lead man to greater heights of physical security, but apart from God’s spirit, science is a deadly weapon that will lead only to deeper chaos. Make it plain, Dr. King!

Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself? We must lift up our minds and eyes unto the hills from whence comes our true help. Then, and only then, will the advances of modern science be a blessing rather than a curse. Without dependence on God our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. Unless his spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G.K. Chesterton called “cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Notice that Dr. King called upon two Catholic intellectuals (St. Alfred the Great and G.K. Chesterton) to be his witnesses.

Unfortunately, the rich man [in the parable] did not realize this. He, like many men of the twentieth century, became so involved in big affairs and small trivialities that he forgot God. He gave the finite infinite significance and elevated a preliminary concern to ultimate standing. After the rich man had accumulated his vast resources of wealth—at the moment when his stocks were accruing the greatest interest and his palatial home was the talk of the town—he came to that experience which is the irreducible common denominator of all men, death.

At every funeral I say to the mourners, “You are going to die.” Then I tell them that we must get ready, not with more things but with more God.

The fact that he died at this particular time adds verve and drama to the story, but the essential truth of the parable would have remained the same had he lived to be as old as Methuselah. Even if he had not died physically, he was already dead spiritually. The cessation of breathing was a belated announcement of an earlier death. He died when he failed to keep a line of distinction between the means by which he lived and the ends for which he lived and when he failed to recognize his dependence on others and on God.

May it not be that the “certain rich man” is Western civilization? Rich in goods and material resources, our standards of success are almost inextricably bound to the lust for acquisition.

The means by which we live are marvelous indeed. And yet something is missing. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.

An Oriental writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:

“You call your thousand material devices ‘labor-saving machinery,’ yet you are forever ‘busy.’ With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else. You have a machine to dig the raw material for you, a machine to manufacture [it], a machine to transport [it], a machine to sweep and dust, one to carry messages, one to write, one to talk, one to sing, one to play at the theater, one to vote, one to sew, and a hundred others to do a hundred other things for you, and still you are the most nervously busy man in the world. Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.” So true!

…The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided man. Like the rich man of old, we have foolishly minimized the internal of our lives and maximized the external. We have absorbed life in livelihood.

Yes, we have maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.

We will not find peace in our generation until we learn anew that “a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses,” but in those inner treasuries of the spirit which “no thief approaches, neither moth corrupts.” Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to re-establish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments. Our generation cannot escape the question of our Lord: What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul? Amen!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Reflection on a Sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Refuting Atheistic Materialism

Don’t Be a Liar

Rest on Flight to Egypt, by Caravaggio (1597)

At Christmas we celebrate the Word becoming Flesh, but what does this mean for us today? Fundamentally, it means that our faith is about things that are tangible. As human beings, we have bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual, but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence, it is never enough for our faith to be only about thoughts, philosophies, concepts, or ideas. Their truth must touch the physical part of who we are. Our faith must become flesh; it has to influence our behavior. If that is not the case, then the Holy Spirit, speaking through John, has something to call us: liars!

Therefore, away with sophistry, rationalizations, and intentions. Our faith must become flesh in the way we act and move.  God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and touched.  The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of a book or in the recesses of our intellect. They must leap off the pages of the Bible and the Catechism and become flesh in the way we live our life, in the decisions we make, and in the way we use our body, mind, intellect, and will.

Consider the following passage from the liturgy of the Christmas Octave:

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3ff).

Note some teachings that follow from it:

Faith is incarnational. What a practical man John is! Faith is not an abstraction; it is not merely about theories and words on a page. It is about a transformed life; it is about truly loving God and making His commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about loving our neighbor. True faith is incarnational. That is to say, it takes on flesh in our very “body.”

Too many people spout the phrase, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional absence is understandable but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Showing up physically and doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. We are body persons and our faith must include a physical, flesh-and-blood dimension.

Keeping the commandments is a sure sign. John said that The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith; it is the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love; it is its fruit.

In Scripture, “knowing” refers to than an intellectual understanding. It refers to deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person. It is one thing to know about God; it is quite to “know the Lord.”

In this passage, John is saying that in order to be sure we have deep, intimate, personal experience of God, we must change the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord, will change our behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with Him. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. Theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.

For a human being, faith cannot be a mere abstraction. In order to be authentic, it must become flesh and blood. In a later passage, John uses the image of walking: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:6). Although walking is a physical activity, it is also symbolic. The very place we take our body is physical, but it is also indicative of what we value, what we think.

Liars John went on to say, Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. This is strong language! Either we believe and thus keep the commandments, or we are lying about really knowing the Lord and we fail to keep the commandments.

Don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully? John seems so “all or nothing” in his words, but his point is clear. To know the Lord fully is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). If we know him imperfectly, we still experience sin. Hence, the more we know him (remember the definition of “know”) the less we sin. If we still sin, it is a sign that we do not know Him enough.

It is not really John who speaks too absolutely; it is we who do so. We say things like “I have faith,” “I am a believer,” “I love the Lord,” and “I know the Lord.” Perhaps we would be more accurate if we said, “I am growing in faith,” “I am striving to be a better believer,” or “I’m learning to love and know the Lord better and better.” If we do not, then we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.

Many in the Protestant tradition reduce faith to an event such as answering an altar call or accepting Christ as “personal Lord and savior.” We Catholics do it too. Many Catholics think that all they need to do is be baptized; they don’t bother to attend Mass faithfully as time goes on. Others claim to be “loyal” even “devout” Catholics yet dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we make.

Without this harmony between faith and action, we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. The bottom line is that if we really come to know the Lord more and more perfectly, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments, and be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our claim to have faith will be the truth, not a lie.

Faith and works cannot be separated. This passage does not claim that salvation is by works alone. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving or of real faith. Properly understood, the keeping of the commandments is the result of saving faith actively present and working within us. It indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.

The Protestant tradition erred in dividing faith and works. In the 16th century, Protestants claimed that we are saved by “faith alone.” Faith is never alone. It always brings effects with it.

Our brains can get in the way here and tempt us to think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can do so in reality, but that is not always the case.

Consider, for a moment, a flame. It has the qualities of heat and light. We can separate the two in our mind but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame from its light. They are so interrelated as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a flame are distinguishable theoretically, but they are always together in reality.

This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically, but the works of true faith and faith itself are always together in reality. We are not saved by works alone or by faith alone; they are together. John teaches here that knowing the Lord by living faith is always accompanied by keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.

Therefore, faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. Similarly, our own faith must become flesh in us, in our actual behavior.

Enjoy this incarnational Christmas carol:

Verbum caro factum est                      The Word was made flesh
Porque todos hos salveis.                   for the salvation of you all.

Y la Virgen le dezia:                           And the Virgin said unto him:
‘Vida de la vida mia,                          ‘Life of my life,
Hijo mio, ¿que os haria,                     what would I [not] do for you, my Son?
Que no tengo en que os echeis?’        Yet I have nothing on which to lay you down.’

O riquezas terrenales,                         O worldly riches,
¿No dareis unos pañales                     will you not give some swaddling clothes
A Jesu que entre animals                    to Jesus who is born among the animals
Es nasçido segun veis?                       as you can see?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: cathstan.org/posts/dont-be-a-liar

On the Loss of Faith as a Cause of Our Current Crisis

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, after which 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: pp. 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 way. Each person’s personal journey will be affected by many factors: how absolute his 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 we apply St. Macarius’ teaching to the sexual scandal currently rocking the Church worldwide, we can note that one of the causes rightly assigned to it is a loss of faith. How is it possible for a man who once consecrated himself to God and who daily celebrates the sacred mysteries of the sacraments to so violate the Sixth Commandment and his promise of celibacy? In many cases this is not a one-time fall in weakness but a repeated action. How can a cleric live such a double life? Somewhere this man has lost the faith, either substantially or totally. As his sinful notions harden and his rationalizations grow, surely his soul darkens. As Macarius notes, the Holy Spirit cannot bring forth fruits in a soul in which mortal sin goes on unconfessed, and woe to the soul no longer indwelled by Christ. The filth of sin and the darkness of denial grow ever worse. This is why we must pray for the conversion of sinners: O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, especially those in most need of thy mercy.

We see this also in the wider culture, where many live openly in sin and irregularity. Abortion, fornication, cohabitation, homosexual acts, rampant divorce, and (assisted) suicide once shocked us and brought shame and sorrow. Today they are called rights and are often celebrated; it is those who remained shocked and saddened who are excoriated.

This sea change also illustrates St. Macarius’ words, for we see how our culture suffers gravely from a lack of faith 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 … increasingly 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.

The #MeToo movement and the current anger about sexual abuse by clergy demonstrate that we as a culture do occasionally awaken to the increasing toll of the sexual and cultural revolution; we do occasionally engage in some degree of self-correction. Too often, however, our outrage is both selective and short-lived. Sexual abusers of every sort are rightly denounced, but there is little evidence that we are willing to consider the overall “pornification” of our culture as another contributing factor. 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 overall 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. 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, 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 abandoning the first three commandments that refer to our relationship with God, we undermine the seven commandments that regulate our relationship with one another as well. This is central to St. Macarius’ point. When a house [or culture] has no master living in it [because we have collectively 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 pushing you to the margins. Though even in more religious times we were not free of sin, we have only made things worse by departing from you. Bring us back as a nation, O Lord! Help us to be more faithful and to enjoy more than ever before the beauty of your truth and order. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Pondering the Night of the Senses and the Paradox That We See Farther in the Darkness

As human beings we are very visual; there is a certain demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. But of course God, who is pure spirit, will not be seen in this way.

How can the human eye perceive what is spiritual? It is not designed to do so. We cannot see God as God any more than we should expect to be able to see justice sitting down to lunch with humility. These are not physical concepts; they are metaphysical ones. We may see evidence of their existence, but we do not see them physically—so also with God. We see a lot of evidence of His existence, but we do not see Him with our earthly eyes.

There is a well-known (but inaccurate) saying, “Seeing is believing.” Actually it is not; seeing is only seeing. When we see things physically, one of two things happens, either of which eliminates the existence of any sort of faith:

  1. We see something and accept it as true, in which case faith is no longer necessary, for it is not necessary to believe what we can plainly see.
  2. We scoff or act bemused and continue to disbelieve, saying (for example when we see a magic trick), “There’s a way of doing that; it’s just an illusion.”

In either case, faith (human or supernatural) is set aside when we see something with our earthly eyes.

Therefore, as Scripture insists over and over again, faith is not a matter of seeing in a physical way.

  • Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not (Hebrews 11:1).
  • So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:18).
  • For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
  • For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? (Rom 8:24)
  • For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then, we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
  • And though you have not seen [Jesus], you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).
  • Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29).
  • So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17).

St. Thomas Aquinas says, Faith is a habit of the mind whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 4 ad 1).

Therefore, faith is not about what is seen with our earthly eyes. It comes from hearing—hearing the Word of God.

That said, faith is a way of knowing and thus also a way of “seeing,” but more in the intellectual sense, such as when we say, “Oh! Now I see” when we grasp a point intellectually. Although we know and “see” by faith, spiritual theologians such as St. John of the Cross remind us that the seeing and knowing by faith is “obscure.”

Usually we think of the word “obscure” with a slightly negative connotation. If something is obscure, it is tricky or hard to figure out; we look for something to illumine the darkness, to scatter the obscurity.

Not so fast. Consider the deeply paradoxical notion that the darkness, the obscurity, actually helps us to see better! Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains it this way:

Obscure faith enlightens us somewhat like the night, which though surrounding us with shadows, allows us to see the stars, and by them, the depths of the firmament. … That we may see the stars, the sun must hide, night must begin. Amazingly, in the obscurity of the night we see to a far greater distance than in the day; we see even the distant stars which reveal to us the immense expanse of the heavens. … [And so] faith, although obscure, opens up to us the supernatural world and its infinite depths: the Kingdom of God, His inner life, which we shall see unveiled and clearly in eternity (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Tan Publications Vol 1, p. 361).

In the darkness we see farther and deeper into space. Sunlight is precious, but it envelops us; it closes us in a much smaller world. We see better what is near; what is farther off and higher up is lost to us. From the perspective of our physical senses, faith is a “dark” knowing or seeing. By it, we see farther and higher, longer and deeper.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange continues,

Faith is obscure but it illumines our intellect … in a way very superior to the senses and to reason. … What is evident for our senses is sensible, not spiritual; therefore, it is not God himself. … Now faith makes us attain here on earth the inner life of God in the penumbra, in obscurity. Consequently, a man who preferred visions to infused faith would deceive himself … for he would prefer what is superficial and exterior, and what is accessible to our faculties, to what surpasses them. He would prefer figures to the divine reality (Ibid).

Therefore, we must be wary of the strong demand of our flesh to see on its own terms. Our earthly eyes cannot see God on the terms that our flesh demands. He is just too immanent, too transcendent, for that. Our eyes see what physically exists but not Existence Himself. If we yield to this demand of our flesh we are going to limit our world immensely. We will certainly see worldly and physical things well, but we will miss the greater portion of reality: the Kingdom of God and God Himself!

Welcome to the modern world; a small world increasingly closed in on itself; a world no longer enchanted and charged with mystery; a world that demands to see only in physical terms, preferring what is superficial and exterior, preferring the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Ponder the great paradox of the “darkness” and “obscurity” of faith. In the humility of accepting the darkness, we see farther, higher, deeper, and longer. Jesus is the Light of the world, but we see Him in the “darkness” of faith; we understand Him most clearly not by the false light of this world, but by faith. Faith is obscure to our senses, but understood by our souls as a necessary condition to loving Him as our true and only Light.

A Word of Encouragement from Elisha the Prophet

There is an old saying, “Stop telling God how big your storm is and start telling the storm how big your God is.”  In other words, we often need to shift our focus, building up our trust and confidence. Because we are so wired for fear, we tend to overestimate the power and shrewdness of demons, or of our enemies, or of whatever it is we fear. At the same time, we tend to underestimate the power of God, the power of our own resources, the strength that God gives us, and the perduring quality of what is good and true.

I see a lot of this in deliverance ministry, where so many people come to us more fearful of the power of demons than they are trusting in the power of God. Part of the solution must be that they make a journey in faith, coming to realize that demons are not all-powerful; God and His angels are more powerful. Even if God mysteriously allows demons some access to our lives, it is only to act as a snare for the evil one and to unlock greater blessings for us who call out in faith.

There is a remarkable passage in the Second Book of Kings that draws back the curtain for a moment and shows us a world we seldom see. The passage centers on the prophet Elisha and the King of Syria’s attempt to capture and kill him. Elisha is not worried, but his young assistant (or servant) is quite dismayed by the approaching Syrian army:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw:  And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).

Yes, for just a moment the mystical curtain is drawn back, and the young servant of Elisha sees that we are not alone in this battle. Indeed, myriad angels, saints, and God Himself engage the battle for us. Elisha reminds us, Those who are with us are more than those who are with them. God’s power far surpasses whatever foolishness of the devil is making the rounds. At times, the city seems surrounded (as Elisha’s servant saw), but Elisha isn’t worried because he sees something else, something far greater and more glorious; he knows where to focus.

To be sure, there is a battle to be fought, but we do not fight it alone. There are a multitude of angels and saints and behold, chariots of fire round about. Lord open our eyes that we may see and understand that we are not alone. Give us the courage to engage the battle with the sword of your word, of your truth! Fix our focus on You, not on the storms of life.

This song in the video below says,

When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father you are king over the flood
I will be still and know you are God

Find rest my soul
In Christ alone
Know his power
In quietness and trust

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Indifference

The Gospel for Tuesday of the 31st Week features the Lucan version of the parable about a man who gave a banquet. (In the Matthew version, Jesus refers to him as a king and I will refer to him that way in this post.) When all was ready, the servants were sent out to fetch the invited guests, many of whom made excuses:

The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman and therefore I cannot come’ (Luke 14:18-20, see also Matthew 22:2).

None of the excuses is wrong or evil in itself. The guests weren’t excusing themselves to be able to consort with a prostitute, oppress the poor, or wage war. Each goes off to do something good. However, as the saying goes, “The good is the enemy of the best.” Oddly, the invited guests reject the rare opportunity to attend a banquet in favor of some good but lesser activity.

Their excuses illustrate well the disposition of many today who prefer the passing things of this world to the greater and lasting gifts of God and the things awaiting them in Heaven. While indifference and misplaced priorities have always been human problems, we in the modern age seem to exhibit them in greater abundance. This is likely an effect of having so many options and creature comforts available to us.

Indifference is a huge problem today. Though there are some people who resist, disbelieve, or even hate God, and others actively engaged in serious sins, there are even more who have simply fallen into indifference and drifted away from God and the things of Heaven. They veer off to the modern equivalent of examining their farms, evaluating their livestock, or spending time with their spouse: one goes off to detail his car, another goes shopping, yet another is off to a family function or even to work. If they think of God at all or of the invitation to attend Mass, they casually dismiss it because they have so many other things to do.

What makes this sort of rejection of God’s invitation so pernicious is that, as in the parable, most of these people don’t go off to do sinful things. Many today who live very secular lives, giving little or no thought to God, are very “nice” people. Many of them pay their taxes, love their families, and dedicate their time to any number of good causes. It is easy to look at their decision to skip Mass and conclude that it’s “no big deal.” Though they seem to have little time for God or for the things of God they are still “nice” people. Everything is fine because they don’t really mean to reject God or His invitation to holy things. Surely, they will be saved in the end. Or so we think.

The parable does not make this conclusion. Our thinking that everything is probably fine is at odds with the very words of Jesus. The parable teaches that their rejection has catastrophic consequences: they will not have no part in the banquet! For, I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will taste my dinner (Lk 14:24).

Their indifference to, and rejection of, the invitation has a lasting effect. At the end of the day you’re either at the banquet or you’re not. Being “nice” or going off to do good (but lesser) things doesn’t get you into the banquet. Accepting the invitation and entering by obedience to the summons of faith gets you in. Once in, there will be plenty of “nice” and good things to do, but you must obey the summons and enter by faith. That many today regard the summons lightly, preferring worldly things to the things of God is, as the parable teaches, very dangerous.

Let us study carefully the king’s reaction to the rejections by the invited guests, noting three things about the response. The text says,

Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’ The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled. For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner’ (Luke 14:21-24)

1. Rage

The translation is vivid: the king is described as being in a “rage.” Scripture says, And without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (Jn 3:36).

We must be careful here to understand the implications of the Greek word that underlies this. The Greek word is ὀργίζω (orgizo), and while it can be properly translated as anger or rage, more deeply it expresses a “settled opposition” to injustice. The word does not describe God as being in an egocentric rage, as if he were some sort of a jilted lover. Rather, the anger comes from a settled, serene stance in which God does not (and cannot) adjust Himself to the vicissitudes of sinners or change Himself to placate them. God’s stance remains unchanged. It is our stance that changes and makes us come to experience His love as wrath.

The form of the verb used in the text underscores this reality. The verb form is an aorist, passive participle (ὀργισθεὶς (orgistheis)) best translated as “having been angered.” Thus, God does not change His principled stance of offered love; it is those who reject Him who change and experience His love as wrath. It is the result of human rejection that brings forth this experience. God’s settled, steadfast opposition to the human refusal of His love does not and cannot change. It is our rejection of His offer that puts us in opposition to Him, not an egotistical rage on His part. God unchanging desire is for His banquet hall to be filled.

2. Resolve

Having been rebuffed by some, the king merely intensifies his resolve to extend the invitation further until the hall is filled! He sends his servants out again and again; he will not stop calling until the full number of guests has been reached. Scripture says, Then [the martyrs] were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete (Rev 6:11). For the whole creation hopes for and expects the full revelation of the sons of God (Rom 8:19). There is an old spiritual that says, “Oh, preacher, fold your Bible. For the last soul’s converted!”

God, who does not relent in His resolve or change His settled stance, continues to call until enough sinful, stubborn human beings repent and accept His invitation to the banquet.

3. Respect

The final line of the passage is telling. Although it sounds like a denunciation, it should be understood more deeply as a sign of respect. The king says, For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner. At the end of the day, God will respect (though not approve of) the rejection of His invitation. God has made us free. He respects our freedom even if, in His settled opposition to sinful and harmful choices, He regrets our decisions. Scripture says, If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us (2 Tim 2:12). Yes, God will at some point either accept and ratify our denial of His offer or He will rejoice in our enduring yes. The decision is ours and it is one that will determine our destiny.

We in the Church must become more sober in our appreciation of what a parable like this teaches. We cannot allow ourselves to be carried away by the unbiblical notion that most people will be saved and that they can do so merely by being “nice.” There are lots of nice people in the world (however vaguely “nice” is defined). The more critical question is this: Do you want what God offers or do you prefer the world, with its offers rooted in the flesh or even in the devil?

There is a strange obtuseness to the human heart, which desires lesser things to greater ones, which is easily carried away by passing pleasures, which hates the discipline of the cross. We must recover an urgency in our evangelization that does not presume that most will “make it in” by some natural “goodness” or “niceness.” We need to draw everyone to the definitive yes that a parable like this teaches is necessary. Vague notions of universalism and of being pleasant, nice people cannot replace the biblical teaching of obedience to the summons to say yes to God’s Kingdom. Naïve and myopic notions cannot save God’s people or motivate vigorous and urgent evangelization. Only an obedience to God’s Word can do that. Presumption is a terrible thing and it stabs evangelization in the heart.

The teaching here is clear: we need a sober, consistent, urgent outreach to the many souls who prefer the secular to the sacred, the passing to the eternal, what is here to what is heavenly. Wishful thinking will not win any souls, only a sober seriousness rooted in God’s Word will do so.

The music in this video I prepared is by Fiocco and the text is this: Homo quidam fecit coenam magnam, et misit servum suum hora coenae dicere invitatis ut venirent: Quia parata sunt omnia. (A certain man made a great banquet and sent his servants at the hour of the feast to say to the invited that they should come: because everything is prepared.)