Mind Your Mind!

There is a tendency today to trivialize and reduce the human person. One of the ways we do this is by claiming that it doesn’t really matter what people think or believe, only that they behave well. For example, we think that if a man is a good citizen, pays his taxes, doesn’t beat his wife, and is kind to children and animals then it doesn’t matter what he believes. This trivializes the man, because each of us was made to know the one, true God. We were made to know the truth and, knowing this truth, to be set free (Jn 8:32). God’s plan for us is more than just that we behave “well” from a human perspective. He offers each of us a complete transformation: a new mind and heart, attained through personal knowledge and experience of Him. This will certainly affect our behavior, but God is offering us much more than just to be considered “nice” by other people.

One of the ways Scripture expresses what God is offering us at a deeper level is the appeal to the mind that so frequently occurs in the New Testament. The very first words of Jesus as He began His public ministry announced the invitation to receive a new mind. Sadly, most English translations do not adequately capture what the Greek text actually reports Jesus as saying. Most English renderings of Jesus’ opening words are “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2). The most common meaning of “to repent” is to reform one’s behavior, to do good and avoid evil, to stop sinning. The Greek word used in the text is far richer than this. Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) most literally means “to come to a new mind.” It comes from meta (hard to translate perfectly into English but often indicating accompaniment, change, or movement of some sort) and nous or noieo (meaning mind or thought). Hence, metanoeite means thinking differently, reconsidering, coming to a new mind. So, what the Lord is more fully saying is this: “Come to new mind and believe in the Good News.”

Thus, Jesus is not merely saying that we should clean up our act. He is inviting us to come to a new mind, which He alone can give us. If we think differently, we will surely act differently. Metanoeite can and does include the notion of reformed behavior, but it is the result of a new mind. If we think differently (by the new mind Christ will give us), we will start to see things more as God does. We will share His priorities, His vision. We will love what He loves. We will think more as He does. This will effect a change in our behavior.

There is a famous quote (attributed to various sources) that goes like this: “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” Notice how it all begins with the mind. Our mind shapes our decisions, habits, character, and ultimately our destiny.

The mind is the deepest part of the human person. It is not always possible in Scripture to perfectly distinguish between the word “mind” and the word “heart.” Sometimes they are used interchangeably and at other times to mean different things. For the purpose of this discussion, the mind can be understood as quite similar to the heart in that it is at the deepest part of the human person, where thought, memory, imagination, and deliberation take place. The mind is not to be equated merely with the brain or the intellect; it is deeper and richer than these. Using the mind is not simply a function of the physical body but rather involves the soul as well. The mind is where we live, think, reflect, ponder, remember, and deliberate.

Hence, in appealing to the mind, God is offering a transformation of the whole human person, for it is from within the mind and heart that all proceeds. Good behavior is a nice goal, but God does not trivialize us by trying to reform only our behavior. He offers us much more: to transform us.

Thus, what a person thinks and believes does matter. In these hyper-tolerant times, in which tolerance is one of the few agreed-upon virtues remaining, we like to brush aside the details. We are almost proud of ourselves for affirming that people can think and believe whatever they want as long as they behave well. Perhaps a person is free to think whatever he pleases, but we are foolish to think that this does not ultimately influence his behavior. Our dignity is that we were made to know the truth and thus to know Jesus Christ, who is the truth and the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). Hence, our dignity is not just an outer transformation but an inner one as well. In fact, it is an inner transformation that leads to an outer transformation.

Below are a few more Scripture passages that refer to the mind as the locus of transformation and the main battleground where grace must win. Without a transformed, clear, sober mind we will give way to sin and bad behavior. Transformation begins with the mind. My comments on each text appear in red.

  • Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2). Transformation comes by the renewal of the mind.
  • The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. … [For] although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools …. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. … He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:18 ff selectae). Suppression of the truth leads to a depraved mind, which leads to depraved behavior. It begins in the mind, which is the real battleground.
  • Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5). Sinful nature proceeds from a worldly mind. Those who have received the gift of the Spirit and embraced it fully have their minds set on what God desires. The remainder of Romans 8 goes on to describe the complete transformation of the human person resulting from having the mind set on what God desires.
  • The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4). Worldly thinking leads to spiritual blindness.
  • So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way … put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-24). The bad behavior of the Gentiles comes from minds that are frivolous and darkened. The new mind we receive from Christ gives us a new, transformed self.
  • Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (Phil 3:19). Destruction comes from a mind that is set on earthly things.
  • This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people(Heb 8:10). God does not merely want to improve our behavior. He wants to transform us interiorly, to a new mind and heart that have his law written deeply in them.
  • The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). When the mind is divided or impure, behavior is corrupted.
  • Therefore, gird the loins of your mind; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:13). A sober and clear mind that actively seeks God’s will leads to a self-controlled and hopeful life.
  • The end of all things is near. Therefore, be of clear mind and self-controlled so that you can pray (1 Peter 4:7). In turbulent times it is necessary to have a clear, sober mind so as to be able to control one’s behavior and to be serene enough to pray.

The lyrics of this song (“Caribbean Medley” or “I’ve Got My Mind Made Up,” by Donnie McClurkin) say, “I’ve got my mind made up and I won’t turn back because I want to see my Jesus someday.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Mind Your Mind!

Overcoming Fear on a Stormy Night in Galilee

The Gospel from Saturday’s daily Mass (Saturday of the 2nd Week of Easter) describes troubles rising and demonstrates how to endure them:

When it was evening, the disciples of Jesus went down to the sea, embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were afraid. But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading (John 6:16-21).

The images in this passage are reminiscent of the journey of life. The disciples have set out in a boat to cross to the other shore. We, too, have set out for another shore in our life. Darkness grows for them as it often does for us. The winds are contrary, and the sea becomes choppy. The must row because the sails are useless. So it is for us also. We would rather let the wind carry us effortlessly to the other shore, but while life has many pleasant moments when we can do this, there are other times when the storms and winds assail us and make our journey difficult.

The disciples are a few miles into their journey when the crisis arises—or is it a blessing? They see Jesus walking on the water. Although He is their blessing, they don’t see it that way. Other gospel passages say that they thought they were seeing a ghost (e.g., Matt 14:26).

Life can be like this. Our blessing, our solution, our healing can be right in front of us, yet we are terrified. I remember one time when my cat was trapped in the attic of the rectory (I have no idea how she got up there). We made an opening in the ceiling to get her out, but she was too terrified to come near enough that I could let her down. It took a long time (and some kitty snacks) to lure her. Although I was her rescuer, she saw me as her tormenter. We are often like this, fearing the very Savior sent to us. We are like children who scream in fright as the doctor approaches with the shot that will cure or prevent sickness. The Lord God once said of us,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more I called them, the farther they ran from Me …. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in My arms, but they never realized that it was I who healed them … [who] bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:1-4).

Yes, we often fear the very source or means of our blessing.

The text says, “… and they were afraid.” They are looking right at Jesus, their savior, yet they do not realize it; they do not recognize Him and are afraid. We, too, are like this. Why do we sometimes fear Jesus, the very source of our salvation? Because He does not always heal us on our terms. He talks of strange remedies like the cross. Strangely, He permits storms in our life and we are both fearful and resentful. However, the very cross and storms we fear are often the means by which He saves us! We need some degree of suffering and storms to keep us humble, to help us to grow in wisdom, to trust Him, and to keep calling on Him. Jesus talks of unsettling things like taking up our cross and following Him, losing our life so as to find it and save it. Jesus Himself won the victory hanging on a cross, not astride a war-horse slaughtering His enemies.

We see Jesus coming toward us in a storm, but rather than simply stopping the storm, He tells us not to be afraid. Why doesn’t He just take away the storm? I don’t know; He simply says, Do not be afraid. It is I. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, In this world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

Jesus wants His presence to be enough for us. He is with us, so why are we afraid? There are going to be storms; that’s a promise—but He will be with us; that, too, is a promise. There’s a saying that’s particularly: “Don’t tell God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.”

The gospel passage we are discussing ends abruptly by saying, They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading. Well, what do you know, they finally understand that it is Jesus and they reach the shore!

Note that there is no indication in the passage that the storm ended. The winds may have still been blowing, the seas still rough, but none of that matters once they have reached their destination. One may think that this destination merely refers to the boat docks at Capernaum, but that would be worldly, limited, and erroneous. The shore to which we all sail is none other than the Lord Himself. He is our peace, our goal, our destination.

At times His solutions may involve paradox. The cross is strange medicine to the worldly—but loss can usher in gain, a door may close only that another may open, death can bring life. Do not be afraid; He is near. That is not a ghost approaching you in the storm, it is the Lord! All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

This is a vignette, an essay on life. Storms will come, but the solution is near: Do not be afraid. It is I.

Help me, Lord, to know that you are the source of my peace. You are always near; Help me to hear your voice, saying, Do not be afraid. It is I.

There is an old gospel song that has these lyrics:

I love the Lord;
He heard my cry;
And he pitied every groan.
Long as I live;
And troubles rise;
I’ll hasten to his throne

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Overcoming Fear on a Stormy Night in Galilee

Why Does Jesus Call Us Wicked?

In the Gospel for today’s Mass (Thursday of the First Week of Lent) Jesus says,

If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Lk 11:13)

I received an e-mail once, regarding this verse:

“This line bugs me. I think I know the larger point that Jesus makes here, and/or perhaps it’s poorly translated, but it seems a bit harsh for Jesus to refer to mankind as ‘wicked’. Wicked? That’s tough stuff! But perhaps, to Jesus, we are evil.”

So what is going on here? Why does Jesus call us wicked?

First let’s make sure that the translation from the Greek is a good one. The Greek expression used is πονηροὶ ὑπάρχοντες (poneroi hyparchontes). Poneroi is defined “bad, of a bad nature or condition,” but it is also defined as “full of labors, annoyances, hardships.” Hyparchontes is defined as “from the very beginning” or “being inherently.”

Thus, the translation “you who are wicked” is likely accurate. However, there is a sort of sympathy contained in it as well, implying that this wickedness comes from the fact that we have inherited a fallen nature that is weighed down with the labors and hardships that come from living in this fallen world, this “paradise lost.”

What do the commentaries say? It is interesting that in the seven modern commentaries I consulted, not one of them mentions this expression. However, some of the ancient Fathers did:

Cyril of Alexandria wrote, When he says, “You who are evil” he means, “You whose mind is capable of being influenced by evil and not uniformly inclined to good like the God of all” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 79).

In one of his homilies, Bede had this to say: Any human mortal, weak and still burdened with sinful flesh, does not refuse to give the good things which he possesses, although they are earthly and weak, to the children whom he loves (Homilies on the Gospel 2.14).

Elsewhere, Bede is quoted as follows: He calls the lovers of the world evil, who give those things which they judge good according to their sense, which are also good in their nature, and are useful to aid imperfect life. Hence he adds, “[They] know how to give good gifts to [their] children.” The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Lk 11:13).

Athanasius said, Now unless the Holy Spirit were of the substance of God, Who alone is good, He would by no means be called good, since our Lord [Jesus] refused to be called good, inasmuch as He was made man (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Luke 11:13).

What, then, can we draw from the fact that the Lord calls us “wicked”?

Jesus seems to be speaking by comparison or degree. He may not mean that we are evil in an absolute sense, rather that we are evil in comparison to God, who is absolute good. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages have fewer comparative words, so the ancient Jews would often use absolute categories to set forth comparison or degree. For example, elsewhere Jesus tells us that we must hate our father, mother, children, and even our very self and that we must love Him (e.g., Luke 14:26). This does not mean that we are to literally despise our family and others. It means that we are to love Jesus more than we love them. Because of the paucity of comparative words available, the ancient Jews used a lot of what we would consider to be hyperbole. In modern English we might say, “If you, then, who are not nearly as holy as God and are prone to sin, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, who is absolutely good and not prone to sin, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

However, we ought to be careful not to discount Jewish hyperbole and simply rewrite the words; the point of the hyperbole cannot be completely set aside. Created things may share in God’s goodness, but God alone is absolutely good. So good is He, in fact, that everything else is practically evil in comparison. The hyperbole places the emphasis of God’s absolute goodness. We have no goodness apart from God’s goodness. If we do share in God’s goodness, it is infinitesimal in comparison. Hence, as Bede said, The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone.

Even Jesus refused the title “good” for Himself in terms of His humanity. The Gospel of Mark contains the following dialogue: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good except God alone (Mk 10:17-18). As God, Jesus is good—absolute good. One could also argue that in His sinless humanity, Jesus is also good; but Jesus, presuming the man merely regarded Him as ordinarily human, rebukes him and declares that God alone is good.

In the end, it’s time for us to eat some humble pie. Jesus probably does not mean we are absolutely evil and have nothing good in us, but God alone is absolutely good. He is so good that we can barely be thought of as anything but evil in the face of His immense goodness. Humble pie doesn’t have much sugar in it, does it!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Why Does Jesus Call Us Wicked?

How Long, O Lord? A Meditation on Anger and Disappointment

Among the struggles that many face in their spiritual lives is one in which we at times feel angry with God. While the sources of this anger can be varied, they tend to be focused in three areas: the existence of evil and injustice in the world (which God seems to permit), God’s seeming delay in answering our prayers, or some personal setback or trial in our life..

The knowledge that God can prevent bad things often leads to the expectation that he should. And then when such expectations are not met, resentment, disappointment, or anger can follow.

Sometimes our anger at God is obvious to us. At other times, however, it can manifest itself more subtly: depression, spiritual sadness, avoidance of God and spiritual things, loss of hope, or a reduction in asking things of God in prayer. Sometimes, too, we like to minimize our anger by saying that we are merely “disappointed,” or “frustrated.”

But the reality is that at times we are angry with God, sometimes very angry. What to do about this anger?

God Himself seems to say over and over again in the Scriptures that He wants us to talk to Him about it, to tell Him that we are angry, and to pray out of this reality in our life.

God actually models this in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms is the great prayer book that God gave to Israel. In the Psalms is enshrined every sort of human experience and emotion: joy, exultation, hope, gratitude, dejection, hatred, despair, and anger—yes, even anger at God. God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, authors the very prayers of the Psalms. He tells us, in effect, that every human emotion is the stuff of prayer. He models for us how to pray out of our experiences, not only of joy and gratitude, but also of despair and anger. God says that whatever you’re going through should be the focus of your prayer.

Thus, God tells us that even if we are angry with Him, we should speak to Him about it. And He does not ask us to mince words, to minimize our emotions, or even to speak politely.

 One of the most common expressions of anger toward God in the Scriptures appear in what might be called the “usquequo verses.” The Latin word usquequo is most literally translated “how long?” And thus, in the Psalms and in other verses of Scripture, will often come the question, “How long, O Lord?”

 While the adverb usquequo can simply be part of a straightforward question such as “How long until lunch?” it is usually used in rhetorical fashion, such as when one asks “How long?” in a plaintive and exasperated tone, as in “How much longer?” It’s as if to say, “O Lord, why do you let this awful situation go on? Where are you?” Thus, the word bespeaks not only disappointment, but also a certain feeling of injustice that God would care so little about us that He would allow such terrible things to go on for so long.

 God knows that we sometimes feel this way. And even if our intellect can supply some possible reasons that God would allow bad things to go on, or that He is not entirely to blame for the mess that we’re in, still it is clear that our feelings often are not satisfied with any rational explanation. And we simply cry out, “How long, O Lord?

God knows this about us. He knows that we are feeling like this and wants us to talk to Him directly about it, to articulate it, and to pray out of this experience.

Here are some representative passages from Scripture:

  • Psalm 13:1-2 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
  • Psalm 6:3-6 My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning.
  • Psalm 10:1-2 Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
  • Psalm 35:17 How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.
  • Psalm 44:24 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?
  • Psalm 89:46 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?
  • Psalm 79:5-7 How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and devastated his homeland.
  • Psalm 74:10-11 How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
  • Psalm 94:2-3 Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
  • Lam 5:20 Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?
  • Habakkuk 1:1-4 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
  • Job 7:18-19 Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.

Thus we see modeled for us that God wants us to say what we are feeling, to give voice to our anger. Why is this? First of all, He already knows that we are angry. He doesn’t want our prayer to be suppressed, pretentious, or phony. If anger is the “elephant in the living room,” let’s admit it rather than trying to pretend it’s not there. Second, expressing our emotions aloud often helps to vent them or at least to reduce their power over us. Suppressed feelings often become depression if they are not given respect and a voice.

The biblical texts also model a kind of Jewish insight and practice known as “taking up a rib” (pronounced “reeb”) wherein one argues, complains, contends, strives, or pleads a case with God. Even early on in Scripture we see Abraham and Moses in (sometimes tense) negotiations with God (e.g., Genesis 18:16ffExodus 3Numbers 14:10ff). And thus the psalms and similar texts model a kind of “rib” wherein one asks God to deliver on His promises and expresses exasperation at His apparent delay in doing so. God the Holy Spirit models and encourages this sort of prayer by including it in the inspired text.

Mysteriously, God does not often answer the “Why?” that is implicit in our groans. But He is most willing to hear them. And sometimes it is our very groans that yield the desired relief. Scripture says, I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry, my appeal. He turned his ear to me, and thus, I will call on him as long as I live (Ps 116:1-2). Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5). St. Augustine said, More things are wrought in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words (Ltr to Proba, 2).

Our groans and soulful protests do reach God’s ears.

At other times when we protest suffering or evil, God gives a Job-like answer (cf Job 38 ff), in which He reminds us of our inability to see the whole picture. His answer is a kind of “non-answer,” in which He reminds us that our minds are very small.

Nevertheless, the point is that God instructs us to ask, to protest, “How long?” This instruction is a sign of His understanding—even respect—for our anger and exasperation.

It is interesting to note that God oftentimes takes up the complaint “How long?” Himself! It ought not to surprise us that God is at times “exasperated” with us. In a kind of anthropomorphic turning of the tables, He sometimes laments, “How long?” Here are some of those texts:

  • Psalm 82:1 God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?”
  • Jer 4:21-22 How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet? My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.
  • Jer 23:26-28 I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, “I had a dream! I had a dream!” How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name …
  • Matt 17:17 Jesus replied, “Unbelieving and perverse generation, how long must I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?

So it would seem that God is willing to admit into prayer both our anger and His. Where there is love there is also bound to be some anger, for when we love, things matter. God would rather have us speak openly and honestly of our anger toward Him. He also often reveals His anger toward us. Vituperative anger, name calling, and cursing are in no way commended, only honest airing of the fact of our anger and the basis for it.

 There is an old saying, “No tension, no change.” The simple fact is that God allows some tension in our lives and in our relationship with Him. One reason for this is that tension helps to keep our attention and evokes change. In instructing us to cry out, “How long, O Lord?” He invites us to take up the energy and tension of our anger and make it the “stuff” of our prayer. In so doing, our prayer is more honest, and it soars on the wings of passion. It keeps us engaged and energized; it fuels a kind of insistence and perseverance in our prayer.

Within proper bounds, and with humility presumed, anger in prayer has a proper place. God Himself both prescribes it and models it for us in the Book of Psalms as well as in other texts. Be angry, but sin not (Eph 4:26).

The video below is a wonderful musical setting of Henri Desmarets’ (1661-1741) Usquequo Domine. It is rather long, so you might want to play it in the background.

The translation of Psalm 13 sung here is as follows:

 How long O Lord will thou forget me, must thy look still be turned away from me? Each day brings a fresh load of care, fresh misery to my heart; must I be ever the sport of my enemies? Look upon me, O Lord my God, and listen to me; give light to these eyes, before they close in death; do not let my enemies claim the mastery, my persecutors triumph over my fall! I cast myself on thy mercy; soon may this heart boast of redress granted, sing in praise of the Lord, my benefactor.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: How Long, O Lord? A Meditation on Anger and Disappointment

What Does Scripture Mean by “the Flesh”?

There are many references to “the flesh” in the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. The phrase is confusing to those who think it synonymous with the physical body. While Scripture many times uses the word “flesh” to refer to the physical body, when it is preceded by the definite article, it usually means something more. Only rarely does the biblical phrase “the flesh” (ἡ σὰρξ (he sarx), in Greek) refer only to the physical body (e.g., John 6:53, Phil 3:2, 1 John 4:2).

What, then, is meant by the term “the flesh”? Most plainly, it refers to the part of us that is alienated from God. It is the rebellious, unruly, and obstinate part of our inner self that is always operative. It is the part of us that does not want to be told what to do. It is stubborn, refuses correction, and does not want to have anything to do with God. It bristles at limits and rules. It recoils at anything that might cause one to be diminished or something less than the center of the universe. The flesh hates to be under authority or to yield to anything other than its own wishes and desires. It often wants something simply because it is forbidden. The Protestants often call the flesh our “sin nature,” which is not a bad definition. In Catholic tradition the flesh is where concupiscence sets up shop. Concupiscence refers to the strong inclination to sin that is within us as a result of the wound of original sin. If you do not think that your flesh is strong, just try to pray for five minutes and see how quickly your mind wants to think of anything but God. Just try to fast or be less selfish and watch how your flesh goes to war.

The flesh is in direct conflict with the spirit. The “spirit” here refers not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit. The (human) spirit is the part of us that is open to God, that desires Him and is drawn to Him. It is the part of us that is attracted by goodness, beauty, and truth; the part that yearns for completion in God; the part that longs to see His face. Without the spirit we would be totally turned in on ourselves and consumed by the flesh. Thank goodness our spirit, assisted by the Holy Spirit, draws us to desire what is best, upright, and helpful.

Let’s examine a few texts that reference “the flesh” and in so doing, learn more of its ways. This will help us to be on our guard, and by God’s grace to rebuke it and learn not to feed it.

The flesh does not grasp spiritual teachings. [Jesus said,] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (John 6:63).

Having heard Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, most of His listeners ridiculed it and will no longer take Him seriously. Jesus indicates that their hostility to the teaching is of the flesh. The flesh demands that everything be obvious to it on its own terms. The flesh demands to see physical proof for everything. It demands that it be able to “see” using its own power, and if it cannot see based on its own limited view it simply rejects spiritual truth out of hand. In effect, the flesh refuses to believe at all because what it really demands is something that will “force” it to accept something. Absolute proof takes things out of the realm of faith and trust. Faith is no longer necessary when something is absolutely proven and plainly visible to the eyes.

The flesh is not willing to depend on anyone or anything outside its own power or control. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. … I [now] consider this rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:3-9 selected).

The flesh wants to be in control rather than to have to trust in God. Hence, it sets up its own observance, under its own control, and when it has met its own demands it declares itself to be righteous. Because the flesh hates being told what to do, it takes God’s law and makes it “manageable” based on its own terms. For example, if I’m supposed to love, let me limit it to my family or countrymen; I’m “allowed” to hate my enemy. Jesus says that we must love our enemy. The flesh recoils at this because unless the law is manageable and within the power of the flesh to accomplish it, the law cannot be controlled. The flesh trusts only in its own power. The Pharisees were “self-righteous.” That is to say, they believed in a righteousness that they themselves brought about through the power of their own flesh. The law and flesh cannot save, however; only Jesus Christ can save. The flesh refuses this and wants to control the outcome based on its own power and terms.

The flesh hates to be told what to do. For when we were controlled by the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death (Rom 7:5).

The disobedience and rebelliousness of the flesh roots us in sinful behavior and a prideful attitude. The prideful attitude of the flesh is even more dangerous than the sins that flow from the flesh because pride precludes instruction in holiness and possible repentance that lead to life. The flesh does not like to be told what to do, so it rejects the testimony of the Church, the scriptures, and the conscience. Notice that according to this passage the very existence of God’s law arouses the passions of the flesh. The fact that something is forbidden makes the flesh want it all the more! This strong inclination to sin is in the flesh and comes from pride and from indignation at “being told what to do.” The flesh refuses God’s law and sets up its own rules. Yes, the flesh will not be told what to do.

Flesh is as flesh does. Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the spirit have their minds set on what the spirit desires. The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace (Rom 8:5-6),

The flesh is intent on things of this world, on gratifying its own passions and desires. On account of the flesh, we are concerned primarily with ourselves and seek to be at the center. The flesh is turned primarily inward. St Augustine describes the human person in the flesh as incurvatus in se (turned in upon himself). The spirit is that part of us that looks outward toward God and opens us to the truth and holiness that God offers. Ultimately, the flesh is focused on death, for it is concerned with what is passing away: the body and the world. The human spirit is focused on life, for it focuses on God, who is life and light.

The flesh is intrinsically hostile to God. – The mind of the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:7-8).

The flesh is hostile to God because it is pridefully hostile to any one more important than itself. Further, the flesh does not like being told what to do. Hence, it despises authority or anyone who tries to tell it what to do. It cannot please God because it does not want to.

The flesh abuses freedom. You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love (Gal 5:13).

The flesh turns God-given freedom into licentiousness, demanding freedom without limits. Because the flesh does not like to be told what to do, it demands to be able to do whatever it wants. In effect, the flesh says, “I will do what I want to do, and I will decide if it is right or wrong.” This is licentiousness and it is an abuse of freedom. It results in indulgence and, paradoxically, leads to a slavery to the senses and the passions.

The flesh demands to be fed. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal 5:16-17).

Within the human person is this deep conflict between the flesh and the spirit. We must not be mistaken; the flesh is in us and it is strong. It has declared war on our spirit and on the Holy Spirit of God. When the spirit tries to obey, the flesh resists and tries to sabotage its best aspirations. We must be sober about this conflict and understand that this is why we often do not do what we know is right. The flesh must die and the spirit come more alive. What you feed, grows. If we feed the flesh it will grow. If we feed the spirit it will grow. What are you feeding? Are you sober about the power of the flesh? Do you feed your spirit well through God’s Word, Holy Communion, prayer, and the healing power of Confession? What are you feeding?

The flesh fuels sin. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-210).

This catalogue of sins that flow from the flesh is not exhaustive but is representative of the offensive and obnoxious behaviors that arise from it. Be sober about the flesh; it produces ugly children.

So here is a portrait of “the flesh.” It is ugly. You may say I’m exaggerating, that the flesh is not really that bad—I’m not. Just look at the news and you can see what the flesh is up to. You may, by God’s grace, have seen a diminishment in the power of the flesh in your life. That is ultimately what God can and will do for us. He will put the flesh to death in us and bring alive our spirit by the power of his Holy Spirit.

The first step is to appreciate what the flesh is and understand its moves. The second is to bring this understanding to God through repentance. Step three is (by God’s grace) to stop feeding the flesh and start feeding the spirit with prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, Holy Communion, and Confession. The last step is to repeat the first three steps for the rest of our lives! God will cause the flesh to die and the spirit to live, by His grace at work in us through Jesus Christ.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Does Scripture Mean by “the Flesh”?

Five Remedies for Sorrow from St. Thomas Aquinas

One doesn’t usually go to the St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica for advice on emotional matters. But for the feast of St. Thomas we shall indeed go there to seek advice on sorrow and consider some of St. Thomas’ remedies for it. (His advice is contained primarily in the Prima Secundae questions 35 – 37.)

St. Thomas follows some of the Eastern fathers in naming four kinds of sorrow (cf I IIae 35:8): anxiety, torpor, pity, and envy. Let’s look at each before examining some of the remedies he suggests:

1. Anxiety – This is a kind of sorrow that emerges when the mind is so weighed down by something that escape seem impossible. St. Thomas’ definition is likely rooted in the Latin word angustia, which is a narrow pass or straight. And thus anxiety tends to arise when we experience stress over a situation and find no room to maneuver, no way out. Anxiety tends to pertain to the future, in contrast with pain, which generally pertains to the present. With pain, one can suffer about a situation in the moment yet recognize that it will pass. Anxiety arises when we sense no definitive end to the painful situation.

St. Thomas calls anxiety a form of sadness. In modern culture we often link anxiety and depression. This is because anxiety, as a sorrow, weighs us down. And just as joy and hope tend to expand and lighten, the sorrow of anxiety tends to crush and turn us inward. It makes us feel limited, hemmed in, confined, and heavily weighed down.

Someone once said that depression is anger turned inward. This makes sense because anger results from fear and anxiety, and anger that cannot be expressed or managed becomes like a heavy weight or depression.

2. Torpor – This word is not used very frequently today. Literally, it refers to slowness of movement. When one is sorrowful or depressed, one is less motivated to move. St. Thomas says, “If, however, the mind be weighed down so much, even the limbs become motionless, which belongs to ‘torpor’” (I IIae 35.8). Even ordinary conversation with others, which is a kind of movement, can seem difficult. The sorrow we call torpor slows us down and makes us feel rundown and sluggish.

Inactivity tends to build. The less motivated we feel, the less we move; the less we move, the less motivated we feel. It’s a kind of downward spiral.

This is why those who are experiencing depression are often encouraged to find friends that will make them move, make them go places—even if they don’t feel like it. This helps to stave off the downward spiral that torpor can cause.

The second two types of sorrow (pity and envy) relate more to our experience of other people’s circumstances.

3. Pity – This is the sorrow that we feel for the evil or misfortune endured by another person. But it is deeper than mere regret or perturbation. Pity is experiencing the misfortune of another as though it were our own.

Pity, therefore, implies a felt relationship. Perhaps it involves a close friend or family member, but it can also be the felt relationship of common humanity with the one who suffers.

Of itself, pity is a proper and good sorrow born out of love. And yet, like any common human emotion or passion, it can be tainted by sinfulness. For example, sometimes pity results more from egotistical needs, wherein one develops a sort of condescending attitude, needing to see others as beneath him or worse off than he is.

And thus what masquerades as pity is too easily merely the drive to be in a superior position with respect to another person. Patronizing attitudes are a misguided form of pity such that we do for people what they should rightfully do for themselves, thus robbing them of their dignity and their call to live responsible lives.

Hence pity, like any sorrow, has to be moderated and helped by reason and by the understanding that it is not always possible or even helpful to assist everyone in every circumstance simply because we feel sorrow for their condition. Sometimes the best we can do is to listen to them and pray for them.

Properly understood, pity is a very beautiful emotion rooted in love for others.

4. Envy – On the other hand, envy is a very dark sorrow and is rooted in sin. I have written more extensively on envy here: Envy Is a Diabolical Sin. For this reflection, however, I will just summarize by saying that envy is a form of sorrow or anger at the excellence of another person, because I take it as lessening my own.

Envy is a particularly dark sin because it seeks to destroy the goodness in others rather than to celebrate it. If I am jealous of you, you have something I want. But when I am envious of you, I seek to destroy that in you which is good. That is why St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin.

While discussing these four types of sorrow, St. Thomas also discusses some ways to overcome them. We will look at remedies for all four of them. Because envy stands apart from the other sorrows due to its sinful quality, the remedies for it are quite different. The remedies for envy are the gifts of joy and zeal. When someone else possesses goodness or excellence, the proper response is to rejoice with them and for them, as members of one body. When one member is praised, all members are praised; when one member is blessed, all members are blessed. This is rational and reasonable; we should seek from God the gift of joy at the goodness or excellence of another person. We should also seek from God the virtue of zeal, wherein we seek to imitate, where possible, the goodness or excellence we observe in others.

Remedies As for the other forms of sorrow (anxiety, torpor, and pity), St. Thomas advises some of the following remedies:

1. Weeping – St. Thomas makes the very interesting observation that where there is laughter and smiling there is increased joy. But weeping, rather than increasing sorrow, actually diminishes it. How is this? He says, “First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened” (I IIae 38.2). Thus tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow. For when we weep, we release sorrow. Tears have a way of flushing it from our system.

It is a rather beautiful and freeing insight, especially for some of us who were raised with more stoic sensibilities. Many of us, especially men, were told not to cry, not to show our emotions. But of course such an approach seldom works, for the more we shut up our sorrow, the more the mind ruminates on it. Better to weep and let it run out through our tears.

2. Sharing our sorrows with friends – Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccl 4:10-11). Aristotle also said, “A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.”

The danger to avoid in sorrow is turning in on ourselves. We often need the perspective of others. And even if they don’t have many answers to give us, simply talking to them about our sorrow is itself a form of release. St. Thomas also adds, when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure… [and] every pleasure assuages sorrow (Ibid).

3. Contemplating the truth – The word philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom,” and for those schooled in it, it can provide great consolation. St. Thomas says, the greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth. Now every pleasure assuages pain … hence the contemplation of truth assuages pain or sorrow, and the more so, the more perfectly one is a lover of wisdom (I IIae 38.4).

This is even more so with the contemplation of sacred truth, wherein we are reminded of our final glory and happiness if we persevere. We are given perspective and reminded of the passing quality of sorrow in this life, that “trouble don’t last always,” and that the sufferings of this world cannot compare with the glory that is to be revealed.

4. Pleasure – We have already seen that St. Thomas says, “pleasure assuages pain.” If one is physically tired, then sleep is a solution. If one is in pain or sorrow, pleasure is also helpful remedy.

In sudden and heavy loss or sorrow, some period of quiet convalescence maybe called for. But there comes a time when one must go forth and savor the better things in life once again.

The Book of Psalms says, When sorrow was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul (Ps 94:19). In the midst of pain, God will often send consoling pleasures, which should be appreciated and savored (with proper moderation, of course).

As a priest, I sometimes minister to those who have suddenly lost a spouse or other beloved family member. In these situations, I find that some of those who mourn feel almost guilty about venturing out into the world again to enjoy the better things: laughter, good company, entertainment, etc. But for the survivors to cease living does little to honor those who died. There comes a time, after a suitable period of mourning, when one must go forth and reclaim the joy of life again.

5. A warm bath and a nap – This is a rather charming remedy recommended by St. Thomas. And it is actually very good advice, for we are not simply soul; we are also body. And our body and soul interact with and influence each other. Sometimes if the soul is vexed, caring for the body will bring soothing to both body and soul. St. Thomas says, Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it (I IIae 38.5).

We live in a culture that tends to overindulge the body. And yet to do so is not really to care for it. Frankly, some of our overindulgence actually stress the body, which thereby vexes the soul.

Surely what St. Thomas has in mind here is the proper care of the body. Whether that means a warm bath, a leisurely walk, or a nap, the soothing care of the body can help to alleviate sorrow.

Sorrow! It does find us. But in the midst of it, there are still some gifts. Learning these simple truths can be a gift:  that tears are the soul’s way to exhale, that we ought to reach out and stay in communion with others who can help us, that meditating on eternal truth is important, and that proper soothing care of ourselves has its place.

Sorrow also reminds us that this world is not our home, that we ought to set our gaze on the place where joy shall never end, even as we must journey through what is often a “valley of tears.” And finally, the Book of Revelation reminds us to regard what the Lord will do for those who die in Him:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev 21:4).

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Five Remedies for Sorrow from St. Thomas Aquinas

What Is Time?

So often in funerals I hear proclaimed the familiar lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the great mystery we call time; more on its text, in a moment.

If I were to ask you to define time, could you do it in a way that really satisfies? For example, some have defined as “the measure of change.” Well, OK, but that doesn’t satisfy, does it? Ultimately time is deeply mysterious; our attempts to nail it down in words betray its depths more so than reveal it.

The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:

Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.

Kairos is related to our concept of something being “timely.” There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”

Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Thus, God alone has aeon in its full and perfect sense.

 The book of Ecclesiastes speaks beautifully to both kairos and aeon. In its most familiar lines it expresses the kairos notion that there is a fitting time for all things:

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

…I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).

We can all sense the truth of these lines; certain things are fitting certain times. We are startled, grieved, and even offended when things take place outside of our expectations. That we all have this sense is clear, but where it comes from is less so.

Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes continues on to describe the much more mysterious concept of aeon, the fullness of time:

God has made everything appropriate to its time but has put the timeless into our hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. … I recognize that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered. What now is, has already been; what is to be, already is: God retrieves what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15).

Somewhere in our hearts is something that the world cannot and did not give us. It is something that is nowhere evident in the world, yet though cannot perceiving it, we still know it. This passage from Ecclesiastes calls it “the timeless.” We also refer to it as eternity, or even infinity.

Perhaps most mysterious is this line: what is to be, already is. God is not waiting for my tomorrow. My tomorrow, even my whole future, has always been present and known to God. Scripture says,

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. … All of my days were written in your book before one of them every came to be (Psalm 139:4,16). Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).

Indeed, God is not waiting for time to pass. For him, everything just is; all is eternally present to Him in a comprehensive “now.”

Where did this notion of the timeless come from? In speaking to it, God is appealing to something we somehow “know,” even if subconsciously. Our world is finite; time on this earth is serial. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We do not experience anything here of the timeless. Rather, everything is governed by the steady, unrelenting ticking of the clock (chronos). Every verb we us is time-based, rooted at some point in time and never able to break free from it. Everything is rooted in chronological time, but somewhere in our heart we can grasp “the timeless.” It is hard to put into words because we know it at a very deep level, but we do know it.

So, the experience of “forever” does not exist in this world or from it, but it is in our mind and heart! There is no way for us to engage in time travel here in this world, yet instinctively we know that we can somehow! Science fiction and fantasy often feature going back to the past or forward into the future. The world could not possibly teach us this because we are locked in the present and have never actually traveled in time, but somehow we know that we can do it.

Yes, we can paint a picture of eternity even if we have never experienced it. Look at the dot in the center of your analog watch or clock. Let’s suppose that the current time is 2:00 PM, meaning that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. Yet, at the center dot, they are all the same. This is aeon; this is eternity, the fullness of time; this is a picture of timelessness, of all time equally present. This is where God lives and where, to some degree, we will one day dwell.

Where did we get it from? The world cannot give it, for the world does not have it. The world is finite, limited; it is time-bound, not timeless. Where did we get it?

Maybe it’s from God. The mystery of time is caught up in the mystery of God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Is Time?

The Courage to See

photo credit – J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard
The following is taken from a homily I preached this past weekend for the Archdiocese of Washington’s annual White Mass, celebrating the gifts of persons with disabilities/special needs and the deaf community.  You can view the video of the homily here at the Archdiocese’s YouTube page.

I would like to speak to you today about the courage to see. You might not think that it takes courage to see, but it does. Most of us have many things we either don’t want to see or don’t want to hear. This is typically because it might challenge our way of thinking, summon us to new attitudes, require us to change our behavior, call us to change the way we regard other people, and/or necessitate the reordering of our priorities. Not only does it take courage to see; it takes courage even to want to see.

When we ponder today’s Gospel of the blind man (Bartimaeus) in Jericho, we need to remember that the gospels are not “spectator sports.” We are not simply hearing the story of some man who lived 2,000 years ago. No, this is our story, too; we are in every gospel. We are in today’s Gospel in several ways: we are the blind man; we are in the crowd; and, if you’re prepared to accept it, we are also Jesus (for we, too, are called to help others to see).

How are we the blind man? Some here today are physically blind, and there is obviously no sin in that, but all of us struggle with some degree of spiritual blindness. There are many things we should see, but do not. Sometimes we are afraid to see, at other times we resist seeing because we know it will make new demands upon us. We might have to question some of our political stances, or worldviews. We might be challenged to change the way we live or how we regard others. Yes, some of us are willingly blind or lack the courage to see.

We are gathered here today in particular to recognize the dignity of persons with disabilities/special needs. Some disabilities are readily apparent; others are more hidden. As we age, most of us are headed for some degree of disability. Many in our world recoil from looking at or seeing disability, and even if we see it, we often fail to recognize the dignity and gifts of persons with special needs or disabilities. Yes, many people today remain blind when it comes to seeing the dignity and gifts of those who are disabled.

Charles Pope and daughter Mary Anne

To illustrate I will tell a story about my past. My sister, Mary Anne Pope, was gravely afflicted with mental illness. Even when she was in elementary school the guidance counselor called her “disturbed.” By the time she was in sixth grade, Mary Anne had entered the mental health system diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She spent the remainder of her life living in one of fifteen different mental hospitals and five different group homes. Mary Anne died in a fire in 1991, a fire she likely set. She had often heard voices in the past that told her to do terrible things and setting fires was one of them.

A great sadness in my life is that it took Mary Anne’s death for me to see her dignity and her true suffering. I was blind, and in a certain sense I wanted it that way. I had often avoided talking to her. She often wanted to talk to me about her unusual dreams and needed attention, but I made excuses and privately complained to my parents about her unwanted requests.

Four days after her death, however, I looked right into the face of her pain. The funeral directors explained that they had made Mary Anne’s body presentable enough for the immediate family to view briefly, but that her features were delicate because the fire had singed her upper body making it difficult to change her appearance or adjust the expression on her face. We gathered together for a last look, and it was then that I saw it. She had clearly died weeping. Yes, I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept deeply when I saw her. All of us did. Mary Anne! It was a grief observed, a very deep grief.

How could I have missed it all those years? Was it my fear of her? Was it my annoyance? Perhaps it was my frustration at not being able to do anything, but I was blind to her grief and to her dignity. That day, looking at her one last time, I received the gift to see her more in the way that God did. “Mary Anne,” I thought, “How little I really knew you or understood your pain. I’m so sorry I missed it. I’m sorry I didn’t understand. I’m sorry I didn’t see, that I resisted seeing.”

I was (and in many ways still am) Bartimaeus, the blind man of Jericho. My sister’s final gift was that God taught me to see through her. I resolved that it should not take a tragic death for me to see the dignity and gifts of those with disabilities or special needs.

How are we Jesus in this story? As a Church, we must help others to see. Most people prefer not to see, but we must help them to see by shining the light of Jesus on this world.

It is critical today that we help others to see the dignity of those with special needs or disabilities. In this culture of death, there are many who do not see this at all and many who prefer not to see it, prescribing death as a strange kind of “therapy.” Two critical examples come to mind.

First, there is the sad reality that more than 90 percent of parents who receive a poor prenatal diagnosis respond by aborting their unborn child. Unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome, a significant medical issue, or a special need are almost always aborted. Not only do we have no right to do this, but this demonstrates a blindness to the dignity and gifts of persons with disabilities or special needs, whether unborn, young, or elderly. God sends gifts as well as challenges into our lives. We have to be like Jesus and help others to see this.

The second issue is that of physician-assisted suicide/euthanasia. Most of us are going to be less and less able as we get older. The idea that we should be able to end our own life when the perceived quality of life diminishes is an attitude that endangers everyone, especially the disabled. Your “right to die” becomes my duty to die when I become too much of a burden to others. In countries where euthanasia and/or physician-assisted suicide have been legal for a long time, there is indeed significant pressure to end the lives of the disabled, those with profound special needs, and the dying.

This blindness to the dignity of all human persons, from conception to natural death, is one we are called to heal as the active presence of Christ in the world.

A final vision to restore in this world of preferred blindness is the vision of the great reversal that is coming. We ought to be careful to remember that in Heaven, many whom the world calls last are going to be first. Yes, Jesus said, So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matt 20:16). Mother Mary said, He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:57). Cardinal George once said, “In this world the poor need us, but in the next world we are going to need them.” This is true not only of the poor, but of those who suffer as well.

As Jesus’s presence in the world, the Church must heal the blindness of the many who fail to see not only the current dignity of those who suffer, but also their future glory.

I think I’m going to need an appointment to meet my sister Mary Anne in Heaven. Because she suffered so much more than I, she will be far more exalted.

For all those gathered here today who endure special sufferings, never forget that the great reversal that is coming. These momentary afflictions will produce a far greater glory (see 2 Cor 4:18ff).

I would like to conclude with some lyrics from an old spiritual, “Done Made My Vow.”


Done made my vow to the Lord,
And I never will turn back,
Oh I will go, I shall go
to see what the end will be.

Verse 1:

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down;
See what the end will be,
But still my soul is heav’nly bound,
See what the end will be. (Refrain)

Do you have the courage to see?