The video below is a dramatization (sort of) of the story of Samson and Delilah as well as a commentary on lust and power. In case you would like to review the story of Samson and Delilah, CLICK HERE.
As the video opens, two superheroes are summoned to an emergency. They rush to the scene, but in a reckless fashion, and a great crash occurs. And here is a symbol for pride, for too often we rush headlong into solving problems, but often with little concern for other problems we may create in the process. For example, our quest to “end poverty in our time” has resulted more in the demise of the family; our quest to liberate the world from tyranny (through violence, drone strikes, and war) has led more often to inciting even more violence, and to the rise of new villainies.
After the crash, the superheroes seek to blame each other for the accident. And here is an image for our tendency to shift blame and avoid personal responsibility. We speak endlessly of our rights and the freedom to do as we please, but we want none of the responsibility. And of course any consequences are someone else’s fault.
There then ensues a great conflict between them to wrest control of the situation. And here is an image for power and the desire to overpower others. It merely serves to usher in a brutal and deadly struggle—one in which ultimately no one can win. Rather, all suffer devastating loss. Even victory is brief before the cycle of violence repeats.
Our male superhero, let’s call him Samson, seems to have the upper hand in the conflict. But the female superhero, let’s call her Delilah, is not to be undone and seeks to overcome Samson through her charms. And here is lust. For Samson, whatever his strengths, has a fatal flaw that destroys many men—lust. And as a result of it, many men (and women) and have ruined their lives. They’ve brought on poverty, STDs, abortion, teenage pregnancy, shattered dreams, broken families, and broken hearts.
The end of both of these superheroes is death and destruction. For pride, irresponsibility, unrestrained power, and lust unleash only devastation, destruction, and death—both individually and collectively.
In the biblical story, though Delilah “won,” it was only for a moment. And so it is with every worldly victory; it is temporary at best. Only heavenly victory and treasure stored up there will prevail. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).
Judas Maccabeus was Handel’s most famous oratorio during his lifetime, more popular even than the Messiah. There are many wonderful moments in it, especially its bold and brave choruses. Written in 1746, it covers the biblical events of 170–160 B.C., when Judea was ruled by the Seleucids and the people were compelled to worship Zeus. Some resisted; others obeyed. The priest Mattathias went to the hills and gathered others who were willing to fight for their faith. This is all recounted in the First Book of Maccabees in the (complete) Catholic Bible. The words to Judas Maccabeus largely paraphrase the biblical text and were written by Thomas Morell.
Of all the arias in the oratorio, I’ve often thought that this one should be more well known, due to its keen reminders to us:
Wise men, flattering, may deceive us;
With their vain, mysterious art;
Magic charms can ne’er relieve us,
Nor can heal the wounded heart.
But true wisdom can relieve us,
Godlike wisdom from above;
This alone can ne’er deceive us,
This alone all pains remove.
It’s a simple teaching, but so easily forgotten. In a world of false prophets and hucksters with empty promises of what are at best passing comforts, we need to recognize that we are easily deceived. In fact, we seem to enjoy being deceived more than we’d probably like to admit.
Flattery refers to excessive and insincere praise, especially praise given to another in order to further one’s own interests. It is used to beguile or to gain another person’s attention. It is likely of Germanic origin, stemming from a word that meant to stroke or caress repeatedly.
Many, from marketers to politicians to ideologues, seek to ingratiate themselves to us in order to sell products, ideas, or philosophies. The ideologues, especially, try to present themselves as great humanitarians, caring more than others do. They use euphemisms such as choice, progress, death with dignity, and tolerance, so as to stroke us to sleep, to beguile us, to hide the ugly reality (often the death of other human beings) of what these things produce.
So easily do they deceive us. I have noted in other posts that the root of the word deceived lead to the definition “to be picked up and carried off.” The image that comes to mind is that of limp prey in the mouth of a lion as it is carried off to be consumed.
Strangely, we often seem to like being deceived. Sometimes lies and euphemism help to hide uglier realities we would rather not face. It’s as if we say to the flatterers and liars, “Please lie to me. It’s just too much trouble to look at what’s really going on behind the veiled language.”
The text of the oratorio speaks of vain, mysterious art. Something that is vain is ultimately empty on the inside even if on the outside all seems wonderful and in good order.
The phrase mysterious art does not necessarily refer to magic, but to that which is unknown. Some flatterers like to use fancy terms, photos, movies, colorful graphs, and the like to impress us with their knowledge or to mesmerize us so that we dare not question or protest what they say.
However, as the text of the oratorio goes on to say, none of this can really help us. There may be momentary comforts, but soon they are gone. Satan (and to a large degree, the world) promises happiness now, but the bill comes later. In contrast, God often asks for sacrifice, discipline, and perseverance through difficulty up front and then lets us reap the reward later. Indeed, the cross produces glory far beyond the sufferings it brings: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor 4:17).
The oratorio goes on to teach that our wounded hearts need more than relief; they need healing, which only godlike wisdom from above can accomplis. Why? God Himself tells us why:
The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind (Jer 17:9-10).
To find healing, go to God and to His revealed Word and sacred teachings. He knows your heart because He made you. He knows what will really heal and nourish your heart. Be not deceived and mesmerized by false prophets, hucksters, and merchants of the mediocre; God alone can fill the God-sized space in your heart. Only God, who made us for Himself, can satisfy our longings.
The epistle from Monday’s daily Mass (30th Week of the Year) contains an admonition against unchastity. This grave warning is essential in times like these, when many call good or “no big deal” what God calls sinful. This is especially true in the realm of sexuality; entire sectors of society not only tolerate but even celebrate sexual practices that Scripture calls gravely sinful and that will lead to Hell if not repented of. Homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery cannot be considered allowable by any Catholic or any person who sincerely accepts Scripture as the Word of God. Even those who do not share our faith should be able to observe the damage these acts cause: they spread disease, harm marriages and families, subject children to less-than-ideal households (e.g., single mother/absent father), and lead to abortion.
In today’s post I will focus on the sin of fornication and present the clear biblical teaching against it. Sadly, many Catholics report that little to nothing is heard from the pulpit or in the classroom about this issue. The hope in this post today is to present a resounding, biblical trumpet call to purity that leaves no doubt as to the sinfulness of sex before marriage. Scripture is clear: fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That is to say, fornication is a mortal sin and those who do not repent of it will go to Hell.
The usual conditions for mortal sin apply (grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will). In most situations, these conditions are met. Over the years I have met with many sexually active couples preparing for marriage and have never found them to be surprised that I rebuke them for this. They know it is wrong; the voice of God echoes in their consciences. As for consent of the will, although some fall occasionally in a weak moment, consistent fornicating with no measures taken to prevent it (e.g., not cohabitating) is not weakness; it is sinful neglect of prudence and common sense.
We are in a sinfully confused cultural setting in which many either celebrate or make little effort to avoid what God calls serious sin. The Church must not lack clarity, yet pulpits and classrooms have often been silent. This has led to parents themselves to be silent—and silence is often taken as tacit approval.
Fornication cannot be approved of. It is sinful and excludes unrepentant sinners from Heaven. Our charity for souls compels our clarity about the grave sinfulness of premarital sex.
The following passages from the New Testament clearly condemn fornication and other unclean or impure acts. The gravity and clarity of such condemnations are helpful in the sense that they help us to take such matters seriously and steer clear of them. However, the condemnations should not be seen in isolation from God’s mercy, as He never fails to forgive those who come to Him with a humble and contrite heart. God hates sin, but He loves sinners and is full of mercy and compassion for them. This mercy must be accessed through repentance, however.
There is a general requirement for sexual purity.
Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or crude joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Ephesians 5:3-7).
Unrepentant fornicators are excluded from the kingdom.
The one who sat on the throne said to me, “See I make all things new!” Then he said, “Write these matters down for the words are trustworthy and true!” He went on to say: “These words are already fulfilled! I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. To anyone who thirsts I will give to drink without cost from the spring of life-giving water. He who wins the victory shall inherit these gifts and he shall be my son. As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort—their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulphur, the second death!” (Revelation 21:5-8)
Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates! Outside are the dogs and sorcerers, the fornicators and murderers, the idol-worshipers and all who love falsehood. It is I Jesus who have sent my angel to give you this testimony about the Churches (Rev. 22:14-16).
No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:5).
I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Gal 5:21)
Sins of the flesh crush the spirit within us.
My point is that you should live in accord with the Spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh. The Flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; the two are directly opposed. This is why you do not do what your will intends. If you are guided by the spirit you are not under the law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:16-21)
Even our thought life is summoned to purity.
You have heard the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” What I say you to is, Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. If your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. Again, if your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:27-30).
From the mind stem evil designs—murder, adulterous conduct, fornication, stealing, false witness, blasphemy. These are the things that make a man impure (Matt. 15:19-20).
Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, an obtuse spirit. All these evils come from within and render a man impure (Mark 7:21).
Sexual impurity is a form of worldliness and idolatry.
Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires and that lust which is idolatry. These are sins which provoke God’s wrath (Colossians 3:5-6).
My body is not my own to do with merely as I please.
Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you have been washed, consecrated, justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. Do you not see that your bodies are members of Christ? Would you have me take Christ’s members and make them members of a prostitute? God forbid! Can you not see that the man who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Scripture says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside of his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So, glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:9-11, 15-20).
The call to Christian purity is not merely a human opinion; it is God’s declared truth. Further, sexual sin is a form of injustice.
Now my brothers, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, even as you learned from us how to conduct yourselves in a way pleasing to God—which you are indeed doing—so you must learn to make still greater progress. You know the instructions we gave you in the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you grow in holiness: that you abstain from sexual immorality, each of you guarding his member in sanctity and honor, not in passionate desire as do the Gentiles who know not God; and that each must refrain from overreaching or cheating his brother in the matter at hand; for the Lord is the avenger of all such things, as we once indicated to you by our testimony. God has not called us to sexual immorality but to holiness; hence whoever rejects these instructions rejects, not man, but God who sends the Holy Spirit upon you (I Thess. 4:1-8).
Fornication and other sexual sins are numbered among the more serious sins.
We know that the Law is good, provided one uses it in the way law is supposed to be used—that is, with the understanding that it is aimed, not at good men but at the lawless and unruly, the irreligious and the sinful, the wicked and the godless, men who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, fornicators, sexual perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and those who in other ways flout the sound teaching that pertains to the glorious gospel of God—blessed be he—with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
Fornication and adultery dishonor marriage.
Let marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4).
Therefore, do not be deceived. Fornication is a serious sin, a mortal sin. It is a sin that excludes one who does not repent of it from Heaven. It offends God, harms marriage and the family, spreads disease, encourages abortion, is an injustice to children and society, and dishonors marriage. It merits strong punishment, as God’s Word declares.
Do not despair of God’s mercy but do repent. Mercy is accessed only through repentance. It is wrong—seriously wrong—to fornicate. Repent without delay.
Unfortunately, many “developed” countries today are actually “underdeveloped in their humanity. They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.
I have written on this topic as well. What follows is largely taken from an article I first published on this blog in 2010. In it I wrote about the kind of teenage fixation that is evident in our culture.
Psychologists define fixation in the following way:
Fixation refers to a persistent focus of pleasure-seeking energies on an earlier stage of psychosexual development. A fixation occurs when an issue or conflict in a psychosexual stage remains unresolved, leaving the individual focused on this stage and unable to move onto the next.
I would like to argue that our modern culture seems to manifest many fixations that are typical of the teenage years. In fact, one way to describe our modern culture is to see it as developmentally like that of a teenager. Such a situation presents rather serious problems in terms of facing life with the necessary sobriety, seriousness, and maturity; it also means that there are many people in our culture who never grow up.
Here are some examples of what I see as a teenage mentality and a fixation on teenage issues.
Wanting all the rights but none of the responsibilities – As children begin to approach adulthood, it is not uncommon for them to declare to their parents that once they are 18 they are adults and therefore should be able to do as they please.
Adulthood does not magically happen at the age of 18. Rather, it happens as children move out, get a job, and pay their own bills. In other words, adulthood is about accepting and exercising responsibility for oneself. The teenage mentality claims the rights of adulthood (e.g., autonomy) without wanting to accept the concomitant responsibilities.
This is very often the case in our culture today. Strident claims are made regarding rights, but little is said of duties. Accepting responsibility for our actions is often cast aside by excuses that blame others: I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two, or because grew up poor, or because I have ADHD. There can be legitimate explanations, but we seem to have made an art of it. Our culture has a hard time insisting that people take responsibility for their actions. Those who do suggest such things are often labeled insensitive and harsh.
Not only do many make excuses for their bad behavior but they often try to shift to focus to others, pointing out that they are worse: “Well what about him?”
Further, people increasingly expect others to provide for them what they ought to provide for themselves. Surely there are some basic needs that government and industry can and should provide, and there are those among us who truly cannot care for themselves, but the list of entitlements grows ever longer, and money seems to be no object.
All these behaviors tend to overemphasize rights while minimizing personal responsibility. I argue that this bespeaks a teenage mentality. An adult attitude recognizes the need to take responsibility for our own life, asking for help when we need, but not asking others to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. An adult attitude also takes responsibility for the consequences of our decisions and actions, not trying to blame others.
Sexual immaturity – Teenagers experience a powerful sexual awakening and their bodies flood with hormones.
At first, they manifest a general silliness about sexuality; there is a lot of giggling and the relating of off-color jokes. Everything is thought of in terms of sex and many ordinary words and phrases are used that have secondary sexually related meanings. In short, there is a kind of obsession with sex.
Some teenagers begin to dress provocatively, “strutting their stuff.” Sadly, teenagers struggle with sexual misbehavior and some exhibit poor judgment about sexual matters. This is all the more prevalent today because we do not chaperone or oversee youth in the way we should. Neither do we teach them well about sexuality and modesty.
Today’s Western culture too often exhibits a teenage immaturity about sexuality. There is the incessant chatter about and exhibition of sex in movies, television, music, and books. There are off-color jokes. Many comedians devote much of their material to sex, speaking of it in demeaning and unedifying ways; sex seems to be one big joke.
There is great irresponsibility and poor judgment today among adults in the area sexual behavior: premarital sex, bearing children out of wedlock, abortion, adultery, and homosexual acts to name a few.
Further, many celebrate lewdness and sexual irresponsibility, often applying moral thinking more reminiscent of a college fraternity party than a truly thoughtful and responsible perspective.
A mature attitude accepts that sex is a beautiful and personal gift given to the married. It is holy and good and is an important part of life, but it is not the only thing there is. The obsession, the silliness, and the out-of-control quality exhibited in our culture bespeaks an immaturity that reminds one of untutored and uncorrected teenagers.
Aversion to Authority – As children grow into the teenage years they naturally begin to push the boundaries with parents and other authority figures.
Teenagers test limits and ask tough questions; this is not entirely bad. They are not little children any longer and increasing autonomy is often incrementally appropriate. However, teenagers also can go too far and be both disrespectful and disobedient. At times they engage in inappropriate power struggles with their parents and other elders, asserting that no one should tell them what to do. Some even go through periods of intense dislike of and contempt for their parents and any who would try to direct them.
So, too, our culture today struggles with the issue of authority. One of the geniuses of the American system of government is the balance of power. There is also the notion that elected officials should be held accountable. So, there is such a thing as healthy and vigorous debate and a proper limiting of the power of authority. However, some of the negative attitudes toward legitimate authority—not just government officials, but police, supervisors at work, and community leaders—seem a bit immature. Whispering behind their backs, dragging of feet, making ugly comments, and outright disrespecting authority figures all seem to be a bit teenage.
One might argue that it has always been this way, but there seems to have been a major uptick in this sort of behavior starting in the 1960s. Rock music helped to usher in overly negative attitudes about authority and that thinking has become widespread in our culture today.
An adult attitude respects the place of authority and the need for it. It does not fear authority but rather speaks sincerely, truthfully, and respectfully to those who have it.
The “It’s not fair!” Mentality – One of the most common cries of children and teenagers is that something isn’t fair; it is usually plaintive and self-serving.
When someone claims that something isn’t fair, it usually means he didn’t get what he wanted while someone else did. Basically, this cry show that it’s all about me.
Truth be told, life is not fair. Both my brothers were smarter than I was. Neither of them seemed to have to study much and they still got A’s while I had to struggle mightily just to pull down B’s and C’s—not fair! However, I had other gifts they did not. The bottom line is that each of us is dealt a set of cards and those are the ones we have to play. No one has the same cards.
In our culture today, this plaintive cry about a lack of fairness goes up frequently. The most troublesome version of it comes in relation to moral and doctrinal issues. The Church is often excoriated for her positions in ways like this: “Are you saying gays can’t get married? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying women can’t be ordained? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying that people who are dying can’t end their lives by euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide but rather must accept suffering? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying a woman has to carry her child to term and can’t abort? That’s not fair, especially considering that the man can usually just walk away.”
Again, notice that most of these claims of unfairness are rather egocentric: Something isn’t fair because I can’t do what I want.
An adult attitude accepts that life is not always fair. An adult attitude does fight against true injustice; not all of life’s inequities should be tolerated. However, a mature attitude distinguishes between matter of true justice and merely getting what one wants. The battle for true justice usually involves the needs of others not just personal or egocentric concerns.
So, I offer you this analysis. I do not say that everyone is equally afflicted with this mentality, but the big picture looks fairly adolescent to me. Recognizing it is the first step to correcting the tendency.
… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph 4:13-16).
This brief video shows the usual sitcom scenario: parents (especially fathers) are stupid and kids are smart and that it’s OK for them to be sassy, and disrespectful. After all it’s a teenage world.
There is a passage in the Sermon on the Mount that is often misunderstood:
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matt 5:39).
Many think this passage tells us that we should accept abuse—even death—at the hands of another. Pacifists often take the general advice of this passage and turn it into an absolute.
It is important to note that the attack described is not a deadly one. If it were, one might have an obligation to protect one’s life, even with deadly force if necessary. A slap on the cheek is not a mortal blow or even dangerous to one’s health. Rather, it is an attack on our dignity. It is not necessary to return insult for insult, even if we must protect our reputation.
Further, when the text says that we should not “resist,” it is important to understand the meaning of the word. The Greek word used is anthístēmi, which most literally means “to stand against.” Certainly, we are to resist evil, but we do not need to do so by returning blow for blow. The Lord advises us to stand our ground, neither becoming like our enemy by striking back, nor by running from him in fear. No, are to stand our ground (histemi) by looking him in the eye and saying, “I will not strike you back and become like you; neither will I flee from you and give your evil victory. You are going to have to live with me as I am.”
It is a kind of middle ground between fight and flight. We are to stand our ground before evil, remaining in our world of the Kingdom, not using the tactics of the kingdom of darkness.
Somehow this occurred to me when I watched this clip from The Andy Griffith Show, in which Barney Fife stands down two bullies who have refused to stop selling fruit illegally by the roadside:
At Mass for Wednesday of the 25th Week of the Year, we read this passage:
Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me [only] with food that I need for today: Lest I be full, and deny you, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain. (Proverbs 30:9-10).
One of the great problems of our time is satiation. Because of our own inordinate drives, we accumulate and indulge beyond reason. Filled, we have little room for God or others for that matter.
The more affluent we become in material things, the more spiritually poor we seem to become. The higher our standard of living, the lower our overall morals. The more filled our coffers, the emptier our churches. The numbers demonstrate clearly show that over the past 60 years our standard of living has risen while church attendance and other signs of belief and spirituality have plummeted—so has family time and the developing of deep human relationships. Marriage rates have plummeted while divorce has soared. Birthrates are down. Children are considered a burden in a satiated world with a high standard of living. These are the evils of our times.
It isn’t just wealth, either; it’s all the things that distract and divert us. There are so many pleasures available to us, most of them lawful, but often it’s just too much of a good thing.
One might imagine another scenario in which we were astonished by God’s providence and fell to our knees in gratitude; in our riches and possession of so many good things we prayed and went to Mass even more often out of sheer gratefulness. Alas this is seldom the case today.
Our affluence creates the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-fulfillment.
St. Augustine sadly noted, in a time far less satiated than our own, I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, would not be (Confessions 10.27).
Many other Scriptures warn of the spiritual danger posed by wealth and worldly satiation:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Tim 6:9-10).
No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money! (Luke 16:13)
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25).
But many that are first will be last, and the last first (Mat 19:30).
How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 10:23-25).
It is amazing that despite all of this most of us still want to be rich and would jump for joy if we won the lottery; instead we should soberly cringe with fear and look for good ways to shed our excess.
Alas, this is the human condition, or at least the fallen version of it. It isn’t very pretty and is proof positive that we are going to need a lot of grace and mercy to get home.
Think of that this as you watch this video. It’s a stark portrait of modern man. Consider how full, yet lonely, the man in the video is. He speaks only of himself and seems to interact with almost no one. He’s lost in a self-referential world of excess, filled with every good thing, but too full for God. Somehow the man knows that the worldly things fill him for only a moment and then pass, but still the answer is more! It’s quite a commentary on too many of us today.
As the Proverb says, he is rich and says, “Who is the Lord?”
In daily Mass (Wednesday of the 23rd Week of the Year) we read St. Paul’s almost ominous words about our need to break free from attachments to this world:
I tell you, brothers, the time is running out.
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning,
those using the world as not using it fully.
For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31).
In this passage St. Paul speaks about what is, for most of us, the struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth. The great majority of the spiritual life is a battle about desire, worldly attachments, and the answer to this fundamental question: “What do you want most, the world and its pleasures or God and His Kingdom?” This world gets its hooks into us so and we easily become attached to it. It is hard to break free from inordinate desires.
But what are attachments and what are they not? Are there ways we can distinguish attachments from ordinary and proper desires? What are the signs that we are too attached to someone or something?
To address questions like these I turn to a great teacher of mine in matters spiritual, Fr. Thomas Dubay. Fr. Dubay died nearly eight years ago but left a great legacy of teaching through his books, audio recordings, and programs at EWTN. I would like to summarize what he teaches in his spiritual classic Fire Within, a book in which he expounds on the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Here then are some excerpts (pp. 133-135). Fr. Dubay’s teaching is shown in bold, black italics, while my lesser remarks are presented in plain red text.
I. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS NOT:
Sometimes it is easier to say what a thing is not than what it is. In doing this Fr. Dubay disabuses us of incorrect and sometimes puritanical notions that are neither biblical nor Catholic because they reject as bad what God has made as good. Scripture says, God created [things] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3-4).
1. First of all, attachment is not the experiencing of pleasure in things, not even keen, intense pleasure. The complete avoidance of pleasure is neither possible nor advisable in human life … There is no doubt that the pleasures of the five senses easily lead to a selfish clinging to them for their own sakes, but nonetheless, the pleasures themselves are not blameworthy. God made them, and they are good.
Fr. Dubay’s remarks are very balanced. Of itself, taking pleasure in what God has made is a kind of thanksgiving and surely an appreciation of what God has created and given.
Yet, due to our fallen nature, we must be careful that our experience of pleasure (like all our passions) does not become unruly, improperly directed, and/or take on a life of its own. If we are not mindful, pleasures can divert our attention from the giver (and His purpose) to the gift.
Consider that a husband properly enjoys intense pleasure in his intimate experiences with his wife. Correctly understood, there is little way he can fail to enjoy this, other things being equal. These intimate moments, however, have a meaning beyond themselves: They summon him to greater appreciation and love for his wife and ultimately for the God who created her. Further, they draw him to share his love and appreciation through an openness to the fruit this love will bear in his children.
The gift of intimacy is wonderful and to be enjoyed to the fullest, but it is not an end in itself. When it becomes its own end and exists in our mind only for its own sake, we are on the way to attachment and idolatry.
2. Nor is possessing or using things an attachment to them.
We must all make use of the things in this world to accomplish what God has given us to do. God is surely pleased to equip us with what we need to do His will: to build the Kingdom and to be of help to others.
3. Nor is being attracted, even mightily attracted, to a beautiful object or person an unhealthy attachment. As a matter of fact, we should be drawn to the splendors of creation, for that is a compliment to the supreme Artist. Saints were and are strongly attracted to the glories of the divine handiwork and especially to holy men and women, the pinnacles of visible creation.
We should pray for the gift of wonder and awe, wherein we appreciate and are joyful in God’s glory displayed in the smallest and most hidden things as well as in the greatest and most visible things. We are also summoned to a deep love of, appreciation for, and attraction to the beauty, humor, and even quirkiness of each person.
Here, too, these things are meant to point to God; they are not ends in themselves. Sometimes we fail to connect the dots, as St. Augustine classically describes, Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, would not exist” (Confessions 10.27).
To be attracted by beauty is of itself good, but it is not an end. It is a sign pointing to the even greater beauty of God and His higher gifts.
II. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS:
St John of the Cross [observes] that if anyone is serious about loving God totally, he must willingly entertain no self-centered pursuit of finite things sought for themselves, that is, devoid of honest direction to God, our sole end and purpose. St. Paul makes exactly the same point when he tells the Corinthians that whatever they eat or drink, or whatever else they do they are to do all for the glory of God … (1 Cor 10:31).
St John of the Cross explicitly states that he is speaking of voluntary desires and not natural ones‚ for the latter are little or no hindrance to advanced prayer as long as the will does not intervene with a selfish clinging. By natural desires the saint has in mind, for example, a felt need for water when we are thirsty, for food when hungry, for rest when fatigued. There is no necessary disorder in experiencing these needs … to eradicate these natural inclinations and to mortify them entirely is impossible in this life.
Of course, even natural desires can become unruly and exaggerated to the point that we seek to satisfy them too much and they become ends in themselves. St. Paul laments that there are some people whose god is their belly and who have their mind set only on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19).
[More problematic and] especially damaging to normal development are what John calls, “habitual appetites,” that is, repeated and willed clinging to things less than God for their own sake.
Here we come to some critical distinctions.
[W]e may ask when a desire becomes inordinate and therefore harmful. I would offer three clear signs.
1. The first is that the activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it.
This is common today with sex, food, drink, and many other diversions.
2. The second sign is excess in use. As soon as we go too far in eating, drinking, recreating, speaking, or working, we show that there is something disordered in our activity. We cannot honestly direct to the glory of God what is in excess of what He wills. Hence, a person who buys more clothes than needed is attached to clothing. One who overeats is clinging selfishly to food.
A couple of beers is gratitude; ten is betrayal. God certainly gives in abundance, but He does so more so that we can share with the poor than that we should cling to it selfishly as though it existed as an end of itself.
Sharing spreads God’s glory. St Paul says, All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God (2 Cor 4:15). You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (2 Cor 9:11). Thus, the abundance of God is directed to the spreading of His glory and to an increase in thanksgiving, not as an end itself that we should hoard. God’s gifts point back to Himself.
3. The third sign of attachment is making means into ends. We have one sole purpose in life: the ultimate, enthralling vision of the Trinity in glory, in our risen body. Everything else is meant in the divine plan to bring us and others to this final embrace with Beauty and Love … As soon as honesty requires us to admit that this eating or that travel, this television viewing or that purchase is not directly or indirectly aimed at Father, Son, and Spirit, we have made ourselves into an idol. We are clearly clinging to something created for our own self-centered sake.
This is often the hardest of the three signs to discern. The main difference between a thing becoming an end rather than a means is the question of gratitude. How consciously grateful are we to God for the things and pleasures we enjoy? Do they intensify our gratitude or do they merely distract us from thinking about God? Further, do they help us in our journey upward to God or do they merely root us more deeply in this passing world?
Another important question to ask ourselves is this one: How easily could we give up a particular thing if it were hindering us from God or if God no longer wanted it in our life? This is difficult because we really enjoy certain things and situations, but the important thing is not that we enjoy them but that they lead us to God. We must be honest in answering this question, avoiding puritanical notions as well as self-justifying ones.
An important gift to seek from God is not the strength to give things up while displaying a sour face and poor attitude, but to begin to prefer good things in moderation more so than distracting things in excess. If we let God go to work in us, the good begins to crowd out the bad.
[Therefore:] an attachment is a willed seeking of something finite for its own sake. It is an unreal pursuit, an illusory desire. Nothing exists except for the sake of God who made all things for Himself. Any other use is a distortion.
A final observation I would add about attachments is that they are a complex aspect of self-mastery. We are not easily rid of them especially in certain areas, which differ from person to person. We do well to ask God for help humbly A particularly clear sign of an attachment to something is excessive worry about its loss. In such cases, we must run to God like a child and cast such cares on Him, trusting that He can restore us to a proper and free joy in His gifts, a joy increasingly free of the fear of loss.
Grant us, O Lord, to rejoice in your gifts free from the possessiveness that incites the fear of loss. We cry to you, for only you, O Lord, can heal our wounded hearts. Amen.
Is it complex? Yes, but God can sort it all out for us. Call to Him!
As a follow-up from the recent blog post “Rediscovering a Lost Work of Mercy: Admonishing the Sinner,” it is important to reflect on balancing salutary discipline with necessary consolation and encouragement—never an easy task. For example, it is possible for parents to be so severe with their children that they become disheartened and lack necessary self-esteem; but it is also possible for parents to be so lax with them that the children become spoiled and lack proper self-discipline and humility. Scripture, seeking to balance teaching with encouragement, says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4).
Pastors, in their leadership of parishes, also need to find proper balance, offering kindness, consolation, encouragement, and witness to their congregations, while not failing to properly rebuke sin and warn of its consequences and of the coming judgment. St. Paul says,
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:11-13).
Like a loving Father must the priest exhort, as one who teaches and who wants and expects the best for his flock.
It is hard to argue that we have the balance right in the Church today. Correction and rebuke, according to what most Catholics report, are seldom mentioned in the pulpit. Such omission is not acting like a father; a father would see how sin threatens the future of his children and in love would correct them, being willing to upset his children to prevent something far worse. There are also priests who teach and preach as if trying to win an argument and prevail over others, rather than out of loving concern; they may be unduly harsh. Proper balance is necessary.
In families, the trend seems to be toward being overly permissive. Too many children today have become incorrigible because they did not learn discipline when they were young. Too many are bold toward their elders and have lost the humility necessary for learning and maturity. This speaks to families in which the balance between encouragement and discipline has been lost. It is also true that some children are oppressed by the other extreme and are weighed down with discouragement, poor self-image, and anger. Again, proper balance is necessary.
In his Book of Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory presents some good advice in regard to this balance. While much of what he says is common sense, it is important to review it; common sense doesn’t seem to be so common today. St. Gregory’s treatise offers memorable imagery for the thoughtful reader, whether priest or parent. Here is what he has to say about addressing the wound of sin:
But often a wound is made worse by unskilled mending … in every case, care should be provided in such a way that discipline is never rigid, nor kindness lax. … Either discipline or kindness is lacking if one is ever exercised independently of the other. … This is what the scriptures teach through the Samaritan who took the half-dead man to the inn and applied wine and oil to his wounds. The wine purged them and the oil soothed them.
Indeed, it is necessary that whoever directs the healing of wounds must administer with wine the bite of pain, and with oil the caress of kindness; so that what is rotten may be purged to by the wine, and what is curable may be soothed by the oil.
In short, gentleness is to be mixed with severity, a combination that will prevent the laity from becoming exasperated by excessive harshness, or relaxed by undue kindness. … Wherefore David said, “Your rod and your staff have comforted me” (Psalm 23:4). Indeed, by the rod we are punished and by the staff we are sustained. If, therefore, there is correction by the rod, let there also be support through the staff. Let there be love that does not soften, vigor that does not exasperate, zeal that is not immoderate or uncontrolled, and kindness that spares, but not more than is befitting. Therefore, justice and mercy are forged together in the art of spiritual direction. (Rule II.6)
These are practical reminders to be sure, but they also come with the memorable images of wine and oil, rod and staff. Both are necessary; each must balance the other. There must be clarity with charity and charity with clarity; there must be veritatem in caritate (truth in love).