Job and Suffering

We are beginning to read from the Book of Job in daily Mass. One of its core issues is the problem of suffering and why God allows it. If God is omnipotent and omniscient then how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a woman is raped, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?

The problem of evil cannot be answered simply; it is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says that “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Rom 8:28). But how this is often difficult for us to see. Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask why. And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many.

As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but few are forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability to even ask the right questions. In the end, though, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us and we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.

One of the most perplexing aspects of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America as a whole, there is much less suffering than in many other parts of the world. And even here, some go through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed while others suffer crippling disease, sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. And while a lot of our suffering comes from our own poor choices and/or lack of self-control, some of it seems unrelated. The most difficult suffering to accept is that inflicted on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no ill effects: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, those who exploit the poor or unsuspecting for their own gain exploited, etc.

Suffering is hard to explain simply or to merely accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. When interacting with those who are deeply disturbed by the problem of evil, a healthy dose of sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility will be more fruitful than forceful rebuttal.

A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. (Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.)

  1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Although we only get a brief glimpse of the Garden of Eden, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it and that Adam and Eve caused their entry, despite being warned that this would be the result of eating from the forbidden tree.
  2. Even in Eden the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked.
  3. In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there. We were made to love; love requires freedom; and freedom requires choice. The yes of love must permit of the no of sin. In our rebellious no both we and the world unraveled, ushering in death and chaos. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, the vast majority of it by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin—Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than to serve in the real paradise.
  4. The link between human freedom and evil/suffering also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But there is mystery here, too, for the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
  5. The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. There, God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit to test Job’s faith and strengthen it. In the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings; it is a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
  6. The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
  7. Does this mean that those who suffer more are in need of more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that greater glory is awaiting them. The Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but endure it with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
  8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal when many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exalted, when the rich will go away empty and poor be filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich and well-fed, unaccustomed to suffering. The only chance the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
  9. As to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering we caused by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.

I’m sure you can add to these points. Be careful with the problem of evil and suffering; there are mysterious dimensions that must be respected. The best approach in talking to others may be with an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with it. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but the answer appeals to reason. Justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a little. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would “pat” answers, which could alienate them.

Sobering Spiritual Truths According to St. John of the Cross

In today’s post I would like to ponder some hard and sobering spiritual truths, but ones that will set us free.

In calling them “hard truths”, I mean that they are not the usual cozy bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities we face. If we come to accept them, though, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us to focus us on the right things rather than spending our time chasing after false dreams.

A person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t perfect, forgetting all the while that we are all in exile. We are making a difficult journey to a life in which, one day, every sorrow and difficultly will be removed and death and sorrow will be no more—but not now.

There is a kind of unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is rather than resenting it for not being the way we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. That is why there is value in calling these insights “hard truths that will set us free.”

In the very opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained (because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly).

We who live in times not known for spiritual maturity ought to slow down for a moment and ponder these truths, which are not only poorly understood but even actively resisted by many, including some who call themselves wise and spiritually mature.

Remember, now, these are hard truths. Many wish to bypass the harder teachings of God. Thus we do well to pay special attention to St. John, a spiritual master deeply immersed in Scripture, as a remedy for the soft excesses of our times.

Let’s first look at the quote from St. John and then examine his points. With the following preamble of sorts, St. John begins his Spiritual Canticle:

The soul … has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything—of the beginning of her life as well as the later part—unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late—and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29)—to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures. Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved …

Let’s examine these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one. My commentary is in red.

The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed  that life is short (Job 14:5)

More than in any other age, we today entertain the illusion that death can easily be postponed; it cannot. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science sudden death is not as common today, but too easily this leads us to entertain the notion that we can cheat death; we cannot.

Life is short and we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother and sister died suddenly, swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish reading this sentence before death summons you.

This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and we don’t have any way of knowing how short.

What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What do you get worked up about? What are you not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you waging bets in a foolish game in which the house (death and this world) always wins on its terms and not yours?

There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. We do not get as worked up about passing things and we become more invested in lasting things and in the things to come.

[that] the path leading to eternal life [is] constricted ( 7:14)

Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a cinch, a done deal. The heresy of our time is a belief in almost-universal salvation, which denies the consistently repeated biblical teaching that declares, Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).

In parable after parable, warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of Hell and the finality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus does, and no one warned you more about Hell and Judgment than He did.

Salvation is not easy; it is hard. Jesus said this; I did not. He did not say this because God is mean but because we are stubborn, obtuse, and prefer darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendency to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice. The day will come when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.

This is a hard saying, but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope. It instills in us a proper focus on the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. It will help you to have more well-ordered priorities, ones that are less obsessed with the passing and more rooted in the eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls. It will turn you toward Jesus and away from Belial.

[that] the just one [is] scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)

This is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost-universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to Heaven. We set aside God’s Word in favor of human error and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul, who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and spoke of disciplining himself, lest after preaching to others he himself should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we really better and more enlightened than Jesus? Than Paul? Than Peter?

Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but it is meant to sober us to the need for prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance; we must persevere to the end.

This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord, who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world. Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts send us to Jesus, freeing us.

[that] the things of the world [are] vain and deceitful ( 1:2)

Such a freeing truth! First, that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so highly value power, popularity, and worldly glories, but those are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? If you by chance you do know, do you really care? Does it really matter? It’s empty show, glitter, fool’s gold; yet we spend billions on it and watch this stuff forever.

Although we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).

And how deceitful is this passing world! The main deceit of this world is to say, “I am what you exist for. I am what matters. I am what satisfies.” These are lies and deceptions on all fronts. The form of this world is passing away; it cannot fulfill our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God and only being with Him one day will satisfy us.

Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies! Too often we want to be lied to. We prefer to chase illusions and indulge vanity and deceit.

How freeing this truth is! We learn to make use of what we need and begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things and with our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can survive without that granite countertop.

This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. Becoming more free, a deeper serenity finds us.

that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)

The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world’s cruel lie that it can fulfill you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promise: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.

Meditate on death frequently. Indeed, the Church bids us to rehearse our death every night in prayer by reciting the Nunc Dimittis.

Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?

Let this truth free you to have the proper perspective. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

that the time is uncertain

You have plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. The only problem is that tomorrow is not promised or certain. Neither is the next beat of your heart. This is another hard but freeing truth.

[that] the accounting [is] strict

Jesus warns, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). He adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). James says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13). What James says is particularly chilling because so many today are without mercy.

If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out to others, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict anyway, so don’t pile on unnecessary severity and wrath toward others. This is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgment.

[that] perdition [is] very easy

I wonder why he might have repeated this; I just wonder!

[that] salvation [is] very difficult

And look, he repeated this, too! I wonder why. Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.

[that we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished

This is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? It means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different.

We live so many years and so many hours of each day in ingratitude. We get all worked up and resentful about the smallest setbacks while almost completely ignoring the incredible number of blessings we receive each day.

Our ingratitude is obnoxiously massive because of the easy manner in which we mindlessly receive and discount our numerous blessings while magnifying every suffering, setback, and trial. We spend so much of our life in the “Complaint Department.” We are often stingy, never even thinking to say, “Thank you, Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings. Thank you, Lord, for creating, sustaining, and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, love, and serve you.”

that she must render an account of everythingof the beginning of her life as well as the later partunto the last penny ( 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12)

Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that? You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?

[that] it is already lateand the day far spent ( 24:29)to remedy so much evil and harm [and that the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come] She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures

The wrath of God is really in us, not in Him. His wrath is really our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being accustomed to a dark room and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and claim that the light is harsh, but the light is not harsh. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclimation to the darkness. In the same way, God is not “angry.” He is not moody or harsh. He is God and God does not change.

St. John teaches here the hard but freeing truth that God is holy; no one is going to walk into His presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. Thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). That’s right; this occurs just three verses after the famous and oft-quoted John 3:16.

While the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and is hiding Himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.

The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us and urging us to get ready to meet God. God is not going to change; He can’t change. So we must change, and by His grace, become the light of His holiness.

[that we need to call on the Savior] Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved.

Here is the real point of all of these hard truths: to make us love our Savior more, to learn to depend on Him and run to Him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to get serious.

After all, who is it that goes to the doctor? Is it the one who thinks he doesn’t have cancer (even though he does)? Or is it the one who knows he’s got it bad and that ain’t good?

Sadly, the answer is not clear enough to us in modern times, times in which—even within the Church—there are so many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard truths we need to lay hold of before we can really get serious.

A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well no matter what” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all he hears is that nothing is wrong and that his salvation is secure, almost no matter what?

The good news of the Gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing to be saved from? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news. The point is that both are needed.

St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.

Now look, you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But the good news is, there’s a doctor in the house. Run to Him now; He’s calling you!

Lenten Assignment: Be Grateful!

True gratitude is a grace, or gift, from God. It proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, or because God commands it but because it flows naturally from a profound experience of gratitude. The “command” of Scripture to give thanks is not a moral cliché but a truth and a description of what flows from a transformed heart.

We should seek from God the powerful transformation of our intellect and our heart so that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from Him. Consider the following reflection from St. Gregory Nazianzen:

Recognize to whom you owe the fact that you exist, that you breathe, that you understand, that you are wise, and, above all, that you know God and hope for the kingdom of heaven and the vision of glory, now darkly as in a mirror but then with greater fullness and purity. You have been made a son of God, coheir with Christ. Where did you get all this, and from whom?

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

Who has given you dominion over animals, those that are tame and those that provide you with food? Who has made you lord and master of everything on earth? In short, who has endowed you with all that makes man superior to all other living creatures?

Is it not God who asks you now in your turn to show yourself generous above all other creatures and for the sake of all other creatures?(From a sermon by Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, bishop. Oratio 14, De Pauperum amore, 23-25: PG 35, 887-890.)

Yes, we have so much for which we should be grateful!God holds together every fiber of our being: every cell and every part of every cell, every molecule and every part of every molecule, every atom and every part of every atom. He facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body, the functioning of every organ. God sustains every intricate detail of the world in which we live: the ideal orbit of our planet such that we neither boil nor freeze; the magnetic shield that protects Earth from harmful solar radiation; every intricate process of our planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe. All of this, including us, is sustained by God and provided for by Him. The depth, height, length, and width of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge. Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful. Yes, allis gift.

There are some gifts of God that don’t seem like gifts at all:losses, tragedies, and natural disasters. In such moments it is easy to feel that He has forsaken us; gratitude is probably the last thing on our mind. Even here, Scripture bids us to look more closely: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good. He is paving a path unto glory, even if through the cross. Jesus has said to us, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. Yes, allis gift!

It is hard to overestimate the role that gratitude plays in good mental, emotional, and spiritual health.Grateful people are different: more joyful, generous, kind, patient, serene, and confident. All of this comes from the fact that gratitude makes present to us the provident goodness of God. Acknowledging how good God has been to us helps us to become more trusting and less anxious. Because of this we have the confidence to be more generous; there is no need to hoard things because we know that God will take care of us. Yes, through gratitude we are freed from many anxious cares and given a serene and stable joy; we are equipped to be so much more patient and generous.

Ultimately, gratitude is a gift to be received from God. We ought to ask for it humbly. We can dispose ourselves to it by reflecting on things such as those discussed above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift, that comes from a heart deeply moved, astonished, and aware of the fact that God is so very good. Allis gift!

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! The Importance of Experience

121014I want to give two thumbs up for good old-fashioned experience—just experiencing life to the fullest. Too often in today’s hurried age, in these times of 24×7 news, we rush past experience right to analysis. We insist on knowing immediately what something “means” and what we should think about it. This rush to analyze often happens before the experience is even over. And, of course, analyzing something before all the facts are in can lead to incorrect conclusions. Two sayings come to mind:

Don’t think, look! We miss so much of life when we retreat into our brains to begin immediate analysis. I recently went to an art exhibit called “The Sacred Made Real.” Upon entry, I was handed a thick pamphlet describing each of the works. Instead of diving into the pamphlet, I chose to wander through and gazed upon each marvelous work. Some of them were mysterious to me, but the mystery was part of the experience. Only later did I go back and read about each work. I noticed many people buried in their pamphlets, barely giving the actual artwork a glance. Most of their time was spent reading. Others had headphones on, listening to descriptions of the art, which allows a better look but still fills the mind with information too soon. Another variant on this saying is “Don’t think, listen!” So often when listening to others, we pick up the first few words or sentences and then stop listening so we can start thinking about what we’re going to say next.

Don’t just do something, stand there! With all of our activism, we seldom savor life. Few people rest on the Sabbath anymore. Few eat dinner with their families. Few even know how to relax. Vacations are often packed so full of activities that there is little time to actually experience what one is doing. I live near the U.S. Capitol and often see people so busy taking pictures that I wonder if they ever really see or experience the Capitol.

Even within the sacred liturgy we often get things wrong today. Consider the following:

It’s a First Holy Communion or perhaps a wedding. As the children or the bride come down the aisle, dozens of cameras and cell phones are held aloft. Flashes go off, creating an annoying strobe effect. People scramble to get into better positions for a picture. In recent years, I have had to forbid the use of cameras. For a wedding, the bride and groom are permitted to hire a professional photographer. For First Holy Communion and Confirmation, we permit one professional photographer to take pictures for the entire group. I instruct the assembly that the point of the liturgy is to worship God, to pray, and to experience the Lord’s ministry to us. I insist that they put away their cameras and experience the sacrament being celebrated and the mysteries unfolding before them.

A few years ago, I was privileged to be among the chief clergy for a Solemn High Pontifical Mass in the Old Latin Form at the Basilica here in D.C. It was my first experience with this liturgy, and it was quite complicated. We rehearsed the day before, and as the rehearsal drew to a close, I said to whole crew of clergy and servers, “OK, tomorrow during the Mass, don’t forget to worship God!” We all laughed because we know easy it is to get so wrapped up in thinking about what is coming next or in what we need to do next that we forget to pray! The next day, I told God that no matter what, I was here to worship Him. I am grateful that He gave me a true spirit of recollection at that Mass. I did mix up a minor detail, but I experienced God and did not forget to worship Him. Success! Thank you, Lord!

The Mass is underway in a typical Catholic parish. Something remarkable is about to happen: the Lord Jesus is going to speak through the deacon, who ascends the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Yes, that’s right; Jesus Himself will announce the Gospel to us. As the deacon introduces the Gospel, all are standing out of respect. Five hundred pairs of eyes are riveted … on the deacon? No! In fact, many eyes are riveted on the missalette. Halfway through the Gospel, the Church is filled with the sound of hundreds of people turning the pages of their missalettes (with one or two dropping them in the process). Sadly, most lose the experience of the proclamation of God’s Word with their heads buried in a missalette. They may as well have read it on their own. I know that some will argue that this helps them understand the reading better, but the liturgy is meant to be experienced as a communal hearing of the Word proclaimed.

I celebrate a good number of Wedding Masses in the Old Latin Form. Some years ago, a couple prepared a very elaborate booklet so that people could follow along and understand every detail of the Old Latin Mass. Of itself, it was a valuable resource. They asked me if, prior to Mass, I would briefly describe the booklet and how to use it. I went ahead and did so but concluded my brief tour of the book by saying, “This is a very nice book and will surely make a great memento of today’s wedding, but if you want my advice, put it aside now and just experience a beautiful Mass with all its mystery. If you have your head in a book you may miss it and forget to pray. Later on you can read it and study what you have experienced.” In other words, “Don’t think, look!”

In the ancient Church, the catechumens were initiated into the “Mysteries” (the Sacraments of Initiation) with very little prior instruction as to what would happen. They had surely been catechized in the fundamental teachings of the faith, but the actual details of the celebration of the sacraments were not disclosed. They were sacred mysteries and the disciplina arcanis (the discipline of the secret) was observed. They simply experienced these things and were instructed as to their deeper meaning in the weeks that followed (in a process known as mystagogia). Hence, experience preceded analysis, understanding, and learning. The very grace of the experience and the sacraments provided the foundation for that understanding.

I realize that this post will not be without some controversy. Let me be clear about one point: catechesis is important, but so is experience. If we rush to analyze and decode everything, we risk missing a lot. I have taught on the liturgy extensively in this blog (http://blog.adw.org/tag/mass-in-slow-motion/) and will continue to do so. There is a time to study and learn, but there is also a time to be still and experience what God is doing in every liturgy—indeed in every moment of our lives.

Two thumbs up and three cheers for experience.

Beware the Hypocrisy of the “Spiritual but Not Religious”

We live in the age of the designer God, when many claim the right to imagine and craft their own version of god. Some of them refer to it as “the god within.” Others call it “the god of my understanding.” Still others speak of “the Jesus I know.” A consistent feature of these manufactured gods is that they just so happen to agree with the “believer” on almost everything. Another common characteristic is that they differ in significant ways from what the true God has given to us through biblical revelation. We used to call inventing and worshiping your own god “idolatry.” Today, the euphemism for this is being “spiritual but not religious.” In labeling themselves this way, people claim the virtue of faith; they speak of themselves in pious terms and even applaud themselves for being tolerant and open-minded, even while being dismissive (i.e., intolerant) of organized religion and the Scriptures.

Jesus spoke rather plainly of those who claim to be religious but are inwardly deceiving themselves and engaging in a game of “Let’s Pretend”:

Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples,
“Beware of the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.
There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops.
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one”
(Luke 12:1-5).

The Greek word that is translated as “hypocrisy” is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). Its nominative form is ὑποκριτής (hypocrites), which most literally means “actor.”

Obviously, an actor is someone who plays a role. An actor who portrays Julius Caesar is not in fact Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, he is “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.

It is certainly fine for an actor to pretend for a time, to be someone he is not, but in the spiritual sense, it is not good to act or pretend. When Jesus warns of hypocrisy, He is warning against pretending to be someone that we are not; or pretending to live in a world, in a time, or under a set of circumstances that is not in fact real.

When the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy, He is cautioning us against pretending, engaging in fantasy, or living in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on to warn that there is nothing that is concealed that will not one day be revealed, that there is nothing that is secret that will not be made known, that what we have said in the darkness will be heard in the light.

He then further cautions us not to be afraid of those who only have the ability to kill the body, but rather of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.

Most people today live in a fantasy world in that they deny or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion that they will have to render an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36), that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12), and that nothing will lay hidden from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.

Creating a designer god, a spiritual but not religious god is likewise a form of hypocrisy. A pretend god cannot save us; a designer god is of no use when going to meet the real God. If one has not allowed the true God to purify and ready him, he will be incapable of enduring the bright light of His glory and the searing insight of His truth. In fact, such a person will likely reject Him as hateful and harsh. To those who hate the truth, the truth seems hateful; to those who prefer the darkness, the light seems obnoxious.

This is why only the true God can ready us for beholding Him. Only He can accustom us to the brightness of His truth and the heat of His glory and love.

A second quality of the “spiritual but not religious,” those who claim the right to design their own god, is a subtle self-righteousness. They feel they are somehow above all this “organized religion stuff.” They don’t need doctrines or Bibles or Churches to tell them what to do; they have a direct connection of their own to the god of their (superior?) understanding. It is a kind of rehashing of tired old Gnosticism.

When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. They thought that they had nothing to worry about because they were “good people”—unlike others around them. They said their prayers, fasted on Wednesdays, and paid their tithes. On the Day of Judgment, they figured that they would just walk right on into Heaven.

Too many people today have this attitude of self-righteousness. They may invoke God’s grace and mercy, but they are not really willing to consider the fact that they may, by their own sinfulness, disqualify themselves. Emphasizing certain aspects of God while discounting others, they rework Him into their own god. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many people brush aside the idea that they will one day have to render an account to the true Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. The god I know would never permit anyone to go to Hell.” Never mind that this is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture! Most today live in outright heresy on this topic. (Sadly, there are those who hold the opposite, extreme attitude: one of despair.)

The Lord says that we should beware of hypocrisy, careful that we’re not living in a pretend world. None but the pure in heart can walk into Heaven. We should not be so quick to presume that we have the necessary purity of heart. The real and true God is all holy, and Heaven is a place of the souls of just men made perfect (Heb 12:23). Jesus says, you must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality, but hypocrites like to pretend, to play act.

A contrived “god-within” of your “own understanding” cannot save you. Stop pretending; stop reciting lines like some actor (hypocrite). Get off the stage and down on your knees; call on the true God and savior, Jesus, the One described in Scripture, not the “Jesus” of your preferences. Yes, call on the true Lord, God, and Savior, who alone can save you.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Beware the Hypocrisy of the “Spiritual but Not Religious”

A Picture of the Spiritual Life from Job

blog929I am teaching out of the Book of Job for our parish bible studies. Consider the following insight by Job on the spiritual life:

God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?
(Job 9:3)

At first glance, we might read this to mean that we don’t dare talk back to God or resist Him lest He punish us, but this would be a superficial interpretation. The text surely speaks more richly, of the spiritual life and the journey we must make with God.

It recalls a story about Jacob, told in the 32nd chapter of Genesis. Jacob is in the desert (often a place of testing and encounter) and is returning to make amends with his brother Esau, from whom is estranged. During the night Jacob has a mysterious encounter with God. The text recounts that he wrestles with a man, but is it a man, an angel, or God? Through the night, Jacob wrestles with this man. Even more mysteriously (if the “man” is God), the text says that Jacob “prevails,” or at least holds his own. To end the struggle, God disables Jacob by touching his hip. Out of respect, God then gives Jacob a new name:

Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome (Gen 32:28).

The name “Israel” means “he who wrestles (strives) with God.”

As a result of this encounter, Jacob would limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff for support. It was as if to say that he would have to learn to lean on God and strive with God rather than against Him. Injured or not, this would be a blessing for Jacob, a new and deeper stage in his walk with God.

And so Job rightly said, Who has withstood God and remained unscathed? Our spiritual life can be seen as this kind of struggle. God respects our freedom and is “glad” to engage us. At least we are willing to stay in a conversation with Him rather than running from Him or refusing to be engaged at all.

As for Job, Jacob, and countless others before us, so too for us. We will not emerge from this spiritual relationship with God unchanged or unscathed. This is because our life with God is no mere friendship, or only a source of consolation. God is Lord and Father, and He has a difficult work to accomplish in us, who (like Jacob) can be stubborn, prideful, and resistant.

As an example, consider how in this world the relationship between parents and children is one of love but also one that is filled with tensions. This is due to the nature of the relationship. Parents, in addition to giving good and pleasant things to their children, also have difficult tasks in their formation. Children must be disciplined and disabused of selfish or destructive behaviors. Children must be taught things that do not necessarily please them. Parents must often make demands on their children that summon them to greater things requiring sacrifice and effort.

None of this is easy—and neither is our relationship with God. Our relationship is not merely about pleasantries. God must work to break sinful, selfish, and harmful drives within us. He must often imbue us with teachings that go against our desires and priorities.

Are you willing to struggle and to strive with God? You will be blessed! No one goes away from Jesus unchanged. No one who has God for his true Father will be unchanged, or “unscathed” as Job puts it. Jacob limped and leaned on a cane for the rest of his life (as a sign of humility). How do you limp? Where are your healing wounds in the saving struggle with God?

The song in this video is a bit over the top; I don’t think Jesus was conflicted, as this song implies. But we often are. The struggle can be difficult, but stay in it!

Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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Where is the Dwelling of God?

The following old Hasidic story was related by the late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

“Where is the dwelling of God?” This was the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

Indeed, there is only one place in all of creation where God will not go without permission; that place is our own heart. Jesus says,

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20).

Yes, God knocks. He does not barge in. He is not rude or overwhelming; He knocks.

God fills all creation with His glory, but our heart has such an influence that if we do not admit Him there, we may well miss His presence elsewhere, including creation. Today there are some who deny God’s glory, which is so clearly manifest in creation. “No,” they say, “it’s all the result of random mutation, blind evolution. There’s nothing to see here, no one to see.”

If God is refused entry to our heart, our minds easily fall into vain reasoning. Of this St. Paul writes,

For what may be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and senseless hearts were darkened (Romans 1:19-21).

To those who admit God into their heart, who open the door, His glory is seen everywhere.

The spacious firmament on High
With all the blue, ethereal sky!
And spangled heavens a shining frame;
Their great original proclaim!

Another song says,

O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain
.

If we admit God into our heart, suddenly the world lights up with His glory. We become “mystics on the move.” The world is full of God’s glory, and reason alone can conclude the existence of a creator from observing the book of creation, but if we open the door of our heart to God we are struck with wonder and awe, and we see the glory of the Lord as never before and in an ever-deepening way.

Look up to the stars. There is more there than just suns, planets, galaxies, and the vacuum of space. There is a revelation of God’s glory and love, a revelation of God Himself in His handiwork. Consider the stars and planets; learn their proclamation:

Though they in solemn silence all
move round our dark terrestrial ball;
And though nor real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
forever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine!’

Does the Lord dwell in your heart? He will only dwell there to the degree you allow Him.

Let Him in and watch creation light up as never before. Yes, the world is full of God’s glory—do you see it?