A Healing Word for the Scrupulous and Fearful

Anyone who has the care of souls, be it a priest, parent, spiritual director, or teacher, realizes that there are many things that can hinder spiritual growth and progress. A pastor can look out on his flock on any given Sunday and see a wide spectrum. At the one end of the spectrum are those who have little sense of sin or of the need to repent; they have trivialized God to some extent and reduced His holiness to a kind of saccharine kindness. At the other end are those who are scrupulous and anxious, who feel unworthy and fear God as a harsh judge they will meet.

While those with a diminished sense of sin and of God’s holiness are usually more numerous today, the number of scrupulous and fearful is not trivial. Finding a balance in the homily and the liturgy at Mass is difficult, but as always, the balance is found at the cross.

There at the cross are plainly displayed both the awful reality of sin and the abiding love of God. God’s holiness and justice is shown there, for He will not minimize sin and its effects, nor will He pretend that some lesser remedy is sufficient. The cross is a place of honesty and truth. If we let it have its effects, it should lead us to weep for our sins. To the prideful who think little of their sin, the Lord says, “Never make light of what I have to do to save you, of the price I have paid.”

Yet the cross is also place where we should weep for joy and relief, that our Lord meets us there and demonstrates His abiding love for us, sinners though we are. Seeing the cost of our redemption, the Lord Jesus paid the price in full. In every wound is our healing. In His chest, heaved open by the spear, we see the very heart of God.

Yes, the cross is ugly and horrible, and yet beautiful and moving. We must spend substantial time there and, as an old hymn says, “survey the wondrous cross.” It is a remedy. Here the Lord speaks to the scrupulous saying, “Never doubt my love.”

A recent selection in the Office of Readings featured the following meditation, in which St. Peter Chrysologus allowed the Lord to speak to us through him:

In me, says the Lord, I want you to see your own body, your members, your heart, your bones, your blood. You may fear what is divine, but why not love what is human? You may run away from me as the Lord, but why not run to me as your father? Perhaps you are filled with shame for causing my bitter passion. Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death. These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds (from a sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus, bishop. [Sermo 108: PL 52, 499-500]).

A healing word from one of God’s saints to the scrupulous and fearful.

Of the English hymns that have been published, this one is widely considered among the best ever written:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
(Isaac Watts, 1707).

You Forgot! A Reflection on a Central Spiritual Struggle

Don't Forget

Don't ForgetOne of the more basic human problems in our relationship with God is that we forget. Over and over again in the Scriptures comes an almost exasperated accusation from God: “You forgot!” Consider just a few of hundreds of such texts:

  1. You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth (Deuteronomy 32:8).
  2. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me (Hosea 13:6).
  3. and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deuteronomy 8:13-14).
  4. They forgot His deeds and His miracles that He had shown them (Psalm 78:11).
  5. But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel. … They forgot God their Savior, Who had done great things in Egypt (Psalm 106:13, 21).
  6. But they forgot the LORD their God; so he sold them into the hand of Sisera, the commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hands of the Philistines and the king of Moab, who fought against them. They cried out to the LORD and said, “We have sinned; we have forsaken the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths. But now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve you”‘ (1 Sam 12:9-10).

Another form of this comes in the refrain of God as the Law is announced in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “I am the Lord.” For example,

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him …. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God. You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:31-32).

The ancient rabbis explained this expression in a humorous way. They taught that when God says “I am the Lord,” he means, “Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me.” In other words, “Don’t forget that who it is that is talking to you. I am the one who loves you and has rescued you, the one who provides for you and sustains you. Pay attention. Never forget that I speak to you for your good, not to burden you.”

But as it is, we so easily forget. God’s lament is as true as ever: “You forgot!” We discount the vast and almost unimaginable blessings of each day from the hand of God and grumble at the smallest problem, setback, or slight.

What God is most concerned with is not that we forget small details of the law, but that we so easily forget the wonderful things He has done for us. For indeed, He rescued them from slavery, parted the Red Sea for them, fed them with manna, and gave them water in the desert. He led them forth and settled them in the promised land. But how easily and quickly they forgot His saving deeds!

God’s lament is not about His ego needs to be thanked or repaid for his goodness. God is not vain like man. It is essential that we remember. To remember is to have a healing knowledge.

What does it mean to remember? To remember is to have deeply present in our mind and heart what God has done for us such that we are grateful and different. Grateful people are more hopeful, confident, trusting, and serene. They are more generous, forgiving, and joyful. They are this way because they have not forgotten; they remember how good God has been to them.

One essential solution to our tendency to forget is the Liturgy itself. First, because we read every day from God’s word and remember His saving acts and the teachings of the past. Further, at every Eucharist Jesus repeats His command that we “do this in memory of [Him].” In other words, we are not to live unreflective lives. We are to remember what He has done for us. We are to have present in our mind and heart what He has done for us so that we are grateful and different.

The word amnesia (rooted in Greek) means forgetfulness. A key element in the Eucharistic prayer takes place after Jesus’ command that we do this in memory of Him. It is called the anamnesis, which means remembering, the opposite of forgetting. In the Roman Canon the anamnesis begins after the consecration with the words, “Unde et memores (Wherefore and remembering). The second Eucharistic prayer says, Memores igitur mortis et resurrectionis (therefore in memory of the death and resurrection of Christ).

Yes, remembering is at heart of the Eucharistic Liturgy. And we need it! We so easily forget all the good things God does to sustain and prosper us. Every fiber of our being is created and sustained by God. Everything on which we depend is also created, sustained, and given by God. Every single day, trillions of things go right and trillions of gifts are ours. Yet if one thing goes wrong, we are easily downcast, angry, and despondent. What a disproportionate response! It is primarily because we forget and discount His blessings.

Don’t forget! At best, forgetting makes us grouchy. At worst, it makes us anxious and fretful, even mentally ill.

Remember! Remember the innumerable things God has done for you. If you do, you’ll be more grateful and different.

The Problem of Pretending in the Spiritual Life

hypocrisyThe Gospel for today’s Mass (Friday of the 28th Week) opens up some important insights on the problem of “pretending” in the Christian life. One of the difficulties in arriving at these insights is the understanding we have today of the word hypocrisy. To some extent, it seems to have lost its subtler distinctions and nuances. To most of us, hypocrisy refers to our deeds not matching our truest beliefs, to saying one thing and doing another. While this is part of hypocrisy, it is not the whole story. I have written more on that here: Hypocrisy is more than we think.

Today’s Gospel speaks to the subtleties of hypocrisy. Here is the full text:

At that time:
So many people were crowding together
that they were trampling one another underfoot.
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.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows”
(Luke 12:1-7).

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.

With all this in mind, consider that the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy. In effect, He is warning us not to pretend, to engage in fantasy, or to live in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow in this Gospel.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on to warn us that there is nothing that is concealed that will not one day be revealed, nothing that is secret that will not be made known. He warns that what we have said in the darkness is heard in the light and that everything we say or do is known to him (cf. Mk 4:22ff).

He then further warns us not to be worried by those who only have the ability to kill the body. Rather, He tells us that we should have greater fear of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.

Most people today live in outright fantasy. 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), for what they’ve done in secret (Mk 4:22); that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12) and that nothing will lay hid from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.

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 had “checked off the God box.” 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. Perhaps they have been fortunate enough to avoid the shameful sexual sins of our day but have loved the poor and been merciful and forgiving. It is so easy to emphasize certain aspects of holiness while discounting others. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many brush aside the notion that they will one day have to render an account to the Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. Nobody is really going to Hell.” The common attitude today is that Hell is but a remote possibility and only for the worst of the worst; judgment is a mere formality and nothing to be too anxious about. Never mind that this attitude is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture! Most today live in outright heresy on this topic. (Sadly, some 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. Regarding Heaven, none but the pure in heart can just walk up there. We should not be so quick to presume that we have the purity of heart to simply walk into Heaven. God is very 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; it is not “pretend.” But hypocrisy likes to “play act.” It thinks of holiness as a role to be played, a light matter in which a few lines are memorized. And the Lord warns against it.

When the Lord warns against hypocrisy, He is not merely speaking to the severe and pretentious religious leaders of the past; He is speaking to you and me. He is telling us to stop pretending, to stop play acting, and to accept that what He really wants is for us to change our lives. There is a real standard to meet, not just a pretend one. There is a real judgment to prepare for, not just a brief “play” to be performed before the throne of God. God is not playing games with us; He is not interested in the game of “Let’s Pretend.”

How Can a Demon, Driven Out, Return with Seven More? A Meditation on a Puzzling Parable

houseThe Gospel for Friday of this week (27th Week of the Year) features the puzzling parable about the cast-out demon who returns with seven others. What is most puzzling, is that finding the house (soul) “swept and clean” brings further trouble. One would think that a house that is swept and clean would be a good thing!

For reference, here is the parable:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through waterless places in search of rest; and finding none, he says, “I will return to my house which I left.” And when he has come to it, he finds the place swept and clean. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse that the first (Lk 11:24-25).

How can we understand this parable? As is often the case, recourse to both the subtleties of the Greek text and the context can help us.

1. The Greek Text

A puzzling aspect of examining the Greek text is that what some Greek texts describe with three adjectives, almost every English translation renders with only two. Why is this? Because some of the Greek manuscripts lack the third word, which translates as “empty.”

While I can read the Greek text of the New Testament with relative ease, I am not an expert in ancient Greek or in the relative value of differing Greek manuscripts. The translation as either “swept and clean” or “swept and ordered” is almost universal among English renderings of this text. (See HERE for an example.)

I happen to believe that the inclusion of the word “empty” is essential, because otherwise something very important is left out. Let’s look at the description of the “house” (soul) to which the demon returns:

καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα, σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον.
Kai elthon heuriskei scholazonta, sesarōmenon kai kekosmēmenon.
And having come, it finds (it) empty, swept, and put in order (ornate).

The fact that the house (soul) is empty is the chief problem. Empty things need filling. Sadly, if good things do not fill empty spaces, then evil things do. This seems to be at the heart of the Lord’s warning.

A second issue is the translation of the word “kekosmēmenon.” Does “ordered,” or “put in order” really capture what the word is trying to convey? Most of us hear the word “order” and think of either systematic or moral order.

However, the Greek lexicon defines the root of kekosmēmenon, kosméō, as “to beautify, having the right arrangement (sequence) by ordering; to adorn, make compellingly attractivevery appealing (invitingawesomely gorgeous).” Kosméō is also the root of the English word “cosmetics,” which are things that adorn or “order” the face.

Thus, the “order” described in this passage is more an order related to beauty. Hence the translation “ornate” may better capture what is meant by this word than either “clean” or “orderly.” So as we read this parable, we should consider that the description of the house as “swept and clean” may lack the subtlety of the Greek words. And while we should be wary of etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosméō = cosmetic = ornate, rather than merely “ordered”) ought not be wholly forgotten!

With these in mind, let’s consider the richer possibility that the Lord describes the “house” (an image for the soul) in three ways:

  1. Empty

This is the key description that some ancient manuscripts omit. And yet it is the main problem. An empty house is a vulnerable house. An empty house, devoid of human presence, can no longer repel threats or repair damage that make it vulnerable. But more significantly from the standpoint of grace, an empty house, devoid of the presence of God, is a vacuum ready to be filled with demons and with every form of human sin, pride, and confusion.

Empty buildings are vulnerable, open to attack by termites, extreme weather, mold, and rodents. Just as an uncultivated field goes to weed, so an unattended house slides into decline and decay. So, too, goes the empty human soul, a soul devoid of the presence of God, of gratitude to Him, and of openness to His satisfying presence.

Yes, here is the spiritual lesson: let the Lord and the good things of the Kingdom of God fill every void, every empty space! Emptiness is too easily filled with evil things.

Consider a man who gives up alcohol for Lent. He does well by ending a lawful pleasure and making greater room for God. But what if God, or something of God, does not fill the space? Usually something of the devil, or something of the flesh, will fill it. Perhaps he will think, “I am approved because I, by my own power, have given this up.” But sadly, pride fills the empty space rather than God. The man’s new state is worse than before he gave up the lawful pleasure!

  1. Swept

It is good if a person has, by God’s grace, been able to sweep sin from his life. But praise be to the Lord, not to the man or woman! Otherwise this is an open door for pride. Perhaps the sinner who succeeds in a Lenten observance will say, “Look what I have done! I am approved and am better than others who are less committed!” In this way grace is snatched by Satan. The house (soul), swept and in good order, must also be filled with humble gratitude to God. Thus the Lord warns of a house that is “swept,” but empty of humility and gratitude.

  1. Ornate

While some translate this as “ordered,” it would seem that, given the context, ornate would be a better rendering. Hence we are warned to beware of vanity and also of esteeming beauty more than charity. The warning is for those who, though they appreciate beauty, become smug and disdainful of all others who do not share their aesthetic preferences.

Thus a connoisseur of fine wine may scoff at people who enjoy wine sold in a box (“cow”) or who like White Zinfandel. And God forbid that they prefer beer! In this way, an appreciation for the finer things (like wine) becomes pride and leads to the last state of the man being worse than the first.

Beauty and the appreciation of it has its place, but if it cancels charity, the last state of the man is worse than the first.

One may appreciate the beauty of the Latin Mass, but if love for the aesthetic causes one to scorn a priest who forgets to bow at the Gloria Patri or who wears gothic vestments instead of the preferred Roman fiddlebacks, then the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing).

2. The Context

It is edifying to consider the contextual setting in which the Lord places this parable: an answer to those who pridefully rebuked His casting out of a demon (attributing it to Beelzebub). Just prior to the parable of the empty house and the seven demons is this event and subsequent rebuke:

Jesus was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb; and when He had cast out the devil, the dumb man spoke. And the crowds marveled. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of devils, He casts out devils.” And others, to test Him, demanded from Him a sign from heaven. But He, seeing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and house will fall upon house. If, then, Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? Because you say that I cast out devils by Beelzebub” (Lk 11:14-16).

These religiously observant people (a good thing) had allowed their lives, all swept and clean but empty, to be filled with doubt, scorn, and pride.

That they followed the Law was a beautiful thing. Their lives were swept clean and ornate, but empty. And the emptiness was filled with pride and cynicism.

All of us who are religiously observant should pay particular attention to this. During Lent, many undertake certain practices and purifications. Beware that these mortifications do not create a space that, though clean, is empty and vulnerable to being filled with pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth … the seven ugly cousins of the sin we were trying to drive out in the first place! Failure to fill the gap with God opens us up to all seven deadly sins.

Watch out! The devil can use even our piety to ensnare us in his seven-fold bondage. Do you engage in some active purifications? If so, you do well. But be sure that the space opened, all swept and ordered, is filled with God, with humility, and with gratitude. Otherwise it will too easily be filled with seven ugly demons and sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

Is this a parable decoded or muddled? You decide. The comment section is open, swept and clean!

Never Give Up: St. Augustine’s Stirring Call to Pastors

augustineToday I would like to present excerpts from a stirring sermon that St. Augustine delivered to the priests and people of Hippo. In times like these we must all be reminded of the need to preach the Word of God even if the recipients of that word revile us, labeling our very proclamation of love “hate speech.” This is not new; St. Augustine calls us to be resolute and to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. This encouraging message is particularly appropriate for clergy and for all might grow discouraged. Augustine’s words are shown in bold print, while my commentary is in plain text.

[The Lord says:] The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves …. The sheep moreover are insolent. … And in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers [From a sermon on pastors by St. Augustine, Bishop (Sermon 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542)].

Whatever the specifics of St. Augustine’s era, the difficulty of clergy today is to preside over a flock that on the one hand is pursued by the raging wolf of hostile and scoffing secularism, and on the other is robbed of strength by dissension from within. While a hostile world is to be expected, internal dissension is not and is thus even more painful.

In contentious times such as ours, the poison of the world infects the flock and some of God’s own people begin to take up the voice and demeanor of the wolf. In certain times and places, a priest who strives to disclose the errors of the world will be resisted and scorned, referred to as intolerant or hateful. Even some of his own parishioners will resist him and spread talk among the flock that he is not a good priest for the times or for his parish. He will be dismissed by some as out-of-touch or be discounted as “too political.” Some may even walk out as he speaks about controversial issues that are referred to as political but are in fact moral: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and so forth. Others may write letters to the bishop criticizing him. And while the scoffing of the world is expected, the insolence of the flock is even more discouraging.

Thus St. Augustine says here, “We ask your prayers.” Some priests can fall prey to hostility in sinful ways. Some may give way to anger, which can infect evangelical joy. They will engage in mere argumentation and fall prey to indiscriminate sermonizing. They go from being the Church militant to being the Church belligerent.

More common, and usually more deadly, is when a priest reacts by withdrawing from the battlefield altogether and no longer preaching on any topic considered controversial. He does not seek to correct the straying sheep because it might make them angry, and he is not willing to bear the emotional burden of this resistance or to brave the stormy waters of controversy in order to call to them.

Silent pulpits are all too common today. A priest who is silent from the pulpit may tell himself that he is protecting his people’s feelings by not upsetting anyone. In reality, though, he more comes to resemble the false shepherds denounced by Jesus, the ones who do not really care for their sheep but rather run when the wolf approaches.

The effect on the flock (and the world) is devastating, because Catholics, who are called to be light in the darkness, have come to resemble the darkness. Catholics are indistinguishable from the general populace in terms of our views on the most critical moral issues of our times. Even Catholics who have not caved in to all aspects of the cultural revolution are often ill-prepared to make a defense for the hope and truth that is in them.

Augustine calls some of the sheep “insolent.” The Latin root of the word lends it a meaning of being unaccustomed to something. Thus one who is insolent scoffs at what he does not understand. The straying sheep are often insolent as a result of poor catechesis.

Ignorance of the faith in the pews, along with pressure from a culture that loudly and effectively proclaims its views, present an enormous challenge to pastors. Without persistence and fortitude, many of our clergy can become resigned to mediocrity and inaction.

Thus the urgent request of St. Augustine on behalf of all clergy: “We ask your prayers.”

Augustine then goes on to set forth a model of a shepherd’s heart for his sheep (especially the straying ones) that all clergy should emulate.

The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray,” he says, “I wish to be lost.”

Yes, with the help of others a good priest seeks out the lost, the confused, and the broken. Many will say that they are not ours or that we should leave them alone. Others will say, “If you don’t approve of what I do and consider me lost and a sinner, why do you want me?” But it is precisely because they are lost that we seek them.

We do not “disapprove” of sinful behavior so that we can sinners off, but so that we can summon them, restore them to the flock from which they have strayed. Why would one search for what is not lost? It is what is lost that is sought. Our disapproval of sin (regardless of how others choose to interpret it) is no different than a doctor’s disapproval of toxic behavior that can lead to cancer; he will caution us to avoid such behavior and to come to him for healing if the cancer has already set in.

Sadly, many today base their fundamental identity in sinful behaviors and interpret our searching for them as an offense, rather than as an act of loving concern.

St. Augustine captures their attitude well: “But I wish to stray, I wish to be lost.” He then he sets an answer that summons us to perseverance:

So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says, “Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.” … I dare to say, “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: “The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.” Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.

This is a powerful reminder to every priest and every Christian. Do not lose your zeal for souls. Do not give up. Preach till the day you die, whether your words are welcomed or not.

And even should you lose your zeal, never forget that the Lord has not lost His. We will all report to Him one day to render an account of our lives. Priests, above all, must be stirred to zeal. And if our own love for God and for souls should flag, at least let a holy fear of the day of judgment move us!

Love is the better motive, but failing that, may we be moved by the fear of the Lord and of the day we shall be called to account for our ministry. Further, we must not fear the anger of men more than the indignation of God should we fail Him in the goal for which He ordained us.

Steeled and motivated by this, Augustine concludes with a stirring summons to resolve:

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost!

Amen. Stir in us, O Lord, a zeal for souls. Give us your own love and strength. May we desire souls with your very desire for them!

Job and Suffering

Job's Tormentors' by William Blake
Job’s Tormentors’ by William Blake

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.

Lessons Against Fascination with Evil

The video below is a trailer for an upcoming movie. I can’t comment on the full context of the movie (since it hasn’t yet been released), but there are several important messages in the trailer.  Allow it to bring forth in you a salutary fear; don’t be fascinated by the cheap parlor tricks of Satan or the Hollywood depiction of them.

Let’s take away four lessons from the trailer.

As the trailer begins, it seems that some scam artists have drawn in gullible people with fake séances and other forms of divination. There are hidden people who speak and make noises in order to convince the “customers” that the dead are actually being contacted.

Lesson One: Never dabble in the occult, even as a ruse or a joke. Those who do so often discover that the spirits they invoke in jest are deadly serious and quite real. Never invoke dark sprits and never seek information from the dead. Evil spirits can and often do masquerade as the souls of the departed; it’s a deception.

As the trailer progresses, things get very ugly. The characters go from lies and ruses (which are sinfully ugly enough) to an encounter with the Father of Lies. One of the characters, noting the abnormal behavior of a young girl asks, “Who are you talking to?” Believe me, you don’t want to know!

Lesson Two: Calling out to the dark world beyond often brings a response, and a very dark one at that.

As the trailer unfolds it seems that things get bad very fast. One of the characters says, “Something is happening that we can’t understand.”

Lesson Three: Satanic powers are masters of deception. All the parlor tricks (levitation, slamming doors, etc.) are meant to incite fear. But the real battleground is the mind and the very subtle deceptions of the Evil One. He subtly takes up the personality of the possessed soul and makes it difficult to understand who is really talking. Indeed, something is happening that is very difficult to understand, except perhaps for a trained exorcist. Even an exorcist enters the battleground with humility and careful discernment, rooted in considering the counsel of others on the team. For this and other reasons, an exorcist should never work alone. He should have an assistant priest and a team to assist him, to observe, to advise him, and to pray.

At one point in the trailer the priest says, “… you’ve opened up a portal.”

Lesson Four: Never open a door to the occult, even in a playful way. Ask not, lest you be answered, seek not lest you be found. Don’t joke or revile evil spirits (cf Jude 1:9). Our only message to them should be this: “In the name of Jesus, the Lord, be gone!”

Keep your eyes on Jesus and the saints. Do not be fascinated by demons or any aspect of darkness.

Movies like this one can incite a salutary fear, but they can also encourage an undue fascination with devilish things. No one who has ever assisted in an exorcism shares any of this fascination at all. Exorcisms are usually lengthy, tedious, and exhausting. There is no dramatic music, and things are never finished in a convenient 90 minutes. It’s an ugly process that weighs heavily on the participants. The demons usually shift quickly from cheap parlor tricks to subtle psychological deception.

If you chose to see this movie, please learn these lessons. Shed any fascination; there is nothing fascinating about evil. It is depressing, dark, and difficult to endure.

Remember that the Lord is more powerful that any satanic force. If you should ever encounter such evil, even through no fault of your own, summon the Lord and repeatedly declare aloud, “Jesus is Lord.” The sacraments, Holy Water, and other sacramentals are also very helpful. Do not panic, just have a salutary fear such that you keep a healthy distance from any dark powers.

Use care when watching this trailer. Let it provide you with information, but don’t let it fascinate you.

Where Does Our Sense of the Eternal Come from in a Finite World?

Photo-ClockA common reading at the funeral Mass is this powerful one from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

I have considered the task that God has appointed for the sons of men to be busied about. He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without man’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done (Eccl 3:10-11).

Somewhere in our hearts is something that the world cannot, and did not, give us. This passage calls it “the timeless.” We also refer to it as eternity or even infinity.

But where did this concept come from? The world is finite. Time here is serial. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We do not experience anything of the timeless. Rather, everything is governed by the steady ticking of the clock. Every verb we use is time-based. Everything is rooted in chronological time. Yet somehow we can grasp the timeless. Yes, we do know it.

The experience of “forever” does not exist in this world, but it is still there our minds and hearts. There is no way to travel through time here in this world. Yet instinctively we know that somehow we can. Science fiction and fantasy novels often feature going back to the past or into the future. The world could not teach us this because we are locked in the present and have never actually travelled in time. Somehow, though, we know that we can do it.

The word “eternity” comes from the Greek word “aeon,” which means “the fullness of time.” It is not just a long time; it is all time: past, present, and future all at once. If you look at a clock you’ll notice that at the center dot, 10 AM, 2 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, even though 10 AM is in the past, 2 PM is now, and 6 PM is in the future. This is aeon, eternity, the fullness of time; this is timelessness.

From whence did we get such a concept? The world cannot give it, for the world does not have it. Nothing can give what it does not have. The world is finite, limited, and time-bound—not timeless. It cannot, therefore, give what is infinite or “timeless.” If we have such a notion it must come from outside time or in the fullness of time, something that contains the full sweep of time all at once. But what is outside time?