At the bottom of this post is a video of dogs and cats who apparently never “got the memo” that they are supposed to fear and hate each other. As the video makes clear, they are bosom buddies who love to romp, play, wrestle, and even snuggle. How unlikely! And yet there it is before our eyes.

While the interactions between animals are mysterious and not to be compared with human relationships, I can’t help thinking of humanity as I look at these animals. What would things be like if some of the “memos” we pass back and forth were never received or got lost?

I remember some years ago when the former Yugoslavia broke apart as the long reign of communism concluded. It was good news, as Soviet-style rule there ended. But then a horrible bloodbath ensued and the Bosnian, Serbians, and Croatians turned on one another, rekindling old hatreds going back hundreds of years. I remember wondering how people who had lived largely without violence for so long could still hate one another so. It seemed that the injustices of the past predated most of the people who were alive now.

Bosnian babies were not born hating Croatian babies. Someone must have taught them to hate one another. Someone “gave them the memo.” So when the “strongman,” Tito, left the scene, ancient hatreds that had continued to be handed down from parent to child exploded. Looking with my American eyes, I wondered how the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian people could even distinguish one another. To me they all “looked alike.” But they surely knew the differences, drew the lines, and spiraled right down into the hell of hatred.

I realize that I may be oversimplifying things, but there is also the tendency to overcomplicate matters. The fact is, children do not enter this world with an intrinsic hated of an entire group of other children. Someone teaches them that. That part isn’t complicated.

Another awful example of this was what happened in Rwanda in the early 1990s. There, the Hutu and Tutsi tribes had separated back in 1959. But suddenly in 1990 civil war exploded and in 1994 a Tutsi Tribe undertook an attempted genocide of the Hutu tribe killing as many as a million people in a very short period of time. Some argued that the tensions went all the way back to colonial times. But here, too, most of grievances seemed to predate the soldiers and vigilantes who undertook the massacres. Who taught them this hatred? Who “gave them the memo”?

When I was a child, I lived in Chicago, Illinois. I never remember my parents ever telling me to hate or even be wary of black people. I give them a lot of credit for that. Neither do I remember any awareness of racial tension or hatred in my neighborhood. However, to be clear, I was still very young and the racial riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination did not really register in my 7-year-old mind.

But in 1969 we moved to Northern Florida (think “Southern Georgia”). And there racial tension was in the air. I remember being confused and bewildered by the unexplained resentments and fears. I guess I was too young. I was a newcomer and had not “read the memo” telling me that I should be suspicious, hateful, and that I should in no way mix with “them.” I remember seeing black children on the other side of the playground and they were playing with some “really cool” toys. Not having “read the memo,” I went to join them. I was rebuffed not only by fellow whites, but also by some of the black children who were unaware that I had not “read the memo” and considered my “incursion” unwanted and even threatening.

Crazy stuff. We are not born hating any person, any race, or any ethnicity. Someone teaches us that. And this very fact increases the total disgrace that such hatred is. There is an old phrase that talks about “burying the hatchet.” You may call me naive and simplistic, even myopic, but I wonder what might happen if we could just “tear up the memo.”

I hope most of you know me by now well enough by now to understand that I am no moral relativist. I am not suggesting there is no such thing as truth, right and wrong, injustice, etc. Neither am I one to dispense platitudes such as “Can’t we all just get along?” or “Coexist.” For these sorts of bromides often rest on the faulty premise that there is no real truth to announce or protect. But honestly, some of the hatreds we struggle with go back to things long gone, things that predate any of us here today, and which, quite frankly, are not even grievances we know much about.  There are just some “memos” that need to go to the shredder.

The Catechism makes some very helpful observations:

Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” …

Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is the tranquility of order. Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity …

Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war: Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until Christ comes again; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and these words will be fulfilled: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (CCC # 2303,2304, 2317).

Well if nothing else, enjoy this video of animals who never “got the memo” that they are supposed to be mortal enemies and consider joining me in the dream that some of us humans, too, will never “get the memo.”

The climate in Palestine both today and at the time of Jesus has two distinct seasons. The wet or rainy season is from the middle of October to the middle of April. The dry or summer season lasts from the middle of June until the middle of September. It is quite dry in these months and rainfall is very unusual. Although the temperature in summer can get very hot, it often does not feel this way. Cool breezes and low humidity are typical, making the summers very pleasant, especially in areas directly on the coast or on the higher slopes of the hills. During these months the sky is almost always cloudless and sunny. Throughout the summer rain does fall because of the dominance of high-pressure zones in the area. This provides challenges for farmers, who have to develop special methods for trapping water during the rainy season. The rainy season does not feature rain every day, but there can be significant rains that cause streams to flood from time to time. While it gets cool in winter, and certain higher altitudes near Jerusalem and Bethlehem can even see snow, this is rare and limited to brief periods during December and January. Though the Bible mentions snow, it is mostly described as being in the mountains to the north near Mt. Hermon.

The climate of the Holy Land varies from north to south and from east to west. Since the topography is varied there can be dramatic differences within the span of just a few miles. Generally there is more rain on the eastern part of Palestine and it gets hotter the farther south you travel. The Dead Sea region and the area around Jericho are deep crevasses and pure desert. The mountainous regions have more rain on the west side than on the east side. The hottest days of the year are during the transition between the two seasons

The climate of Israel in Jesus’ time may not have been quite as warm and dry as it is today. Several references in Scripture would seem to imply that the land was wetter and more suitable for agriculture in the past, not requiring  the significant irrigation prevalent in the Middle East now. For example,

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar (Genesis 13:10).

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7,8).

The Bible also describes Solomon’s use of prodigious quantities lumber to build the Temple and many other buildings in around 1000 BC.

Land-use studies throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Mid-East show the prevalence of crops and forests, which were suited to cooler, wetter climates in the period before 1000 B.C.

In Jesus’ time though, just like today, the hilly, mountainous topography (with the deep rift in the earth near the Dead Sea), strongly affected the microclimate from mile to mile. 

Lower Galilee (at left), where Jesus lived most of his life, was Israel’s lushest region, known for its sunny, temperate climate and its spring-watered lands. Each spring the valleys and slopes became an ocean of wildflowers and blossoming trees. Beginning in March, the area was covered by a vast blanket of green. The fertile land was a texture of vineyards and fruit orchards. Grapes, figs, olives, pomegranates, oranges, and other fruits flourished in its pleasant, subtropical climate.

First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who knew the area well, wrote this about it:

Its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty; its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it, and the inhabitants accordingly plant all sorts of trees there; for the temper of the air is so well mixed, that it agrees very well with those several sorts, particularly walnuts, which require the coldest air, flourish there in vast plenty; there are palm trees also, which grow best in hot air; fig trees also and olives grow near them, which yet require an air that is more temperate. One may call this place the ambition of nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together; it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country; for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men’s expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits, with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together through the whole year” (The Jewish War, Book 3, Chapter 10:8).

Around the Sea of Galilee crops were plentiful and fish were abundant. The Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake that is about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. The typical crops grown in the region were grain, olives, and grapes. The area to the east of the Sea of Galilee was drier and had less vegetation.

An area to the south between Galilee and Samaria is called the Valley of Jezreel (at right), and many regions here featured rich soil and moderate rainfall. Judea, south of Samaria, has a gradual change in landscape. The most distinct change is the decreased rainfall.

Since Jesus’ time the overall area of the Holy Land has undergone gradual desertification. Desertification is described as a process by which a region is turned into desert either by natural processes or as a result of poor use of the land. Desertification has become especially noticeable during the last several centuries, though this process has been going on since even before Jesus’ time. 

Desertification such as this leads to less water, 
less arable land, 
warmer days, 
and cooler nights. 

The chief human contributions to this have been war and poor land management. Deforestation became a big issue during the war with the Romans (67-70 AD). But in the past 2000 years there have been many other wars and struggles that have caused environmental damage as well.

So it is a reasonable conclusion that in the time of Jesus, the climate would have been noticeably more moderate and wet than it is today. However, there still are many beautiful regions, especially in Galilee in the north. So we ought not overestimate the difference in climate. It would be noticeable to people of Jesus’ time were they to visit us today, but it would not astonish them. 

They would likely notice that it seemed a bit warmer and drier than they were used to and that there were fewer trees.

Note that Israel currently has a program underway that is attempting to reverse the desertification by planting trees (cedars—the same type used by Solomon!) This program that has received huge amounts of private financial support. They are in effect attempting to partially reforest Israel. The expected result will be that the land will hold more water, so more water will be available for farming, and thus more land can be farmed.

Then, as now, the area to the east of Jerusalem and Bethany over the Mount of Olives drops into a deep rift valley, well over 1000 feet below sea level. The area is deep desert. Jericho, in the region of the Judean Desert,  is an oasis, but the area is otherwise one where almost nothing can grow. It is mountainous and extremely dry.

Disclaimer: I am writing a series of reflections to prepare for a Bible Study of Life at the Time of Jesus. I am sharing some of these here. Please do NOT consider this article as associated in any way with the currently raging climate change debate. If there are differences in the climate today compared to 2000 years ago, they are minor. Climate is always changing on this planet in both macroscopic and microscopic ways. To what degree man is involved in this I cannot say. This is not a science blog and I do not wish to engage in a discussion of that issue here.

I put this video together to celebrate the beautiful gardens of God throughout the world:

Last week we read from the book of the prophet Amos. And something profound yet rather subtle was taught by Amos in the selection from Friday’s Mass. After warning of many sins such as the trampling the needy, putting profit over Sabbath observances, cheating by altering scales and so forth; after also warning of sexual and many other sins, Amos says this:

Days are coming when the Lord God will send a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. Then shall they wander from sea to sea and  from the north to the east in search of the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it (Amos 8:11–12).

Thus, among the ills of a society or culture mired in injustice, sexual confusion, and misplaced priorities is an absence of the Word of God. How does this happen? It happens on several different levels, one of them rather subtle.

I. First of all, when many people insist on sinful, unjust, and evil practices, the Word of the Lord begins to sound obnoxious and they refuse to read or hear it. No one likes to be convicted for their sinfulness or to be confronted with the fact that they are wrong, and the Word of the Lord has a way of calling us to account. Many resist this, and such a problem is epidemic in our current culture.

People do not like to be reminded that they have no business defrauding the poor, lying and cheating, engaging in greedy or covetous practices, indulging in illicit sexual union, or cultivating lust. In avoidance and anger they set aside the Word of God, and when they cannot reasonably do so, they attack those who still speak of it. They issue condemnations that those who do so are judgmental, intolerant, bigoted, unenlightened, homophobic, etc.

But of course the problem isn’t the Word of God or those who announce it. The problem is sin. And thus we see a kind of self-induced famine of the Word of God. Many starve themselves from the Word because it is no longer a food that is palatable to them. They would rather dine on the strong wine of this world that numbs them from the pangs of their own consciences. Or perhaps they would rather eat the Twinkies and other junk food of pop culture, which excuses and even celebrates bad behavior.

Here is a famine—of the Word of God.

II. Second, we see a kind of induced famine caused by those who collectively work to eliminate the Word of God from the public square. Perhaps it is those who seek to banish any form of prayer or reference to Scripture in public schools, public gatherings, school graduations, or any other gathering outside the walls of the church.

We live in a culture in which the First Amendment’s promise of freedom of religion has become freedom from religion. And thus there is a kind of famine of the Word of God imposed by a small number of people who dislike religious influence, who seek to eliminate any religious expression in the public square. Almost anything can be taught, celebrated, and advanced in public schools—anything except Jesus Christ and His gospel.

It is a strange, highly selective, and intense famine of the Word of God.

III. The third form of famine, though, is more subtle and it occurs even in the Church. Indeed, many who write in the combox of this blog complain of it quite frequently. This is the famine of the Word of God that occurs on account of silence from the pulpits.

The one place where one would think that the Word of God would be clearly and even boldly proclaimed would be in the pulpit of the Catholic Church or any Christian denomination. And yet even here, there is a strange famine.

But why is this? The mechanisms here are a bit more subtle, but  come down essentially to one word: fear. The subtlety comes from the fact that while it is clear that many clergy fear to speak the truth boldly from their pulpits, there is another side to the equation.

Many clergy know instinctively that even in the theoretically safer environment of the Church, if one speaks boldly on moral issues, one can often expect backlash and letters of protest, whether delivered directly or to the bishop. There are dissenters who do this, and even some of the faithful.

One might wish the clergy were brave enough and bold enough to be unconcerned and still speak unambiguously to moral issues of the day. But the reality is that clergy are drawn from the stock of human beings. Some are brave, but many are not. Some are willing to endure trouble, pushback, criticism, and being misunderstood, but some are not. Some clergy today are willing to accept that many modern listeners cannot distinguish between hyperbole, analogy, and straightforward discourse, let alone make subtle distinctions, but many clergy are not willing to accept this.

Yes, a poisonous climate exists even in many parishes. Surely there are dissenters, but even among the faithful there are those who would criticize a priest who tries to speak the truth but does not say it exactly the way that they want him to say it. Perhaps he should have quoted St. Thomas Aquinas rather than Thomas Merton. Perhaps he should have made more distinctions, but given the insistence that homilies last little more than ten minutes, was unable to do so.

Some priests are able to navigate the complexities of the modern parish setting creatively and courageously. But many cannot and draw back to uttering safe bromides, contenting themselves with abstractions and generalities. They play it safe in what is often a hostile environment. Dissenters with poisonous looks are lurking in the pews. But even among the hard-core faithful there is sometimes a “particularism” that renders bold prophecy a very dangerous thing.

Parents, too, struggle in preaching boldly to their kids, who are not taught by this culture to respect their parents or to revere sacred tradition and teaching. Thus parents, too, often exhibit the “silent pulpit syndrome,” and teaching in the domestic church of the home is often silent, uncertain, and compromised.

A hostile environment does lead to silence. Perhaps it should not, but in the aggregate it does. And therefore there is a famine of the Word of God that Amos addresses. Hostility tends to breed silence and conformity. Maybe it shouldn’t, but overall it does. At some level when a culture turns hostile, stubborn, hypersensitive, and just plain mean there sets up a famine of the Word of God. While there will always be the courageous, like Amos, in the big picture, the Word of God will suffer famine when the soil resists or even refuses the seed of the Word.

St Gregory once reproached silent clergy, but he also warned the faithful that they too have a role in ensuring the proper climate for the Word of God to flourish:

 The Lord reproaches (silent pastors) through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark (Is 56:10). On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord (Ez 13:15). To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right. When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel … Paul says of the bishop: He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts (Mal 2:7).

Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows … Beloved brothers, consider what has been said: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest (Matt 9:38). Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge.

For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly. With reference to the wickedness of the preacher, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (Psalm 50:16) And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house (Ez 3:26). He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth.

And thus today Amos’ warning of a famine of the Word of God extends even to the Church. As clergy and laity, we have every reason to encourage bold preaching and to preserve a climate in which God’s Word is still revered and respected. We ought to work to surround clergy and parents with support and a hedge of protection from dissenters even as we also work to avoid the hypercriticism and “particularism” that can discourage priests, deacons, and parents who are trying to make a good effort to reach the lost and confused. Otherwise the famine of the Word of God of which Amos warns will surely exist even in our parishes and homes. A proper harvest of the Word requires the support and action of all.

 

When it comes to the demands of the moral life, one of the tendencies of our fallen human nature is to emphasize our weakness and minimize the reality of our strength. It is surely a tendency related to the cardinal sin of sloth, wherein we experience sorrow, sadness, or aversion to the good things that God is offering us.

There’s a part of us that would rather stay locked in our sins and in our weakness, either because we fear the changes that holiness would bring or, even worse, we find holiness unappealing.

Sloth and the negativity associated with it are drives of the flesh. In biblical terms, “flesh” refers to the rebelliousness of our fallen nature. Paul uses the term (sarx, Flesh) not so much to describe our physical bodies, but rather that part of us that does not like to be told what to do, that is stiffnecked and stubborn, that resists what is holy and good. It is the part of us it does not want to have a thing to do with God. It is that part of us that, when we do try to pray, fidgets and would have us ponder anything but God and the truth He reveals.

Okay, so far the picture looks pretty grim. We are slothful, negative, and locked in the pursuits of the flesh.

But the problem is that too many people stop here and do not go on to reflect that within each of us there is also something called the spirit (pneuma). The human spirit is the part of us that is open to God, the part of us that is drawn to goodness, beauty, truth. It is the part of us that craves justice and looks beyond itself for meaning. It is the part of us that seeks to improve the world, that builds great cities, that creates beautiful works of art, that writes great literature and, most importantly, that seeks God.

It is the human spirit that most distinguishes us from any other animal on this earth, including primates. No other animals, even those closest to us genetically, build cities, form bicameral legislatures to debate law and justice, or create great works of art. No other animals write great literature, or store their collective wisdom in libraries and teach it in universities  No other animals long to go to the moon and beyond. No other animals sing, build great cathedrals, ponder the meaning of life, or call on God. The human spirit is magnificent, powerful, and creative. God Himself has put this magnificent power within us. 

Yet we so quickly discount this magnificent gift and instead run for the cover of “the flesh” to excuse or explain away our sinful tendencies.

But Jesus, in an important instruction at a critical moment, teaches us otherwise. What is most tragic is that most people completely miss the point, even concluding the opposite of what Jesus is trying to teach.

The teaching comes on Holy Thursday, in the garden of Gethsemane. Finding his disciples sleeping, Jesus rouses them and warns them saying,

Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh, weak. (Matt 26:41)

Sadly, most people completely miss the point. In effect, they say, “Yeah, that’s right! The flesh is weak; that explains everything. That’s why my life is messed up. See? Jesus understands and kindly accepts why my life is a mess.”

But this is the opposite of what Jesus is teaching. The point that Jesus is making is that the spirit is indeed willing!  In other words, he is saying, “Lay hold of the fact that within you is your human spirit, which I gave you,and that is eager, willing, and desirous to do what is right. Come to experience the reality and force of the spirit that I placed within you, and that will be quickened with my Holy Spirit. Your spirit is willing!”

The Greek word translated as “willing” is πρόθυμον (prothemon), which is also translated (perhaps even better) as “eager, or ready.”  Yes, the spirit is eager for that which is good, true, and beautiful. The flesh is of no avail; the flesh must grow weaker.  Feed your spirit; listen to its desires for the good, true, and beautiful. Yield to it and feed it! Whatever you feed grows! Starve the flesh but feed the spirit. Do this by staying awake and praying.

So much of the misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching comes down to the emphasis. Most place the emphasis on the flesh being weak. But Jesus says that the spirit is indeed willing! And here is where the emphasis must fall.

The word “indeed” helps us to understand this. Jesus says, “the spirit is indeed willing…” It is a Greek word (μὲν, men), which is difficult to translate because its meaning varies depending on the context. But one thing is clear: it is an intensifier. It is meant to place emphasis on the verb “willing.”  So, the flesh is weak—got that. But the spirit is indeed willing or, literally, the spirit is indeed eager!

This is where the emphasis must fall and this is what Jesus teaches. He is not making excuses for us; he is summoning us to something within us that is more powerful than the flesh: our spirit.

Many Christians do the same thing with St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in the seventh chapter. There, Paul gives a vivid description of the human person locked in the flesh. He writes,

7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin

And many reading this say, “Ah ha, that’s me! Well, that explains it all. And I guess if even Paul was a mess, its okay that I’m a mess too.” Of course it is not clear that Paul is writing about himself, he may be describing Adam before Christ.

But even so, what is more important is that we read on! The break between Romans chapters 7 and 8 did not come from St. Paul. Chapters and verses are wonderful ways of being able to find text quickly, but they tend to break up the text artificially. St. Paul does not conclude his thoughts at the end of chapter 7. He continues to write, and in chapter 8 goes on to describe the human person living in the spirit. And to every wretched problem of Romans 7, Romans 8 gives a direct response.

7:14 – I am carnal, sold into sin -

8:2 the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death
8:9 But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you

7:18 – Nothing good dwells in me -

8:9, 11 the Spirit of God dwells in you

7:23 – I am captive to the Law of sin -

8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.

Thus, St. Paul is giving the same teaching that Christ did: the spirit is willing, the spirit is eager, and the spirit, quickened by God’s Holy Spirit, can overcome every tendency of the flesh—every darned one of them!

Romans 7 and Matthew 26:41 are not meant to be used as a justification for Christian sloth. They do describe the problem of the flesh, but they also indicate that the spirit is more powerful, that the spirit is eager and willing, that we must lay hold of this great gift that God has given us, and is quickened with His Holy Spirit.

No more excuses now about how the flesh is weak—the spirit is eager and willing!

oly_ap_relay_drop_580The World Cup captured a lot of attention these past few weeks. I puzzle a bit as to the popularity of soccer since it seems that almost no one ever scores. A fan corrected me, saying that I sounded like a typical American who cares only about results. He said that most soccer fans appreciate the game for its own sake, for the skill and teamwork involved. All right, I’ll accept the judgment I received. I am surely in the minority since a vast percentage of the world deeply appreciates the game. I am also aware of the need to be wary of caring only about results, scores, and winning. There is, or should be, more to sports than scoring and winning.

However, I am mindful that St. Paul used the image of an athlete to describe the Christian life in several places and he did talk about winning. Consider this one:

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified ( 1 Cor. 9:25-27).

And yet even here it is clear that Paul has more in mind than just winning. Clearly there are many virtues necessary in the athlete that are also essential for the Christian.

  • Discipline - The athlete must carefully and persistently train the body. Without this discipline he will not master the sport nor will his body have the necessary stamina, strength, and coordination. Athletes train every day and work to perfect their prowess. So too must Christians undertake a clear regimen, diligently training in the ways of faith by praying, reading Scripture, partaking of the Sacraments, modeling moral virtue, and exhibiting self-mastery. The Christian must practice every day.
  • Persistence - The athlete must be disciplined all the time, not just occasionally. Failing to train persistently not only jeopardizes good performance, but also risks injury. So too for the Christian. We cannot expect much progress with an on-again, off-again regimen. Without persistent good habits, the Christian not only impedes progress, but also risks injury (sin).
  • Willingness to obey rules - Every sport has rules that must be accepted and followed. Athletes are not free to reinvent the game. They must play by the rules or risk exclusion and disqualification. S0 too Christians must play by the rules set forth by God. If we are going to be on the winning team, we have to abide by the rules. To refuse this is to risk being disqualified. We are not free to reinvent Christianity, as so many try to do today. There is only one playing field and one game. Follow the rules or risk being ejected.
  • Vigilance for signs of injury – Good athletes listen carefully to their bodies, watching for any signs of injury. If they detect an injury they see the team doctor quickly and take measures to heal as quickly as possible. Further they avoid injury by stretching, learning proper form, etc. So too for the Christian. We must monitor ourselves for injury, and upon discovery of even minor injury, we should consult our team physician, the priest, and get on the mend quickly. Further, we should try to ward off injury by learning proper Christian form (moral life) and by avoiding whatever leads us to sin (a kind of stretching to prevent moral injury).
  • Teamwork - Many sports involve learning to work together toward a goal. Athletes should not seek glory only for themselves; they must have the good of the entire team in mind. They must learn to work with others toward the common good and overcome any idiosyncrasies or selfishness that hinders the common goal. So too Christians must strive to overcome petty and selfish egotism and work for the common good, learning to appreciate the gifts of others. The team is stronger than the individual alone. Life is about more than just me. When others are glorified, so am I—if I am on the same winning team.

Well, you get the point. Why not add a few of your own thoughts on how sports can provide a good metaphor for the Christian life?


We who live the West live in a time and place where almost every burden of manual labor has been eliminated. Not only that, but creature comforts abound in almost endless number and variety. Everything from air conditioning to hair conditioning, from fast food to 4G internet, from indoor plumbing to outdoor grilling, from instant computer downloads to instant coffee machines. You don’t even have to write a letter anymore; just press send and it’s there. Yet despite all this, it would seem we modern Westerners still keenly experience life’s burdens, for recourse to psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs is widespread.

It is increasingly clear that serenity is an inside job. Merely improving the outside and amassing creature comforts is not enough. A large fluffy pillow may cushion the body (until we get bored with it), but apparently not the soul.

Today, Jesus wants to work on the inside just a bit and presents us a teaching on being increasingly freed of our burdens. He doesn’t promise a trouble-free life, but if we will let Him go to work, we can grow in freedom and serenity. Jesus gives a threefold teaching on how we can experience greater serenity and freedom from our burdens. We do this by filiation, imitation, and simplification.

I. Filiation – The Gospel today opens with these words: At that time Jesus exclaimed:  “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

Note how Jesus contrasts the “wise and learned” with the “little ones.” And in so doing Jesus commends to us a childlike simplicity before our heavenly Father, our Abba, our “Daddy-God.” This is the experience of divine filiation, of being a child of God, of being one of God’s “little ones.” The wise, learned, and clever often miss what God is trying to do and say, and because of this, they are anxious and feel stressed.

It is possible for a person to study a great deal, but if he doesn’t pray (if he doesn’t go before God like a little child), he isn’t going to get very far. The Greek word translated here as “revealed” is  ἀπεκάλυψας (apekalupsas) which more literally means “to unveil.” And only God can take away the veil, and He only does so for the humble and simple. Thus Jesus commends to our understanding the need for childlike simplicity and prayerful humility.

Half of our problems in life and 80% of the cause of our burdensome stress is that we think too much and pray too little. We have big brains and small hearts; and so we struggle to understand God instead of trusting him. Though our reason is our crowning glory, we must never forget how to be a little child in the presence of God our Father. No matter how much we think we know, it really isn’t very much. Jesus’ first teaching is filiation, embracing a childlike simplicity before our Daddy-God.

What does it mean to be childlike? Consider how humble little children are. They are always asking why and are unashamed to admit that they do not know. Children are also filled with wonder and awe; they are fascinated by the littlest as well as the biggest things. Children know they depend on their parents and instinctively run to them at any sign of trouble, or when they have been hurt. They trust their parents. Not only that, but they ask for everything; they are always seeking, asking, and knocking.

And thus Jesus teaches us that the first step to lessening our burdens is to have a childlike simplicity with the Father wherein we are humble before Him, acknowledge our need for Him, and recognize our dependence on Him for everything. He teaches us to have a simplicity that is humble enough to admit we don’t know much and want to learn from Him, a wonder and awe in all that God has done, and an instinct to run to God in every danger, or when we are hurt and in trouble.  Above all, Jesus teaches us by this image to grow each day in our trust of Abba, and to have the confidence to ask Him for everything we need. The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (4:2). An old spiritual says, I love the Lord; he heard my cry; and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise; I’ll hasten to his throne.

Yes, run! Run with childlike simplicity and trust.

So here is the first teaching of Jesus on letting go of our burdens: grow in childlike simplicity and trust before God our loving Father and Abba.

II. Imitation - The text says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. Jesus commends to us two characteristics of Himself that, if we embrace them, will give us rest and relief from our burdens. He says He is meek and humble of heart. Let’s look at both.

What does it mean to be meek? The Greek word is πραΰς (praus) and there is some debate as to how it is best interpreted. Simply looking at it as a Greek word, we can see that Aristotle defined “praotes” (meekness) as the mean, or middle ground, between too much anger and not enough anger. Hence the meek are those who have authority over their anger.

However, many biblical scholars think that Jesus uses this word most often as a synonym for being “poor in spirit.” And what does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to be humble and dependent on God. By extension it means that our treasure is not here. We are poor to this world, and our treasure is with God and the things awaiting us in heaven. And here is a source of serenity for us, for when we become poor to this world, when we become less obsessed with success, power, and possessions, many of our anxieties go away. To the poor in spirit, the wealth of this world is as nothing. You can’t steal from a man who has nothing. A poor man is less anxious because he has less to lose and less at stake. He is free from this world’s obsessions and from the fears and burdens they generate. And so Jesus calls us to accept His example and the growing experience in us of being poor in spirit.

Jesus also says that He is humble of heart. The Greek word here is ταπεινός (tapeinos) meaning lowly or humble and referring to one who depends on the Lord rather than himself. We have already discussed this at length above. But simply note here that the Lord Jesus is inviting us to learn this from Him and to receive it as a gift. The Lord can do this for us. And if we will learn it from Him and receive it, so many of our burdens and anxieties will be lifted.

Here then is the second teaching, which Jesus offers us so that we will see life’s burdens lessened. He teaches us to learn from Him and receive from Him the gift to be poor in spirit and humble of heart. The serenity that comes from embracing these grows with each day, for this world no longer has its shackles on us. It cannot intimidate us, for its wealth and power do not entice us, and we do not fear their loss. We learn to trust that God will see us through and provide us with what we need.

III. Simplification – The text says, Take my yoke upon you … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. The most important word in this sentence is “my.” Jesus says, MY yoke is easy, MY burden is light.

What is a yoke? Essentially “yoke” is used here as a euphemism for the cross. A yoke is a wooden truss that makes it easier to carry a heavy load by distributing the weight along a wider part of the body or by causing the weight to be shared by two or more people or animals. In the picture at left, the woman is able to carry the heavy water more easily with the weight across her shoulders rather than in the narrow section of her hands. This eases the load by involving the whole body more evenly. Yokes are also used to join two animals and help them work together in pulling a load.

What is Jesus saying? First, He is saying that He has a yoke for us. That is, He has a cross for us. Notice that  Jesus is NOT saying that there is no yoke or cross or burden in following Him. There is a cross that He allows, for a reason and for a season.

Easy? But Jesus says the cross HE has for us is “easy.” Now the Greek word χρηστὸς (chrestos) is better translated “well fitting,” “suitable,” or even “useful.” In effect, the Lord is saying that the yoke He has for us is suited to us, is well fitting, and has been carefully chosen so as to be useful for us. God knows we need some crosses in order to grow. He knows what those crosses are, what we can bear, and what we are ready for. Yes, His yoke for us is well fitting.

But note again that little word, “my.” The cross or yoke Jesus has for us is well suited and useful for us. The problem comes when we start adding to that weight with things of our own doing. We put wood upon our own shoulders that God never put there and never intended for us. We make decisions without asking God. We undertake projects, launch careers, accept promotions, even enter marriages without ever discerning if God wants this for us. And sure enough, before long our life is complicated and burdensome and we feel pulled in eight directions. But this is not the “my yoke” of Jesus; this is largely the yoke of our own making. Of course it is not easy or well fitting; Jesus didn’t make it.

Don’t blame God; simplify. Be very careful before accepting commitments and making big decisions. Ask God. It may be good, but not for you. It may help others, but destroy you. Seek the Lord’s will. If necessary, seek advice from a spiritually mature person. Consider your state in life; consider the tradeoffs. Balance the call to be generous with the call to proper stewardship of your time, talent, and treasure. Have proper priorities. It is amazing how many people put their career before their vocation. They take promotions, accept special assignments, and think more of money and advancement than their spouse and children. Sure enough, the burdens increase and the load gets heavy when we don’t ask God or even consider how a proposed course of action might affect the most precious and important things in our lives.

Stop “yoking around.” Jesus’ final advice, then, is “Take MY yoke … only my yoke. Forsake all others. Simplify.” So stop yoking around. Take only His yoke. If you do, your burdens will be lighter.  Jesus says, “Come and learn from me. I will not put heavy burdens on you. I will set your heart on fire with love. And then, whatever I do have for you, will be a pleasure for you to do. Because, what makes the difference is love.” Love lightens every load.

Image Credits:
Above right From Goodsalt.com Used with Permission.
Picture of Yoke from Seneca Creek Joinery
 
 

This video says we do need a yoke; God is preparing us to cross over to glory.

This song says, “When troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.”

The remarkable video below led me to ponder the difference and relationship between reverence and fear. For reverence is a form of fear, but a healthy form of it. Whereas fear, understood here as a cringing or hostile fear, is an unhealthy type of fear.

The Word “reverence” is rooted in the Latin word reveror, meaning “to stand in awe of, to revere or respect.” Hence there is a kind of respect involved that incites a healthy fear of overstepping, harming, or violating something or someone we hold in awe or have deep appreciation for. It is somewhat like the Holy Fear of the Lord counseled by Scripture wherein we hold God in awe and dread to cause Him offense out of this respect and love for Him.

When we have the healthy fear of reverence, we hesitate to simply barge in and behave “as if we owned the joint.” We proceed carefully, realizing that we are dealing with something or someone precious.

If it is a thing, we are more reverent if we realize we are not dealing with something ordinary, or something we own, but rather something that someone else owns and regards highly. Reverence for creation and the things of the created order is proper since we are stewards, not owners. If you lend me your car, I will likely be careful since it is not mine and I know you value it. I will have a healthy fear (reverence) of abusing, harming, or losing it.

When I have reverence for a person, I esteem him and am loath to cause him harm or grief due to that reverence. I will curb my behavior and seek to avoid any unnecessary harm.

Reverence is a healthy form of fear, a kind of wonder or awe at the mystery and magnificence of things and people. Of course it should never supplant or overrule our reverence or holy fear of God, but it does have a proper and healthy place in our dealing with people and even the created world.

If reverence is cultivated it also helps us avoid unhealthy fear, which is a cringing fear rooted in anxiety about backlash or retaliation from another, or the fear of consequences due to the violation of things or people. In effect, reverence helps ensure the good behavior that avoids bad consequences. In this quote from Romans 13, St. Paul very nicely summarizes the role of reverence as a preventative to fear on several levels:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Romans 13:1-14).

Thus reverence and (unhealthy or cringing) fear are related but also to be contrasted. And true reverence helps to avoid the unhealthy fear that is cringing and retaliatory.

This video is best understood in the light of this reflection. It features a certain alien, who seems to be an explorer or visitor to another planet. However he does not revere the world he explores and unreflectively (thus irreverently) collects samples. Soon enough, he experiences something of a call to account, though a very loving one. Nevertheless, his irreverence ignites his fear and he acts thoughtlessly. In the end he recovers reverence, but sadly, not before his irreverence has cost dearly.

On the Fourth of July in the United States of America we celebrate freedom. In particular we celebrate freedom from tyranny, freedom from government that is not representative, and freedom from unchecked power and unaccountable sovereigns.

Yet as Christians, we cannot overlook that there are ways of understanding freedom today that are distorted, exaggerated, and detached from a proper biblical, Christian, or Natural Law context. Many modern concepts of freedom treat it as somewhat of an abstraction.

Yes,  many speak of freedom in the abstract and have a hard time nailing down the details. So let’s talk about some of the details.

Most people like to think of freedom as pretty absolute, as in, “No one is going to tell me what to do.” But in the end freedom is not an abstraction and is not absolute; it cannot be. As limited and contingent beings, we exercise our freedom only within limits, and within a prescribed context. Pretending that our freedom is absolute leads to anarchy. And anarchy leads to the collapse of freedom into chaos and the tyranny of individual wills locked in power struggles.

One of the great paradoxes of freedom is that it really cannot be had unless we limit it. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy wherein no one is really free to act. Consider the following:

  1. We would not be free to drive if there were no traffic laws. The ensuing chaos would making driving quite impossible, not to mention dangerous. The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends on us limiting our freedom and cooperating through obedience to agreed-upon norms. Only within the limited freedom of traffic laws and agreed-upon norms can we really experience the freedom to drive, or to come and go. (See photo upper right.)
  2. Grammar or Goofy – Right now I am writing to you in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. But my freedom to communicate with you is contingent upon me limiting myself to the rules we call grammar and syntax. Were there no rules, I would lose my freedom to communicate with you. And you also would not be free to comprehend me. What if I were to say, “Jibberish not kalendar if said my you, in existential mode or yet.” And you were to respond: “dasja, gyuuwe %&^% (*UPO(&, if sauy ga(&689 (*&(*))!!” We may be exercising our “freedom” to say what we please, but our insistence on that freedom in too absolute a way really cancels the experience of freedom, for communication shuts down and nothing is really happening. When we demand absolute freedom from the limits of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and so forth, we are really no longer free to communicate at all. Anarchy leads not to freedom, but to chaos.
  3. Music or mumble – When I finish writing this post, I am free to go over to the Church and play the pipe organ (which I think I’ll do). But I am only free to do that because I once constrained myself for many years of practice under the direction of a teacher. I am also only free to play if I limit myself to interpreting the musical notation within a series of rules and norms. Within and because of these constraints and rules, I am free to play the instrument. I may wish to refuse to follow the rule that one must first switch on the power, but I am not going to get very far or really be free to play unless I obey.

So the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience freedom by accepting constraints to our freedom. Without constraints and limits, we are actually hindered from acting freely.

This is a very important first step in rescuing the concept of freedom from the abstract and experiencing it in the real world. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all. Since we are limited and contingent beings, we can only exercise and experience our freedom within limits.

This is also an important lesson to our modern world. For too many today push the concept of freedom beyond reasonable bounds. They insist on their right to act, but without accepting the reasonable constraints that make true freedom possible. Many today demand acceptance of increasingly bad and disruptive behavior.

But in rejecting proper boundaries, we usually see not an increase of freedom but a decrease of it for all of us. Thus our culture becomes increasingly litigious as burdensome laws are passed by a “nanny-state” seeking to regulate every small aspect of our lives. Among the sources of growing and intrusive law is that some refuse to limit their bad behavior; some refuse to live up to commitments they have made; some abandon self-control; some insist on living outside safe and proper norms. Many insist that the solution to protecting them from others who abuse their freedom is more laws. And many are successful in getting increasingly restrictive laws passed.

Again, the lesson is clear: without some limits, freedom is not possible. And when reasonable limits are cast aside, the paradoxical result is not more freedom, but far less of it. Freedom is not absolute. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all; it is the tyranny of chaos and the eventual erosion of freedom.

Alexis De Tocqueville said, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” In America today, we are seeing the erosion of all three in reverse order. Those who want to establish freedom in the abstract will only see that freedom erode.

Jesus and Freedom – This leads us to understanding what Jesus means when he says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

There are many people today who excoriate the Church and the Scriptures as a limit to their freedom. And sadly, quite a number of these are Catholics. To such as these, the Church is trying to “tell them what to do.” Christians are trying “to impose their values on the rest of us.” Now of course the Church cannot really force anyone to do much of anything.

Yes, many claim that the announcement of biblical truth threatens their freedom. But Jesus says just the opposite: it is the truth that sets us free. Now the truth is a set of propositions that limits us to some extent. If “A” is true then “not A” is false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it in order to enjoy its freeing power. And the paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom, they enhance it.

Image – As we have seen, absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is chaos wherein no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls. But these were not so much prison walls as defending walls. True, one had to limit oneself and stay within the walls to enjoy their protection. But within the walls there was great freedom, for one was not constantly fighting off enemies, or distracted with fearful vigilance. People were freed for other pursuits, but only within the walls.

Those who claim that the truth of the Gospel limits their freedom might also consider that the world outside God’s truth shows itself to be far less free than it seems.

  • Addictions and compulsions in our society abound.
  • Neuroses and high levels of stress are major components of modern living.
  • The breakdown of the family and the seeming inability of increasing numbers to establish and keep lasting commitments is quite evident.
  • A kind of obsession with sex is apparent, and the widespread sadness of STDs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fathers), and abortion are its results.
  • Addiction to wealth and greed (the insatiable desire for more) enslaves many in a sort of financial bondage wherein they cannot really afford the lifestyle their passions demand, yet they are still unsatisfied.

The so-called “freedom” of the modern world (apart from the truth of the Gospel) is far from evident. These bondages also extend to the members of the Church, to the extent that we do not seriously embrace the truth of the Gospel and base our lives upon it. The Catechism says rather plainly,

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” (CCC # 1733)

In the end, the paradox proves itself. Only limited freedom is true freedom. Demands for absolute freedom lead only to hindered freedom and outright slavery.

Ponder freedom on this 4th of July. Ponder its paradoxes; accept its limits. For freedom is glorious. But because we are limited and contingent beings, so is our freedom. Ponder finally this paradoxical truth: the highest freedom is the capacity to obey God.

This video is one of my favorites. It shows a “Jibberish interview.” It illustrates how we are free to communicate only within the constraints of grammar and the rules of language.

Photo Credit: G.Krishnaswamy in the The Hindu

For most of us, attachments to this world are THE struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth. 80% of the spiritual life is a battle about desire and the fundamental question, “What do you want most, the world and its pleasures, or God and his Kingdom?” So easily this world gets its hooks into us and we become attached to it. It is hard to break free from inordinate desires.

But what are attachments, and what are they not? Are there ways we can distinguish attachments from ordinary and proper desires? What are the signs that we are too attached to someone or something? To address questions like these, I want to turn to a great teacher of mine in matters spiritual, Fr. Thomas Dubay. Father died a little over a year ago, but he left us a great legacy of teaching through his books, audio recordings, and programs at EWTN. In addressing these questions, I would like to summarize what he teaches in his spiritual classic Fire Within, in which he expounds on the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

Here then are some excerpts (pages 133-135). Father’s  teaching is in bold, black italics. My own poor remarks are in plain red text. You may wish to read only Fr. Dubay’s text to begin with, and only read my additions if you think you want elaboration.

I. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS NOT:  Sometimes it is easier to say what a thing is not prior to saying what it is. In this Fr. Dubay disabuses us of wrongful and sometimes puritanical notions that are neither biblical nor Catholic since they reject as bad what God has made as good, and as a blessing. Scripture says,  God created [things] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3-4).

1. First of all, attachment is not the experiencing of pleasure in things, not even keen, intense pleasure. The complete avoidance of pleasure is neither possible nor advisable in human life … There is no doubt that the pleasures of the five senses easily lead to a selfish clinging to them for their own sakes, but nonetheless, the pleasures themselves are not blameworthy. God made them, and they are good.

The remarks here are very balanced. Of itself, taking pleasure in what God has made is a kind of thanksgiving and surely an appreciation of what God has created and given.

Yet, due to our fallen nature, we must be cautious that our experience of pleasure, like all our passions, does not become unruly, improperly directed, and take on a life of its own. If we are not mindful, pleasures can divert our attention from the giver (and His purpose) to the gift alone.

Consider that a husband properly enjoys intense pleasure in his intimate experiences with his wife. Correctly understood, there is little way he can NOT enjoy this, other things being equal. But these intimate moments have a meaning beyond themselves. They summon him to greater intimacy, appreciation, and love for his wife, and ultimately, for the God who created her. Further, these moments draw him to share his love and appreciation through an openness to the fruit this love will bear in his children.

Hence the gift of intimacy is wonderful and to be enjoyed to the fullest, but it is not an end in itself. When it becomes its own end, and exists in our mind only for its own sake, we are on the way to attachment and idolatry.

2. Nor is possessing or using things an attachment to them. We must all make use of things in this world to accomplish what God has given us to do. God is surely pleased to equip us with what we need to do his will, to build the Kingdom, and to be of help to others. 

3. Nor is being attracted, even mightily attracted, to a beautiful object or person an unhealthy attachment. As a matter of fact, we should be drawn to the splendors of creation, for that is a compliment to the supreme Artist. Saints were and are strongly attracted to the glories of the divine handiwork and especially to holy men and women, the pinnacles of visible creation.

A gift to pray for is the gift of wonder and awe, wherein we appreciate and are joyful in God’s glory displayed in the smallest and most hidden things, as well as in the greatest and most visible things. We are also summoned to a deep love of, appreciation of, and attraction to the beauty, humor, and even quirkiness displayed in one another.

But here too these things are meant to point to God; they are not ends in themselves. And it sometimes happens that we fail to connect the dots, as St. Augustine classically describes, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, would not exist” (Confessions 10.27).

So once again, to be attracted by beauty is, of itself, good. But it is not an end. It is a sign pointing to the even greater beauty of God and his higher gifts.

II. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS:  St  John of the Cross [observes] that if anyone is serious about loving God totally, he must willingly entertain no self-centered pursuit of finite things sought for themselves, that is, devoid of honest direction to God, our sole end and purpose. St. Paul makes exactly the same point when he tells the Corinthians that whatever they eat or drink, or whatever else they do they are to do all for the glory of God … (1 Cor 10:31)

St John of the Cross explicitly states that he is speaking of voluntary desires and not natural ones‚ for the latter are little or no hindrance to advanced prayer as long as the will does not intervene with a selfish clinging. By natural desires the saint has in mind, for example, a felt need for water when we are thirsty, for food when hungry, for rest when fatigued. There is no necessary disorder in experiencing these needs … to eradicate these natural inclinations and to mortify them entirely is impossible in this life.

Of course even natural desires can become unruly and exaggerated to the point that we seek to overly satisfy them and they become ends in themselves. Fr. Dubay makes this point later. St. Paul also had to lament that there were some whose god was their belly and who had their mind set only on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19).

[More problematic and] especially damaging to normal development are what John calls, “habitual appetites,” that is, repeated and willed clingings to things less than God for their own sake. And here we come to some critical distinctions.

[W]e may ask when a desire becomes inordinate and therefore harmful. I would offer three clear signs.

1. The first is that the activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it. And this is very common today with sex and with many matters related to the body.

2. The second sign is excess in use. As soon as we go too far in eating, drinking, recreating, speaking, or working, we show that there is something disordered in our activity. We cannot honestly direct to the glory of God what is in excess of what He wills. Hence, a person who buys more clothes than needed is attached to clothing. One who overeats is clinging selfishly to food.

Yes, beer, for example, is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy. A couple of beers is gratitude; ten beers is a betrayal. God gives in abundance to be sure, but more so that we can share with the needy and the poor, than that we should cling to it selfishly as though it existed as its own end.

Sharing spreads God’s glory. As St Paul says, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15). And again, “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor 9:11). Thus the abundance of God is directed to the spreading of His glory and to the widening of thanksgiving, NOT as an end itself, that we should hoard it. God’s gifts point back to Himself.

3. The third sign of attachment is making means into ends. We have one sole purpose in life: the ultimate, enthralling vision of the Trinity in glory, in our risen body. Everything else is meant in the divine plan to bring us and others to this final embrace with Beauty and Love … As soon as honesty requires us to admit that this eating or that travel, this television viewing or that purchase is not directly or indirectly aimed at Father, Son, and Spirit, we have made ourselves into an idol. We are clearly clinging to something created for our own self-centered sake.

This is often the hardest of the three to discern, but I think the heart of the difference between a thing becoming an end rather than a means, is the question of gratitude. How consciously grateful are we to God for the things and pleasures we enjoy? Do they intensify our gratitude or do they merely distract us from thinking about God?

Further, do they help me in my journey upward to God or do they merely root me more deeply in this passing world?

Another (scary) question is, “How easily could I give this up if I discovered that it was hindering me from God or that God no longer wanted it in my life?” This is hard, because we really enjoy certain things. But the key question is not that we enjoy them, but whether they lead us to God. And we must be honest about this, avoiding puritanical notions, but also avoiding self-justifying ones.

Here, too, an important thing to seek from God is not merely the strength to give up things with a sour face and bad attitude, but that through His grace we actually begin to prefer good things in moderation over distracting things in excess. If we let God go to work, the good begins to crowd out the bad in an incremental, growing way.

[Therefore:] an attachment is a willed seeking of something finite for its own sake. It is an unreal pursuit, an illusory desire. Nothing exists except for the sake of God who made all things for Himself. Any other use is a distortion.

In Jesus’ time, the smallest homes of the very poor might be little more than a square, stone structure covered with a whitewashed sort of stucco. There would typically be one larger multipurpose room and a smaller back room for the animals. Some houses in hilly regions were partial cave dwellings, built up against the limestone rock face, perhaps with the front section built onto it. The traditional site at the house of the Annunciation in Nazareth seems to have employed this strategy. However we need not conclude from this that Joseph and Mary were destitute. Many homes employed the “hillside strategy” that made use of hollowed out caves. Such structures were easy to build and there was a certain natural coolness to them.

Another sort of house, also common among the working poor and typical village-dwellers, was one built around a central open court with small rooms opening onto it. (See the drawing at the upper right; click the picture for a larger view). This kind of building had the advantage of needing only short beams for the roof structures, since the central court had no roof. The open concept retained the coolness by allowing air to move freely through. Cooking could also be done in the open central court, when the weather permitted.

If the family had some animals, they were often kept in part of the house at night.

Families, sometimes including several generations, tended to live under one roof and had little or no privacy.

The roof was of real importance in everyday life. It was a flat roof with just enough slope to drain off the rainwater. Rainwater was carefully collected into cisterns or large containers, for in the more arid climate of the eastern Mediterranean every drop of water was precious. The roof of the house was flat and sturdy, enabling people to venture up on it. Since the roofs were used so often, the law of Deuteronomy required guard rails to be installed to prevent falling.

The roof areas in effect provided an open second floor. On the roof, tools would often be stored, laundry would be put out to dry, and people would often gather to talk, especially in the evening. Scripture also speaks of it as a place to retire and pray. In the evening when it was cool, people sat and talked, and in the better weather would often sleep there. The climate of the Mediterranean provides a rather perfect setting for this at most times of the year. Some also placed tents and other coverings on the roof.

Except for the roof structures, which included wood timbers, the basic building material in Palestine was stone. The limestone provides excellent building material and as the stones were fashioned into a wall, they would be coated with a flat, fixed stucco-like material and smoothed over. Foundations were dug with great care as Jesus also said to build upon rock rather than sand. The mortar was used to bond the stone that was made of clay mixed with shells and potsherds.

As for the structure of the roofs, wooden trusses were necessary, since the roof would be used as a kind of second floor. Then a kind of wattling or firm lattice of straw mats would be covered over and smoothed with hard clay. Yearly repairs were made just prior to the rainy season. Most of the inner doors were narrow; only the door facing the street was wider and had a hinged door that could be secured.

In poorer homes the floor was simply pounded earth. The more affluent might have pebbles or baked clay tiles. Wooden floors could be afforded only by the very wealthy.

Only the very wealthy could afford to have water piped to their houses. Ordinary people went to the well or spring-fount, or perhaps a local stream, and collected water with skins, jars, and all kinds of pitchers. Some larger towns did have conduits or aqueducts that brought the water to certain public areas. The washing of clothes was done away from the main house lest water run back in.

Generally there was no need for a lot of heating, except in the cooler months of the year. Most of the houses therefore had no fireplaces. If it did grow cold, there were charcoal braziers where small fires would be kindled.

Lighting was not very abundant. Small oil lamps were used. It will be recalled from above that much time was spent out-of-doors so interior lights were less necessary.

Furniture was extremely simple. The chief object in the home was the chest. There were chests for provisions and chests for clothes. For the poorest families, chests doubled as tables. Since clothing was simple, there was little need for many different sets or changes of clothing, and thus there was less need for numerous chests and the sorts of insanely large closets many have today.

Most moderately well off families did have a low table at which to recline and eat. People in this region and time reclined on their left elbow and ate with their right hand. Sitting on chairs at higher tables to eat was rare.

The kitchen as we know it did not exist. In small houses cooking was done out back on an open fire or in a fire pit. Utensils were kept in a chest. In larger houses the courtyard might be the place of the cooking fire and kitchen items were kept in a storeroom.  Only the largest homes had a dedicated area with a fiery oven.

Bedding was rolled out on the floor; the bed as a piece of furniture off the floor, as in our homes today, was largely unknown at that time except among the very wealthy. Family members stretched out on mats, covering themselves with their own cloaks. Many slept on the roof in the warmer months.

Many even smaller houses seem to have had a bath of some sort. The ancient Jews were conscientious about cleanliness and saw it as related to holiness and ritual purity. The usual bath (often called a mikveh) was narrow and one stepped down into it. Bathing was for hygiene to be sure, but there were also ritual baths that the Jews took. In the Holy House in Nazareth, a mikveh is located in or near the house and adjacent to the carpenter shop of Joseph.

Latrines were more likely outhouses and were situated away from the main dwelling. They may have been shared facilities between several domiciles, depending on the size and layout of the town or village. There is an excerpt in the Torah in which Moses instructs the ancient Israelites to “build your latrines outside the camp.” It further states, “When you go to the toilet, take a paddle or a shovel with you and use the toilet and then cover it up,” suggesting that some sort of lime was thrown in after the use. Other directions about latrines were that they should be located in discreet, private locations. Certain archeological digs have uncovered the presence of latrines that consisted of a pit dug into the ground and of an enclosed, roofed chamber; basically an outhouse.

It was a simpler time to be sure, but still with all the basic needs of a home.

Okay, so we won today in the Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby case went our way; score one for religious liberty.

But here’s a concern: why didn’t the Justices vote 9–0? To be even more clear, if religious liberty, a right given us by God and legally enshrined in the First Amendment, prevailed by only one vote where are we as a country? And how long will that one vote prevail? So, we can celebrate a narrow victory, but why was it narrow?

How have we reached the point in this country that those who hold a sincere religious belief contrary to the contraceptive mindset of the world, and who also sincerely oppose the killing of children through abortion, only narrowly escaped being required to both provide for and even pay for these sorts of things?

Where are all the liberals who march under the banners of tolerance? Where are the First Amendment zealots willing to stand with us? They are nowhere to be found, I suspect because it touches on abortion and contraception, which have become like sacraments for them.

I would like to think that, though I love the Scriptures and want everyone to have them, I would oppose in principle a law requiring every business to provide free bibles to all their employees or customers. I’d like to think that, if a Muslim business owner (or a pagan one for that matter) objected to being required to do this, I would stand with him in principle and oppose this requirement. Thus even if a non-Catholic doesn’t understand or agree with my principled opposition to contraception and abortifacients, is it really so much to ask that most justices (not just 5 out of 9) and most Americans agree that I ought not be required to provide and pay for these things?

Go with me to the Jewish delicatessen example of Bishop Lori some years ago as I adapt it just a bit. What if the current Administration or the Federal Government were to say to all Jewish deli owners, “It is just an outrage and downright un-American that you don’t sell pork sausage and hot dogs. Every American deli MUST provide these by law. And you must comply or face big fines”? Even though most Americans don’t understand or share the Jewish aversion to pork, I would think they would still be outraged by such an action.

Now suppose further that after the outrage the government proposed a compromise: “OK, you don’t have to provide the pork, but you must let us set up a kiosk inside your deli where we will offer it free of charge to your customers and employees, because, by gosh, whether you like it or not, you are going to offer pork in your Jewish deli!” Again, the outrageousness of such a stance would provoke great protests from most Americans regardless of how comfortable they are with eating pork themselves.

It is simply outrageous that four Supreme Court Justices, and many Americans, cannot see the clear and offensive proposition of the Government in this regard. And even if they don’t share our opposition, they ought to stand with us in principle.

But they do not. And this once again underscores the serious condition of our Nation and our Constitution. It is another example of the growing tyranny of relativism wherein reasoned recourse to agreed-upon principles is no longer possible. Thus, they win who are the most powerful, or have the most money, or have the most access. Granted, we won today, but barely, and by one vote; it could easily have gone differently.

Everyone, no matter his political or moral stance, should be very concerned about the growing intrusiveness and raw power of a government that thinks it can force people to act against their faith and to cooperate in what they think is evil. Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception is nothing new. It goes all the way back to Scripture, which condemned the use of “pharmakeia” (e.g., Gal 5:20, Rev 9:21, and 18:23). The Didache and countless documents of the Fathers and the Magisterium have always upheld these views. We have not changed, the culture has. To compel us to provide and even pay for what we consider evil is wrong and un-American. It is shocking that so few Americans understand or appreciate this.

But wake up, fellow Americans. You may even find it amusing for the Catholic Church or conservative Christians to be attacked. But if this can happen to us, it can happen to you. Think twice, and then think a third time too. You have every reason to stand with us, and only bigotry and the desires of the flesh to oppose us. Make no mistake; you will be next. The Government will not cease its encroachment on basic liberties at the exit door of the Catholic Church. The steamroller is heading for you next. Stand with us.

We won today, but barely. It should have been 9–0. Wake up, America; your religious and other liberties are hanging by the thread of one vote.

There has been some interesting coverage in the news recently regarding the Church’s stance on baptizing children conceived or reared in irregular situations.

In recent decades there has been an explosion in the number of children conceived and born outside of Holy Matrimony. The general approach of the Church has been to baptize these children as long as there is no evidence of an ongoing rejection of the Church teaching that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage. While people may have fallen in weakness, the presumption was that they at least accepted the norm and were going to try to live by it.

If the “couple” in question were living together outside of marriage, the baptism was handled discreetly and the couple was counseled to cease fornication.

It is not certain that every pastor admonished couples as he should but this was (and is) the general policy.

Enter the new and ever more frequent problem of same sex “couples” presenting a child for baptism, and now the stakes get higher. Why? Because of the visibility of the sin involved. At the baptism ceremony, one can at least presume that a single mother has repented of fornication. But it is hard to presume that a homosexual “couple” living together openly, in a culture that has suddenly decided to “celebrate” their “lifestyle,” is making a similar admission of the wrongness of their past behavior. It is also difficult to presume that many who attend the baptism have clarity on the aberrance of homosexual acts.

Thus the Church finds herself in a deeper quandary regarding how to baptize children being brought up in irregular situations that are far more public, situations that bespeak acceptance and even celebration of something the Church must oppose.

Discretion is the operative word. We still have every reason try to baptize children in these irregular situations; after all, it is not the fault of the child. However we must balance the common good of avoiding scandal with the individual good of each child by seeking to handle these baptisms discreetly, giving no opportunity for public confusion regarding what we must reasonably and biblically oppose (same-sex unions).

Here are some excerpts from an article that was in the Washington Post this past Saturday along with my comments in plain red text. (The full text of the article is here: New Battleground?.)

… Catholic leaders have carefully, if quietly, avoided doing anything to block gay couples from having their children baptized … And this is for the good of the child, who is not guilty of the sins of parents, guardians, or caretakers. It is not to be seen as an affirmation of the sins of the adults involved, whether this be due to homosexual acts, fornication, or adultery.

The default position for most bishops … is that if the parents pledge to raise the child Catholic, then no girl or boy should be refused baptism.

They generally let parish priests make the final call and let them administer the sacrament, though it is usually done in a private ceremony with the biological parent—not the adoptive mother or father—listed on the baptismal certificate.

The honest truth is that most priests have been so inundated by single mothers that we no longer handle the baptism of such children discreetly (as was done decades ago), but have held such baptisms publicly, and often alongside the baptisms of properly married parents. This must likely be reexamined. We have fallen prey to the normalization of fornication in our culture. And while not every priest has done so, it must be admitted that we have not properly distinguished between what ought to be discreet (because of the behavior of the parents) and what can be publicly celebrated. However, one was still able to presume the possibility that the parents had repented of fornication and were now living properly. This is often not the case with so called homosexual “couples” who often (but not always) wish to live in very public opposition to Church teaching.

[But a] new debate was prompted by the emergence of a memo—first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal—that was sent in early May to priests of the Madison Diocese by the top aide to Bishop Robert Morlino. In the memo, the vicar general of the diocese, Monsignor James Bartylla, says there are “a plethora of difficulties, challenges, and considerations associated with these unnatural unions (including scandal) linked with the baptism of a child, and such considerations touch upon theology, canon law, pastoral approach, liturgical adaptation, and sacramental recording.

Yes, they are unnatural unions and present a host of difficulties to us. Even in the “single mother” scenarios that have recently troubled us, comes the listing of a “father” who is often absent or sometimes even unknown. I have often had to struggle with a woman who either did not want to disclose the father or did not even know who the father was.  There is always the option of writing Pater ignotus (father unknown) in the baptismal register, but it is generally desirable to indicate the biological father if he can be known. But at least the mother was known. Members of so called “gay” couples do not fit on either line. Which do we list? Who is the father? Who is the mother? It’s a mess. Further, the rites call for a blessing for mother and father. What do we do? What do we say? Its a mess, a big mess. 

Bartylla says that pastors must now coordinate any decision on baptizing the children of gay couples with his office and that “each case must be evaluated individually.” And this makes sense. When you’ve got a mess, and this is a real mess, it makes sense to adopt a uniform policy. If there are 100+ parishes in a diocese, there should not be 100+ policies in a matter as serious as this. The Bishop, who is chief legislator and liturgist, ought to set the norms.

A spokesman for the Madison Diocese, Brent King, said … “We want everyone to receive this most important sacrament, and we are dealing with this sensitive matter prudently, for the child’s sake and the integrity of this most sacred sacrament,” wrote King. Yes, we want to baptize every child we can. This mess is not their fault. But we have to do so in ways that protect  the common good by avoid scandal and confusion.

Officials at the USCCB said these decisions are left to local church leaders, and indicated there are no plans to formulate a national directive beyond the guidance offered in a 2006 statement on ministering to gay people. That document says that baptizing the children of gay parents is “a serious pastoral concern” but that the church should not refuse them access to the sacrament. OK, good, but I suspect that some national norms are going to be needed as well.

Since the bishops passed that document, however, an ongoing wave of victories for same-sex marriage advocates has continued to push the issue into the public arena. As more gay Catholics can marry, and can be open about their relationship, more gay couples may be presenting their children for baptism.

Exactly. What was once an abstract, even theoretical problem is now becoming more widespread. Further, the homosexual extremists are looking to embarrass us, to set us up. We need to consider carefully a way forward that respects our traditions, but does not give any credence to their unnatural unions.

“The question with gay couples is whether their opposition to the church’s teaching on marriage means that they do not in fact intend to raise the child in the faith,” said Rita Ferrone, the author of several books about liturgy and a consultant to U.S. dioceses on liturgical matters. “Gay parents may or may not be ideologically opposed to church teaching, but chances are they do not merely disobey but also reject the various norms they have transgressed,” Ferrone said.

Sadly, these days the presumption is that many people, even beyond the “gay” community itself, not only approve of but even brazenly celebrate what God calls sin and abomination. Thus our presumption of good will is difficult to maintain.  Our operative presumption must become that we are being set up and pressured to approve what God does not approve. 

DeBernardo said the problem with a policy that focuses specifically on gay parents is that it “stigmatizes lesbian and gay couples as being more suspect than any other parents.” Sadly, though, many if not most gay parents want to live their sin publicly. It is not fair to ask us to be silent; we cannot do so.

“It is very likely that no parents that present a child for baptism are perfectly following all church rules,” he said. “Why single out only lesbian and gay parents for further scrutiny?” OK, but again the operative point is the public nature of the sin and the scandal given by its public nature. Some sins are just more obvious and public than others.

Countering any trend to curb baptisms, however, is the long-standing presumption, in church teaching and among even conservative church leaders, that no child should be denied baptism.

And herein lies the delicate balance: the good of the child vs. the common good to avoid scandal. The key going forward is discretion. More baptisms than in the past are going to need to be celebrated privately, in the presence only of the immediate family (i.e., parents or guardians and godparents). This will need to include fornicators and other irregular parents. We have become too lax and must now apply a norm consistently that has been poorly applied in the past.

And thus the bottom line seems clear: baptize these children, but do so discreetly. Further, we ought to regain more discretion as to how we baptize children in other irregular situations. The common good and the individual good of the children can and should be balanced, but they are not mutually exclusive.