One of the more misunderstood of the cardinal sins is sloth. This is because most see it merely as laziness. But there is more to sloth than that. Let’s take a moment and consider some aspects of the cardinal sin we call sloth.
The Greek word we translate as sloth is ἀκηδία akedia (a = absence + kedos = care), meaning indifference or negligence. St. Thomas speaks of sloth as sorrow for spiritual good. By it, we shun spiritual good as too toilsome (cf ST II-II 35,2).
Some modern commentators speak of sloth as a “don’t care” feeling. Some even say it is a kind of falling out of love with God and the things of God (cf Rev 2:4). On account of sloth, the idea of right living and the gift of a transformed humanity inspires not joy, but aversion or even disgust because it is seen as too laborious or as requiring setting aside currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. By sloth, many experience sorrow rather than joy or zeal in following God and receiving a transformed human life. They are distressed at the prospect of what might have to occur should they embrace the faith more deeply.
Sloth also tends to dismiss the power of grace, focusing on the “trouble” or effort attached to walking in the Christian way, rather than understanding grace as a work of God.
As said above, many people today equate sloth with laziness. But sloth is not merely laziness; it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference. While sloth may sometimes look like boredom and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it can also be manifested by a frantic “busyness” with worldly things so as to avoid spiritual questions or living a reflective life.
Consider, for example, a man who is a workaholic. Now suppose that this man has a wife and children. A man in this position has some very significant gifts and duties beyond his career. He is a husband, a father, and the spiritual leader of his home. He is also a disciple, one whom the Lord has summoned to a new life, to the great discovery of God, and to the deepest meaning and realities of his life. He also has the awesome dignity to announce these truths to his wife and children.
But all of the duties and glories of his vocation overwhelm and even scare him. It all seems so irksome and the task too open-ended. Frankly, he doesn’t want to reflect too much because it might summon him to ponder things he would like to avoid considering: moral questions or priorities, whether he is spending enough time with his wife and children, whether his life is focused on the things that matter most. No, it’s all just too irksome, too ridden with uncertainty to enter more deeply into the spiritual life. Work is easier, and at work they call him “Sir” and do what he says.
So he buries himself in his work. And this helps him to avoid prayer and reflection. Of course there’s “no time” for Mass or for praying with his wife and children. There’s no time for scripture, retreats, and the like.
This man is not lazy but he is slothful. In the end his workaholism is sloth, for it is sorrow and aversion to the gift that the Lord offers him: to come out into the deeper waters and lower his net for a catch. In this case, his sorrow for spiritual good is manifested in avoidance rooted in fear. By sloth, he is not joyful at the invitation of the Lord or the Church. Instead he is sorrowful and averse to what he sees as toilsome and possibly raising uncomfortable things he would rather not think about. He does not hate God or the faith, but it is all just too much.
That said, sloth does often manifest itself as a kind of lethargy, a boredom that can’t seem to muster any interest, energy, joy, or enthusiasm for spiritual gifts. Such people may be enthusiastic about many things, but God and the faith are not among them.
Boredom seems to have increased in modern times and this fuels sloth. In effect, we are hyperstimulated in the modern world. The frantic pace, the endless interruptions, the abundance of entertainment, fast-paced movies, and video games all overstimulate us. From the time we awaken until we fall into bed at the end of the day, there is almost never a moment of silence or a time when we are not being bombarded by images, often flickering and quickly changing.
This hyperstimulation means that when we come upon things like quiet prayer or adoration, or are asked to listen for an extended period, or when the imagery is not changing quickly enough, we are easily bored.
And boredom feeds right into sloth. The “still, small voice of God,” the quiet of prayer, the simple reading of Scripture and the pondering of its message, the unfolding of spiritual meaning through reflection, the slower joys of normal human conversation in communal prayer and fellowship … none of these appeal to the many who are overstimulated and used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the beauty of the liturgy, the music, the hearing of the sermon, the joy of fellowship, and the quiet of Holy Communion), is now considered boring and about as appealing as going to the dentist, a necessary evil at best. Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything going less than 90 miles and hour.
Peter Kreeft says,
Sloth is a cold sin, not a hot one. But that makes it even deadlier. [For] rebellion against God is closer to him than indifference … God can more easily cool our wrath than fire our frozenness, though he can do both. Sloth is a sin of omission not commission. That too makes it deadlier, for a similar reason. To commit evil is at least to be playing the game … Sloth simply does not play God’s game, either with him or against him … It sits on the sidelines bored … Better to be hot or cold than lukewarm [Back to Virtue, P. 154].
Sloth, of course, gives rise to many sins: we do not pray, attend Mass, go to confession, or read Scripture. We do not grow in our spiritual life and thus we fail to become the man or woman God made us to be. In some sense every sin contains an element of sloth, for when we sin we show a kind of aversion to the perfecting graces that God offers us. Rather than seeing the moral law of God as a great summons to freedom, we reject that call as “too much trouble.”
Socially, too, there are many manifestations of sloth. Two that are common in the modern world are secularism and relativism.
1. Secularism - By secularism, I am referring to a preoccupation with worldly things (rather than the more current meaning of hostility to religious faith). It is amazing how passionate we can get about worldly things. Perhaps it is football, or politics, or the newest electronic device. Perhaps it is our career, or the stock market, or something in the news. Yes, we are passionate people, and even the most reserved of us have strong interests occupying our mind.
And yet many of those who rejoiced at the basketball game that ended so thrillingly, or were passionately engaged at the political rally, or were so excited about the latest twist on their favorite television show, many of these same passionate, joyful people can muster no interest whatsoever in prayer, Mass, or Bible study. And if they do get to Mass they look like they’re in agony until it’s over.
This is secularism and it is a form of sloth. We have time and passion for everything but God. It is a very deep drive. We are mesmerized by many things of the world, but bored and sorrowful (and thus slothful) over the things of the spiritual life. Where is the joy? Where is the zeal? Where is the hunger for completion in God?
This is sloth. It is not merely depression or boredom; it is sloth. It is a sorrow toward the spiritual gifts of God. It is a deep drive of the flesh and it has to go. But only God and openness to His grace can ultimately save us and bring us more alive from this death-directed drive.
2. Relativism – Many today indulge a notion that there is no such thing as absolute or unchanging truth to which we are summoned and must ultimately conform. This is relativism. And many who practice it actually congratulate themselves for their “tolerance” and “open-mindedness.” They think of their relativism as a virtue. But more often than not, relativism is simply sloth masquerading as tolerance. The fact is, if there is such a thing as truth (and there is), then I should joyfully seek it and base my life on its demands and promises.
Many indulge in relativism because it is an easy way out. If there is no truth then I am not obliged to seek it nor base my life upon it. Frankly, many are averse to and sorrowful toward the truth because they find its demands irksome. This is sloth. Their sorrow is directed toward a very precious spiritual gift of God: the gift of truth. Instead of joyfully seeking the truth, the relativist is sorrowful and avoids the gift, couching his sloth in words such as “open-mindedness” and “tolerance.”
To be sure, there is a place for tolerance. But the true virtue of tolerance is usually misunderstood today and is often equated with approval. The proper understanding of tolerance is “the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions, or practices that one considers to be wrong but still ‘tolerable,’ such that they should not be prohibited or unreasonably constrained.” The key point that is often lost today is that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable, wrong, or bad. If this objection component is missing, we are not speaking any longer of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.”
Hence, relativists who dismiss that there is truth to be found cannot rightly call their position “tolerance.” It is in fact indifference and is a form of sloth.
For all of our modern claims to be tolerant and open-minded, the more usual fact is that we are just plain lazy and slothful when it comes to seeking the truth. We (collectively speaking) do not love the truth but shun it, sorrowfully regarding its possible claims on us. Jesus said rightly, This is the judgement: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God (Jn 3:19-21).
A few reflections, then, on sloth.
Coming to recognize sloth for what it is, calling it by name, and learning its moves, are the first steps on the road to healing. Sloth is, of course, one of those drives that is so deep that ultimately we must fall to our knees and beg deliverance from the Lord, who alone can heal us.
The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in this beatitude: Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).
We must also ask for and seek the fruits of the Holy Spirit, especially love, joy, and peace. These gifts kindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts He offers.
Because sloth is such a deep drive, we must throw ourselves to the care of God with great humility, recognizing our poverty and seeking His miraculous grace to give us grateful, loving, and passionate hearts.
Finally, since sloth can also be caused by the feeling of being overwhelmed at the perfection of our call, we do well to consider two points:
- We ought to meditate carefully on what our specific call is. Since we cannot do and be everything, we need to come to an understanding of our own particular gifts and how God expects us to use them. Having done this, we do well to “stay in our lane.”
- We must understand that spiritual progress grows in stages and by many steps, not in one giant leap. Hence we need not be so sorrowful or averse to the good things God offers us. As a loving Father, He leads us and forms us most often in gentle ways as one spiritual victory leads to another.
Pray for zeal, joy, hope, confidence, and a hunger for holy things. The Christian journey is meant to be a thrilling one as we experience how God is utterly transforming us.
I don’t know, something tells me that after a heavy post like this it’s time to play the Bach Gigue Fugue. Since sloth is sorrow, Joy is an essential solution. Here is Joy in G Major!
Fear is a very complex passion. On the one hand, there are things that we ought rightly to fear such as grave physical and spiritual dangers. The fear of being near the edge of a cliff might well save our life. The fear of serious sin and the punishment we might experience or the offense to God (who loves us) is appropriate and holy. Sadly, more people lack this holy fear rooted in the possible loss of what is most precious to us: our eternal life with God.
There are also things we fear that we should not, or things that we fear more than we should. These sorts of fears are usually rooted in our disordered and inordinate affections.
A disordered affection is a love for something that is sinful or wrong. We ought not love it at all, but do, and thus we fear anyone or anything that interferes with accessing and enjoying what is fundamentally sinful.
An inordinate affection is a love for something that is good in itself, but the love we have for it is too great. And loving it too much causes us to fear the loss of it excessively. Many things in this world are lawful pleasures, but we come to love them more than we should. We love things more than people, and both things and people more than God. This is all out of order. We are to use things, love people, and worship God. But too often we use people, love things, and forget about God.
There is also the great struggle that many have called the “sin of human respect,” wherein we fear people more than God and seek to please people more than God. As such, we are often willing to do sinful things to ingratiate ourselves to other human beings, fearing and revering them more than we do God.
Fear is complex; it is a necessary passion for us. But too often our fears are misplaced and inordinate. As such, our fears are easily manipulated by Satan and the world.
A major area for spiritual growth is knowing what and whom to fear. Apart from God we will seldom get this answer right. We are easy prey for the devil and the world to draw us into all sorts of inordinate and even foolish fears.
Since a story can often have an impact that mere discourse cannot, I would like to illustrate this teaching with a known but forgotten story.
The story is the basis for two phrases in common use. Most know them but many have never read the story from which they come. The first is “The sky is falling!” and the second is “Chicken Little” (used as a description of a person).
Both these phrases come from the children’s story Chicken Little. It is a story that speaks to the need to be careful about what we fear and what we do NOT fear. For indeed, one of the traps of Satan is to get us to focus on what we ought not fear, or on what is secondary, so that we do not focus on what we should fear, or on what is more important. Aristotle, citing Socrates, said that courage is the virtue of knowing what to fear and what NOT to fear.
Please read this story. It is short and may seem tedious to us modern ADHD folks, but its conclusion is made more powerful by the litany of details. Please take the time to read the story and to share it with your children.
Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head.
It scared her so much she trembled all over.
She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out.
“Help! Help!” she cried. “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king!”
So she ran in great fright to tell the king.
Along the way she met Henny Penny.
“Where are you going, Chicken Little?” Henny Penny asked.
“Oh, help!” Chicken Little cried. “The sky is falling!”
“How do you know?” asked Henny Penny.
“Oh! I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears,
and part of it fell on my head!”
“This is terrible, just terrible!” Henny Penny clucked. “We’d better run.”
So they both ran away as fast as they could. Soon they met Ducky Lucky. “Where are you going, Chicken Little and Henny Penny?” he asked.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We’re going to tell the king!” they cried. “How do you know?” asked Ducky Lucky.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Ducky Lucky quacked. “We’d better run!” So they all ran down the road as fast as they could.
Soon they met Goosey Loosey waddling along the roadside.
“Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and Ducky Lucky,” called Goosey Loosey. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?”
“We’re running for our lives!” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” clucked Henny Penny. “And we’re running to tell the king!” quacked Ducky Lucky.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Goosey Loosey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Goodness!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “Then I’d better run with you.”
And they all ran in a great fright across a meadow. Before long they met Turkey Lurkey strutting back and forth.
“Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey,” he called. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?” “Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little. “We’re running for our lives!” clucked Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “And we’re running to tell the king!” squawked Goosey Loosey.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“Oh dear! I always suspected the sky would fall someday,” Turkey Lurkey gobbled. “I’d better run with you.”
So they all ran with all their might, until they met Foxy Loxy. “Well, well,” said Foxy Loxy. “Where are you rushing on such a fine day?”
“Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. “It’s not a fine day at all. The sky is falling, and we’re running to tell the king!” “How do you know the sky is falling?” said Foxy Loxy.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“I see,” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.”
So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him the sky was falling.
Notice how fearing the wrong thing, and fearing it to excess, blinded them to what was more truly to be feared, what was more truly a threat. And here lies a doorway for the devil, that he should incite us to fear lesser things like unpopularity, poor finances, the loss of worldly trinkets, bad health, the next election, global warming, persecution, and worldly setbacks, so that we do NOT fear Judgment Day and the Heaven OR Hell that is surely closing in on us.
The day of destiny is closing in, but never mind that! The sky is falling: the wrong political party is in power; the planet is overheating; the economy is about to collapse! You might lose your home to a storm; people might not think you are pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. Be afraid; be VERY afraid! Indeed! You don’t have time to pray and ask God to get you ready for Judgment Day because you are too busy being afraid, very afraid, that eating food X may cause cancer, or that people may be laughing at you because of the five or ten pounds you gained last Christmas, or that the Yellowstone Caldera may blow at any time.
I will not tell you that the aforementioned concerns have no merit, only that they have less merit than what most people NEVER think about or fear, namely, where they are going to spend eternity. Chicken Little and her friends were easy prey for Foxy Loxy (Satan) because they were obsessed with lesser things and ignored more dangerous things like the fox.
Yes, “Foxy Loxy” has you worried about smaller and passing things! Now you are easy prey. It will take but a moment for him to lead you astray and have you for dinner!
Make sure you fear the right thing. God has a plan to simplify our lives. We are to fear Him and be sober about getting ready, with His help, for the certain-to-come Day of Judgment. And if we fear Him we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else.
Fr. Robert Barron has observed that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are insurance buildings. Fear “looms large” in our culture. But no insurance company can insure you for the only certain threat you face: Judgment Day. Only God can do that.
The sky may or may not be falling. (Personally, I doubt 80% of the media’s fear-mongering.) But Judgment Day surely IS looming. Foxy Loxy is waiting for you. Will he get you? Will your fear of the Lord help you to avoid falling into Foxy Loxy’s deceptions?
Courage is fearing the right thing and the right ONE.
The readings from today’s Mass speak to us of our desperate condition and how God’s abiding love has not only set us free but also lifted us higher. God was not content to restore us to some earthly garden, paradise though it was. No, He so loved the world that He sent His Son, who opened Heaven itself for us and has given us a new, transformed, and eternal life.
Let’s look at some of the themes and ponder how God demonstrates His ardent love for us and persistently works to lift us higher. If there is any problem it is from us, not God.
I. Problems – In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’’s temple.
And thus we see our repeated infidelity, worldliness, and impurity. It is not as though we have had just a few bad moments; we have been persistent and consistent in our sinfulness. The cup of human wickedness never seems drained. This is what God has been dealing with in the long and often sad tale of human history.
Are there good chapters? Sure.
But any honest look at human history will also reveal that there is something deeply flawed in human nature. We are living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Thrice fallen! This is our condition and this is what God is dealing with.
But God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
II. Prophets – Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.
God’s first recourse is to call us through the prophets and through His Word. Like any loving Father, He does not seek merely to punish, but to instruct. Perhaps we will hear and mend our ways.
Have we? Is the presence of God’s Word among us a saving remedy? Again, the answer is mixed, but in general, poor.
To some extent Jesus’ call to love has led to greater healing in this world. The light of faith, which once informed the Western world, gave birth to hospitals, greater love for the poor, greater respect for the dignity of the human person, the university system, and the scientific method. The barbarians of ancient Europe were given faith, and many found unity in the bosom of the Church, in more stable governments, and in respect for just law.
But it also remains true that too much of human history, even in the Christian era, is marked by violence, war, lack of forgiveness, injustice, unchastity, and a lack of commitment to the truth of the Gospel.
Yet God continues to send His prophets in and through the Church. Can the world really say that John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI have not been prophets? How about Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, Fulton Sheen, C.S. Lewis, and countless others?
In all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
III. Punishments – Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
Punishment is not God’s way of venting anger; He is not seeking vengeance.
The purpose of punishment is to allow us to experience the effects of our sins in smaller ways so that something worse does not befall us. And thus the ancient Babylonians afflicted Israel, and God punished and purified His people.
God may well permit great suffering to come upon us, not to vent His anger but rather to summon us to repentance, lest something worse befall us, namely the eternal fires of Hell.
But, truth be told, we humans are a difficult case. Any look at the decline of the West would make one think we’d have come to our senses by now. Our families are ruined, our birthrates have plummeted, our educational system is in steep decline, our economies are out of control, we have debts we cannot pay, and we seem incapable of chastity or of making commitments and keeping them. Yet still we stubbornly persist in our path away from God and the gospel of truth and freedom.
Will we recover our senses or will we vanish like empires before us? That remains to be seen. But the Church will persist, and though punished and pruned, she will endure.
For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
IV. Purpose – All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”
Sin causes damage and that damage must be repaired. We must come to understand that sin is not just the breaking of abstract rules; it causes real harm.
The Christian term “reparation” refers to the repair that must be made for the damage that sin causes. The verse used here in today’s reading talks about healing the breach caused by sin.
Thus while God never withholds His love, He must journey well out onto the wayward paths we have taken in order to lead us back. This a work of God’s, not just a wave of the hand, not just a legal declaration.
We have done more than disobey a legal precept; we have strayed far away and a journey of reparation must be made. The Lord Himself will shepherd us back!
For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
V. Persevering – (from the Gospel) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
And thus is fulfilled the great and passionate love God has for us. For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
His own Son comes to find us in our wayward places and leads us back.
For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
VI. Promotion – (from the Epistle) God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ—for by grace you have been saved—raised us up with him.
And thus is our redeemed state even greater than our original justice. We have been raised up with Christ. Grace has brought us higher than we ever were before.
Now no mere earthly garden is granted, but Heaven itself.
For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.
VII. Peril – (from the Gospel) – Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
Many who love to quote John 3:16 (God so loved the world …) stop before the lines above. Yet they are critically important to the passage since they remind us of the necessity for us to welcome the saving love of God.
God has done everything to help us and to summon us to Him. But He does not force the deal. He stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20). He does not barge in; we must open.
But some do not open! Why? Because they prefer the darkness to the Light. To them, the Light is harsh and convicting. It exposes their deeds for what they are: wicked, sinful, unjust, and wrong. Pride and obstinacy keeps many from answering God’s call. They reject the saving love He offers and the many ways he Has reached out to them.
Here, then, is the peril of human choice. God offers, but some reject Him, preferring sin and darkness. God permits this rejection because He wants our love offered freely. Love cannot be forced, it must be given freely. That there is a peril is on our side, not God’s. God wants to save us and lift us higher. The peril is that many prefer wickedness, darkness, and earthly pleasures. They would prefer to “reign” (they will not) in Hell rather than serve in Heaven. The peril comes from us, form our obtuse hearts. It is not from God.
For those of us who do open, God’s love is ready to lift us higher. He offers us eternal life, the fullness of a life that grows richer from year to year until it opens to one so full and beautiful that eye has not seen nor has ear heard of the glories waiting for us (cf 1 Cor 2:9). Praise God! Rejoice!
OK, I know this song isn’t religious, but transpose it to a higher key, the way the Song of Songs does the Bible. Consider these lyrics as referring to the Lord and how His love quenches all our desires and lifts us higher:
Your love, is liftin’ me higher
Than I’ve ever been lifted before
So keep it up, quench my desire
And I’ll be at your side forevermore.
Now once I was downhearted
Disappointment was my closest friend
But then you came and he soon departed
And you know he never showed his face again
That’s why your love … is liftin’ me, higher, and higher…
I’m so glad I finally found you
Yes, that one in a million
And with your loving arms around me
I can stand up and face the world
There was a powerful description given by Pope Emeritus Benedict to describe the modern stance of a world that has abandoned any notion of objective truth to which it is accountable. The phrase he used was “the tyranny of relativism.”
In effect, the expression describes what happens when there is no standard outside ourselves to which reasonable people can and should appeal in order to square their views or opinions. In such a setting, appeals to reason and agreed-upon standards cannot hold the day and resolve disputes.
Who “wins”? Whose view prevails? The sad answer is that those with the most money, power, or access win. It is power that wins, not reason or truth. Those with the greatest physical power or access, those who have the money to influence, they are the ones who “win” the day. Truth is set aside in favor of force, power, money, or access. The one who can shout the loudest, be the most politically organized, and who has the right friends in the right places wins.
This is tyranny because it is about power and the ability to force the issue. The truth is of lesser or no importance.
The video below shows, in a humorous way, the manner in which the truth can be resisted and error and lies forced upon us. It demonstrates well that the problem of the tyranny of relativism lies not only with the man of power but also with the weaker “victim” of his power, who refuses to insist on what is right, instead ceding acre after acre of territory.
In the video, Darth Vader has been enlisted to record his voice for a GPS navigation system. Quite frequently he does not speak the correct phrase. After meager attempts to correct him, the sound engineer just caves in. Perhaps a little compromise about what is right, a little patience, will convince Darth of the correct way. It does not; Vader just becomes more obnoxious and egocentric. The message is that “playing nice” and compromising about what is right only creates more problems and a deeper darkness. The compromise with tyranny brings only greater tyranny and ultimately deadly resistance to what is right.
Consider a few stages and techniques displayed in the video.
1. Kindness offered but rejected - The sound engineer (SE) welcomes Darth Vader (DV) and inquires as to his needs, offering basic kindness and concern for his well-being. Of itself, this is good, necessary, and required for a Christian, and is to be commended. But DV rebuffs the SE’s offer with a certain rudeness.
For those of us in the Church who seek to address an increasingly hostile world, kindness is essential as an opening stance. But we must be sober when our kindness is rebuffed. The world often sees kindness as a sign of weakness. This does not mean that we should be unkind, only that we should be sober in assessing the stance of the many who reject, even ridicule, our kindness and mistake it for weakness. We must balance kindness with clarity.
2. Correction without perseverance - DV misspeaks the sentence in his very first take. The SE tries to correct him, but DV simply denies he has made any mistake.
And this, too, is a common tendency in our modern setting wherein many simply refuse to admit that what they have done is wrong. It is common for many who live sinful lives to insist, like DV, that they are doing nothing wrong.
But it is also important to note that the SE chooses not to insist on pointing out DV’s error and correcting it. Instead he just shrugs and accepts DV’s insolence. This, of course, will only ensure that things get worse. Too many clergy and parents have had this attitude in recent decades. As a result, behavior and respect for the truth have only gotten worse. Without correction, confusion increases.
3. Redefining terms - Note that DV does not really argue about what the correct word is (he says, “turn round” when he should say, “turn right”). Instead, he insists that what he said is the right word.
Many today redefine or water down the meaning of terms so that they can insist that what they have said or done is what is required. For example, love is redefined or equated merely with affirming and supporting, but is never associated with correction or with insisting upon what is true and best even if it is hard. The same is true of the word mercy. Many people think they can go on forever doing what they please and in the end, God, who is love and has mercy, will overlook what they have done and save them. Further, those who speak of limits and insist on what is right are called unloving, hateful, unmerciful, etc.
Just as DV insists that his phrase “turn round” is the same as “turn right,” many today misuse words or insist that there is no difference. For example, many today would redefine marriage to mean almost anything. And then when the Church (like the SE) tells them that they are using the wrong word (“marriage”) to describe homosexual liaisons, they stubbornly and irrationally say, in effect, “Oh no I didn’t.” Thus, like DV, those who absurdly misuse the word “marriage” to describe homosexual liaisons greet any objection with a simple denial that the word used is wrong.
4. Caving - Sadly, after several attempts to correct DV, the SE simply gives up and puts a positive spin on what is still wrong, saying, “OK, let’s just go forward!” But this is NOT going forward. It is caving in to error. And this is something too many Christians are willing to do today. We just cave in, thinking that somehow this will enable us to “go forward,” to find peace in overlooking and compromise. It will not. Things will only get worse.
5. Suggestion replaces clear direction - At one point the SE asks DV, “Is there any way you could breathe a little quieter?” What should be a clear instruction from the SE comes across as a feeble “suggestion,” or mere wish.
This is sadly emblematic of the modern Church setting wherein too many preachers are not clear. Instead, they use a tone that is merely suggestive rather than confidently instructive. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? Who will muster for battle?
6. God made me this way! - Of course DV objects to the suggestion and takes offense, stating that this is just the way he breathes (i.e., this is just the way God made him)!
How common it is today for people to make excuses for their behavior, saying that “God made me this way,” or that someone else is to blame (“My mother dropped me on my head when I was two”).
Of course no one denies that we all come into this world with certain gifts and struggles, certain proclivities, and certain deficits. But we are still called to moral uprightness regardless of the nature of our temptations and struggles, whatever the cards we were dealt. No one playing a card game can reasonably say, “I don’t like the cards I got so I’m changing the rules.” But this is common today. Blaming God or others does not excuse us or entitle us to live by a different set of rules.
7. The soft bigotry of low expectations - Sadly, the SE accepts DV’s protests and enters the booth to rework the equipment. DV cannot meet the standard so the standard must change.
Welcome to modern education and moral theory. Since certain people cannot meet the standard, they get a different standard, a lower standard, a fake standard.
In the end they are not helped by this even if they are made to “feel better.” It is actually the worst form of discrimination to conclude that someone is too pathetic to meet the standard. It is also destructive of human potential and progress.
8. Ineffective instruction leads to incorrigibility - To be incorrigible means to be stubbornly resistant to correction. And thus despite all the doting, all the suggestions, all the attempts to compromise, DV doesn’t get better. In fact he just gets worse. In the end he becomes violently non-compliant.
Welcome to the tyrannical world of modern relativism and suggestive moral leadership. Without clear teaching and an insistence on what is right, darkness and stubbornness grow and the end is even violent. The rise in juvenile delinquency cannot be separated from the uncertain pedagogy of the modern scene. In the end we are left with too many young people who will not be told what to do, who are incorrigible. Many adults, too, have been poorly instructed by the Church. They have not become more amenable because we tried to be “understanding.” Rather, they have become hardened in their sin and are often beyond correction.
The tyranny of relativism. This is a heavy topic, but it is humorously illustrated in the video. Enjoy!
One of the fixtures of larger parish churches prior to the last century was the singing of Vespers (evening prayer) on Sunday afternoons. Prior to the 1950s, Masses were not permitted to be celebrated after 12:00 noon and thus the concept of a Sunday (or Saturday) evening Mass was unknown. Some very beautiful music, indeed some of the greatest music of the Church, was composed for Sunday Vespers. Best known is the 1610 Vespers of Claudio Monteverdi (Vespro della Beata Vergine). Monteverdi (a Catholic priest and composer) also composed the Vespers settings found in the 1641 Selva Morale e Spirituale (a personal favorite of mine). Mozart, Vivaldi, and others also composed magnificent choral settings of the Vespers. The Liber Usualis (the collected Gregorian Chants of the Roman Church) also contains a setting of the Sunday Vespers to be chanted according to that ancient mode.
Including this in my “Lost Liturgies File” does not mean that Solemn Vespers is never celebrated anymore, just that it is rare. One should expect that in every diocese, in at least one major church (often the Cathedral), Solemn Vespers would be sung. Here in Washington, the singing of Solemn Vespers (usually chanted) takes place at St. Thomas Apostle Church each Sunday afternoon. In my own parish, we recently celebrated Solemn Vespers with Monteverdi’s full 1610 Vespers musical setting. It was a grand evening of worship; you can watch the video below and look through some pictures I took. Fr. James Bradley (who lives here) and two Dominicans were the officiants.
Since the antiphons for the new Office have never been fully developed, those who do sing Solemn Vespers generally use the old Office. The basic structure is as follows:
1. The devotional recitation of the Our Father and Hail Mary
2. The Incipit: “God come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”
3. The Glory Be
4. Psalm 190 (110) Dixit Dominus (The Lord said to my lord)
5. Psalm 110 (111) Confitebor tibi (I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart)
6. Psalm 111 (112) Beatus Vir (Blessed is the man who fears the Lord)
7. Psalm 112 (113) Laudate pueri (Praise O children of the Lord, praise the Name of the Lord)
8. Psalm 113 (114) In Exitu Israel (When Israel went forth from Egypt)
9. Hymn Lucis Creator (Glorious Creator of the Light)
10. Incensing of the Altar and the Magnificat
11. Concluding acclamations (these vary by season)
12. Blessing: May the Divine assistance remain always with us.
Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament may also follow.
Usually there is a celebrant (always a priest) and two assistants (ideally deacons or seminarians of some rank); all three wear copes. There is also a bevy of servers with varying functions such as thurifer, torchbearer, or master of ceremonies. Depending on the musical settings used, Solemn Vespers can be sung in twenty minutes or may last nearly two hours!
If the length astonishes you, recall that prior to the modern age few distractions or amusements of a secular nature were available. People enjoyed the splendor of Church services and in large city parishes highly skilled choirs were able to worship the Lord with soaring glory and beauty. Indeed, so splendid was the music at times that bishops and even popes had to remind the faithful that God was the point, not the music!
In our day football, shopping malls, movies, and entertainment vie for the attention of the faithful on Sunday afternoons. Appreciation for the intricate beauty of polyphony and the glory of baroque music has waned. But for those whose tastes have been lifted (I would argue) to higher and more subtle things, the glory of solemn Vespers chanted, sung with polyphony, or shouted with baroque glory is hard to beat; it is surely better than football because God is our true goal not some earthly end zone!
If you live in Washington, consider coming to St. Thomas Apostle on Sunday afternoons.
In addition, this Sunday, the Institute of Catholic Culture will celebrate Solemn Vespers in Leesburg, Virginia. Here is the flyer (click for larger view):
Below is the video of the Monteverdi Vespers at my parish last month (celebrated liturgically). Some of the video is live footage; some of it features photo cutaways. Since the video is quite long, you might want to consider skipping around and sampling different aspects.
Yesterday we discussed the intolerance of the very radicals who are forever calling for tolerance. A couple of people wrote in to indicate that they consider my stance duplicitous, since I likely support Archbishop Cordeleone’s stance requiring Catholic School teachers to demonstrate loyalty to Catholic teachings and promise not to teach to the contrary in Catholic schools. I do in fact support the good Archbishop. But I do not accept the charge of duplicity.
Why? Because, as I hope to teach, tolerance is a virtue, but it is not an absolute virtue. Too many “debates” in our culture hinge on an absolutizing of what is said. Tolerance has limits. In addition, context is important.
Regarding context, I would tolerate certain topics being discussed among adults that I would not tolerate being discussed in the presence of children. I am going to be more tolerant of a dissenter from Catholic teaching speaking in the local park or debate hall than I would be of a Catholic priest dissenting in the pulpit of a Catholic Church.
There are certain contexts in which debate and disagreement are more expected and tolerated than in others. Catholic parents pay a lot of money to send their children to Catholic schools, where they reasonably expect the faith to be handed on, defended, or at the very least not openly opposed. Bishops have a right and duty to meet this expectation and to protect minors from error and dissent. I am more tolerant of even a Catholic university allowing the spirited discussion of various ideas, but I certainly think that at a Catholic university, Catholic answers would at least be vigorously presented (and surely not suppressed as we saw in yesterday’s article). So context matters in terms of how we understand the limits of tolerance.
Second, when tolerance IS extended, we can reasonably protest if certain groups are favored over others. It is one thing to say that certain groups or activities should be tolerated legally or otherwise. But then to declare that opposing groups have no right to the same tolerance or to voice their disagreement in the same matter is unjust. Many people today mistake “tolerance” to mean approval, tacit agreement, or at least feigned indifference. This is a misunderstanding.
Permit me some further thoughts on the issue of tolerance in order to address this misunderstanding. This post is not intended as a systematic treatise on tolerance. Rather, these are just some thoughts on a “virtue” that has too often become detached from reason and justice.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines tolerance and toleration this way:
Toleration—from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance, or suffer—generally refers to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions, or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained. 
It goes on to make a distinction that is often lost today:
[I]t is essential for the concept of toleration that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad. If this objection component (cf. King 1976, 44-54) is missing, we do not speak of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.” 
In other words, by definition, tolerance involves putting up with something we consider wrong or displeasing but not so wrong that we must move to constrain it. Tolerance does NOT imply that we approve of the tolerated thing as something that is good. This essential point is glossed over by those who demand that tolerance mean approval, and insist that disapproving of something makes one “intolerant.”
Of itself, tolerance is a good and necessary thing. But like most good things, it has its limits. As a good thing, tolerance is essential in an imperfect world. Without tolerance we might go to war over simple human imperfections. We all have friends and family members whom we like, but who also have annoying or less desirable traits (as do all human beings). Without tolerance we would be locked in a fruitless attempt to re-make each person so as to be “perfect” to us. We tolerate people’s less desirable aspects for loftier purposes such as harmony, friendship, respect, mercy, and kindness.
However, there are limits to tolerance. There are just some things in human relationships that are “deal breakers.” There are things that cannot be tolerated. For example, serious and persistent lies breach the trust necessary for relationships and such behavior is not reasonably tolerated. Behavior that endangers one or both parties (either physically or spiritually) ought not be tolerated and often makes it necessary to end relationships or at least to establish firm boundaries.
In wider society tolerance is also necessary and good but has its limits. For example, we appreciate the freedom to come and go as we please and it is good to tolerate the comings and goings of others. This is true even if some of the places they go (e.g., a brothel) do not please us or win our approval. Without this general tolerance of movement, things would literally grind to a halt. But for the sake of the value of coming and going freely, we put up with its less desirable aspects.
However this tolerance has its limits. We do not permit people to drive on sidewalks, run red lights, or drive on the wrong side of the street. Neither do we permit breaking and entering or the violation of legitimate property rights. We also restrict unaccompanied minors from certain establishments. In effect, every just law enshrines some limit to tolerance. Conservatives and liberals debate what limits the law should enshrine, but both sides want civil law to set some limits. Even libertarians, while wanting less law in general, see a role for some laws and limits; they are not anarchists.
So, toleration is a good and necessary thing but it has its limits. Our modern struggle with the issue of tolerance seems to be twofold:
- The common understanding of tolerance, as we have discussed, is flawed. Many people equate tolerance with approval, and call disapproval “intolerance.” But, as we have seen, without some degree of disapproval, tolerance is not possible.
- The second problem centers around the limits of tolerance. In our modern world we are being asked to tolerate increasingly troublesome behavior. A lot of this behavior involves sexual matters. Proponents of sexual promiscuity demand increasing tolerance for it despite the fact that such behavior leads to disease, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single-parent families, sexual temptation, divorce, and all the ills that go with a declining family structure. Abortion proponents also demand tolerance of what they advocate, despite the fact that this behavior results in the death of an innocent human being. Many people of faith think that the limits of tolerance have been transgressed in matters such as these.
Rapprochement? The debate about tolerance and its limits is not a new one, but it seems more intense today when there no longer appears to be a shared moral vision. Perhaps we cannot as easily define the limits of tolerance today. But one way forward might be to return to a proper definition of tolerance. Perhaps if we stop (incorrectly) equating tolerance with approval, a greater respect will be instilled in these debates. To ask for tolerance is not always wrong, but to demand approval is.
Consider the debate over homosexual activity. Many people of faith, at least those who hold to a more strictly biblical view, believe homosexual behavior to be wrong. The same can be said for illicit heterosexual behavior such as fornication, adultery, polygamy, and incest. But on account of our disapproval of homosexual behavior we are often called “intolerant” (and many other things as well such as homophobic, bigoted, and hateful).
But tolerance is really not the issue. Most Christians are willing to tolerate the fact the people “do things in their bedrooms” of which we disapprove. As long as we are not directly confronted with private behavior and told to approve of it, we are generally willing to stay out of people’s private lives. But what has happened in modern times is that approval is demanded for behavior we find objectionable. And when we cannot supply such approval we are called intolerant. This is a misuse of the term.
Further, what if our objections do not simply emerge from bigotry (as some claim) but rather from a principled, biblical stance? Our disapproval does not, ipso facto, make us bigots. Neither does it mean we are intolerant or that we seek to force an end to behavior we do not consider good. Very few Christians I have ever heard from are asking for police to patrol the streets, enter bedrooms, and make arrests.
We are not intolerant; we simply do not approve of homosexual activity. And, according to the proper definition of tolerance, it is the very fact of our disapproval that permits us to show tolerance. Perhaps such a consideration might instill greater respect and less name-calling in these debates.
As an aside, Gay “marriage” is a more complicated matter since it involves existing law and a demanded change in that law by proponents of so-called “gay marriage.” Most traditional Christians see a limit to tolerance here since we believe that God defined and established marriage as described in Genesis. Hence we cannot support attempts to substitute a human redefinition of something we believe was instituted by God.
Finally, I offer a thought as to who really “owns” tolerance. Opponents of traditional Christians often claim the high ground of tolerance for themselves. But the paradoxical result of this “holier-than-thou” attitude is an increasing intolerance of Christian faith by the self-claimed tolerant ones. Legal restrictions of the proclamation of the Christian faith in the public square are increasing. Financial exclusion of Catholic charities from government money used in serving the poor is becoming more common as well. In other parts of the world where free speech is less enshrined, Catholic priests and bishops are being sued and even arrested for “hate speech” because they preach traditional biblical morality. None of this sounds very “tolerant.”
Our opponents need not approve of our beliefs but they ought to exhibit greater tolerance of us, the same tolerance they ask from us.
Please add your thoughts to this discussion.
In their zeal to protect students from any comments or opinions that may hurt their feelings, many professors [in this case at Marquette University] have created “safe spaces” in their classrooms—controlling all conversations in an effort to ensure that no one is ever offended …[Professor Cheryl Abbate] made it clear that the classroom was not a [place for students doubting] the value of same-sex “marriage.” Such conversations had to be held in secret so as not to offend others … One student in the class decided to pursue this issue with Abbate after class … The student said: “I have to be completely honest with you, I don’t agree with gay marriage …” Professor Abbate replied: “Ok, there are some opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful.”
When the student replied: “If I choose to challenge this, it’s my right as an American citizen,” Abbate responded: “Well, actually you don’t have a right in this class … to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments … I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.”
In the “safe space” Abbate has created, homosexual students have the right not to be offended … But, where does that leave faithful Catholic students? Is there a safe space for them? … For Abbate, it is uncontroversial to have a safe-space policy that is only safe for those who agree with her about the value of same-sex “marriage.”
In December, Marquette relieved Professor John McAdams of his teaching and other faculty duties for blogging about the Abbate incident. According to McAdams, the student involved in the confrontation with Abbate talked with him about the incident, and McAdams took to his blog, Marquette Warrior, [N.B. Professor Abbate] had also written of the incident on her blog but was not disciplined for bringing the matter to light … [The full article is here: Crisis Magazine online: Catholicism is Considered Unsafe at Marquette]
Welcome to “tolerance” as defined by secular radicals. In their lexicon, “tolerance” is “your right, actually, your obligation to agree with me.” “Live and let live” means, “you have the right to live only where I say and under the terms I set.” “Bigotry” applies only those speaking out against the classes they say are oppressed. “Phobes” (as in homophobes) are those who oppose their agenda. “Hate” only exists against the classes they say are “protected” and that they have defined as “oppressed.” Apparently, it is not possible for religious or social conservatives to be the object of hate, since hate only comes from social conservatives. Or so it would seem from their behavior and policies. And very few will question them on this due to the support of secular media and to the pressure to be politically correct.
Pope Benedict spoke frequently of the “tyranny of relativism.” Essentially, this means that when a culture decides there is no fundamental basis of truth (whether from Scripture or Natural Law), the result is that there is no real basis for discussion or resolution of issues. Thus, who “wins the day” is based not on reason but on who shouts the loudest and/or who has the most power, money, or political influence.
In a relativistic world, the way forward is not to appeal to reason by reference to Natural Law (in philosophy), or to constitutional principles (in political discourse), or to Scripture and Tradition (in theology). Rather, the way forward is to gain power and to implement an agenda that excludes all opposing views.
Farewell to reason rooted in agreed-upon principles; hello to tyranny rooted simply in opinion and power.
Revolutions that ride in on the train of “freedom” more frequently usher in a reign of terror, as those who claim to be oppressed, suppressed, and repressed take up their new power and then themselves turn to oppression, suppression, and repression of any whom they consider to be on the “wrong” side of the issues.
Expect more of this “tolerance” from social radicals. The tyranny of relativism has ushered in a very poisonous and dangerous climate, one that has little room for any true discussion or tolerance. And remember, what social radicals mean by tolerance has nothing to do with tolerating you … unless of course you belong to a class or group they favor.
It will require greater and greater courage from those of us who still think of truth as something higher than ourselves. And if you think that is an exaggeration, just try to point to Natural Law, the Constitution, or (gadzooks) Scripture, and brace yourself for the immediate scorn that will be heaped upon you. And never mind that Marquette is (theoretically) a Catholic college, where one might expect Catholic teaching to at least be explained and allowed a place at the table. The radicals have no fear of this and, sadly, have made such inroads that they operate without hindrance even at many (though not all) Catholic colleges.
The proud reference to what some call tolerance is nothing of the sort. Be sure, dear reader, that if you are a Catholic who accepts the teaching of the Catechism on homosexual acts, marriage, and many other critical moral issues, their notion of tolerance does not include you.
A heavy post needs a little levity to balance things out. Enjoy this video of Christian humorist Tim Hawkins that brings to mind another display of selective tolerance from a couple of years ago.
In the modern world, the word “piety” has come to be associated with being religious. And while it does have religious application, its original meaning was far wider and richer. The English word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, which spoke of family love and by extension love for one’s ancestors, one’s country, and surely God. Cicero defined pietas as the virtue “which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.”
For the ancient Romans, piety was one of the highest virtues since it knit families and ultimately all society together in love, loyalty, and shared, reciprocal duty. Piety also roots us in our past and gives proper reverence to our ancestors.
I hope you can see how essential piety is and why, if we do not recapture it more fully in the modern world, our culture is likely doomed. Piety is like a glue that holds us together. Without its precious effects, we fall apart into factions, our families dissolve, and the “weave” of our culture tears and gives way to dry rot.
A few years ago over at the Catholic Education Resource Center, Donald Demarco (a professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT) wrote some helpful reflections on piety. I’d like to share some excerpts; the full article is available HERE.
“Piety,” said Cicero, “is justice toward the gods,” and “the foundation of all virtues.” By extension, piety is the just recognition of all we owe to our ancestors. [Thus], the basis of piety is the sober realization that we owe our existence and our substance to powers beyond ourselves. We are social, communal beings. We are not islands; we are part of the mainland …
“Greatness” is never a purely individual accomplishment. Its roots are always in others and in times past … Our beginning coincides with a debt. Piety requires us to be grateful to those who begot us. It also evokes in us a duty to give what we have so that we can give to our descendents as our ancestors gave to us. [And] Piety, by honoring what poured out from the past to become our own living substance, enlarges and enriches us. It disposes us to give thanks and to live in such a manner that we ourselves may one day become worthy objects for the thanks of others.
Piety was a favorite virtue of Socrates. Far from considering himself a self-made man … [he] gave full credit for whatever civility he enjoyed to those who preceded him. Ralph Waldo Emerson, by contrast, America’s head cheerleader for the man of self-reliance, spoke of “the sovereign individual, free, self-reliant, and alone in his greatness.” Emerson’s belief in the “greatness” of the individual is a dangerous illusion. It is a presumption that naturally leads to pride.
The great enemy of piety is individualism. Individualism is the illusion that we are somehow self-made, self-reliant, and self-sufficient. It is essentially an anti-social form of thinking that belongs to Nietzsche, Rousseau, Sartre, and Ayn Rand rather than to Socrates, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution.
The soul of individualism is unfettered choice. Abortion, for example, is presumed to be a private affair. Magically, as its advocates allege, it affects neither the child, its father, the family, nor society … “Individuality” is the result of a fall from grace. Adam and Eve behaved as persons until sin reduced them to individuals. As individuals, they began lusting after each other. The aprons of fig leaves they fashioned indicated that they were profoundly ashamed of their new identities as self-centered and self-absorbed individuals.
Yes, individualism leaves us largely closed in ourselves and pathetically self-conscious.
So many of our struggles in this modern era center on a loss of piety, a loss of love and duty owed to our families, community, Church, and nation. Our families and our duties to them and the wider community are sacrificed on the “altar” of self-love and self-aggrandizement. Acceptance of widespread divorce and cohabitation stab at the heart of families ties and family loyalty. We indulge our sexual passions and selfishly cling to our supposed right to be happy, at the high cost of a devastated family structure, and a heavily burdened community. Church and nation are somehow supposed to carry the weight of our imprudent and selfish choices. We speak incessantly of rights but almost never of duties. Love of me and what I “owe myself” are alive and well, but love and duty toward family, Church, community, and nation have grown cold. “I gotta be me” results in many very small and competing worlds.
Further, our modern and post-Cartesian era is mired in a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” That is to say, we have significantly cut our ties with the past. Our ancestors and antiquity have little to say to us since we have closed our eyes and ears to them. The “Democracy of the Dead,” as Chesterton called tradition, has been cut off by the “Berlin Wall” of modern pride. Our love and respect for our ancestors and the duty we have to honor their wisdom is, to a large extent, gone. We see ourselves as having “come of age” and are arrogantly dismissive of past ages. As such, our continuity with our ancestors and with the wisdom they accumulated is ruptured and our mistakes are both predictable and often downright silly. As we indulge our passions and are largely lacking in self-control, we who pride ourselves as having “come of age” look more like silly, immature teenagers than the technical titans we boast of being. It is one thing to go to the moon, but another to wisely accept the need to learn from the past.
Some like to emphasize the errors of the past (such as slavery) in order to dismiss it. But this misses the point that we learn not only from the good things of the past but also from the errors. I learned as much from my parents’ struggles as from their strengths. We do not honor our ancestors because they were perfect. Rather, we honor the collected wisdom they have handed on to us, some of which was discovered in the cauldron of struggle and sin.
Finally, the loss of piety also means the significant loss of learning. Without respecting and honoring our parents, teachers, and ancestors, there can be no learning. If I do not respect you I cannot learn from you. It is no surprise that in our current American culture, which often celebrates youthful rebellion, learning, tradition, and faith are in grave crisis. Teachers in classrooms spend so much time maintaining discipline that there is little left for learning. Parents, whose children are often taught by popular music and television that adults are “stupid” and “out-of-touch,” give little thought to dismissing their parents’ wisdom. Where there is no respect there can be no learning.
It is no surprise that the opening commandment of the second tablet of the Law is “Honor your Father and your Mother that you may have long life in the land.” For God knows well that if a generation lacks piety, it severs itself not only from worldly tradition but also from Sacred Tradition. Without reverence, without piety, there is no learning and there is no faith. We are cut off from the glorious wisdom that God entrusted to our ancestors. It is no wonder that, in these largely impious and individualistic times, faith is considered irrelevant to many and our churches are increasingly empty.
Pray for piety. Pray for the gift of strong and abiding love for family, Church, community, and nation. Pray, too, for a deep love and respect for our ancestors, stretching back into antiquity. We owe a great debt to our family, nation, Church, and ancestors. They have much to teach us, not only by their strengths but also by their struggles. Scripture says, Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7).
This song is rooted in Hebrews 12:1-3 and the opening lines say, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord! We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call.” The photos in this video are from the clerestory walls of my own parish, showing the saints in the “cloud of witnesses.”
The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent in the Extraordinary Form features the puzzling parable about the cast-out demon who returns with seven other demons. What is most puzzling is that finding the house (soul) “swept and clean” brings further trouble. One would think a house that is swept and clean is a good thing.
How can we understand this parable? As is often the case, recourse to both the subtleties of the Greek text and the context can help us.
For reference, here is the parable:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through waterless places in search of rest; and finding none, he says, “I will return to my house which I left.” And when he has come to it, he finds the place swept and clean. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse that the first (Lk 11:24-25).
Again, a house swept and clean seems like a good thing, one that would discourage a demon from coming back rather than to return with a coven of fellow demons!
1. Let’s consider first of all the Greek text.
A puzzling aspect of looking to the Greek text is that what some Greek texts describe with three adjectives, almost every English translation renders with only two. Why is this? Because some of the Greek manuscripts lack the third word, which translates as “empty.”
I am a pastor, and while I can read the Greek text of the New Testament with relative ease, I am not an expert in the ancient Greek or in the relative value of differing Greek manuscripts. The translation “swept and clean” or “swept and ordered” is almost universal among English renderings of this text. See HERE for an example.
However, to my mind, the inclusion of “empty” is essential, otherwise something very important is left out. Let’s look at the Greek description of the “house” (i.e., soul) to which the demon returns:
καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα, σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον
Kai elthon heuriskei scholazonta, sesarōmenon kai kekosmēmenon
And having come it finds (it) empty, swept, and put in order (ornate)
That the house (soul) is empty is its chief problem. Empty things need filling. Sadly, if good things do not fill empty spaces, evil things do. And this seems to be at the heart of the Lord’s warning.
A second issue is the translation of the word “kekosmēmenon.” Does “ordered,” or “put in order” really capture what the word is trying to convey? Most of us hear the word “order” and think of either systematic or moral order.
However, the Greek lexicon defines the root of kekosmēmenon, kosméō, as “to beautify, having the right arrangement (sequence) by ordering; to adorn, make compellingly attractive, very appealing(inviting, awesomely gorgeous).” It is the root of the English word “cosmetics,” things that adorn or “order” the face.
Thus, the “order” described here is more an order related to beauty. Hence the translation “ornate” may better capture what is meant by this word than either “clean” or “orderly.” So as we read this parable, we should consider that the description of the house as “swept and clean” may lack the subtlety of the Greek words. And while it is also true we should be wary of etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosemo = cosmetics = ornate, rather than merely “ordered”) ought not be wholly forsaken!
With these in mind, let’s consider the more rich possibility that the Lord describes the “house” (an image for the soul) in three ways:
1. Empty - This is the key description that some ancient manuscripts omit. And yet it is the main problem. An empty house is a vulnerable house. An empty house, devoid of human presence, can no longer repel threats or repair damage that make it vulnerable. But more significantly from the standpoint of grace, an empty house, devoid of the presence of God, is a vacuum ready to be filled with demons and every form of human sin, pride, and confusion.
Empty buildings are vulnerable, open to attack by termites, extreme weather, mold, rodents, and every other kind of threat. As an uncultivated field goes to weed, so an unattended house slides into decline and decay. So, too, goes the empty human soul, a soul devoid of the presence of God or of gratitude to Him and openness to His satisfying presence.
Yes, here is the spiritual lesson: let the Lord and the good things of the Kingdom of God fill every void, every empty space! Emptiness is too easily filled with many evil things!
Consider a man who gives up alcohol for Lent. He does well, ending a lawful pleasure and making greater room for God. But what if God, or something of God, does not fill the space? Usually something of the devil, or something of the flesh, will fill it. Perhaps he will think, “I am approved because I, by my own power, have given this up.” But sadly, pride fills the empty space, not God. This gets ugly and the man’s second state is worse than before he gave up the lawful pleasure!
2. Swept - It is good if a person has, by God’s grace, been able to sweep sin from his life. But praise be to the Lord, not to the man or woman! Otherwise this is an open door for pride. Perhaps the sinner who succeeds in a Lentan observance will say, “Look what I have done! I am approved and better than others who are less committed!” And thus grace is snatched by Satan. The house (soul) swept and in good order must also be filled with humble gratitude to God. Thus the Lord warns of a house that is “swept,” but empty of humility and gratitude. For then ugly pride fills the gap and the second state of the man will be worse than the the first.
3. Ornate - While some translate this as “ordered,” it would seem that, given the context, ornate would be a better rendering as we saw above. Hence we are warned to beware vanity and also of esteeming beauty more than charity. The warning is for those who, though they appreciate beauty, become smug and disdainful of all others who do not share their aesthetic preferences.
Thus a connoisseur of fine wine may scoff at people who enjoy wine sold in a box (“cow”) or who like White Zinfandel. And God forbid that they might like beer instead! In this way, an appreciation for the finer things like wine becomes pride and leads to the last state of the man being worse than the first.
Beauty and the appreciation of it has its place, but if it cancels charity, the last state of the man is worse than the first.
One may appreciate the beauty of the Latin Mass, but if love for the aesthetic causes one to scorn a priest who forgets to bow at the Gloria Patri or who wears gothic vestments instead of the preferered roman fiddlebacks, then too easily the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing).
2. Let us also consider the context. This interpretation considers the contextual setting in which the Lord places this parable: as an answer to those who pridefully rebuke His casting out of a demon, attributing it to Beelzebub. Just prior to the parable of the empty house and the seven demons is the following event and rebuke:
Jesus was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb; and when He had cast out the devil, the dumb man spoke. And the crowds marveled. But some of them said, By Beelzebub, the prince of devils, He casts out devils. And others, to test Him, demanded from Him a sign from heaven. But He, seeing their thoughts, said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and house will fall upon house. If, then, Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because you say that I cast out devils by Beelzebub! (Lk 11:14-16)
In other words, these religiously observant people (a good thing) had allowed their lives, all swept and clean, but EMPTY, to be filled with doubt, scorn, and pride.
That they followed the Law was a beautiful thing. Their lives were swept clean and ornate, but empty. And the emptiness was filled with pride and cynicism.
Pay attention, fellow religiously observant! We are in the middle of Lent and have, I pray, undertaken certain practices and purifications. But beware, so that these mortifications do not create a space that, though clean, is empty and vulnerable to being filled with pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth … the seven ugly cousins of the sin we were trying to drive out in the first place. If so, our second condition will be worse than our first. Failure to fill the first gap with God opens us to all seven deadly sins.
Look out! The devil can use even our piety to ensnare us in his seven-fold bondage! Have you engaged in some active purifications? If so, you do well. But be sure that the space opened, all swept and and ordered, is filled with God, with humility, and with gratitude. Otherwise it will too easily be filled with seven very ugly demons and sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
A parable decoded or muddled? You decide. Comments are open, swept and clean. Please do not fill them with wrath and mere contentiousness. Charity is requested to fill the open and now empty space!
The first reading today contains the Ten Commandments and thereby communicates a brief but sweeping summary of the Christian and biblical moral vision. Too often, there is a tendency to reduce the Christian moral vision merely to a set of rules. And it is a sad fact that many resent the the Church for her “rules” because of this reductionist notion of our moral vision.
To be fair, EVERY group and activity has rules. If you join a bowling league there are rules; if you drive on the highway there are rules. If you go work or even to the store there are rules; if you speak a language there are rules. Rules are a necessary reality whenever two or more people interact.
But to see the Christian moral vision or the Ten Commandments simply as a set a rules is to wholly miss the point. For the Commandments seek not so much to have us obey as to have us be open to what God can do for us. They seek not so much to compel us as to conform us to the image of the transformed and glorious humanity that Christ died to give us.
The Commandments do not so much prescribe, as describe what the transformed human person is like. And their imperative form is not to order us about, but rather to convey the power that comes from God’s Word. For the same God who commands, “Let there be light” and thus there is light, also says, “Be holy” and thus conveys to us the power to actually become holy, if we will accept His transformative work. He thus commands to create in us the very holiness He announces.
If we would but see the Commandments as promises, as power, as proleptic (i.e., announcing ahead of time what will become fully the case later), many would be far less resentful and far more joyful in what the Lord offers. Let’s consider aspects of these Commandments that may help us come to a richer understanding of the Christian and biblical moral vision. They describe the life Jesus died to give us, a wholly transformed and increasingly glorified life, as we see sins put to death and every kind of virtue come alive.
I. I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. In this first commandment is the promise that we experience increasing love of God above all things, above all people, and above life in this world.
We were made to know God and to have our life centered on Him. This is what properly orders and orients us. Whenever we value any person or thing above God, our life becomes miserable and disordered very quickly. If we live for money, power, sex, possessions, popularity, or anything other than God, we are unhappy and our life goes out of order very quickly.
In the first commandment, God promises us an increasingly well-ordered heart, one that loves Him and His heavenly kingdom above all earthly things. He promises us freedom from the shackles of this world, which seeks to claim us, divide our hearts, and misdirect our life from its true goal.
In this commandment, the Lord seeks to heal our duplicitous and adulterous hearts and to order us to the “one thing necessary,” which is to know and love God above all things. What a blessing, what a promise, to have our petulant, divided, wounded hearts made whole and directed to God!
So much serenity comes from being focused on the ONE, who is God. And God can do this for us.
II. You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. In this commandment, the Lord promises a heart with which to love Him. For to revere the Name of God is to have a deep love for God, a deep sense of wonder and awe. It is also to have experienced God’s tender and abiding love for us. And with this gift to love God comes a heart that is sensitive and open to every gift the Lord wants to give us.
When we love God we keep his ways, not because we have to but because we want to. To fear His name is to revere and love Him, to have deep gratitude to Him, and to be docile and open to His every word. We love God’s name because we love Him.
God can give us this gift to love Him in a deep and abiding way. He promises it in this commandment.
III. Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. In this commandment, the Lord promises us a joyful sense of resting in Him and of allowing Him to minister to us.
Too many today see Church as a duty. But to those who are transformed by God and abide in His love, Holy Mass is the greatest privilege of their lives. What a joy to go and be with God and among God’s people, to hear the joyful shout, and to praise the God we love! What a privilege to be taught by God and fed with His Body and Blood, to be strengthened for every good work!
As the Lord begins to transform our heart, we begin to look forward to the greatest day of the week, Sunday. We joyfully anticipate being with our Lord, hearing His voice, and having deep communion with Him and all the angels and saints.
Yes, God can give us a heart for worship, a desire to praise, a hunger for His Word and for the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. No more is Mass a tedious ritual; it is a transformative reality. Again, God promises this, and He can do it for us.
IV. Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you. Here, too, is a promise by God, a promise to give us a deep love for our parents, elders, and lawful authority, and an openness to the wisdom of those who have long preceded us. He promises to cool our pride and the rebelliousness that close us off from the blessings of reverence for the wisdom of elders.
One of the chief problems of the modern age is disrespect for elders. Even those who are not perfect (and none are) have important things to teach us. I probably learned as much from my parents struggles as from their strengths.
Without reverence and respect, there can be no teaching, no handing on of wisdom and knowledge. We live in times that are largely cut off from the past and we tend to be dismissive of previous generations.
Because of our pride, there comes forth a hermeneutic of discontinuity, of disconnectedness from the past. We do a lot of stupid things today and we seem to lack the wisdom that was common in the past. In this commandment, the Lord promises us a heart that is docile (i.e., open to instruction), a heart that reveres and listens to the wisdom of elders, lawful authority, and past generations.
The Lord wants to unlock for us the collected wisdom of thousands of years of experience, wherein He taught our ancestors and guided them over and through many trials, difficulties, victories, and joys. In this commandment, the Lord describes and promises to quell the rebelliousness and pride that lock us down and turn us inward on ourselves.
V. You shall not kill. In this commandment, the Lord promises to quell the anger, hate, resentfulness, and vengefulness that eat at us and unleash terrible destruction.
The Lord describes a transformed person, one who has authority over his anger and is able to love even his enemies, one who is able to forgive and maintain serenity even under trial.
The Lord describes a person who loves and respects life, a person who works to build up life in others rather than tearing it down.
He describes a person who reverences the sacredness of every human life and sees in it the hand and the love of God.
God describes here one who is joyful in this life, ecstatic over the prospect of eternal life, and eager to share life and love with others, both here and in the life to come. What a gift it is simply to love others! And God can do this for us.
VI. You shall not commit adultery. Here the Lord promises to quell the often unruly passions of lust. He declares that the transformed human person has authority over his or her sexuality. The Lord also offers us a joyful reverence for the sacredness of human life and for marriage.
Too many people today are slaves to sexuality through addiction to pornography. Many struggle with fornication, masturbation, and adultery. Homosexual acting out is also a terrible problem today. And the consequences of all the sexual bondage of our times are high: STDs, AIDS, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fatherhood), high divorce rates, cohabitation, and the huge toll all this takes on children who are raised amidst this confusion and lack of proper family foundations.
God wants to set us free. He wants to cool our lusts, to give us authority over our sexuality, and to bring us to sexual maturity.
The transformed human person God describes here reverences the gift of sexuality and knows its purpose and place. God can give us pure hearts and minds, and He promises it in this commandment.
VII. You shall not steal. In this commandment, the Lord wants to instill in us a gratitude for what we have, to quell our greed, and to cool our fear. For some steal out of fear that they do not have enough, others on account of greed, still others because they are not satisfied with what they have.
God also wants to give us a love for the poor and a desire to share our excess with them. For if I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor. To withhold my excess from the poor unreasonably is a form of theft.
The transformed human person God describes is generous, grateful, and increasingly free of the fear that makes him hoard. Here, too, God promises a new and generous heart. He who commands it is He who will accomplish it.
VIII. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. God here describes and promises a great love for the truth and a respect for the reputation of others. In a way, there is nothing more precious in human terms than our reputation, for by it all other doors are opened.
The transformed human person loves others and is eager to point out their gifts, even while some would detract or calumniate. He is not interested in sharing or hearing unnecessary information about others and says only the good things that people really need to hear.
The transformed person speaks the truth in love. He has a well-trained tongue and speaks only to glorify God. His conversation is always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6). God, who commands this, is the same God who can and will do this for us.
IX & X . You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him. Here the Lord whats to quell within us the fires of greed. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. And when greed takes off, we are miserable, never having enough, always wanting and needing more.
The Lord wants to set us free from the aching desire to possess what another has.
He wants to give us a heart that is increasingly focused upon and satisfied with the good things waiting for us in Heaven. Once again, the Lord describes the transformed human person as one freed from enslaving passions.
God who commands this is also the God who can do this.
See how different this understanding is from merely seeing the Christian and biblical moral vision as rules? They are not rules; they are releases. They are not hoops to jump through; they are hopes that inspire. How do you see the Commandments?
In the Gospel today, Jesus cleanses the temple, saying that they have turned it into a marketplace. But you are the Temple of God, and the danger for us is that we sell ourselves short by accepting mediocrity. We sell our souls to the world, the flesh, and the devil, taking in exchange their false and empty promises.
The Lord enters the temple of our souls and seeks to drive out every huckster who seeks to buy us out. Jesus has already paid the price of our redemption. And our totally transformed life, the life described in the commandments and the moral vision of the Scriptures, is the life that Christ died to give us. Do not settle for anything less. 99 1/2% won’t do; got to make 100!
The video below is an old (1989) Pixar “short” depicting, in a darkly humorous way, the sin of lust. As is often the case in Pixar movies, toys come alive and tell us more about ourselves than we might have known. You might want to view it before reading my commentary.
As the video opens, we scan the shelf of toys and spy a toy woman who seems too good to be true. Like Barbie, her figure is impossible, or, rather, possible only by way of surgery. Yes, here is the woman of Hollywood, or worse, the woman of the pornographers: surgically altered, airbrushed, and “Photoshopped.” She is meant to make normal women feel inadequate and to make men fantasize about unreality such that real women seem substandard. Yes, here is Satan’s tactic in lust: to shift normal attraction, meant to draw us to one another, into distorted attraction, which turns us inward to fantasy and away from one another and from reality.
Now we meet the snowman, cold on the outside but burning with lust on the inside. He is clearly bored with what he has, bored with his reality. Scripture says, All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccl 1:8).
And then he sees her! She’s too good to be true (and she is in fact not real, not true, as we have discussed). Now the fires of lust are kindled in him and he engages in a series of destructive actions, all to satisfy his lust.
Is this not often what lust does? Those trapped by it will often throw everything overboard to possess its object. They will endanger and inflict harm on their very selves; they will throw loved ones overboard; they will squander, use up, and destroy their wealth and all they have. Some have destroyed marriages and families, forsaken children, and brought disease and poverty on themselves, all for what lust promises: the latest voluptuous one, “Baby if you’ve got the curves, I’ve got the angles.”
Not a few of the actions of this toy snowman are of great symbolism:
1. Spying her, he fixes his eyes. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world (1 John 2:16).
2. His conscience speaks. Suddenly there is a sound from above and he looks up. Is this the voice of his conscience, or the voice of God? Thoughtful, he looks down and considers for a moment. Scripture personifies lust and the voice that our snowman must hear as he looks up and down.
My son, pay attention to my wisdom, listen well to my words of insight, that you may maintain discretion, and your lips may preserve knowledge. For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. Her feet go down to hell, her steps lead straight to the grave. She gives no thought to the way of life; her paths are crooked, but she knows it not. Now then, my sons, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say. Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your best strength to others (Prov 5:2-8).
(Pardon the quote, ladies, for it lays the sin at the feet only of the woman. But remember, lust is being personified here, and it is a father speaking to his son in the passage.)
3. Lust wins. He looks up angrily and curses the glass “boundary” that prevents the fulfillment of his lustful desire. The boundary must go! The same Scripture says, The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly (Prov 5:23-25).
4. Lust, the home wrecker. The first thing he throws away is his home. He literally hurls it at the glass boundary. With it, we can presume go his wife and family. Again, scripture says, You give your best strength to others and your years to one who is cruel. Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers. May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? (Prov 5:9, 15-20)
5. He goes on a reckless path of self-destruction. He literally cuts off his nose (to spite his face). We also see his face become increasingly distorted as he wreaks havoc on himself and his world. His whole world, and everything and everyone in it, is shaken. Like Jonah, who brought storms to others when he ran from God, this snowman makes the world around him shake and storm by his lust. He sows in the wind and reaps the whirlwind. And this is quite literally illustrated as a great storm swirls within his little world.
6. He descends deeper into sin. Because he has affected others, his whole world descends with him. So, too, for us, whom lust has brought low together. Our whole culture has descended and lust is a huge reason for this. Scripture says of lust personified, Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to hell (Prov 5:4-5). And so this snowman and his world slide off the shelf and descend deeper into sin while “lady lust” looks on.
7. The downward cycle continues and he is imprisoned in his lust. Quite literally drowning in his lusts, our snowman spies a buxom mermaid and lunges for her. But his prison finds him and once again he discovers the truth with which we began, The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccl 1:8). Indeed he is locked in his lusts. Again, as Scripture says, The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast (Prov 5:22).
And so we leave our snowman locked in his lust. He has lost his home and family, disfigured himself, and fallen mighty low, taking his world and others with him. Such can be the toll of lust.
A rather serious post, I suppose, especially given the rather light fare of the video. But I hope you can see that the humor within it has a dark side, and that this little movie goes a long way in giving a poignant portrait of lust. “Enjoy” the video.
Some years ago I was addressing a group of young adults at a “Theology on Tap” gathering. I was asked by an attendee of some ways to avoid temptation. Among the things I offered was to meditate frequently on death, especially at night before going to bed. The bar got very quiet and everyone looked at me as though I had just been speaking Swahili. “What did he just say?…Could you repeat that?” Perhaps my remarks were the right answer but the wrong answer at the same time. In these modern, medically advanced times, those in their 20s don’t really relate to death as a concept or near reality. Meditating on death seems strange and foreign to most of them.
But the instinct of the Church has always been to link night prayer to death, by way of a kind of “dress rehearsal.” Consider these prayers:
1. Into your hands O Lord I commend my sprit. This is a reference to Jesus’ dying words, “Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
2. Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of your people. These are the words of Simeon, who had been promised he would not see death until he had beheld the Messiah. Now that he has held the infant Jesus in his arms he can die peacefully.
3. May the Lord grant us a peaceful night and a peaceful death. This is the concluding line of night prayer just before the Salve Regina, where we ask the Blessed Mother to “tuck us in” for the night.
There are also many beautiful references in the hymns of night prayer. For example,
Guard us waking guard us sleeping;
and when we die,
May we in thy mighty keeping
all peaceful lie.
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not Our God forsake us
But to reign in glory take us
With thee on high.
(From the Hymn “Day is Done” – 2nd Verse)
Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die, so that I may
Rise glorious at the awful Day.
(From the Hymn “Glory to Thee, my God this night.”- 3rd verse)
These are just some of the references. But night prayer is a time to remember that we will die and to ponder this with sobriety. Sleep is, to some degree, like death; we become “dead” to the world. We are no longer aware of the rhythms, demands, and fascinations of this world. We are “out” to this world, out of touch with it. We lie still as in death, unaware and disinterested, at a kind of comatose distance from the things that obsess us in our waking hours. And though we awake from sleep, one day we will sleep to this world and never awake, never return to its demands. Our coffin, like a little bed, will claim us. It will be closed and this world will know us no more.
Night prayer serves as a gentle reminder of this looming summons. We entrust ourselves to the care of our Lord, who alone can lead us over the valley of the shadow of death. We ask, too, Our Lady’s prayers. We ask that she, as a good mother, console us and assure us that after this our exile we will see the glorious face of her Son and be restored to our Father in the warm love of the Holy Spirit.
Even if you don’t have time to pray the other hours of the Divine Office, I strongly recommend night prayer (Compline). It is brief and beautiful, sober and serene. It is the great dress rehearsal for our death. If we are faithful, this will be the greatest day of our life on this earth. On that day, we will be called to Him who loves us. Surely our judgment looms, but even that, if we are faithful, will usher in our final purification and freedom from the shackles of sin and the woes of this world.
May the Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.
God, who made the earth and heaven,
Darkness and light:
You the day for work have given,
For rest the night.
May your angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet your mercy send us,
Holy dreams and hopes attend us
All through the night.
And when morn again shall call us
To run life’s way,
May we still, whatever befall us,
Your will obey.
From the power of evil hide us,
In the narrow pathway guide us,
Never be your smile denied us
All through the day.
Guard us waking, guard us sleeping,
And when we die,
May we in your mighty keeping
All peaceful lie.
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Then, O Lord, do not forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us
With you on high.
Holy Father, throned in heaven,
All holy Son,
Holy Spirit, freely given,
Blest Three in One:
Grant us grace, we now implore you,
Till we lay our crowns before you
And in worthier strains adore you
While ages run.