Many groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.
For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?
I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.
Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!
Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).
Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”
During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.
Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined
At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.
The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.
I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.
This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!
Words can change meaning over time—sometimes dramatically. For example, “manufactured” originally meant “handmade” (manu (hand) + facere (make)). The word “decimate” used to mean “to reduce by a tenth” (decem = ten); now people usually use it mean “to wipe out completely.” The list of examples could go on and on. Yes, words do change meaning over time.
One word that has changed meaning dramatically over time is “nice.” Today it is an overused word that usually means pleasant, kind, or easygoing. In our culture there is often a standing admonition that we should be nice, as in “Stop fighting and be nice now!”
But the adjective “nice” once meant anything but nice in the modern sense. Rather, it was a derogatory word used to describe a person as something of a fool.
The word “nice” comes from the Latinnescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware” (ne (not) + scire (know)). The Old French word “nice” (12th century) also came from this Latin root and meant “careless, clumsy, weak, simple, foolish, or stupid.”
In the 13th century, “nice” meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” In the 14th century, the word started to morph into meaning “fussy, fastidious.” In the 15th century it meant “dainty, delicate.” In the 1500s it was used to mean “precise, careful.” By the 18th century it shifted to meaning “agreeable, delightful.” And by the 19th century it had acquired its current connotation of “kind and thoughtful.”
The word “nice” has certainly had a tortured history!
Given its older meaning of “ignorant, stupid, or foolish,” it is not surprising that the word “nice” is used only twice in the Douay-Rheims Bible, and in both cases pejoratively.
Today the word can have a meaning that is properly praiseworthy and is basically a synonym for “good.” For example, one might comment, “That was a nice distinction you made.” Or, observing a sporting event, one might say, “That was a nice move!”
However, I am also convinced that the word “nice” is beginning to return to its less noble meanings. This takes place when it is used in a reductionist manner that seeks to simplify the entire moral life to being “nice.” Here, nice is used in the sense of being pleasant and agreeable. To the modern world, in which “pseudo-tolerance” is one of the only “virtues” left, being nice is about the only commandment left. It seems that much will be forgiven a person just so long as he is “nice.” And little will be accepted from a person who is not thought of as “nice.”
I suppose niceness has its place, but being nice is too akin to being harmless, to being someone who introduces no tension and is most often agreeable. As such, a nice person is not so far away from being a pushover, one who is easily manipulated, silenced, and pressured into tacit approval. And thus “nice” begins to move backward into its older meanings: dainty, agreeable, weak, simple, and even further back into weak, simple, unaware, and ignorant.
The pressure to “be nice” easily translates into pressure to put a dumb grin on your face and pretend that things are great even when they’re not. And to the degree that we succumb to this pressure, we allow those who seek to shame us if we aren’t nice get to watch with glee as we walk around with s dumb grin. And they get to think of us, “What an ignorant fool. What a useful idiot.” And thus “nice” takes up its original meaning.
We follow a Lord who was anything but a harmless hippie, or a kind pushover. He introduced tension, was a sign of contradiction, and was opposed by many because he didn’t always say and do pleasant things. Not everything he said was “nice.” He often used strong words: hypocrites, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, murderers of the prophets, and evildoers. He warned of judgment and Hell. He spoke in parables about burning cities, doom, destruction, wailing and grinding of teeth, and of seeing enemies slain. These are not kind words, but they are loving words, because they seek to shock us unto conversion. They speak to us of our true state if we remain rebels. Jesus certainly didn’t end up nailed to cross by being nice in any sense of the word.
In the end, “nice” is a weird word. Its meaning has shifted so many times as to be practically without a stable meaning. Today it has further degraded and increasingly returned to its original meaning. Those who insist on the importance of being “nice” usually mean it for you, but not for themselves. They want to have you walk around with a silly grin on your face, being foolishly pleasant, while they laugh behind your back.
To be sure, being “nice” in its best modern sense has its place. We surely should not go around acting like a grouch all day. But just as being nice has its place, so does being insistent, bold, and uncompromising.
We all have certain phrases that annoy us; oddities creep into the language that invite comment or could use correction. To that end, I propose below a list of ten annoying and/or misused words and expressions.
Please accept this list in the humorous vein in which it is intended. I am playing the role of an irritated curmudgeon, but it’s just my shtick. Have some fun with me as I complain and then feel free to add to my list.
So, can we talk? He’s my list of annoyances.
1. “With all due respect …”– This phrase is typically followed by something that isn’t going to respect the recipient at all! When you open an e-mail and it begins, “With all due respect, Mr. Jones, …,” don’t you just wince at what you just know is coming? In a way, the expression is a form of lip service. It’s a way of saying, “I want to dispense with that silly tradition of having to accord you a modicum of respect and get on to what’s really on my mind, namely, that you’re wrong and probably clueless as well.”
2. Decimate – Today the word has come to mean “to destroy completely.” For example, “Our culture has been decimated by no-fault divorce.” The original meaning, to reduce something by a tenth, has been relegated to a secondary definition in many dictionaries. The word came from the Roman practice in which, after conquering a town that was guilty of some sort of uprising, the Romans would line up all the men of that town in the public square, and kill every tenth one. In effect, the message was, “This is what you get if you mess with us. It’ll be worse next time.” Alas, trying to recover the original meaning of this word may be a lost cause at this point. It may be destined to go the way of other Latin-based words such as “manufacture,” the literal meaning of which is handmade (manu = hand, facere = to make). Today something referred to as manufactured is typically not handmade. There are other English words that seem to have reversed meanings. For example, we drive on parkways and park on driveways.
3. Service – There is a tendency today to take the noun “service” and turn it into a verb. It is common to hear someone say, “We service our clients.” or, “We serviced fifty people last month.” No! People are served, not serviced. Perhaps you may speak of a car as being serviced, but people are served. It’s hard to know where this manner of speaking came from, but I suspect it crept in from the world of prostitution, where prostitutes often speak of “servicing” their “Johns” (i.e. clients). We do not service people, we serve them; people are not serviced they are served.
4. Not unlike – This strange expression, in a way, cancels itself out as a double negative. For example, someone may say, “This car is not unlike that one.” If you put a few of those sorts of expressions into a sentence, trying to figure out exactly what the sentence means can make your head explode. In fact, it strains the meaning of the word “sentence,” which refers to a string of words that makes sense. Unless the person misspoke, this seems to just be a fancy way of saying, “This car is like that one.” Try to avoid making heads explode by not using the expression, “not unlike.”
5. Proactive – This is another strange word that has crept into our vocabulary. How is “proactive” different from active? One might argue that there’s a temporal dimension here: one who is “proactive” is one who is ahead of his time. To be honest, I’m not sure what is meant when someone is called “a proactive person.” I think it is a compliment, in that the person is “ahead of the curve” or something, but it’s just not all that clear to me — but maybe I’m just being reactive.
6. Utilize – Why not just say “use”? This oddity seems to be waning in usage, and not a moment too soon as far as I’m concerned. I live for the day when we no longer use “utilize” things.
7. Intellectually dishonest – How is being “intellectually dishonest” different from being just plain dishonest? Is not honesty or dishonesty rooted in the intellect and manifested in speech? I’ve never heard other qualifiers attached; I haven’t heard of physical dishonesty or verbal dishonesty. “You’re being intellectually dishonest” seems to me to be just a highfalutin’ way of saying “You’re being dishonest.”
8. Dialogue – Why not just say “discussion”? Instead of saying, “I’m having a dialogue with him,” why not just say, “I’m having a discussion with him”? An even more egregious abuse of this word is to “verbify” it: “Let’s dialogue about this problem.” Why not just say, “Let’s discuss this problem?” Even worse is “We’re dialoguing about this issue” instead of “We’re discussing this issue.” Turning nouns into verbs or verb forms generally produces strange results. To quote a classic line from Calvin and Hobbes, “Your verbing is weirding me out.” So, let’s talk; let’s have a discussion, but let’s limit our usage of the noun “dialogue” and certainly avoid using it as a verb or using the strange construction “dialoguing.”
9. Using “so” as an interjection – I have seen this most often in academic settings. Typically, the word “so” tends to be placed at the beginning of the answer to a question. For example, “What do the data show in relation to this problem?” The response might be, “So … the data seem to indicate that things are going to get worse.” (People sometimes use an interjection as a delaying tactic while feverishly formulating an answer in their head, but that’s not the usage to which I’m objecting.) In this case, though, I’m suspicious that it is emblematic of the relativistic climate that pervades today’s academic settings. The interjection “So …,” expressed gently and slowly, seems rather more designed to make the person seem thoughtful and somehow not arrogantly certain of what he is about to say. So … I don’t want to come off is too nasty, but would you please stop saying “so” all the time?
10. “Are you suggesting …?”– This is a preamble to a question and is often used by members of the mainstream media to indicate incredulity at an outlandish statement or position. A reporter writing a piece on the Catholic Church might ask me, “Are you suggesting that people who don’t follow the teachings of the Church are in error?” There’s a part of me that wants to answer, “I’m not suggesting anything; I’m saying it outright!” Here, too, the relativistic climate rears its head. People don’t say things or claim things; they “suggest” them. Let me be clear: as one not heavily influenced by relativism, I can say that when I am asked a question, I state an answer. I do not “suggest” an answer—and neither should you, at least when it comes to faith or morals. Do not suggest the faith, say it. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.
OK, can we talk? This is my short list; what do you want to add?
One of the recurring words of modern times is the word “relevance” and it’s related form “relevant.” There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, understandable, easily grasped etc.
But there is also a more problematic temporal dimension often added to the concept, so that in this sense, relevance has to do with being in agreement with, or in step with modern times, with the thinking leanings, customs and mores of people today, here and now.
And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. Widespread and often are the demands that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods and views should be up-to-date, and also speak to current issues in peoples lives.
With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place and is important. It is important for the Church to speak to issues which currently engage or beset people. An extended sermon on a Levitical text that explains how animals should be properly slaughtered during the Temple sacrifice might be properly critiqued as being largely irrelevant to the average Christian today. On the other hand, we moderns often face issues unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization etc.
Therefore there are necessary adjustments regarding culture and time that the church must make, and people legitimately demand.
However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far, and become too strident. What many today mean when they demand at the Church be relevant is at the Church merely reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature, rather than a thermostat seeking to set the temperature. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members, rather than the views of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance to many also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her most basic teachings and practices.
Thus there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to discern authentic concerns for relevance, and at the same time screen out inauthentic demands regarding it.
Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself is often misunderstood and misused today. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean exactly the opposite of what it originally meant from its Latin roots.
The Latin etymology of relevant and relevance is re (= again) + levare (= to lift). Hence, the word means, most literally, “to lift up something once again.” And since “re” can mean a repetitive action, it can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”
The impression of the word is that something has either been dropped or somehow cast aside, and that someone reaches down and picks it up again. It is as though something which was dropped, or had fallen away, or fallen into disuse, is then picked up and presented anew, presented freshly. You could even theoretically apply it to something that was cast aside as “old-fashioned,” or out of date, that is taken up again, that is presented anew.
Thus, in a way, relevance, in its Latin roots actually mean something rather opposite of what people often mean today. Rather than referring to something that ought to be dropped as old fashioned or displeasing, it speaks of something that should be picked up!
Now all of this examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in capturing the word “relevant” and using it today with proper balance.
On the one hand the “re” in the word demands that while the Church must ever lift up our unchanging truths, we cannot simply rehash ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still valid, but the way we express it may need adapting, may need RE-presenting. Obviously as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change, or situations and circumstances alter, some of the analogies and images used to express undying truth may need adjustment. So the Latin word captures the notion, that things sometimes do fall away or drop, and they need to be picked up again, and freshly RE-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.
On the other hand the “levare” of Latin root also shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. For certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away, they must be picked up again and again.
And thus, despite demands that we let some of our teachings drop or that we make them go away, “relevance” and “relevant” in their Latin roots say just the opposite. To be “relevant” we must re+levare, we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them newly and freshly, but still lift them up. Even if the culture is dubious and hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.
And in this sense, to a world that demands we be relevant, we can say amen! We must pick up again and again the perennial truths which God is given us, but we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and with the seal in a manner that is understandable, even infectious to our listeners.
It happens, quite often, that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles. And one of our strengths, clearly, is our capacity to speak and to write, to use words to symbolize reality, and thereby convey thoughts. So also our ability to think, to abstract and conceptualize, and interpret reality. I of course am a great believer in the magnificent thing we call speech, for I write every day, and I preach every day and like to consider myself a reasonably thoughtful person. .
To speak and to write, such a magnificent mysterious capacity within our soul. Somehow with our senses, and our mind we are able to grasp the physical realities, people places and things, as well as metaphysical realities such as justice, love , nature, and purpose. And we are also able to think and to abstract. There is not just nature, there is what is “natural,” there are not just trees, there is “tree-ness”, there are not just humans, there’s something called humanness. Yes, such a miracle, thought, language, speech, and writing. By it we communicate facts, ideas, feelings, longings, and yearnings.
Yet our language and even out thoughts have a fatal flaw that introduces a great human struggle. For “words” and thoughts, by their nature, reduce complex realities to a simple sounds (i.e. words), and concepts (i.e. thoughts). Words are little more than a grunt, a mere sound. And words in written form are the mere combination of letters we call a word. But words and even thoughts are not the reality we describe, they are merely a symbol pointing to that reality.
To say the word “tree,” neither produces the reality of a tree, nor fully describes it. The word “tree” can only summarize the whole range of realities and ideas such as: wood, roots, leaves, photosynthesis, strength, shade, green, autumn colors, things made of wood, paper, furniture, and on and on. What a tree is, potentially or actually, cannot be reduced to a mere sound.
If this simple word, “tree,” referring to a relatively simple reality is inadequate, how much more so far more complex realities such as the human person, justice, love, poetry, and above all else, God.
Yes, words are wonderful things, a kind of shorthand. But words can also get in the way, especially when we think that because we have named something, we have fully described or comprehended it. Not so, reality is always richer than the words or thoughts that we “reduce” it to. It is perhaps necessary for us to do this sort of reduction in order to manage, and not be overwhelmed, but, again reality is always richer than the thoughts or words we reduce it to.
In this sense, there is an old saying which goes “Don’t think, look!” In other words, we tend to rush to analysis, rather than to savor reality. And while analysis is ultimately essential, we ought to try to experience reality as fully as we can, before we “reduce” it by analyzing it, before reducing it to thoughts and words.
Another related saying is, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” For too often we rush to respond to reality, rather then to experience and savor it. Reality is always richer in our analysis in our thoughts or words about it. And without experiencing it as fully as possible, reactions are often mistaken, or off the mark.
In a noisy age, it is important to rediscover the need to slow down and experience reality, and also the need for silent contemplation before quick analysis and the “necessary evil” of reducing reality to words and concepts.
There’s yet another old saying, likely from the far East, which says, “Those who know do not say, those who say do not know.” That is, words for fall short of the reality of what is known, and the wise person grasps this.
One of the Eastern fathers, when asked to explain this saying to his disciples said, “How many know the smell of a rose?” And all of his disciples raised their hands. But when he said to them, “Put it into words” everyone remained silent.
There is a humility and recognizing the limits of words. Some things cannot be reduced to words at all, other things only partially. The wise and humble person appreciates this. St. Augustine, when asked about Grace said, “If you ask me I don’t know, if you don’t ask me, I know.” In other words, this is a truth best appreciated, and savored, apart from words.
Silent contemplation of the very deep mysteries of God is a more proper disposition than many words. And while words are eventually necessary, the silence between the words when we speak of God, are probably more instructive than the words themselves.
St. Thomas said in the prologue to question three in part one of the Summa: “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue). Since God is hidden, and we could never even come close to comprehending Him. His essence is therefore beyond anything we can describe with words. Words and analogies about God fall so far short, as to be more unlike him than they are like him. And thus we are reduced more to describing what God is not, than what he is.
And even when we say what he is, we really have little idea of what we are talking about. God is not just wise or like some wise man, He is wisdom itself. God is not just good or like some good person, He is goodness itself. He does not exist like we exist, He is not just some other object in the universe, he is existence itself. And while we are using these words, we do not really fathom what they really or fully mean. To some extent we know what it means to exist, but we do not know existence itself. We know good things, and good people, but we do not know goodness itself. These realities are too rich to be reduced to a manageable concept. or mere word.
St. Thomas Aquinas also said in his commentary on Boethius’ De Sancta Trinitate that while we can know God through His creation, and in God’s actions through history, the highest form of the knowledge of God is to know God as the Unknown (tamquam Ignotum). That is, to have the wisdom and humility to say that the highest form of talking about the Holy Trinity is to know that one does not know, that one does not comprehend or grasp the essence about that which we speak. We can say what God is not, but we cannot say comprehensively what He is, in essence.
Now this is humility. It does not mean that we know nothing, but it does mean that we must approach God with humility, realizing that we know very little. And what we do know is more by negation, than by positively grasping that of which we speak.
Yet because we frequently are not humble, because we forget that what we know is very limited, because we forget that our words reduce even natural concepts to simplistic signs called words, and thoughts…because we forget all of this, we often get into hideous and prideful arguments.
An old saying goes, “The wise man may point to the moon, but the fool sees only the finger.” That is, words are like the finger, our thoughts are also like the finger, but our thoughts and our words are not the reality, they only point to the reality.
But instead of seeking the reality, we debate about the words, about the reduction that we call thought. Surely this is unavoidable in an absolute sense, but if we can humbly realize that our words and concepts are not the reality, but only that which points to the reality, perhaps in this humility, arguments about “the finger” (to use our analogy) will become less destructive and hateful.
It is true, some words, and ideas are simply wrong, are not in conformity with the truth, and are quite out of touch with reality or revelation. In such cases, we must critique, debunk, and demonstrate the error of such notions.
But in so many other cases, we end up debating things that we ought not to debate. And we do so, not because the words that are spoken by others are untrue, but simply because they are not precisely the words we would use, or the formula that we prefer. Someone may speak poetically, but we prefer science, and so we scoff. Someone speaks in terms of Carmelite spirituality, but we prefer Ignatian, so we scoff. Someone encounters God charismatically but another, more traditionally. And out come the long knives.
How foolish. God and the life he offers is so much richer than our words, concepts, and thoughts. Of course there will be legitimate diversity, there has to be. The Church, in Her Scripture and Tradition certainly sets up guardrails, beyond on which we shall not go. But within the guard rails is a road with different lanes, different traditions, both intellectual and spiritual.
Perhaps an old story I heard once on retreat will help. It is about two blind men. Each of them went separately to a man who could see and asked, “What is this thing called Green?” But of course. how does one describe the color green to a man who is never seen? All one can do is use analogy. So the man who could see, said to the first man, “The color green is like soothing and soft music.” To the other man who came to him later, he said, “The color green is like the smell of cool mint.” Both men went away reasonably content. Of course, neither of them had really experienced the color green, but had only heard an analogy of it. But when the two blind men got together they were heard to be screaming at one another, and even threatening violence as the one shouted, “Green is like cool mint!!” and the other said, “No! is is like soft music!”
Of course those of us who know the color green, know that it is a far richer concept than either cool mint or soft music. We easily laugh at the the blind men debating which analogy was the correct one. Neither analogy was correct, nor incorrect, they’re just analogies, describing some aspect of “Green”, but not even close to the whole meaning. So we laugh. To use the previous analogy, the blind men were “seeing” only the finger, and missing the moon to which it points. Green is not cool mint or soft music, it is only like them in some distant way. In fact, green is more unlike cool mint than like it, more unlike soft music than like it.
But though we laugh at the blind men, we are so much like them in so many ways. We think we see so well, but much of reality is hidden to us. So many of the words and concepts on which we insist are but reductive analogies of a far richer reality. And while we may find certain approaches, certain words, certain traditions, certain analogies, to be more helpful than others, the reality to which these things point is so much richer than any reductive word, thought or analogy of them.
It is too easy, even in matters which the Church grants us freedom, to be like the two blind men savaging each other and threatening violence over whose analogies are the best. And yet, neither analogy is even close to the actual reality. More unlike it and like it!
Perhaps it is best to end were we began: Our strengths are often our struggles. Our capacity for language, for words, for signs, analogies, and all sorts of intellectual concepts, is a remarkable and magnificent capacity. But too easily our strength also becomes our struggle because we forget that our signs, words, analogies and intellectual concepts are not the reality they describe, but merely point to the reality, a reality that is far richer the words or concepts.
Only humility can help us, so that our strengths do not turn to become the very thing over which we struggle!
The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)
Every now and then we need to be reminded that God really loves us. Some of us struggle with this notion especially when we have sinned or experienced a shortcoming.
Recently the readings at Mass have had the heavy theme of warning us about death, judgment, heaven and hell. But of course these warnings are given by a God who loves us and wants to save us.
Whatever the reason that perhaps at times we don’t feel very lovable, consider this:
Before you were ever formed in you mother’s womb God knew you and loved you (Jer. 1:4)
God knit you together in your mother’s womb (Ps 139:13)
You are fearfully wonderfully made (Ps 139:14)
Every one of your days and deeds were written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be. (Ps. 139:16)
So God knew you and planned for you. You cannot earn his love you already have it. In fact you had it before you were born, before you had done anything. As for your sins God knew all about them too.
Sin does not cancel God’s love but it does limit and ultimately sever our acceptance of that love. “Ah but what about Hell?” you might say. Yes as we have seen recently, a great tragedy, but do you suppose that God’s love does not extend there also? After all God does not destroy the souls in hell. He still sustains and provides for them. He loves them still. It is they who do not love him or His kingdom and he will not force it on them. But at least consider this fact that God does not annihilate them. I once had a reader write and tell me that God was cruel for not killing the souls in hell and putting them out of their misery. But their objection points to two common oddities of the modern era:
1. That death is therapy, or escape. It is an odd modern notion, rooted in our obsession with comfort I suspect, that to not exist is preferable that existing. Yet, the desire to survive is common to all living things, except it would seem, certain post-modern men.
2. A second modern confusion is that the freedom to choose ought to be free of any real responsibilities or results. This immature conclusion is common to teenagers, but not to adults who ought to accept that the freedom to choose brings both responsibility and consequences that we ought to accept if we want to claim to be free and mature.
And thus, whatever objections we want to raise about God’s love, they are more about us and our distorted notions of love, than about God.
So face it God loves you, he even likes you. He does not love you because you deserve it. He loves you for “no good reason.” His love cannot be explained in any human terms. He loves you simply because he does, because he is Love. If you have never experienced this love, get on your knees and ask for this necessary gift.
Maybe these videos will help. The first one is a beautiful musical reflection by Don Francisco “I’ll Never Let Go of Your Hand” (available at iTunes). The Second one I have posted before about a young firefighter who powerfully experiences the unmerited love that God has for him.
In our modern culture we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than the Christian antiquity to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In this brief post I’d like to review that, and add a new insight I heard recently from Fr. Francis Martin.
As we have noted before, our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved, and the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. So, in the typical mystery novel some event, usually a crime, takes place, and it is the job of our hero to uncover cause of the problem, or the perpetrator of the crime. If he does not, he is a failure. And frankly, if word got out that, in a certain mystery movie, the mystery was not solved, there would be poor reviews and low attendance. Imagine in the series “House MD” if Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery. Ratings would drop rather fast.
But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Further, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful, and prideful too.
Why is this so?
One reason is that the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different that the worldly one. For the world, a mystery is something, currently hidden, that must be found and brought to light. The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.
Further, in the Christian view, some, even most, of what lies hid, ought to be respected as hidden, and appreciated rather than solved. We can surely seek to gain insight into what is hidden, and mystery does reveal the depths of things and events. But, respectfully, we dare not say we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For, even when we think we know everything, there are still greater depths beyond our sight. Thus mystery is to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved.
Perhaps an example will help. Consider your very self. You are a mystery. There is much about you that you and others know. Your physical appearance is surely revealed. There are also aspects of you personality that you and others know. But, that said, there is much more about you that others do not see. Even many aspects of your physicality lie hid. No one sees your inner organs for example. And regarding your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth, much of this too lies hid. Some of these things are hidden even from you. Do you really know and fully grasp every drive within you? can you really explain every aspect yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.
Now, part of the respect that I owe you is to reverence the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to respect that there are deep mysteries about you caught up in the very designs of God. To reduce you to something explainable merely by words is both disrespectful to you and prideful unto myself. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have one another figured out.
Hence, mystery is to be both respected and even appreciated. There is something delightfully mysterious, even quirky, about every human person. At some level we ought to grow in an appreciation that every person we know has an inner dimension, partially known to us but much of which is hidden and gives each person a dignity and a mystique.
Another example of mystery is the Sacraments. Indeed, the Eastern Church calls them the “Mysteries.” They are mysteries because, while something is seen, much more is unseen, but very real. When a child is baptized, our earthly eyes see water poured and a kind of washing taking place. But much more, very real, lies hidden. For, in that moment the Child dies to his old life and rises to a new one, with all his sins forgiven. He becomes, in that moment, a member of the Body of Christ, he inherits the Kingdom, and becomes the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Spiritually dead, he is now alive, and the recipient of all of God’s graces. These things lie hidden from our early eyes, by they do in fact take place. We know this by faith. Thus there is a hidden, a mysterious dimension to what we see. What we physically see is not all there is, by a long shot. The mystery speaks to the interior dimension which, though hidden from physical sight, is very real.
So mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to get to the bottom of. Rather, mysteries are something to appreciate, something to reverence, something to humbly accept as real. Aspects of them are revealed to us, but much more is hidden.
That said, we are not remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things either. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is that we penetrate deeper into the mysteries of who we are, who God is, the mystery of one another, the mystery of creation, Sacraments and Holy Scripture. As we grow spiritually, we gain insights into these mysteries, to be sure. But we can never say we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever deeper meanings that we should reverence.
In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin develops how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see, or other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things, there are deeper dimensions that to some extent can be seen, and appreciated, but also respected as not fully seen or comprehended.
Fr. Martin gives the example of a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets Jones with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shaking hands, so what? But what if I tell that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah! That is significant. So the handshake has an inner dimension that, knowing it, helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular handshake. To the average observer, this inner dimension lay hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery reveled to us, we appreciate more than the surface. But we cannot say, “Ah I have fully grasped this!” For, even here, we have grasped only some of the mystery of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner lives of these two men. For mystery has a majesty all its own and we reverence it best by appreciating its ever deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God himself.
This video is part of a series Fr. Martin has done on the Gospel of John. I would strongly encourage you to podcast the series and view it or listen to it. It will bless your soul. Here is the podcast site for the whole Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series: Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series.
One of the beatitudes taught by Jesus is often misunderstood today, largely due to the most popular translations of it from the Greek text. The Beatitude is, “Blessed are the pure of heart.” Or sometimes rendered, “clean” of heart.”
While the word “pure” or “clean,” is not an inauthentic translation of the Greek word καθαρός (katharos). A more literal translation of the word is to be without admixture, to be simply one thing, and hence, on that account to be purely and simply that thing, with nothing else mixed in. Hence, another helpful way of translating the Greek μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ (makarioi hoi katharoi te kardia) is “Blessed are the single-hearted.”
The reason to suggest, as more descriptive, the phrase “single-hearted” is that, in modern English, the words “pure” and “clean” tend to evoke a merely moral sense of being free of sin, of being morally upright. And this is good, and is surely a significant part of being single-hearted. But being single-hearted is it a deeper and richer concept than simply being well behaved, since to be well behaved is the result of the deeper truth of being one thing, not duplicitous, or with a divided heart.
To be single-hearted, means to have my life focused on what Jesus calls “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). It is to have my life focused on the Lord, and my one goal of reaching heaven and being with him forever.
The image of the Rose window that the upper right, which I have used before on this blog, is a good illustration of what it means to be single-hearted. It does not mean that there are not different facets to my life, but rather, that every facet of my life is ordered around, and points to Christ, is subsumed to Jesus, and his heavenly kingdom along with the Father and the Spirit as the ordering principle of every other thing. And thus, career, family, marriage, finances, spending priorities, use of time, where I live, and any other imaginable aspect of life, is subsumed in Christ; it points to him, and leads to the Lord and his kingdom on high.
The single-hearted life, is a well ordered life. Each step, and each decision leads me in the right direction. St. Paul says, This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14). And hence, while Paul made many journeys to many places, he was really on one journey and heading to one place. This simplified and ordered his life. He was single-hearted.
We can see why the beatitude often gets translated as pure or clean of heart. As noted, to be pure or clean means to be the one thing, not admixed with lots of other impurities, or things which cause me not to be what I really meant to be. And perhaps this is how we get the connection in the phrase, “pure and simple.”
Consider for example that the impurities of a copper wire, will reduce its effectiveness in carrying electrical current. When the copper is not pure, it is not its very self, the electrical energy which is meant to be directed through it becomes more scattered or hindered from its goal.
And this image of scattering or being hindered, unfortunately describes the lives of many Christians whose lives are not ordered on the one thing necessary, whose hearts are not single, whose hearts are not focused on the one thing they should be. Such a one has a life which is often scattered, confused, disordered, and a jumble of many conflicting and contrary drives which hinder one from the goal of life. And thus the Lord Jesus says, He who does not gather with me, scatters (Luke 11:23). And the Book of James says, The double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).
Finally, being single-hearted, being pure of heart not only orders our life, but it also grants freedom. In modern, Western thinking, we often equate freedom with doing more, not less. So freedom is equated with being able to “do anything I please.” And this attitude has led to the kind of jumble that much of modern life has become, the kind of tangled web of many contrary wishes and desires, but with little unifying direction or purpose. We think of freedom in very abstract terms. And hence we tend to get very abstract and disconnected results
But biblically and spiritually, freedom is the capacity or ability to do what is right, best and proper. And thus, paradoxically, freedom often means doing less, not more.
Being single-hearted, helps to focus us and to pare away a lot of the excess growth and unnecessary baggage of modern life. And life gets simpler, and simplicity is a form of freedom, such that we focus on what is important more than what is urgent. And we discover that what often claims to be urgent, is not really necessary or urgent after all.
Life, especially modern life, has many options. And not all these options are simply distinguished by being good or bad, moral or immoral. Many of them are altogether good options. But how to sort through, to choose, and to focus my life on the one thing necessary?
Being single-hearted is the beatitude which helps us to do this. As St. Paul says, regarding the good options in life: All things are lawful to me, but not all things are expedient (1 Cor 6:12).
To be single-hearted is to become more free, not (paradoxically) by doing more, but by doing less, by becoming more focused on the Lord, hearing his voice, and basing my life simply on what he says and teaches me,
Pray for the gift to become more single-hearted. More than ever, in our modern age, with its distractions and endless possibilities, we need to learn the lesson of the Rose window, and center our lives increasingly on Christ, the one thing necessary.
I have used this clip in other posts before. Pardon a brief profane word, but it does help emphasize the point being made: