Three Aspects of Anxiety and How to Overcome Them

blog11-12Worry is a universal human problem. Jesus speaks to it in Matthew 6 and His advice amounts to more than just “Don’t worry.” He actually sets forth how we can avoid it. Let’s see how by looking at three problems He describes that bring about worry.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:24-27, 34).

I. The Problem of Possessions – The text says, No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is variously understood as riches, greed, or possession. In an extended sense, it can refer to the agenda of the world, which is focused on material things and ties our dignity only to those things.

Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that if we wish to serve Him we cannot also serve mammon. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein), which more specifically means “to serve as a slave.” By overlooking the slavery aspect, we miss the strength of the text. In our culture it is typical that one serves in a job or some similar capacity during “working hours,” but goes home afterward and is free of obligations. Perhaps because of this, we tend to think that we can serve both God and mammon. But the Greek text here refers not to a mere servant but to a slave. And a slave is wholly subject to the will of another. Thus Greek is more intense than the English translation.

What the Lord is saying is, “You’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or a slave of the world.”  The truth is that most people are slaves of the world, of mammon, of riches, of greed, and of their associated agendas. These worldly things tend to consume us so completely that when we hear of a demand from God, we feel overwhelmed or even angry that something more is being required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are a slave to mammon.

Most of us are too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but the fact is that to a large extent we are. The world and its demands press in on us and take up nearly all our oxygen. It is this terrible slavery that is a huge source of our anxiety and from which the Lord offers to free us. The Lord describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to mammon, to the world, to its riches and agenda:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear … Why are you anxious about clothes? Do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’

Still anxious! For us who live in the Western world, the anxieties about merely having such things may have receded a bit. We are well-supplied and may not worry whether we will have clothes, food, etc. But even having them in abundance, still we worry about them obsessively. For example, we worry about whether we have the right clothes, or whether they are in style, or whether they look good on us. Many people are quite obsessed about what they eat: they worry about eating too much salt, or sugar, or fat. We have never lived so long or been so healthy, and yet we have never been more anxious about our health. It’s amazing when you think of it: we have plenty of food and still we worry about it; worry, worry, worry! Anxiety about these things is a sign that we are slaves to them. Scripture says, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep (Eccles 5:12).

The Lord offers to live his life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but to Him. You may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: we are so small and powerless that we’re going to be the slaves of someone, so it might as well be the Lord. Being wholly devoted to the Lord and what pleases Him breaks our obsession with the world, money, possessions, popularity, fashion, and the like.

As the Lord’s life and His will begin to replace our own, our obsession with the world’s demands diminishes and its power is broken. As we grow into a deeper relationship with the Lord, our concerns with worldly agendas fade and our anxiety diminishes.

Now you and I aren’t going to be able to completely stop worrying of our own accord. But the Lord, living His life in us, isn’t worried at all. And as His power and influence over us grows, our worries lessen and our anxiety dissipates.

This is the gift that the Lord is offering us if we but let him take greater possession of our heart. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, sacraments, and daily doses of Scripture and spiritual reading. Gradually, the Lord will transform our heart, mind, and will to be like His.

II. The Problem of Paternity – The Lord Jesus wants to draw us into deeper relationship with His Father. It remains a common spiritual problem, even for those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, to feel that the Eternal Father is distant or remote. To many, the Father is a stranger. They have surely heard of Him and read of Him in the Scriptures, but still He is stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of Him. Perhaps their fear stems from some Old Testament texts, or from their relationship with a stern earthly father. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus wants to lead to us His Father. Note that the phrase “your heavenly Father” occurs twice in this passage and four times in Matthew Chapter 6 overall. There are two other references to the Father as “God” in today’s gospel. It is also in Chapter 6 of Matthew that Jesus teaches us the Our Father.

All of these references to the Father, particularly in such close proximity to the invitation not to worry, cannot be overlooked. An antidote to anxiety is having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need.  He cares for birds, flowers, and countless other things and is willing and able to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening in anxiety.

Perhaps an illustration will help. When I was six years old, I was sometimes afraid that someone would break into our home or that something bad would happen during the night. But when my Father was home, I didn’t have these fears. In 1968 he left for Vietnam and was gone for a year. During that time I had an extended bout of ongoing fear at night; Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. In 1969 he returned and my fears went away. I didn’t cause them to go away. It was not an act of the will on my part. It was simply this: Daddy was home.

You and I may not simply be able to dismiss our fears and anxieties by a simple act of the will. But to the extent that our “Daddy-God” is near and we feel His presence, our fears just go away.

Here is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep, personal experience of, and love for, His Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. But when we experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we experience our fears melting away.

Seek this gift from Jesus: that his Father will be known and loved by you, that His presence will be close at hand; then watch your fears melt away. The Lord Jesus can do this for us.  Take some time and read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) slowly. Recognize that the parable is really more about the father than the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.

III. The Problem of Priorities – The text says, But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. One of our greatest struggles is to have proper priorities, to do, in the end, just one thing. This third matter (priorities) is not unlike the first (possessions) but it is more about choices and directions than things and allegiances.

We have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and how to make good decisions. This causes us a lot of grief and anxiety. We want too many things. We want to please too many people. We are too easily distracted from our goal. In many ways we have not even fully clarified our goal.

What is it that you want? What is the one thing that really guides every other thing you do? Now be honest! You may say, “God.” You may say, “the world,” or “my career.”  But a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer as to what the one thing they want is. The fact is they want a lot of things, and have never really sat down and reflectively determined the one, over-arching goal of their life. And so they run about chasing butterflies and experiencing lots of anxiety.

Imagine a man who is headed for New York City from Philadelphia. Along the way he sees many signs but is able to determine quickly which ones pertain to his journey and which can be ignored. When he sees a sign for “95 South to Baltimore,” he knows he can ignore it and experiences no anxiety about it at all.

But now consider a second man, who is not sure where he is headed. It may be to New York City, but he may go somewhere else; he just isn’t all that certain. He hasn’t thought about much and just sort of lets things happen. When he sees that same sign for “95 South to Baltimore,” he wonders whether or not he should follow it. The sign makes him anxious. It’s a fork in the road and he’s not sure what to do. Should he take it or not? And when he does make a choice, he wonders if he did the right thing. Having made the choice only heightens his anxiety. He keeps looking back, second-guessing himself, and wondering about his choice. He’s anxious because he didn’t first determine his real destination.

Many people today live this way. They have no real priority, no definitive choice. And even if they have some vague direction (e.g., “I want to be happy”) they have little idea what it really takes to get there. And, frankly, they don’t really want to know the specifics. Commitments and decisions are eschewed. But, strangely, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they become more anxious, not less. Every fork in the road of life is bewildering to them and brings about the question, “What should I do?”

The Lord wants to save us from all this anxiety and thus offers us the grace to clarify what we want and where we are going. As He begins to live his life more fully in us, our mind gets clearer and our heart desires with greater clarity. When Jesus’ own life begins to replace our own, we want what He wants. And He wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves His Father, and everyone and everything His Father loves.

And so do we. By grace and by degrees, the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us. Increasingly, our life becomes about only one thing: That I want to die and leave this world loving God and his kingdom … That I want to be with him forever.

Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not saying to us that by our own power we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depended only on us, it wouldn’t last twenty minutes!

No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person, and of what we will increasingly experience if we let Him live His life in us and transform us by stages. This work begins and continues in us when we get down on our knees and beg the Lord to do it. It begins and continues when we are serious about having a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, sacraments, Holy Mass, and holy fellowship.

Now if you want to just stay anxious and fretful, fine. But if you seek serenity, then ask the Lord into your life; re-invite him every day. Remain faithful to spiritual practices. If you do, I promise (for I am a witness) that you will see your anxieties lessen, your fears abate, your serenity grow, and your confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.

After such solid advice from the Lord, I hope you’ll pardon this lighthearted video. Consider it a tongue-in-cheek bit of advice.

Adoration 2.0 – A Unique Insight Based on the Teaching of a Spiritual Master

blog10-28When we think of the word “adoration,” we think of a high form of love, perhaps the highest. Theologically, we equate adoration with latria, the worship and love due to God alone. In the vernacular, to say “I adore you” is to indicate an intense and high form of love.

Liturgically, adoration of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament indicates a period during which one enters into the experience of loving God and gazing upon Him in that love. The Lord, too, extends a gaze of love to us, as is beautifully stated in the Song of Songs: Behold, he is standing behind our wall, He is looking through the window, peering through the lattice (Song 2:9).

In all these examples there is a sort of intense, yet resting love expressed; a love that is tender and deep, quiet and fixed.

However, the greatest act of adoration the world has ever known exhibits little of this quietude or restfulness. Indeed, one might call this act of adoration quite stormy; though intense, it was not restful. In fact, you might not consider it adoration at all. But consider this reflection by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.:

Adoration of infinite value was offered to God by Christ in Gethsemane when he prostrated himself saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as though wilt.” Christ’s adoration of the Father recognized in a practical and profound manner the sovereign excellence of God … The Savior’s adoration continued on the cross (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol 2, p. 251).

At the heart of this most perfect act of adoration was obedience, a heart that not only loved God but out of that love wanted only what He wanted. True adoration of God includes both a loving acknowledgment of His excellence and a submission of our will to His in loving obedience. Out of love we offer our whole life to God.

Thus adoration is more than mere feeling, no matter how intense; it is sacrifice; it is the willing offering of one’s very self as an act of love to God, who has so loved us. No greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for God and for those we love in Him.

Is obedience and sacrifice what you and I mean when we say that we are going to Eucharistic adoration or when we say that we adore God? The most perfect act of adoration was love expressed as obedience and sacrifice.

What Attachments Are and What They Are Not

070214For most of us, attachments to this world are THE struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth. 80% of the spiritual life is a battle about desire and the fundamental question, “What do you want most, the world and its pleasures, or God and his Kingdom?” So easily this world gets its hooks into us and we become attached to it. It is hard to break free from inordinate desires.

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

The following excerpts are from pages 133-135 of Fr. Dubay’s book. Father’s teaching is shown in bold, black italics. My remarks are presented in plain, red text. You may wish to read only the excerpts from Fr. Dubay’s text to begin with, and then only read my commentary if you want some elaboration.

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

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

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

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

Consider that a husband properly enjoys intense pleasure in his intimate experiences with his wife. Correctly understood, he can hardly fail to enjoy this, other things being equal. But these intimate moments have a meaning beyond themselves. They summon him to greater intimacy, appreciation, and love for his wife and ultimately for the God who created her. Further, these moments draw him to share his love and appreciation through an openness to the fruit this love will bear in his children.

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

  1. Nor is possessing or using things an attachment to them. We must all make use of things in this world to accomplish what God has given us to do. God is surely pleased to equip us with what we need to do His will, to build the Kingdom, and to be of help to others.
  2. Nor is being attracted, even mightily attracted, to a beautiful object or person an unhealthy attachment. As a matter of fact, we should be drawn to the splendors of creation, for that is a compliment to the supreme Artist. Saints were and are strongly attracted to the glories of the divine handiwork and especially to holy men and women, the pinnacles of visible creation.

A gift we should pray for is the gift of wonder and awe, wherein we appreciate and are joyful in God’s glory displayed not only in the greatest and most visible things, but also in the smallest and most hidden. We are also summoned to a deep love of, appreciation for, and attraction to the beauty, humor, and even quirkiness displayed in one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The first is that the activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it. This is very common today with sex and with many matters related to the body.
  2. The second sign is excess in use. As soon as we go too far in eating, drinking, recreating, speaking, or working, we show that there is something disordered in our activity. We cannot honestly direct to the glory of God what is in excess of what He wills. Hence, a person who buys more clothes than needed is attached to clothing. One who overeats is clinging selfishly to food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation or Misinformation? Are Jesus’ Promises Real? What Hinders the Promises of Christ in Us?

blog10-5-2015A text that was read at daily Mass last week features Jesus describing remarkable blessings received by the disciples. He states these blessings as a simple and obvious fact for them, blessings never before received by anyone!

Do you see your life this way? Are your blessings obvious to you? Do they distinguish you from those who never knew Christ? Does your relationship with Jesus Christ grant you obvious transformation or is that just misinformation and exaggeration?

Consider the following, which Jesus said to the disciples:

Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (Lk 10:22-24).

What did they see and hear?

At one level, they saw and heard the fulfillment of hundreds of prophesies of the Messiah. What prophets pointed to and longed to see, these disciples were seeing fulfilled before their very eyes.

But more richly, what they saw and heard was the experience of having their lives changed—by having met, seen, and heard the Lord Jesus. They felt the God-sized hole in their heart beginning to fill, the deepest longings of the heart being satisfied. For the first time, they began to experience what the first Christians called “grace.”

Grace is the free gift of God that ushers forth in us a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. And by this relationship we begin to experience the life, love, joy, and serenity of God. God’s thoughts and priorities gradually become ours. We think more as He thinks and love more as He does. We start to see our life change. Sins are put to death and many particular graces spring from the sanctifying grace we receive. We become more joyful, confident, serene, chaste, patient, loving, forgiving, and generous. We are more courageous. We love the truth more and proclaim it with love and clarity less than with fear; we proclaim it with greater conviction and knowledge.

In short, by sanctifying grace and the actual graces that flow from and support it, we see our life changed. The old Adam dies and is buried in Baptism. In that same baptism we rise with Christ to new life, to His life, to the life of the New Adam; this becomes ours.

It was to the early apostles and disciples that Jesus spoke the words above. Indeed, they had seen their lives changed by the Lord whom they had met. His teachings set their hearts ablaze. They saw wonders and witnessed countless scriptures fulfilled. They heard a Word that unsettled them at times, but also undeniably gave them peace. They would never again be the same; they had met Jesus, the desire of the everlasting hills. For indeed, Scripture had said,

The blessings of thy father are strengthened with the blessings of his fathers: until the desire of the everlasting hills should come (Gen 49:26).

And now they looked upon Jesus, whom their forbearers had longed to see. Here was the desire of the everlasting hills. And they were blessed; they were whole, complete, and changed (all but the one who would betray Him).

But again, for us the question remains. Are your eyes and ears blessed? Is your life really all that different from the prophets, who longed to see what you see but did not see it, who longed to hear what you hear but did not hear it? Has your life been changed? Have you met Christ? Are you different and blessed, changed and transformed?

Many people I talk to wonder how such a text of Christ’s is really true in their own lives. They know they are blessed somehow in a way that exceeds the faithful of the Old Testament, but they are not sure how. Is their life really all that different from that of a Jew who lived in 290 B.C.? Jesus says it is and calls it being “blessed.” The theologians say it is and call it “grace.” But honestly, is there a noticeable difference?

There is! And any saint will swear it is so. So, too, will those who have met Christ and are experiencing deeper prayer and the first stages of contemplative prayer. Yes, I will testify and say to you, along with the saints and those blessed with deeper prayer, Jesus is real! He is changing my life and filling the God-sized hole in my heart. Yes, Jesus is real; grace is real. The difference is enormous; the desire of the everlasting hills has come. Blessed, blessed are we.

But why do so many, including faithful Catholics, never experience this? Perhaps because they have never been taught to expect it! Yet of course Jesus says it in the text above. But, sadly, few priests preach new life or total transformation. Low expectations bring poor results.

But then, too, there is also the mediocrity that sin so easily causes in us. This stymies the work of the Holy Spirit in us and means that many of us never attain to the normal Christian Life. Consider a text from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange:

How is it possible that so many persons, after living forty or fifty years in the state of grace, receiving Holy Communion frequently, give almost no indication of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their conduct and actions, take offense at a trifle, show great eagerness for praise, and live a very natural life?

This condition springs from venial sins which they often commit without any concern for them; these sins, and the inclinations arising from them, lead the souls toward the earth and hold the gift of the Holy Spirit as it were, bound like wings that cannot spread. These souls lack recollection; they are not attentive to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which passes unperceived … (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol II, Tan Publications, P 233)

So, even venial sins have a way of clouding the lightsome work of the Holy Spirit in bringing us to the new life that prophets and kings longed for, that desire of the everlasting hills. Too easily do we minimize venial sins simply because they are not mortal. And while this is good, venial sins too easily accumulate like soot on a window and hinder the light from getting through.

The problem with venial sins is that because they are light, we make light of them. A BB is not a bowling ball. But thousands of BBs can add up to more than a bowling ball and weigh down the soul. Venial sins can be to us like the death by a thousand cuts. Individually, a venial sin is a small cut, but the collective loss of blood from many of them can leave one increasingly lifeless.

Fr. LaGrange also details another issue that hinders spiritual growth and the enjoyment of the new order grace:

If silence does not reign in our soul, if the voice of excessively human affections troubles it, we cannot of a certainty hear the inspiration to our interior Master. For this reason, the Lord subjects our sensible appetites to severe trials and in a way crucifies them that they may eventually become silent or fully submissive to our will animated by charity. If we are ordinarily preoccupied with ourselves, we shall certainly hear ourselves or perhaps a more perfidious, more dangerous voice which seeks to lead us astray. Consequently our Lord invites us to die to ourselves like the grain of wheat placed in the ground (Ibid).

So the lack of living a reflective life stymies growth and the inheritance of the blessings that the Lord offers. Most people today are in a big hurry. Most people reflect little, if at all. There is little or no interiority. An unreflective life is unmoored. It has little in the way of a destination and little sense of how to progress let alone measure that progress.

But the blessings of the Lord require a stillness and a recollection that says, “Here am I, Lord. Speak, your servant is listening.” Here is the quiet place where we meet the true desire of our heart and of the everlasting hills. Here is where we can finally hear the Lord say, “Blessed are your eyes and blessed are your ears. Indeed, blessed are you.”

In our hurrying about and our preoccupation with the world and our own self, we forfeit many blessings. Dulled in mind by overstimulation and lack of recollection, we cannot have eyes that are blessed because they see the Lord, or ears that are blessed because they hear the Lord, who alone can satisfy.

Tragically, as Fr. LaGrange notes, we hear only our own self and other even more sinister voices. Indeed, how pitiable it is to be no different from our ancestors, who lived before Christ and had not grace!

Don’t block your blessings! Find time to pray and reflect. Find time to seek Him, who alone can fill the God-sized hole in your heart.

Are you blessed more than were the kings and prophets of old who longed for what you have? Only if you have it! Pray and work for that blessedness that Jesus described:

Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (Lk 10:22-24).

Poverty, Anyone? Why the First Evangelical Counsel Is a Gift for Us All

blog image 8.16.15

There are three evangelical counsels in Christianity: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Each, of course, presents challenges, but all are rooted in a similar goal: detachment. In obedience, God gives us the grace to free ourselves from pride and willfulness. In chastity, God gives us the grace to order and moderate our sexual passions according to our state in life, thereby reducing our obsession with their energy. And in poverty, God gives us the grace to suppress our greed and to make moderate, proper use of the things of this world.

For priests and religious, the challenge of obedience looms especially large. It is concerned with both daily matters and long-term ones, such as assignments and where one will live.

Chastity certainly challenges all: married, single, priest, religious, and laity. However, for the married and for priests and religious, chastity can be very workable as long as proper boundaries and structures are in place.

Poverty seems especially challenging to those who are married and have children. In my discussions with family and friends over the years, I’ve learned that the summons to poverty seems irksome, and even improper to many. Some say things like “Father, I have children to raise; I need to provide for them. And have you seen how much college costs these days? We need a decent house to live in. And medical insurance seems to increase by leaps and bounds every year. Poverty for me and my spouse would be foolish.”

Their objections are understandable. However, they are based on the notion that the counsel to poverty means a call to destitution, hand-to-mouth living, or a state in which one owns very little. To be sure, some are called to this sort of poverty. Religious own nothing and share all of what they earn or have with the community to which they belong.

But poverty as a spiritual counsel is deeper than what is in the bank, or the square footage of one’s home, or how much is in the college savings plan or 401-K. The poverty referred to points more to attitudes than assets. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange speaks of the spirit of poverty in this way:

The meaning of this evangelical beatitude is as follows: Blessed are they who have not the spirit of wealth, its pomp, its pride, its insatiable avidity; but who have the spirit of poverty and are humble. … Our Lord counseled voluntary poverty, or detachment in regard to earthly goods … to combat cupidity, the concupiscence of the eyes, the desire of riches, avarice and the forgetfulness of the poor (The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, Vol. 2, Tan Pub. pp. 141-142).

Great humility is necessary for us in our riches, since it is too easy for us to consider ourselves owners of them rather than stewards. That is to say, we are given goods by God to administer in the way He would have us, not merely according to our whims or desires. In his treatise on justice, St Thomas Aquinas says,

It is lawful for man to possess property … [but] with regard to external things [and] their use … in this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need (Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 66, art 2).

Now certainly God would have us care for our own household first. But in an age such as ours, in which abundance knows few limits, the spirit of poverty is a necessary gift from God to help us to rightly assess what is meant by excess and superfluity. For indeed it is from our abundance that we ought to give to the poor and needy. In the lives of parents, the first who are needy are their children. But though charity does begin at home, it does not end there. And thus our notion of the poor and needy is rightly expanded to include many beyond our kith and kin.

Our culture does a poor job of schooling us in what is meant by abundance. Indeed the message today is that we can never have enough and that we absolutely need what we merely want. Is it really necessary for us to have homes of 3,500 square feet and up? Are granite countertops really essential? Are six televisions truly necessary? When have we reached the point at which we can say, “My family and I have what we need, and even a good bit of what we want. Now it is important to give out of our abundance”?

The counsel of poverty is aimed at addressing this prudential judgment. As a poor author who has never met most of you, I cannot give you the precise definition of what it means for you to give out of your abundance prudentially and generously. I cannot lecture you on how you merely want what you think you need. This is ultimately a matter between you and God.

That is why it is important to cultivate what we call the spirit of poverty. By it, we learn to be content with and grateful for what we have. By it, we can say to God, “Thank you, Lord. It is enough.” By the spirit of poverty we learn to be detached from the excesses of this world. By living more simply, we are able to be more generous both with our children and with the poor.

Through voluntary poverty we are freed of many of the extra cares of the world as well as from excessive preoccupation with external and passing things. By travelling lighter, our pace toward God and the Kingdom of Heaven can become more rapid. Our life is simpler and more focused on things that matter; we are less concerned with running after the latest upgrade, less anxious about securing and maintaining all of our many possessions.

A simpler life is less busy, so there is more time for relationships with God and others. There is more time for spiritual reading and edifying things. The goods of our heart and intellect are savored, while the goods of the body are less appealing.

Thus, the counsel of spiritual poverty is, at its heart, the call to a spirit of detachment, disengagement from what is less important in order to connect more closely with what is more important. Thus, poverty is not about less; it is about more. Voluntary spiritual poverty makes room for more of what is good, true, and beautiful; more of what is holy, edifying, and helpful.

By this counsel, God is not asking us to live in destitution. In fact, for parents with children, that might even be irresponsible. But, honestly, does not our obsession with worldly things rob us of more important ones?

Let the Holy Spirit counsel you on what spiritual poverty means for you.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! A Brief Consideration of the Importance of Experience

121014I want to give two thumbs up for good old-fashioned experience, just experiencing life to its top … just having an experience! Too often in today’s hurried age and also in this time of 24×7 news, we rush past experience right to analysis. Too often we insist on knowing immediately what something “means” and what to think about it. This rush to think and analyze often happens before the experience is even over. And, of course, analyzing something before all the facts are in leads to limited, often poor analysis. Two old sayings come to mind:

  1. Don’t Think … Look! – We miss so much of life when we retreat into our brains for immediate analysis. I recently went to an art exhibit called “The Sacred Made Real.” As you walk in, you are handed a thick pamphlet describing each of the works. This is fine, I thought, but before I read a word I wandered through and gazed upon each marvelous work. Some of the works were mysterious to me: “Who was this?” I thought. But the mystery was part of the experience. Only later did I go back and read about each work. I also noticed many people buried in their little pamphlets barely looking at the actual artwork beyond an occasional glance. Most of their time was spent reading. There were others who had headphones on, which allows a better look, but still fills your head with information too soon. Another variant on this saying is “Don’t Think … Listen!” So often when listening to others, we pick up a few words or a sentence and then zap!—our mind lights up as we start thinking about how we’re going to answer them and we miss most of what they are saying to us.
  2. Don’t just do something, stand there. – With all of our activism, we seldom savor life. Few people take a Sabbath rest anymore. Few eat dinner with their families. Few even know how to chill and just relax. Even vacations are often packed so full of activities and destinations that there is little time to actually experience what one is doing. I live near the U.S. Capitol, and observing how some people are so busy taking pictures of it, I wonder if they ever really see or experience the Capitol.

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

  1. It’s a First Holy Communion or perhaps a wedding. As the children come down the aisle, or perhaps the bride, dozens of cameras and cell phones are held aloft. Annoying flashes go off, creating a strobe effect. People scramble to get into better positions for a picture. In recent years, I have had to forbid the use of cameras. For a wedding, the bride and groom are permitted to hire a professional photographer. For First Holy Communion and Confirmation, we permit one professional photographer to take pictures for the entire group. But otherwise, I instruct the assembled people that the point of the Liturgy is to worship God, to pray, and to experience the Lord’s ministry to us. I insist that they put away their cameras and actually experience the Sacrament being celebrated and the mysteries unfolding before them.
  2. A few years ago, I was privileged to be among the chief clergy for a Solemn High Pontifical Mass in the Old Latin Form at the Basilica here in D.C. The liturgy was quite complicated, to be sure. We rehearsed the day before and as the rehearsal drew to a close I said to whole crew of clergy and servers, “OK, tomorrow during the Mass, don’t forget to worship God!” We all laughed because it is possible to get so wrapped up in thinking about what is next, and about what I have to do, that we forget to pray! The next day, I told God that no matter what, I was here to worship Him. I am grateful that He gave me a true spirit of recollection at that Mass. I did mix up a minor detail, but in the end, I experienced God and did not forget to worship Him. Success! Thank you, Lord!
  3. The Mass is underway in a typical Catholic parish. Something remarkable is about to happen: the Lord Jesus is going to speak through the deacon, who ascends the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Yes, that’s right, Jesus Himself will announce the Gospel to us. As the deacon introduces the Gospel, all are standing out of respect. And five hundred pairs of eyes are riveted … on the deacon? No! Many eyes are in fact riveted on the missalette. Halfway through the Gospel, the Church is filled with the sound of hundreds of people turning the pages of their missalettes (with one or two dropping them in the process). Sadly, most lose the experience of the proclamation of God’s Word with their heads buried in a missalette. They may as well have read it on their own. I know, some will argue that this helps them understand the reading better. But the Liturgy is meant to be experienced as a communal hearing of the Word proclaimed.
  4. I celebrate a good number of Wedding Masses in the Old Latin Form. Some years ago, a couple prepared a very elaborate booklet so that people could follow along and understand every detail of the Old Latin Mass. Of itself, it was a valuable resource. They asked me if, prior to Mass, I would briefly describe the booklet and how to use it. I went ahead and did so, but concluded my brief tour of the book by saying, “This is a very nice book and will surely make a great memento of today’s wedding. But if you want my advice, put it aside now and just experience a very beautiful Mass with all its mystery. If you have your head in a book you may miss it and forget to pray. Later on you can read it and study what you have experienced.” In other words, “Don’t think … Look!”
  5. In the ancient Church, the catechumens were initiated into the “Mysteries” (the Sacraments of Initiation) with very little prior instruction as to what would happen. They had surely been catechized in the fundamental teachings of the faith, but the actual details of the celebration of the Sacraments were not disclosed. They were Sacred Mysteries and the disciplina arcanis (the discipline of the secret) was observed. Hence, they simply experienced these things and were instructed as to their deeper meaning in the weeks that followed (in a process known as mystagogia). Hence, experience preceded analysis, understanding, and learning. And the very grace of the experience and the Sacraments provided the foundation for that understanding.

Well, I realize that this post will not be without some controversy. Let me be clear about one point: catechesis is important, but so is experience. And if we rush to analyze and decode everything, we miss a lot. I have taught on the liturgy extensively in this blog ( and will continue to do so. There is a time to study and learn, but there is also a time just to be still and experience what God is actually doing in every liturgy—indeed in every moment of our lives.

Two thumbs up and three cheers for experience.

I realize that some further distinctions ought to be made, but I want to leave that for you who comment. Have at it!

Then, Face to Face. Meditation on Our Desire to Look on the Face of God.


I have a large Icon of Christ in my room (see photo at right). What icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the Look.” No matter where I move in the room, Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality, Icons are windows into heaven. Hence, this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ, it is an image which mediates his presence. When I look upon him, I experience that he knows me. It is a knowing look and a comprehensive look.

The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:13).

But his look in the Icon is not fearsome; it is serene and confident. Hence the text from Hebrews goes on to say, Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Heb 4:14-16)

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. A frequent expression in that Gospel is “And looking at them He said….” Such a phrase or version like it occurs over 25 times in Mark’s Gospel referring to Jesus.

Looking on Christ and allowing him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn 6:40) and the First Letter of John says, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

There is just something within us that seeks the face of God and desires that look of love that alone can heal and perfect us. I often think of this verse from Scripture when I am at Eucharistic Adoration: Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. (Song 2:9). Yes, I long to see the Lord, and the Scripture also speaks of his longing to “see” us.

Here are some scriptures that remind us to seek the face of the Lord and to look to him:

  1. Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually! (1 Chron 16:11)
  2. If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chron 7:14)
  3. You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.” (Ps 27:8)
  4. Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always. (Ps 105:4)
  5. I [the Lord] will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me. (Hosea 5:15)
  6. Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40)
  7. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him. (John 14:21)
  8. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt 5:8)
  9. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. (1 Cor 13:12)
  10. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:6)

An old song says, We shall behold Him, Face to face in all of His glory…The angel will sound, the shout of His coming, And the sleeping shall rise, from their slumbering place. And those remaining shall be changed in a moment. And we shall behold him, then face to face.

Allow Christ to look on you.

This video is a wonderful collection of many of the looks of Jesus and the reaction of the people following those looks. Pay special attention. The video also features a lot of “looks” that come from us. Notice how people look upon Jesus, and how they, as human beings react, as they look on Jesus. Look for the “looks” in this video. The final looks are especially moving.

From Battery Life To Real Life. An Allegory about Dying and Rising in a touching Cartoon

"HONDA ASIMO".  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“HONDA ASIMO”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the greatest paradoxes told to us in the Scriptures is that if we would save our life, we must lose it in Christ (Luke 9:24). That is we must die to this world to inherit eternal life. “Eternal” does not simply refer to the length of the afterlife, but to the fullness of it. To inherit eternal life is to become fully alive.

This idea that we must die to ourselves to go up to something higher is really evident all throughout nature. And thus minerals, such as carbons, and other aspects of the soil are taken up into the plants by being leached out of the soil. But in so doing, they “come to life” in the plant and are no longer simply inert minerals. Plants too must die and be taken up into the animal that eats them. But in so doing become part of sentient life. And animals to must die, being taking up into the human person. But in so doing they go up higher, to a richer life I joined to the life of a person with a soul Who ponders meaning, studies the stars, writes poetry, and knows God. And Man too must die to himself, die to this world, to be swept up in the life of the Trinity in the glory of Heaven. In every stage, we die to something lower, to go to something higher.

The cartoon below is a very moving story, which requires us to suspend some notions of reality. Obviously robots do not have consciousness and feelings, but this one does. The robot is sent to the home of an older woman to take care of her.

And as the robot is taking out-of-the-box, and his switch is put on,  at first he behaves just like a robot, going through mechanical chores, mechanically. But in its association with this woman, he begins to go up higher. Dying to itself and serving this woman puts it in association with her. And this relationship begins to give it almost human traits: love and loyalty, joy and sorrow, even desire. We see his first change as he admires a sunset, in imitation of his lady mistress. The lesson here is that we learn what it means to be more fully human from one another and by gazing into the light of God’s glory.

It seems that the circus is coming to town, and Oh know how the robot wants to go. The tickets are purchased, and the anticipation builds.

But one thing we notice, is that through the story, this robot lives on battery power. And no matter how good no battery power is, it can only get you so far before it lets you down.

The day of the Circus arrives, and Oh the joy that waits. But alas, his mistress dies that very day. Misunderstanding the higher life he has been serving, he tries to revive her by putting batteries in her pockets. But no amount of batteries can help, for the power this world is powerless over death. Upon her death he sits gazing at the sunset remembering a time when he first began to experience life.

We who view the the story know that the robot cannot long last, for the battery power, which symbolizes the things of this world, is sure to fail. Sure enough, five days later, his lights go out, and his eyes close in a kind of death.

But in dying, we are born to eternal life. And suddenly his eyes open, in a world brighter than he has ever known. And there she is! His mistress, the one he served. She has come to walk with him to the circus, a circus far more glorious than he could have imagined. In dying to his battery life, he is gone to real and eternal life.

But Father, but Father, robots don’t have life. I know, it is just a story. But like every story, it’s about you and me. For now, we are like servants, on battery life. And we learn what it means to be more fully human from one another, and gazing at the light of God’s glory. But to become fully alive requires that one day our battery finally dies. And then a new and more glorious life awaits if we faithfully serve in the house of mother Church, in the house of God’s kingdom. In losing our life for the Lord and his kingdom be we gain it back more richly. From Battery life to real life.