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.

On the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive Stages of Spiritual Life, as seen in a Cartoon

110813In the spiritual journey, there are generally denoted three basic stages through which the soul must pass that draws us to deeper union with God: the Purgative, the Illuminative and the Unitive.

And those who seek union with God must realize that such union, while always the gift of God, requires process, often painful, that must pave the way the way for that union. For, if a box is filled with sand, it cannot be filled with gold dust. The sand must be emptied, the vessel cleaned, and then there is the room for the Gold of God’s presence.

The touching Aniboom cartoon below illustrates these stages. Briefly stated the stages described are these.

1. The Purgative Stage – In this stage the soul our desires and affections must be purged of attractions to sin. The disorder caused by sin must be set right by the Lord, for a disordered soul cannot perceive or appreciate well the glory and beauty of God. The distractions of the world must be diminished and wrongful passions, attachments, and evil inclinations must be subjugated so that we can more easily overcome temptations, and preserve and exercise charity. There is a focus, in this stage of uprooting the remnants and habits of former sins, perhaps through mortifications, the practice of austerity and simplicity, and the submitting of our will to be in conformity to the will of God. We seek to diminish and purge the attraction of wrongful or excessive pleasures. We also seek to diminish our natural shrinking from pain and to develop a repugnance to whatever is contrary to the will of God. The main virtue of this state to be cultivated is humility, which help us be aware of our own weakness and or our dependance on the grace of God.

In the video a young son seeks to be close to his father and enjoy his presence. The father is delighted at his enthusiastic love but must gently show the son that other necessary duties have not been attended to yet. The room of his life is not in good order, and must be rendered as such before he can come and sit close to his father. He shows his son what must be done. And the son to his credit runs to put things in order. The purgative way is not underway.

2. The Illuminative way – Those in this stage have made progress and have their passions better under control, so that they easily keep themselves from mortal sin, but still do not easily avoid venial sins since they still take pleasure in earthly things and are distracted by various imaginations and desires, not all of which are necessary unlawful but may get in the way of deeper union with God. The mind becomes more and more enlightened (illumined) to spiritual things and the practice of virtue. Love is stronger and the soul seeks progress in the spiritual life and in all the virtues. But purgation is still somewhat incomplete, and the purification of the senses is not yet finished. There are also aridities, difficulties, and trials, sometimes more severe than in the past and the need to endure suffering from temptations.

In the video, the young boy makes progress, but he still has not fully understood or implemented what must take place before the deepest union is possible. Twice his father must correct him and help him to see, to be illumined as to what is needed. But in stages the young boy is understanding and conforming.

3. The Unitive Way – This the way of those who have their minds detached from temporal things such that they enjoy great peace, and are not agitated by various desires nor moved to any great extent by sinful passion. Having been largely purged of these things, they have their minds fixed chiefly on God. It is called “unitive” since at this stage, there is a union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love.

And thus, in the video, the young boy having been led through stages by his father is now able to enjoy close union with him. His life is now in good order. There is a beautiful detail at the end of how his original desire to play a video game with his father is now deepened and he is content merely rest in union with his Father, for his own sake and not for some pleasure outside his Father’s embrace.

The video is not perfect. It shows a father who points to what must be done but does not otherwise assist his son. Obviously in terms of grace, we cannot make any progress through these stages with out God’s absolute assistance. Nevertheless it is a lovely video that rather nicely illustrates the stages of our growth toward intimacy with God.

Enjoy:

A simple but powerful definition of prayer.

102113I have read many definitions of prayer. I have been especially fond of St Therese’s description.

But one of the nicest and briefest descriptions of prayer I have read comes from Dr. Ralph Martin, in his book The Fulfillment of All Desire. Dr. Martin says beautifully, in a way that is succinct and yet comprehensive and inclusive of diverse expression:

Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God (p. 121).

Such a wonderful image: paying attention to God. Imagine that, actually paying attention to God. So simple, yet so often overlooked.

More traditionally I have heard prayer defined as “conversation with God.” True enough, and well attested. But the definition sheds less light since many, while able to grasp the talking part of conversation, are less able to grasp or appreciate the listening part of a conversation. And thus, there can be a lot of emphasis on recited prayers, intercessory prayers, etc., good in themselves and even required, yet, when and how does one listen?

One could theoretically recite long prayers, but in the end pay little attention to God. This is not usually for malicious or prideful motive, but often simply to due the fact that our minds are very weak. And thus the “conversation” definition has pitfalls and limits.

But how different to go to prayer saying, “I am going to go aside now and spend some time paying attention to God. I am going to sit still and listen, while he speaks. I am going to think on his glory, rejoice in his true, and ponder as deeply as I can his presence.”

Paying attention to God can take many forms. Preeminently there is the slow, thoughtful and deliberate reading of Scripture called lectio divina. We are not merely reading a text, we are listening to God speak, we are paying attention to what he says. And as we listen, as we pay attention to him, our minds begin to change, and the Mind of Christ becomes our gift.

Another preeminent way of paying attention to God is Eucharistic Adoration. A thoughtful attentive and loving look to the Lord as our thoughts gently move to him and his loving look returns often wordless but powerful presence.

Further, in authentic and approved spiritual reading we pay attention to God in a way that is mediated through his Saints, mystics and other reputable writers and sources. Good, wholesome and approved spiritual reading presents the Kingdom of God, his Wisdom and vision to us. And in carefully considering holy teaching, we are paying attention to God.

And of course the highest form of paying attention to God is when we attend to him in the Sacred Liturgy, experiencing his presence and power, listening to his word proclaimed thoughtfully and reflectively. Attending to his presence on the sacred altar, and receiving him with attentiveness and devotions.

There are countless ways throughout the day where we can take a moment and pay attention to God. Momentary aspirations, a quick thought sent heavenward, a look of love.

I will say no more here. For so much is beautifully and simply conveyed in the words: Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God.

Some Hard Spiritual Truths That Will Set You Free. A Meditation on a Teaching from St. John of the Cross

I have written before on Five Hard Truths That Will Set You Free. In this post I would like to ponder Some Hard Spiritual truths that will set us free.

In calling them “hard truths,” I mean that they are not the usual cozy bromides that many seek. They speak bluntly about the more irksome and difficult realities we confront. But, if we come to accept them, they have a strange way of bringing serenity by getting us focused on the right things, instead of chasing after false dreams.

For it sometimes happens that a person can spend his whole life being resentful that life isn’t peachy, forgetting all the while that we are in exile, that we are making a hard journey, we pray,  to a life where, one day,  every sorrow and difficultly is removed, and death and sorrow are no more. But not now.

There is a kind of unexpected serenity in living in the world as it is, rather than resenting the world for not being what we want it to be. For now, the journey is hard and we have to be sober about our obtuse desires and destructive tendencies. And that is why there is a value in calling these insights, “hard truths that will set us free.”

In the very opening section of his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross lays out a presumed worldview that the spiritually mature ought to have attained. And because he presumes it of his reader, he states it only briefly.

Yet, for us who live in times not known for spiritual maturity, we ought to slow down for a moment and ponder these truths which are not only poorly understood, but even actively resisted today by many who call themselves wise and spiritually mature.

Remember now, these are hard truths, and many today wish to bypass the harder teachings of God. Thus we do well to pay special attention to a Spiritual Master who is deeply immersed in Scripture, as a remedy for the soft excesses of our modern times.

Lets first look at the quote from St. John and then, by way of a list, examine his points. With this preamble of sorts, St. John begins his Spiritual Canticle:

The soul… has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short (Job 14:5), the path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14), the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18), the things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2), that all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14), and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything – of the beginning of her life as well as the later part – unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12), and that it is already late – and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29) – to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures, Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved…

Let us look at these hard but freeing spiritual insights one by one, with  commentary by me, in red.

The soul has grown aware of her obligations and observed

1. That life is short (Job 14:5).

More than any other age we entertain the illusion that death can be easily postponed. It cannot be. We are not guaranteed the next beat of our heart, let alone tomorrow! It is true that with advances in medical science, sudden death from lesser causes it not as frequent today. But too easily this leads us to entertain the notion that we can cheat death. We cannot.

Life remains short, and we do not get to choose when we will die. Both my mother, and sister died on a sudden, were swept away in an instant. They never got to say goodbye. You do not know if you will even finish this sentence before or article before death summons you.

This is wisdom. It is a hard truth that gives us an important perspective. Life is short and you don’t have a calendar to know how short.

What are you doing to get ready to meet God? What are you getting worked up about and what are not concerned about? Are your priorities rooted in the truth that life is short? Or are you waging bets in a foolish game where the house (death and this world) always wins on its terms and not yours?

There is a strange serenity and freedom in realizing that life is short. We do not get as worked up about passing things, and we become more invested in lasting things, and the things to come.

2. The path leading to eternal life constricted (Mt. 7:14) 

Another illusion we entertain today is that salvation is a cinch, that it is a done deal. The “heresy” of our time is a kind of universal salvation that denies the consistently repeated biblical teach which declares: Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt 7:13-14 inter al).

In parable after parable, warning after warning, Jesus speaks with sober admonition about the reality of hell and the closing reality of judgment. No one loves you more than Jesus, and no warned you about Hell and Judgment more than Jesus.

Salvation is not easy, it is hard. Jesus said this, not me. This is not because God is mean, it is because we are stubborn, obtuse and prefer the darkness to light. We need to sober up about our stubbornness and our tendencies to prefer “other arrangements” to what God offers and teaches. In the end, God will respect our choice and there comes a day when our choice for or against the Kingdom and its values will be sealed forever.

This is a hard saying, but it sets us free from the awful sin of presumption, a sin against hope and instills in us a proper priority for the work that is necessary to root us in God. Accepting this hard truth will free you from silly and baseless presumption. It will make you more serious about your spiritual life and aware of the need for prayer, sacraments, Scripture and the Church. It will help you have better priorities that are less obsessed with passing worldly things and people, and be more rooted in what it eternal. It will make you more evangelical and urgent to save souls. It will turn you to Jesus and away from Belial and passing pathetic worldly things.

3. That the just one scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18) 

Here is a further truth that sets aside modern errors about an almost universal salvation. The fuller context of the quote is this: For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

And yet, despite this and many other quotes and teachings like it, we go one presuming that almost everyone will go to heaven. We set aside God’s Word, for human errors and wishful thinking. We substitute human assurances for God’s warnings. We elevate ourselves over St. Paul who said that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and spoke of disciplining himself, lest, after preaching to others, he should be lost (1 Cor 9:27). Are we better and more enlightened that Jesus? Than Paul, Than Peter?

Salvation is hard. This is not meant to panic us, but it is meant to sober us to the need for prayer, Sacraments, Scripture and the Church. Without these medicines we don’t stand a chance. And we must persevere to the end.

This hard truth sets us free from illusion and sends us running to the Lord who alone can save us. Smug presumption roots us in the world, Godly fear and sober awareness of our stubborn and unrepentant hearts sends us to Jesus and this frees us.

4. The things of the world vain and deceitful (Eccles. 1:2)

Such a freeing truth. First that the things of this world are vain. That is to say, they are empty, passing, and vapid. We so exult power, popularity, and worldly glories. But they are gone in a moment. Who was Miss America in 1974? Who won the Heisman Trophy in that same year? If you know, do you really care and does it really matter? Empty show, glitter and fools gold, yet we spend billions and watch this stuff forever.

And even though we should fight for justice, for the sake of the kingdom, even here the Scriptures counsel some perspective: I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. (Ps 37:35-36).

And how deceitful is this passing world.! The main deceit of this world is to say, “I am what you exist for, I am what matters, I am what satisfies.” Lies and deceptions on all counts. The form of this world is passing away. It cannot supply our infinite desires. Our hearts were made for God, and only being with him one day will satisfy.

Yet so easily do we listen to the world’s seduction and lies. Too often we want to be lied to and prefer to chase illusions, vanity and indulge deceit.

How freeing this truth is, if we can lay hold of it. We learn to make use of what we need, but begin to lose our obsession with vain and passing things, and our insatiable desire for more. Yes, perhaps you can live without that granite counter top.

This is a very freeing truth if we can accept its hard reality. And becoming more free a deeper serenity finds us.

5. That all comes to an end and fails like falling water (2 Sam. 14:14)

The world is passing away. It can’t secure your future. The world cruel lies that it can supply you is on display in every graveyard. So much for the world’s empty promises: “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die.

Meditate on death often. Indeed, every night the Church bids us to rehearse our death in night prayer by the reciting of the Nunc Dimittis.

Scripture says, For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:14). Do you have your sights fixed where true joys are? Or are you like Lot’s wife?

Let this truth free you to have proper perspective. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1).

6. And that the time is uncertain. 

You got plans for tomorrow? Great, so do I. Only problem, tomorrow is not promised or certain. Neither is the next beat of your heart. Another hard, but freeing truth.

7. The accounting strict

Jesus warns,  But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). St. Paul says, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart (1 Cor 4:5). And adds, So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-10). And James chillingly says, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12-13) What he says is chilling since so many are without mercy today.

If God judges us with the same strict justice we often dish out, we don’t stand a chance. The accounting will be strict, so don’t pile on with unnecessary severity and wrath toward others.

Here is another freeing truth that helps us take heed of the coming judgement.

8. Perdition very easy – I wonder why he might have repeated this? I just wonder….!

9. And salvation very difficult – Hmm… look he repeated this too! I wonder why? Maybe repetition is the mother of studies.

10. [That we are often and strangely ungrateful and unmoved] She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for Himself, and that for this she owes Him the service of her whole life; and because He redeemed her solely for Himself she owes Him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished,

Here is a sober truth that calls us to remember. What does it mean to remember? To remember means to have present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful and different. 

And yet we live so many years and hours of the day in ingratitude. We get all worked up resentful about the smallest setbacks, and almost totally ignore the trillions of blessings each day.

In a sense our ingratitude is obnoxiously massive because of the easy manner with which we mindlessly receive and discount incredibly numerous blessings, and magnify every suffering setback or trial. So much of our life passes in the complaint department. And so commonly we are stingy with even a simple “Thank you Lord, for all your obvious and hidden blessings, thank you Lord for creating, sustaining and loving me to the end, and for inviting me to know, Love and serve you.

11. That she must render an account of everything – of the beginning of her life as well as the later part – unto the last penny (Mt. 5:25) when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles (Zeph. 1:12) – Did he repeat himself again? Now why do you suppose he does that?! You don’t think he considers us stubborn, do you?

12. and that it is already late – and the day far spent (Lk. 24:29) – to remedy so much evil and harm. Repetitio mater studiorum

13. [That the unrepentant will experience the wrath to come]She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget Him so in the midst of creatures,

The wrath of God is really in us, not in God. It is our experience of discomfort before the holiness of God. It is like being used to a dark room, and suddenly being brought into the bright afternoon sunlight. We protest and say the light is harsh. But the light is not harsh. We are incapable of tolerating the light due to our preference for and acclamation to the dark. In the same way God is not  “mad” He is not moody or harsh. He is God. And God does not change.

Thus St. John teaches here, the hard but freeing truth that God is holy and no one is going to walk into his presence unprepared. If we prefer the world and its creatures to the Creator, we thereby prefer the darkness and cannot tolerate the light. Heaven is simply not possible for those who prefer the darkness. And thus Jesus says, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19) – That’s right, just three verses after John 3:16

And while the sinful soul may “feel” that God is angry and hiding himself, the problem is in the sinful soul, not God.

The freedom of this hard saying comes in reminding us, and urging us to get ready to meet God. He is not going to change. He can’t change. So we have to change, and by his grace, become the light of his holiness.

14. [We Need to Call on the Savior] – Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with the love for God, she begins to call her Beloved

And yes, here is the real point of all these hard truths: to make us love our savior more, learn to depend on him, and run to him as fast as we can. Only when we know the hard truths are we really going to be all that serious.

After all, who goes to the doctor? One who is convinced he has no cancer (even though he does). Or the one who knows he’s got it bad and that ain’t good? The answer is self evident.

Bad sadly the answer is self-evident enough to this current generation where, even in the Church, there are so many who don’t want to discuss any of the hard and sober truths we need to lay hold of before we get serious.

A steady diet of “God loves you and all is well, no matter what…” has emptied our pews. Why? Well, who goes to the spiritual hospital if all they hear is that nothing is wrong and that their salvation is secure, almost no matter what?

The good news of the gospel has little impact when the bad news is no longer understood. What does salvation mean if there is no sin and nothing to be saved from? Now of course the bad news should not be preached without pointing to the good news. But the point is that both are needed.

Thus, St. John’s hard truths are not meant to discourage. They are meant to sober us and send us running to the doctor.

Now look,  you’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But the Good news is, there is a doctor in the house. Run to him now, he’s calling you!

The Church is God’s Lampstand in Dark Times – A Meditation on a saying from St. Maximus

101713There is a helpful word of reminder given by Saint Maximus the Confessor, one of the Fathers of the Church that was in the Breviary yesterday. I want to rework the order of what he writes, if only for the purpose of applying it to the times in which we live. But for the sake of respect here is the original quote as he sets it forth.

This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church. For while the Word was hidden under the bushel, that is, under the letter of the law, it deprived all men of eternal light. For then it could not give spiritual contemplation to men striving to strip themselves of a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. But the Word wills to be set upon a lampstand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the Spirit, that it may enlighten all men. For the letter, when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind.

From an inquiry addressed to Thalassius by Saint Maximus the Confessor, abbot (Quaest. 63: PG 90, 667-670)

Thus let us look at this teaching in three sections –

1. The Problem of the Flesh –St Maximus explains well the deadening effects of the flesh in coming to grasp the beauty and sublimity of God’s Word, of his vision for our lives. He therefore speaks of those living in the flesh who indulge a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own.

We who live in the increasingly decadent and self indulgent West need to be sober about these words, first of all for our very selves.  All day long we are bombarded with temptations to sensuality, self indulgence and almost complete preoccupation with the flesh.

Biblically the “flesh” is more than just our body, it is more generally our rebellious sin-nature. It is that part of us that is resentful of any instruction, limits or being told what what to do. It doesn’t want to have a thing to do with God and prefers the darkness to light.

Yet “the Flesh” is very connected to bodily sensuality and St. Maximus emphasizes this here. Sins related to the body especially regarding sight, taste and touch, are not the most serious sins (sins against the spirit are). But they are among the most disgraceful because of their capacity to cloud our intellect and to make rather obvious truths seem extreme or less obvious. This effect on the intellect is disgraceful, since our intellect is our glory and the clouding of the intellect by sensuality amounts to a kind of fall from grace.

We must stay on guard from the indulgence of the flesh so easily available today lest we soon discover that our intellect is clouded and finds the clear light of God’s vision too strong or “harsh.” In excessive self indulgence, any call to self denial seems arduous, even obnoxious. In excessive sensuality, any appeal to matters spiritual seems strange, foreign, even threatening.

And this is what the Church is largely facing today in trying to preach to an increasingly decadent, excessively sensual world. While these tendencies can be ascribed to the fallen human condition, perhaps as at no other time, the capacity to indulge the flesh has never been greater. Almost endless and often instant self gratifications and diversions  have become available. There are a wealth of comforts today that Kings and Queens of old never dreamed of.

Synonymous with the onset of this extreme sensuality has come the darkening of the intellect such that some of us, who by God’s grace alone have been spared some of the worst trends of modern culture must often ask with dismay, “How can people get this confused?”

St. Maximus supplies the general answer. [They have indulged] a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. In other words, the flesh cannot perceive the things of spirit. And once the flesh gains ascendency in the human psyche it capacity to appreciate anything other than the flesh and sensuality becomes increasingly eclipsed.

Thus St. Maximus adds, For the letter [of the Law], when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind.

And thus the plainest and most beautiful utterances of God’s moral and spiritual vision make little impact on many moderns who see God’s glorious call to human freedom from the slavery to passions, as intrusive, limiting, intolerant, even hateful. No matter how deep the darkness of indulgent flesh gets, it seems the proposed answer by the fleshly is always going to be to further indulge the flesh. And herein is manifest the darkening of the intellect, and human spirit, that the indulgence of the flesh brings about. Paradoxically, indulging the physical senses leads us to have senseless minds.

St. Paul says, Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and their senseless minds were darkened….Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another….to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:18ff)

Homosexuality and other sexual sins are not the only manifestation of the flesh’s darkening impact. For St. Paul goes on to state other ills proceeding from ascendent flesh, reduced spirit, and darkened intellect: They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom 1:-29-32)

Yes, the flesh is deceitful, blinding and degrading. It makes us hostile to the more elevated things of both the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. You might almost think that St. Paul had visited our Century.

2. The Passion of the Lord – In the face of this cancerous situation, what does the Lord want? St. Maximus says here: This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church….

And therefore God continues to speak forth his Word. He continues to let the light of His truth shine forth. He has a passion to call his wayward children home. Too easily we are  like the foolish prodigal who had wandered off. Yet the Father never stopped looking. And when the foolish prodigal took one step back, the Father took two, and started running.

For as once the Eternal Father uttered the WORD of his Son, and through this one Word all creation came forth, thus this Logos (Word) imbued all creation with the “logike” (logic) or impression of his will and glory.

Sadly in our fallen condition, many indulging the fallen flesh no longer love or appreciate the logike, the Logos or the Father who utters the Logos.

Yet still the Father speaks the Word, the Logos. He has a passion that will not end to summon all his fallen children back to the glory of his Word. And his Word, Jesus, has a passion too. The Word must still go forth! As Maximus teaches.

3. The Purpose of the Church – But how? And as we can see, St Maximus says how. This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church.the Word wills to be set upon a lampstand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the Spirit, that it may enlighten all men.

And here then is our role as the Church, to be the lampstand on which God sets his word to enlighten all. And, as Maximus says, through our “rational” (a spiritual worship, rooted in truth), we are to enlighten all.

There is of course a lot of tension in the past 60 years or so about what in the Church needs updating and where we must be unwavering. Clearly our Dogma and Doctrine, though they may develop and become more deeply what they are, still they cannot change. Yes the languages and modes of communications may alter, but not the message. We need to be clearer about this than we have. Too many have the impression that eventfully we will “see the light” and come come round to worldly thinking.

But those who speak this way do not understand that our mission is not reflect worldly “lights” but to set forth the LIGHT of the world Jesus. We are to speak this Word, not parrot the passing words or “lights” of this world.

The Church must continue to set out the lamp of God’s Word, Jesus. And while light may bring different things to light, the Light itself never changes. And though translated into a thousand different languages, the Word himself does not change or mutate.

Note too the reference to Liturgy by Maximus wherein we are formed by God unto “rational worship.” The Sacred liturgy both forms and conforms us to the truth of God and the truth about ourselves. We become the Word we hear proclaim, and the Word made Flesh whom we receive. The Church must ever undertake her sacred liturgy with joy, reverence and profound attentiveness. And old saying goes, “Save the Liturgy, save the World.”

Yes, the Church is but the lampstand on which God sets his Light. It is God’s Light that must shine. We can do no other. She is the pulpit from which he proclaims His Word.

St Peter richly combines Word and Light when he says, we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic Word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. (1 Peter 1:18-19)

And St. Paul adds, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)

Yes, we can do no other. The world has lately indulged the blindness of the flesh, But the Father has not stopped uttering his Word and setting forth the light of his truth. On account of this we can do no other, for we are his instrument, we are his lampstand.

On humility in prayer

101013I, perhaps like you, have to see folks I love and care about through some difficult periods in their life. One neighbor and parishioner just lost her eight year old daughter to cancer. A number of parishioners are seeking work and praying daily for it, but no work offers seem forth-coming. Still others cry out for the alleviation of any number of different crosses. I too have lots of things for which I pray, and sometimes I get discouraged or even angry when God seems to say, “no” or, “wait.”
One thing I have surely learned about true prayer, and that it is, I have to be humble, very humble. The Scriptures say, we do not know how to pray as we ought (Romans 8:26). Many other translations of this text say even more emphatically: We do not know what we ought to pray for. Yes, it is true, and yet we are often so sure of what is best for us, or best for others. But what we find the desirable outcome is not necessarily the best outcome. And this insight requires of us great humility. We see so little and understand even less. When we ask for some outcome, and it is not wrong to do so, we need to ask humbly. God alone knows the best answer and when to answer. This is humility.
There is an old teaching that basically goes: Many think of prayer as trying to get God to do your will. But true prayer is trying to understand what God’s will is and do it. I heard and African American preacher put it this way:
You got a lotta people that talk about naming and claiming, and calling and hauling…But there’s just something about saying, “THY will be done!” that we’ve forgot.
It’s not wrong to ask. The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). But we do need to ask with great humility because, truth be told, we don’t really know what is best. James and John came to Jesus one day seeking high positions in the new administration (Kingdom). Jesus said to them, You don’t know what you are asking (Mk 10:38). And the truth is, we don’t.
So ask, but ask humbly.
St. Augustine writes beautifully on this matter in his letter to Proba:
Paul himself was not exempt from such ignorance….To prevent him from becoming puffed-up over the greatness of the revelations that had been given to him, he was given….a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, he asked the Lord three times to take it away from him…..even such a great saint’s prayer had to be refused: My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)
So when we are suffering afflictions that might be doing us either good or harm, [we ought to remember that] we do not to know how to pray as we ought. [B]ecause they are hard to endure and painful, because they are contrary to our nature (which is weak) we, like all mankind, pray to have our afflictions taken from us. [But], we owe this much respect to the Lord our God, that if he does not take our afflictions away, we should not consider ourselves ignored and neglected. But [rather, we] should hope to gain some greater good through the patient acceptance of suffering. For my power is at its best in weakness.
These words are written so that we should not be proud of ourselves…. when we ask for something it would be better for us not to get; and also that we should not become utterly dejected if we are not given what we ask for, despairing of God’s mercy towards us. [I]t might be that what we have been asking for could have brought us some still greater affliction, or it could completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity. In such cases, it is clear that we cannot know how to pray as we ought.
Hence if anything happens contrary to our prayer [request], we ought to bear the disappointment patiently, give thanks to God, and be sure that it was better for God’s will to be done than our own.
The Mediator himself has given us an example of this. When he had prayed, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by, he transformed the human will that was in him because he had assumed human nature and added: Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. Thus, truly, By the obedience of one man many have been made righteous. (St Augustine Letter to Proba (Ep 130 14.25ff)
This song reminds us that the answer to our prayers is often caught up in the paradox of the cross:

On the Problem of Arrested Spiritual Development

“Tiptoes”  by John Markos O'Neill from San Francisco, California  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Tiptoes” by John Markos O’Neill from San Francisco, California Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Consider a five year old child who, though physically the size of a five year old, had not yet learned to talk or walk, who could only lay in his crib and who ate no solid food, only mother’s milk. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy. It would be a case of arrested development. And surely, as he failed to pass expected milestones and make the usual progress in maturity, his parents would consult doctors and experts in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and a cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.

Now, compare the response above to the usual response to arrested development in the spiritual order.

Consider a young adult, say 25, who had gone on to physical maturity, and even earned a college degree. Perhaps he has just landed a job in a cutting edge field and is both technically smart and talented. But, despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested and he has progressed little since second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward since, in second grade, he still knew his Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary.

Now, though thank God, he still goes to Mass, he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows there is a God and has heard about Jesus but does not know for sure if Jesus is God, he thinks so but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible’s existence but cannot name all four Gospels and would not even be sure exactly where to find them in the book. He’d eventually find them but it would take a lot of time. Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, Judas, et al., sound familiar to him, but he cannot tell you much about them, except that they are in the Bible. He has heard the word sacrament but cannot give an example of one and is not sure he’s received them or if that is just something priests and nuns get. Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does not know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to say it, he gets stuck since there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He DOES know the Our Father though! We have to give him that.

Now, mind you, this is a smart guy, he has a lot of knowledge in his field which is highly technical. A lot of people seek him for technical advice and he is a real problem solver in the corporation, keeping the computers and other critical peripherals updated and in good functioning order. But spiritually he is an infant.

The interesting question is, why did his parents and parishioners not experience alarm as they noted arrested spiritual development in him? As he began to go from second grade to third and forth, not only did NOT progress, but he actually got worse. Why did his parents not sound an alarm? Why did the pastor and catechists not experience shock that he seemed to show no progress in the Spiritual life? As his age drew him into high school, not only did his knowledge of the faith not increase but his moral life now began to slide. Soon his language grew bad, he resented authority, was looking at porn on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not really alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time. But no one seemed to notice or care.

But, by God, when almost failed a math course his parents went into action and hired a tutor! After all, this might threaten his getting into a good college! But his failure to grow spiritually never much fazed them. When he went to college they drove up with him, looked at the dorms, met a few of his teachers and attended orientation sessions for new students. But they never thought to meet the College Chaplain or ever to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. You know, that sort of stuff doesn’t really occur to you to ask about.

Well, you get the picture:

  1. It starts, really, with low expectations. Most people don’t really expect that they should grow much in their faith. Advanced knowledge and deep prayer are for priests and nuns. Too many lay people just don’t expect much, and thus are not alarmed when they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
  2. Further, the faith is sort of a side issue to many. What really matters is that you study hard to get a career that will unlike the American Dream. Never mind that worldly things don’t last, or that it’s pointless and harmful to climb the ladder of success when it is leaning up against the wrong wall. We’ll think about all that tomorrow. For now just keep pursuing your dreams.
  3. Finally the sense that faith really matters at all is muted today when many have an unbiblical view that almost everyone goes to heaven. This removes any motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living it in a counter-cultural way. To put it in a worldly way: why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the paycheck has already been deposited, and you’ll get paid no matter what, and can never lose your job?

Scripture – So here we are with a lot Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says:

  1. We have much to say….but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14)
  2. Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Cor 3:1-2)
  3. Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)
  4. My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” (Jer 4:22)
  5. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1 Cor 13:11)
  6. It was [the Lord] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4:11-15)

So then, Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is

  • To be constantly growing in our faith.
  • To go from mother’s milk (of elementary doctrines) to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
  • To go from being young students to mature teachers.
  • To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and also a behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
  • To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
  • To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
  • To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.

Yes, this is the normal Christian life. Maturity pertains to the human person in general and it certainly ought to pertain to men and women of faith. I pray you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.

But many are not Maturing. And I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this as the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is really far stranger and far more tragic than a five year old still lying in a crib, speechless and on mother’s milk. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math and needs a tutor. To fail math may impact college and a career, but these are passing consequences. To fail in faith impacts eternity, not just for me but others.

Why are we so serious about passing worldly threats and not so about threats that have eternal consequences? In the end arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. A parent may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given their children nothing but sand slipping thorough their fingers.

Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God we get our priorities straight and make sure we ourselves and everyone grows up in the Lord. It is true that we must accept the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it. But this text refers to our dependance not our ignorance. God made us to know him and to fail in this way is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.

 

I Want to Make Heaven My Home: what an ancient Biblical event can teach us about life today

092413In daily Mass for the past number of days we’ve been reading from the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. These books deal with the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity.

Most modern-day Christians have only a passing knowledge of these aspects of ancient Jewish history and these events may seem to have little to say to us. But in fact, they speak quite powerfully of very important human struggles today. Thus, a review of these historical events seems in order, as well as an application of them to our life and struggles today.

To begin, the Jewish people, as descendants of Abraham, received the promise of a Land to call their own. This Holy and Promised Land, in the region of Palestine, was shown to Abraham, and his descendants dwelt there briefly.

However, due to famine, Abraham’s grandson Jacob, and his 12 sons moved to Egypt. Thankfully, one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, going on ahead to Egypt had become the Prime Minister of Pharaoh. So Jacob and his sons were warmly welcomed there, even if Joseph’s presence there had been due to the devilish means of his brothers.

And yet, sadly, there was a Pharaoh that arose who knew not Joseph (Ex 1:8), and in short order, the people of Israel were enslaved for over 400 years in Egypt! The Holy and Promised Land now seemed a distant, even a cruel memory.

But God, with strong hand and outstretched arm, through Moses and Joshua did finally lead them into the land of promise. And, as they entered there, God warned them sternly as detailed in the book of Deuteronomy, that the blessings would be theirs in abundance, but if they did not keep the Law, many curses would come upon them.

Sadly, as we know, the Law was not kept. It is the human condition, we rebel even when we are warned. And though prophet after prophet warned Israel and Judah to repent, the repentance was not forthcoming.

Thus, in 721 BC the Assyrians laid waste the whole of the northern Kingdom of Israel and ten of the Tribes were swept away, the so-called “Ten lost Tribes of Israel.” Judah in the south along with the Levites alone remained.

And in Judah too, after a brief period of reform, the people descended into sinful disregard of God’s Law again. After many warnings from the prophets, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, along with the Temple. They carried off the survivors of that war to live in exile in Babylon.

As they were led there, they sang this song, and swore a kind of vow: If I ever forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! (Psalm 137).

While in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah instructed the people that they would tarry there for about 80 years, but they should not forget the Lord! They should still live according to his ways and remember that he would one day lead them back to their land.

In an almost miraculous turn of events, within eighty years, the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and God inspired Cyrus, the King of the Persians, not only to allow the Jewish people to return to their Land, but he even offered a sum of money to help them in rebuilding!

But many of the Jewish people had begun to set down roots in Babylon. Some became successful there, indeed many. And thus, many of the people who heard this news that they could return to the Land of blessing and promise, were not all that thrilled by it.

The Holy Land, was, for most of them, either a distant memory, or a place they had never been to in the first place. Many had become very accustomed to Babylon thinking, “Sure, it’s a little hot here in the summer, but I own a nice little jewelry shop on the corner Tigris and Euphrates Avenues…My kid is the captain of the basketball team at Babylon U. Why should I go to all the trouble of journeying some 500 miles across the desert, to go to a ruined land, no matter how promised or holy?… I’ve got it pretty good here.”

And, so many of the descendants of those who sang, “If I ever forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…” did indeed forget Jerusalem! And note this, the Land that was now available to them was not just any land, it was Holy Land! It was a place of promise and a place of God’s blessings.

For most of us modern Westerners, Land is simply something own, perhaps for a time. And when it is no longer useful, we sell it. But in the ancient world land was sacred, and the Holy Land for the Jewish people, was the most sacred of all. The refusal to return to the Sacred and Promised Land is spiritually very significant.

Nevertheless, most preferred to stay in Babylon. Only a small remnant, with Ezra & Nehemiah made the journey and began the work of rebuilding.

And in all of this, is a kind of paradigm, a kind of moral lesson for us. For, it is too easy for us to prefer the “Babylon” of this world to the Holy and Promised Land of Heaven. Somehow, we perceive, (and rightly so) that the journey to Heaven is not an easy one, requiring some sacrifices and the forsaking of the things of this world.

For many of us the journey can seem too hard, just too much trouble, and so we give way to sloth. Instead of being joyful at what God offers, we are sorrowful, even averse to it; thinking it all too much trouble.

Just as most of the people in Babylon had never really seen the promised land, only heard of it, so too for us. For many, heaven seems theoretical and distant, and instead of trusting that it is a glorious goal, the place of our greatest blessings, we choose rather to throw in our lot with this world, and its current blessings.

So instead of joyfully setting out on a journey, however arduous, we wonder what is on TV tonight, and we continue to set our roots in the “Babylon” of this world.

Here’s a moral tale about sloth, which is sorrow, sadness or aversion at the good things that God is offering because we think of them as simply “too much trouble.”

Only a small remnant of the ancient Jews returned to the Holy Land. And maybe this is what the Lord was thinking when he said that the road to destruction was wide and many followed it, and the road to salvation was narrow, difficult and a way that few found.

There is a beautiful song that says “I want to make heaven my home.” And in this, there is a kind of prayer that we ought to say, wherein we ask the Lord to make firm our decision and conviction to set out for heaven and not look back.

The Babylon of this world will continue to entice us, and we need to be sober at the remnant theology evident in the fact that most never returned to the Holy Land. And we must be sober at the sad remark of the Lord that only a few really want heaven.

So pray every day for the joy and zeal that are the virtues opposed to sloth.

Indeed, these ancient historical events, seemingly up obscure too many moderns, do in fact have a lot to teach us.

What will it be? The Babylon of this world, or the Holy Land of heaven? you decide.