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.

Pastoral Perspectives on Silence in Church

"Ramsowo, kościół, modlitwa" by Adam Kliczek  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Ramsowo, kościół, modlitwa” by Adam Kliczek Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more frequent concerns expressed by many Catholics is level of talking and other noise in churches in recent decades. Many of us who are a bit older remember a time when to walk even into a rather full Church was to walk into a realm of great silence. People just didn’t talk in church. One would enter, find their pew, genuflect, and then kneel for private prayer before Mass began. When Mass concluded, one might kneel for a brief while for prayer, but then leave quietly, not talking until in the vestibule or outside the church.  Even most masses were all but whispered by the priest. I even remember as a child that in the examination of conscience we used, “talking in church” was listed among the sins to be confessed.

Obviously, in most parishes, the days of strict silence are all but gone. The change is not just in churches, but to some extent is in the wider culture as well. I remember also as a child, rather strict ushers going up and down the aisles of movie houses enforcing silence. When one entered the courtroom, one was expected to maintain silence. And even in more formal concert settings, like at the Kennedy Center, one would often see signs as you entered the concert hall: “Silence.”

Most  of this is gone now both in the Church, and in our modern culture, so dominated by informality at almost every level. Americans are almost never formal, almost never dress-up, nor do we observe most other formalities we used to, like silence. So our loud churches, bespeak both cultural and ecclesial trends.

Legitimately, many Catholics ask if there are to be no limits. As sound levels after Mass reach “cafeteria- like” proportions, many ask their pastors to please make announcements, and somehow enforce silence before and after mass.

Generally, most requests go unheeded,  leading many Catholics to bemoan the lack of clerical leadership or the enforcement of any discipline within the Church. Such complaints are not wholly out of line, and these are in fact the days when clerical leadership is often lacking in many areas.

However, the lack of enforced silence may not be in fact simply a lack of leadership. Many pastors seek to balance competing and legitimate goods when it comes to the matter of silence in churches. Perhaps it is good to review a few of the competing issues, all good in themselves, that seem to hang in the balance when it comes to this question. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Koinonia – In Acts 2:42 are described the four pillars of the Catholic life: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And hence we note a very Catholic vision of the life of the early Christians. There is devotion (not a mere dabbling) in the Apostolic teaching which includes both Scripture and Tradition. There is the “breaking of the bread” i.e. the Eucharist and, by extension, the whole of the sacramental life. There is prayer, both private and public, devotional and liturgical. Finally there is “fellowship.” The Greek word here is κοινωνίᾳ (koinonia), a word that is a noun referring literally to “what is shared in.” By extension it means: contributory help, participation, communion, or spiritual fellowship.

While the expression and experience of koinonia has varied over the centuries, it remains one of the four pillars of the Christian life as denoted in Acts 2:42. And while it is true, as we have commented here before, that there are many excessive flourishes justified in the the name of “community,” the solution to the modern problem of a self enclosed, self-referential, and anthropocentric expression of “community” is not to banish the concept, but to balance it.

And while strict silence in churches may have its appeal, there are legitimate concerns raised by enforcing it today as we shall see, since it may be in tension with legitimate concerns for the communal nature of Sunday Mass. Hence, point two.

2. The church as a place of prayer. Other things being equal, one of the first things one associates the church building with is prayer! And thus, one rightly expects the church building to be a place that in fact does encourage and foster prayer.

However, there are different types of prayer. There is public, liturgical prayer, and there is private devotional prayer.

As a general rule, especially on Sunday and other designated Mass times, the parish church is not a private chapel, but rather, is first and foremost a place of public prayer where the faithful gather as a group. The church is usually large, to accommodate numerous people, and it has pews or benches (not usually personal chairs and kneelers), where people, sitting in groups, with their clergy orient 😉 themselves in such a way as to foster the communal worship of God.

And while there are often separate shrines and chapel areas, the main purpose of the church is together a large number of people together, so that they may worship and praise God together. Sunday morning, especially, is it time for communal, rather than private prayer. And though private devotional prayer is essential and required for every Catholic, that is not the main focus of Sunday morning or of the main nave of the church.

To be avoided is an attitude which might say something like, “I go to church on Sunday to pray to God, not to be bothered by other people.” No, Sunday morning is a day of communal prayer to God. Even in relatively quiet parishes, there are going to be crying babies, the sound of shuffling feet, coughs and sneezes, and any number of things.

One of the concerns therefore the pastors face in fielding request to enforce stricter silence is that the concept of community as we saw in point one, and communal prayer is an important value to inculcate and balance with which the concept of strict silence. Frankly koinonia, is in some tension with strict silence among the faithful. People who are together tend to talk, at least at certain moments, such as greeting one another.

Keeping the church with an atmosphere conducive to private prayer, while a good value, is not the first and most essential focus of Sunday morning in the Catholic Parish. Rather, it is to provide an atmosphere conducive to the gathering of God’s people, so that they may together turn their worship and praise to Him. This will necessarily involve noise, setting up, some announcements, directions, the singing of  hymns and prayers etc.

3. The presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament – It is a frequently given reason that the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle should command a silent reverence from us. And historically this response was widespread.

However, some also argue that Jesus enjoyed company, and attended many parties, sometimes with a rather rough and unrefined crowd. And hence, we can also exhibit some interaction in church and that this would not necessarily displease him.

There is a humorous story told to me once on retreat wherein:

A young Italian couple went to their parish priest and said that they were poor and could not afford to rent a hall. Might they use the parish courtyard for a brief reception after the wedding? The Pastor graciously agreed.

But on the day of the wedding heavy rains made the use of the courtyard impossible. So the request was made if perchance they could use the back of the church, just for a “brief” reception. They promised to keep the noise down and only drink “a little” wine. The pastor reluctantly agreed.

But, as is often the case, the wine flowed in abundance and the volume increased. The wine flowed some more, and the volume went up some more! 

The pastor was now fuming in the sacristy and about to go and thrown them out went his neighboring priest and friend came by. He inquired as to the anger of the pastor who replied,  “Listen to all the noise they are making, and in the house of God, Don Camillo! And they are drinking much wine!” “Ah, but Father, they are a poor couple and it is raining. They had to use your church. Besides, Jesus went to loud weddings and made wine in abundance. Surely he understands!”

The pastor responded, “I know that! You don’t need to quote the bible to me! I know Jesus went to loud weddings and I know they drank wine! You don’t need to tell me all that! But there, they did not have the Blessed Sacrament present!

🙂 Lots of Christological layers going on in that parable!

And though we ought to avoid behaving in the Church of God in ways that take no notice of the Lord’s presence in the tabernacle, it does not follow that Jesus is offended that the members of his body enjoy the company of one another.

Here again, balance is required between koinoina and devotional prayer that recognizes the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle in a posture of silent adoration.

4. The nature of human dynamics. When it comes to the level of noise, it is a common experience that noise levels gradually increase, in large human gatherings. As background noise begins to increase, people talk louder in order to be heard. This further increases the overall noise level, and the volume continues to go up and up.

Some years ago in elementary school I remember that the teachers would sometimes put the lights out in the lunch room to call us to silence. We would then asked to be more quiet, and the volume levels the “reset” to a lower level. But gradually, for the reasons stated, they began to go back up again. Off the lights would go again. The rebukes from the teachers were issued, “Talk more quietly!” And things quieted down, but them went back up, the cycle repeated.

Alas, it seems to be the human condition. And, the acoustics of many churches don’t help. Even subdued talking in the back, as ushers greet and instruct the faithful, echoes and create a lot of background volume, causing other people to talk louder etc.

Hence without very strict rules, forbidding all talking, volume levels are going to tend to increase when some modest conversation is allowed. Perhaps in such a settings, the best a pastor can do is to give gentle reminders to the people to speak quieter and less. But even with momentary moderation in the volume of noise in churches, the volume will go up over time for the reasons stated.

5. General cultural shifts and expectations. If, the only real solution is the strict enforcement of silence, this sort of solution tends to run afoul of cultural expectations, when it comes to parish life today. Like it or not, there is an expectation that parish communities should be places where people are welcomed, and where there is a “warm, friendly and courteous” atmosphere.

We’ve already discussed that there are cultural shifts in America involved here. And while many of us who are older may remember a time when things were more disciplined or orderly, from our perspective, those days are now largely gone.

Most pastors do not want their parish church to be identified as a place where people are harshly rebuked, and warned to avoid any conversation or human interaction that might make noise. And while some might praise a certain parish church for its quiet reverence, most pastors are aware that the current culture tends to favor a more casual, open, “warm and friendly” setting.

And while some who read this may lament this fact, it is  hard to deny that this is the kind of culture we largely have today.

However, it seems very legitimate to suggest that things are currently out of balance in this regard. But to ask one pastor, or parish to take on the whole culture in this regard may not always be realistic, and pastors do legitimately struggle how to find ways to keep the noise levels lower, without offending against notions of community today.

5. The role of certain specific cultural settings. Many of us, who come from a Northern European cultural stock, often identify silence with reverence, and reverence with silence. For us, it is a no-brainer.

But for people from many other cultures, the identification of silence with reverence is not so obvious. In the African-American community, (to include also Africans of Caribbean and Continental origin), warmth and hospitality are very important and intertwine with reverence. Lively praise and worship are also considered a high form of reverence.

The idea of sitting silently in the church, with a rather serious look on one’s face, seems somewhat irreverent in such settings. God is to be praised joyfully. My neighbor is to be greeted. To be reverent is to celebrate, to be overtly joyful. In settings like this, the European expression of reverence often seems to be “sour-faced Saints” or perhaps the expression of one who has recently suffered the death of a loved one.

The general understanding of reverence in these settings is that God is worthy of our highest and most joyful praise.

Further, in the Black churches the thought of entering and not greeting your fellow parishioners seems strange. As a general rule African American culture is more extroverted and has thus embraced the current cultural trends to be more effusive in the house of the Lord.

I know less of Latino culture, but there seem to be similar experiences there.

Say what you will about which approach might be best, but the fact is there are very different cultural experiences at work in what we call reverence. This is not just another form of relativism, for relativism regards matters of truth. That God is to be revered cannot be set aside. But how this is expressed does vary. Some do so by quiet solemnity. Others by joyful exuberance.

Both sorts of reverence are spoken of in the Bible. At times, Jewish and early Christian worship are described there as rather noisy affairs. At other times there are references to bent knees and bowed heads.

Thus, when there are requests that “Father do something about all the talking and noise” many pastors are conflicted. There IS a value to preserving greater quiet in our parish churches, especially before Mass, and encouraging prayer. But cultural trends and differences do exist and they are not all bad.

Koinonia is a pillar of Church life. Helping Catholics to meet and forge relationships in Christ is to be encouraged. One might wish that this took place outside the church building, but practically, inside is when most of the people are together and seek each other out.

And the conversation isn’t all frivolous. There are concerns expressed, and significant news shared. There are prayer requests and invitations made to important gatherings and meetings in the parish etc. And yes, there is also banter of a less edifying sort.

Perhaps the best that Pastors can do to remind the faithful occasionally to balance the virtue of fellowship with the respect for the fact that there is also a place for private prayer after, and especially before Mass. Silence is more reasonably expected when entering the Mass. After Mass it is just going to be more difficult to expect it in most places, given culture and the legitimate need for communal fellowship.

I suspect there will be strong opinions in the combox. I will largely refrain from interjecting much to give you all the chance. I DO ask for you to consider mutual charity, whatever your preference. There are legitimate concerns for the volume of noise in most parishes. But there are also other things in the balance. This is what I mean by the title “Pastoral perspectives” At least consider this much, that Pastors have a lot on their minds when it comes to taking a stand on this issue.  There are many legitimate things they must balance. Please avoid vitriol, ridicule and adding more heat than light. Amor suprema lex.

On Being Rich in What Matters to God

091913The Lord tells a familiar parable and how a certain rich man had a harvest too big for his barns, do built bigger barns. But he dies surrounded by his riches, and the Lord calls him a fool since he thought somehow that his wealth could sustain him for years and did not consider his judgment.

There comes the memorable line that concludes the parable:

Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.

While this line may invite a post describing at length a list of what matters most to God, I’d like to limit the reflection more on how we are usually most anxious and concerned about what matters far less to God.

The well known passage begins with a man is concerned about money and that he should get some share of the family estate which his brother is withholding. Surely Jesus who cares about justice will side with him!

But the reaction of Jesus indicates a kind of irritation with the nature of the request. In effect he says, “Look, this sort of stuff is small potatoes. You’re all concerned about the wrong thing. You have far bigger issues in your life you ought to be thinking about (like greed, and a host of other sinful drives that will destroy you). These ought to concern you more than money and fair share. I have not come to be a banker, a real estate attorney, a probate judge, or a financial adviser. You need to get your focus and priorities right.”

Here of course is a kind of paradigm (or example) of a common human problem, and that is, that we often get all worked up about the wrong things and pay little attention to things that matter far more. Consider a few examples:

I. In listening to people pray at public gatherings, including myself, it is interesting how most of the prayers (almost 100%) deal with worldly matters. “O Lord, fix my finances, fix my health, fix my spouse, fix this or that situation so I am more comfortable and better situated, help me get a promotion at work.” None of these things are wrong to pray about, but notice the worldly and passing quality of most of it. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “Just make this world a better and comfortable place for me. Give me enough health, friends, money and creature comforts, and that’s all I need, I’ll just stay here forever!” In a way it’s a terrible thing to say to God and surely there are things for which we should ask that matter more to God.

I am sure God waits for the day when we will finally say from our heart, “Lord give me a closer walk with you….help me hunger for your justice, righteousness, truth and holiness. Help me repent of my sins and desire greater holiness. Help me yearn for the day when I can come and live with you and grant me the grace to be prepared to enter your presence. Take away my sinful attachments to this world and make my heart’s truest desire to be You and the joys waiting for me in heaven with you.” I am sure God’s waits for the day, for these are things that matter to God.

In the end, nothing matters more to God than you, yourself, and that you be made ready to be with him forever. Money, who cares? Health? That passes anyway, as does the body, and worldly glories. But the soul? Now here is something that matters particularly to God. But we go one praying for money, health, greater comforts, etc. Not wrong per se, but not the true priority, a priority which is often wholly neglected by us.

II. What then is our greatest problem? Lack of money, health or resources? No! Our greatest problem is our sin. Jesus says, If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to loose part of your body than to have it all cast into hell (Matt 5:30).

What is Jesus saying? He is saying that it is more serious to sin than to lose your hand, or your eye, or your foot.

Now we don’t think like this. If I were to lose my hand in some terrible accident, I would hate this day for the rest of my life. Indeed, it would be terrible. But why don’t I think this way about my sin? To God my sin is a far greater problem than a financial shortfall, or even bodily loss.

My sin matters to God, because he sees what it does to me, and that it is a far greater danger for me than any other worldly danger or problem. And yet, most of us pay little heed to this and are un-alarmed by it. But we sure know how to hit the panic button if we lose our job or get a diagnosis of cancer.

Our priorities are wrong and we are not rich in what matters to God. That is, we are not rich in repentance, cries for mercy, and a sober understanding of our truest and deepest problem, our sin.

III. And look how we too often raise our children. Almost all the focus is on worldly success. Johnny might know little or nothing about God, the Mass, Scripture or Sacraments, but let Johnny bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a problem to get to the bottom of, because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the premier local High School, and then, might not get into the best college, so he can make a killing, (oops, I mean a living).

So, the parents go into action. Perhaps a tutor is hired to help with math etc. Meanwhile Johnny barely knows the Our Father, doesn’t have a clue at Mass, his moral life is heading south, and all he knows about Adam and Eve is that they were “in the Bible or something.” Finally Johnny’s scores are better and he proceeds apace to the finest local High School.

One day his father proudly says to the Catholic pastor,Great news! John has gotten a full scholarship to Princeton.” And the pastor says “Great!” When what he should say to the father is “OK fine. Now let’s find out who is going to preach the gospel to him up there. You know that it will be, (like most college campuses), a moral cesspool of fornication and drinking. So, if we’re not serious about John’s spiritual life, he may go in there, come out a big-wig lawyer, and yet be heading straight for Hell. So what’s the plan for his spiritual welfare and growth?”

But do the pastor or parents really give any thought to this? Usually not.

And so John climbs the ladder of success but it’s leaning up against the the wrong wall.

Too often parents, pastors, families and parishes are not rich in what matters to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. Of itself this is not wrong. But their souls are more important, and matter more to God. How well do we teach and equip them to care for the vineyard of their own soul? How does this compare to worldly preparations? And do we conform to what matters more to God?

Well, perhaps this is enough. But the point here is that too often, too many of us are not rich in what matters to God. We too easily resemble the man in the crowd who was asking Jesus, the Savior of the world from sin and hell, about money. A sad demotion of Jesus to be sure, but also highly disclosing of a basic human tendency of caring more about passing worldly things, than eternal lasting things or God himself. Too easily we store up riches for ourselves but are not rich in what matters to God.

Help Lord! We need a new mind, but even more, a new heart.


Patience… a reflection on the need to trust the slow work of God.

091813Impatience is a human problem, but we moderns must surely suffer from it more acutely. This is because many of our modern conveniences create the illusion, and to some extent the reality, of instant results. Flip a switch and the lights come on. Instant downloads supply our computers with music, games, software, and almost instant information.

Any delay in this process almost certainly infuriates us. The journey from east to the west coast used to take many months in a wagon train. And now it is accomplished in four to five hours. Despite this marvel, even a 20 minute flight delay infuriates us.

I remember as a child that we would be enticed to buy a certain product, say cereal, by being able to cut off the box tops. And, having saved four of them, I could mail them in to the address, to get a certain die cast or plastic toy, or other promotional product offered by the cereal company. Instructions always said, “Allow 3 to 4 weeks for delivery.” This is almost unthinkable today. What child would spend months eating cereal, clipping boxtops, and then wait 3 to 4 weeks for delivery?!

Yes, patience is a human problem, but it has a certain modern intensity about it. Expectations are premeditated resentments, and we have a lot of expectations about instant results. Thus resentments are always near at hand.

In the spiritual life especially and in personal growth we must learn to slow down to a more human pace, and also the pace of God. To many of us moderns, God is infuriatingly patient and slow. He, and the Church seem to think in terms of centuries, not a 24 hour news cycle.

And He leaves many things unresolved for quite a long time. Where was he when Hitler and Stalin and Mao and any number of unjust rulers were plying their wares? Why does he not thunder from heaven more often, as we sometimes read in the Old Testament?! Why does He not send jagged lightning bolts to destroy sinners from the face of the earth? (are you so sure you would escape?) And when will the Church he founded “get with the program” and start denouncing and excommunicating those who sinfully dissent?

Of course, while there is a place for discipline, even excommunication,  the Lord warned of acting too hastily in the parable of the weeds and the wheat. The impatient field hand zealously wanted to rip out all the weeds, but the owner warned that the wheat might be harmed as well.

Many of us may well wonder what harm could come from wiping out a few sinners from the face of the Earth or expelling a few more heretics. The Lord does not explain why, but simply warns that hasty and severe actions may cause harm even to the wheat.

Yes, we are an impatient lot, no only with others, but also with ourselves. Why, we wonder can we not simply overcome certain sins by sheer force of will? Why are we not instantly more chaste, more generous, more kind, more zealous, simply by deciding to be so!? Why do prayers of deliverance and exorcism not have instant effects? Why does confession not solve sin at once by its grace?

In an instant result society, discouragement is right at hand. And even when we do make progress, suddenly setbacks are at hand. “I was doing so well!” We think.

Most confessors know by experience that perseverance is good and holy, but impatience is devilish. It is especially devilish because it tries to masquerade as piety, saying “You ought to be a saint by now!” But it is really pride. Yes it is pride to think you can go from 0 to 100 and skip all the steps the rest of us poor slobs need to make. Who am I to think I can simply lay hold of holiness by a few decisions? Holiness is far higher than I imagine in my reductive insistence that I ought to be able to lay hold of it in a moment. No, this is a journey, a journey with setbacks, and progress in fits and starts. Frankly even a lifetime may not be enough and purgatory is a likely pit stop for most of us after death.

Why so slow? Because grace builds on nature. And it is our nature to change slowly, almost imperceptibly. When I was an infant I looked nothing like I do today. Frankly my mother was grateful that I did not come forth from the womb at six feet tall and 200 lbs. No, I came forth at six pounds, sickly and dying. I was baptized immediately since I was not expected to survive. But having recovered, I have progressed today to what and who I am. But at no point could my growth be perceived. It was slow, steady, and also marked by setbacks, injury, and also growth spurts.

If this is the case with our bodies, it is also with our soul, which is the form of our body. I have made remarkable spiritual progress in the last thirty years of my life. But day by day, I noticed little change. Yet, by the grace of God I am what I am.

Sudden a rapid growth seldom lasts an is usually called cancer, a deadly disease. Healthy growth is organic, steady, slow, and almost imperceptible.

Impatience is a form of pride and it is not in wisdom that we indulge it. Scripture says,

Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. See, the rash have no integrity; but the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live. (Habakkuk 2:2-4).

Finally some words of reminder and comfort. I am not going to say who wrote these words because I have sometimes discovered that we care more who said something, than what is said. You can Google a phrase and find easily enough who wrote this. But for now let the words themselves have the necessary impact. I have little doubt these words will bless you as they have often blessed me.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability,
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

This video pokes fun at our impatience in modern culture and how it breeds resentment:

But worldly sorrow brings death… What is the Difference between healthy and unhealthy Guilt?

091113On of the trickier terrains to navigate in the moral world is the experience of guilt. Guilt is understood here as a kind of sorrow for sin.

On the one hand there is an appropriate sorrow for sin we ought to experience. Yet there are also types of guilt that can set up, either from our flesh or from the devil which are self destructive and inauthentic. Some forms of morbid or harmful guilt can cause great harm and actually increase the frequency of sin due to the way they render a person discouraged and self disparaging rather, rather than chastened but confident of mercy, healing and help. It may be of some value to make some distinctions so that we can discern what sort of guilt is healthy, and what is not.

St. Paul makes an important initial distinction for us to consider in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul had rebuked the Corinthians in an earlier letter (esp. 1 Cor 5) for sinning, and tolerating sin their midst. Evidently his rebuke stung many of them significantly with sorrow. Paul writes:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)

Notice how Paul distinguishes between “Godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” And the way we can distinguish them, according to Paul is by their fruits.

For Godly sorrow has for it fruits:

  1. A repentance
  2. An earnestness to do what is right. The Greek word is σπουδή (spoude) which refers also a kind of swiftness rooted in enthusiasm.
  3. A longing for what is right. The Greek text speaks of how this Godly sorrow gave them ἐπιπόθησις (epipothesis): not just an eager longing but also understood as a strong affection for what is good and just.
  4. It also produced in them a kind of indignation for sin,
  5. And a kind of holy fear of it.

So, not a bad harvest, to be sure. Godly sorrow brings forth good things and will be known by its fruits. Paul goes on to say that Godly sorrow is a sorrow that God intends and that it does not harm us in any way. Further it leaves no regrets.

We might also add that Godly sorrow is rooted in love, our love for God and others, and our experience of God’s love for us. The sorrow is real and often quite sharp, but since it is rooted in love, it makes us run to the beloved we have offended, rather than from Him, as we sulk.

“Godly sorrow” would also seem to be related to the perfect contrition, which we refer to in the traditional Act of Contrition when we say, I detest all my sins, not only because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all , because I have offended you, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. Perfect contrition regards love, whereas imperfect contrition regards fear of punishment. Hence Godly sorrow would also seem to assist and increasingly perfect contrition.

I think I once experienced something close to Godly sorrow, approaching perfect contrition, as a child, but somewhat in relation to a human person, my mother. It was my 8th birthday, and Mom knew I loved tall buildings. So she took me to the top of the new John Hancock building in Chicago where we lived and I was thrilled to look out from the 100th floor visitors’ center. Then we had a nice lunch and returned home. I remember going to the cookie jar and reaching for one, but mom said, “Not now, you’ll spoil your birthday dinner.” I must have been tired from the long day for I looked at her and said, “You’re mean and I hate you!” As I ran from the room I realized what I had done, and was deeply sorry. I was not afraid she would punish me, I just knew I had said something terrible to my mother, something I didn’t mean. In my love and sorrow I cried and went back to tell her how sorry I felt. But love, made my sorrow a Godly sorrow and it drew me back to my mother in a way that increased my love and made me adverse to ever speaking to her like that again. I eagerly helped her set the table and told her I really loved her.

What of “worldly sorrow” as Paul puts it? He says only it “brings death.” Here we must surmise that, whereas Godly sorrow gives live, restores relationship and love, worldly sorrow and guilt sever these things. When we have this kind of guilt or “worldly sorrow” it is not our sins we hate, so much as our self that we hate.

In worldly sorrow, Satan has us where he wants us. Indeed, worldly sorrow is most often a fraud. For, though it masquerades as humility it often pride wherein a person may think, in effect, “How could I have done such a thing?”

If we can know something by its fruits, then we also do well to observe that worldly sorrow will often make us run from God in avoidance, rather than to him in love. Further it will often provoke anger in us making us resentful of God’s law, and that we should have to seek mercy and humble ourselves to God, or to another person we have offended. Rather than make us eager to repent, we will often delay repentance out of embarrassment or resentment. Further, these sorts of attitudes can lead us to rationalizing sin and minimizing its significance.

Others go in a very different direction of self-loathing and despair. They may hyper-magnify what they have done or over-correct by descending into an unhealthy scrupulosity, rooted in fear of punishment, more than love of God.

All of these negative fruits, though they often masquerade as something pious, tend only to make sin even more frequent. For if one is self-loathing and despairing of one’s capacity to live in God’s love, and experience his correction, then there is little strength for them to draw on. They see only weakness and guilt, but miss love and the splendor of grace. Perceiving no basis out of which to get better, they descend deeper into sin, run further from God in unholy fear, and the cycle gets deeper and darker. Thus St. Paul describes worldly sorrow as bringing death.

When one starts to see “fruits” of this sort, it is increasingly certain we are dealing with worldly sorrow which produces all these death-directed drives. A confessor or spiritual director will often have to work long and hard to break some of these negative cycles and help a person find and experience Godly sorrow which brings with it real progress. Godly sorrow is a sorrow to be sure, but one rooted in love.

Discernment in regard to guilt, to sorrow for sin, is essential. Thankfully we are given some good principles by St. Paul and encouraged to distinguish these very different sorrows (Godly and worldly) by their fruits. Satan loves cheap imitations. He, wolf that he is, loves to masquerade in sheep’s clothing. But learn to know his cheap “imitation sorrow” by its fruits, which are death-directed, rather than God-directed.

After a serious topic here is a a humorous and remarkable video depicting “guilt” in a dog. I have to say, I remain fascinated how the dogs and cats I have had all seem to know when they’ve messed up. Their guilt, I am sure is rooted more in fear of punishment than love of me, God or the truth. But one nice thing about animals, they run back pretty fast and make friends again. Enjoy this remarkable video that has over 12 million views.

A Reflection on the mystery of Art as a capacity of the Human soul

"Brush and watercolours" Jennifer Rensel - Flickr: Let's paint!.  Licensed under  CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Brush and watercolours” Jennifer Rensel – Flickr: Let’s paint!. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I cannot draw or paint. Yet I have always marveled at how some can take an empty canvas and bring it to life with color, form, depth, and shadow. And, little by little, from the painter’s brush and soul a picture emerges. So too with sculpting. A mere block of marble, with each blow of the sculptor’s tools, it comes to resemble the form of a human being or some other reality with nature.

Some years ago, there was a painter, on PBS (Bob Ross) who would, over the course of a half hour paint a picture and describe what he was doing as he went. I watched that show most every week for a number of years and, though I watched him, saw what he did, and even heard him describe the techniques, I never really ceased to be amazed by the mystery before me. How did he do it? Yes, he spoke of method and technique, but there was some deeper mystery at work; a power of the soul, a gift. He claimed we all have it. But I am more inclined to think some have it as a special gift.

Michelangelo famously said, Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. He also said, I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. Yes, but how does he see it? How does he set it free? Indeed, another great mystery and faculty of the human soul of some.

As with music, the art of painting and sculpting seems a unique capacity of the human soul. Animals do not draw, they do not sculpt, they do not even appreciate art. It is a special gift to the human person to be captivated by beauty, and also for beauty, once it is seen and experienced, to emerge from his soul in expressive praise. There are special glories and a unique gifts given only to the human person, a mysterious gift to be sure. It is caught up in our desire for what is good, true and beautiful, caught up in our soul’s ultimate longing for God.

Perhaps Michelangelo should have the last word: Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.

Picture: A Painter in his Studio by Francois Boucher

Here’s a painter at work on a speed painting with a surprise end:

David Garibaldi: Jesus Painting from Thriving Churches on Vimeo.

Here’s a video of Bob Ross, the Joy of Painting show I mentioned above. In this brief passage he teaches us to paint a mountain and gives a little philosophy as well.

If you have time this video shows a remarkable transformation of a block of marble to a face.

Don’t Just Solve Mysteries. Live them. A Meditation on the Christian Meaning of Mystery

082613In our modern culture we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than the Christian antiquity to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In this brief post I’d like to review that, and add a new insight I heard recently from Fr. Francis Martin.

As we have noted before, our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved, and the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. So, in the typical mystery novel some event, usually a crime, takes place, and it is the job of our hero to uncover cause of the problem, or the perpetrator of the crime. If he does not, he is a failure. And frankly, if word got out that, in a certain mystery movie, the mystery was not solved, there would be poor reviews and low attendance. Imagine in the series “House MD” if Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery. Ratings would drop rather fast.

But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Further, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful, and prideful too.

Why is this so?

One reason is that the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different that the worldly one. For the world, a mystery is something, currently hidden, that must be found and brought to light. The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.

Further, in the Christian view, some, even most, of what lies hid, ought to be respected as hidden, and appreciated rather than solved. We can surely seek to gain insight into what is hidden, and mystery does reveal the depths of things and events. But, respectfully, we dare not say we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For, even when we think we know everything, there are still greater depths beyond our sight. Thus mystery is to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved.

Perhaps an example will help. Consider your very self. You are a mystery. There is much about you that you and others know. Your physical appearance is surely revealed. There are also aspects of you personality that you and others know. But, that said, there is much more about you that others do not see. Even many aspects of your physicality lie hid. No one sees your inner organs for example. And regarding your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth, much of this too lies hid. Some of these things are hidden even from you. Do you really know and fully grasp every drive within you? can you really explain every aspect yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.

Now, part of the respect that I owe you is to reverence the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to respect that there are deep mysteries about you caught up in the very designs of God. To reduce you to something explainable merely by words is both disrespectful to you and prideful unto myself. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have one another figured out.

Hence, mystery is to be both respected and even appreciated. There is something delightfully mysterious, even quirky, about every human person. At some level we ought to grow in an appreciation that every person we know has an inner dimension, partially known to us but much of which is hidden and gives each person a dignity and a mystique.

Another example of mystery is the Sacraments. Indeed, the Eastern Church calls them the “Mysteries.” They are mysteries because, while something is seen, much more is unseen, but very real. When a child is baptized, our earthly eyes see water poured and a kind of washing taking place. But much more, very real, lies hidden. For, in that moment the Child dies to his old life and rises to a new one, with all his sins forgiven. He becomes, in that moment, a member of the Body of Christ, he inherits the Kingdom, and becomes the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Spiritually dead, he is now alive, and the recipient of all of God’s graces. These things lie hidden from our early eyes, by they do in fact take place. We know this by faith. Thus there is a hidden, a mysterious dimension to what we see. What we physically see is not all there is, by a long shot. The mystery speaks to the interior dimension which, though hidden from physical sight, is very real.

So mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to get to the bottom of. Rather, mysteries are something to appreciate, something to reverence, something to humbly accept as real. Aspects of them are revealed to us, but much more is hidden.

That said, we are not remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things either. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is that we penetrate deeper into the mysteries of who we are, who God is, the mystery of one another, the mystery of creation, Sacraments and Holy Scripture. As we grow spiritually, we gain insights into these mysteries, to be sure. But we can never say we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever deeper meanings that we should reverence.

In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin develops how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see, or other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things, there are deeper dimensions that to some extent can be seen, and appreciated, but also respected as not fully seen or comprehended.

Fr. Martin gives the example of a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets Jones with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shaking hands, so what? But what if I tell that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah! That is significant. So the handshake has an inner dimension that, knowing it, helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular handshake. To the average observer, this inner dimension lay hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery reveled to us, we appreciate more than the surface. But we cannot say, “Ah I have fully grasped this!” For, even here, we have grasped only some of the mystery of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner lives of these two men. For mystery has a majesty all its own and we reverence it best by appreciating its ever deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God himself.

This video is part of a series Fr. Martin has done on the Gospel of John. I would strongly encourage you to podcast the series and view it or listen to it. It will bless your soul. Here is the podcast site for the whole Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series: Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series.

What is it that most distracts us?

We usually think of distractions or interruptions as coming form the world around us. But is that really the most fertile or frequent source? Consider the following parable drawn from the stories of the early Desert Fathers and monastic experience:

Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered.

This would upset the disciples; not the Master, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence.

To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

The fact is, our greatest distraction is usually our very self. And if this may surprise us, we should probably chalk that surprise up to pride. Why? Because what God most often wants us to see and focus on is outside and above us: in the beauty of creation, the wonder of others, in the magnificence of God. These are not distractions, they are often exactly what God is saying to us, revealing to us.

St. Augustine described our essential problem as Homo curvatus in se (man turned in on himself). And in so turning inward, a host of distractions assail us:

  1. I’m bored.
  2. I’m tired.
  3. What will I do next?
  4. What do people think of me?
  5. Do I fit in?
  6. Am I handsome/pretty enough?
  7. Have I made it?
  8. What does this have to do with me?
  9. What have you done for me lately?
  10. When will it be my turn?
  11. What about me?
  12. Why are people upsetting me? What gives them the right?

Yes, distractions like these, a thousand variations swim through our mind as we are turned inward, most of them rooted in pride and its ugly cousin, vanity.

But as the parable above teaches, it is the absence of self, that brings truer focus and serenity. Indeed, of this I am a witness, for my freest and most joyful, and most focused moments have come when I was most forgetful of myself:

* Perhaps it was simply a movie that gripped my attention and drew me outside of myself into the plot and the moments in the lives of others, even if they were fictional.

* At other times, it was being powerfully aware of the presence of others and listening carefully to what they said.

* Perhaps it was just in the company of close friends where I am less concerned to seek or need approval, and can just relax in the moment, and enjoy whatever is happening.

* Perhaps too, it is in those moments of deep appreciation of the natural world where I walk through a field and am captured by “the color purple” and am deeply moved by the beauty of what God has done.

* And surely there are those moments of deep and contemplative prayer when, by a gift of God, I forget about myself and am drawn deeply into the experience of God.

In moments like these God takes us (who are so easily turned inward) and turns us outward and upward and the ten thousand distractions that come from self-preoccupation hush for a time and we, being self-forgetful, are almost wholly present to others, to creation and to God. The noisy din of anxious self concern quiets,  and our world opens up and out.

The Psalms often speak of God placing us in a spacious place (e.g. 18:19; 31:8; 119:45; inter al): You have set my feet in a spacious place, O Lord (Ps 31:8). There is nothing more tiny and cramped than to be turned in on ourselves.

Ask the Lord to set your feet in the wide spaces, to open you outward and upward. For the worst distractions are not the noises outside us, but rather, the noises within us, noises that come from being too self-preoccupied. The silence which we most crave is not really found in the mere absence of sound, but in the absence of self preoccupation.