The Lord Is Eager to Engage the Battle; Are You?

The Gospel for Thursday of the 29th Week of the Year speaks of a great cosmic battle taking place all around us. In it, Jesus speaks of His mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem for the final time and describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle He wins at the cross and with His resurrection, but it is one whose parameters extend across time to our own era.

Let’s consider Jesus’ description of the cosmic battle and of His mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep and the Lord of armies.

A Passion to Purify – Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Fire is both powerful and transformative. It gives warmth and makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged!

The Lord has come to purify us by the fiery power of His love, His grace, and His Word. He has a passion to set things right.

Purification is seldom easy or painless, though, hence the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle, fire must be cast upon the earth not only to purify but to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure but only if other things are burned away and reduced to ashes.

This image of fire is important because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. Faith surely supplies these, but it also demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. Many if not most enrichment and blessings come through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands, and causes change—and change is never easy.

Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which He will judge and purify this earth and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.

This is no campfire around which we sit singing songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze that must set the whole world on fire!

How do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist promised of the Lord, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11). Indeed, the Lord sent forth His Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.

The battle is engaged. Choose sides. If you think you can remain neutral or stand on some middle ground, I’ve got news for you about which side you’re really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or you’re being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace (and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire) or you’re not. The choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire upon the earth.

A Painful Path The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

The Lord does not come among us merely come to get us out of trouble but to get into trouble with us. Though sinless, Jesus takes upon Himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in His own blood on our behalf.

In waging war on our behalf against the evil one, Jesus does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind the front lines; He goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary and leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.

Through His wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood and water He shed in the great cosmic war.

It is a painful path He trod, and He speaks of His anguish in doing it, but having won the victory He now turns to us and invites us to follow Him through the cross to glory.

The choice to follow is ours. In this sense the cosmic battle continues, as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.

A Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

The words shock but they speak a truth that sets aside worldly notions of compromise and coexistence with evil. For there to be true peace, holiness, and victory over Satan, there must be distinction not equivocation, clarity not compromise. Fire and water do not mix; you can hear the conflict when they come together: hissing, popping, searing, and steaming. One must win; the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.

The Lord said (in Matthew 10:34) that He came not for peace but for the sword. In this there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased. Coexistence is not possible; the diseased flesh must go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer, the battle must be engaged.

Thus, in this great cosmic battle, the Lord cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or an accepting coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but Scripture is clear: there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on His left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to damnation.

These distinctions, these divisions, extend into our very families, into our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. There are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matt 12:30).

About all this we must be sober and must work for our own salvation and the salvation of all, for while there may not be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all. The distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin, will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.

Thus, the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3). Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. Even if our own family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged. The fire is cast, and the sword of the Spirit and God’s Word is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats. Judgment begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,

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? (1 Peter 4:17)

If this be the case, how do we choose sides, practically speaking? And having chosen sides, how do we join the fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle?

A Solemn Warning from St. Paul

Within his many letters, St. Paul occasionally gives us a glimpse of early Christian hymns and sayings. While he may have been their author, it is more likely that he is quoting or summarizing others. Here are some of the hymns he includes in his letters:

      • Hymn of Christ and Creation (Colossians 1:15-20)
      • Hymn of the Humbled and Exalted Christ (Philippians 2:5-11)
      • Hymn of Redemption in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-12)

St. Paul also refers to “sayings” in some of his letters (e.g., Titus 3:8, 1 Tim 4:9, Titus 1:13, 1 Timothy 3:1, 1 Timothy 1:15).

Another one occurred in the readings this past Sunday (28th Sunday of the Year) and it is worth a look, as it puzzles some who read it.

This saying is trustworthy:

If we have died with him,
we shall also live with him;

if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.

But if we deny him
he will deny us.

If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself
(2 Tim 2:11-13).

William Barclay called this “The Song of the Martyr.” Such a title does seem fitting, at least in a general way, although there is also a baptismal theme.

The first strophe seems clear. If we have died with Christ, whether in baptism or martyrdom, we will live with Him. The baptismal theme comes in because the phraseology echoes a passage in Romans:

Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).

All of us who die with Christ to this world through baptism and/or martyrdom (bloody martyrdom or the white martyrdom of those who confess the faith publicly despite the cost) will live with Christ.

The second strophe reminds us that we must persevere. This echoes Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13). This need for perseverance seems clear as well, though many try to appeal to the fact that they were baptized or answered an altar call, forgetting that they must live the daily call of discipleship as well.

The third strophe is a little less clear, at least to some. The Greek word used is ἀρνέομαι (arneomai), and it is properly translated here as “deny.” It can also mean to repudiate, contradict, or say no. There are indeed some (Christ says many) who deny Him or say no to God’s offer; the text says that the Lord will also deny them.

This concept offends some modern readers who prefer to speak endlessly of God’s unconditional mercy. This strophe can be understood as meaning that the Lord affirms or accepts the unrepentant sinner’s denial of Him, His values, and His Kingdom. God will not force anyone to love what and whom He loves. The Lord’s denial of the person is a respectful acknowledgement of the free decision the person made to deny Him.

The last strophe is perhaps the most potentially confusing. It says, in effect, that even if we are unfaithful to the groom of our soul and the Bridegroom of the Church, He will not be unfaithful to us. God will never say to the soul that rejects or hates Him, “I hate you.” The Lord cannot be anything other than Himself. He who is love cannot hate.

However, and more soberly, the text means that Lord, who is truth itself, cannot ignore the fact that someone has freely chosen to deny, contradict, and reject His offer and the faith. God cannot “pretend” at the moment of judgment that an unrepentant sinner has in fact accepted Him and been faithful because pretending is contrary to the truth; doing so would be denying His very nature.

St. Paul follows the “saying” with this caution: Remind them of these things, solemnly charging them to stop disputing about words.

We should consider ourselves reminded; we are charged to hear and heed this solemn warning before going to the great judgment seat of Christ.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Solemn Warning from St. Paul

What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:

Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:

(1)  [May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

(2)  [May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).

Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing, and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.

I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us; it would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their conscience troubles them, deep down they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.

Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’s healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience arouse is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.

Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?

However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.

[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.

We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we are hesitant to ask for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to take it away.

There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” attitude. For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous because they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and more generous because we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.

The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.

Consider well, then, the beautiful though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

What Our Church Buildings Say About Us

In the Mass for Thursday of the 25th week of the year, we read from the book of the prophet Haggai, who wrote at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, which had begun in 587 B.C. The Jewish people were permitted to return to the Promised Land beginning in about 538 B.C. Haggai wrote his book in the summer of 520 B.C. and in it he scolds the people for concentrating on their “paneled houses” while the Temple is in a ruinous state. He ties their weak piety to the failure of crops, their inability to enjoy what they have, and other calamities.

Zechariah, who wrote in the autumn of 520 B.C., also expresses concern for the poor state of the Temple and ties its rebuilding to future blessings, including the coming of the Messiah. Later, we will examine Zechariah’s writing.

In today’s post we look at a passage from the Book of Haggai and ponder what it means for us:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’” Then the word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet, saying: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” Now this is what the LORD of Hosts says: “Think carefully about your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but never get warm. You earn wages to put into a bag pierced through.” You expected much, but behold, it amounted to little. And what you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the LORD of Hosts. Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house (Haggai, 1:2ff).

God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. The building of beautiful churches says a lot about our priorities and where our heart lies. Churches express our love for God and our desire to honor and thank Him. They need not be extravagant, but they should be adorned with a beauty and form that stands out as sacred and memorable, as an expression that we love God and take Him seriously, that He is a priority in our lives. In the Middle Ages, the town church was usually centrally located and was the tallest and most prominent building. By the 16th century, palaces and government buildings began to take that place. Today, the skyscrapers of our cities are named for investment banks and insurance companies. Yes, our buildings say something about our priorities!

Churches are also meant to remind us of Heaven. Until recent decades, they were built along lines that spoke to the heavenly realities both Moses and John saw as they were shown the heavenly worship and vision. Churches have high jeweled (stained glass) walls because Heaven does. Churches have glorious throne-like altars with the tabernacle at the center amidst tall candles because in Heaven there is a throne-like altar with the Lamb upon it and Jesus stands among the lampstands. Paintings and statues of saints and angels, incense, priestly robes, standing/kneeling appropriately, and singing of hymns all remind us of the communion of saints and angels in the heavenly worship. All of this is revealed in the heavenly visions contained in the Bible. (I have written more on this topic here and here.)

Haggai’s opening vision also says a lot about our inability to enjoy even the good things we have without God at the center. We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and only He can ultimately fill it. Trying to get created things to fill that gap is both frustrating and futile. The good things we do have point to God, the giver, and should inspire in us a gratitude and longing for Him. If we remove or marginalize God, our disorder affections gnaw away at us; no matter how much we get we remain dissatisfied.

God says through Haggai that fixing the ruined Temple is the way to fix their hearts. It is less about the building than about hearts. It is interesting that some of the most glorious and beautiful churches in this country were built by poor immigrant communities. We now live in times of comparative affluence, especially in America, but although incomes and home sizes have grown our churches seem to be built on the cheap, lacking both the nobility and glory that belong to God and which poorer generations produced in the churches of their time.

The problem has both theological and liturgical roots. A flawed notion of the liturgy claimed that churches should look more like living rooms or dining rooms than Heaven. (N.B. Some more recently built churches are returning to more traditional forms, but the reform has been slow).

Another problem was/is the “poverty of Judas.” This is the idea that money spent on buildings would be better used by being given to the poor. There may be a little truth to that, but the poor also want and need beautiful churches that remind them of Heaven and give due honor to God. A church is a space of beauty that all can share.

Yet another reason is that we just don’t value or prioritize the Lord and the liturgy as highly anymore. If we give less to the church perhaps we can buy a nicer car, a boat, or a vacation home. How is that ephemeral stuff working out for us? Are we happier? Haggai says no: You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. Exactly! All our blessing point to God and should instill gratitude and a longing for the true completion of an eternal relationship with Him.

Enough said for now. The point is not so much a building itself but what the building says about our hearts. God says today through Haggai, in effect, “Your paneled houses and the ruined Temple are a testimony to the condition of your hearts and your flawed priorities.”

Indeed, God should get the first fruits of our harvest, our best and highest effort. This is not because he needs them but because we do.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Our Church Buildings Say About Us

An Admonition from St. Bernard and a Summons to Priests and Parents Alike

Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard of Clairvaux - Filippino Lippi (1486)

In the Office of Readings this week we read from a sermon of St. Bernard, who was preaching to his monks and priests. He called them to mount the watchtower of their pulpits and, having listened to the Word of God, warn His people of threats to their salvation. Let’s sample from the sermon and ponder its meaning for us.

I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation. Yet wisdom cries out in the streets, in the broad and spacious way that leads to death, to call back those who take this path (Sermo 5 de diversis,1-4; Opera omnia. Edit. Cisterc. 6, 1 [1970] 98-103).

St. Bernard reminds these ancient preachers that some people will accept the words of the Lord while others will condemn them as foolish, hard, unreasonable, and harsh. Today it is common for many in the world to attack teachings of the Church and Scripture—particularly those regarding human life and sexuality—as harsh, unkind, and even hateful. They flee to what St. Bernard calls the “pathetic consolations” of the world, which affirm and even celebrate deeply sinful things such as abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide.

What are we to do in the face of this widespread rejection of the Lord’s words? St. Bernard says that we should imitate Lady Wisdom, who cries out to call us back. we must cry out in the “broad and spacious way” that leads to the damnation of the second death; we must call them back and away from the pathetic lies and false consolations of a world gone mad.

[The Lord] calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem (Ibid).

Too many bishops, priests, deacons, and parents fear rejection and fail to rebuke. “Someone might get upset or angry,” we say. Too easily do we fear losing the esteem of man and fret over being in conflict with others. Courage, fortitude and serene confidence in the Word of God seem to be gone from the heart of too many Catholic leaders.

St. Bernard says that we should speak to the heart of others. This means that we should appeal to a person’s conscience, to that better self that is buried beneath rationalization, deception, and self-justification. Deep down inside everyone is his conscience, where the voice of God echoes; to that we must consistently appeal.

St. Paul says, We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2). This is the work, the battle, of every preacher, parent, and leader.

Hear also the prophet Habakkuk. Far from hiding the Lord’s reprimands, he dwells on them with attentive and anxious care. He says: I will stand upon my watchtower and take up my post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me and what answer I will make to those who try to confute me (Ibid).

The image of a watchtower reminds me of a pulpit. Our pulpits used to be high places; we had to climb up a good number of stairs to reach them. While this was often necessary for audibility before there were microphones in every pulpit, there was more to it than that. Standing in those older pulpits above the congregation as if in a watchtower, we warned of approaching dangers and summoned our people to battle, describing the enemy, his tactics, and the weapons to be used against him.

Today’s pulpits look more like lecterns; there is little that seems prominent about them. This both affects and reflects modern preaching, which so often fails to warn of the approaching wolf. The good shepherd sees the wolf coming and drives it away, but as for the fearful shepherd, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf pounces on them and scatters the flock (John 10:12). This is emblematic of our times.

I beg you, my brothers, stand upon our watchtower, for now is the time for battle. Let all our dealings be in the heart, where Christ dwells, in right judgment and wise counsel, but in such a way as to place no confidence in those dealings, nor rely upon our fragile defenses (Ibid).

We must reengage the battle that too many of us have set aside, and this battle must be engaged on every level. Priests have the watchtowers of their pulpits; parents have the watchtower of their table during dinner and of their car when driving with their children. These pulpits must resound again with instruction in the Word of God, with right judgment, with wise counsel, and with sober warning about impending foes and moral dangers.

Use whatever “pulpit” you have as a watchtower. Moral error and foes abound; sound the trumpet of warning. Bestow the medicine of God’s teaching, drawing the faithful to the sacraments, to prayer, and to all that is holy and true.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: An Admonition from St. Bernard and a Summons to Priests and Parents Alike

Reimagining the Beatitudes

This week at daily Mass we touch briefly on the Beatitudes from Luke’s Gospel. This is one of the most famous texts of Scripture. Despite their familiarity, though, they are poorly understood by many people.

Let’s begin by exploring the word “beatitude.” Sometimes it is defined as happiness, but happiness is too transitory and dependent upon external factors to fully convey its meaning. In Latin, the word is beatus, and it signifies a long-lasting, abiding happiness. It refers to a deep, serene, stable, and confident joy that is not easily affected by external events or circumstances.

The Greek word translated as beatus in Latin and “happy” or “blessed” in English is makarios. It in turn is a translation of the Hebrew word ashere. The Hebrew word is really more of an expression or exclamation that could be translated in English in this way: “O, the blessedness of ….” In this sense ashere emphasizes that something is being described more than prescribed.

In ancient Greek times, makarios was most often used to refer to the happiness of the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment that was beyond all cares and labors—even beyond death. They lived in another world away from the problems and worries of ordinary people. Translating the Hebrew ashere to the Greek makarios in the New Testament emphasizes the stability of beatitude, which is from God.

Sometimes the concept of beatitude is translated as “flourishing.” For example, “How flourishing your life will be when you are merciful.”

Beatitude is not wealth, fame, honor, power, pleasure, or physical attractiveness. These are external and passing things that can easily be lost. They can also be arbitrary and rooted as much in luck as in virtue.

Happiness is “an inside job.” According to the Beatitudes, one is blessed even if poor, mourning, and persecuted. Even more, such a one is confirmed in his blessedness by such realities, because they are reminders that this world is not our home; its trinkets are passing and its “happiness” unstable.

Finally, beatitude is not something we simply learn, practice, or do; it is something we receive. The Beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The indicative mood of the Beatitudes should be taken seriously: Our life is blessed and flourishing when we are poor in spirit, pure of heart, etc. The Beatitudes are not an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, “Start out by being poor or meek, and then God will bless you.” Rather, He is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit, and so forth, we will experience that we are being blessed, that our life is flourishing, and that we are happier. Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to His saving work in us. The Beatitudes are not merely a prescription of what we must do, but more a description of what a human being is like who is being transformed by Jesus Christ.

The Lord teaches us these things:

  1. Our life will be flourishing and happier when we let go of our attachment to worldly wealth and by God’s grace are poor in spirit and content with what He has given us.
  2. Our life will be flourishing and happier when we are no longer addicted to pleasant emotions but by God’s grace can accept that there is a time for mourning, and it is important for our growth.
  3. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we are no longer consumed by the desire for revenge but rather have authority over our anger.
  4. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, our desires are set on good things rather than sinful ones and eternal things rather than transitory ones.
  5. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we are able to be merciful with the very mercy we have received from Him.
  6. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we are single-hearted (pure of heart); our life will then be about one thing rather than hundreds of contradictory things.
  7. Our life will be flourishing and happier when, by God’s grace, we want the things that make for peace.
  8. Our life will be flourishing and happier even when we are persecuted, for by God’s grace this means that we are no longer addicted to the honors and love of this world and are free of its grasp.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Reimagining the Beatitudes

Exorcism or Deliverance?

There is wide interest today in the topic of exorcism. Numerous books and news stories have helped to fuel this. Another reason for the interest is that as our world becomes more secular, families disintegrate, the outright celebration of sinful practices spreads, and there is an increase in psychological trauma, bondage to sinful drives, and openness to demonic influence.

An entire generation of priests were taught to distrust the traditional understandings of trauma and dysfunction, which gave significant weight to spiritual causes. These priests were often trained to view most such things as merely psychological in nature. Thus, parishioners were often sent off on a recommended course of psychotherapy without so much as a prayer being said.

The tide is turning back to a more balanced approach. Catholics are rightly asking for spiritual help along with other approaches (e.g., psychotherapy, psychotropic medicines). However, it must be said that some of the increasing number of people requesting the formal Rite of Exorcism manifest a misunderstanding of that rite as well as a lack of knowledge about other avenues of healing.

Demonic possession remains rare and that is what the formal Rite of Exorcism is meant to address. Most people who present themselves (or someone they love) to the Church are not in fact possessed by the devil or demons. There may be obsession, oppression, or torment at work, along with psychological trauma, and other more natural sources of struggle.

For people who are not possessed, what is needed is deliverance, not exorcism.

What is deliverance? Deliverance is prayer and ongoing ministry that uses numerous approaches to bring healing and wholeness to those who, after baptism, have come to struggle significantly with bondage to sin and sinful drives, the influence of demons, or the effects of psychological and/or spiritual trauma.

Deliverance involves taking hold of the full freedom that God is given us, of helping the faithful who struggle to lay hold of the glorious freedom of children of God (cf Rom 8:21). St. Paul says that the Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and has brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1:13 – 14).

There is also a magnificent passage in the Acts of the Apostles in which St. Paul is told of his mission to the Gentiles by the Lord: I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:17–18).

Fundamentally, this is a description of the ongoing work of deliverance, which the whole Church must accomplish for God’s chosen people. Deliverance seeks to take people out from under Satan’s power and place them under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ, to bring people to, or restore them to, their true identity as sons and daughters of God.

Even after baptism, it is possible that we open doors to Satan enabling him some degree of access to our heart and mind. When this is the case, a Christian, working with clergy and fellow believers alike, must take a stand against the schemes of the devil by repenting of sin and renouncing any form of agreement with the deceptions of the enemy.

So, deliverance first involves coming to an understanding of the tactics of the evil one and recognizing the flawed thinking that often infects our mind. It involves coming to know and name these tactics and the deep drives of sin within us. It involves repenting of them and steadily renouncing their influence so that we come to greater serenity, peace, and healing—to deliverance.

The general deliverance we all need is effected in many ways: by the Word of God proclaimed and devoutly read; through the frequent reception of sacraments of Holy Communion and confession; through spiritual direction; through the experience of the Sacred Liturgy, praise, and worship; through authentic, close fellowship with other believers; through personal prayer; and even through good psychotherapy (when necessary).

For those who are suffering acutely from oppressions (and most of us do at some point on our spiritual journey), a more focused deliverance is often needed. It is usually called “deliverance ministry,” which often involves both clergy and lay praying with those who struggle and offering support and encouragement. It is different from major exorcism in two ways. First, it focuses more on the person than on the demons. There may be some minor exorcistic prayers directing demons to depart, but overall deliverance ministry involves praying with and for the one afflicted helping him identify issues and lay claim to the graces God is offering. Second, it is gentler, and the person and those who pray for him are encouraged to pay little attention to any unusual manifestations such as shuddering or shaking, which sometimes occur in the course of deliverance and healing ministry. Deliverance ministry seeks to broaden healing to the large number of people who need healing and deliverance, who may be going through a crisis, a transition, or just a difficult time; who may be oppressed but are in no way possessed.

Major exorcism, in contrast, is a fierce combat directed against demons. There is nothing gentle about it, and like major surgery it is invasive and wrenching. It should only be used for those who are definitely possessed, as determined by a skilled and appointed exorcist who looks for required evidence and has eliminated other lesser or natural causes.

Most often, deliverance takes time and involves a multidisciplinary approach. Most people just want relief, but God is in the healing business; healing takes time, courage, prayer, patience, and waiting for the Lord. It is linked to uncovering and naming sinful drives and distorted thinking, which provide doorways for the devil to rob us of our freedom. God proceeds very delicately and deliberately in these matters. Healing takes courage and God often waits until we are ready.

So, while recent interest in exorcism is encouraging, we must be careful not to focus too much on what is rare (demonic possession), overlooking what is often more necessary and applicable to most cases: deliverance prayer and ministry.

Here a few resources I would recommend:

Two excellent books on deliverance have been written by Neal Lozano:

Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance

Resisting the Devil: A Catholic Perspective on Deliverance

Here are some deliverance prayers that I and others in this work often pray with the faithful, encouraging them to pray with others as well: Deliverance prayers.

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7). I am a witness.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Exorcism or Deliverance?

A Summons to Courage from St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Those who would preach the gospel of a crucified and risen Messiah must have great courage, for though the gospel that contains consoling messages, it also contains much that is contrary to the directions and desires of popular culture and human sinfulness. This applies not only to clergy but to parents, catechists, and all who are leaders in the Church, family, and community.

If we must have courage it follows that we must be encouraged. To be encouraged means to be summoned to courage by affirmation, good example, and—when necessary—by rebuke and warning.

Yesterday was the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and so it is fitting that we review a magnificent example of exhortation and the summons to courage, taken from one of his sermons. His words are shown in bold, while my comments appear in red. Recall that while his words were directed toward his fellow priests and brothers, who had the task of preaching and teaching, they can just as easily be applied to parents and all who lead in the Church and in the community.

We read in the gospel that when the Lord was teaching his disciples and urged them to share in his passion by the mystery of eating his body, some said: This is a hard saying, and from that time they no longer followed him. When he asked the disciples whether they also wished to go away, they replied: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation.

Those who reject Jesus’ message do not necessarily do so because they believe it is wrong or even because it is too hard; His words are often rejected on account of worldliness and the desire to be pleased on our own terms. St. Bernard calls this “pathetic consolation.”

Yet wisdom cries out in the streets, in the broad and spacious way that leads to death, to call back those who take this path.

Preachers must persevere with urgency, realizing that many are walking toward Hell. Because we love them, we must risk their wrath—even their revenge—and call them back lest they perish.

Finally, he says: For forty years I have been close to this generation, and I said: They have always been faint-hearted.

Dead bodies float downstream. One must be alive to resist the current, to run without wearying, to be strong and not give way. Too many who preach, teach, and lead are weak and faint of heart. We must be strong and persevere despite opposition, setbacks, misunderstandings, and trials. Even if we err by being too harsh or too weak, or if we stumble along the way, we must not allow this to hinder our godly course to proclaim the gospel with strong hearts. Every day we must draw upon new strength and swim against the current.

You also read in another psalm: God has spoken once. Once, indeed, because forever. His is a single, uninterrupted utterance, because it is continuous and unending.

The Word of God does not change; neither can our doctrines nor our adherence to what God has said once and for all.

He calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.

We must call to the truth of the gospel those who have strayed. We must speak to their hearts and appeal to their consciences, where God’s voice echoes—whether they admit it or not. Deep down they know God is right.

You see, my brothers, how the prophet admonishes us for our advantage: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. You can read almost the same words in the gospel and in the prophet. For in the gospel the Lord says: My sheep hear my voice. And in the psalm blessed David says: You are his people (meaning, of course, the Lord’s) and the sheep of his pasture. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Hear also the prophet Habakkuk. Far from hiding the Lord’s reprimands, he dwells on them with attentive and anxious care. He says: I will stand upon my watchtower and take up my post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me and what answer I will make to those who try to confute me.

I beg you, my brothers, stand upon our watchtower, for now is the time for battle.

Amen! To your battle stations! Stand up and be a witness for the Lord! Keep watch for the people of God!

Let all our dealings be in the heart, where Christ dwells, in right judgment and wise counsel, but in such a way as to place no confidence in those dealings, nor rely upon our fragile defenses.

The battle is the Lord’s, but we are His soldiers.

Courage!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Summons to Courage from St. Bernard of Clairvaux