The Problem of Pretending in the Spiritual Life

hypocrisyThe Gospel for today’s Mass (Friday of the 28th Week) opens up some important insights on the problem of “pretending” in the Christian life. One of the difficulties in arriving at these insights is the understanding we have today of the word hypocrisy. To some extent, it seems to have lost its subtler distinctions and nuances. To most of us, hypocrisy refers to our deeds not matching our truest beliefs, to saying one thing and doing another. While this is part of hypocrisy, it is not the whole story. I have written more on that here: Hypocrisy is more than we think.

Today’s Gospel speaks to the subtleties of hypocrisy. Here is the full text:

At that time:
So many people were crowding together
that they were trampling one another underfoot.
Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples,
“Beware of the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.

There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.
I tell you, my friends,
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
but after that can do no more.
I shall show you whom to fear.
Be afraid of the one who after killing
has the power to cast into Gehenna;
yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows”
(Luke 12:1-7).

The Greek word that is translated as “hypocrisy” is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). Its nominative form is ὑποκριτής (hypocrites), which most literally means “actor.”

Obviously, an actor is someone who plays a role. An actor who portrays Julius Caesar is not in fact Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, he is “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.

It is certainly fine for an actor to “pretend,” for a time, to be someone he is not. But in the spiritual sense, it is not good to act or pretend. When Jesus warns of hypocrisy, He is warning against pretending to be someone that we are not; or pretending to live in a world, in a time, or under a set of circumstances that is not in fact real.

With all this in mind, consider that the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy. In effect, He is warning us not to pretend, to engage in fantasy, or to live in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow in this Gospel.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on to warn us that there is nothing that is concealed that will not one day be revealed, nothing that is secret that will not be made known. He warns that what we have said in the darkness is heard in the light and that everything we say or do is known to him (cf. Mk 4:22ff).

He then further warns us not to be worried by those who only have the ability to kill the body. Rather, He tells us that we should have greater fear of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.

Most people today live in outright fantasy. They deny or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion that they will have to render an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36), for what they’ve done in secret (Mk 4:22); that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12) and that nothing will lay hid from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.

When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. They thought that they had nothing to worry about because they were “good people,” unlike others around them. They had “checked off the God box.” They said their prayers, fasted on Wednesdays, and paid their tithes. On the day of judgment, they figured that they would just walk right on into Heaven.

Too many people today have this attitude of self-righteousness. They may invoke God’s grace and mercy, but they are not really willing to consider the fact that they may, by their own sinfulness, disqualify themselves. Perhaps they have been fortunate enough to avoid the shameful sexual sins of our day but have loved the poor and been merciful and forgiving. It is so easy to emphasize certain aspects of holiness while discounting others. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many brush aside the notion that they will one day have to render an account to the Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. Nobody is really going to Hell.” The common attitude today is that Hell is but a remote possibility and only for the worst of the worst; judgment is a mere formality and nothing to be too anxious about. Never mind that this attitude is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture! Most today live in outright heresy on this topic. (Sadly, some hold the opposite, extreme attitude: one of despair.)

The Lord says that we should beware of hypocrisy, careful that we’re not living in a pretend world. Regarding Heaven, none but the pure in heart can just walk up there. We should not be so quick to presume that we have the purity of heart to simply walk into Heaven. God is very holy, and Heaven is a place of the souls of just men made perfect (Heb 12:23). Jesus says, you must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality; it is not “pretend.” But hypocrisy likes to “play act.” It thinks of holiness as a role to be played, a light matter in which a few lines are memorized. And the Lord warns against it.

When the Lord warns against hypocrisy, He is not merely speaking to the severe and pretentious religious leaders of the past; He is speaking to you and me. He is telling us to stop pretending, to stop play acting, and to accept that what He really wants is for us to change our lives. There is a real standard to meet, not just a pretend one. There is a real judgment to prepare for, not just a brief “play” to be performed before the throne of God. God is not playing games with us; He is not interested in the game of “Let’s Pretend.”

What St. Paul’s Example Can Teach Us About Authority

blog10-04In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. the reviewing the faith journey of St. Paul, who describes his personal history and also his authority in the second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help to correct notions that some have that St. Paul’s ascended to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly, and affirm that he was not a “lone ranger apostle.” St. Paul was a man who was formed in the community of the Church for some length of time, and did not go on mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction within hierarchical structures.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop). Many have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary following his conversion. But this was not the case.

Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).

At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went and for how long is not known. It is likely that he went there to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Was he there for several years as some scholars propose or just a brief time as others do? It is not possible to say with certainty, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of at least a year and perhaps as many as three years would seem reasonable. We can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.

St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running, or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.

After this consultation, he went home to Tarsus for a period of about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.

Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He stayed there for about a year.

Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.

Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). Thus, the leaders of the Church in Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Pauls’ ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).

Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority We can see, therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). He states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.

Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.

He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).

Upon completion of their first missionary journey, they reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was no independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.

3. On true respect for authority. It is clear that Paul respected the authority of Peter; he conferred with him early on and later set forth the Gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. There is an old saying about bishops: “When a man becomes a bishop he will never again have a bad meal and he will never again hear the truth.” Too many of us flatter those in positions of authority. In so doing, we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need in order to make good decisions. And then when they make questionable decisions, we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their faces, instead speaking ill of them behind their backs while remaining largely silent or flattering to their faces. Thus the cycle continues and everyone suffers.

But here Paul stands, face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter, and accuses him of a moral fault. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles, but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.

Accountability in the Church demands that we learn to speak the truth to one another in love, even if the one to whom we must speak has authority. People are often hesitant to speak frankly to their pastors. Bishops are very often isolated in this way; even their priests often refrain from discussion issues frankly. In my archdiocese, I know that Archbishop Wuerl is very serious about consultation and he enjoys a vigorous airing of issues with the priest council and other consultative bodies.

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is a little bolder here than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jewish setting was famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, debate that often included a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”

Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully behind their backs.

Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct priests and bishops today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language, name calling, and impugning their motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in our culture today.

St. Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter: acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, to his face and not behind his back.

This video is a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the concluding remark (that Paul made it out of Roman prison and then went to Spain), but there are two traditions in this regard.

A Picture of the Spiritual Life from Job

blog929I am teaching out of the Book of Job for our parish bible studies. Consider the following insight by Job on the spiritual life:

God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?
(Job 9:3)

At first glance, we might read this to mean that we don’t dare talk back to God or resist Him lest He punish us, but this would be a superficial interpretation. The text surely speaks more richly, of the spiritual life and the journey we must make with God.

It recalls a story about Jacob, told in the 32nd chapter of Genesis. Jacob is in the desert (often a place of testing and encounter) and is returning to make amends with his brother Esau, from whom is estranged. During the night Jacob has a mysterious encounter with God. The text recounts that he wrestles with a man, but is it a man, an angel, or God? Through the night, Jacob wrestles with this man. Even more mysteriously (if the “man” is God), the text says that Jacob “prevails,” or at least holds his own. To end the struggle, God disables Jacob by touching his hip. Out of respect, God then gives Jacob a new name:

Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome (Gen 32:28).

The name “Israel” means “he who wrestles (strives) with God.”

As a result of this encounter, Jacob would limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff for support. It was as if to say that he would have to learn to lean on God and strive with God rather than against Him. Injured or not, this would be a blessing for Jacob, a new and deeper stage in his walk with God.

And so Job rightly said, Who has withstood God and remained unscathed? Our spiritual life can be seen as this kind of struggle. God respects our freedom and is “glad” to engage us. At least we are willing to stay in a conversation with Him rather than running from Him or refusing to be engaged at all.

As for Job, Jacob, and countless others before us, so too for us. We will not emerge from this spiritual relationship with God unchanged or unscathed. This is because our life with God is no mere friendship, or only a source of consolation. God is Lord and Father, and He has a difficult work to accomplish in us, who (like Jacob) can be stubborn, prideful, and resistant.

As an example, consider how in this world the relationship between parents and children is one of love but also one that is filled with tensions. This is due to the nature of the relationship. Parents, in addition to giving good and pleasant things to their children, also have difficult tasks in their formation. Children must be disciplined and disabused of selfish or destructive behaviors. Children must be taught things that do not necessarily please them. Parents must often make demands on their children that summon them to greater things requiring sacrifice and effort.

None of this is easy—and neither is our relationship with God. Our relationship is not merely about pleasantries. God must work to break sinful, selfish, and harmful drives within us. He must often imbue us with teachings that go against our desires and priorities.

Are you willing to struggle and to strive with God? You will be blessed! No one goes away from Jesus unchanged. No one who has God for his true Father will be unchanged, or “unscathed” as Job puts it. Jacob limped and leaned on a cane for the rest of his life (as a sign of humility). How do you limp? Where are your healing wounds in the saving struggle with God?

The song in this video is a bit over the top; I don’t think Jesus was conflicted, as this song implies. But we often are. The struggle can be difficult, but stay in it!

Starstruck: The Marveling of Job as He Looked to the Night Sky

blog-9-28The first reading for today (Wednesday of the 27th Week) says,

The LORD alone stretches out the heavens.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning
(Job 9:8-10).

Due to the light pollution common in our cities today, we urbanites really don’t have any idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about a hundred years ago, the night sky was illuminated by billions of points of light; it’s a breathtaking display many moderns have never experienced.

My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was nearly twenty years ago. I was visiting a priest friend in rural North Dakota. It was mid January, the very heart of winter. The sky was cloudless, the temperature was just below zero, and the humidity was very low (thus, no haze). We decided to take an evening walk. Only an occasional street lamp lit the ground. As we got farther away from the town, about half a mile, I looked up and could scarcely believe my eyes.

“What is that?” I asked, “Are those clouds coming in?”
“What do you mean?” asked my friend, “There are no clouds.”
“What is all that then?” I asked, gesturing upward with my arm.
He smiled and replied, “Those are stars. That’s the Milky Way.”

On the one hand I astounded by the sight, but at the same time I felt a tinge of anger that I’d been deprived of such a view all my life. Is that what the ancients saw every night? This is what inspired the psalmist to write, The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows forth the work of His hand … night unto night takes up the message (Ps 19:1ff). This is what God meant when he told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).

Frankly, where I live in Washington, D.C. I can count the stars. But the true night sky is astonishing in the number of stars it contains.

An old hymn says,

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim …

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale …
While all the stars that ‘round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round our dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

If there is ever a widespread power outage in the greater Washington area, I pray that it happens on a cloudless night. If it does, I will ask my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.

As Job beheld the stars and expressed his marvel, we moderns may think we know what he saw. But I have come to discover that most of us city dwellers really have little idea. The sky the ancients saw each night (and some in rural areas see even today) is more glorious than most of us could ever imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

Here are some pictures of the stars, set to an old Al Bowlly song:

The second half of the high-definition video below shows some wonderful views of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view, which displays nicely even on fairly large screens.

A Biblical Picture of Complacency and Its Tragic Results

blog-09-27The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass was a stunning and sobering analysis of the human tendency to be complacent. It also showed how this complacency is fueled by a series of denials that are listed in a tightly woven tapestry. Here is the passage, followed by some basic analysis.

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall!  Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.  They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with. (Amos 6:1.4-7).

The Diagnosis

The fundamental diagnosis is that many are complacent. To be complacent means to feel satisfied with the current state and to be disinclined to try to make things better. It is self-satisfaction accompanied by a lack of awareness of dangers or deficiencies. It is a kind of myopic condition in which one cannot see beyond one’s own situation to recognize the plight of others.

It is like the rich man who could not see beyond his feast to the starving Lazarus at his very door. Perhaps the meats where piled too high or the wine blurred his vision. All of this is a form of denial. Lazarus was still there even if the rich man couldn’t or wouldn’t see him.

And what of us? Is it possible that our possessions block our view as well? Are we possibly lost in the rooms of our 5,000 square foot homes? What does our life amount to? Do we spend most of our time and money pleasing ourselves? Are we rich in what matters to God or just in what pleases us? Are we aware of the sufferings of so many others? Though we cannot help everyone, whom do we help? Does the moral collapse of our country bother us?  What are we more upset about, that our children do not go to Mass or that our favorite sports team did not win? What makes us passionate and mournful, that 50 million children have been killed through abortion or that we didn’t get our own way in some matter?

Yes, woe be to the complacent. Woe be to those who life amounts to little more than pleasing themselves and living insular lives among their trinkets. Life has a funny way of closing in on them, for the world they ignore does not get better magically.

Indeed, no form of denial can ultimately last. The text announces woe because it does come eventually to the complacent; the ignored problems of others overflow into their insular world. Islands have a funny way of eroding when the tides of the sorrow of others rise.

The Drowsiness

Not only are they described as complacent, but as drowsy. They recline on couches and beds. They sleep through storms the way Jonah slept through the storm he had caused; the pagan sailors eventually had to rouse our Jewish prophet Jonah to “call on his God.”

Catholics today prefer to sleep though the ruinous storms in our culture. This, too, is denial. To be drowsy is to be sleepy and unware. All throughout our culture there is confusion, deception, and moral darkness. Many have fallen away from the faith and are in error and mortal sin.

Yet for most Catholics and most parishes it is “business as usual.” Spaghetti dinners, parish picnics, and raffles have their place, but in the midst of a great storm it is unforgiveable that we are not urgently seeking to save souls through clear instruction and unambiguous calls to repentance. Instead of being wide awake ourselves and summoning others to rise from their slumber, too often we resemble a sleeping giant or behave like the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, who slept while Christ was in agony.

Imagine, the Son of God was about to engage in the most pivotal battle of all human history and the apostles were asleep! Later, at the moment of crucifixion, all but one of them would hide. Things have not changed, my friends. Too many of us are asleep and are uninvolved in the crucial battle for souls.

The Decadence

The text says, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! The frugal and wise stewards of God’s gifts typically did not eat lambs and calves. Lambs were raised to be sheep so that their wool and milk could bless; only when they were older and nearing the end were they slaughtered for meat. Calves, too, were valuable and raised to be beasts of burden and perform other valuable functions; only when they were older and near the end of their useful life were they fattened and taken for meat. In those days, eating the meat of lambs and calves was a sign of waste and usually of decadence. The slaughter of young animals was only considered reasonable for the purpose of sacrifice to God.

Consider the insensitivity of decadence and waste; they are signs of grave excess. Yet this is quite common in our throwaway culture. And while many do strive to donate unneeded items and to recycle what can reasonably be recycled, so much is still wasted.

Consider, too, the root meaning of the word decadence: de (from, apart, or concerning) + cadere (to fall). The word describes how we figuratively trip over our excessive things. All this “stuff” preoccupies us and keep us from seeing beyond our trinkets and preoccupations to the wider world and what is going on. And here, too, is denial of our failure to see as we trip over our excesses.

The Distractions

The text says that they are improvising to the music of the harp. Permit such a text to mean that too often we pipe little tunes for ourselves, we distract ourselves with various distractions. “OK, so the euthanasia bill is being voted on next week. My son is shacked up with his girlfriend. None of my siblings attend Mass. But what’s on TV tonight? I wonder who’s posted on Facebook today?” We have distractions today that the ancients couldn’t have even dreamed of as they partook of their bread, circuses, and gladiatorial contests. All these distractions we have help us to ignore or deny the collapse and ruin around us.

The Drunkenness

Drinking wine from bowls! The ancient Greeks and Romans consumed food and drink so excessively that they would force themselves to vomit in order to be able to continue consuming. Lots of excess there! But most of our excess today in the realm of food and drink is for the purpose of anesthetizing ourselves.

Sobriety is painful in a sinful and fallen world. If we are sober we might actually know what is going on and feel some more responsibility. Because that is painful we embrace a sort of denial by medicating and tuning out. To be sober is to have a clear mind that is alert to what is going on. But being alert and aware can hurt—I might have to actually care about things, events, and people.

In a little wine there may be truth, but a lot of wine brings an altered reality, and many prefer it. It is part of the picture of complacency that one is tuned out and unware. It is easier to stare into the bottom of a glass than to look into the condition of others and soberly assess what is really going on. Bottoms up!

The “Doll Up”

The text says that they anoint themselves with the best oils; today, we us perfume, cologne, or aftershave. The notion is that to look good is better than to be good; it is just too much trouble to actually be good. The emphasis on appearances is just another way to deny or avoid confronting reality.

The Disconnect

All of this leads to the most central denial of all: They are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Historically this is a reference to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. For a brief time, the Southern Kingdom of Judah did embrace some reforms, having seen that the moral collapse of the North and her failure to heed the calls of the prophets for reform led to her demise. But the reforms were short-lived. Even acknowledging what destruction impenitence can bring, too many just to take to their couches. The clock is ticking toward destruction. “But never mind all that. What’s on TV tonight, and would you please bring me some more wine?”

The fact is, we should be greatly saddened by the moral collapse of our country. Many souls are being lost and hurtful errors are multiplying. The beatitude says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Mat 5:4). Who are those who mourn? They are those who see the awful state of many of God’s people: lost, confused, scattered, hurt, and on a path leading to Hell. Those who mourn are comforted (more literally, strengthened), to work earnestly for the salvation of souls.

Yet too many today do not mourn. Too many are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph. Few indeed will get off their couches to work to save souls and to spread the truth of the Gospel. The denial of the problem by now is too deep; their couches have claimed them.

The Destruction

The text says that the complacent will be the first to be driven into exile when the destructiveness of their ways sets in. Denial will no longer be possible as the couch is swept away in the coming storm. Denial of reality does not make it not exist. Judah, to whom this text was addressed, did collapse in 587 B.C. and the nobles led the parade into exile.

If we will not arise and drive back our enemies—Satan and his minions—if we deny that there is any problem, we will soon discover that reality has a strange way of being stubbornly there. It will either reach us here and now (if we are lucky) or on our judgment day (when repentance is no longer possible).

The Lord has painted a sobering but realistic portrait through Amos. Complacency and denial are very serious evils because of their capacity to lull us into ever deeper sleep. Be not deceived into continued moral slumber.

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:11-14).

Job and Suffering

Job's Tormentors' by William Blake
Job’s Tormentors’ by William Blake

We are beginning to read from the Book of Job in daily Mass. One of its core issues is the problem of suffering and why God allows it. If God is omnipotent and omniscient then how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a woman is raped, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?

The problem of evil cannot be answered simply; it is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says that “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Rom 8:28). But how this is often difficult for us to see. Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask why. And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many.

As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but few are forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability to even ask the right questions. In the end, though, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us and we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.

One of the most perplexing aspects of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America as a whole, there is much less suffering than in many other parts of the world. And even here, some go through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed while others suffer crippling disease, sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. And while a lot of our suffering comes from our own poor choices and/or lack of self-control, some of it seems unrelated. The most difficult suffering to accept is that inflicted on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no ill effects: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, those who exploit the poor or unsuspecting for their own gain exploited, etc.

Suffering is hard to explain simply or to merely accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. When interacting with those who are deeply disturbed by the problem of evil, a healthy dose of sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility will be more fruitful than forceful rebuttal.

A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. (Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.)

  1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Although we only get a brief glimpse of the Garden of Eden, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it and that Adam and Eve caused their entry, despite being warned that this would be the result of eating from the forbidden tree.
  2. Even in Eden the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked.
  3. In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there. We were made to love; love requires freedom; and freedom requires choice. The yes of love must permit of the no of sin. In our rebellious no both we and the world unraveled, ushering in death and chaos. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, the vast majority of it by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin—Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than to serve in the real paradise.
  4. The link between human freedom and evil/suffering also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But there is mystery here, too, for the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
  5. The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. There, God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit to test Job’s faith and strengthen it. In the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings; it is a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
  6. The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
  7. Does this mean that those who suffer more are in need of more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that greater glory is awaiting them. The Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but endure it with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
  8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal when many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exalted, when the rich will go away empty and poor be filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich and well-fed, unaccustomed to suffering. The only chance the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
  9. As to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering we caused by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.

I’m sure you can add to these points. Be careful with the problem of evil and suffering; there are mysterious dimensions that must be respected. The best approach in talking to others may be with an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with it. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but the answer appeals to reason. Justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a little. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would “pat” answers, which could alienate them.

Is There a “Dark Delight” in Prophets Who Foretell Doom? A Consideration of a Text from Ezekiel

Blog-08-09Today’s reading from daily Mass (Tuesday of the 19th Week of the Year) features an unusual image and a seemingly “dark delight.”

It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll which he unrolled before me. It was covered with writing front and back, and written on it was:  Lamentation and wailing and woe! He said to me: Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. … I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth (Ezekiel 2:10-3:3).

The reference to eating a scroll is likely allegorical. The direction to eat the scroll of God’s Word probably came while Ezekiel was in a prophetic state, a state of ecstasy during which prophets often received their message. But whether allegorical or literal, the point is that Ezekiel and all of us must allow the Word of God to enter us deeply and become part of our very substance. The Word of God needs to “stick to our ribs” (as I find ordinary food does so easily in my advancing age)!

But there remains a kind of “dark delight” for us to consider. The scroll Ezekiel ingests was said to consist of lamentation, wailing, and woe, yet Ezekiel says it was sweet to the taste.

Was Ezekiel delighting in the looming destruction of Jerusalem? Why would lamentation, wailing, and woe be sweet to the taste? Was Ezekiel delighting in the darkness? Was there an unholy vengeance at play here? What could be sweet about woe?

Perhaps an analogy will help us to understand what tasted “sweet” to Ezekiel. Consider a man with cancer. Because surgery is painful and costly, the first treatments attempted involve chemotherapy or radiation. Over time, it becomes increasingly clear that surgery will be required. The decision is to operate is made and a date is set. It is major surgery and thus will require a lengthy recovery period and significant physical therapy. As the date approaches, though the man laments the need for surgery and the likely pain to follow, a strange peace comes over him, even an eagerness to be done with it. Though lamentation, wailing, and woe are at hand, beyond that there will be healing. Thus with a kind of sweet joy, he experiences a strange relief as the surgery day arrives. He says to himself, in effect, “Bring it on! Let’s get this over and done with. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s time for this cancer to go, despite the cost.”

Perhaps this was Ezekiel’s experience of the sweetness of even a hard prophecy that would not only harm what and whom he loved, but would also afflict him with exile and the pain of loss. This had become necessary because the people were unrepentant and the injustices growing ever worse. Over and over again Ezekiel was told that the people were stubborn, that they did not listen, that their foreheads were brass and their necks were iron. Now it was time to lance the boil, to do the only thing left to bring about the needed healing and change. Yes, it was a lamentation and a woe, but it was necessary and the time had come. There was a “sweetness” in knowing that God would deal with the spiritual cancer accordingly and that injustice and sin were going to be dealt with.

Thus, it was not a “dark delight,” for the delight was not in the darkness or the pain itself, but in the end of injustice and sin. The sweetness was in the restoration of at least some sanity, health, and the beauty of truth.

Some of us who comment on the current condition of our culture and warn of coming judgment are accused of this sort of “dark delight.” Some have written me off, saying that they think that I want this to happen, that I want to see us all destroyed.

While I can’t speak for everyone who comments on the current state, I can say that I would prefer a quick and remarkable repentance that will save the nation and culture I love. I also know that lamentation and woe will make my own life much harder, even downright awful. My only “delight” in a chastisement is the healing that might follow for the generations to come. But I pray that I want what God wants. If patient waiting is His will then so be it. If dramatic chastisement (as in Ezekiel’s day) is His will then so be it. Do what you need to do, Lord.

I understand that some will see this as vindictive and even unpatriotic. Jesus and St. Stephen, who spoke of the coming destruction of the Temple, were also thought by some to “want” the destruction and even to be plotting to bring it about. Jesus wept over ancient Jerusalem and her coming destruction. He preferred her repentance but knew that it would not come (Jn 11:35). Thus, for Jesus (and surely for Stephen, too) there was no dark delight, but rather a gut-wrenching lament; they both ultimately paid dearly. I ask only for a heart made ever purer, a heart that weeps for sin (my own and that of all), a heart that seeks only the happiness and wholeness that comes from God’s vision for us.

What Does Jesus Mean When He Says That We Will Be Salted with Fire?

Spilled salt with salt shaker on wooden background

I was recently asked (through my Our Sunday Visitor column) about one of Jesus’ lesser known sayings. I would go into a little more detail in today’s post. Here is the passage:

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another (Mark 9:49-50).

Some argue that these were separate sayings that were just stitched together, but I think otherwise. The logic of the saying seems cogent and unified to me. I will begin with a few observations about salt in those times.

  1. Salt was valuable. Some people were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word “salary”).
  2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds (it helps heal afflictions of the skin). Newborn babies were washed with saltwater.
  3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration, salt was one of the most common ways of preserving meat and fish.
  4. Salt was connected with flavor. Salt adds spice to life; it brings out the flavor in food.
  5. Salt was an image for wisdom. Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).
  6. Salt was connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Lev 2:13). So the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”
  7. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “covenant of salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) The covenant of salt refers to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
  8. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread. There is a Latin saying attributed to Pliny the Elder (and Virgil, too), Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).

All of these things are caught up in Jesus’ use of salt as an image. Sadly, salt (a necessary ingredient for life) is today treated almost as a poison. But such thinking was not operative in ancient minds.

To apply the image of salt to the Christian life, we should see that the Christian is to purify, sanctify, and preserve this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is called to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.

And now we turn to Jesus’ words from Mark:

1. Everyone will be salted with fire. Two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same: purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. Fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver, separating it from the iron and other metals.

Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in its own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings those two images together, telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”

Indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of Heaven, nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire as effecting whatever purification has not taken place here on earth:

If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:15-15).

The Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire.”

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver (Mal 3:2-3).

Yes, we must all be salted with fire. We must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be), in Purgatory.

2. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? In other words, we have to let the salt of God’s grace have its effect or else we, who are to be salt for others, become flat, tasteless, and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).

What does it mean for salt to become tasteless? Today, we are not used to salt going flat, but salt in the ancient world was frequently less pure. It came from the sea and was admixed with other things. As it broke down, the salt could go flat or become bitter. In that case it was useless except as pavement.

The image is a powerful portrait of a Christian who has become debased, flat. The fall is steep: from a worthy, esteemed, necessary, and helpful place (like good salt) to ignoble pavement, trampled and unappreciated beneath the feet of people who should have been blessed with its flavor. Jesus says elsewhere, if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matt 5:13).

Alas, consider the sad condition of this world, made so because so many Catholics stepped back from being salt and light. Increasingly, the world is therefore hell bound and sin-soaked as never before.

The current contempt of the world for Christians—Catholics in particular—has indeed reduced us to less than pavement dust. We can lament the lack of appreciation for our faith, but a lot of it is due to our lack of saltiness. Salt gone flat is good for nothing, nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, this world thinks of us as flat and bitter to the taste.

We have a lot of work to do to recapture our role of adding spice and flavor to life. The good, the true, and the beautiful must be reintegrated into the lives of Catholics, who have too easily cast them aside.

Bishop Robert Barron speaks of 70s Catholicism as the era of “beige Catholicism,” when all the zest, color, edginess, and zeal of the Catholic faith was painted over and Catholics sought to blend in—even disappear. Today we are seeing the results of salt-gone-flat Catholicism. Little by little, we must recover our salt, our zest, our pep, and even our stinging quality. Flat Catholics are good for nothing.

If the salt will not be salt, there is no substitute for it. Jesus asks rhetorically, if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? There is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, then the world will be in darkness. If we will not be salt, then the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture has happened on our watch, when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.

3. Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. In other words, allow the salt, the purification, to have its effect. Only if we do this will we have peace with one another.

Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts; I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealously and greed and helps me to be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours nor do I resent you for having it. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love and to be kind, generous, and patient. In this way there is peace.

Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just as with any stinging medicine we must learn that although it is painful it is good for us. Yes, it brings peace; it ushers in shalom.

Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!