What Is Meant by the “Sacrifice of Praise” in Scripture?

Corpus Christi

Please consider the following reflection more of a pastoral meditation than a formal exegesis. I do not seek here to compare every use of the phrase in the Scriptures but rather to ponder how we seem to have lost the connection of personal sacrifice to liturgy and worship. Scripture clearly connects them. Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture and then examine how we have strayed from the concept.

So Jesus … suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Heb 13:12-16).

The fundamental principle is that praise (or worship) is connected to sacrifice. Scripture notes this in many places, using expressions such as “a sacrifice of praise” and “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

On one level, Tradition insists that there be a connection to true worship of God and to living a holy life in charity to the poor.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:26-27).

Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver you. He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me. And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God (Psalm 50).

Thus, the first meaning of a “sacrifice of praise” is that our worship, our praise and thanksgiving, must flow from a heart that is obedient to God, generous to the poor, and unsullied by worldly affections. There is an intrinsic connection between worship and holiness. The greatest risks of worship and praise are that we think we can use it to “buy God off,” or that mere lip service in worship is sufficient. True worship should lead to integrity, such that we become more and more like the One we praise.

There is also some value in pondering the sacrificial nature of the act of worship/praise itself. This is surely the case for Christ, who as our High priest is also the victim. In the Old Covenant the priest and victim were distinct, but in the New Covenant they are one and the same. Jesus did not offer up some poor animal; He offered Himself. And so, too, for us, who are baptized into the priesthood of Jesus Christ as members of the royal priesthood of the baptized or who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood.

Simply put, our worship and praise does cost something—and it should. It takes some effort; there is a cost to worshiping God in the way He is worthy of. Though it is not easy, it is our obligation; it is something that can and ought to challenge us.

This obligation is underappreciated today, when too often the notion is that “going to Church” should entertain me, feed me, minister to me, and be relevant to me. The focus is on man and what pleases him or is sensible to him, rather than on God. Liturgy today seems far more about man than about God. Modern worship too easily resembles a closed circle in which we congratulate, entertain, and excessively reference one another. Either God is something of an afterthought, or it is presumed that He will be pleased simply by the fact that we are there regardless of what we actually do when there.

The first goal seems to be to please and “reach” the faithful. The faithful are seldom asked to make sacrifices of any sort. For indeed, worship that elevates may also challenge. The challenge might be in listening to the content of the sermon, or ancient language, or complex concepts, or something lasting more than a sound bite. Many Church leaders simply reject what challenges or requires sacrifice on the part of the faithful. Heaven forfend one might be required to attend patiently to the worship of God, or to consider things that are of a higher order than the merely banal, or to devote a little time and study!

If Mass must last no longer than 45 minutes, if sermons ought not challenge, if attending Mass on holy days is “too hard,” then where is the sacrifice? And what about tithing or sacrificial giving? Is the way we worship God merely what pleases me or us? Is the purpose of liturgical music to please and edify me or is it to praise God in a dignified way? Is the liturgy today really about God or is it more about us?

Such a non-sacrificial, misdirected notion of worship is certainly much on display in certain “mega-churches,” whose services resemble rock concerts and motivational talks more than a sacrifice of praise. But these notions have infected the Catholic setting, too, in the ways described above.

Worship should involve work. It is not merely an experience akin to going to a movie or concert and sitting in one’s seat being passively entertained or pleased. Some demands should be made of us beyond the collection plate. Higher things are less easily understood than the merely mundane, and to comprehend them we must be drawn out of our comfort zone and challenged.

I was not born loving either Bach fugues or the intricacies of renaissance polyphony. But, like fine wine, they have attained pride of place in my life—through the power of the liturgy (patiently prayed and experienced) to elevate my mind and personality to higher things. Further, in my earlier years, the joy of gospel music was not relevant to me; today it is. The sacrifice of praise is not, therefore, merely arduous and painful to no end. Like most sacrifices, it brings forth new life.

Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) recognized the strange development in the West of worship without sacrifice and called it one of the seven deadly sins of culture. In the West, “going to church” has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. And the attitude seems to be that if things don’t please me and cater to my tastes, I have a perfect right either to go somewhere else or to not go at all.

Where is the sacrifice of praise of which Scripture speaks?

Granted, parishes should strive for excellent liturgy and preaching. Every liturgical aspect should be done well, first and foremost because it is directed to God, who is worthy of our very best. But at the end of the day, no liturgy will be 100% pleasing to everyone. It is not the job of the liturgy to please the faithful. The purpose of the liturgy is to worship God fittingly. It is my task (and dignity) to offer a sacrifice of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Priest and victim are one and the same.

I will end by posing a few questions:

  1. Do we go to the Mass with the attitude “Peel me a grape” (i.e., please me), or ready to offer God a sacrifice of praise?
  2. Is our liturgy focused on God or merely on us?
  3. Do the liturgy and the clergy place proper demands on God’s faithful? Are the faithful willing to accept those demands?
  4. If you are a priest, whom do you hope to please on Sunday? Is it God or just your parishioners?
  5. Is God central in our liturgy today? How is He or is He not?
  6. Are we willing to accept that the primary purpose of the liturgy is not to please us or even to speak in ways relevant to us?
  7. What do you think it means for you to offer God a sacrifice of praise?

Psalm 116 offers a good description of the attitude we should bring to worship and the Liturgy:

LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds. To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And call upon the name of the LORD. I shall pay my vows to the LORD, in the presence of all His people … (Psalm 116:16-18).

Amen.

100 Questions that Jesus asked and YOU should answer

12.9.15 blog postJesus asked a lot of questions. And rightly so, for he was a supreme teacher. And as any good teacher knows, simply supplying information is not enough. A good teacher wants to teach students to think and go probe more deeply not just the answers, but why they are true. A good teacher also wants the students to examine their own premises, and discover where they stand in relation to the truth. Yes, asking questions of students is a great way to make them think, and the word disciple means “learner” or “student.” Socrates used a similar strategy of asking questions and his method has come down to us today as the “Socratic Method.”

So Jesus, the supreme teaches asks a lot of questions. But note this, YOU are supposed to answer them! Don’t just read how Peter, James, John or Mary Magdalene answered them. When Jesus asks a question, stop, ponder it and answer it! It is a great way to pray the Scriptures and let Jesus be your teacher.

Indeed, one of the bigger mistakes people make in reading Scripture is that they read it as a spectator. For them Scripture is a collection of stories and events that took place thousands of years ago. True enough, we are reading historical accounts.

But, truth be told these ancient stories are our stories. We are in the narrative. You are Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Jeremiah, Ruth, Peter, Paul, Magdalene, Mother Mary, and, if you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus. As the narrative we read unfolds, we are in the story. We cannot simply watch what others say or do or answer. For what Peter and Magdalene and others did, we do. Peter denied and ran. So do we. Magdalene loved and never gave up, should should we. Magdalene had a sinful past and a promising future, so do we. Peter was passionate and had a temper so do we. But Peter also loved the Lord and ultimately gave his life for the Lord. So can we. Jesus suffered and died but rose again and ascended to glory. So have we and so will we.

The scriptures are our own story. We are in it. To read scripture as a mere spectator looking on is to miss the keynote. Scripture is our story.

And thus we return to the central task when Jesus asks a question: YOU, Answer the Question! This brings Scripture powerfully alive.

So twenty years ago Bishop John Marshall, Bishop of Burlington VT., and later Springfield Mass compiled a book: But Who Do You Say That I Am? In the book he collected and listed all the questions Jesus asked in the Gospels. And he encourages us to answer the question. Bishop Marshall, in listing the question, gives extra verses for context and adds brief commentaries. However, I would like to list just the raw questions.

I will give the verse reference so you can look it up. But, unless you really think it necessary, avoid looking it up at first. Just let the question meet you where you are right now. The question may mean something for you that is very different that its original context. But that is OK. Just pick a question, read it, consider it and answer it, by talking to the Lord.

Read the list slowly, perhaps over days or weeks, often taking just one question at a time. I have attached a PDF version of the List here: 100 Questions that Jesus asked and YOU must answer. Again, ponder each question. Answer each question prayerfully and reflectively. This is not the complete list of questions but it is surely food for thought. Now, answer the questions:

100 Questions that Jesus asked and YOU must answer:

  1. And if you greet your brethren only, what is unusual about that? Do not the unbelievers do the same? (Matt 5:47)
  2. Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? Matt 6:27
  3. Why are you anxious about clothes? Matt 6:28
  4. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye yet fail to perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:2)
  5. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? (Matt 7:16)
  6. Why are you terrified? (Matt 8:26)
  7. Why do you harbor evil thoughts? (Matt 9:4)
  8. Can the wedding guests mourn so long as the Bridegroom is with them? (Matt 9:15)
  9. Do you believe I can do this? (Matt 9:28)
  10. What did you go out to the desert to see? (Matt 11:8)
  11. To what shall I compare this generation? (Matt 11:6)
  12. Which of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matt 12:11)
  13. How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and take hold of his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? (Matt 12:29)
  14. You brood of vipers! How can you say god things when you are evil? (Matt 12:34)
  15. Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? (Matt 12:48)
  16. Why did you doubt? (Matt 14:31)
  17. And why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matt 15:3)
  18. How many loaves do you have? (Matt 15:34)
  19. Do you not yet understand? (Matt 16:8)
  20. Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Matt 16:13)
  21. But who do you say that I am? (Matt 16:15)
  22. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life and what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:26)
  23. O faithless and perverse generation how long must I endure you? (Matt 17:17)
  24. Why do you ask me about what is good? (Matt 19:16)
  25. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? (Matt 20:22)
  26. What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32)
  27. Did you never read the scriptures? (Matt 21:42)
  28. Why are you testing me? (Matt 22:18)
  29. Blind fools, which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred….the gift of the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matt 23:17-19)
  30. How are you to avoid being sentenced to hell? (Matt 23:33)
  31. Why do you make trouble for the woman? (Matt 26:10)
  32. Could you not watch for me one brief hour? (Matt 26:40)
  33. Do you think I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than 12 legions of angels? (Matt 26:53)
  34. Have you come out as against a robber with swords and clubs to seize me? (Matt 26:53)
  35. My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)
  36. Why are you thinking such things in your heart? (Mark 2:8)
  37. Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed rather than on a lamp stand? (Mark 4:21)
  38. Who has touched my clothes? (Mark 5:30)
  39. Why this commotion and weeping? (Mark 5:39)
  40. Are even you likewise without understanding? (Mark 7:18)
  41. Why does this generation seek a sign? (Mark 8:12)
  42. Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and still not see? Ears and not hear? (Mark 8:17-18)
  43. How many wicker baskets full of leftover fragments did you pick up? (Mark 8:19)
  44. [To the Blind man] Do you see anything? (Mark 8:23)
  45. What were arguing about on the way? (Mark 9:33)
  46. Salt is good, but what if salt becomes flat? (Mark 9:50)
  47. What did Moses command you? (Mark 10:3)
  48. Do you see these great buildings? They will all be thrown down. (Mark 13:2)
  49. Simon, are you asleep? (Mark 14:37)
  50. Why were you looking for me? (Luke 2:49)
  51. What are you thinking in your hearts? (Luke 5:22)
  52. Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I command? (Luke 6:46)
  53. Where is your faith (Luke 8:25)
  54. What is your name? (Luke 8:30)
  55. Who touched me? (Luke 8:45)
  56. Will you be exalted to heaven? (Luke 10:15)
  57. What is written in the law? How do you read it? (Luke 10:26)
  58. Which of these three in your opinion was neighbor to the robber’s victim? (Luke 10:36)
  59. Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? (Luke 11:40)
  60. Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbiter? (Luke 12:14)
  61. If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? (Luke 12:26)
  62. Why do you not judge for yourself what is right? (Luke 12:57)
  63. What king, marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king marching upon him with twenty thousand troops? (Luke 14:31)
  64. If therefore you are not trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? (Luke 16:11)
  65. Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God? (Luke 17:18)
  66. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? (Luke 18:7)
  67. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)
  68. For who is greater, the one seated a table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27)
  69. Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46)
  70. For if these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:31)
  71. What are you discussing as you walk along? (Luke 24:17)
  72. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory? (Luke 24:26)
  73. Have you anything here to eat? (Luke 24:41)
  74. What are you looking for? (John 1:38)
  75. How does this concern of your affect me? (John 2:4)
  76. You are a teacher in Israel and you do not understand this? (John 3: 10)
  77. If I tell you about earthly things and you will not believe, how will you believe when I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3: 12)
  78. Do you want to be well? (John 5:6)
  79. How is it that you seek praise from one another and not seek the praise that comes from God? (John 5:44)
  80. If you do not believe Moses’ writings how will you believe me? (John 5:47)
  81. Where can we buy enough food for them to eat? (John 6:5)
  82. Does this (teaching of the Eucharist) shock you? (John 6:61)
  83. Do you also want to leave me? (John 6:67)
  84. Why are you trying to kill me? (John 7:19)
  85. Woman where are they, has no one condemned you? (John 8:10)
  86. Why do you not understand what I am saying? (John 8:43)
  87. Can any of you charge me with sin? (John 8:46)
  88. If I am telling you the truth, why do you not believe me? (John 8:46)
  89. Are there not twelve hours in a day? (John 11:9)
  90. Do you believe this? (John 11:26)
  91. Do you realize what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
  92. Have I been with you for so long and still you do not know me? (John 14:9)
  93. Whom are you looking for? (John 18:4)
  94. Shall I not drink the cup the Father gave me? (John 18:11)
  95. If I have spoken rightly, why did you strike me? (John 18:23)
  96. Do you say [what you say about me] on your own or have others been telling you about me? (John 18:34)
  97. Have you come to believe because you have seen me? (John 20:29)
  98. Do you love me? (John 21:16)
  99. What if I want John to remain until I come? (John 21:22)
  100. What concern is it of yours? (John 21:22)

After all this you might have a few questions for God:

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

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

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

Consider the following, which Jesus said to the disciples:

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

What did they see and hear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is at the Core of Original Sin?

Sometimes Original Sin gets simplified into the eating of an apple. But the core of the apple is not the “core” I speak of in the title. Actually an apple is not mentioned. It is fruit surely but what fruit we do not know. But what’s the big deal about eating an apple or piece of fruit? OK, maybe they shouldn’t have eaten it. But really, did an apple lead to all the pain and grief we experience today?

As you may have guessed, No, it was not an apple or fruit  per se that led to all this. What was the Original Sin, what did it consist of? Consider that Original Sin was actually of cluster of sins: pride, disobedience, ingratitude, lack of trust, and a complete disregard for the wisdom and love of God. I am struck by how the Catechism describes Original Sin:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.  All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God…Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC #s 397-398)

Notice the cascading effect that begins with a lack of trust. How did Adam and Eve (and all of us) fail to trust God? Simply in this, God had warned them of a certain tree, the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Pure and simple he warned they stay away from it for it would bring death to their souls. Now to “know” in the Bible always means more than intellectual knowing. To ”know” in the Bible means to have deep intimate and personal experience of the the thing or person known. Hence it is clear that God did not want Adam and Eve ever to have to experience the horrible reality of evil. He sought to protect them from its devastating effects. So God’s forbidding was made in protective love. We were called simply to trust God that evil is dreadful and we shouldn’t insist on knowing  that for ourselves, just trust God.

But the Devil tempted us in this sort of way:

“You can’t trust God! He is hold something back from you. Sure he gave this nice garden and all but that is just to placate you. He knows that if you eat that fruit you will become like gods and begin to rival him. No! God is trying to keep you from your true destiny, to rule and even to tell him what to do! Do not trust Him or what he is telling you. it is only to keep you down, he isn’t really good at all. Listen to me. I promise you will not die, you will become like gods!

So there it is Adam and Eve. Who are you going to trust? God who gave you everything or the Devil who has given you nothing but promises something on the other side of the sin? Who will it be?

Sadly, you know the rest of the story. And Adam and Eve’s temptation is repeated in every sin we are tempted to commit.

 ”Come on” says the Devil, “God is trying to limit your freedom, keep you down and doesn’t want you to be happy! His demands are unreasonable, he is trying to take away your fun and fulfillment. Sin will make you happy. God’s way is restrictive. Do as you please. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!”

And so often we buy into it. And are we happy? Maybe for a moment, but the misery of sin is too clear to be denied. The Devil is a liar. But what do we do when we sin? We trust him over God. In so doing the Catechism says we abuse our freedom. How? Because freedom for a Christian is “the capacity to obey God.” We are free when are able to carry out what God says. Now the world and the Devil say that freedom is about doing whatever you please. No, not if it is sin because sin never leads to freedom, it leads to bondage. Jesus says, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:34)  Look at the world today and try to tell me that sin leads to freedom. Look at the addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, anger, revenge and greed and tell me that sin leads to freedom. No, sin is never freedom, it is bondage and many get so stuck in destructive behaviors that they don’t know how to stop. The video below powerfully illustrates the horror and bondage of sin, it shows its awful reality. It is not freedom at all, it is sorrow, bondage and humiliation.

In sin, we choose ourselves over God as the text from the Catechism says. We think we will become like gods, but in reality we sink lower than the animals and do things to each other and ourselves that even animals don’t do. God wants to raise us to share in his nature to be sure but we insist that we can do it ourselves. We cannot. Look at our grandiose attempts and tell me if you think we have been successful.

The following video does a pretty good job of depicting where Satan’s promises to Adam and Eve led. Watch it if you dare and remember that the Devil is a liar. And God is still calling you!

Every Life is a Story, Only Known Fully by God – A Meditation on a Moving Video

Last Known Picture of Charles Pope Oct 2006When my father lay dying, I remember that one of the losses I began to grieve was that he was the keeper of so many family stories. He was the one who could look at an old family photograph, identify all the people, and tell you something about each one. As I saw him lying there, no longer able to talk much, I thought of all the memories stored up in his mind, all the stories, all the people he once knew and had spoken of so vividly.

And it was not just the family stories he held; he was also a great historian and a great wellspring of the classics. He had read all of the “Great Books,” all of Shakespeare, all of Sacred Scripture, and so many other worthy writings. And he had memorized many lengthy quotes from each.

Such an encyclopedic mind! He was full of vivid thoughts and vivid memories. He was the keeper of our family story. And though I knew he would take it with him in his soul, I grieved that his magnificent mind was now closing to me. I regret that I did not more carefully retain all he told me over the years.

Thankfully, he wrote a family history that stays with us. All his many photos and family films, that we worked to preserve, stay with us. We, his sons, are moving much of this to the digital realm, but it took Dad’s living presence to really bring these things home.

The video below put me in this reflective mood. It depicts an old man who lies dying in a hospital bed. In various flashbacks we see his life, told almost as if from God’s perspective. We see his story, his good moments and his tragedies—and then he passes.

I remember a Bible verse my father jotted down on the frontispiece of a book he was reading at the time of his own father’s death:

But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower that flourishes in the field. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him again (Psalm 103:16).

Reading that as a young teenager, I realized for the first time that the Bible was very beautiful. And I was startled to think that the house in which I was sitting would one day “never see me again.” All the stories, all the memories would be gone with the proverbial winds.

The photo at the upper right is the last one I ever took of my father. He standing in front of our family home. I took the picture as he was leaving it for the last time. He moved into a retirement community for a brief time, but was not much longer for this world. There he is, standing in front of the place that would “never see him again.”

Yes, there is something very precious about our memories, our stories. They are meant to be shared, handed down. But there is something irreplaceable, something that dies with each person: a personal glimpse of history, a personal story, something that can never be fully shared with anyone but the Lord.

Only the Lord really knows our story, and he knows it better than we ourselves do:

O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.

Before ever a word is on my tongue,
you know it, O LORD, through and through …

For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being fashioned in secret
and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me yet unformed;
and all my days were recorded in your book,
before one of them came into being …

at the end I am still at your side … (Ps 139:varia)

Yes, the Lord knows. He knows all about us.

An old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody but Jesus.” For in the end, He is the keeper of every story: my father’s, mine, and yours. And whatever is lost in death will be restored a hundredfold, with understanding besides, in the great parousia. Not a story, not a word will be lost. We shall recover it all and tell the old, old stories once again.

Enjoy this poignant and moving video of a man’s life, told almost as if from the standpoint of God, the God who knows. Though the man seems to die alone, someone is remembering his story. Maybe it’s God who is doing the remembering.

Humility is Hard – A Meditation on Some Aspects of Humility

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Pride is our most pervasive and serious sin; humility is its antidote and the foundation of our spiritual life. And as the remedy to our most deep-seated pathology, it must be strong medicine. Humility is hard to swallow and has a lot of things it needs to work on.

Let’s consider humility under a number of headings.

I. The Foundation of Humility – Indeed, humility as a foundation is a good image, since by it we bow toward the earth or soil (humus in Latin) and abase ourselves before God. Foundations and holes in the earth go together.

By humility we understand that we are small, poor, barely more than dust and water. If God does not scoop us from the earth, we are nothing. Only by His command is the mysterious spark and organizational principle of life ignited. We are wholly dependent on God; our life is contingent. We do not explain ourselves at all. We are dependent not only on our parents (who cannot explain themselves either), we are dependent on God’s purely gratuitous act of summoning us from dust. We are given existence by Him who is existence itself.

And we are given not merely existence, but something mysterious called “life.”

Think you have life figured out? Think you can define it? Hmm … Imagine before you an acorn and a small rock of similar size. One (the acorn) has the mysterious spark of life in it; the other does not. Plant both in the earth and add water. One transforms into a mighty oak; the other remains unchanged for thousands of years. What is the difference between the acorn and the rock? “Life,” you say. Well, tell me what that is. Can you weigh it in a scale? Can you see its essence under a microscope? We see life’s effects, but we do not see it. We detect its absence, but where has it gone? What exactly departs when a human, an animal, or a plant dies?

And thus humility, like a foundation, bids us to bow low to the earth and admit that we know very little. Even the most basic thing (life) that enables everything else eludes us and taunts us by its mystery.

II. The First Humility – When it comes to humility, we distinguish a humility toward God and a humility toward others. Humility toward God is simple (and first and foremost) because our duty in that regard is clear. There is no ambiguity in comparing ourselves to Him who is perfection, glory, and purity.

Humility toward others, though, has ambiguities that can only be resolved by reference to God. For not everything in another person is superior to us; not everything in others is perfect truth or purity.

But indeed, our first humility is toward God. And by it we recognize that we are nothing without Him. But even more, no good work of ours, not even the slightest salutary act, can happen without the grace of God. This is the first humility.

III. The Finding of Humility – Humility also recognizes that neither do we have meaning, direction or purpose apart from God. And thus we must look to the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture, the Word of God, to discover and obey the truth and meaning given by God in what is created and what is revealed.

Atheists and materialists boldly assert that nothing has meaning, purpose, direction, or sense. They hold that everything that has happened is by chance, a random, meaningless crashing together of atoms (wherever they came from). But even atheists cannot seem to accept or live by their radical theory. Only one of them, Nietzsche, was ever “brave” enough to really live in a meaningless world. And he died insane.

But for us who would seek for humility, we must sit before what God has created and what God has revealed in Scripture, humbly observing, learning, and obeying what God teaches us there. We do not simply project meaning; we must humbly seek it, find it, and obey the truth and meaning of things.

IV. The Frank Truth of Humility – Humility also admits the frank and obvious truth that we are sinners. We have base, selfish, and narrow hearts that are strangely attracted by what we know is harmful and resistant to what we know is good. Our wills are inconsistent, vacillating, whimsical, and yet at the same time stubborn. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Our darkened minds seem almost to prefer foolish and dubious explanations to what is clear, common sense, and obviously true. We almost seem to want others to lie to us. We love to rationalize and daydream. Knowing a little we think we know it all. Frankly, we are a mess. We are only saved with difficulty and because God is powerful, patient, and abundant in grace and mercy.

V. The Fellowship of Humility – St. Thomas Aquinas says quite poetically, “Wherefore, every man, in respect to what is his own, should subject himself to every neighbor in respect to what the neighbor has of God’s” (Summa Theologica IIa IIae 161, a 3). For indeed, our neighbor has many things from God that are to be respected. They have things which we share, but also many things that we do not have at all. I do not have all the gifts; you do not have all the gifts; but together we have all the gifts. But we have them all only by mutual respect and humble submission. And thus our humility toward others is really humility toward God, who wills that others should be part of His governance of us, and of our completion.

But note, too, a careful distinction that flows from what St. Thomas teaches in regard to humility toward others. It is not to be reduced to mere human respect or flattery, or rooted in worldly and servile fear. True humility has us abase ourselves before others based on what is of God in them. The humble person does not abase himself before others for what is wicked in them. Indeed, many holy and humble people have had to rebuke the wicked and suffer because of it.

Consider our Lord, who found it necessary to rebuke the leaders of His day. Consider John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod; or the Apostles, who refused the command to speak Jesus’ name no longer. These were humble men, but they also knew that the first humility belongs to God, and that no humility toward human beings can ever eclipse or overrule the humility due to God.

Therefore the modern notion of “Who am I to judge?” is not proper humility. Rather, it is rooted more in a kind of sloth (cloaked in the self-congratulatory language of tolerance) that avoids humbly seeking truth and being conformed to it. The truly humble person is open to correcting others and to being corrected, because humility always regards the truth.

VI. The Focus of Humility – And that lead us finally to a kind of focal statement about humility: “Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves.” Indeed, the focus of humility is always the truth.

And what is the truth? You are gifted, but incomplete.

Humility doesn’t say, “Aw shucks, I’m nothing.” That is not true. You are God’s creation and are imbued with gifts. But note this: they are gifts. You did not acquire them on your own. God gave them to you. And most often, He gave them to you through others who raised you, taught you, and helped you to attain the skills and discover the gifts that were within you. So you do have gifts. But they are gifts. Scripture says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7)

But though you are gifted, you do not have all the gifts. And this is the other truth of humility: that God and others must augment your many deficiencies. For whatever your gifts, and however numerous they are, you do not have all the gifts or even most of them. That is only possible in relationship with God and His people.

Ok, admit it, true humility is tough. And if you don’t think so, then try the test below from St. Anselm, who lists seven degrees of humility. How far along are you?

Here are St. Anselm’s degrees of humility (as quoted in the Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 161a. 6):

1. to acknowledge oneself contemptible,

2. to grieve on account of it,

3. to confess it,

4. to convince others to believe this,

5. to bear patiently that this be said of us,

6. to suffer oneself to be treated with contempt, and

7. to love being thus treated

In this video do you think that Lancelot might be struggling just a bit with pride?

Fix Me, Jesus; Fix Me – Three Reasons Why Even Our Spiritual Life Needs Fixing

When I was a good bit younger, in college actually, I had to take a few economics and marketing courses. At that time I thought to myself, “God has a bad marketing department,” since things like Scripture and prayer were often so difficult to understand and do. God seemed to insist that we pray, but everyone I ever asked admitted that prayer was difficult. And while many had reasons they offered as to why prayer was difficult, I still wondered why, if God could just zap prayer and make it delightful, He didn’t just do so. “Yes,” I thought, “God has a bad marketing plan!”

But of course God isn’t selling products; He’s raising children. He’s healing hearts, and heart surgery involves pain and often lengthy procedures. Many purifications, mortifications, and changes are going to be necessary if we want to attain holiness and Heaven.

Let’s look at three reasons our soul needs purification. Note that purifications of the soul are akin to, but distinct from, the mortifications necessary for our body and the passions related to it (e.g., gluttony, lust, and greed). For our soul, too, can be weighed down with excesses and defects.

Drawing from the spiritual masters and St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange details three reasons that our soul needs purification, especially as we begin to make progress. They are spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, and spiritual sloth. Each of these brings conditions and temptations to a soul that is beginning to make some progress in prayer and fervency. The very gifts of progress and fervency are also possible dangers to the ongoing growth that is needed. Thus God purifies us in diverse manners in order to avoid having these traps capture us entirely.

Let’s look at each in turn. The text is my own, but the insights and inspiration are found in Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol two, pp. 44ff, Tan Publications.

I. Spiritual pride – This comes when a person, having made some progress and experienced consolations as well as the deeper prayer of a proficient, begins to consider himself a spiritual master. He or she may also start to judge others severely who seem to have made less progress.

Those afflicted with spiritual pride often “shop around” for a spiritual director, looking for one who affirms rather than challenges their insights. Further, they tend to minimize the true reality of their sins out of a desire to appear more perfected than they really are.

Soon enough we have a Pharisee of sorts, who regards himself too favorably and others too poorly. There is also the problem of hypocrisy, since spiritual pride would have one play the role of a spiritual master and proficient, when one really is not.

God, therefore, must often humble the soul who has begun to make progress. In a certain sense He slows the growth, lest the greatest enemy, pride, claim all the growth.

II. Spiritual sensuality – This is a kind of spiritual gluttony, which consists in being immoderately attached to spiritual consolations. God does sometimes grant these to the soul, but the danger is that the consolations come to be sought for their own sake. One starts to love the consolations of God more than the God of all consolations. Growth in the love of God for His own sake is too easily lost or becomes confused and entangled. Or even worse, it becomes contingent upon consolations, visions, and the like.

Hence God must often withhold these for the sake of the soul, which must learn the discipline of prayer, with or without consolations, and to love God for His own sake. Uncorrected, spiritual gluttony can lead to spiritual sloth, which we consider next.

III. Spiritual sloth – This emerges when spiritual gluttony or other expectations of prayer are not met. There sets up a kind of impatience or even disgust for prayer and the narrow way of the spiritual life. Flowing from this is discouragement, a sluggishness that cancels zeal, and the dissipation of prayer and other spiritual practices. One allows endless distractions, makes excuses, shortens prayer and other spiritual exercises, or does them in a perfunctory manner.

Here, too, God must seek to purify the soul of attachment to consolations, lest such sloth lead to a complete disgust and a refusal to walk the narrow way of the spiritual life. Perhaps this sort of purification will take place through secondary causes, wherein the Lord acts though a spiritual director to insist on prayer, no matter how difficult. Perhaps, too, certain seasons such as Lent and Advent, or other “ember days” and the like will be used by God to bring greater zeal to the soul weighed down with spiritual sloth.

Clearly, God must correct this spiritual sloth and help us to accept God and prayer on His terms, not ours. The insistence on delight and consolations on our own terms is a great enemy to the docility and humility necessary for true growth.

Yes, there are many purifications necessary for us, whether we like to admit it or not. We might like to think that our spiritual life would itself be free from excesses or defects or at least would be a sign of great progress. But often even the most beautiful prayer experiences and spiritual stages are replete with the need for purification and further growth. Perhaps this is what Isaiah meant when he wrote,

In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?  We have all become like one who is unclean, and even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Is 64:5-6).

This song says, “Fix me, Jesus; Fix me.”