On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty as Taught by St. John Chrysostom

There is a saying that you cannot steal from a man who has nothing, and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. Of Jesus, the Son of Man who had no where to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on him, nothing to hook him or claim his loyalty. Even his life could not be taken from him for he had already laid it down freely (cf Jn 10:18).

St. John Chrysostom spoke of it boldly in a sermon that paints well the paradoxical freedom of poverty and the enslavement of riches and possessions.  More on that in a moment…

But first, consider that the heart of the slavery most of us experience comes from our attachments to this world. So easily do we sell our souls to its allurements; so easily does the world ensnare us with its empty promises and trinkets that so quickly become duties, distractions, and requirements. In our heart, we know how the things of the world weigh us down. But even knowing this, our addiction to things draws us further into the endless cycle of ever-deepening desires and the increasing inability to live without many burdensome things.

And it isn’t just things. The world hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, even fame. And in our desperate addiction to being popular, we come too easily to the point that we will do almost anything and make almost any compromise for popularity and advancement.

Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).

Scripture elsewhere says,

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).

Adulterers! Do you not know that the love of this world is hatred toward God? Therefore whoever chooses to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).

But in the end, most of our slavery and anxiety is rooted in our love for this world and our fear of losing its pleasures, and its promises of power and popularity. It is without doubt the greatest of human struggles to get free from this world’s hooks and shackles and to become utterly free—free to follow the Lord unreservedly and with no fear of what the world might do in retaliation.

In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom describes well the human being who is utterly free. It is a magnificent portrait, and one he was largely able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his very life.

Born in 344 at Antioch, he became a young man very much admired for his brilliance and oratorical skills. In 374 he fled to the mountains to live quietly and to break the hold that the world had on him. After six years of “holy silence,” he worked quietly as a priest. But in 398, he was summoned to be bishop of Constantinople. He was beloved for his powerful capacity to preach and received the name “Chrysostom” (Golden mouth). Yet not all appreciated the freedom with which he preached, a freedom that led him to denounce vice openly, no matter who was doing it. He was exiled twice (in 403 and 407) by powerful enemies. And though his enemies tried to break his spirit and rob him of his joy, they could not prevail. Although he died on his way to his final exile (during a miserable journey in terrible weather), he died with joy, saying, “Glory be to God for all things. Amen.”

The world could not prevail over him; he did not fear it, for he owned nothing of it, and owed nothing to it. It had no hold on him.

And thus speaking not only from Scripture but from experience as he was being led into exile, St. John Chrysostom said,

The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence …

Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!

If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider’s web … For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful …

For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people (Ante exsilium, nn. 1-3).

Here is freedom. You cannot steal from a man who owns nothing, and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose; you cannot deprive a man who has Jesus Christ.

Pray for this freedom.

Clear Enough? A Plain Warning that Unrepentant Sexual Sin Excludes One from the Kingdom of God

In today’s first reading for Mass (Tuesday of the 23rd Week) St. Paul writes clearly of the danger of certain behaviors that many celebrate today. Others minimize them as of any importance:

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

To say that someone who does not repent of such behaviors “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” is to say that they will go to hell. This is very clear and very strong. Willfully persisting in sins and “lifestyles” such as these leads to destruction.

Note, this warning extends to those who defiantly stubbornly refuse to cease such behaviors and even more to those who celebrate and encourage them. The warning is  not to those who many fall in weakness but acknowledge their sin, confess it and seek to get free.

Sadly the celebration and glamorization of such things is widespread in our culture today. Certainly, fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery and homosexual acts (spoken of in this text as sodomy) are depicted and celebrated in our movies, music and in many other ways. These forms of illicit sexual union are depicted as normal and “no big deal.”

In reference to homosexual acts there is the further problem that lifestyles and identities centered on this behavior are celebrated in our culture as something in which one should have “pride.” And, how shocking it is hear certain bishops in certain countries, along with certain priests, indicate that the Church should change her teachings on homosexual acts. But St. Paul, and the Holy Spirit never got the memo and have set forth a clear teaching that homosexual acts, along with other illicit forms of sexual union such as fornication, adultery and prostitution, cannot be approved. The Church has no authority to overthrow what God has clearly taught at every stage of Scripture, from the early pages to the last pages.

In addition to these forms of illicit sexual union the text also consigns other forms of sinful behavior to hellfire:  theft, greed, drunkenness,  slanderers and robbers. And yet, many of these things are also depicted in movies which glamorize the mafia, violence, theft (e.g. Oceans 11), drunkenness (e.g. Animal House), and so forth. Greed to is often normalized and celebrated in shows such as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous etc.”

St. Paul indicates that those who engage in or celebrate such sins and sinful drives as those who are deceived.  They actually think that such matters are either fine, or no big deal. But this is not what Scripture says and, this passage is not the only place where such warnings are given. (See another article I have written that collates other similar teaching).

These sins and drives are certainly human problems and many of them afflict most of us. Surely, as any confessor knows our human condition is weak and we must have common recourse to God’s mercy and seek his grace. There may well be less concern with the salvation of those acknowledge their sin and seek absolution.  What is more worrisome are those who are defiant and refuse to admit that what they do in such matters is wrong. Dangerous indeed is the fate of those who celebrate, take pride in, or call no big deal what God calls sin. Indeed, our biggest sin is pride and it is really what leads us to every other sin.

Listen to God! Be humbled and at the same time privileged to hear his word and abide by it. Do not call good what God calls sin. We must humbly acknowledge our sins, even the popular and celebrated ones in culture. And having acknowledged them, we ought to repent, seek confession and strive to free of them by God’s grace.

Do not be deceived by false prophets who contradict God’s Word, even if they wear a roman collar or a miter. Let God’s word clearly reach you and humbly accept it and strive to live it. The Lord Jesus loves us but he expects to be taken seriously and for us to heed the full Word of God. What is more authoritative for you: the Word of God, or the customs of a world gone mad?

How Civilizations Rise and Fall in Eight Stages

In last week’s post we examined the stages or persecution. Given the serious damage and debasement we see in our culture, we do well to ponder a more sociological examination of how cultures and civilizations go through cycles. Over time, many civilizations and cultures have risen and then fallen. We who live in painful times like these do well to recall these truths. Cultures and civilizations come and go; only the Church (though often in need of reform) and true biblical culture remain. An old song says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Yes, all else passes; the Church is like an ark in the passing waters of this world and in the floodwaters of times like these.

For those of us who love our country and our culture, the pain is real. By God’s grace, many fair flowers have come from Western culture as it grew over the past millennium. Whatever its imperfections (and there were many), great beauty, civilization, and progress emerged at the crossroads of faith and human giftedness. But now it appears that we are at the end of an era. We are in a tailspin we don’t we seem to be able to pull ourselves out of. Greed, aversion to sacrifice, secularism, divorce, promiscuity, and the destruction of the most basic unit of civilization (the family), do not make for a healthy culture. There seems to be no basis for true reform and the deepening darkness suggests that we are moving into the last stages of a disease. This is painful but not unprecedented.

Sociologists and anthropologists have described the stages of the rise and fall of the world’s great civilizations. Scottish philosopher Alexander Tyler of the University of Edinburg noted eight stages that articulate well what history discloses. I first encountered these in in Ted Flynn’s book The Great Transformation. They provide a great deal of perspective to what we are currently experiencing.

Let’s look at each of the eight stages. The names of the stages are from Tyler’s book and are presented in bold red text. My brief reflections follow in plain text.

  1. From bondage to spiritual growth – Great civilizations are formed in the crucible. The Ancient Jews were in bondage for 400 years in Egypt. The Christian faith and the Church came out of 300 years of persecution. Western Christendom emerged from the chaotic conflicts during the decline of the Roman Empire and the movements of often fierce “barbarian” tribes. American culture was formed by the injustices that grew in colonial times. Sufferings and injustices cause—even force—spiritual growth. Suffering brings wisdom and demands a spiritual discipline that seeks justice and solutions.
  2. From spiritual growth to great courage – Having been steeled in the crucible of suffering, courage and the ability to endure great sacrifice come forth. Anointed leaders emerge and people are summoned to courage and sacrifice (including loss of life) in order to create a better, more just world for succeeding generations. People who have little or nothing, also have little or nothing to lose and are often more willing to live for something more important than themselves and their own pleasure. A battle is begun, a battle requiring courage, discipline, and other virtues.
  3. From courage to liberty – As a result of the courageous fight, the foe is vanquished and liberty and greater justice emerges. At this point a civilization comes forth, rooted in its greatest ideals. Many who led the battle are still alive, and the legacy of those who are not is still fresh. Heroism and the virtues that brought about liberty are still esteemed. The ideals that were struggled for during the years in the crucible are still largely agreed upon.
  4. From liberty to abundance – Liberty ushers in greater prosperity, because a civilization is still functioning with the virtues of sacrifice and hard work. But then comes the first danger: abundance. Things that are in too great an abundance tend to weigh us down and take on a life of their own. At the same time, the struggles that engender wisdom and steel the soul to proper discipline and priorities move to the background. Jesus said that man’s life does not consist in his possessions. But just try to tell that to people in a culture that starts to experience abundance. Such a culture is living on the fumes of earlier sacrifices; its people become less and less willing to make such sacrifices. Ideals diminish in importance and abundance weighs down the souls of the citizens. The sacrifices, discipline, and virtues responsible for the thriving of the civilization are increasingly remote from the collective conscience; the enjoyment of their fruits becomes the focus.
  5. From abundance to complacency – To be complacent means to be self-satisfied and increasingly unaware of serious trends that undermine health and the ability to thrive. Everything looks fine, so it must be fine. Yet foundations, resources, infrastructures, and necessary virtues are all crumbling. As virtues, disciplines, and ideals become ever more remote, those who raise alarms are labeled by the complacent as “killjoys” and considered extreme, harsh, or judgmental.
  6. From complacency to apathy – The word apathy comes from the Greek and refers to a lack of interest in, or passion for, the things that once animated and inspired. Due to the complacency of the previous stage, the growing lack of attention to disturbing trends advances to outright dismissal. Many seldom think or care about the sacrifices of previous generations and lose a sense that they must work for and contribute to the common good. “Civilization” suffers the serious blow of being replaced by personalization and privatization in growing degrees. Working and sacrificing for others becomes more remote. Growing numbers becoming increasingly willing to live on the carcass of previous sacrifices. They park on someone else’s dime, but will not fill the parking meter themselves. Hard work and self-discipline continue to erode.
  7. From apathy to dependence – Increasing numbers of people lack the virtues and zeal necessary to work and contribute. The suffering and the sacrifices that built the culture are now a distant memory. As discipline and work increasingly seem “too hard,” dependence grows. The collective culture now tips in the direction of dependence. Suffering of any sort seems intolerable. But virtue is not seen as the solution. Having lived on the sacrifices of others for years, the civilization now insists that “others” must solve their woes. This ushers in growing demands for governmental, collective solutions. This in turns deepens dependence, as solutions move from personal virtue and local, family-based sacrifices to centralized ones.
  8. From dependence back to bondage – As dependence increases, so does centralized power. Dependent people tend to become increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Seeking a savior, they look to strong central leadership. But centralized power corrupts, and tends to usher in increasing intrusion by centralized power. Injustice and intrusion multiplies. But those in bondage know of no other solutions. Family and personal virtue (essential ingredients for any civilization) are now effectively replaced by an increasingly dark and despotic centralized control, hungry for more and more power. In this way, the civilization is gradually ended, because people in bondage no longer have the virtues necessary to fight.

Another possibility is that a more powerful nation or group is able to enter, by invasion or replacement, and destroy the final vestiges of a decadent civilization and replace it with their own culture.

Either way, it’s back to crucible, until suffering and conflict bring about enough of the wisdom, virtue, and courage necessary to begin a new civilization that will rise from the ashes.

Thus are the stages of civilizations. Sic transit gloria mundi. The Church has witnessed a lot of this in just the brief two millennia of her time. In addition to civilizations, nations have come and gone quite frequently over the years. Few nations have lasted longer than 200 years. Civilizations are harder to define with exact years, but at the beginning of the New Covenant, Rome was already in decline. In the Church’s future would be other large nations and empires in the West: the “Holy” Roman Empire, various colonial powers, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French.  It was once said that “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. As the West began a long decline, Napoleon made his move. Later, Hitler strove to build a German empire. Then came the USSR. And prior to all this, in the Old Testament period, there had been the Kingdom of David, to be succeeded by Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.

The only true ark of safety is the Church, who received her promise of indefectibility from the Lord (Matt 16:18). But the Church, too, is always in need of reform and will have much to suffer. Yet she alone will survive this changing world, because she is the Bride of Christ and also His Body.

These are hard days, but perspective can help. It is hard to deny that we are living at the end of an era. It is painful because something we love is dying. But from death comes forth new life. Only the Lord knows the next stage and long this interregnum will be. Look to Him. Go ahead and vote, but put not your trust in princes (Ps 146:3). God will preserve His people, as He did in the Old Covenant. He will preserve those of us who are now joined to Him in the New Covenant. Find your place in the ark, ever ancient and yet new.

Two Teachings of the Lord that Correct Flawed Notions of Judgement

When it comes to our personal and final judgment, after we die, there are many caricatures and distortions that are possible. One is of Jesus as a stern and grouchy judge who is looking for reasons to keep us out of heaven. This is the “sinners in the hand of an angry God” distortion. Or perhaps the Lord is weighing our good deeds against our bad deeds in a kind of impersonal, numerical manner. This is the Pelagian distortion where salvation depends on our earning it. 

But at the other end of the spectrum and far too common today is the universalist distortion which presumes that almost everyone is saved with little or no reference to one’s preferred spiritual or moral life. It is an overreaction to the stern and litigious “God” of the first two distortions because it trivializes and reduces the Lord to a kind of harmless hippie, tokin’ on a number and saying, “Who am I to judge?” and, “All are welcome.” 

The truth, of course, is in what the Lord actually teaches, not in such distortions. God wants to save us (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4). But the real question is what do we want? Sadly, as the Lord laments, many prefer the wide road to destruction, rather than the narrow road to heaven (cf Mat. 7:13). 

There are two scriptures (among others) that illustrate this well. 

The first Scripture is in John’s Gospel in the third Chapter. The passage begins by reaffirming God’s desire to save us: 

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned… (John 3:16-18a)  

But, even here there comes a warning rooted in our response: 

but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  (John 3:18b) 

And then comes an analysis by the Lord as to why some refuse, and in what judgment consists of: 

And this is the judgment: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.” (John 3:19-21) 

Notice then, the judgment, the verdict, consists in whether or not one loves or hates the light. The Greek root word used here is ἀγαπάω (agapao), a word that indicates a strong love, a preferential love above other things. The Lord further teaches that those who love and prefer the darkness also hate the light. The Greek root word here is  μισέω (miseo) – which means, to detest, denounce; to love someone or something less than someone (something) else, i.e. to renounce one choice in favor of another. So, there is a love of the darkness and a hatred of the light due to the prideful aversion of not seeing their sins and errors exposed for what they really are: sinful, wrong and harmful.  

Why then are some excluded from heaven? Is it NOT because a mean and hateful God seeks to keep them out. No, it is that they prefer the darkness. They are accustomed to darkness and prefer it. And thus, the Lord teaches that the judgment that excludes the unrepentant is due to the Lord recognizing their preference and consigning them to the outer dark they prefer (Mat 22:13).  In reality, they cannot stand the bright light of heaven where the truth of God radiates, vividly and intensely, leaving no shadow. Indeed, the Lamb of the Light is the city of God (Rev 21:23)! The saddest truth of the damned is that they would be more miserable in heaven. For those who hate the truth see the truth as hateful and irksome, and those who prefer the darkness experience the light as harsh. We see this frequently today when secular people denounce their opponents of faith as hateful and phobic and want to exclude them from their world. 

The second Scripture is from this last Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 12:32-48; 19th Week, Cycle C) wherein the Lord paints a picture of two reactions to his coming. He begins by teaching the principle: 

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Lk 12:33). 

If our treasure is what we value most, is the world, then our heart is with the world. If our treasure is God and the things of heaven, then our heart is there. As most of us know, this is the great human drama. A very honest question that even Church-going Catholics must ask is, “Do I love God more than this world?” The honest answer for most is that we struggle to love God most of all. And, any look to the world around us today is that many, if not most, are obsessed with the things and priorities of the world and have marginalized God; some have marginalized Him completely. Their treasure and preoccupation is here, and so also is their heart. Far fewer are those who long for God and have their life directed to him and the things of heaven. And this is why we must constantly ask the Lord to fix and redirect our hearts. 

Next, the Lord paints two responses, two groups, if you will, at our summons to death, and to the judgment seat. 

Group One is described: 

like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.  

Group Two sees the Lord as 

A thief who is coming, and they do not want their house be broken into.

Why does Group Two see the Lord as a thief? Because their treasure, and therefore their heart is this world and the things of this world. And when the Lord comes they will see him as a thief coming to take away all they think is theirs, but is not. They are not happy to see Him, they wail and grind their teeth, seeing hm as one who is putting an end to their frivolities. They do not want what he offers, (the Kingdom of Heaven), for they prefer the darkness of this world: its priorities, personalities, power and possessions. 

But Group One the Lord describes as like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. He also describes them as having girded their loins, and lighted their lamps. To gird the loins is the ancient equivalent of “rolling up our sleeves.” It is to be ready for and doing the work that God has given us by setting our house in order, growing in holiness and eagerly anticipating being with the Lord in heaven. To “light our lamp” is to read the Word of God and be deeply immersed in God’s wisdom, his vision and priorities. It is to be imbued with the Kingdom values and to be longing for God’s justice and the Glory of heaven. This group has their treasure in heaven and, so also, their hearts. They look forward to the Lord’s coming with eager expectation and joyfully and actively prepare to meet him with longing in their hearts, repenting of their sins and setting their house in order. Hence, when the Lord comes they see him as Savior and Lord who will bring to completion in them whatever is undone (Phil 1:6) and lead them to the glory of heaven which they so desire. They do not see him as a thief, like Group One. 

Thus, judgment consists in the Lord recognizing and ratifying that some joyfully come to the light, others are repulsed by it. So, ultimately, the judgment is on us. If someone prefers darkness, he gets the darkness he wants. If someone loves the light and comes to it by God’s grace, he enters the Kingdom of truth and Light he desires. God respects our freedom to choose, and at the judgment seat of Christ our preference and decision are recognized and ratified by the Lord Jesus. “Here is the judgement in question,” says the Lord, “that the Light has come into the world but some prefer the darkness.” In the end you get what you want.  

So, one Lord, Savior and Judge comes to us (or we go to him) but the two groups experience him differently based on the disposition of their own hearts rooted in what they value and where their treasure is. God is not angry, though some are repulsed by him and regard him as a thief. 

Some have said in recent years, something to the effect: “God does not judge us, we judge ourselves.” But this is only partially true. The Lord Jesus does in fact judge us (e.g. John 5:22), but his judgment is rooted in and recognizes what we ourselves have chosen and manifest by the way we live our lives. These two pictures of judgement make that point rather clearly.

This song from Camelot “playfully” ridicules goodness and prefers a wicked world:

Don’t Think, Look! A Meditation on the Need for the Mystical

Our intellect is our greatest strength and one of our greatest blessings, yet almost nothing gets us into as much trouble. Our strength is also our struggle. We think we know a few things, and indeed we do—a very few things.

The greatest intellects, if they have wisdom and humility, know this. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said,

In finem nostrae cognitionis Deum tamquam ignotum cognoscimus. (At the end of our knowledge we know God as unknown.) (In Boetium de Trinitate, q. 1, a. 2, ad 1um)

Henri De Lubac, a great intellect of the twentieth century, lamented,

There is probably no thinking person today who does not feel the shallowness and impoverishment of a certain kind of intellectualism and the barrenness of a certain abuse of the historic discipline … The dust and must of rational or positive criticism. … We have believed in the light, [but] we are rather bad at finding it, perhaps because we have, in the end, sought it only in knowledge and interest (The Drama of Atheist Humanism, p. 85).

I suppose by “interest” he means self-interest. That is, we have sought the light of truth not for its own sake, but for what it can do for us. De Lubac longed and hope for a

… return to the golden age of medieval thought, that of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure … restoring the climate of mystery that was eminently the climate of patristic thought … relearning, if not the use, at least the understanding of symbols … going back to the deep springs …  (Ibid).

And he advises, 

[We must be] cured of our infatuation for a world wholly explainable … (Ibid, p. 86)

And he warns,

As soon as man ceases to be in contact with great mystical religious forces, he inevitably comes under the yoke of a harsher force, which leads him to perdition. (Ibid, p. 90)

Indeed, welcome to the world of post-Christian secularism and atheism; usher in the tyranny of relativism, unmoored and drifting rapidly toward the abyss. Detached from God and the humility of mystery, we fall inexorably to our ruin, all the while arrogantly calling it progress.

As a final witness to the need for mystical silence before God, enter St. Bonaventure, whose feast we celebrated on July 15th. Although he was a dogmatic theologian of the highest rank and would later be declared a doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure held that our intellectual power, though always present, is inferior to that of the affections of our heart.

We see these insights on beautiful display in the following excerpt from his writings, featured in the Office of Readings for his feast day. As you read this, remember that St. Bonaventure was no anti-intellectual, just one who wisely and humbly recognized the limits of human thought.

Christ is both the way and the door …. A man … should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation.

Then such a man will make with Christ a “pasch,” that is, “a passing-over.” Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna …

For this Passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it. …

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; in darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God. …

Let us … enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination … saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage forever. Blessed be the Lord forever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!

From The Journey of the Mind to God, by Saint Bonaventure, bishop (Cap. 7.1.2.6.6 Opera omnia 5, 312-313)

Once again, remember that St. Bonaventure was one of the great intellectuals of the Church and a great believer in doctrine. In this passage, his point is that doctrine without grace is just religious studies. Only by grace and humble silence can we pierce the clouds and see toward the purer light that is God.

Yet even our correction, that the intellect must be humble and balanced by mystical reverence, itself must come with a “warning label.”

Refuting the cynical agnosticism and atheism of the day, De Lubac says,

Contempt for truth can never be ours. … Our God is a hidden God indeed, but in himself he is light. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness” (1 John 1). So we refuse to make an idol of darkness (Op cit, p. 86).

We are not to be anti-intellectual. God reveals truths about Himself through creation and Scripture that can be known and must be insisted upon. But our acceptance of the darkness and the dark knowing of the mystical tradition is not an end in itself. For indeed the darkness will give way to the beatific vision, in which the glory of God will eternally unfold for us.

By the grace of faith, we know God, though for now it is in a mirror darkly (cf 1 Corinthians 13:12); we should admit this fact humbly. One day the darkness will fade and we will behold the Lord face to face. Now we know in part; then more fully, even as we have been fully known (Ibid).

Yes, our intellect is both our greatest gift and our biggest stumbling block. Only the humility and silence of the mystical tradition can unlock its greatest potential: moving toward God in deeper wisdom and understanding.

The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him (Habakkuk 2:20).

 

The Priority of Personal Prayer – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 16th Sunday of the Year

Today’s Gospel at Mass is the very familiar one of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality. Mary sits quietly at his feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my fifty-two years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys.

But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.” This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the  Priority of Personal Prayer.

I. PROMISING PRELUDE – Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life, if you will, and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me.

While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome Him, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good.

What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood.

At any rate, Martha seems to have told the Lord to make himself comfortable and has gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

II. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen.

Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation, and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected.

Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen, and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), and by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul.

Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive, before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

III. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue.

One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work.

A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now, but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.” Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”

And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”

This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace, we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air 🙂 Jesus will be kind with her but firm.

IV. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She lept before she listened.

The Lord observes and says that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him.

In life, the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the “one thing” necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.

Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace.

Jesus does not mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that. But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Scripture makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

And old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain: Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum (Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended). Amen

This song reminds that when we really ARE working in the Lord’s will and as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”

On the Balance of Love and Correction according to St. Gregory.

102814Applying salutary  discipline, and balancing it with necessary consolations and encouragement is never an easy task. It is possible that a parents can be too severe on their children, such that they become disheartened, and lack necessary self-esteem. But it is also possible that parents can be too lax such that their children become spoiled and lack proper self-discipline and humility. Hence Scripture seeking to balance teaching with encouragement says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4)

Pastors too in their leadership of parishes need also to find proper balance, offering kindness, consolations, and encouragement and witness to their congregation, while not failing to properly rebuke sin and warn of its consequences  and of the coming judgment. And thus St Paul says, You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:11-13). Thus, like a loving Father must the priest exhort, as one who teaches, wants and expects the best for his flock, but also as one who loves them.

It is hard to argue that we have the balance right in the Church today. Correction and rebuke, according to what most Catholics report, is seldom a feature of preaching today. And where this is the case it is hard to argue that the priest is acting like a father. For a father would see how sin can threaten the future of his children and in love he will correct, being willing to upset his child to prevent something worse. Yet in some places there are also priests who teach and preach as if trying to win an argument and prevail over others, than as an act of loving concern, and perhaps he will be unnecessarily harsh.

In families too the trend seems to lean toward being too permissive and thus the necessary balance is lost. Too many children today have become incorrigible, since they did not learn discipline when they were young. Too many are bold toward elders and have lost the humility necessary for learning and maturity. And this speaks to families where the balance between encouragement and discipline has been lost. It is also true that some children are oppressed by the other extreme and are weighed down with discouragement, poor self image and anger.

Hence balance is necessary.

St Gregory in his Pastoral Rule presents some good advice in regard to this balance. And while much of what he says is common sense, it is important to review it since common sense isn’t as common today. What he says is also excellent since he uses two very memorable images that can stay with the thoughtful priest or parent who reads it. There hear what St. Gregory has to say about addressing the wound of sin:

But often a wound is made worse by unskilled mending…in every case, care should be provided in such a way that discipline is never rigid, nor kindness lax.… Either discipline or kindness is lacking if one is ever exercised independently of the other. … This is what the scriptures teach through the Samaritan who took the half dead man to the inn and applied wine and oil to his wounds. The wine purged them and the oil soothed them.

Indeed, it is necessary that whoever direct the healing of wounds must administer with wine the bite of pain, and with oil the caress of kindness; so that what is rotten may be purged to by the wine, and what is curable may be soothed by the oil.

In short, gentleness is to be mixed with severity, a combination that will prevent the laity from becoming exasperated by excessive harshness, or relaxed by undue kindness. … Wherefore David said, “Your rod and your staff have comforted me.” (Psalm 23:4) Indeed, by the rod we are punished and by the staff we are sustained. If therefore, there is correction by the rod it, let there also be support through the staff. Let there be love that does not soften, vigor that does not exasperate, zeal that is not immoderate or uncontrolled, and kindness that spares, but not more than is befitting. Therefore justice and mercy are forge together in the art of spiritual direction. (Rule II.6)

Practical reminders to be sure, but also with the memorable images of wine and oil, rod and staff. Both are necessary, both must balance the other. There must be clarity with charity, and charity with clarity; there must be veritatem in caritate (truth in love).

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.