Three Reasons for Humility

The first reading at Mass this past Sunday (23rd Sunday of the Year C) speaks to our limitations and need for humility.

Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight
(Wisdom 9:13-18).

Let’s ponder three reasons for humility and then a prescription for the humble.

1.  Our Perceptions – The text says, Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? … and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out? Or who ever knew your counsel, …?

Living in a scientific age and having explained many things that were once mysterious to us, we tend to have an exaggerated idea of what we know. Teenagers often protest to their parents: “I know a few things, too!” Yes indeed, they (and we) do know a few things—a very few things. This is especially true when it comes to the hidden knowledge and counsel of God.

God sees things comprehensively. He lives in the “eternal now”: past, present, and future are all together. Nothing escapes His grasp, and He is able to draw good even out of the great evil we hurl at Him.

The paradox of the cross stands in stark contrast to the thinking of the world. As St. Paul says, the cross is foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews, but to us who believe, it is the wisdom and the power of God (see 1 Cor 1:23-24).

Though at times we are puzzled, none of us can rightfully rebuke God saying, “What are you doing?” God’s ways are often mysterious to us, but He can make a way out of no way and do anything but fail.

We must make frequent acts of humility, especially when things don’t make sense to us. Yes, we must be very humble before God.

2.  Our Plans – The text says, For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.

Here, too, there is a tendency for us in the modern age to think that our scientific theories are certain, but over the years many things that were once considered “settled science” have given way in the face of new evidence.

Our plans are often disrupted by external events. The control we crave is ultimately an illusion. So many things we think are under our control are affected by things we cannot control, such as other people or even the next beat of our heart.

Therefore, we must be humble about our plans and deliberations. The Book of James says,

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make a profit.” You do not even know what will happen tomorrow! What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:13-14).

3.  Our Passions – The text says, For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.

The body can preoccupy us with lesser things. Under the influence of our passions, we are inclined to approve what is pleasing but sinful. We often seek to be affirmed in our errors and predispositions in order to indulge our passions; we deceive ourselves and permit others to do so as well. In humility, we must be willing to be corrected by the Lord through His Word and the teachings of the Church.

Our Plea – Given this threefold basis for humility, the text from Wisdom sets forth our plea, our request for God’s help. Admitting our weakness, we ask for His assistance.

The text says, Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.

While it is possible to know many things without special graces from God (for we are naturally endowed with an intellect), we are limited and often get things wrong. Hence, we seek God’s grace through His Holy Spirit.

Note that four of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit pertain to the intellect: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and counsel. The other three pertain to the will or heart: piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. If we receive these gifts, the text assures us that our paths will be made straight. It does not say that we will become omniscient or even come close to the glory of God’s knowing, but we are assured that we will not utterly lose our way if we are docile to the teaching and promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Humility, humility, humility!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Three Reasons for Humility

The Power of Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two different things are equated for rhetorical effect. It can be used to provide clarity to something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar, or to point out hidden similarities between two unlike things. The word comes from the Greek metapherein (meta (beyond) + pherein (to bear or carry)), meaning “to transfer,” or, more literally, “to carry something beyond.”

A metaphor often seeks to capture something deeper by comparing it to something that is more easily grasped. In the metaphor “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare takes a deep concept (the world (or life)) and frames it in the context of something more manageable (a stage). This is not to say that a stage is precisely the equivalent of the world, but rather to capture some truth about the world and highlight it for understanding.

Similarly, stories can be used to communicate what is complex or to some degree inexpressible, by relating memorable experiences that disclose truth. Good stories often convey many complex truths at once. The best stories use surprise, irony, conflict, or some combination thereof to convey truth and wisdom in a memorable way.

Stories and metaphors can expose an underlying unity between seemingly unlike things. On a deeper level, things often shift, surprise, and even amuse us. Not everything is as it first appears; God does not easily fit into a convenient little box. Stories and metaphors can open windows onto wider vistas and expose deeper mysteries.

With this background in mind, consider the following stories. There is a wide collection of such stories from both the Rabbinic tradition and the Desert Fathers. The saints, too, have supplied us with many. The following selections are somewhat random, and I drew them from various sources. Many were taken from The Spirituality of Imperfection: Story Telling and the Search for Meaning. They are rich stories of the magnificent and mysterious reality called life.

In each case, the “story” is presented in bold, black italics. I have limited myself to very brief comments, shown in plain, red text.

When the disciples of the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov asked him how to know whether a celebrated scholar whom they proposed to visit was a true wise man he answered, “Ask him to advise you what to do to keep unholy thoughts from disturbing you in your prayers and studies. If he gives you advice, then you will know that he belongs to those who are of no account.”

Not all things have a solution. God sometimes allows things to happen in order test us; He asks us to live with difficulties. If there really were a solution to the problem of distraction and temptation, spiritual teachers would have provided it long ago. Therefore, those who claim to have solution to this common human problem are of little account.

2. When the Rabbi Bunam was asked why, when giving the Law, God so often says, “I am the Lord.” The Rabbi expounded, “This is God’s way of drawing us to his commands. And so he says to us by this expression: ‘Look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come over here and listen to me!’

In other words, the God who commands us is the same God who loves us and has rescued us countless times. Maybe we should listen to Him!

3. A woman sought out a confessor of long experience. In her confession she recounted the behaviors that troubled her. She then began to detail how these behaviors seemed somehow connected with her experience of having grown up in an alcoholic home. At that point the grizzled veteran confessor gently interrupted and asked, “My dear do you want forgiveness or an explanation?”

Some people confuse confession with therapy. Therapy offers explanations; confession seeks mercy and forgiveness.

4. Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends everything. People kill one another over idols, but wonder makes us fall to our knees (St. Gregory of Nyssa).

Too often our certitude is rooted not in God or in true faith but in our own thoughts. Our thoughts can become idols and we can become ideologues. Wonder can bring us to our knees in humility and gratitude. Wonder opens us to all that God has done. Blind adherence to ideology can close us in on ourselves and our own limited thoughts.

5. The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for his supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus to Diogenes, “If you would learn to be subservient to the king, you would not have to live on lentils.” Said Diogenes in reply, “Learn to live on lentils, and you will not have to be subservient to the king.”

Serving the world comes at the cost of slavery to it.

6. A man of piety complained to Baal Shem Tov, saying, “I have labored hard and long in the service of the Lord, and yet I am little improved. I’m still an ordinary, ignorant person.” The rabbi answered, “You have gained the realization that you are ordinary and ignorant, and this in itself is a worthy accomplishment.”

Humility, reverence for the truth about ourselves, is the door.

7. One day some disciples of Abba Besarian ceased talking in embarrassment when he entered the house of study. He asked them what they were talking about. They said, “We were saying how afraid we are that the evil urge will pursue us.” “Don’t worry,” he replied, “You have not gotten high enough for it to pursue you. For the time being you are still pursuing it.”

Too often we pin the blame for our problems on the devil when the true cause is our own flesh.

8. The priest put this question to a class of children: “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people were green, what color would you be?” A young girl thought hard for a moment, then her face brightened, and she replied, “I’d be streaky!”

We are all a mixed bag, neither completely good nor completely bad. The journey from evil to good is not yet finished. God alone is wholly good.

9. For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy (St. Therese of Lisieux).

Too often we make prayer into something complicated.

Here is a collection of sayings, most of which ring true to me, set to music:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Power of Metaphor

How Gratitude Equips Us for Many Other Virtues

The Gospel for Mass on Tuesday (of the third week of Lent) featured the parable of the servant who owed a large sum to the king that he could not repay. The generous and kind king forgave him the entire debt. Strangely, the man then proceeded to treat a fellow servant who owed him a small amount with severity. When the king learned of the servant’s behavior, he grew angry and sentenced him to the very punishment he had meted out to his debtor.

For our mid-Lent purposes, let’s consider the heart of the parable, for it is aimed at our hearts!

The Lord’s parable begins by describing a man who owes a huge amount, one that is completely beyond his ability to repay.

This man represents each one of us. The Greek text says that he owes ten thousand talents (μυρίων ταλάντων). This is a Jewish way of saying that this fellow owes a great deal of money, too much to be able to repay by working a little overtime or taking on an additional job; the situation is hopeless. This is our state before God. We have a debt of sin so high and so heavy that we can never hope to be rid of it on our own. I don’t care how many spiritual pushups we do, how many novenas, chaplets, and rosaries we pray, how often we go to Mass, how many pilgrimages we undertake, or how much we give to the poor. We can’t even make a noticeable dent in what we owe.

We really must get this through our thick skulls! We are in real trouble without Christ. The more we can grasp our profound poverty and understand that without Jesus Hell is our destination, the more we can appreciate the gift of what He has done for us. We are in big trouble; our situation is grave. There’s an old song that says, “In times like these, you need a savior.”

One day it will finally dawn on us that the Son of God died for us. When it does, our stone hearts will break, and love will pour in. With broken, humbled hearts, we will find it hard to hate anyone. In our gratitude we will gladly forgive those who have hurt us, even those who still hate us. With the new heart that the Lord can give us, we will forgive gladly, joyfully, and consistently out of gratitude and humility.

It is difficult to overstate how essential gratitude is for good mental, moral, spiritual, and emotional health. Grateful people are different people. They possess a joy that changes them, making them more joyful, confident, serene, generous, forgiving, and patient. It is hard to despise people when we are filled with grateful joy.

Apparently, this wicked servant never got in touch with his true poverty; he refused to experience the gift that he himself had received. As a result, his heart remained unbroken; it remained hard. Having experienced no mercy (though immense mercy had been extended to him) he was willfully ill-equipped to show mercy to others. Callously unaware of the unbelievable gift he had been given, he remained unchanged. In so doing and being, he was unfit for the Kingdom of God, which can only be entered by gladly receiving mercy.

Many Christians are like this. They go through their life unaware of their need for mercy or unappreciative of the fact that incredible mercy has been extended to them. Unaware, they are ungrateful. Ungrateful, their hearts are unbroken; no light or love has been able to enter. Hurt by others, they respond by hurting back, holding grudges, or growing arrogant and unkind. They lack compassion for or understanding of others and consider themselves superior to those whom they view as worse sinners than they are. They think that forgiveness is either a sign of weakness or something that only foolish people offer. They don’t get angry; they get even.

Beware. The Lord says that the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us. If we are wise, we realize that we are going to need a lot of grace and mercy to stand a chance before the holiness of God. The Lord makes it clear both in this parable and elsewhere that it is those who show mercy who will receive mercy (see also Matt 5:7; and James 2:13).

In order to show mercy, you must first receive it. Go every day to the foot of cross and be astonished at what the Lord has done for you. He forgave you a debt you can never repay, and He has given you myriad other graces and blessings as well. If you let this gratitude melt your heart, being merciful to others will be the (super)natural result, and even when rightly rebuking sin in others you will do so without smug superiority. You will do it in love and true mercy for the sinner and for the common good.

Grateful people are different. Be different!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: How Gratitude Equips Us for Many Other Virtues

The Not-so-Nice Origins and Meanings of the Word “Nice”

Blog11-24Words can change meaning over time—sometimes dramatically. For example, “manufactured” originally meant “handmade” (manu (hand) + facere (make)). The word “decimate” used to mean “to reduce by a tenth” (decem = ten); now people usually use it mean “to wipe out completely.” The list of examples could go on and on. Yes, words do change meaning over time.

One word that has changed meaning dramatically over time is “nice.” Today it is an overused word that usually means pleasant, kind, or easygoing. In our culture there is often a standing admonition that we should be nice, as in “Stop fighting and be nice now!”

But the adjective “nice” once meant anything but nice in the modern sense. Rather, it was a derogatory word used to describe a person as something of a fool.

The word “nice” comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware” (ne (not) + scire (know)). The Old French word “nice” (12th century) also came from this Latin root and meant “careless, clumsy, weak, simple, foolish, or stupid.”

In the 13th century, “nice” meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” In the 14th century, the word started to morph into meaning “fussy, fastidious.” In the 15th century it meant “dainty, delicate.” In the 1500s it was used to mean “precise, careful.” By the 18th century it shifted to meaning “agreeable, delightful.” And by the 19th century it had acquired its current connotation of “kind and thoughtful.”

The word “nice” has certainly had a tortured history!

Given its older meaning of “ignorant, stupid, or foolish,” it is not surprising that the word “nice” is used only twice in the Douay-Rheims Bible, and in both cases pejoratively.

Today the word can have a meaning that is properly praiseworthy and is basically a synonym for “good.” For example, one might comment, “That was a nice distinction you made.” Or, observing a sporting event, one might say, “That was a nice move!”

However, I am also convinced that the word “nice” is beginning to return to its less noble meanings. This takes place when it is used in a reductionist manner that seeks to simplify the entire moral life to being “nice.” Here, nice is used in the sense of being pleasant and agreeable. To the modern world, in which “pseudo-tolerance” is one of the only “virtues” left, being nice is about the only commandment left. It seems that much will be forgiven a person just so long as he is “nice.” And little will be accepted from a person who is not thought of as “nice.”

I suppose niceness has its place, but being nice is too akin to being harmless, to being someone who introduces no tension and is most often agreeable. As such, a nice person is not so far away from being a pushover, one who is easily manipulated, silenced, and pressured into tacit approval. And thus “nice” begins to move backward into its older meanings: dainty, agreeable, weak, simple, and even further back into weak, simple, unaware, and ignorant.

The pressure to “be nice” easily translates into pressure to put a dumb grin on your face and pretend that things are great even when they’re not. And to the degree that we succumb to this pressure, we allow those who seek to shame us if we aren’t nice get to watch with glee as we walk around with s dumb grin. And they get to think of us, “What an ignorant fool. What a useful idiot.” And thus “nice” takes up its original meaning.

We follow a Lord who was anything but a harmless hippie, or a kind pushover. He introduced tension, was a sign of contradiction, and was opposed by many because he didn’t always say and do pleasant things. Not everything he said was “nice.” He often used strong words: hypocrites, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, murderers of the prophets, and evildoers. He warned of judgment and Hell. He spoke in parables about burning cities, doom, destruction, wailing and grinding of teeth, and of seeing enemies slain. These are not kind words, but they are loving words, because they seek to shock us unto conversion. They speak to us of our true state if we remain rebels. Jesus certainly didn’t end up nailed to cross by being nice in any sense of the word.

In the end, “nice” is a weird word. Its meaning has shifted so many times as to be practically without a stable meaning. Today it has further degraded and increasingly returned to its original meaning. Those who insist on the importance of being “nice” usually mean it for you, but not for themselves. They want to have you walk around with a silly grin on your face, being foolishly pleasant, while they laugh behind your back.

To be sure, being “nice” in its best modern sense has its place. We surely should not go around acting like a grouch all day. But just as being nice has its place, so does being insistent, bold, and uncompromising.

Zeal: A Virtue Most Necessary to Overcome Sloth and Moral Sleepiness

blog9-27-2015One of the great virtues related to charity is zeal. Zeal is the ardor of charity; it is love burning brightly. It is a fiery love for God, for His gracious truth, and for the salvation of souls.

Because of human fear, sloth, and self-seeking, zeal is rare. It is especially difficult to find in our present age, when relativism and “tolerance” are so prevalent. Both relativism and excessive tolerance are little more than sloth masquerading as something more benign. People consider truth to be relative and exalt tolerance more out of laziness than anything else. Seeking the truth and obeying it is just too much trouble.

Yes, zeal is quite hard to find today. Rare indeed are those fiery souls whose love for God and neighbor compels them to speak, teach, and suffer for souls and for the glory of God. Zeal once sent missionaries around the world, hungry for the salvation of souls, dedicating their whole lives to Christ and the glory of His vision.

With notable exception, many once-effective missionary orders slumber in a soporific universalism that presumes that most, if not all, will be saved without repentance and faith.

A great somnolence has been upon too many Church leaders, priestly and parental. Despite the horrific condition of our culture and of too many souls, a kind of sleepiness consumes most Catholics. There are silent pulpits with drowsy priests. There are silent dinner tables with parents who should speak out but are distracted by less important things instead of being vigilant for the salvation of their children’s souls and the protection of their moral lives.

Meanwhile, the secular and the satanic are passionate and dedicated. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light (Lk 16:8).  Oh, for the zealous—ablaze with love for God, love for souls, and joy in the truth; who spend themselves sacrificially and who earnestly work for the Kingdom! They are among us, but they are too few.

We should seek this gift of zeal, but we must be careful—for zeal, like anger, is difficult to master. Zeal admits of defect but also of excess. Zeal is not some sort of wild running about; it is not indiscriminate argumentation or merely lashing out at evil. As with any gift of God, it must be rooted in and balanced by other virtues, natural and theological, such as charity, prudence, counsel, and meekness.

In this brief reflection I am drawing from Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who himself draws from St. Thomas Aquinas. Because I am drawing from a lengthier work and reordering some of its content, I am not presenting exact quotes but rather selecting and paraphrasing his material in substantial ways and interweaving my own commentary. Fr. Lagrange’s thoughts are recorded in The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol II, Tan Publications pp. 213-223.

Zeal is the ardor of charity, the burning fire of love—but one that is enlightened, patient, meek, and disinterested.

Consider first some motives or causes of zeal: 

The first motive for zeal is that God deserves to be loved above all things. Knowing this and experiencing His love and providence for us should light within us a fire of love Him. He is worthy of our love and gratitude. Zeal’s first object is an increasingly bright and burning love for God.

A second motive for zeal is the inestimable value of the immortal souls redeemed by Jesus Christ. We love them, and their well-being is important to us. We zealously seek to reach them, knowing that each is worth more than the entire physical universe. St. Paul wrote, I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less (2 Corinthians 12:15). That means he will love and spend himself for them even if they do not return his love, even if they turn on him; this is a motivated zeal for souls!

Yet another motive for zeal is the contrary zeal with which the enemies of Christ and His Body the Church dedicate themselves to working disorder, corruption, and death. Their work is indescribably perverse and influential; many are lost through them. We work against them even as we pray that they will turn back from the road to damnation along which they are dragging so many others.

While zeal should be ardent, it must also be free from all excessive human self-seeking. Thus, it should be enlightened, patient, meek, and disinterested.

Enlightened – First, zeal should be illumined by the light of faith. If zeal is only animated by our natural spirit it easily drifts from the task of converting souls to God and begins to imagine a worldly utopia. Utopianism is often envisioned by restless, angry, blundering, ambitious people and features what is impulsive, unreasonable, trendy, and ephemeral.

Thus, Christian zeal must also be illumined by a faith rooted in obedience to Christian prudence and in the gift of wisdom and counsel. The goal is the glory of God, the triumph of His truth, and the salvation of souls. Zeal not enlightened by faith tends more to the tower of Babel than to the glory of God.

Patient and Meek – We must learn to avoid the tendency to become uselessly irritated by evil, venting in unproductive indignation and indiscriminate sermonizing. Patience and meekness teach us to tolerate certain evils in order to avoid greater ones, and to prevent ourselves from becoming bitter in the great struggle that faces us.

Most of us know people who have been in the battle just a little too long; people who, though understandably aggrieved by the condition of our culture, have tended toward bitterness and harsh condemnation of others who do not share their exact priorities or hold just the right combination of views on issues.

Zeal detached from charity too easily becomes mere indignation. God mysteriously tolerates certain evils, often for lengthy periods; He does this for some greater good. Although He bids us to fight error, evil, and injustice, He does not promise us immediate victory. The cross must be endured, even the grave experienced, but in three days we rise with Him. Patience and meekness engage the battle, endure the cross, and look to the vindication that will one day come.

Disinterested – The glory of God is our goal, not the winning of an argument, not a political victory. True zeal works for the Kingdom. It does not care who gets credit for the victory. We should not claim as our own what belongs to God. The battle is the Lord’s and to Him go the victory and the spoils. Neither should we appropriate to ourselves what belongs to others. We should never claim credit for what God or others have done; we should rejoice that God has worked it, through and through. Zeal for the Kingdom is our work. It is not about our glory; it is about God’s glory, His truth, and the salvation of souls.

In the end, zeal is the ardor of charity: enlightened, patient, meek, and disinterested. While zeal is too often lacking today, we should not presume that the solution is a kind of reckless zeal that indiscriminately and foolishly lashes out and manifests bitterness or anger.

Zeal is for God’s glory and for the salvation of souls. Like anger, it is difficult to master. It is needed as never before, but it must be true zeal, not some human imitation of it.

Lord, give us true zeal! Give us the zeal such as your servant and prophet Jeremiah spoke of when he said, If I say, I will not mention the Lord, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (Jer 20:9-10). Give us the zeal of St. Paul, who said, I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls (2 Cor 12:15). Yes, Lord, give us fiery zeal; give us the ardor of charity for You, Your people, and Your truth. Let zeal for Your house consume us, that we may be a fiery warmth and a purifying fire to all around us. In Your grace we pray. Amen.

This song says, “Fire, fire, fire, fire fall on me. On the day of Pentecost, the fire fall on me.”