Catholic Church: April 2004 Archives

For thus says the Lord,
the creator of the heavens,
who is God,
the designer and maker of the earth
who established it,
not creating it to be a waste,
but designing it to be lived in. (Isaiah 45: 18)

For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.

I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain: I the LORD speak righteousness, I declare things that are right. (Isaiah 45: 18-19)

I thought a pause in our headlong rush through St. Teresa Benedicta and St. John of the Cross was called for. A momentary pause, or to quote the poet:

A Moment's Halt--a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste--
And Lo!--the phantom Caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from--Oh, make haste!

The purpose of the pause is to clarify what St. John of the Cross teaches and what he does not. This was inspired by an e-mail exchange with a friend in which the friend brought up some points I thought he might have inferred from reading these posts. It turns out rather that he got them from a mission given by Opus Dei priests in his community. Here is his summary of impressions:

For example, the priest last night kept talking about finding ways to make ourselves more uncomfortable, to constantly deny ourselves even basic needs, such as a glass of water when we're thirsty (the priest even make a crack about people who constantly carry around what he called "baby bottles", to ensure that they're never without water), in order to please God. This is why I made the comment I did about fasting until my prayers are answered: if we're called upon to actively cause ourselves pain, then there can be no end to it until we die. Escriva sounds to me like a modern day flagellant. The priest even mentioned that he would try not to see the beautiful, which you counseled against, by averting his eyes when riding through a countryside.

[here follows an excerpt of my reply]
I find the view you describe repugnant, Jansenistic, and very nearly manichean. It suggests a hatred of physicality that is unhealthy. . .I'd like to talk about what St. Teresa Benedicta and St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were NOT talking about, and what you describe is precisely it. I think if you view it in the way St. John of the Cross does you find a much more faithful way of approaching creation. We do need to mortify the senses by choosing the less appealing rather than the more appealing, but we needn't shut our eyes to the glory through which God speaks to us. That strikes me as just short of sinful--a denial of the [essential] goodness in creation.

As much as I respect the works of Josemaria Escriva and other followers of the Opus Dei prefecture, I've always been a bit cautious regarding their personal approaches to the world. If this priest represents mainline Opus Dei teaching, then indeed caution is called for. I rather hope he expresses extremes of the view. The reason for this is that it strikes me that such suggestions and actions come very close to blasphemy.

The Lord made the world and made it good. He made it to be a world to be lived in. And throughout all creation is the imprint of the Maker. His signature can be found everywhere in nature--in running streams, in sweet grapes, in the scent of orange blossoms or the sea, in the touch of spring-warm breeze, in sunsets, in the sound of the wind in the trees, etc. The Franciscans were well aware that the glories of the Creator were signs of Him and means of access.

To go out of one's way to deny oneself basic needs, to make oneself miserable in the world redounds to whose glory? It is one thing to undertake basic mortifications (the fast prescribed by the church, or such small fasts as we are called to make in the world) but to deliberately shut your eyes so that you cannot see the glories of creations. While this is a severe mortification, if also approaches Manicheeism. It seems to suggest that there is something wrong with participation in the world. And what I quotes from Isaiah above indicates clearly what the Lord thinks about the world--He made it to be lived in, not fled from. We are not called to make ourselves miserable or full of pain. The world will do enough of that for us, and when it happens, we are called to joyfully accept it. However, why go looking for trouble--living presents enough pain and suffering as it is?

No, it strikes me as foolish not to acknowledge what is around you. I don't think the good Lord calls us to make ourselves hurt every day as some sort of memorial to him. In fact, elsewhere in Isaiah don't we hear about the kind of fast the Lord wants?

5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward.

(Isaiah 58:5-8, KJV--sorry Bible Gateway doesn't offer Douay Rheims)

There, the Lord speaks through His own prophet saying we should feed the hungry. Well, why should we do that if the Lord wants us all to suffer for Him? Wouldn't it be far wiser to leave them to be hungry because they are already suffering? So too with the yoke of oppression--why throw it off? Just let those who are under oppression throw it off. In fact, if we take the doctrine above to an extreme, we could say that it is our duty to oppress so that there can be greater suffering for all.

Nonsense. This seems, as I said, at best suspect, and at worst something that should be suppressed. I have no interest in administering "the discipline." I have no desire to return to the glory days of mortifications unto sickness.

Nor do the Carmelite Saints. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross do not teach this and roundly teach against it. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity said that if we suffer and can find some alleviation from it, then it is right to do so; but if the suffering is irremediable, we should accept it gladly and unite it for the betterment of all to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross.

Carmelite teaching is not that the things of the world are bad, but, in fact that they are so good we tend to want them too much. We need to mortify the senses. And by that I believe St. John to mean that we must not seek out sensation, not that we are to blind and deafen ourselves, but that we are to accept the things of the world without taking delight in them. That is to say, we don't seek to linger in the sensation, but we let them pass on by and we continue our pursuit of the path of God. We don't deliberately not look, but we also don't seek to look. This is a world apart from deliberately not looking at God's glorious creation. It may seem subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world.

To be fair to Opus Dei, I've never seen any hint in the writings that we are called to make ourselves miserable. St. Josemaria is said to have administered the discipline frequently, but I don't know if that is the rumor of detractors or what it really means. Nor does it mean we are necessarily to follow his example. Saints can be unhinged and still be Saints--St. Dymphna comes to mind, as do certain actions of St. Rose of Lima (quicklime on the face and broken glass to mar her beauty and prevent vanity). And I do believe that the deliberate infliction of inordinate pain is a sign of illness, not of health in mind and body. A fast, a small mortification, fine; but to daily seek to live a life of misery and pain--that is a definition of mental illness and you can find it clearly delineated in the diagnostic manual.

We need to remember St. Teresa of Avila danced with her nuns at recreation and played tambourine. St. John of the Cross is said to have dearly loved the scenic vistas of Medina del Campo and the Spanish Countryside. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity was a master pianist, awarded a number of awards at her school. St. Thérèse's sister was an accomplished photographer. John Henry Newman an accomplished poet. These are all joys and creations of the world, and so long as we do not make them the end-all be-all of existence, participation in them and delight in them is a good thing. We learn again about God.

So, lest there were any apprehension about what one is called to in the Carmelite way, I thought I would make this clear distinction. It is one thing to "see without seeing" it is another to deny yourself water because you can suffer more. As Christine said elsewhere, the call to suffering is a gift of the Lord that not all receive and I don't think it should be considered a universal salutary practice. The acceptance of such suffering as comes (and cannot be avoided) with equanimity and with joy, on the other hand, is a practice that leads to wholeness.

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From Ecclesia et Mundi this very nice guide and examen of conscience for making a confession.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Catholic Church category from April 2004.

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