Christian Life/Personal Holiness: August 2002 Archives

The Moral Lessons of Baby Jane


Sometimes cinema gets it right--more often in the past than in the present. I was writing this morning and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? happened to be the television. Whatever you may think of the movie, it is a powerful demonstration, in miniature, of what happens when we are determined to have our own way in things.

Every major character in this movie is manipulative. They push and attempt to control each other. Baby Jane has complete control over her sister Blanche who has manipulated the accident that confined her in a wheel chair--an attempt gone wrong to murder or injure Baby Jane, whose youthful success destroyed Blanche's childhood. Disagreement builds on disagreement, resentment on resentment. "Build on" is the wrong verb. "Erodes the foundation" is probably better.

The entire house of humanity is built on such sand--bitterness, resentment, revenge. We hold petty grudges and we allow them to simmer long enough to become obsessions and hallmarks of our lives. If we drop our masks of civility for a moment, we could not look in the mirror for the horrors we are.

Jesus Christ is the one way to root out these evils. There is no other way. We have the choice of lives that devolve into progressively more vile schemes of vengence and "getting mine back," or ascending with Jesus Christ as our help and mainstay. Most of us choose a path that alternates between these two strains--but how much better off we would be if we could clear our eyes and minds for just a moment and see where the one path leads. How much better if we would sense our own frustrations, aggravations, hurts, and pains, and give them over to our yoke-mate, the great Burden-bearer. Jesus died so that we would not have to carry these weights and so that others would not have to suffer because we were crushed to the ground under them. Wouldn't it be best if we would let Him do what He came to do, so that we would be free to be human?

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The Journal of John Woolman


Among the great classics of religious literature is this remarkable, slim volume. Written by a prerevolutionary Quaker, it is the story of a man who felt drawn to give up nearly all of his material goods in order to follow God. It is also a kind of window into a discussion that was very prominent in the founding of our republic--the evils of slavery. This excerpt comes from the record of a journey undertaken in 1746.

Excerpt from Woolman's Journal Two things were remarkable to me in this journey: first, in regard to my entertainment. When I ate, drank, and lodged free-cost with people who lived in ease on the hard labour of their slaves, I felt uneasy; and as my mind was inward to the Lord, I found this uneasiness return upon me, at times, through the whole visit. Where the masters bore a good share of the burden, and lived frugally, so that their servants were well provided for, and their labour moderate, I felt more easy; but where they lived in a costly way, and laid heavy burdens on their slaves, my exercise was often great, and I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. Secondly, this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labour, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity. I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once nor twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind.

Joseph Ellis, in Founding Brothers, chronicles further evidence of this underlying opposition. The chapter entitled "The Silence" talks about a very early move toward abolition, proposed, once again by Quakers, in the 1790s.

True humility, true Christianity, means an uncompromising grappling with the present and obvious evils of this world. It means a deep self-knowledge that helps to understand that the evils we see around us are often exacerbated by our own actions. It also means taking definitive action, no matter how small, to help right some of these wrongs.

But true Christianity stems from a relationship with God. Such a relationship starts in prayer, continues in prayer, grows in prayer, and ultimately ends in prayer. And prayer itself grows, it grows from an endless listing of our needs and wants, into a meditative, voiceless prayer, and finally into a prayer of waiting on the Lord.

Too often, we do not pursue this track of growth. Too often, the riches of prayer are left unexplored. Too often our sense of God is confined to a place or event. Too often we deprive ourselves of the sense that God is everywhere and in everything. Too often, it seems, we are afraid to grow. We need to find our security and stability by holding onto the goods of this world. In so doing we limit our progress in prayer. St. Ignatius said (I paraphrase) that we should use the goods of this world insofar as they move us toward God. Once such goods begin to inhibit our progress, we need to cast them off.

John Woolman is an example of a non-Catholic Christian who followed this ancient, well-established path to closeness with God. If more of us did the same here and now we could change the world in prayer. We could serve as beautiful beacons of light and true receptacles of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer is God's perfect gift of communication. He is always listening, always ready to hear from His children. He is always eager to hear from us and to send us many gifts of His love.

As the saints are our models in living, they are also our models in prayer. When we imitate their exterior actions without interior preparation, we may do good works, but we do not do perfect works. And perfect works are what God is after. Our growth in perfection is the life of the world in God. It is our contribution to making the kingdom of heaven present on Earth. This closeness to God is a gift open to all of God's people here on Earth. Not all achieve it in the same way or to the same degree; but, it is in achieving it that we in some small way fulfill Christ's commission to us to go and spread the gospel to all the world. The only way to spread the gospel is in Union with God and in perfect love for all the people around us. God doesn't expect perfection overnight, but He does expect that we would work toward this perfection. As an ardent Lover, God expects that we would delight in returning the myriad gentle signs of His love.

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The Prayer of Silence


Different book this time:

Meditations Before Mass Romano Guardini

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being "all there," receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. . . .

"Congregation," not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual "space" around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary.

While this is undoubtedly true of mass (and one of the reasons I tend to impatience for people who wander in with a hale-fellow-well-met attitude) it is doubly true of all prayer. Prayer is encased in a house of silence. Outside of silence, prayer becomes just more roaring against the sound of the rushing wind of culture. That is not to say that God does not hear it, because of course He does. However, it is not the kind of praise that rises like an incense to the throne of heaven.

For prayer to be truly pleasing to God it must be of the sort that makes one completely present to God. Such prayer is not acquired in the short run, and ultimately its final stage is not acquired at all. However, one must dispose oneself to receive the gift of infused contemplation. One of the ways of doing so is to practice this "prayer of silence." In addition, the prayer offers the person praying innumerable benefits stemming from a "mental vacation from the world." It "recharges the batteries" and makes one more capable of coping with what occurs in everyday life. It helps one to experience the presence of God in all of life's activities. It helps one to empty oneself to be filled with the Holy Spirit. In short, it opens the doors to greater levels of prayer..

But it isn't easy, and it isn't a short road. It may take years, perhaps decades. But, as with the bloom of the Century Plant, it is both spectacular and worth waiting for. In the prayer of silence, we take the first steps toward becoming like our grand model of prayer, the Holy Mother of God. We learn to "ponder these things in our hearts" and to derive from them great joy and peace. The prayer of silence, it would seem to me, is one of the most effective tools on the road to lifestyle evangelism because it causes a fundamental change in the person who is doing it consistently. From agitated and worried to peaceful and trusting, the prayer of silence changes lives.

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Reading Pascal


Many seem to experience the same thing as John notes below:

I first heard of Pascal and his Pensees a long time ago when learned about "Pascal's Wager" from this book. I tried to read it, but my say that this "average Catholic guy" was a bit intimidated by the high-falutin' language and put it back down. Yet, I think I'll give it another go.

Pensees can be extremely difficult for a couple of reasons. The language (depending on the translation) can be extremely difficult. More than that, Pensees is a series of largely disconnected thoughts. There doesn't seem to be much structure to it. For this, I highly recommend Peter Kreeft's rearrangement of the material Christianity for Modern Pagans. Kreeft deftly edits the material to make a more-or-less coherent flow-through. If I remember correctly, Kreeft adds some insightful comments after either each Pensee or each group. Unfortunately, I think it may be a sllightly abridged version. But as with his Summa of the Summa it makes for a brief, coherent, introductory presentation.

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John Bunyan Revisited


Disputations today has a brief column (see 11:02) regarding the necessity of saving your own soul before you proceed to that of others. This immediately put me in mind of A Pilgrim's Progress in which Christian is advised likewise. Once might also consider that Jesus kind of advised the same thing "Take the beam from out thine own eye before thou regardest the mote in thy brother's." There are other places where such advice is made explicit as well. Looking to your own salvation is the only way to help show someone the path to his or her own.

Now, admittedly, this can become toxic and obsessive. We could be so controlled by worrying about our salvation that we find ourselves incapable of acting. It becomes morbid. However, it is a good idea to be certain you are at least aware of the path you should be walking (even if you aren't doing a particularly good job of it) before you try showing others the way they should be going.

Even though it is a work of Puritanism at its height, a Pilgrim's Progress is worth a look--even if only to better understand Lewis's A Pilgrim's Regress.

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The Beauty of the Saints


God has made powerful provision for all his people in the person of His saints. There seems to be a saint for every person and temperament. What is more, we have images from the lives of saints that, while the saint may or may not appeal, the moment speaks to us.

St. Alphonsus Liguori was a prolific writer and among the things presented to the world is a magnificent compendium The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. Naturally, the lives of saints makes up only a portion of the work. But here is a excerpt that really spoke to me:

Similarly Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, when she held any beautiful flower in her hand, felt herself on fire with love for God, and she would say: "Then God has thought from all eternity of creating this flower for love of me." Thus that flower became, as it were, a dart of love, which sweetly wounded her, and brought her closer to God.

The saints are so steeped in prayer that they are able to show us the world anew. In their innocence of vision they strip away some of the illusions that we have built up about ourselves and the world. Who among us would look upon a flower and conclude that God in His love had made that flower particularly and especially for us at that moment in time? One of our prayers should be to be able to see things as they are--to be able to rip through illusion and see God's particular love and care for us.

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Memento Mori


Memento Mori

Long called Venerable, St. Bede offers this brief reflection on the four last things:

Bede's Death Song
from The Venerable Bede (673-735)

Fore there neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.

[Loose Translation:
Before the inevitable journey there is no one
wiser than him who, knowing his need,
ponders, before his journey,
what good and evil within his soul,
after his death, will be judged.]

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Jean Pierre de Caussade is a great teacher of silent prayer and a more complex and, perhaps, subtle expositor of the "Practice of the Presence of God," as conceived by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Many have accused de Caussade of Quietism, but over the years that accusation has been addressed and disproved. What de Caussade teaches is not fatalistic resignation, but enthusiastic conformity to God's will.

Perfection consists in doing the will of God, not in understanding His designs.

The designs of God, the good pleasure of God, the will of God, the operation of God and the gift of His grace are all one and the same thing in the spiritual life. It is God working in the soul to make it like unto Himself. Perfection is neither more nor less than the faithful co-operation of the soul with this work of God, and is begun, grows, and is consummated in the soul unperceived and in secret. The science of theology is full of theories and explanations of the wonders of this state in each soul according to its capacity. One may be conversant with all these speculations, speak and write about them admirably, instruct others and guide souls; yet, if these theories are only in the mind, one is, compared with those who, without any knowledge of these theories, receive the meaning of the designs of God and do His holy will, like a sick physician compared to simple people in perfect health.

There seems to be a certain stream of anti-intellectualism here, but I think it is only seeming. De Caussade, as with any good Christian, does not encourage merely intellectual assent, but actual action based on what is called for in the present moment. His theory, which I believe to be correct, is that understanding the reasons of God is not nearly so important as willingly doing those things that God requests.

Perfection is not perfection of intellect, rather a perfection of duty and activity, even if that activity consists in sitting at Jesus' feet.

The soul that does not attach itself solely to the will of God will find neither satisfaction nor sanctification in any other means however excellent by which it may attempt to gain them. If that which God Himself chooses for you does not content you, from whom do you expect to obtain what you desire? If you are disgusted with the meat prepared for you by the divine will itself, what food would not be insipid to so depraved a taste? No soul can be really nourished, fortified, purified, enriched, and sanctified except in fulfilling the duties of the present moment. What more would you have? As in this you can find all good, why seek it elsewhere? Do you know better than God? As he ordains it thus why do you desire it differently? Can His wisdom and goodness be deceived? When you find something to be in accordance with this divine wisdom and goodness ought you not to conclude that it must needs be excellent? Do you imagine you will find peace in resisting the Almighty? Is it not, on the contrary, this resistance which we too often continue without owning it even to ourselves which is the cause of all our troubles?

And I think the wisdom of this passage is apparent without going into any detail. Those who would resist God's love, God's Teaching through His Church, and God's infinite outreach, resist peace itself. They struggle to upset their own peace, thinking it merely complacency, and having dragged themselves out of it, think it their duty to drag everyone else out as well. Such are the dissenters, the supposed intellectual heroes of the resistance movement, who abandoning God's peace, choose peace only on their own terms. To them, I simply ask the question presented in the second sentence above, "If God's will is not good enough, what will you find that is?"

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And a little known teacher of prayer. His works are still in the sometimes tortured prose of the seventeenth century, but what he has to say holds true now as then.

1. IT was only infinite goodness that moved Almighty God to create the world of nothing, and particularly in this inferior visible world, to create man after His own image and similitude, consisting of a frail earthly body, which is the prison of an immortal, intellectual spirit, to the end that by his understanding, which is capable of an unlimited knowledge, and by his will, which cannot be replenished with any object of goodness less than infinite, he might so govern and order himself, and all other visible creatures, as thereby to arrive unto the end for which he was made, to wit, eternal beatitude both in soul and body in heaven, the which consists in a returning to the divine principle front whom he flowed, and an inconceivably happy union with Him, both in mind, contemplating eternally His infinite perfections, and in will and affections eternally loving, admiring, and enjoying the said perfections.

2. Now to the end that man might not (except by his own free, and willful choice of misery) fail from attaining to the only universal end of his creation, God was pleased to the natural vast capacity of man's understanding and will to add a supernatural light, illustrating his mind to believe and know Him, and divine charity in the will, which was as it were a weight to incline and draw the soul, without any defect or interruption to love God, and Him only. So that by a continual presence of this light, and an uninterrupted exercise of this love, the soul of man would in time have attained to such a measure of perfection of union with God in this world, as without dying to merit a translation from hence to heaven, there eternally to enjoy a far more incomprehensibly perfect and beatifying union with God.

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A wonderful and little know book. Even Edward Gibbon, not known for his Christian sympathies, liked and admired William Law. So much so, in fact, that he made Law tutor to his children.

DEVOTION is neither private nor public prayer; but prayers, whether private or public, are particular parts or instances of devotion. Devotion signifies a life given, or devoted, to God.

He, therefore, is the devout man, who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God, who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety, by doing everything in the Name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.

We readily acknowledge, that God alone is to be the rule and measure of our prayers; that in them we are to look wholly unto Him, and act wholly for Him; that we are only to pray in such a manner, for such things, and such ends, as are suitable to His glory.

For the full text go here.

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More about the Rosary


I must first say that I find much of what goes on at Disputations is well beyond my immediate ken. But I profoundly admire the spirituality and understanding that seems to come from the site. Continuing an extremely fruitful strain on the Rosary:

The goal of the Christian life is perfection in Christ. Praying the Rosary is a tremendously effective aid to achieving this goal, but it doesn't work by magic. If it is not helping you to become perfect in Christ -- although, as I've written before, it takes some time and effort to be sure about this -- then don't pray it.

Insight like this will keep me going back to Disputations even when posts like this make my head spin:

St. Thomas Aquinas, taking up the question of whether contemplation is the cause of devotion, considers this objection:

[I]f contemplation were the proper and essential cause of devotion, the higher objects of contemplation would arouse greater devotion. But the contrary is the case: since frequently we are urged to greater devotion by considering Christ's Passion and other mysteries of His humanity than by considering the greatness of His Godhead.

Yes, I know, it's merely a matter of applying myself. But I must confess a certain sympathy for the woman described in Chesterton's biography, St. Thomas Aquinas:

A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, "The Simplicity of God." She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, "Well, if that's His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like."
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Art and God


In a comment to a post on the Catholic Novel Dylan comments:

TS O'Rama has raised the question of whether loyalty to art & loyalty to God is a zero-sum game. We can't serve them both with equal fervour. Hmm. I know what he's getting at: we can't make art equal in valence to God, but I don't think it's a zero-sum game. Neither does (if we can judge from his Letter to Artists) Papa.

No, it isn't a zero-sum game because, if one approaches the whole thing correctly one serves God through one's art. It isn't as though one is loyal to one's art in opposition to God--after all, beauty comes from God. The properly aligned Christian artist regards his art as a gift given and returned to God. God expects artists to use their talents to better humankind. (I direct your attention to the parable of the three servants and the "talents"). Art can become an object of worship, but a proper orientation toward art views it as a means of expressing relationship with the Creator. I do not "worship" a Monet for the art, but I am brought a "momentary taste of being from the well amid the waste" in the medium of the Creator-inspired piece of art. Thus "Impression Sunrise" isn't about a canvas but about the supreme artistic vision given by God to one of his creatures to convey to the whole world.

I look at examples like C. S. Lewis and other writers who dedicated much of their writing to the exaltation of the Creator. This is what Art is about. Art is a medium, not an end. It's products are humanly made, often divinely infused creations. They are, at their best, participations with the Creator God in the act of creation.

As a result, works that are not overtly Christian can be read by Christians to their own great profit. For example, the Drayton Sonnet I placed here at the beginning of the day is not overtly Christian, but it can be read by Christians in a way that brings them closer to God. This is because Art is a good given by the Creator for the benefit of His creation. It is good inasmuch as it reveals Him to those who are looking. It is worthwhile inasmuch as it improves the devotional life of those who look upon it.

No, properly construed art is not an end, but it is a means of serving the Creator.

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Even later at the computer today than yesterday, so I'm confined to a single poem and comment. Here we go:

To My Dear and Loving Husband
Anne Bradstreet

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Some poems speak from beauty of language. Some speak from the beauty of the thought. I love this poem because it surely captures what the Sacrament of Matrimony is about in the Earthly realm, and even provides a glimpse of its continuation. It also is very adept at quoting scripture without quoting. Finally, it certainly puts the lie to what many of us have misconstrued as the Puritan view of life.

But I am fortunate enough to say with Anne Bradstreet about my own lovely wife, 'If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were lov'd by wife, then me." It is my hope that I can make the rest of the poem true for her!

Good morning all, and God Bless.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from August 2002.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: July 2002 is the previous archive.

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