Christian Life/Personal Holiness: October 2002 Archives

I tried to post the following three times yesterday. I am sorry for the delay, but I am delighted that it appears I shall be able to post it this morning.

Wilfrid Stinissen is rapidly becoming my favorite guide to reading scripture contemplatively (in the more common sense of that word, and I hope eventually in the more narrow definition of the word). The following passage is just wonderful for understanding what it is to read poetry or Scripture.

from Nourished by the Word
Wilfrid Stinissen

It is typical of poetry, as for all art, that it appeals to the reader's (or observer's) creativity. A poem is no tract where the thoughts are already thought out and have received their definitive formulation. A poem opens a door, often several doors simultaneously, and readers themselves decide which way they choose and how far they will take it. It is, among other things, this combination of guidance and freedom which causes one to thrive in the domain of poetry. One feel respected and taken seriously. We ourselves get to think and interpret and associate, to be fellow creators ourselves.

This concerns also our company with God's word, which has breadth and manifold meanings that purely human words cannot cover. As one free child of God, I get to play in the Bible's paradise. I get to make the old text into a new song which corresponds to my personal experience, my present needs. I can be certain that God approves of this way of playing with the text: "Then I was beside him, like a master worker: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always" (Prov 8:30). When I do so, I attach myself to the Church's centuries long tradition. The Church Fathers read Scripture in this way and the Church does it in its official liturgy. It is truly not psychoanalysis which has invented the act of free association. The Church makes use of it with extreme virtuosity. (p. 56)

Admittedly, one must be very careful to make a distinction here between individual application (which subsequent passages show that Stinissen is talking about) and individualistic interpretation, which is dangerous and schismatic. Everyone has individual interpretations, but as Catholics, those interpretations are guided and ruled by the general teaching of the Church and held in line by our understanding of the Magisterium. The Church has spoken definitively on the interpretation of very few individual passages of Scripture, but we are guided by the various Pontifical Councils on the Bible to understand Scripture as the Church has understood it for two thousand years. So casting aside the possible reading of this passage as meaning run with whatever meaning you happen to get from reading scripture, we are left with application.

Harold Bloom, speaking of the great books, has a wonderful metaphor for this act of application. He refers to the great books as not so much being read as reading us. That is, when we are brought into contact with a great work of literature, we bring to it all that we are and all that we know. Our reaction to the book is more often what it says about us than what we read in it. This is multiply true of Scripture. When we read a passage, the Bible speaks to us where we are.

You have undoubtedly had the experience either of hearing in Church or of picking up and reading a passage from the Bible and saying, I never noticed that before. If you're noticing it now, pay attention--it probably has something to say to you right here, right now in your life. Application of Scripture, contra interpretation, is the act of realizing what is being spoken to you personally and putting it into action. For example at one time in your life you may have read, "Go and spread the Good News to all the lands." Now, we all know we are called to do this, but at one time you may have felt called to the Priesthood, or to some other vocation that would more directly bear on this verse. You may have been called to stand outside abortion clinics and pray, or called to help serve the St. Vincent de Paul Society, any number of possibilities. THAT is application, not interpretation. You hear the message and act upon it.

Stinissen concludes this magnificent chapter with the following observation, which I believe sums up the nature of personal application:

The playful, personal reading causes the Scripture to become a splendid and constant new instrument of the Spirit. The Spirit blows where it will (Jn 3:8), and if we are sensitive to his wind in our lives, he will show us unexpected and hidden meanings in the Scriptures, and reveal many secrets about who God is. (p. 59)

This sounds vaguely gnostic, but I think it is more along the lines of meeting a woman for the first time. You may have heard many talk of her, you know what she looks like, you may even know something of her quirks and habits. This correlates to a superficial acquaintance with Scripture. But, as you meet and continue to meet, and perhaps fall in love, you discover that your picture was only a small part of what there was to know about this person. I think this is the light in which to interpret Stinissen's statement about "hidden meanings" and "many secrets." They are open meanings and open secrets, anyone is welcome to partake of them, but few choose to do so because it requires application and the hard realization that the words of Scripture are intended for each of us.

I cannot recommend highly enough this slender book . It is only 118 pages long, but it is packed with wonderful insights and guides for helping us to understand scripture.

Bookmark and Share

Jewels in the Reliquary I


Jewels in the Reliquary

I was thinking about prayer, dryness, and trials. Why is life so difficult for so many people? And why are there so many ways for life to be difficult? Why so many trials?

An analogy--we are all gems of God's creation--jewels in the rough. We are all significantly flawed as well. The flaw is different, just as each person is different. When a jewel cutter encounters a stone with a flaw there are two choices--recut the stone or discard it.

God will not willingly discard any stone. We choose that for ourselves. So the only alternative is that the stone must be recut. This requires work with hammer, chisel, saw, and grinder, depending on the type of stone. In addition, we resist the Stone Cutter, we vibrate, buck, and shift, so that He is constantly having to recut and reshape.

We will know when we get to heaven the extent of that recut by the size of the jewel that we are. Great saints who started early and ended quickly, St. Thérèse for example, are huge stones that put the Hope Diamond to shame. We are such that the diamonds in most women's wedding rings will be far larger than we.

Bookmark and Share

From Rosarium Virginis Mariae One


From Rosarium Virginis Mariae

One thing I find interesting is a constant reference to what appears to be "course correction" or "focus" constantly uttered by the Popes to the faithful. In the course of this letter, there must be dozens of references to the Christological aspects of the Rosary. I'm certain all the readers of things like blogs have the "proper" focus when praying the Rosary. However, I know of people for whom that focus is not so clear, and for whom, in fact, the communion of the Saints is not terribly clear. When St. Teresa or St. Anthony obtains something for these people, one gets the impression that the given saint is granting some gift, no matter how carefully worded the petition. If this is rampant in the total communion of Saints, how much more true for that greatest of Saints. The reiteration of the Christological focus of the Rosary is an anodyne to many of the anxieties about it that come from converts from more evangelical or fundamentalist mentalities. While the Rosary opens the opportunity to see Christ through the eyes not only of a loving mother but of his Chief disciple and primary Apostle, it remains intently, narrowly focused on the Life , Mission, Death, and Glories of Jesus Christ.

With regard to the new mysteries of the Rosary, to put everyone at ease, article 19 clearly spells out the Pope's intent in promulgating these:

from Rosarium Virginis Mariae
His Holiness Pope John Paul II

I believe, however, that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional lpattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities could broaden it to include the the mysteries of Christ's public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion.

(bold-face emphasis mine)

Thus, clearly delineated for even the most skeptical, our Pope makes clear he is offering new mysteries that do not have to be said. But I know that for me the proposed additions do precisely what the Pope would like them to do , "This addition of these new mysteries, without prejudice to any essential aspect of the prayer's traditional format, is meant to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary's place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to depths of the Heart of Christ, ocean of joy and of light, of suffering and glory."

Bookmark and Share

Being Who You Are in Christ


Sometimes we treat ourselves very poorly. We may do something foolish and then kick ourselves to next week and back. And to some extent that is a justifiable treatment. But not continuously, and not even if one learns nothing from the experience. And certainly not if it is for the wrong purpose.

All things need to be done in the Light of Jesus Christ. God created each one of us, unique, without match in all the world. And at that moment He had a plan and a purpose for us--a goal to which we could rise. He loved us into existence and loves us to the end of our Earthly lives and beyond. We can choose to follow His plan or our own. Whichever way we choose, He will weave what we do into His plan. But one way we will find happiness and ourselves, and the other way we will find only self-will.

No other person can do what God has for us to do. I cannot be St. Teresa, nor can I be Cardinal Mahony. I cannot be anything other than what I am. Thus, I am limited by what I am, and unlimited by what I can do through Christ. He wants each one of us to be a Saint--to be hope for someone who is in a very similar position. Most of us, in fact, are better encouragement than many saints, because we have lived lives that others can empathize with. I know that as my Carmelite group read Story of a Soul the comment kept coming up that "I couldn't be like that, look how holy she was at the age of four." True--you can't be like that, and the story of St. Therese is a little unearthly for most of us. We can't really empathize with that life. That is not to say that it isn't a profound inspiration and a profound blessing to all of us, but few of us spent our childhoods playing "Vow-of-Silence" Monks!

But take St. Augustine. Here is a saint I can empathize yet. And even in my mature years I find myself praying with him, "Lord make me chaste [I'd say Good] but not yet." Here is a man of passion of true human sympathies from the ground up--imperfect, headstrong, frustrating, in short someone we see when we look in the mirror. Some of us started life and are living lives as Therese (this concept boggles my mind--but I know it is true) the vast majority of us are more like Augustine. And being like Augustine in the modern world, we can offer more hope to those around us. They can see us rise from our merely human condition to become Human in God's eyes. It shows that such an ascent is possible for all. I think about Dorothy Day who, pregnant out-of-wedlock had an abortion and went on to become one a great saintly person (if not yet a Saint). Matt Talbot who spent much of his early life curled up in a bottle came by the strength (through God) to give it up and become another saintly person. Blessed (Venerable, St. ?) Charles Foucauld was reputed to be something of a playboy but he went on to be a Martyr. There are hundreds of examples of such people.

When we assume our identity in Christ, when we start to live that life of heroic virtue, our past life becomes a picture of hope for people in similar circumstances. When we rise above ourselves to assume the place God has for us in His plan, others can see that conquest of self is possible through Christ who strengthens us. Yes, lament your failures, your shortcomings, your own loses and stupidities, but embrace Him who loves you and share that sorrow. Become Who you are rather than remaining who you are. Assume your place in the body of Christ, with all your imperfections, flaws, and failures and let others know that there is hope for them. God has made you who and what you are for a specific mission. We will not see clearly the exact contours of that mission until we stand in His Presence. But trust Him and He will guide you in the paths that will make you what you must be--you can assume your identity in Christ.

Bookmark and Share

I Am and Wish Always


I Am and Wish Always to be . . .

I am and wish always to be a true son of the Church. All that I say or do I wish to be in conformity with Her teachings. Where I stray, I pray for the conviction of the Holy Spirit to bring me back. However, in all that I say, do, or otherwise make public, I wish always to express Her mind in the issue and I submit all matters of faith and morals to her judgments and humbly accept correction when and where necessary.

I love the Church. I think with the Church, but I am a broken, distant image of Him whom I would follow, and therefore I fail. I struggle with a great many things that the Church Teaches. But nothing in the centrality of the Creed or in the understanding of the hierarchy or teaching authority of the Church.

I like this expression far more than the one I posted before. I believe it to be truer, closer to the heart of the matter, and more personal. The Church is a Mother for me--I cannot bear to see those who would disgrace Her or tear Her down, be they revolutionaries or reactionaries. But being human, I struggle mightily with some of her teachings, to understand and accept them. These struggles are, however, my own. And to the best of my ability to do so, I would always state first and foremost what the Church teaches--it is sheer arrogance and pride to assume that in my span of years I could have accumulated sufficient knowledge to refute what she may teach. The Church is my teacher, in my immaturity, I struggle with some of what She teaches--but that is more a reflection on me that it is on the doctrines of the Church. And as I struggle, I pray I struggle toward truth and not toward self-will. To even begin to do this, I must defer my doubts to the wisdom of the teaching authority of the Church.

And I feel compelled to post even this much because so many would deny the teachings of the Bishops. It seems that every time they open their mouths someone is telling them to shut up. See one of the comments (you'll know the one) on this post at Disputations if you wonder whereof I speak. So, my apologies for the abortive and ultimately unsatisfactory attempt at definition this morning. This afternoon I say simply, I stand with my Bishops until such time as they teach out-and-out heresy (and I do not believe they [en masse] will ever do so.)

Later--Apologies Rereading this blog at a later time I realized that it could have been read to have accused the blogmaster at Disputations of holding some of the views I repudiate. That was not my intention and I hope the clarification above makes more clear what I was trying to say.

Bookmark and Share

Vocation is a Vacation I


I hate motivational speaker lines, but I thought this one up myself as I was studying St. Thérèse, and it fits so well (if I do say so myself). Now of course, I am talking etymologically and not literally, but every vocation is in fact a call to vacation. And what primarily we must vacate is our notion of self and our self-centered universe.

We construct certain realities by the masks we wear--father, spouse, teacher, worker, boss, etc. Many of us are five or twenty-five people rolled into one. Not so with the Saints who truly sought after God. They were all, to a person, one person. They may have been bishops, teachers, wanderers, or wayfarers, or one after another of these. However, whatever they were, they belonged to Christ, and were marked by Christ in their authenticity. They did not need masks and had no time for the games that go with masks. St. Catherine of Siena went to the Pope in Avignon when told to do so and told him flat-out that he was wrong to remain where he was, period. No questions, no wiggle-room, just simply, "God says get your butt back to Rome, so what do you think you're doing?" Mother Teresa went to a national prayer breakfast and faced the greatest proponent of the slaughter of children since Herod himself with a speech about the evils of abortion--no punches pulled--just a straight out, "You are committing a great sin and an enormous crime." Unfortunately this saintly woman was not facing a person with the integrity of the Pope that St. Catherine went to see.

Vocation requires that we vacate to make room for God. And once God fills us up, there is no room for masks, pretences, or anything other than the lamp on a lampstand He wants each one of us to be.

Bookmark and Share

Dealing with God


Sometimes, in fact more often than not, God seems some very distant figure--rather like a stage director in the tragedy or comedy of our lives. I know that I often suffer from this. When I am saying morning prayer and I'm feeling particularly dry, I imagine the words trailing up like smoke from a fire, taking an idle turn about Heaven and joining those much more grateful, robust strands of incense in the great Throneroom where certainly God can notice them, but does He? I often feel at a very great distance. And the reality is, of course, that I am, because I have placed myself there. I have chosen to be at a great distance for one reason or another that I may not even be aware of.

In the course of a day, or a week, or a month, I can and do move closer, or I should more properly say, I feel closer, because I could not possibly be closer. Because of my baptism and the grace of my confirmation I have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son for each other is part of my make-up. I may ignore Him, I may not turn a thought to Him at any time. I may choose some other substitute for Him. But He is there, and when I cannot pray, He is praying with groanings beyond human hearing.

But what about the feeling? I've always wondered about this, and it is a very difficult point. We humans place so much trust in feelings that change and transmute, are here today and gone five seconds later. We can plunge from ecstatic happiness to tears in a matter of moments. We can rise from the abyss (but that always seems to take a great deal longer). St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila teach us that feelings are another example of "consolations" in prayer. They are sometimes granted for the purposes of strengthening our resolve, but they are not to be sought after.

My preferred thinking about this feeling of closeness parallels the teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux on Love. While Love carries with it feelings of involvement, it is not primarily a feeling, it is a continual series of actions--it is a movement of the will that results in a movement of the person to action on part of the loved one. So too the feeling of closeness to God. We should not trust or rely upon feeling, it is deceptive and potentially destructive. Here we must trust our minds to allow the truth to trickle down to our hearts and change them. Whether we "feel" God's presence or not, we are told that He is present. It is a tenet of our faith that not only is He present, but He lives within us. And if we direct our attention to Him for a moment, we know it--we may not feel it, but we do know it in some way that transcends rational thought. Trust the knowing and forget the feeling. In this case the feelings may be manipulated by any number of factors. Loving God and feeling His presence, is an act of will that results in tangible actions toward those around us. It is something that should occupy our every waking moment. Loving God, who loves us enough to live within us despite conditions that would resemble deepest, darkest Detroit at our very best times, is the one key to life on Earth. Loving Him despite what we may feel about His distance or His lack of concern.

God is concerned about us. He does love us. And sometimes the love He shows us is harsh and difficult. We would prefer to live our own lives than the life of love of God. I think about St. Thérèse and the awfulness of the last 18 months of her life--the terrible darkness in which she lived, uncertain even of the existence of God, and yet, in some mysterious way, never doubting and never ceasing her enormous love for Him. l so much so that her dying words, "O How I Love Him," still resound in the miracles she performs and in the immediacy with which she seems to attend each person who earnestly implores her assistance.

Closeness to God is a reality. Our feelings are untrustworthy. As Scrooge says to Marley regarding why he does not trust his senses, "A little thing can disturb them. You could be a bit of undigested beef or a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you." So too our feelings about God--they are moved by little motions within us--fear and anger are the principle currents that drive how close we feel. We cannot control our emotions, or if we do so they may ultimately turn on us anyway, but we can balance the emotional sense of things with the reality that we face over and over when we open the Bible. We are "the apple of His eye," we are "written on the palm of His hand." We are the people of John 3:16--"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth on Him should not die but should have life everlasting." When our feelings get in the way, we need to retreat, even if only momentarily, to reality.

Bookmark and Share

Grasping the Truth


I sometimes wonder why we all seem to be so poorly configured for grasping the truth. Why is it that we are so easily led astray? Why do we not focus on what really matters? Why are we always so distant from the Truth our hearts tell us?

I have thought of two comparisons. Many of us think we are mature. What we are, in fact, is aging. Jesus said, speaking of children, that "Unless you come unto me as one of these little ones, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." I used to view that as a nearly impossible task, having an attitude similar to Nicodemus' when facing the concept of needing to be born again. But now I wonder if Jesus might not have simply been putting things in a very gentle way for us. What I see Him as saying now is, "Look, you can't see it, because your eyes do not see the truth, but every one of you is like these children. You may be adults in body, but in spirit, forget it." In other words, we have no choice but to come unto Him as a Child, because despite our vast knowledge, we keep our eyes and spirits so closed that they do not grow. We are spiritually two-year-olds--most of us.

That is why a Mother Teresa or a Padre Pio seems such a marvel. They've grown beyond the age of two, and they're showing us what has always been there. Think about the way a two- or three- year-old regards their parents. I know my own little boy says to me, "You're my best hero." (Touching the way they express affection--even if ultimately unsupportable--it does make you want to try to live up to that expectation). We look at a Mother Teresa and Padre Pio and we gawp. They are magicians, pulling rabbits out of hats and making people disappear. When, in fact, they simply allowed themselves to be led by grace and to mature. They live in a different realm from the rest of us, because they have entered the Kingdom of God here on Earth. As Jesus told us, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." That means within reach, here and now. Most of us never grow to where we can see the entrance. The great saints have done so, and they constantly try to show us the way. But then, try showing a two-year-old much of anything.

The second analogy I came up with is that we are autistics, but I would call us culpable autistics. An autistic person cannot screen out the figure from the ground in terms of signal. Every impulse has equal importance. A dust mote floating in a beam of light is as significant as a mother's hand. There is no way to filter the sensory data. We have chosen this mode of life. We blind ourselves with the numerous things of the world--the scandals at hand, the improper actions of our brothers and sisters, our new home, our new car, the baseball game, Dharma and Greg, what brand of beer we drink, what kind of food we eat, the clothes we wear. We pay attention to every trivial detail of our lives, and yet we pay no or little attention to those details most important. How am I reflecting God to others? Where do I stand in my prayer life? Do I love my brothers and sisters as I love myself? Do I love God first and foremost, above all and in all? Do I really seek time to pray, or do I flee prayer? We are unable to screen out these motes, from the hand of the Father that beckons us to enter the Kingdom, the door to which is Jesus Christ.

We choose this life, in one sense. We are like Peter Pan's--or worse, like Oskar Matzerath, the vaguely malignant eternal three-year-old of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. We refuse to grow up, and we impose this expectation on others, often holding them back. It takes a saint to buck the crowd and to grow despite pressure to stay. It takes courage to walk through the door that is Christ and to live on the other side. It also takes the realization that we are not doing it. We need to drop the lip service and begin the real service. We need to turn to Christ and to not seek out the imperfections of others, but to work with Jesus on resolving our own so that we may help others to see the Door and walk through to new and glorious life.

Bookmark and Share

Poem du Jour


Not a spectacular poem, but a nice introduction to what may become a theme for the next few days as I read Fr. Thomas Dubay's superb book, Happy Are You Poor. Holy Poverty is, in a sense, the ideal tonic for nearly all that ails me spiritually. And it has consistently been a calling that I stubbornly resist. Perhaps because I don't understand it, or perhaps because I undertstand it all too well. Anyway, we draw up the curtain on the theme with this poem by Evelyn Underwood, noted writer on spirituality and particularly Mysticism.

The Lady Poverty
Evelyn Underhill

I MET her on the Umbrian hills,
Her hair unbound, her feet unshod:
As one whom secret glory fills
She walked, alone with God.

I met her in the city street:
Oh, changed was all her aspect then!
With heavy eyes and weary feet
She walked alone, with men.

Bookmark and Share

Unlike many people I know in the blogworld, at least according to their own reports, I tend to be a nicer person here than in reality (at least I hope that is true). I don't often answer people in the white heat of anger--I may start, but before I send anything, I very carefully consider it and usually delete one or two responses before I actually post anything. (Except when I'm talking about literature, and I doubt seriously anything I might say about poetry is likely to provoke enormous reaction.) I thought to myself, why do I have this restraint on the blogs and not in real life. The answer is two fold--part on it is that the answer or response need not be in real time. I don't have to answer every comment immediately or even at all.

The second reason is by far more important--I am detached from what happens on the blogs. I care about many people, surprisingly intensely considering my real lack of knowledge, but I don't need to control them. I don't need for them to do as I say. My identity is not wrapped up in whether Mr. X or Ms. Y follows my advice. I can advise and let it go. The person being advised can listen or ignore as the spirit leads them, and all is well. At home however, much is wrapped up in my identity as husband, father, coworker. I need to make this impression or that. I have to have validation from all and sundry. In short, I am terribly attached. As a result everyone around me suffers. I need to let go of that attachment. I need to break free from the need to identify myself in others (the Sartreesque "hell is other people") and identify myself only in God. I need to claim my identity in Christ wholly and to have that identity at all times in every place. I hope and pray that my conduct here is more indicative of what that identity in Christ is likely to be, because otherwise, I would be quite likely to be one of the "sour saints" that St. Teresa prays for deliverance from.

Bookmark and Share



About this Archive

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

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

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: November 2002 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll