Christian Life/Personal Holiness: June 2003 Archives

A Moral Lesson from Harry Potter


Yes, I know there is much clamor in the world regarding this, and I don't mean to stir up a wasp's nest, but I couldn't help share this as it occurs to me each time I read the book or see the film. (Several at this point.)

Toward the end of the first book Dumbledore asks Harry why it was that he was so damaging to the enemy. Harry, of course, doesn't have a clue and Dumbledore explains (I paraphrase here). When your mother gave her life it was for love of you. Love like that leaves a mark--no, not on the outside, but in here (touching the heart).

This is so true in merely human terms. We are transformed by this giving in a merely human way. So, what about the Love who gave Himself. Surely that should leave a mark, and surely by the size of the giving, the Mark must be greater. And yet, often when I speak with Christians, I see no sign of that mark. Too often people are so wrapped up in their agendas and in their complaints, that the sign of that great mark is too effaced to make a difference.

There are two quotes, and again I paraphrase, related to this. The first attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, "Christianity is a very fine religion. Too bad so few practice it." The second is Chesterton's, and the experts among us may correct me: " It is not that Christianity has been tried and been found wanting, but it has been found too difficult and not tried."

Again, because this is a morning of it, I accuse myself--too often wrapped up in personal problems, agendas that I don't even recognize, and things of the world, I give a very poor image of Christ to those who might seek Him if they had better examples. Surely the great love that led to the death of Love Incarnate is sufficient to make a mark that will do more than vaporize imaginary wizards. Surely it is a great fire that would consume all and make it Holy, if only I would fan the flames and take it out of the protective glass case I have placed it in. Isn't our mission to spread the light, not merely to preserve it? Good God, help me, I have failed so greatly in this commission.

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It is time again for me to issue a fairly standard disclaimer. I recognize the presumption inherent in giving advice to anyone about anything dealing with prayer considering the state both of my soul and my prayer life. However, if we waited for those who are perfect to hear advice, we would labor long and hard without hearing a word since the time of Christ. So please forgive me both the arrogance and the presumption and take these as intended--mere bread crumbs to help those who may profit from them--myself among them.

Now to meditation advice. Many are reluctant to start on the path of lectio because they see it as more demanding and difficult than they are up to. Many doubt their own ability to "think" of things to pray about. Many say they lack imaginations and so have difficulty getting into meditation. All of these I understand. And yet these same souls are the ones who pray fifteen or twenty decades of the Rosary each day--whatever in the world are they doing all that time. They are meditating--but they have worn that path so often and so long that it is second nature--the territory is familiar and so the meditation is a natural concommitant of the prayer.

So it will become with lectio, but it may take a while and you may need help at the start. In addition to innumerable books in print about meditation and how to do it (most of which have never been much help to me) there are some helps to get you started. One thing I would recommend is a good bible-study guide, such as those now being produced by Ignatius Press. At the back of each printed gospel are two sets of questions for each chapter of the book. The questions for application make excellent meditation starters. Look at the question and then read the passage associated with it. Read the passage listening for the answer to the question and for the other questions raised by the passage. Do not read looking for some literal answer, but read expectantly, knowing that if we knock it will be answered, and if we seek, we shall find. The presence of application questions indicates that at least one other person found something here worthy of your attention--worthy beyond the mere study of words or understanding of the text--worthy to the point of doing something about what is said. Thus you are offered simply a way into the text--a path for initial meditation.

I hope as we go along to post other helps along these lines, but I welcome the suggestions and the helps of all of those already engaged in these kinds of prayer. They will be of benefit to all.

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One of the first exercises in the Ignatian Retreat I attended was to focus on the fact that as unlovable as we tend to see ourselves, we are, nevertheless loved. This step was necessary before anything else could be done because recognizing that you are loved unconditinally makes it possible for you to let go of things that you tend to hold onto. For example, it made it far easier to feel contrition. You feel far worse for a trespass against a loving Father than you feel for rebellion against a stern tyrant with an iron fist. You are far more inclined to do something for the former than for the latter. And finally, there is the realization that if there is something truly lovable about you, despite your wretchedness, perhaps the same hold trues for the rest of creation. Perhaps service is not only an option, but a requirement. Perhaps others are as worthy of God's love as you, and perhaps, if they are worthy of God's love, they are worthy of your own weak reflection of it.

The meditation served other purposes in the grueling thirty-two week effort, as well. But it was most important for starting with the proper focus, "God loves me as I am, despite WHAT I am." When this really sinks in, the world begins to change. If it is so, then perhaps I will act in conformity with that love--perhaps I will act lovable to be loved. Perhaps I will love others as a share in this divine love.

Take time out to realize that God does love you. Take moments to see evidences of it. Be aware of the grace that surrounds your life. To use the stock terminology--"count your blessings." But really do it. This flows naturally from yesterday's thanksgiving litany. As you are giving thanks for each of these things, recognize in each one the sign of the Father's all encompassing love. Embrace each one as a cherished gift from the Father and send back a heart full of thanks.

Knowing that God loves you is opening a necessary door to love. But really knowing that God loves you takes much more work than you might think. You must break through years of knowledge of your own unlovableness. You must accept and embrace that as part of you. You must know that the Father loves you tenderly as though you were the only person in existence--His only Son or Daughter.

If you are a parent think of the things your child did as an infant or toddler that defaced, destroyed, dirtied, or otherwise diminished those cherished things around you. And yet, you did not stop loving this child of yours. So too with all the things we hold against ourselves. God does not stop loving us. He picks us up, washes us off, if we're lucky He uses His minister to help guide us, and then sends us on our ways. We are dirtied, but He loves us nonetheless. Dig below your own unforgiveness of self and find there the image of His Son, whom He cherishes and bestows upon us. Know that you are loved and you are lovable because He loves you.

The first step to loving is accepting love and knowing what it looks like and what it does. Learn from the Father who showers every blessing upon us. We all are loved, and in His eyes, despite our terrible rebelliousness and sin, we are all lovable. We are worthy of this love because He loves us.

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It seems ridiculous to talk about training in love. We all know what it is, we all know how it goes. Well, true and false. We all know what the emotional aspect of love looks like, but as a fallen people we rarely live out what the emotional aspect calls for.

We all know, intellectually, that love is a movement of will, not merely an emotion. Love can act without an emotion necessarily being attached. More importantly, one of the tremendous pieces of doctrine that St. Thérèse of Lisieux left with us is that love without works is dead. This is a natural outgrowth of the understanding in the Letter of James that faith without works is dead. Faith, Hope, and Love grow together or die together. When one is supported and nurtured, all three thrive. That is why love is so important in approaching God. Love causes faith to thrive and gives birth to new hope that sustains us through the long languors of love.

Training in love seems a good idea. How do we begin to love God passionately if we do not already do so?

Pardon a brief digression here. Wittgenstein is reported by some to have intimated that words shape reality. I do not know if he actually said this, but if it is true, the man obviously needed a psychiatrist. Reality is. The Ground of Being that reifies all that is, is unchangeable, so too the reality built upon His constant attention. That is not to say that things do not change, but that reality is and is discernable and understandable to some extent to the human intellect. (Good thing Wittgensteinian disciples didn't promulgate their nonsense until after we had a firm foundation in the sciences.) At any rate, words do not shape reality. However, they do shape our perceptions of reality. How we talk about or describe something shapes our feelings about that thing. How we talk about or to a person shapes our feelings about the person. Talk is not everything, but it is a powerful way to shape perception. (Hence, part of James's further admonition to "bridle the tongue.")

So my first suggestion for training in love is to change or enhance the way we talk to God. In addition to formal written prayers or spontaneous prayer it might be good to add to our daily routine a litany of thanksgiving. Perhaps the first prayer in the morning could start with a line from Psalms--"This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it." From there we could move to a simple litany of thanksgiving, being mindful of the presence of God in morning ablutions and preparations. We thank Him for our own being, for another day, for our spouses and children (if any), for our lack of spouses and children (if we lack them), for our material goods, for our health, and then we move on to thank Him even for the challenges of the day--poor health, difficult tasks, even worries. We hand them all over in thanksgiving, knowing that He will support us through them all. The litany of thanksgiving puts us in the mindframe to be grateful and to perceive God's hand in the events of the day. A very wise Jesuit once said, "A grateful heart finds it hard to be unhappy." And a happy heart finds it easier to love the Person who gave it so much happiness.

Thus my first suggestion--start the day with a litany of thanksgiving. Everything you can think of to praise and thank God for say or sing in your own private litany. Thank Him for all that you have, all that you are, and all that is around you. Thank Him for being present to preserve it all. Thank Him for the guidance He gives and the love He pours out.

Perhaps this starts as mere words, but as the practice develops and continues it grows into a yearning to do something to express thanksgiving, to share with others the fantastic joy of knowing God. This is a first step in the dance of love. We are moved to do something, however small, however seemingly meaningless. We are moved to DO something beautiful for God.

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Here's another very critical point about detachment. Detachment in the sense used here does not have the same definition one might give it in ordinary life. It takes on the patina of a technical term. Detachment is NOT synonymous with indifference. Detachment allows you to separate from creation in order to make room for the Creator. The end result of this will be to love Creation and Creator far more than you could otherwise do. Indifference is the true opposite of love--it is a cool and killing emotion or attitude that can look upon a drowning person and say, "I warned you not to go in the water." Detachment sees the same person and for the sake of the love of God sacrifices itself in order that the other might live, and does so joyfully. Hope this helps somewhat. Please, please, ask questions so I can clarify these points that I kind of take for granted.

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On Detachment


[Sorry, another long post, but may as well write them as they occur to me--otherwise they're gone.]

You may wonder why I tend to go on so about detachment. Putting aside the fact that it is absolutely central to all of the teachers (and Doctors of the Church) within my Order, there are good and proper reasons for thinking about detachment and taking steps to become detached.

In all of my reading of the lives of the Saints the central theme is one of self-giving love. For one to be able to be self-giving, one must not be too strictly tied down or restricted in motion. One cannot give oneself if one is not free to do so.

Jesus told us, "You cannot serve God and mammon." His statement was not strictly about money, but about split allegiances. You cannot serve two masters. When you are attached to things you are serving the master of self-interest while trying to serve God. These two, while not always diametrically opposed do often tend to take different forks in the road. You cannot travel two paths.

St. Thomas Aquinas has a long discussion of the simplicity of God (practically the only thing from the Summa that I think I grasp). In it, he ultimately proves that God is simple, speaking in the terms of the time, He is of one substance and mind. How can anything that is duple (or worse) hope to unite with what is simple and single? It can happen via miracle, but God prefers methods that are not so invasive of creation and of personal sovereignty. And personal sovereignty, make no doubt of it, is what God is asking us to surrender. We are to give Him rule of our lives. If we are being pulled this way and that by creation, we cannot be drawn as swiftly to the creator.

Detachment is a means to an end. It is a necessary means, but in no way a sufficient means. Grace, sacraments, prayer, and many other attainments of a life lived in accord with God's will are required. But without detachment, all of these other things will not bring one to Union with God--the ultimate aim of all Christians, and an end that is within the grasp of all at God's good pleasure. Every Saint teaches detachment in one way or another, either through their writings or through their practice and the lives that they lived.

Detachment is not easy but it is very simple. On our own it is impossible, with Christ it becomes possible. It is "simply" a matter of learning to live as St. Paul described when he said, "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor." That is, your state in life becomes meaningless because all meaning is invested in the centrality of God.

Detachment is not easy for several reasons. First, we often don't recognize attachments. Second, even when we recognize them, we often rationalize them. An example--I was in an extended Ignatian Retreat with a gentleman who was very devoted to the Rosary. The retreat master laid out the rules in the first session--there would be no spiritual reading material other than the Ignatian Exercises, the Holy Bible, and The Imitation of Christ. All other habitual devotions should be put aside for the duration of the retreat so that energy could be focused on the intense retreat exercises. The gentleman asked about the Rosary, and while the good Priest praised the devotion, he discouraged it for the duration of the exercise. The gentleman did not return. Now, this could well be a case in which the man discerned through this mechanism that he was not called to the retreat, but equally likely, it could be an example of an attachment getting in the way of a good that could draw one on toward God. I cannot know that, but proper discernment by the person involved could show which was true.

Third, even when we do not rationalize and we do recognize, sometimes we simply do not wish to give up the object, idea, or practice to which we are attached. This is typified by St. Augustine's famous prayer, "Lord make me chaste, but not just yet." Yes, Lord, I want sanctity, but not as much as I want ___________. And the things that fill in the blank vary from person to person.

The first step toward union with God is recognizing that our entire lives are meaningless without it. When we finally come to terms with the fact that God is our meaning and He is the only thing that will completely fill the empty spaces we try to cram with all manner of junk, then we can begin down the proper road. In other words, when love of God takes priority, detachment from things becomes a possibility, but not until then. And detachment is only a means--it must happen, but it doesn't happen necessarily by focusing on it. In some really tough cases, you might have to concentrate energy, prayer, and resources on becoming detached. But detachment is often a natural corollary of loving something else more. I have no difficulty choosing between say flan and chocolate because I have a built-in liking for chocolate. The choice becomes easy. When you prefer God to all other things, it becomes a matter of making choices that reflect that preference--detachment has begun.

Detachment is also somewhat like Zen. If you become aware that you are practicing it, you almost undo its effects through pride and through the idea that YOU are practicing it. Yes, your will is involved and you are actively doing something, but God and the Holy Spirit within you are more important in the overall efficacy. Here again a statement of Jesus applies in context, "Do not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing." Detachment is most effective when you are detached from doing it and its effects.

However, as I pointed out, sometimes it is sufficiently to light wash and rinse the pan, at other times one needs steel wool or scouring pad. At these times, a deliberate, prayer-infused, sacrament-powered pursuit of detachment is called for. Put in the proper context, it is amazing what one person can do. My father-in-law went for a medical checkup one day and the doctor informed him that cigarette-smoking was shortening his life and interfering with his health. He could choose between cigarettes and unassisted breathing. He went home, dumped the cigarettes and never again took a puff. A truly remarkable instance of the power of really making a choice.

So, detachment is necessary--but it is a means that should not be a focus. Detachment comes very naturally when the things to which one is attached are not valued as much as something else. So the next step is to think about the cultivation of active, responsive, all-encompassing love of God.

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More About Becoming a Saint


It seems that the first step toward becoming a Saint is deciding to do so. It seems probable that the majority of us in St. Blog's have consciously or unconsciously done so. So, once you've decided what it is you are called to, how do you go about achieving it?

There are several difficult points in this whole formulation, probably more than spelled out below. Here is a start on some disconnected thoughts having to do with the pursuit of holiness.

(1)The very first decision you face upon opting for holiness is the question of your motivation. Why do you wish to become a Saint? There are several possible reasons, all with a psychological validity, but all with different degrees of spiritual efficacy. The worst reason is the selfish one, which will act as an immediate obstacle to your pursuit. You want to be a saint because people will then remember and perhaps even venerate you. Everyone can see immediately what the problem with this is so I will not continue. But I have come to believe that there is a small element of this in most beginners on the road.

The second reason is because you are commanded to do so by Our Lord and Savior. This is a much better motivation, very close to the best, because it is related to the best. But if we act merely under commandment, the will flags and the pursuit fades. We soon are trudging down the road of sanctity in a way that reminds me of one of La Madre's quotes, "Lord, preserve me from sour-faced saints." Pure obedience and doggedness can lead very readily to becoming a sour-faced saint--or, in other words, not much of a saint at all.

However, if that obedience springs from and is constantly nourished by the best motive, it is nearly certain that you will succeed. Naturally, the best motive is sheer love of God. We become Saints out of obedience that springs from our desire to do everything possible for the beloved. We love God so much that we fear to offend Him--not fear in the servile sense, but fear in the sense that we never wish to cause pain to the one we love. I am only now beginning to open up this mystery myself. I have always wondered about the meaning of "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." And certainly some conversions and some part of our turning to God comes from the sense of what He could do if He chose to. However, (and I may be very off-target here) what fear of the Lord is likely to turn into, particularly if it is to be fruitful, is fear of offending the Lord--not because of the consequences meted out by God, but because of the pain it would cause both God and the true lover of God. Obedience that proceeds from and is fed by this spring of love is the well-spring of sainthood.

(2) How do we get to this point of being true "lovers of God?" I would propose that the essential element is self-emptying--"I must decrease so He may increase." And this self-emptying occurs most often through detachment. I will not say that there are not other means; however, it would seem that so long as we are attached to any of the created things of the world, we inhibit progress toward God.

How might one achieve detachment? It would seem to me that there are a great many ways--numerous paths delineated throughout time by different Saints. Let us examine very briefly two that often show up here--Carmelite and Dominican. I will start with the spirituality about which I know nothing, but describe how I believe it to work in part. It would seem that Dominican spirituality is predicated on knowing God thoroughly and intimately through the works of the intellect. These works of the intellect cannot be done without affecting the will. As we come to know and understand better, we gradually learn to leave behind what does not honor God. Seen from outside and interpreted with this Carmelite's mind, I see the Dominican path as a way of gradual detachment from our own agendas and a gradual emptying of self through glorying in what can be known of God. Please understand, this is sheer speculation but I would call it "detachment through knowledge." It is not Carmelite because the detachment comes more in a "via positiva" as knowledge is an essential good. In this sense, I see Dominican and (forgive me John d) Ignatian Spirituality quite closely related. In some sense it is like Jacob wrestling with the Angels--eventually, after enough wrestling, the pathway is opened up to pure and serene surrender. The intellect is sated and one can continue to pursue God's will in a new and uplifting way. Dominicans who have struggled to this point are supremely equipped to tell others of the Glories of God, and thus their charism of preaching.

Carmelites on the other hand pursue a "via negativa" in a shroud of silence. (Though one would not know that by visiting this blog.) Detachment is an active pursuit, aligning your own will to God's through identifying and releasing yourself through the sacraments and prayer from the bonds that hold you in. I have talked some in the past about the Carmelite way of detachment, and will probably do so more in the future. For the sake of abbreviating this post, let me say simply that the Carmelite way of detachment is more like a waltz than wrestling. We seek to know God not necessarily through the faculty of the intellect, although there is nothing wrong with really knowing Who God is, but through Love. As Thérèse said, and the recent Carmelite rule repeats and admonishes all Carmelites, "My vocation is to be love at the heart of the church." Thus, in the body framed for us with Christ as the Head, metaphorically we might see the Dominicans and Jesuits as the "brains" of that body, providing the faithful with good reason for faith and achieving union with God and deep and pervasive Love for him. through truly knowing him. We might see Carmelites, Franciscans, and other contemplative orders as the "heart" of the Church, seeking God somewhat through knowledge, but mostly through ardent burning love. Now, this is merely metaphorical, and it does gift short shrift to the importance of Love in both Dominican and Jesuit vocations, and it does diminish the critical importance of the intellect in the contemplative vocation--but it is for illustration only.

(3) Now, with regard to this second point, people have developed a million and one very clever, very useful means of avoiding the detachment that leads to doing God's will and to sanctity. One of these is hinted at by the quote from Dorthy Day that Mary offered in a comment box below. Paraphrased it says something like, "Don't call me a Saint, I don't want to be dismissed so easily." That is, we have constructed paper Saints--really unholy images of otherworldly sanctity that lies outside the realm of what a real person in the real world could possibly obtain. We look at the real accomplishments of Saints and say, "I could never do that. They were so holy from the very beginning." You know the kinds of things that might spring to mind when you read the lives of the Saints. There is really only one response to this obstacle and that is to crush it. No, you could never do that, I could never do that (whatever it may be), but then why would God want me to--after all I am not that person. My path to sanctity will not be the same, whatever is accomplished in the course of it will be uniquely the expression of God's grace working on the talents He has granted the individual. We should not look at the saints and despair at their actions, reactions, or accomplishments. We should look at the saints as individual mirrors of God's all-encompassing love. Thus, when we see Thérèse smiling at an unlikable nun, we should not think, "I cannot do that," but rather, "Lord, show me how you would like me to bring your love to the world." It may not be your vocation to smile at unlikable people, but rather to help the underprivileged, to assist those who have lost their way, to smile at those who have been confined to nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. Do not despair, but see first the love and know that the same love, the same Holy Spirit lives within each of us and is capable of expressing itself in ways miraculous--if we will get out of the way.

Another way we throw up obstacles for ourselves is that we become attached to the method rather than the goal. Thus it is entirely possible for a Dominican to be one of the great scholars of the age and yet to have that scholarship and study not ever touch his heart. We can have wonderful Carmelites so engaged in omphaloskepsis and nearly fetishistic pursuit of detachment that denial becomes the whole point of what they are doing. Neither the cultivation or the intellect nor the pursuit of detachment is an end, both are merely means to the same end--Union with God and a life of holiness. However, if we do not keep our reason for these pursuits clearly in focus, they quickly become an end in themselves. There is no point to detachment if it leads merely to endless self-examination and scouring to get out this or that tendency. Detachment should very naturally make room for God as we remove the clutter of self, God fits more naturally and more evenly into our lives. So too with intellectual pursuits in a different way. As we come to know and understand and revel in the glories of He who created all, as we get a sense of the complexity and brilliance of the Divine Way, we cannot help but more away from our own things and toward those that He has designed. And I'm sure this works for any number of other ways of approaching God. But we need to clear the path. When a method becomes an obstacle, it must be cast aside no matter how fond we are of it. If Teresa of Avila had spent all of her time detaching herself, she would never have had time to establish her foundations that changed forever the face and character of the Carmelite Order.

I've gone on quite a while here already, so I'll leave off, but I hope it is with some sense that each of us has the means to achieve holiness. We cannot do it on our own. In fact, given our stumbling steps, I would say most of us are just learning to walk. So we cannot take more than a step at a time. And the first step is to cultivate through sacraments, prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and growing selflessness an ardent desire to be God's presence in the world, not for our own sakes but for the sake of the world and for the sake of the many we see about us floundering and without hope.

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Thanks to All Who Responded


My thanks to everyone who responded to my request yesterday. A special belated thanks to all those who commented on the Trust post and helped me to identify some areas where I need more precision in language and accuracy in conveying my thoughts.

Also, an invitation to all. Many wrote expressing that practical application would be helpful. I often think that I have included that because when I write I pass into a kind of fog. I absolutely concur with you all and I make a point of this to my Carmelite group--what we read should help to change our lives or there is no real point in reading it (speaking of spiritual works.) There is no point in reading St. John of the Cross to say that you have done so. The only point to reading St. John or about St. John is to manifest a real change in your relationship with God. So too with much that appears here--you all know the posts I mean. And so, if I have been vague in means, please ask. I may not know the answer, but because there are so many who are seeking the same path, the multiplicity of views about how one does one thing or another will help those who are seeking. As I said in another post--the strait gate and narrow way are at once narrow and tiny and as broad as God's Love itself. The way to find deeper prayer, humility, patience, meekness, whatever, is very probably a little bit different for each person. So when we hear and share those different ways with one another we become more aware of the fact that God wishes us to find our own way in the broad array before us. We have the gifts and talents He has given us, the path of perfection will perfect those gifts and talents for use to His Glory. We find these steps in the experiences and companionship of others who tread or have trodden the same road.

In sum: Tell me I've been vague about means, and I will either amplify, or ask others to help. The reality is, you all know everything I can tell you, you just don't realize that you know it. In conversation and communion with others, we discover the truth that we long have known through the nourishment provided in the Word of God and in the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church.

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On Humility


On Humility

Laura asked in a comment to a post below

What does humility look like in our everyday lives? What do we think it is, but is really only a disguise for pride.

And there were a couple of very fine answers. I particularly liked Tom's:

St. Catherine of Siena wrote that "humility proceeds from self-knowledge." I think self-knoweldge is necessary and sufficient for humility -- if you know who you are and who you aren't, what you can do and what you can't, you will be humble, and if you are humble you know these things. So I'd take signs of self-knowledge as signs of humility, and their absence as an implication of pride.

And Alicia's point is a powerful one and the specific case of Tom's more general answer:

sometimes humility is in silence, sometimes in speaking up. what it isn't is aptly described by charles dickens in david copperfield - mr.micawber (I think) - the one who was 'so 'umble!"

Humility will look quite different on different people depending in large part on their personalities and on the gifts that God has given them. Because humility is at its core truest knowledge of the self and knowledge of the self with respect to the grand Other that created all that is, humility is best displayed when we are not wearing one of the many masks that we don for purposes of moving through society. A truly humble person does not change in demeanor from one interaction to another. Paraphrasing from what you must all (by now) recognize as one of the great "sacred texts" in my life, "(Being a Gentleman) Isn't so much a matter of treating one person better than another, but treating them all the same. You treat a flower girl as a duchess and I treat a duchess as a flower girl..." (Henry Higgins).

That is the reality. Humility is self-knowledge and true self-knowledge allows us to look at others and see Christ. When we can do THAT, then what can we do but treat everyone equally and show ourselves for what we are, lowly servants, "Not fit to undo the strap of His sandal."

However, you can fake this as well. You can be in public service oriented and mild and meek and smiling, and return to your house kick off your shoes and say, "Thank God, that's over with, what a unwashed mob." Humility must be carefully nurtured and cultivated. It starts from knowledge of self, as St. Catherine of Siena and countless others have pointed out. But it grows through prayers (as do all virtues and habits of sanctity) and it grows through aligning our will with the will of God and (to quote another Text of some considerable import) "Looking for the Good in people." (Pollyanna). Because when your look for the good in people (as the film shows), you will surely find it. And why is that so? Because Christ is in our fellow human beings. So we sheer away all the prickly surfaces, all of the personality that we don't care for, all of the tics and quirks that irritate us and we embrace Christ in that person.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux cultivated humility with a smile. Everyone knows the tale of the nun whom no one cared for--a particularly, prickly, sour, disagreeable nun all the other nuns did their best to avoid. St. Thérèse went out of her way to smile at this person though she had no real affection for her. She smiled brilliantly every time she met her to the point that the nun once commented to St. Thérèse, "You must have a most special affection for me. Everytime you see me you give me such a broad smile." What Thérèse loved was the image of Christ in this person and she subdued her own natural inclination to dislike the nun so that she was able to recognize Jesus.

Humility must be cultivated through prayer, love (expressed in works, even so small a work as a smile at someone you dislike), and detachment. These four and others are constant companions. It seems, and I may be very wrong here, that none may grow long without the others and they all grow with the cultivation of one. Cultivating humility drives one toward prayer--when we really look at ourselves and see ourselves as God does, when we have solid self-knowledge that includes both our wretchedness and the fact that despite our wretchedness we are prized as much as or more than the most precious Person who ever lived, we come to understand the supreme value of every living soul. We cultivate humility through knowledge of Christ--in the scriptures, in the writings of the great saints, and in prayer. We also cultivate it through a daily (or more frequent) examen to see how we have been greeting God in our fellow human beings.

Tom's post mentioned St. Gaspar del Bufalo's "Maxims for the Pursuit of Humility" (available courtesy of Father Keyes at the excellent New Gasparian site. Posted on this site is a kind of examen list, St. Josemaria Escriva's Seventeen Evidences of a Lack of Humility. If you are not disinclined to Opus Dei spirituality, you might visit this site and use the very fine search engine to look up and read the brief passages on humility.

Humility is "Something Beautiful for God," it is ultimate self knowledge, and at the same time, paradoxically, self-forgetfulness in the beloved. It is a garment cut to the individual and expressed quite differently by different people. It might appear shockingly off-putting, as when Mother Teresa spoke at the Presidential prayer breakfast and raked the people there over the coals for the culture of death they supported and cultivated. Humility is true love so that it never lies, nor does it seek to wound or hurt.

That's as much as I can say to help you on the way. All of the saints address it, many of them tell you how to cultivate it far better than I can do. (After all, I have to spend some time doing so before I would know what to tell everyone else.) But humility is the important garment that holds many of the virtues together and allows truthful expression of them. Humility guides us in what to say and how. Humility may show up as humor, as when St. Teresa of Avila spoke to the Almighty after falling from her horse, "If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few." Humility speaks the truth in love, always. I pray for this virtue, but do not spend enough time actually seeking it out. I pray for an increase in the resolution to cultivate and express humility for by so doing, I can help the lives of those around me to be just a little better.

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Called To Be Saints


Why is it when I say this in some very faithful Catholic groups, I get looks of doubt and a "not me!" sort of shoulder shrugging? Why is it that people refuse to believe that we are all called to be Saints, and by that, I do not mean the little "s" saints that seem to have no real meaning other than belonging to Christendom at large? We are called to be capital "S" Saints, even if we are never canonized or recognized. We are called to lives of heroic virtue--every single one of us by virtue of our baptism. We are called to lives of sacrifice and praise, lives that honor God not in the acquisition of material goods, but in the salvation of souls through corporal and spiritual works of Mercy that bring the grace of God to the individual.

Did Jesus not say, "Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect?" If Jesus commanded it, is it impossible to do? Even if it is impossible for us alone, Paul reminds us in Philippians that "I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me." So why is it that so many people deny their responsibility in this? Why are we so reluctant to believe that all are called and chosen--that sanctity is not merely for the few but for all people everywhere at all times.

Well, I say once again, we are called to be Saints, and we don't get there alone. We only achieve the seemingly impossible by complete cooperation with grace in the Will of God the Father through the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We must recall the famous formula for sanctity, given by Our Lord and incumbent upon all of us even though it was spoken of Him in particular, "I must decrease so that He might increase." Might here is not an expression of probabilistic formulation, it is a given. If we decrease, get out of the way, and turn ourselves to cooperation with God's will, He will increase in us so that our lives will be lives of heroic virtue.

How do we do this? Each Order has its own formulation of the principle, but it all boils down to the same thing--Prayer, prayer, prayer, service, service, service, and humility, humility, humility. By the habitual exercise of Faith, Hope, and Charity, we begin to align ourselves with God's will. In prayer, we being to make out vaguely what shape that Will may take for us as individuals. We may not see everything clearly, and we certainly won't see more than a step at a time, but we will be given enough to move forward. In prayer we also express our deep love for God and by expressing it, help to make it more real to ourselves and thus help it to grow. You may love someone deeply and completely, but if you do not say it, then it is not real for that person, and in a very real sense it isn't even very real or valuable to you. When we say that we love someone it comes as both a true statement and a reminder of the truth. In prayer when we tell God we Love Him, we remind ourselves of the fact, and incidentally what the fact demands of us--"If you love me you will keep my commands."

Prayer and love of God leads very naturally to service. James told us "Faith without works is dead." St. Thérèse tells us that "Love without works is dead." And that great theologian Eliza Doolittle reminds us in no uncertain terms of this understanding, "Don't talk of stars burning at night, If you're in love, show me!" So too with God. If we're in love, we must show Him. We show Him by acts of love and service toward his people here on Earth, most particularly the oppressed, the imprisoned, the ill, those less capable of caring for themselves, the underprivileged, and those who suffer from every form of mental illness and oppression. Not one of us is free of the obligation of service in some form. The forms will all be different dependent upon our talents and upon the people whom we are called to serve. But service is an active, powerful sign of true love in the heart. It is the powerful manifestation of our heart of love.

And humility. Humility is the key ingredient so that we don't start patting ourselves on the back for our excellent service and show of our love for God. We are not permitted pride in our work. Pride will kill love any day in our weak human natures. We must exercise humility, valuing ourselves little and God within us greatly. We must see our works exactly at they are, very small in the large scheme of things and hardly a dent in the surface of the misery of the world. Nevertheless, these works we must do and this service we must perform and we must do it in love of God and humble thanks to Him for the opportunities He grants us.

So, we are all called to be Saints. It's time. If you haven't started, get in Contact and find out what kind of Saint you are called to be!

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I sometimes wonder if many of us actually trust God. Let's face it, His track record isn't great--He allowed His own son to die--something few of us would allow had we any ability to prevent it. What then does one make of such a God? Is He reliable? Can we be certain of what we are getting from Him?

The answer is, of course, yes. However, we more often than not do not act as though we can or do trust Him. We act on the principle that we know better how to arrange and organize things for the benefit of all. That, of course, is out of fear--fear of the loss of control, fear of the unknown, sometimes fear of God Himself. We are told the "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Of course, it may also be the font of enormous foolishness as well. Fear of the Lord can lead us to do all manner of idiotic things.

The problem is this--from the time we were children many forces in society and personal experiences have taught us time and again to trust no one. I truly believe that a principle espoused in the Bible works here as well--"If you do not love those around you whom you can see, how can you hope to love an invisible God?" So too with trust. If you cannot trust what you do see, how do you being to trust what is invisible and largely unknowable--shrouded in mystery after mystery, glimpsed dimly but poorly understood?

The answer is that despite potential vulnerability, you begin to trust what you do see. We may make mistakes in where we place our trust. We may put our trust in a good place, but all human and created things are fallible, and they will eventually fail us. However, we cannot begin to understand and practice trust without taking this step. We may say that we trust God, but look at all the bulwarks and supports we put in place in case God does not come through. The Saints of the past had unending trust in His Wisdom--we need to cultivate the same. Whatever happens to us is at least allowed by Him for some good that we may not completely know. We trust surgeons to cut into us and remove bits and pieces or alter us in some way--knowing that we may suffer pain as a result. Some of the pain we feel we bring upon ourselves, and some is the pain of the surgery that will ultimately restore health.

Trust is difficult, but it is essential. You do not speak from the fullness of your heart to someone you do not trust. If we do not trust God, how then can we hope to pray effectively.

Perhaps the most difficult part of trust is discerning where it is we do not trust God. To which questions do we demand firm and absolute answers? What things do we refuse to leave alone, do we continue to worry? We need to look deeply into ourselves and recognize our deep lack of trust and pray with the man of the gospels, "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief."

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Reflections on Silence


Sometimes silence is more difficult than at other times. Sometimes silence is comfortable--a space to be with God. Other times silence is merely being alone. God may be present in the silence but circumstances preclude the recognition of His hand in what is going on. Silence is simply emptiness. It may be good to experience these times of emptiness, but more often than not it is a trial. Worse yet is to be within a pocket of silence while everything around you seems to be in a whirl. You see life going on outside the little vacuum that defines your present world and you wonder what it is you do to join that boisterous, seemingly fun crowd.

Silence, however, does always nurture dependence on God, and it may be one reason that we try so hard to avoid it. We fill our time and space with noise, sometimes small, insignificant noise, but sometimes enormous, overwhelming noise. We seek to avoid too close an encounter. We reason, we think, we fill our time with small disputes, argumentations, conversations, thoughts. Or we fill silence with music, television, telephone conversation, anything to avoid facing the reality that sits immediately beneath the surface. Much of our business is simply the flurry that gives us excuse to ignore the invitation from the Almighty.

Still, we are human, silence is only ocassionally comfortable, and as one progresses, silence becomes progressively less comfortable. As one is weighed down under the normal routines and burdens of life, silence becomes the time when all the cares, concerns, troubles, and potential disasters rush in at once. How do we avoid the press of concerns and move through the silence to the place we ought to occupy--an awed and loving gaze at the Father, Creator, King of All?

I have no simple answer, but I do have the advice of a great many pray-ers from the past that tells me that you do not seek to avoid these things. Rather, you let them flow over and through you into the hands of God Himself. In itself, this is a form of prayer. God knows our concerns and they will come like harpies to pick and distract. If we hand them over immediately, they may still return. But the process is continual--every time they stop by to interrupt us, we hand them over to God. Eventually we will be able to entrust them to Him, and we will stop being distracted. More than that, the things that concern and frighten us will begin to have less power over us. We won't dismiss them, but we will being to understand that they are in hands far more capable than our own.

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I've been reading Thich Nhat Hanh's marvelous book Anger. In doing so, this passage leapt off the page:

Thich Nhat Hanh

Punishing the other person is self-punishment. That is true in every circumstance. Every time the United States Army tries to punish Iraq, not only does Iraq suffer, but the U.S. also suffers. Every time Iraq tries to punish the U.S., the U.S. suffers, but Iraq also suffers. The same is true everywhere; between the Israeli and Palestinian, between the Muslim and HIndu, between you and the other person. It has always been like that. So let us wake up; let us be aware that punishing the other is not an intelligent strategy.

What I am sometimes amazed by, more often encouraged by, is the wisdom that echoes of Christianity found in nearly any sincere practitioner of his or her faith. This echo, this strain, reminds me of the passage in the creed: "One holy, apostolic, and Catholic Church." It casts new meaning on "no salvation outside the Church." It would seem to me that Christ reaches out from the heart of the Church to embrace people who are looking for Him though they may not know His name. Nhat Hanh certainly knows His name, having written several books in which Buddhism and Christianity are laid side by side and explored. But there are a great many Buddhists for whom Christ is unknown. Jesus still reaches out to these people through the truths of their faith. These are sheep that hear His voice and know it, but who have never seen the Shepherd and do not know His name. Or so I think--naturally, I have no proof of this, and I do believe that they would be even better off were they to know the fullness of the Catholic Faith. But sometimes people are born into a place where that is not a possibility--I believe that even in those circumstances the voice of Jesus is heard. I pray for the salvation of all, that all may be brought into the fullness of faith by our loving Father.

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Pursuant to remarks of this morning, this scripture came to mind--and suddenly there seemed to be an enormous depth that opened up. Jesus pointedly comments that the path of salvation is narrow and the path of destruction wide. And yet, here is another paradoxical truth. That strait gate and narrow way are actually much wider and more encompassing than the path of destruction. The path of destruction is our own self-limiting, narrow, wills. The strait gate and narrow way are God's will. God's will is identical for each person in that it demands holiness, but it is unique because it demands holiness of the person. As each person differs, God's will for each is different. Thus God's will is a broad plain in comparison to the road of destruction. But because we experience only a small facet of that broad plain (God's will for us is for us as individuals and therefore a narrow and small way) what we observe as individuals is that the path of destruction seems enormous in comparison with the path of God's will. This is the true beauty of the depths of God's word. What is spoken seems so simple and straight-forward, but what it means has depths we will never in our lifetimes completely plumb.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from June 2003.

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