Christian Life/Personal Holiness: January 2004 Archives

Seeking Grace--The Sacraments


The following entry from Abbot Vonier's study seemed apropos following on Barbara Dent. The human will can make only feeble motions on its own, unstrengthened by grace. We can keep at a work no more than a moment or two without God's strength behind us.

from A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist
Abbot Vonier

The Eucharist ought really to illuminate for us all the other sacraments with its own radiance. The Eucahrist is the sun in the firmament of sacramental grace. Is there not, however, sometimes a danger on the one hand of giving the Eucharist a position such as would hardly retain it in its sacramental setting, while on the other hand there may be the greater peril of our lowering the status of the other sacraments to conventional forms of lesser spiritual power? Yet the Eucharist ought to safeguard for us all the spiritual glories of the other sacraments, by keeping them within the orbit of the divine Presence; while they in turn, being as truly sacraments, although they do not contain the Body and Blood of Christ, will enable us to see even the Eucharist in its true perspective. We may put it in the following way: One sacrament, while remaining entirely a sacrament, and indeed through its sacramentality, and not as an unusual feature or external adjunct, contains the true Body and Blood of Christ; it does this in virtue of its sacramental state, not because it is more than a sacrament. (p. 42-43)

(book available from Zaccheus Press)

And for Vonier and the believing Catholic the importance of the Eucharist being a sacrament is that it is a sign that effects what it signifies. A sacrament is not merely an external ritual or an empty ceremony, but it is a sign that contains the fullness of the meaning of the sign. It is a symbol that causes what it symbolizes to enter reality and transform it. In short, it is a sign that bestows grace and has as its object the bestowal of grace, the strengthening of the connection between creator and creation.

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Barbara Dent's book My Only Friend Is Darkness is an exposition of the teaching of St. John of the Cross from an experiential viewpoint. Ms. Dent makes some remarkable and critically important points about our relationship with God in the following passage:

from My Only Friend is Darkness Barbara Dent

When faced with the summons to reckless self-giving, we make endless qualifications, excuses and rationalizations. John will have none of them.

Our hearts must be purged of all unruly affections and desires arising from the four traditional passions of joy, hope, fear and grief. When we calmly consider what and who does actually arouse in us the extremes of these passions, we shall not often find that it is our personal relationship with God. . . .

The aim of this purging of desires for the not-God is to transform our human will into one fully united with the divine will. The more we are emotionally dependent on created things and on people, the more our will is tugging to get free of God, or is in conflict, or is merely ignoring the directives of his will for us.

If we succeed in fully controlling only one of the four passions, the others will also become subdued and redirected to God as a result. Until we achieve this control, we remain captive and incapable of full union and deep contemplation. . . .

Anyone who thinks this is easy is either (1)severely emotionally inhibited and repressed; (2) naturally unresponsive and cold-hearted; (3) ignorant of what it is to love with all the too, too human heart; (4) a psychopath; or (5) already a saint!

John pushes home his point relentlessly. "There is another very great and important benefit in this detachment of the rejoicing from creatures--namely, that it leaves the heart free for God. This is the dispositive foundation of all the favours which God will grant to the soul, and without this disposition he grants them not (Ascent III, XX, 4, italics added). (pgs. 89-90)

In the end the service of God is all the really matters. While we must take heed of present circumstances, we need not be dominated by them. Love of God stirred by activation of the will in opposing our besetting sin is a step toward sanctity and wholeness. Outside of this all work is futile, all accomplishment only ash and dust. We are transformed in God and in the transformation we become new people and every part of the old man resists this death. Every part of us seeks God and flees Him simultaneously. And grace alone determines the outcome. Do we seek grace? Do we know the fullness of what can be accomplished in us? If we spend a single moment in the Bible we do. In a moment we become Paul when we were Saul. Or we become Ananias and Sapphira. The choice is ours--to seek grace and God's will or to seek our own.

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Who Do You Say I Am?


Jesus asks each of this question. And he expects a personal response. It would be enough, I suppose to respond with Peter's answer. But only enough. We need to ask ourselves, "Who is Jesus?" And when we think we have an answer to that question we need to ask the next--how is this displayed in my daily life?

By our baptism we are called to evangelism. But how can we proclaim the good news if we haven't any real understanding of what it means? And we can judge our understanding of the good news only in the light of who Jesus is.

Jesus is not looking for prefabricated answers. We can recite the catechism to our hearts' content, but unless those words mean something more than the abstract intellectual realities they convey, Jesus is not a reality for us.

In quiet time we would do well to answer the question, "Who do you say I am?" And when we answer that question, we should ask Him, "And how, Lord, do I live it out?" Then listen. Just listen. Conversation goes both ways and the still, small voice cannot be heard over the din of our self-important bluster.

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Here are some notes taken during the homily indicated above. (Yes, I am still sufficiently Protestant in midset to believe that if someone is willing to take the time and effort to prepare a sermon and tell me something worthwhile, I should take the trouble to try to capture it as best I can in the course of the event. [Hope this serves as a warning to all of the priest out there--some of us ARE listening. ;-)]I admit this is but a poor reflection of the fullness of the sermon, but it does give me something to go by.)

Homily for Votive Mass of St. John of the Cross

"In the evening we will be examined in love"

Power and love are incompatible with true love. Love is something mutually and freely given, so there must be some equality.

Our Lord washing the feet of the Apostles is a sign of true friendship. By washing the feet of the Apostles He gives up all power over them. We must love one another as He has loved us. We give up the need to dominate one another and all claims power.

It is this love that was embodied in St. John of the Cross. "In the evening we will be examined in love." He lived a life that easily could have led to hatred and bitterness. His father married beneath his station and died early in John's life.

In 1563 entered Carmelite Order. In 1567 became a Priest of the Order. In Medina del Campo met St. Teresa and began to introduce her reform to the friars. Twice caught and locked up. In prison wrote some of his poetry. "In the evening we will be examined in love"

The spirituality of St. John of the Cross is dependent upon his experience of God. To gain our lives we must lose them in God through self-denial and complete immersion in God.

In the popular mind St. John is known for his austerity and on "nada." He was compassionate, kind, welcoming, and loving. We do not often look at the radiant love of St. John of the Cross.

Absolute abandonment to the will of God. He was particularly scathing of religiosity and of attachments to externals. We must abandon things to make space for God to get in. Our world is haunted by a desire for the interior life. Let us continue to climb-the holy mountain of Carmel where we will find God.

"In the evening we will be examined in love"

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A Prophetic Witness--I hope

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One of the things learned at the conference, or perhaps more correctly reinforced at the conference, is that the Carmelite is a prophetic witness to the modern world. We spent a long time talking about what this actually meant, but in sum, we are to bear the message of the Gospel into the world not merely in action, but also in prayer. The Carmelite way is that prayer is always first and prayer informs any action taken. However, prayer is only half formed if it doesn't express its reality in some form of action. So, I offer this reflection. Inspired by the congress and by other factors, it is highly personal, but I also hope that it is provocative enough to help others.

First desire to live a truly sinless life. Only then is it possible to ask the grace of living without offense to God. The reason few of us approach the divine majesty is that very few of us really want to. The price is too high. We would have to abandon common pursuits. We would have to relinquish simple pleasures. There are few great saints who drank or smoked to excess. There are a few portly saints, which may be more a reflection on poor eating habits and bad metabolism than on overeating. But this is all beside the point. We really want to indulge in what we know is forbidden. We simply want to. We want to watch the movies we watch and read the books we read. When we are corrected for it, we look for explanations as to why it isn't wrong. And indeed, so long as we do not seek perfection there is nothing wrong with these lesser goods.

Yet, if we do desire perfection, we need to look to the two earthly human examples of perfection--Jesus and Blessed Mary--and their distant mirrors, the saints. We do not see Jesus sitting about watching television--when He is not preaching or teaching He is praying. Even moments of leisure are purposeful. We are adjured to "consider the lilies" not for the lilies themselves, but for what the lilies have to tell us about the glories of God's reign and the riches of His love.

We are a people who seek to protect our own idleness. We excuse our emptiness with innumerable excuses. The reality is that every moment away from God is a moment away from God. Every second spent in an idle pursuit is a wasted second. Yes, leisure is a valuable time if such leisure is spent in the presence of God. It is a waste (and sometimes a sin) when God is not invited in.

We are not perfect because we choose not to be. We would rather follow our own lead, exercise our own wills, spend time in our own pursuits, and then later try to argue them around to God. Every moment spent with less-than-the-best is a moment stolen from God. . All we have is the present, this moment, this opportunity. All that we have not done is buried in the past. The future is unknown and may not come. So the acceptable time is now, and if more of us chose it, we would have a world far more reflective of the Kingdom of God.

For myself, I know that I have failed time and again to take advantage of Grace. And so I write to remind myself that the first step is a choice--carefully and freely made--to experience God in His fullness right now, to request--no, beg--the grace of delighting myself solely in service to Him through prayer and service to my fellow sojourners. I am tired of darkness, I want to be light for those around me. I want all to rejoice and recognize God in the here and now. I want the grace of perseverance in God's service. I want it enough to make the difficult choice to ask for it and to ask God to help me leave this broken self behind.

From The Imitation of Christ, Book I.1
Thomas á Kempis

HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness," says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

(Now, will someone kindly bookmark, or otherwise note this and refer me to it on a nearly constant basis? I resemble the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"--“She would have been a good woman,
if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” )

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I had previously reported reading a book by Jacques Maritain titled Art and Morality In fact, that is a single chapter of a larger work titled The Responsibility of the Artist which is available through the Maritain Center.

I share a brief reflection based on part of the text.

from The Responsibility of the Artist
Jacques Maritain

Artistic value and moral value belong to two different realms. Artistic value relates to the work, moral value to man. The sins of men can be the subject-matter of a work of art, from them art can draw aesthetic beauty -- otherwise there would be no novelists. The experience of moral evil can even contribute to feed the virtue of art -- I mean by accident, not as a necessary requirement of art. The sensuality of Wagner is so sublimated by the operation of his music that Tristan calls forth no less than an image of the pure essence of love. The fact remains that if Wagner had not fallen in love with Matilda Wesendonck, we would probably not have had Tristan. The world would doubtless be none the worse for it -- Bayreuth is not the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet thus does art avail itself of anything, even of sin. It behaves like a god; it thinks only of its own glory. The painter may damn himself, painting does not care a straw, if the fire where he burns bakes a beautiful piece of pottery. The fact matters to the painter, however, because the painter is not the art of painting, nor is he merely a painter. He is also a man, and he is a man before being a painter.

The last lines of this are the most stirring and dreadful. God will not judge us on fine writing or persuasive reasoning. He will judge us on right thinking, believing, acting on the truth, and ultimately right living that stems from these. Art, as fine and as consoling as it can be, does not save us. That is done by Christ alone, who can begin to be known by art, but who ultimately is known by Himself entirely. He makes Himself known through the power of the Holy Spirit to the person who, through whatever means, becomes aware of Him and seeks Him in fullness of heart and mind.

from The Responsibility of the Artist

Any man who, in a primary act of freedom deep enough to engage his whole personality, chooses to do the good for the sake of the good, chooses God, knowingly or unknowingly, as his supreme good; he loves God more than himself, even if he has no conceptual knowledge of God.

Praise God! I do not need a complete conceptual understanding of God, or even a particularly good one, in order to truly love God in my actions. True, more of these actions are inspired in greater love based on knowledge--but it isn't knowing that is the key--it is ultimately loving. Even if you do not know why you are obedient, obedience to the law of love is love of God.

(Interestingly the passage directly above comes after a demonstration of the "good love" Antigone demonstrates toward her brothers and toward her people through the rebellious act she commits.)

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An Excerpts from A Key. . .

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from A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist
Abbot Vonier

The urgent problem is, how am I to be llinked up effectively with that great mystery of Christ's death? When shall I know that Christ is not only the Redeemer, but also my Redeemer? Mere membership with the human race does not link me up with Christ, though it be true that Christ died for the whole race. This membership is indeed a condition, sine qua non , of my becoming one day a member of Christ; but a member of Christ I shall not become unless some new realities be brought into play. These new realities which are the link between me and Christ are faith and the sacraments. (p. 2)

One more passage to give a flavor of the power of the exposition and of the ideation--

Saint Thomas divides the life of mankind into four seasons--the state of innocence before the fall, the state of sin before Christ, the state of sin after Christ, and the state of bliss in heaven. No sacraments are necessary in the first and in the last state; sacraments are necessary to man in the two middle states. But it is in the "state of sin after Christ" that sacraments reach their perfection; the seven sacraments of the Christian dispensation are sacraments in the highest sense, because, besides signifying the grace which is the inheritance of faith, they also contain that grace and cause it.* (p. 10)

*Nostra autem sacramenta gratiam continent, et causant." Summa III q. 61, a. 4, ad 2.

It is this sparkling clarity of thought and strongly rhythmic and orotund prose that is one of the chief delights of reading this book. Once again, I strongly urge everyone who is interested in this subject to consider supporting Zaccheus by purchasing the book.

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If something is very inexpenisve, extremely cheap, a real bargain it is that way for one of two reasons:

(1) It's old and unwanted
(2) It's cheap because of the exploitation of the poor.

Either way, it's not much of a bargain. I'm trying to be more aware of what I buy and what it means in the global economy and in the economy of salvation. All of our choices have repercussions, sometimes we choose to close our eyes to them.

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A New Year's Thought

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I have an awful habit of purchasing large numbers of prayer books. I don't buy them to actually use the prayers qua prayers, but because many of the prayers are a fruitful beginning to a period of time with the Lord.

Well today I bought another such book for two reasons--it was already incredibly cheap and marked 50% off even the cheap price. And the following prayer struck me right to the heart. I thought the book worth it, even if there were nothing else between the two covers.

New Friends

Lord, today you have made us known
to friends we did not know,
and you have given us seats in homes
which are not our own.
You have brought the distant near,
and made a brother of a stranger,
Forgive us Lord. . .
we did not introduce you.

A Polynesian Prayer

How many opporntunities do we overlook? How many chances do we miss to introduce Him whom we supposedly love to people who have no knowledge of Him? What a wonderful reminder to usher in the new year. In the everyday things of life, in every moment of quiet in every introduction, there should be three involved--you, the new person, and the Lord.

Oh, and just in case you wondered--that wasn't the end of the treasures:

Overcoming Separation

My God and my Lord:
eyes are at rest, the stars are setting,
hushed are the movements of birds in their nests,
of monsters in the deep.

And you are the just who knows no change,
the Equity that does not swerve,
the Everlasting that never passes away.

The doors of kings are locked
and guarded by their henchmen.
But your door is open to those who call upon you.
My Lord, each lover is now alone with his beloved.
And I am alone with you.

Rabi'ah al--Adawiyah,(717-801) India

By the way, if you're interested, the book is called The Bridge of Stars and I found it on the remainered shelves at Barnes and Noble.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from January 2004.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: December 2003 is the previous archive.

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