Christian Life/Personal Holiness: July 2004 Archives

Martha and Mary

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I may incur the wrath of St. Blogs for what is to follow. I remind you though, that I am writing from the point of view of one who wishes as closely as humanly possible to choose Mary's part.

I read St. Augustine's sermon in the Office of Readings this morning and had a slightly different perspective on it. Perhaps I am interpreting incorrectly. While I cannot be said to disagree with the great Saint, I wonder about part of his point. Surely Martha will not be busy about corporal works of mercy in Heaven. But part of the communion of Saints, will she not still have an interest in human affairs, in the hospitality of the Spirit? Will she not pray for those who invoke her name and ask for her prayers? In this sense, will she not be feeding the hungry, welcoming visitors, and participating in the healing of the sick? I know that it is a very different participation, it is not the work of the hands. But is it not still a matter of the same interests, the same outward directed heart?

Mary has chosen the better part. But were we all Marys we would have no Mother Teresas. We would have tremendous spiritual benefits and perhaps we wouldn't need Mother Teresas; however, Mary's way is not so easy as it might seem. It is a little way that requires a lot of work.

Is it not possible to integrate the life of the two sisters? Isn't that what many of the great Saints did? St. Francis Xavier, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Katherine Drexel, Blessed Mother Teresa. Did they not have Martha hearts embedded in a Mary life? And even in the experience of the beatific vision, will they neglect the prayers that ascend to them asking for help?

I don't understand the dynamics of heaven, nor can I truly separate the lives of Mary and Martha. If you choose Mary's better part, it would seem that you cannot help but burn with the desire to perform Martha's work. St. Thèrése from within her cloister wished to work in the missions. She wanted to be selected for the Carmel in Vietnam. I think this is the natural outflowing of living Mary's life--the profound desire to bring the message and the reality of peace, caring, and love to all.

(At the risk of irritating Tom) Aren't the great Saints akin to the Boddhisatvas of the Buddhist faith--great enlightened ones who set aside their own transcendance to assist those who have not yet attained enlightenment? Surely the Saints never set Christ aside to assist His struggling brothers and sisters, because they see Christ within each one.

I guess that while I acknowledge Mary's life as the better part, a long history of Saints suggests that Martha's action often flows from the hearts of those who have chosen the better part. For lay Carmelites, called to contemplation in an active world, it would seem a sin to set aside labor necessary in the world in order to retire to some sort of worldly cloister within our houses. And I don't think any lay Carmelite aspires to that. From trying to live the life of Mary, many Martha-hearts are born. God uses our attention and love to point us where we might best serve Him and glorify Him.

In my hurry, I know I haven't expressed the fullness of my intent. But I truly wish to honor Martha, who I believe learned from our Lord's gentle admonishment and whose service began to flow from love of Him and not from the worries and anxieties that rode herd over her.

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Being a Martha

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One of the joys (and aggravations) of blogging are the sudden revelations about myself that occasionally stem from where I find myself in the blog-world at any given time.

Take today's revelation--following a series of links I wound up on a site that featured some articles by Sister Joan Chittister. I have long been curious and a little cautious about Sister Joan. I know she espouses some views that I do not hold and I don't much care for the company she sometimes keeps. Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to be heard for who they are not who they know.

The articles were not particularly well-considered examinations of trends Sister Joan sees in American Politics. Like me, Sister Joan does not seem to be a well-qualified observer or commenter on things social and political and some of this muddle comes through in her articles. I was not particularly impressed. But more than that I was frustrated. I was frustrated by the reasoning and by the stridency of such things as a plea for tolerance that seemed, itself intolerant.

But the point of this is not to critique Sister Joan. It is to ask why do I go about subjecting myself to these things? Why do I go to places that I know will frustrate me? Why do I have this compulsion to read things that will knock me out of equilibrium. (You'd think that after I read one of Sister Joan's articles I would simply have ignored the others or the Google links and interviews, etc.)

To bring up other examples. Once I can tell from the header of a post that a particular entry at any given place is about The War that Shall Not Be Named, why do I continue on to read the piece? I know it is likely only to upset me even if it is strictly in accord with my own viewpoint. Why--because for whatever reason, I am upset by this particular topic, I have unduly close ties and interest in it. So why don't I leave it alone?

Well, appropriately enough for this week, I've concluded that the problem is that I am a real Martha. I'm not really big on service, but I'm a real pro when it comes to anxiety and worry. If I am not presently anxious, I seem to actively seek out things to be anxious about. There can be any number of reasons for this, but prime among them is that I still haven't really resolved to partake of the "one thing necessary." I don't really want to learn from Jesus, not down at the core. I want to busy myself with all sorts of things, notions, ideas, objects, events, people, and worldly things. I don't really want to listen and let Jesus lead because it would require of me a certain tractability and surrender. I'm not yet ready to surrender. However, I really want to be ready, but it's very difficult to abandon the defenses and clear the battlements.

I am Martha. I spend too much time meddling in all sorts of things that I haven't any business doing and then I go and complain because others aren't helping me. I go to Sister Joan for the truth. Now is that fair either to me or to Sister Joan. Who proclaimed her the embodiment of truth--she's simply a fallible person with her own viewpoint and agenda. So once I get there do I have any right to complain about how little of the truth I may have discovered in her article? Did she promise to reveal to me the wisdom of ages? No! And yet, I do this time and again.

I fail because I am anxious and worried about many things. I'm worried about having the "right" point of view. I'm worried about the abstract elements of truth and justice, while I continue my life pretty much unchanged. I remind myself in my activity of the Pharisses of whom Jesus said, "You tithe your tithes of mint and rue. . ." I tithe my tithes by announcing so much publicly, but how much have I declared korban; how much do I worry about truth, charity, peace, and justice, and then do nothing to reify these in the world today.

In this light, no matter how much I may quibble with Sister Joan, she is positively acting on core beliefs and prinicples by making the attempt to articulate them and encourage others to act. I do not do as much as this--I'm too anxious and worried.

The solution--sit down for a while, breathe deeply, open the Good Book (as my Grandparents all termed it) and spend some time with the Lord. And immediately, I can give you 10,000,000 reasons why I cannot do that. And every one of them has a certain measure of validity, and every one of them is part of the arsenal that defends the battlements and guards the fortress of the heart. Oh Lord, I want to be changed, but not too much and not too fast and not just yet. But you can change all that!

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This expression of the Christian vocation works for some of those great Saints who grew up surrounded on all sides by strong Christian virtue (St. Thèrése) and perhaps some others. I claim this as my goal as well, but recently I've been called to examine that ambition. Do I want to be a saint for the right reasons?

What are some right reasons for wanting to be a saint? It seems there are several, some more valid than others. First, it would seem to me that a right and proper desire to be a saint comes from an orientation of love toward God, the Holy Trinity, and the hosts of heaven. This would be the most proper orientation. A second reason might be that our Lord commanded us to be saints, "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." A third, but more shadowy reason might be to participate fully in Divinity.

It is as we move toward these more shadowy reasons that the question begins to bear full weight. Why might I want to participate more fully in Divinity? Do I want to for the sake of God and His Kingdom, or do I wish it for my own sake?

Let's talk about some less-than-worthy motives for wishing to be a Saint. The one that crops up first and largest in my mind is, "I want to be a saint so I will be remembered as are the other saints." Now, no one who really wants to be a saint would admit to this reason; however, in carefully examining my own motives, I have to admit that this occasionally crosses my mind. It isn't the predominant factor in my desire, but it is enough present that I am aware of it. When I think about the great saints of the past--Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, I think how fortunate they were to be Saints so early on because they would contribute foundational that would become the building blocks of the entire Church. No theologian of the twentieth century can be said to have done that--at most they have provided additional understandings of God and Church. The great work has been done, work remains, but not necessarily the kind of work we think of in theology--again I point to St. Thèrése as a Doctor of the Church. Not a theologian in the technical sense, I suppose, but one who had much to teach those who would listen.

However, even less-than-laudable motives for desiring to be a saint can be used by Our Lord to make true saints. The work of sanctity begins with the recognition of Him who sanctifies and with an outward movement, aided by grace, toward the source of All. This outward movement can have the colorings of inward motion because it of necessity seeks to identify and ground the self. Without knowing ourselves and the little tricks and strategems we use to protect ourselves from God's probing and transforming, we cannot begin the walk of the saint. Naturally this examination is in the light and mirror of grace. We can begin to see how we fail and through grace we can ask that God touch and heal those places so that through time that fault becomes less.

I do want to become a saint. I want it for a great many mixed reasons, some good, many bad. But the desire, the longing to know God face to face, is a gift from Him. It is an undeniable grace, and having been given it, I would be less that grateful and less than saintly were I not to act upon it. I act upon it most effectively when I do so least consciously. Self-conscious saints (in the way we understand the term self-consciousness) seem to be an oxymoron. Normally we think of saints as selfless, but I would say rather that they participate in the great Self and this cannot happen if you choose to separate yourself in a self-conscious way.

The long and the short of it is, that God grants the longing to be with Him. He will use, I think, almost any motive and turn it to good. (I must trust and rely upon this as I know many of my motives are poor.) He calls us to sanctity and He lifts us to sanctity and while there is much that we can do to cooperate, there is nothing we can do to speed the process on its way. God will accomplish in His own time His own ends if we open the door and allow Him in. Sainthood is not ever on my own terms, as I have recently been reminded, but always on His. I just need to make up my mind that His terms are good enough. In so doing, I will begin to see just how good they are.

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The second book by Billie Letts (the interview at the end suggests that there may be a movie coming soon on this one as well). Pretty much second verse same as the first. Quirky characters come together in the small Oklahoma town of Sequoyah--In this case a paraplegic Vietnam War Vet, a Creek/Crow Indian, a Mother of a disruptive teenage daughter (same age as Noralee Nation in the first book), a Vietnamese man who is earning money for his wife to move over from Vietnam, etc.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon is the centerpiece around which these characters convene, emote, and general make mayhem and community for one another.

The prose is smooth, unblemished. The characters nearly uniformly likeable. The bad guy immediately identifiable, and though Letts tries to humanize him through his trauma, he is still one you hope gets what's coming to him.

And while I enjoyed and do recommend this book almost as much as the previous, I have to admit that my first reaction upon finishing it was--"Why did I spend the time on that?" Not that it was a poor book or a poorly written book. But I have had impressed upon me lately the necessity of serving the Lord in ALL things. Now, before I continue, I don't want to say that the message that follows is for everyone. It is NOT. However, I think we could all profit by pondering some of the things I came to realize in the course of thinking about this book.

We all know that our span on Earth is strictly limited--none of us knows how long it will be. If the purpose of our life on Earth is to worship God, then all things in life should be directed to that purpose. Now, things are good in their measure. There is certainly no harm in reading things that give us pleasure (assuming that the pleasure is derived licitly from the reading--that is, it does not appeal to the prurient). However, is it enough?

I think early in the Christian journey all legitmate and licit pleasures are good and should be gratefully accepted. However, as we grow in the faith, it seems to me that the things we take pleasure in should also advance. That is, that while we might enjoy light reading at the start of our Christian career, as our lives move into conformity with God, we might move on from this legitimate interest to more profound things. Perhaps Scripture reading replaces some of the light reading we do. Perhaps reading of Christian classics, theology, and other spiritual helps begins to move in.

I guess I'm suggesting that as we become conformed to Christ we are becoming new people--those new people should not be quite so involved with the old things as they were.

I have said "we" here. What I really mean is "I." I felt a little cheated in reading a book so similar to another that I had recently read. But I also felt that I somehow cheated God of time that was more properly used in His service. For example, in the time that I read Honk and Holler I probably could have gotten through a chapter or so of Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans. I could have read several chapters of one of the least dense books by von Balthasar that I've ever set eyes on--Two Sisters in the Spirit. I enjoy these things as much as I enjoy Billie Letts, but the perusal of these works is also more conducive to moving closer to where God wants me to be, or so it seems.

So, I'm not saying that I shouldn't enjoy things. Rather, I should pick among the very best things to enjoy. If I would have equal pleasure from Agatha Christie as from Walker Percy, but Percy would lead me to think more about God's kingdom, isn't it more proper to read Percy? If all other things are equal, shouldn't I always choose the path that lead more closely to God?

Now, sometimes this might well be Agatha Christie. Perhaps I am overloaded and need rest to become once again the person I need to be. I would think this would be the exception rather than the rule. More than this, I look at the lives of the great Saints who did not indulge a penchant for popular fiction (indeed St Teresa of Avila accused herself of foolish indulgence in the chivalrous Romances of her time). Surely these servants were also seeking God and experiencing His pleasures in their time.

So it leads me to wonder if our indulgence in these pass-times isn't sometimes also a way of avoiding deeper commitment. I know that it can sometimes be that way for me. The matter of how to spend my leisure time is one that I should spend a good deal more of my prayer time and meditation time regulating properly. If God is not at the center, even of those things that I do for pleasure and recreation, then they simply are not worthy of my time.

What do you all think?

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Okay, now that I'm over my regular quarterly meltdown, it's time to get back to business.

The first item of business--Parish Hopping.

I have fought and fought the idea of going to "my parish" church. The first time I was there I saw some really awful liturgical dance. The decoration is abyssmal, and the ambience is not what I best appreciate. That said, I went there today, really asking God what to do. I doubt my willingness to drive nearly twenty miles to cart Samuel to and from CCD. This church is so close that if I oversleep but still have 20 minutes I can get there in plenty of time.

So I asked God to speak to my heart, to tell me what to do. After all, He seems to have ordained this week as a week of blessings for me. I went to Mass this morning, with the idea that this should be my home. I wouldn't walk into my own home and start judging the decor etc. After all decor is secondary even if quite important.

What I noticed was that unlike the Church I really like, this church was truly and wonderfully diverse. I saw several families with mixed race children, a great many African Americans, hispanics and Phillippinos, as well as a white population of all ages. The other parish I go to is on the wealthier side of town, it tends to have a smaller diversity and the pastor, somewhat understandably, tends to cater with those who will give large sums of money to the Church.

At the time of the homily, an African American Deacon came forward and gave the best homily I've heard in a long time. He blessed me and blessed me again because I've been longing for some of the dynamism that is the basis of protestant preaching but with faithfulness to Catholic Doctrine. Here I have it all in one person. But more than that, he launched a direct assault at my most firmly protected entryway to God--the heart of stone I carry around with me. He sent legions and legions that direction, with only a momentary foray into the region of the intellect--another heavily guarded bastion, but one not quite so impervious to trying to listen to God. Oh, how I was blessed by the kinds of things he spelled out. How God spoke to me through him. I rejoice in the Holy Spirit within me who determined that I would try this Church yet once again and set aside my misgivings.

Finally, the Lord opened my eyes to my woundedness. The reason I do not care for this Church is that it reminds of a Church in Columbus that I called St. X's Nearly Catholic Church. A deacon was dismissed from the Church I describe because he dared to speak out against abortion from the ambo on the day dedicated to precisely that cause. And all he said regarding the matter was that we should not look down upon women who have had abortions, but we should regard them with accepting compassion and kindness, welcoming them back into the loving embrace of the Father.

I must place my trust in God that this place is not like that one. But I do believe that he spoke to me today. He had a great many things to say, but amongst them was this most important one: "You've got a very supple, very pliable head but a heart of stone. Get thee to a place where you can work on demolishing the battlements around your heart and leave your head alone--it will watch out after itself. You work is heart-work, not head-work. "

And finally, my wife seems more favorably inclined toward this church than toward the one I am accustomed to attending. If God can work on her through this Church all the more reason for going here.

It's amazing what God will say when we're willing to listen.

Pray for us as we launch into this

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Caught in the Trap of Our Making


Described beautifully by Charles Williams:

from All Hallow's Eve

She was about a third of the way down when from far off the sound of the Name caught her. She could hardly there be said to have heard it; it was not so much a name or even a sound as an impulse. It had gone, the Indrawing cry, where only it could go, for the eternal City into which it was inevitably loosed absorbed it into its proper place. It could not affect the solid house of earth nor the millions of men and women toilfully attempting goodness; nor could it reach the paradisical places and thier inhabitants. It sounded only through the void streets, the apparent facades, the shadowy rooms of the world of the newly dead. There it found its way. Other wanderers, as invisible to Evelan as she to them, but of her kind, felt it--old men seeking lechery, young men seek drunkeness, women making and believing malice, all harborers in a lie. The debased Tetragrammaton drew them with its spiritual suction: the syllables passed out and swirled, and drawing thier captives returned to their speaker. Some went a little way and fell; some farther and failed; of them all only she, at once the latest, the weakest, the nearest, the worst, was wholly caught. She did not recognize captvity; she thought herself free. She began to walk more quickly, to run, to run fast. As she ran, she began to hear the sound. It was not friendly; it was not likeable; but it was allied. She felt towards it as Lester had felt towards the cry on the hill. The souls in that place know their own proper sounds and hurry to them.

Without question, Williams is difficult and you must read nuance and symbol to get everything. But here, in characteristic fashion, he spells it out to all who are paying attention. "My sheep know my voice and they hear me."

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Rebuilding the Temple

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Following on a quotation from Saint Augustine noted by TSO yesterday, I turned my reading back to the Old Testament last evening, once again to savor the richness of the salvation story. Throughout this testament God's love is made manifest in His gift of the prophets. So I'll share with you a little reflection that came from reading one of the prophets less often read.

Haggai 1:2-9

2: "Thus says the LORD of hosts: This people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD."
3: Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet,
4: "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
5: Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
6: You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages earns wages to put them into a bag with holes.
7: "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
8: Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory, says the LORD.
9: You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves each with his own house.

Sometimes I am awed and in deep wonder at what the Lord allowed to come down to us in the Bible. The words here seem so irrelevant to us today. Haggai is told to tell the people of the exile now returned home to rebuild the temple of the Lord. What relevance does the rebuilding of the temple have for any of us today? Why do we hear this word?

I think it's fairly evident that the temple spoken of here is two-fold. There is the exterior temle, which is a powerful sign of God's presence among the people and the interior temple, which is also a shambles. In rebuilding the exterior temple, God is setting in motion a work that will help to transform the interior temple. By using the labor of their bodies, the people of Israel work within their souls to realize how lost they have been.

Look at the words of the passage above. How much more relevant could they possibly be for today? Verse 4: "Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? " We build for ourselves (at least in this country) comfortable, perhaps too-comfortable lives--lives that are in many ways so comfortable that service to the Lord is an inconvenience--an arduous necessity that we do because we have to, but it really gets in the way of our rhythm. I know most St. Bloggers don't feel that way most of the time, but I know there are times when I would rather be doing anything o ther than Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer or any number of things I do to get in touch with God.

Look at verses 6-7 again: "You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages earns wages to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared."

I toil at making more money at getting more things. I eat and eat and eat myself into oblivion. I live in a hypersexualized society that seeks to deaden the interior emptiness, the ruins inside, with progressively more perverse passtimes. Our modern fashions dress us in expensive clothes that reveal more and more skin--they don't keep us warm, but they keep us fashionable. And I never, never, never have enough of anything. As a society, we are morally bankrupt. We are attempting to gild the exterior of the ruined sepulchres that many have as souls. We seek to fill the emptiness inside with thngs from outside. We want to be full and propsperous and happy and we go about it in all the wrong ways.

If first I were to "Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory, says the LORD" (verse 8), I would be rightly ordering things. Jesus says later, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." When I build God's temple first, when I please Him, I am starting down the right path. Building His temple by actions in this world, helps to sets to right the ruins inside. Yes, prayer and fasting and attendance at Mass are all necessary and fruitful, but I am enjoined to real action in this world. I must go to the hills and bring the living wood of souls who have not known the joy of the gospel message. I am to build God a house of humanity that worships Him and rejoices in His glory. It is in this substantive work in the world that I set to right what has gone wrong. (Keep in mind, this is all in cooperation with God's grace, I don't mean to say that I do it.)

Finally, in verse 9, it is again summed up. "You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves each with his own house."

Perhaps I have looked for much outside of what is right and proper for me. Perhaps I have not looked for much in the right direction. I've looked inside to myself, rather than inside to the enthronement of the King. All of this comes to nothing. I gather these shreds of self, and the first zephyr that strokes my cheeks sends it all to ash and dust.

And why is all of this true? Because I have neglected God's house, the interior castle in which, too often, my Gracious King sits alone on a cold throne in an unlit room, while I scurry about attending to the emptiness inside by filling it with things, thoughts, and experiences. All the while I neglect my service. I do not render my humble homage of love, my duty of keeping company with the Lord of the Universe.

What can I expect other than the person that I am?

So perhaps Haggai is sent to remind the people of Israel, and the people of today, what the priorities are. Perhaps his words come down to us because they are words for every people of every age. They are a literal prefigurement of Jesus's profound teaching that God must come first. The throneroom must be decorated, lit, and kept warm to welcome Him, and we are to be constant attendants, servants always to the King who reigns over our souls. We are to build a suitable house through the offering of ourselves and those we meet each day. Only in this way will the chllly emptiness we try so desperately to fill be vanquished. He is King if only I will make Him King. He will not force His rule upon me. And I may only make Him King, if I treat Him as such, if I build His house in the world and in my soul.

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Tom provides, perhaps inadvertantly, much food for thought for those of us subject to a certain scrupulosity. He states that in voting for a candidate we cooperate either formally or materially with ALL of that candidate's positions. In such a case, there is no candidate on Earth for whom I could possibly vote except for myself as there is no one with whom I would agree on all positions and that agreement would be materially on the substance of the question--is this moral or not; therefore, the conclusion seems to be that a person of properly formed conscience should absent him- or her-self from the voting booth. While this formal or material coooperation is proportionate to the whole spectrum of views a person may hold--the underlying theme is always--"you may not do evil that good may result." If I vote for someone who favors an explicitly immoral stand on one or more issues--say Gay Marriage, then I have committed an evil act.

Yes, the more I hear about the whole thing, the more confused, befuddled and uncertain I become about the morality of participating in such a system at all. It would seem to me that the Mennonites and Amish have it about right--being involved with the government in almost any way is an invitation to sin.

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from Two Sisters in the Spirit
Hans Urs von Balthasar

In recent times [he's referring here to the time of original publication about the 1950's] no religious order has been granted such clear graces for mission as has the Carmelite Order. Such divine favors admonish us and counter recent trends in the world and the Church. In an era of churchly projects and campaigns, they call us back to the one thing necessary, to contemplation, without considering whether it will succeed or be effective. In an age of psychology, we are called back to anonymity, not merely to the anonymity of the veil but deeper into pure liturgical adoration of God for his own sake, where the worshippers seem to be indistinguishable from each other. In an age of emphasis on religious personality, we are called back into the life of a supernatural mission, a mission for which each personal ability and preference can at most serve as material to be used, a mission that demands a readineess to sacrifice one's entire nature.

The well of pure contemplation, which is the innermost source and mover of all life in the Church., must either be kept clean or be restored to purity.

What I read here is that contemplation is the fuel that lights the fire for mission. Not that every person should spend all day or ever much of the day in contemplation, but that contemplation is necessary, indeed the one thing necessary. In real contemplation, which may not be what Mr. Akin is addressing, contemplation leads directly to action. Perhaps the action is small and confined locally, but contemplation and service seem to go hand in hand.

I wonder if Mr. Akin is not addressing a very distorted, almost quietist notion of contemplation that has once again sneaked in through the back door. His particular reference to the "female" nature of contemplation seems to suggest a passivity (at least that's how I read his use of the word) that, if not Quietist , is certainly not truly partaking of the force of contemplation. Who could look at Thérèse's contemplation and find in it something to fault? How was this cloistered nun made co-patron of the Missions that Mr. Akin so ardently supports if she were merely passive before the face of the Lord? And yet it is undeniable that she was indeed profoundly contemplative.

So the contemplation Mr. Akin appears to address is what I would call "in-name-only" contemplation, and kind of ritualized involved self-inspection and passivity that never quite gets off the ground. It is a contemplation that is more a navel-staring than a God-adoring. This contemplation while not culpable is certainly not the great work of past ages that so inspired generations of Saints and Catholics.

Contemplation, meditation, and frequent feeding on the word of God are essentials to evangelization. In fact, if these are done in humility and proper spirit, they are among the most effective forms of evangelization that one can engage in. Far more people are attracted to the visible fruits of the properly lived Christian life than are attracted to words telling them what those fruits must be like. My vocation lived out in the presence of the Holy Spirit is a far more effective witness than my weak words. In that witness I say "Do as I do." In my other witness too often, I must say, "Do as I say, not as I do." And as anyone who has children will tell you, that is the very weakest form of teaching. People will more often follow your example than follow your words.

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I was distressed to read the excerpt from James Akin's article yesterday at Video Meliora. It starts with:

"The problem is that the renewal of holiness being conceived of is in feminine terms, placing a greater emphasis on meditative spirituality and 'contemplating the face of Christ.' This seems to me to be if not the opposite of what is needed, only a single component of what is needed."

But, it's just one of those cases when the attempt to make a very important point results in hyperbole that probably overstates what is really in mind. Surely Mr. Akin would not fly in the face of the Lord who said that "Mary has chosen the better part." And yet some of the remainder of the excerpt seems to say exactly this.

Instead of praying and turning inward, the Church needs to be praying and turning outward - evangelistically...It is true that the goal of evangelization and of ecclesiastical activity is union with God, but the primary modality of the average Christian life and of the Church's mandate in this world is evangelistic action rather than meditation or social projects.

This is not a zero-sum game. Turning inward is absolutely necessary. The Church must do so, but that inward turning must lead to an outward flowering and growth. The plant does not grow exclustively from the apical meristem--there is concomittant and perhaps even greater growth at the root-tip. If the roots are not entrenched, well-placed and healthy, the plant is sickly. Reaching outward before reaching inward is a tactic commonly used in certain evangelical circles and it leads to a spirituality that Jesus described in another parable--the grass sown shallowly. The roots dry up and the grass blows away.

I have not read all of Mr. Akin's comments as I do not get the publicaiton in which the article occurs. But one need not abandon nor even etiolate the inward looking contemplative dimension of life in order to serve. But one must pray in all humility that his or her mission is made clear.

Evangelization without true knowledge of the news you are spreading which comes from study of the scripture, but more from talking to the author of Scripture is a very bad notion indeed. (Moreover, I have much to say about Mr. Akin's distorted and highly stereotypical notions of fatherhood as well--but I won't go there because I suspect the point was not to talk about all fathers at all times, but to make a generalization with which I can in large part agree. However, I am inclined to wonder what he thinks all the pslams about "Our God is quick to save and abundant in love" are all about. )

Read the excerpt and if possible, read the article. I'm sure that I have overstated Mr. Akin's case here, and so I have no real basis for strong disagreement, just caution. The growth of a crown of a tree that is not accompanied by the growth of the root, leads only to the ultimate collapse of the tree.

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More insight from St. Thérèse via H.U. Von Balthasar.

from Two Sisters in the Spirit Hans Urs von Balthasar
[here von Balthasar quotes from Manuscript B of Story of a Soul]

What does me a lot of good when I think of the Holy Family is to imagine a life that was very ordinary. It wasn't everything they have told us or imagined. Such as the story that the Child Jesus modeled a little bird out of clay and breathed upon it, so that it came to life . . . . In that case, why were they not trasnported to Egypt by a miracle--that would at least have been useful and not at all diffiuclt for the good God. They would have been there in the twinkling of an eye. But no, that did not happen. Their life was the same as ours.

Here the truth of the Incarnation is in question and therefore the truth of our whole life, which is only true when it is lived through to its utmost depths as it comes to us from its source, the Savior. Men always believe that they are supposed to attribute to the Lord every imaginable, superhuman "perfection"; and the fact that they do so may even be a token of their admiration. Yet ultimately this perfection lies in that very humility and love by which he became like us in everything except sin. For he was obedient unto death, learning this obedience through suffering

And what pious nonsense has been talked in the name of Mariology! Rather as if she herself were wielding the thong of cords at the purification of the temple, Thérèse ruthlessly kicks aside all the heaps of pious, well-meant untruths that have been wished upon the Mother of the Lord and in the end leave souls unnourished and prevent them from drink the living waters.

All the sermons on Mary I have heard have left me cold. . . . How I should love to have been a priest in order to preach about the Mother of God! I believe that just one sermon would have been enough for me to show what I mean. I would begin by showing how the life of the Mother of God is, in fact, very little known. One should not relate improbable stories about her, such as, for instance, that she went to the temple when she was a child of only three years in order to offer herself to God because she was so full of burning love and extraordinary fervor. Perhaps she went there quite simply out of obedience to her parents. . . . If a sermon on Mary is to bear tfruit, it must give a genuine picture of her life, as we are allowed to glimpse it in the Gospels, instead of something imagined. And it is surely easy to sense that her life in Nazareth and later must have been perfectly ordinary. "He was subject to them." How simple that is!

Too often, it seems, we may do the same with Saint's lives. We look upon their extraordinary accomplishments and then embellish them so that they become not so much role models as distant figures of impossible faith and piety. We neglect their ordinariness. We admire them, but we can come up with an extraordinary plexus of reasons why we couldn't possible emulate them in any way. How often have I heard, "Oh, I couldn't be like St. Thérèse, she was so holy from such a young age." So who is asking you to be like St. Thérèse? We already have one of those, and there are those in the world who would maintain that one is more than enough. (I used to be among them--no longer).

God gives us Saints not so much for slavish imitation as for encouragement. No one is called to be another St. Francis, St. Benedict, St. Anything. Each person is called to be a unique Saint, just as they are a unique person. The canonized Saints give us a glimpse of how others have achieved this. How they have achieved heroic sanctity despite a less than heroic start; how they have come to love God when they started by dispising Him; how their own persons and personalities are used by God to erect new Saints and new heroes, new examples that tell us--"You can do it."

After all, what is remarkable about St. Thérèse? She grew up a bourgeoise French lady, a potential snob, in a jansenist French society, overwhelmed with the exceeding wrath of God. She was treacly sweet and had a hellish temper at the same time and was stubborn as an ox. Nothing here particularly remarkable. And in that very fact lies our best hope. Just as there is nothing particularly remarkable about any of us, so too God can use that milquetoast or wanness and convert it into heroic virtue.

When I reflect on St. Thérèse this is what I most often think about--her humble beginnings did not stand in the way of her storming heaven, asking for, and receiving the gift of holiness, the gift of love. So what stops me? And when I think like this I realize that there is very, very little in the way--only myself. And if Jesus is willing, I can be healed.

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from Two Sisters in the Spirit
Hans Urs von Balthasar

Thérèse's mission, at the very first glance, displays the marks of a clearly defined and quite exceptional charcter. This is much less due to the personal drama of the little saint than to the sacred form into which the trickling grains of petty anecdotes are compressed, into a hard, unbreakable block, by a firm, invisible hand. It is contrary to all expectation that the simple, modest story of this little girl should eventaully culminate, as it irretutably does, in the enunciation of theological truths. Originally she herself never dreamed that she might be chosen to bear some fundamental message to the Church. She became aware of it only gradually; in fact, it did not occur to her until her task was almost completed, after she had already lived out her teaching and was writing the last chapters of her book. Suddenly, as she saw it all laid out before her, she recognized its strangeness, that in her obedience she had unwillingly conceived something beyond her own personlaity. And now that she saw it, she also understood it and seized it with a kind of violence.

Some, like St. Paul, know clearly from the time of being touched by God what their mission to the world is all about. They cannot conceive of the repercussions of successfully fulfilling the mission--how the world will be transformed and turned inside out--nevertheless they know it and fulfill it. Others, and I take it von Balthasar would propose Thérèse as an example of this, simply live their mission. It is perhaps possible that such a saint might not grasp their mission even toward the end. Von Balthasar argues that Thérèse did recognize her own; however, it stands to reason that it would be possible to fulfill God's will entirely and not see the contours and patterns of one's own calling. The thought of this fascinates me and intrigues me.

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On the Mission of the Saints


Von Balthasar starts his work on St. Thérèse and Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity with a brief discussion of the role of theologians in looking at the lives of Saints and with an analysis of what it means to be a saint. The excerpt that follows is from the introduction.

from Two Sisters in the Spirit
Hans Urs von Balthasar

In a saint, it is primarily the missiion that is perfect; only secondarily is he himself described as perfect, insofar as he integrates the whole of his gifts and strength into fulfilling his mission. Many have grasped their mission joyfully, taking it, so to speak, on the wing; others have undertaken it hesitatingly, almost reluctantly--but the mission proved too strong and compelled them to serve it. Some, at the cost of their flesh and blood, have allowed its complex demands to lay hold on every single fiber of their persons; others have been content to accept the essential demands, levaing many corners of their selves untouched and empty. For the kingdom of the saints knows many degrees, from the lowest limit, where the integrity of the mission is just preserved, to the highest level of all, where the mission and the person become indistinguishable. The Mother of God alone has reached that level.

I find interesting the notion of lackluster Saints--saints who can be prodded into action, but just barely enough to fulfill their destiny as saints. Even these low level saints (let's call them the "Red Dwarfs" of the saint's world --after those suns that just barely keep lit--far exceed the holiness and perfection of those of us who never even think about what our mission might be, let alone consider fulfilling it.

Anyway, von Balthasar, as usual has given me something to consider quite carefully over the next several hours or days. What is my mission? Who am I in God and how I am I called to share and express that with the Church? In short, how do I become the Saint God wishes for me to be? Not the general contours of that proposal, which are taught by the Church at all times, and for which I direct your attention to Disputations, but rather, what are the specific things, talents, ideas, personality traits, yearnings that God wishes for me to share? And how do I go about sharing these? Questions for all who aspire to love God perfectly and to find His way for them in life.

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About this Archive

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

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