Christian Life/Personal Holiness: November 2004 Archives

Giving Thanks

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I will truly be giving thanks when I learn how to give thanks without hesitation for all those things that get in the way and slow me down.

I will truly be giving thanks when I can without hesitation thank God for those who treat me poorly.

I will truly be giving thanks when I learn to give thanks for the things that most aggravate me.

I will truly be giving thanks when I want nothing other than what God has set out before me.

I will truly be giving thanks when I hand what has been so generously given to the next person down the line.

For what I am about to receive, whatsoever it may be, may the Lord make me truly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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Why So Much About Just War?

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I share this bit of correspondence I wrote to a blog-friend:

I realize that one of the reasons I obsess about certain things (homosexual civil unions and war) is that they represent very theoretical very distant things that I'm never likely to do anything about to really sin anyway. It effectively takes my mind off of the more pressing sins that I commit by the dozen without giving it two thoughts. I can agonize at length about the theory and never really have to put it into practice, whereas if I did that for real temptations, I might be provoked to change.


But to give myself credit as well--one of the reason for obsession is to come to terms with Church teaching as it really is, not as I would have it be. Sometimes I have to hit my head against that stone over and over again before I can crack open my mind enough to let in a new conception or a new nuance. Ah, to be like Bernadette. But then Jesus warned us, "To whom much is given, much is expected in return."

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On Just War

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This started as a response to Jack's comment below, but I thought it was worth making a full post of.

Thank you. Last night it dawned upon me what my objection to so-called "just war" actually is. The name "just war" makes it sound as though we are taking an intrinsically evil action and trying to make it good.

I think your point is what I state elsewhere somewhat differently. Just war does not magically take evil and make it good, rather it states doctrinally that there are times when a natural evil must be engaged in to prevent an even greater evil. When that must happen the evil of the action is not imputed to the actor as a sin. Thus the evil is always (on the part of those fighting justly) malum and, assuming it is conducted according to jus bellum not corporately culpum. That is not to say that no one sins in the course of the war. But you get my drift. I had always been thrown by the name of the doctrine. In fact it is really a "lesser of two evils doctrine" that is a principled application of a form of double-effect.

I might differ with you on the justness or unjustness of some of the conflicts you mention--that's a different issue and really a moot issue. It little matters how I view the issue, it is how the Lord views the issue that is the essence.

That said, I think it is important to note that there is still room and necessity for the individual in conscience to conclude that any participation in the destruction of human life (whether or not it is labeled "just") is, in fact, a matter of sin. These people are called pacifists and in some ways I believe they have chosen the better part, IF they truly live it out. While it may be just to defend oneself and one's country, it may be more noble and more persuasive to refuse to take someone else's life. I liken it to the Maccabbean brothers who one after another refused to eat pork and died for it.

But this is a matter for the individual conscience, and if the individual is persuaded that it is forbidden to kill for any reason whatsoever, then to kill would be a sin, just war or otherwise.

I think it is the balance between the pacifist voices and those not so inclined that need to try to inform any decision regarding war. What seems to happen too often is that the pacifist voice is dismissed as "cowardly" or shirking duty. I suppose it is possible, but I also think that it is equally possible that pacifists are speaking out of conscientious convictions every bit as deep and as driving as any imperative to war.

The extreme of pacifist doctrine leaves us in a very untenable position in a fallen world. People will always cause aggression and grievous harm to one another. So long as that is the case, we must have means in place to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust or Pol Pot's monstrous reign. And what do we do about Rwanda and Somalia if we must rely completely on non-combative means? Pacifists hold out the very real hope that prayer and virtuous living will change the world. I agree with them, it will. However, it will only change a fallen world, not redeem it utterly. I think we need to stay away from the dangers of neo-Rousseauian thinking. We are not noble savages. Rather the opposite, we are wonderful, fatally flawed creations--we will never create a Utopia and we will never stop war.

That however doesn't mean we oughtn't to try and that those so inclined ought not to argue against every instance of aggression. We need the properly informed, conscientious counterbalance to our wayward tendencies.

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A New Perspective on Pacifism

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from "Not Quite a Perfect Fit"
Frederica Mathewes-Green

It may be right to die, but it is never right to kill. Christians are called to be something different in the world, a new thing the wearied, bloodied globe had never seen: people who love their enemies. When we twist hot metal around the body of a boy in a jeep, we are not showing him love.

I learned to keep my mouth shut about this in pro-life circles. I would unfailingly be told that refraining from killing was impractical; people would explain to me that of course Jesus didn't mean it literally. (What else did he not mean literally? Was he just kidding about sexual morality, too? This genre of Biblical interpretation reminded me uneasily of the bland, self-serving liberals in my previous denomination.) I was told that principled non-violence was self-indulgent, impractical, and fell short of the noble heights of courage that only war can call forth. The reasoning seemed to be that it took more courage to stand before your enemy holding a gun than it took to stand there empty-handed.

Entire essay

via Verbum Ipsum

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"I'm Sorry, World"

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There has been a spate of people taking pictures of themselves and posting them to apologize to the world for the election of George Bush. Well, I'm not sorry and I disavow any such apologies made on my behalf.

On this matter two things: first, get over it. (1) It simply isn't the world's business who we elect in our government. I care very little for what someone in France thinks about who we elected, just as I hope that someone in France gives very little consideration to my thoughts about their candidates for government. I don't live there, I don't have any insight. I'm neither entitled nor equipped for an opinion. (2) Even were it a matter in which world opinion weighs in--we've had worse, we will have worse again. I'm not thrilled with the election of George Bush--but overall I regard it as the lesser of two evils--and all of this pandering to world opinion simply reinforces that view.

But the more important matter I wish to emphasize is a continuation of yesterday's post. What can we do about it? I'm not falling all over myself that Bush was reelected. I have to admit to a huge sigh of relief, but that's because I don't particularly care for change. Bush's policy decisions seem at times questionable, but every time I think that I remind myself that I do not sit in the oval office day to day, nor do I have access to the information that flows through that office every day. I don't know what his motives are or were, nor can I guess at any number of unclear actions or meanings. What's more, that really isn't my concern. My concern is to function as a good citizen of the United States, critiquing and petitioning the government as necessary, but supporting my country first and foremost, no matter what my opinion of any given individual. I endured 8 years of Clinton with the attitude of "respect the office, if not the man." The least I can say of Bush is that I have not been forced back to that gambit. Some things that have happened have been distasteful, and perhaps unnecessary. But the reality is that neither I know, nor does the world for all its second-guessing.

So what can I do? I can pray. As Marion pointed out yesterday, slightly jumping the gun on what I was going to say but never got around to, the essence of the virtuous Christian life lies in prayer. We cannot attain virtue through sheer strength of will. As Paul tells us, "I do the things I would not do, I do not do the things I would do, and I have no strength in me." Jesus tells us , 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." So it is with us. All the willpower in the world will not keep us from sliding eternally backwards. That is not because we are bad, but because we are fundamentally flawed. In some the flaws seem less of an obstruction. (See Tom's post (Disputations) yesterday about St. Catherine of Siena.) We call these people Saints. For the rest of us, it's a case of the Red Queen's race. We run just as fast as we can to stay in the same place. Our will must be aligned with what God desires from us--no question; however, that in itself is insufficient. We must be strengthened, daily, by grace. Without grace we are characters in a Shakespearian tragedy--marked by a fatal flaw--each individually wrapped and bound up in our weakness and on the express freight for Hell. For one it will be pride, for another envy, for a third lust--but the destination is ultimately the same--slavery to sin and death.

Only through grace, transmitted through the sacraments, and through the strengthening that comes through regular prayer and time spent with God, can we hope to change our ways. To use another metaphor, grace is the corrective lens in our flawed Hubble telescope. Grace sharply focuses our attention on the contiguous but not full tangible Kingdom of God--that Kingdom which is right at hand. And grace strengthens the will which is further strengthened by time in prayer--abiding with God.

Prayer is a source of continual replenishment of grace. Prayer is ultimately the one road out of the terrible place we live without it. We are weak, paralyzed, dying, and we do not know it. Grace shines a light on our pitiful condition, and in so doing, makes it possible for us to change.

Prayer opens the soul to receive grace which heals it. Prayer also opens the spirit to hearing what God has to say and to acting on it.

So if you're upset with the election, if you're annoyed with our limited selection of candidates, if you think everything is going to Hell in a handbasket--you have a recourse. Live a virtuous life--contribute to the public good your own private good. And the best way to do this is through constant prayer and through the life of grace in the sacraments.

There are no private actions, there are no private sins. Everything we do affects the world around us in substantive ways. The sooner we start acting on this knowledge and understanding, the sooner we will be able to stop complaining about the poor platforms offered us. If enough Christians are sufficiently discontented to really pray and live lives that lead to good, there will be a change in the system. That's not to say that we will achieve Utopia--that's impossible, but we will make life somewhat better here for more of the people around us. We will do so not through our strength but through the love of God which strengthens all our thoughts and actions. More than that, the Love of God which strengthens our very being--such a love makes us more real than the world we set out to oppose--because it situates us in the very heart of reality.

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You Ask, "But What Can We Do?"

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Sometimes we feel impotent in the face of political and social realities. There does not seem to be anything we can do about the situation around us. And yet, there is--live virtuously. From Lowery's book again, this moment of hope: "For instance, a Christian living virtuously will have an effect on human history, and numerous Christians living virtuously will have a massive effect."

Withou raising a single protest sign, without signing petitions, without marching on Washington, a simple virtuous life can change the lives of people about whom we know little to nothing. This is part of the need for the sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation. Because if it is true that the virtuous life manifests the kingdom of Heaven on Earth, a life less than virtuous rends the fabric of eternity. Even if our sins are secret, lived out in silence, "victimless" as it were, still, they have deep and abiding effects on the world around us. If we fail in virtue, even though no one but the Lord knows about it, we still harm those around us. This failure takes its toll on the entire world. Our society is in the dire straights it is in because we have chosen individually not to live virtuously. In some cases the choices have been made in invincible ignorance, in other in deliberate defiance. But most of the time, we think that what we do privately has little or no meaning to the world at large. After all our constitution guarentees us a right to privacy doesn't it? (In fact, no, but that is beside the point.) Even if it does, there is no privacy in the Kingdom of God. Every act is a public act with public consequences, even if we cannot see the source. If everyone secretly empties their chamberpots into the gutters on the streets of the City, the effluent will still stink even if we do not know the entirety of the source.

So the next time you think in despair, "What can I do about this or that terrible thing?" recall that the first thing is to live virtuously and to pray always. In doing these things we take the first steps in allowing God to lead us to correct the present situation. We shouldn't stop there, but it is a place to start because living virtuously allows us to hear more clearly what we really can do to stop the present horror.

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in thirty words or less, care of Mark Lowery.

from Living the Good Life
Mark Lowery

It is essential to grasp the Christian conception of history found in Scripture and tradition, and heavily influenced by St. Augustine's understanding as put forth in his classic work Certainly all humans live within history. But the best way to improve the world is by an awareness--a membership in--another "city" or "kingdom" far more important: the kingdom of God or the city of God.

Those who follow Christ and have grace in their hearts are citizens of this city--and as we'll see later, non-Christians can have some connection to his city. (The "charter of this city is the beatitudes--see CCC 1716-24.) Members of the Church, then, have a dual citizenship, in both the city of God and in the historical, political order. As Gaudium et Spes 43 notes: "This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit."

Two points here--one germane and one professional.

We straddle two kingdoms, one of which we see "as in a glass darkly." Too often we live out our lives with the notion of WYSIWYG. And yet, it is precisely what you do NOT see that is what we end up getting. We see the kingdom of God rarely, but it does emerge if we are looking. It comes out in small ways and in large. For example, it may emerge in the smile of someone greeting us as we come into work. It certainly does emerge in the Eucharistic celebration, if we are paying attention.

Now to my other point, a trivial one, but one that niggles at me. (And you'll note that it takes up the majority of this post.) Who the heck edits these books? What's with this insane jumble of grammatical oddities:

t is essential to grasp the Christian conception of history found in Scripture and tradition, and heavily influenced by St. Augustine's understanding as put forth in his classic work Certainly all humans live within history.

Why a colon? Then, as the colon is not terminal punctuation, why the capital letter following. And who is paying attention to sequence. Note this: But the best way to improve the world is by an awareness--a membership in--another "city" or "kingdom" far more important: the kingdom of God or the city of God..

Why construct the sentence so that you mention city or kingdom and then reverse the order after a colon (which should be an m-dash).

I'm sorry to bend your ear with this kind of thing, but more and more recently I'm noticing that editors are not doing their jobs. House styles are collapsing in the reign of the Stephen King and Michael Crichton, who have grown too big to be "edited." For example, has anyone read the bloated version of Stephen King's The Stand? Here is the strongest possible evidence that good editors know what they are doing and that the author's original conception is not always the best way to do things. I think Lowery's book is likely to be very helpful in sorting out a great many matters, and it does not pretend to be a handbook of style and grammar. Yet, to quote Tevye, "Would it spoil some grand eternal plan, if it were edited well?" Sorry, tirade ended. Back to sleep mode.

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Resources for Living the Good Life

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Those of you who went to Catholic Universities and who studied theology and moral theology already know more about this than I could possibly share. But reading through one of my many books, I stumbled upon this term and concept and felt that it would make a marvelous addition and reminder as I look back over my posts, garnering from it them some of the insights I had a various times.

from Living the Good Life
Mark Lowery

Participated theonomy is a fancy way of saying that God's truth is build for us--his moral law (theonomy) is something we can really participate or partake in.

The notion of "participation is easier to understand if we consider another aspect of the Christian life: God's grace dwelling in us. It has "twin" aspects: First, sanctifying grace is not a thing we have in our souls, but is the very life of the Triune God dwelling--pulsating, if you will--within our very being. Grace is God's love poured into our hearts (see Rom 5:5).

Second, looked at from our angle, when God pours himself into us, we participate in him (see VS [Veritatis Splendor} 73, and CCC 1709, 1987-2016). And part of God's being is his law--not a set of rules only, as a heteronomy would have it, but the whole set of principles that puts our moral lives in order.

Twin moments again: When God pours himself into us, he pouts that "order " into us. (Later we'll see that this is precisely what "natural law" is.) From our angle we partake in that order. It is there for our happiness.

That's what participated theonomy is. When you see this term throughout the book, think "God's truth is friendly to me" or "God's truth is meant to make me truly happy.

Apart from an eccentric use of colons and italics, this passage was a superb introduction to the terminology of moral theology and to the central concept that we participate in God's law, and as God is uniate and simple (even while be triune--go ask the Thomists to explain this one) we participate in God's life itself.

A little later we have this magnificent little zinger.

Source as above

Here is another "pastoral aid" that this understanding yields: When you embrace the Church's moral stance of participated theonomy, expect to be misunderstood by people on both of the opposite extremes. Those who are positioned within autonomy will look at participated theonomy and see it is as heteronomous [control by an exterior rigid set of laws]. Because you claim, with the Church, to have access to truths that are absolute in nature, you'll be caricatured as an intolerant rigid fundamentalist who wants to impose one opinion on everyone.

On the other had, those who are positioned heteronomously will look at participated theonomy as far too autonomous for their tastes. Because you claim, with the Church, that the solution to our current moral crisis in not a return to the pre-Vatican II past, you'll be caricatured as a loose, wimpy Catholic without any moral fiber.

In the midst of these two misunderstanding, be patient and non-polemical. Take some comfort in knowing that when you are misunderstood by two polar opposites, that's a good sign that you’re getting something right!

I wanted this "anniversary post" to be something of substance--not too much substance I hope, but something that might hearken back to some of the better posts that have been made in the course of this long run.

And I implore your prayers that I might continue this endeavor for as long (and absolutely no longer than) God wills and directs. I love being here among bright, witty, talented, interesting people who are so ready to help one another live the Christian life.

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Now Jack can have someone to disagree with other than me.

from Living the Good Life
Mark Lowery

We are understandably afraid of being called "judgmental"--especially when Christ's saying "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Mt 7:1) is invoked--and we end up with what might be called the "can't impose syndrome:" "I would never be able to justify having an abortion, but I can't impose my views on someone else." We might know how absurd such a claim is--substitute slave-holding for abortion, and it's pretty obvious--yet we don't want to be labeled as rigid and judgmental.

The solution is clear: We must steadfastly maintain the distinction between an act that is evil and an evil act for which someone is culpable. Christ demands that we make the former judgment, and prohibits us from making the latter judgment.

To judge that an act is right or wrong is precisely what conscience is supposed to do--in fact, the technical definition of conscience is that it is an "act of judgment" that appliles the universal truth to a particular case (see VS 32.2 and 59.2). Judging that a particular individual is cupable for having committed an evil act is strictly forbidden --that's God's business.

Honestly, I can't say why this issue weighs so heavily on my mind, but my frequent return to it shows that it does. I think I need to understand exactly where I am supposed to be with respect to God's desire for me. As I am inclined to be a very judging person anyway, I think I artificially impose this boundary as a prelude to allowing grace to make it a natural boundary. There is a limit to what I can do myself, but there is no limit to what grace can accomplish in me, but I must cooperate. And this is a form, I suppose of active cooperation.

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About this Archive

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

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: October 2004 is the previous archive.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: December 2004 is the next archive.

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