Christian Life/Personal Holiness: January 2005 Archives

On nearly every page of Sr. Ruth's book there is something worthy of quotation. Were I to follow my inclination, I would end up retyping the entire book. As it stands, I'm already presenting too much--but there is a wealth of wisdom and richness in what she has to say. And she has a very deft hand at sifting out what is essential and what is optional in the teaching of St. John of the Cross. I don't know that I agree with all of her conclusions, but there is more than enough agreement to make the book helpful to me. That said, this Theresian interpolation of St. John of the Cross through Sr. Ruth is very, very nice indeed.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

This making ourselves of little account in a practical way will greatly affect our relationships with others. . . . Nothing so reduces the ego as the realities of living with others and not demanding that they change so as to suit ourselves. . . . God brings people into community precisely in order to purify them as gold is purified with fire and the hammer. . . .

What an enormous difference attitudes make. We shall have to bear many difficulties from other people anyway. To see in all these things God's will for our ascent to him and to make up our minds to adopt a positive attitude makes everything so much easier! John's asceticism taken at one swallow can seem just too much, but lived out it can only be happiness-giving. We are our own misery and affliction. Get rid of the ego and we are truly happy and at peace.

There is so much solid and clear wisdom here. Unless you are a hermit, you will live your life among other people. Living your life in this way means that you will encounter people and aspects of people that you find wearying, annoying, irritating, nauseating, and otherwise personally unacceptable. Our usual tactic in such a situation, if we cannot remove ourselves from the person involved, is to seek to change the person. How many husbands and wives carry on a kind of sparring match over issues like who takes the trash out, whether the toilet seat is down or up, who dumps their clothes where, etc. etc. There are endless irritating and aggravating proclivities in the entire world that is not ME. And if the truth be told, if the world were more like ME, I suspect I would find it all the more annoying.

When we stop trying to change the world and we accept what comes to us from God's hands, that is when the world really is changed. It is changed in that I am changed, and it is changed in that my perception of it has become more Godly. I will not convert my wife by lecturing at her, I may not even convert her by following Sr. Ruth's advice, but I will have converted myself so that rather than being aggravated and constantly looking for my own fulfillment, I am looking in the aggravating situation for a way to show my love to God by loving my wife. And the best way is to accept what comes from His hand as the will for the moment and to rejoice in the attention He is paying me and the path that is being paved to allow my ascent.

In every case, when we can put self aside, we will be serving God. And when we do so we immediately become better witnesses for Him. Our strongest Catholic witness is not necessarily a lecture about the Real Presence or the apostolic succession (true though they may be) but rather our joy in living out our Catholic Faith. Was it St. Teresa who said, "Lord preserve me from sour-faced saints?" Knowing God is real joy, profound joy, life affecting joy. Too often we are caught up in our own agendas, attempting to shape all things to ourselves and to our own convenience to notice that these little miseries, these little hardships are training us up in the way we should go--in enduring them is far greater joy than can ever be had by tryng to put them aside or change them. God is a loving Father and everything He sends, He sends for our good. Problem is, we don't really believe that--we think we can take this good and make it better. The reality is living what God has given us is our highest good.

So, as we will have to deal with people who do not precisely conform to what we think they should be or do, we do best to endure cheerfully and in fact with great humility and love. For by so doing we will be heaping burning coals upon their heads--but this isn't really the point. The point is that we will be showing them and others the way to sanctity as we pick it out ourselves.

We need merely remember St. Thérèse's small service of a smile to a person who irritated her beyond words. And this small action seemed to have effected a change in the recipient through the love shown. But we cannot love with this in mind, we must only love with the idea that what we have is God's gift to us for the moment. Whatever it may consist of, however we must deal with it, God is showing us moment by moment how to ascend to Him. When we abandon ourselves (which, of course we can only do with His help) we can begin to walk that path. The path of detachment will not seem so hard when we see in every step the path that leads to life.

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Today's Providence


My PDA has a little screen that hum , whistles, vibrates, or screams at me to inform me of a meeting. When I clear that screen the last application I was using crops us. In this case MyBible with the following words highlighted:

"Christ Jesus has made me his own." Phil 3:12

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Chaos and Weak Determinism

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Tom has a very interesting post on determinism as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas. The description is very similar to some aspects of chaos theory. Chaotic systems look random, but they follow a pattern called "weak determinism." The determinism is weak because while the next few steps of the pattern can more or less readily be predicted from knowing initial parameters, small variations in the initial system result in large divergences very rapidly. (The popular name for this is "the butterfly effect"--a term coined by or about the work of meteorologist Edward Lorenz.) Weak determinism is interesting because even though it is weak because predicatability is poor, the determinism includes every variation back to and including the initial stages. That is, the initial stages strongly, if unpredictably, influence the entire "chain of being." What happened in the past is present and influential at every moment. (See Mandelbrot's discussion of the price of cotton in The (Mis)Behavior of Markets.)

The net result of this is that one can start with two objects that to all appearances exist in identical circumstances, subject them to the same influences and still come up with different results because (1) there were differences that were minute, but important in the initial makeup; and (2) there were differences in the influences.

What does this analogy mean for determinism? It means that two people can start at what looks like the same point as far as human eyes can see and wind up at very different places. As Tom points out in his discussion--determinism is in part influenced by free will. That is the choices that we make influence the array of choices that are available to us at the next decision-making nexus. When we choose not to take the job in Seattle--all contingencies based on that job more or less pass away and the path is closed--we are weakly determined by that choice. We may know what lies immediately ahead. What we cannot know is that by not taking the Seattle job we missed out (10 years down the line) on a volcanic eruption that buried our house in 15 feet of ash. That path is closed.

Each choice I make via free will in closes some doors and opens others. When I choose to "sin a little bit" by investing time in pornography, I may find that I subtly alter the current of things in such a way that the door to adultery is opened (or perhaps not). The choice to sin closes some doors (doors leading toward God) and opens others (those leading away) Always keeping in mind, however that all of the doors back to God are never completely closed, there is always at least one wide open--the door of the confessional.

The analogy of weak determinism speaks seems to tread the middle road between complete determinism and complete randomness or free will. Each choice alters parameters and constrains future choices, while at the same time opening other channels. We have some things set in motion about which we can do almost nothing--biochemical factors, certain environmental conditions in youth. However, we do have a choice about how we react to these factors and how much we allow them to guide our lives. An alcoholic may or may not be able to do anything about the biological condition that predisposes him or her to alcohol addiction; however, they can do a great deal about what they choose to do as a result. Free will is not easy, but biological determinism is not the final factor and things can be done to combat predispositions.

This is one reason I'm extremely dubious about the so-called "gay gene" and its deterministic effect on behavior. You may have a predisposition, what you do not have is a requirement to act upon that predisposition--you are, in fact, free. Once again, we should keep in mind that what is freely determined is not necessarily easily undertaken. Carrying the ring to Mt. Doom was freely chosen; however, in the end, it was not easily accomplished. And unfortunately, we all have rings in our lives that need undone--we all have the same quest to undertake to rid our lives of the power of darkness. Christ's yoke is easy, His burden light--choosing to assume them is what is difficult.

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Advice from St. Paul

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I have a large number of bad habits. One of my worst in the ecclesial realm is that I am an absolute addict of Bibles. I have about 40 of them around the house--every translation, configuration, set of notes, theme, print size, and binding you can imagine. They range from the Good News Bible to the Bible my Grandmother gave me when I was six years old (and which I was expected to carry, read, and use -- the King James Version--says a lot doesn't it?) So last night I indulged my Bible addiction yet once again and updated my Laridian Palm Bible with notes from the Life Application Bible and the NIV study bible. Most pocket bibles do not carry Catholic Editions or Catholic Study notes (are you guys from Ignatius paying attention?--a real market here. Get us a palm-study-Bible and you'll have a corner on the highly lucrative seven or eight person Catholic PalmBible market!)

Well, of course, having purchased the Bible aids and loaded up the RSV and KJV I had to start using the new features (highlighting in six different colors and a new note-taking device.) Given that I had to start work IMMEDIATELY, what better place to begin than. . . you guessed it Paul's Letter to the Phillippians.

And here's what occurred to me to share today:

Phillippians 2:3

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.

Count others better than myself? You mean I am not to curse and rail and slam on the horn and hit my steering wheel when someone cuts me off clearing my front bumper by no more than two inches? You mean I should hold a door open for the rudest person in the universe who will then rail at me because I think them incapable of opening a door for themselves? Where does this self-effacement end?

If properly conducted and infused by the Holy Spirit, it ends in divine union. We continue to decrease until there is only God steering the vessel. We give no thought for ourselves, but our entire attention is dedicated to and devoted to others. We do nothing from selfishness and conceit (through grace) and all is directed to the betterment and love of others.

The doctrine of St. John of the Cross is not new. It wasn't new when St. John wrote about it. It wasn't new when St. Bonaventure wrote about it. It wasn't all that new when St. Paul wrote about it. (Okay, it was only thirty or forty years old then--but you get the point.)

Nothing St. John has to tell us about truth is new. What is new is how to approach the truth. What he does have to tell us are things that might help us better execute this admonition of Paul.

So, here is Paul's gift to us for the day--the constant exercise of Christian self-abnegation, aided by grace leads inevitably to the throneroom of God. Of course, the assumption is that all of this is surrounded by prayer and completely supported and led by the action of the Holy Spirit. But we must do our minimum--cooperate with His action in our lives.

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Advice for the Day


"Love does not look in the mirror."

Often there is cause to remember this and to remind oneself of it. St. Paul's 1 Corinthians 13 says it far, far better. But sometimes what is needed is simply the short jab of a reminder.

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Human Transcendance


I really liked this passage from early on in Sr. Ruth Burrows's book.

from Ascent to Love
Sr. Ruth Burrows

John is enamoured of human transcendence. 'One single thought of man is greater than all the world; only God is worthy of it.' We are made for the infinite and degrade ourselves if we opt for less.

The whole creation compared with the inifinite being of God is nothing. All the beauty of creation compared with His beauty is sheer ugliness; all its delicate loveliness merely repulsive. Compared with the goodness of God the goodness of the entire world is rather evil. All wisdom, all human understanding beside his is pure ignorance. . . and so it is with sweetness, pleasures, riches, glory, freedom.

This is a hymn to human transcendence not a denigration of created reality. John's pathway up the mount could rightly be entitled, 'On becoming human'.

Later I shall post Sr. Ruth's view of the universality of John's doctrine. (Note, the universality of the doctrine, but not especially of the means. John's teaching on the spiritual realm (as well as Teresa's and Thérèse's) is what had made him a Doctor of the Church universal. But his means of achieving what he describes is peculiar to those pursuing the Carmelite vocation (either within the family or unknowingly on their own. One supposes that it is possible, all unknowingly to follow the via negativa outlined by John).

What is interesting here is the thought that every human thought is exalted above all creation and hence only worthy to be directed for Him who is greater than all creation. Our words have power so too our thought.

I also think it very important to point out that John thinks the created realm is very good indeed. He acknowledges throughout this short passage all the beauty and glory of creation and then moves on to say, nevertheless, these are less than dust compared to the creator of beauty and loveliness.

When we think about the created realm, that is the proper order of thoughts. Not good and evil (although evil does exist and should be acknowledged) but rather in the normal course, the proper ordering of goods. Detachment, in Carmelite thinking is "choosing the better part," or the greatest good. It isn't about rejecting the goodness of creation but more thoroughly embracing it in the embrace of the greatest Good--the God who loves us.

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As I was writing the previous post another thought occurred to me and nearly derailed the intent and writing of that post.

As you all know, I love fractals. I play with fractals. I visit the fractal world on every occasion I can set aside to do so. If you get a chance, google "Mandelbrot Set" and see if you can find one of the many sites on which you can play with the set.

The Mandelbrot set is the plotting in a complex mathematical plane of a certain set of functions. The black portion of the plotting are the members of the set--in the infinite space of the coordinate plane, an extremely narrow, confined, limited purview. Think of this as the strait gate.

Now, if you have a "microscope" for viewing fractals and you begin to look very very closely at something like the Mandelbrot set, particularly around the edges, you'll discover an infinite number of self-similar and self-affine copies of the set. That is, the larger image shows up over and over again in the smaller. But even more interestingly, as you focus on the edges, you enter, depending on the area you are looking at unique worlds of shapes. Every space on the set is part of the set and similar to all areas, and yet every area on the set has its own magical uniqueness.

Analogically, Jesus' "narrow way" and "strait gate" that lead to salvation is the "Mandelbrot set." You must belong to the set, be a member of the set to make it to salvation. However, everyone is a unique member of that set and the place that we find ourselves is a unique environment in that set. ("We are many members but all one body.") That narrow way is, in fact, infinite in its complexity and diversity and beauty.

I know this is a difficult analogy to follow, but it is so beautiful because it touches on some many aspects of our lives. Yes, the paths we can choose that lead to destruction are many and varied--infinite in themselves, and curiously, not terribly interesting. The real interest in the world of existence comes as you approach the Body, the Kingdom, as defined by the edges of the set. As you move closer and closer and actually join the set, you find the infinite world of salvation and glory of the Lord, majestic, beautiful beyond words and specially, individually tailored for each one of us.

Who knew how thankful I would grow to be for higher math?

Later: You can go here and try the parameters X min, max (-0.7, -0.5) Y min, max (-0.7, -0.5) for starters just to get a glimpse of what the world of fractals is like. If your computer is java-friendly this site has a clickable Mandelbrot set explorer applet. For those disinclined to exploration this site has a few images that give you the general idea.

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One View of Carmel

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from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

The Order of Carmel stands for the mystical. Everything in its teaching and way of life as established by St. Teresa is directed precisely towards this. A full flowering of the mystical life and the Christian life are one and the same thing. The culmination, perfection, fulfilment of the Christian life--'all that the Lord has promised'-- is, in our special terminology, the mystical marriage or the transforming union. The ascent of Mount Carmel is but the fulness of the Christian life, which is synonymous with the fulness of human being. There are not two vocations, one to human fulfilment and the other, if we are special and privileged, to Christian fulfilment. There is only one fulfilment to be achieved either in this world or the next, that which we call mystical marriage or transforming union.

This is essentially what Carmel means to me. It is a view of human life translated into a definite purpose and aim. Climbing a mountain to meet God? Yes. But the mountain itself is God and he cannot be scaled by merely human endeavour. What Carmel does is to disengage the bare components of the human vocation, what is really involved in being human, and tries to live them in an absolute, naked sort of way. So convinced am I that Carmel is nothing other than a living out in a stark manner what is the very essence of the human vocation that, were I to come across any practice, ideal, principle, which has not its correlative in life 'outside' it would be jettisoned as unauthentic. There is a distinction between living Carmel and living in Carmel, just as there is between being a Christian and practising the Christian religion. It is the former that matters, and the later is useless unless it leads to the primary goal.

That is one very clear, very succinctly stated view of what it means to be a Carmelite. And, I think from my brief experience of it, largely true. Living Carmel is more important than being a Carmelite. As with any vocation it is a matter of growing into it.

Carmel's vocation is a unique statement of the universal vocation. We are not all called to achieve this end in the same way, but we are all called to achieve the end defined in Carmelite terms as "mystical marriage or transforming union." The way one goes about arriving at this end is unique to the individual. Some have been so fortunate as to be called to a certain rule and rigor--the path is, more or less, laid out for them. But even within a vocation the paths vary depending upon the individual. This must be so because Saints are not carbon copies of one another. There is only one St. Francis even though the saints among the followers of his way are innumerable. So too with St. Dominic, St. Teresa, and any other saint. While the rule may be clear, within that rule is a magnificent wideness that allows for us to be precisely whom Jesus calls us to be. Those without a vocation in a rule still have the universal vocation to holiness and to growing into God. Frankly, I don't remember what it was like to live that way outside of Carmel. Even though I have not attained even a good standard discipline (never mind perfection) in obedience to the rule that governs my life; nevertheless, it is always there and always a significant part of what I do and think, and God willing, through time, I'll become a better exemplar of it.

But the point or end of life is the same for all. Carmelites call it the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Mystical or Spiritual Marriage, the Transforming Union, or any number of other things. But it is very simply stated in the words of our Lord, "I must decrease so the He might increase." This is the Christian vocation. We must become less ourselves so, paradoxically, we can be fully ourselves in Him. The only identity we have is in Christ and so long as we try to define ourselves, we are failing to find out who we are. The entire point of all Christian living is to love God and to achieve the personhood God has set aside for us by joining Him. This will happen to everyone who follows Him faithfully--as Sr. Ruth says above, either in this life or in the life to come.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from January 2005.

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

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: February 2005 is the next archive.

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