Christian Life/Personal Holiness: May 2005 Archives

I don't think that it is one of the century's best-kept secrets that many, if not most, men in America struggle with lust on a fairly continuous basis. Our culture is saturated with it. There are constant encouragements of it, and outside of our Christian friends, there is almost an expectation of it.

So imagine my surprise when while conducting a Bible study and talking about those things that most threaten us, I gently suggested that the major difficulty in the world today was the plethora of beautiful women. Some women have merely physical beauty--but almost every woman I see is beautiful in some substantial way. That's just the way God made me and I'm not ashamed of it.

Now, I'll readily admit that despite the huge number of beautiful women, I have little chance or real-life temptation. (This is by the grace of God--I'm not one of the more attractive men around--nothing particularly hideous, just nothing prepossessing.) Nevertheless, the number of women in the world is like a constant low-level intoxicant. And the number of physically gorgeous women who are forced upon our senses by the media is truly astounding.

Anyway, I think I've amply explained one man's view of the world. Well, you can't begin to imagine my chagrin when the women in the group said, "That isn't how men think. That doesn't describe all men. What about gay men?"

Well, I can't really speak for gay men. Nor can I speak for all men. But let me say in my limited circle of acquaintance (admittedly not high-powered CEOs etc.) one of the things I hear quite often is that lust is a top (if not the top) temptation they face day by day. Most of them, like me, having no real opportunity, thus no real temptation, acknowledge nonetheless that it is a constant problem. Some indulge in pornography, others in other means of addressing the problem (read here sublimation, if you buy Freudian theory--which I don't). But the heterosexual men of my acquaintance all admit to facing this problem and trying to deal with it. Now my observation of homosexual men and their world suggests to me that this may be even a greater problem amongst them. (Although homosexual promiscuity may be a by-product of no way to recognize and affirm a committed relationship--about this I cannot speculate, nor can anyone else at this time. And, we must also keep in mind that the heterosexual world only ever gets a glimpse of the true excesses of the homosexual world. It's entirely possible that there are a vast majority of non-promiscuous homosexual men. However, living inside a man's body, I can tell you that this seems unlikely to me.)

Anyway, I spent the better part of the session saying that for men the presence and presumed "availability" of some portion of the female population represented every bit the temptation that most of the women there were telling me food presented for them. Now, I suspect that food is not so pervasive a temptation in the female world as lust is in the male world--but here again I enter upon sheer speculation--in fact my thin ice has become for all intents and purposes nonexistent. I don't know that a majority of men are assailed by lust on a regular (if not daily basis), no more can I know for what percentage of women food represents some sense of comfort and security. And I refuse to speculate as it is none of my business. All I can report are the anecdotal evidence and numbers supported by the very small bible study.

Now, let me say, I don't think lust as a temptation comes as much of a revelation. It drives the reason for a great many things--becoming successful, powerful, wealthy; buying the cars men of a certain age buy; certain, shall we say, "mating plumage" behaviors usually involving minoxidil/rogaine or hair transplants; and the extraordinary success of the drug Viagra (which if one is to trust one's spam e-mail must be the product of choice for half of the men in the world.)

I don't know what part lust plays in a woman's world. I suspect that for most women it is neither the predominant nor the most difficult vice to overcome. But again--what can I say? I live in the wrong body to give any speculation as to that. I do know that our society (driven in large part by men's concerns) does try to foist off on women what men would like them to be and to think. Thus we cultivate the image of the "unchained" woman giving free vent to her caprices. I have to wonder whether that is true or an image superimposed on the world by men who would like it to be true.

Let us end by saying, that I don't think it should come as any surprise to women if men admit to being tempted by lust. It should also not come as any surprise that relatively few of those I know act upon the temptation. I know the numbers are larger in the world at large--but some of us have wonderful wives and families which always serve, by the grace of God and the sacrament of matrimony, as the counterbalance to our wildly swinging urges. Nevertheless, it shouldn't surprise any woman to find that "her man" is appreciating the bounty served up every day by a merciful, loving, and extremely generous God. My only defense is that God made women beautiful--it's not my fault if I find them endlessly fascinating, endlessly appealing. But the rule, as in a shop of expensive translucent china, is look but never ever ever touch (if'n it don't "belong" to you.)

Anway, it surprised me to hear that women did not believe that men very often are distracted by women. I get the feeling that women don't have any idea just how much power they wield by simple existence. The feminist movement bought into the male fantasy and did their best in some ways to remove this power base. Smart women still know they have it and wise women seldom condescend to use it.

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Becoming Who We Are

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from A Path Through the Desert
Anselm Grün

A brother asked Abba Agathon about fornication. He answered, "Go, cast your inability before God, and you shall find peace." Agathon 21

. . . Old father Agathon shows us another path. We are asked, simply to throw our inability to come to grips with the secual aspect of our nature before God. Then we will ceas to be dominated by it. We must not accuse ourselves, therefore, of not being able to come to terms with our sexuality. We must not grit our teeth and think we ought to master it completely. Our secuality is a part of ourselve,s and awe cfannot prevent it from raising its head: indeed, we must expect it to do so. But we must not dramtise it: rather, we should accept it as a fact and hold our inability out to God. This will give us peace.

It may be an exaggeration to say that every man in America (possibly in the world) struggles with his unruly nature. (I can't speak for women, not being Teresius.) However, if it is, it is not much of one. I don't think the struggle is all that tremendous in some--that is, there is never any real "danger point" that one would leave one's vowed spouse (more often enough because we keep the object of temptation someone or something unattainable--but also for other reasons). However, the point of temptation is that you cannot know for certain.

As men, we admire the beauty of women. Admiration can stray over the line when those we admire are closer to us than say, Halle Berry or Faith Hill or Shania Twain. We cannot know for certain that it will not happen.

Or, to quote Sponge Bob, can we? Agathon suggests a way to do so--that is, not to pursue the struggle ourselves, but to cast that whole passel of temptations onto the Lord. If we choose to pursue the struggle ourselves, we will unquestionably lose the battle. There will be no hope for us. But, if we choose not to engage in the struggle, to admit the attraction and to admit that the attraction presents danger, then we can offer that to the Lord who will use the sacraments, most particularly the sacrament of matrimony to strengthen our determination to do what is right. If we rely upon our own will power, we will fail. Without question, we will fail.

And this goes equally for those who are single or who are wrestling with other aspects of their sexuality. So long as it is our will power that we are relying on, we will fail. So long as we make this the defining limits of our lives, we will fail. So long as sexuality is our defining paradigm, we create for ourselves temptations and problems that could be abated by casting all these temptations before the Lord and asking Him to take them up. We don't need to constantly redefine ourselve sexually--we don't need to prove anything to anyone. We need to submit to God's will and to give Him everything that strays from His perfect will.

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O Felix Culpa

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I hope these notes make sense to someone other than myself. This is a matter to which I have given a great deal of thought over the past few days, weeks, months, and years. And as always, I submit them respectfully to correction lest they be theologically incorrect and lead anyone astray--please correct their excesses.

Oh happy fault/guilt that wrought for us such a savior.

Let's start with a premise that I think will be acceptable to most Catholics--God is not stupid and He knew what He was about in the act of creation. All three persons participated as is evident from Genesis 1 and John 1--"the spirit moved upon the face of the waters," and "nothing that is was made without Him [the Word]." Father, Son and Spirit were all present at the act of creation and in the whole of creation.

So, God is not stupid and God knows all things. Thus, when he breathed life into humankind, when He made humanity an order of creation different from all other creation by making humanity self-aware, already was set in motion all of the events that would lead to His incarnation. That is at the moment God gave us the will and the mind to reject us, He understood and foresaw how we would use that gift.

I am overwhelmed by the love it would take to give a gift that would ultimately lead to the giver's rejection. Think about it--who among us could give a gift that would lead our children to despise us (I mean deliberately)? Who could give a valuable and important thing knowing that it would lead to rejection and hatred?

And yet, at the beginning, when God breathed His spirit into us, He knew already the end to which it would lead. He gave us the gift of free will precisely so that He could reveal to us the vastness of his all-encompassing love. He gave us a gift that gave us the power to reject Him entirely. He gave us a gift that gave us the power to kill Him when He came to us to ask us to return to Him.

The gift of self-awareness/free-will is inextricably bound up with the gift of Jesus Christ. The moment it was issued Jesus was taken in bondage until He would assume our form and break all chains forever. Our free will held God captive through the centuries. Our rejection of love increased His love until the time came when one woman did not reject Him.

I've often wondered how many times God knocked before Mary finally answered. The Bible does not tell us how many said no. Obviously, we don't know that anyone did. And yet through the lengthy captivity and especially in the 200 year silence between the testaments am I to assume that God simply fell silent, not speaking to His people? How many women did He send an Angel to, offering them the chance to be Mother to the Entire creation? How many said no?

Sheer speculation. But what is not speculation is that God gave us free will knowing what we could and would do with it. At the fall, we received Jesus Christ as our slave (although we did not know it.) God himself became nothing to serve His own creation. If that is not love, what is?

I think about this and I think that God knew what would happen and committed Himself to giving everything to ungrateful humanity. His love was so vast that he could endure the rejection of ages culminating in His own experience of Death. There really are no words to articulate the feeling this inspires within me. I can say nothing that makes any sense of the overwhelming realization of how much God cared for me and for humanity.

God loved us so much that He made us what we are despite what He knew would result. That happy fault gave us God Himself, whom we rejected and killed, and who, after all of that continued to love us.

Talk about Amazing Grace!

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On Atonement

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Following on yesterday's post regarding how to look at sin, I had a brief e-mail exchange that resulted in the ideas of the previous post and in some odd notions regarding Jesus and the Crucifixion.

I should preface everything I say here by stating that wherever these statements deviate from the fullness of Church teaching on the subject, they do so not out of malice but out of ignorance, and I would gladly accept any forthcoming fraternal correction so that these thoughts, no matter how slight and poorly attended might not lead one of God's precious children astray.

Our conversation grew out of the sense that God did not so much need Christ to die as we needed Christ to die. I think of it in terms of what Jesus told the Jewish people regarding the law of divorce. It was not that divorce was a good thing, or even really an acceptable thing, but rather that it was a thing granted to them because of their hardness of heart. If there had been any other way to break the hardness of the human heart other than the death of God Himself, God would have used it. Indeed, through time He sent prophet after prophet after prophet to tell the people of Israel how much He loved them and how enduring His love was. They could not hear this--they killed the prophets or ignored them. The hardness of the human heart sets diamond to shame.

In a nutshell this is what I shared with my correspondent:

Before becoming a Christian in (mumble) standing, I was a semi-practicing Baha'i (a faith for which I still have deep love and respect). In the Baha'i faith Baha'u'llah was sent to prison as a result of his faith. Let me tell you--"Baha was sent to prison for your sins," didn't hammer home the truth that "Christ died for your sins." In other words, I've never thought that God needed Christ to die to forgive us (and I may be wrong in that) but that we needed Christ to die to believe it.

You know how you never trust something that is really cheap--cheap grace. Jesus went on trial for your sins is a kind of cheap grace. Death, though, we understand at the root and core of being. Christ died speaks to us. Yes I know there's the doctrine of the atonement, which, frankly I don't completely understand, I merely accept as the truth. But the truth in my heart is that someone loved me enough to die for me. That should provoke some sort of

In short, even if our sins could have been redeemed by anything short of the death of Jesus, we would not have accepted it. Heck, look around you today and see how many accept it. In fact, look at the Muslims, who have enormous respect for Jesus as Prophet--they cannot accept either his sonship nor the fact of his death on the Cross to redeem humanity.

The truth is that the stubbornness of the human heart is so great that only the greatest hammerblow of grace can even start to crack the façade of it. God may, in some mysterious way, require the death of His Son to achieve atonement; however, I think it is safe to say that we require it even more.

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Willing God's Will


I took up a new book yesterday and was plunged almost immediately into this passage:

from Desiring God's Will
David G. Benner

Looked at carefullly, willfulness is more against something than for something. My willful self refuses to quit as I seek to push through my writing block or finish lecture preparation even when my spirit is dry and my body is telling me to take a break. A spirit of willingness invites me to pause and turn to God, simply opening to God for a moment, lettling God bring perspective and clarity about my need to stop writing for the night or throw out what I've started and wait for the gift of a fresh idea. Willfulness, in either circumstance, is my fight against quitting, against attending to my body, against attending to God's Spirit. The act of willing surrender is a choice of openness, a choice of abandonment of self-determination, a choice of cooperation with God.

Thinking about this yesterday, several things struck me, and looking at it again this morning, I see yet other points. Let me start with the caveats. In the example above, trying to break through writer's block or finishing prep for a lecture one can see a certain amount of willfulness, or one can see tenacity. Breaking through a writer's block requires a certain amount of staying at the computer or writing desk and simply writing your way through. In this particular case it is difficult to distinguish how much is necessary and how much is willfulness. That is the line between tenacity and stubbornness is unclear. There are times at which we are required to stay at a task to achieve the breakthrough we need to attain--and this can go for tasks in the spiritual life.

Now, as to yesterday's thoughts--how often do I allow willfulness to overpower a spirit that cooperates with God? It is far too easy for me to take over, even when God has begun the task, and to run it my way. Perhaps blogging is an example. There are times when God is clearly in control, and there are times in which Steven is running the whole show. Surrender to God shows in the effect the individual pieces of writing have. I have written things on which I have recieved comments that surprised me. I thought it was yet another entry, others thought that it spoke to their hearts. That's when God is in charge. When Steven is in charge its a wandering mess that generally leads me to threaten yet once again that I'm going to take all my marbles and go home. I do that once or twice a year and it seems about time for a fresh crop. But perhaps this year rather than making a fool of myself again, I can listen to what God has to say, stop feeling sorry for myself, and continue to write as He leads.

It's all a balance between willfulness and willingness. Willfulness to conquer the stubborn parts of the self, and willingness to cooperate with God. They blend into the same thing, and yet they take on such different aspects.

I'll keep you posted on the book.

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I was stunned to learn something today, that had I taken a moment to ask any one around me probably would not have come as any sort of shock at all. In fact, if I had bothered to look back on my life at all, it would be immediately evident.

I do not make my choices solely, or even predominantly by reason. I use reason to inform my choices and my decisions, but ultimately I trust more how I feel about something than how I think about it. This is life experience. In every case how I feel about something has been far more trustworthy than how I thought about it. Thinking about it makes me like a lawyer, I can find a million ways to shape my thought and reason to justify anything I want to do. But the reality is, how I feel about it is what I should be trusting. Without revealing too much personal information I can tell you that I was once in a situation when I knew in my heart that one choice I could make was a poor, perhaps even a sinful choice. When I considered the matter "reasonably" I considered all of the factors, God's law, family solidarity, possible outcomes, potential meaning, and all the information I could pour into the decision. I made a choice to go ahead and to this thing about which I had grave misgivings. It ended disastrously, with a fragmentation of unity and hard feelings all around. This was the ending my heart saw, not the one I could come to in my thinking.

Reason is a pretty bauble. It makes lovely designs and constructs elegant constructs. The problem is that reason is based on a whole series of underlying propositions you must accept if you are to enter the argument. Once you have accepted them, then you must discover what they are. As you expose more and more of them, you find principles that you question from the very start. For example Aquinas postulates that reason itself is a positive good. On what evidence? It is, in fact, a postulate. I could equally well postulate that reason is a gift--certainly good, but that the good is not complete--that it is the use to which reason is put that confirms its goodness or its ill. I might be wrong in the proposition, but for every thing "proven" by Aquinas, there are several dozen hanging questions about the underlying principles of the argument.

I like well constructed arguments. I love chains of reasoning. But I love them in the same way I love mathematical constructs, for the essential beauty of them not for what they say or do.

But through my life I have been persuaded more by my heart than by my head. I'm told by those around me that this is unreasonable. (In fact it is not--it is merely nonreasonable.) But is nonreasonable necessarily bad? For those who depend on reason to reach their decision its is. But I suggest rather that there are many ways to come to truth. Reason may be more certain, but "Blessed are the pure in heart." The heart will get us to the same end. Obviously we cannot reject reason where reason is clear. But where there is doubt, where there is uncertainty, where there are many possible ways to travel, the heart is as good a guide (for me) as reason is.

Why does this come as such a surprise. Well let me list the pros and cons--I am a trained scientist and an amateur mathematician. Reason is highly prized in both. I am able to reason well, and when I understand all the terms comprehend and accept an argument constructed by reason. However, as a scientist, I was always miles ahead of the facts. My chief way of working was to leap ahead and then backtrack to find the chain of reason that led to my conclusion or that broke down when I tried to connect my conclusion to the known information. I rarely traced a set of data to a conclusion, rather I developed six or seven different models that would fit with the known data and worked backward from the one that "seemed" most probable to the data. When I got there, I was able to understand the arguments that led there.

I am a poet. Poets certainly can be reasonable, but poets tend to rely on intuition and on perceptions of things beneath the surface.

And every major decision I have reached I have always reached by moving beyond the logic to what "felt" right.

Sorry folks, but there it is. My modality is emotional. Anyway, I discovered this in another conversation and also discovered that there are many different modes of knowing and that reason is often a bully--using name-calling and imputations of other people's guilt and sinfulness to force one to accept its ends. Of course emotion is as much a bully saying that such people are hard-hearted and ignorant of the way of being human. We must avoid both such. Those who are led by the head should certainly follow the lead. But those led by the heart should not feel inferior or diminished in comparison.

Some people have claimed that as Catholics you have to check your mind at the door, I find much more often we are asked to check our heart at the door. Reason devoid of passion is the law, and the law kills, just as the spirit enlivens. But the heart without reason is a tyrant, a tenderness that leads to euthanasia and genocide. Every person is a balance of these tendencies. In most one dominates. Be true to it--it is what God has given you to get by on. It is your gift for you and for those around you. I will no longer be ashamed when I make a decision based on how I feel about something. It is as valid as any amount of thinking about it. For another it may not be. We are not all made from a cookie press, so accept who you are and how you come to terms with the world around you. Most of all don't let anyone convince you--head or heart, that it is somehow deficient. And also avoid criticizing those who choose different rule of engagement--even though you will be denigrated by them as one who is anti-intellectual or anti-reason. It simply isn't so--you are simply pro-emotion. Remember, that even as the Church needs its Aquinas's, so too does it need its Bernadettes and its John Vianneys and its Thérèses.

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Just Wondering

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This is just one of those things that I wonder about. Please don't take it to be indicative of anything but probing at the mysteries of God and Church.

If, in Genesis we are told that God told people to be fruitful and multiply and fill all the Earth. And throughout the old testament we are told what a great blessing children are and how they add to the glory of the house and of the family. And Jesus did not come to do away with the law but to fulfill it, and part of that law was that men should marry and with their wives produce families why is it that we so laud virginity and celibacy? Where does that come from? From a single line of Paul--"It is better to marry than to burn." (And one gets the feeling from Paul that perhaps marriage isn't all that far from burning. And as we know little of Paul's life, yet he was one of the leaders of the people in religious discourse, did he have a wife? Perhaps his marital relationship was akin to that of Socrates and Xantippe. All of that is beside the point. I have read elsewhere how greatly exalted a state virginity is and I must wonder why that should be. If everyone at the time of Jesus had pledged virginity there would be no human race to praise God. Virginity is physically fruitless--not that it is bad, nor is it to be denigrated. But is it exalted because celibacy became the rule.

I just wonder. It would seem to me that both states are exalted if they are the state that one is called to. Why is one better than another--both are sealed in sacrament.

I won't go on because other thoughts might prove too disturbing to some out there. But I really have to wonder about this exaltation and obsession with virginity; it suggests to me a certain hidden dualism--that the flesh is somehow not good.

And perhaps there is just something about me that chafes at a preferential treatement for a few. That is according to the idea of vocation, God picks out His favorite children and holds them in exalted state. (A kind of reverse double predestination.) I prefer to think that God's exalted children are those who fulfill his will most completely--married or celibate. And, if all things are equal in terms of fulfillment of vocation, then perhaps the argument that the celibate life is superior holds some merit.

But then, that is my wayward thinking, and from now on I'll just rein it in.

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The Theology of Sin

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Statements like this always bother me.

from My Way of Life
Fr. Walter Farrell and Fr. Martin J Healy

Anything that lessens freedom therfore will also make the sin less grievous. The cold-blooded traitor sins more than the soldier who betrays his comrades under torture.

Fortunately, Tom stops by often enough to explain how a revelation under torture constitutes sin. It seems to lack the key ingredient of will--not under durress. That it is a natural evil, I can believe that it is a sin, and the soul of one tortured might be damned were he to pass on in the course of torture--that strikes me in something like the same way as double predestination. It certainly would give the lie to the statement that "He will not test you beyond your endurance."

Any way, if anyone can explain to me why such a statement extracted during torture is a sin, I would truly appreciate it.

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About this Archive

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

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: April 2005 is the previous archive.

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