Christian Life/Personal Holiness: February 2006 Archives

Mardi Gras and Carnival

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Of the two "celebrations" that precede Ash Wednesday, I prefer the name "Carnival." Carnival derives from either medieval Italian or Latin and means "to take away meat." Folk etymology (and the etymology I worked out for it) makes it come down to "Farewell, Flesh!" It is this second meaning that I think gives us our best starting point for Lenten reflection. Yes, we have meatless Fridays--and of course during Medieval times, the abstinence was more pronounced because every Friday was meatless anyway. I don't know the particulars of the Lenten regulations during medieval times, but I do know that they were far more stringent than they are today. (People had much less to start with, thus to make a fast meaningful, to make it a deprivation, one would have to restrict far more.) But I am once again off my main point.

The folk etymology is rewarding food for thought because "Farewell, Flesh" is, in fact, something we are trying to achieve within the context of Lent. That is, we are attempting to move closer to God and hence away from the fleshly attraction that keep us far from Him. To do so we practice the disciplines of Lent as prescribed by the Church and our spiritual directors through the Holy Spirit. Lacking a spiritual director, we go directly to the Holy Spirit (although even with a director, it is hoped that prayer is directing all Lenten practices). St. Thérèse of Lisieux advised us that our daily trials and tribulations were mortifications enough--that we needed to add nothing to the mix to become aware of God. That's one of the miracles of "The Little Way." Nothing extraordinary is required. The Little Way is simple but it is not easy and the practices of Lent help us to sharpen our eyes to perceive the actions of God in our every day lives.

And THAT is the real purpose of mortification of the flesh--to put off enough of ourselves that we can begin to put of Jesus Christ. The Lenten Regulations are not in place merely to mark a season; they are positive helps on the way to holiness--gentle suggestions for things we can do that will improve our orientation and disposition toward God.

As you ponder your Lenten "resolutions" this last day before the great day of Ash Wednesday, always keep in clear focus precisely why you are doing anything at all. Obedience is good, but desire for God is even better. Let this Lent be the beginning of an ever-deepening relationship with the Lord. Hold the course and do those things that bring you in touch with Him--clear away all obstacles, and walk forward boldly in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Lord will aid you mightily if your intent is to see Him.

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Rather than deciding what YOU will do for Lent, ask God in prayer what HE would like you to do. Your Lent will be a thousand times more productive. You have a couple of days before it starts. Ask God to show the way--He is faithful, He will show you clearly.

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Lent and New Year's

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Our liturgical year begins with Advent, but Lent shares certain similarities with the beginning of the secular year.

We enter into Ash Wednesday with a load of hopes and resolutions. I will not eat chocolate; I will watch less television; I will read this, that, or the other abstruse and difficult technical book; I will. . . .

Each of us has our own list and if most people are like me, within three days they have violated one or the other protocols of their list. This is inevitable, because I go in with the idea that I will do these things. Of course I will fail. Moreover, I make unrealistic assessments of what I am ready for and what I can handle in the course of time.

Lent isn't about taking a bunch of spiritual couch potatoes and turning them into triathletes. If I approach the season with that idea of transformation, I will always be disappointed with the result. Lent is about learning to listen again. For this we do not need feats of spectacular spirituality. If we follow the simple provisions the Church has laid out before us, we have a good start. If I observe the fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and the abstinence from meat on Fridays and if I keep in mind why I do these things--in other words, if I spend my time looking for and at Jesus, I will have accomplished more than reading ten million spiritual books. If I attend one stations of the Cross and really pay attention and pray through them, if I make a regular practice of confession, if I pay more attention to the needs of those around me, I need not wear a hair shirt and use the discipline.

The asceticism of Lent is not a call to heroics, it is an invitation to love. That invitation, followed to its full, will inevitably lead to heroic spirituality, but God doesn't expect us to leap from our current habits and practices into the habit of Mother Teresa in one 40 day season. He may cause it to happen, if we are willing and we dispose ourselves to it; however, we can't make it happen, and He most likely won't. This is nothing to be disappointed over. Sanctity takes time and attention. Lent begins to teach us how to pay attention.

So, if all of your noble and high-flown resolutions fall by the wayside, do not trouble yourself. Continue on the quiet path of a little more prayer, a little more attention, a little less selfishness and God will make much good out of this simple obedience. Do not ask more of yourself than God asks of you. This is a form of spiritual pride and disobedience. Instead, before we start on this road, let each of us spend some time in prayer and ask God what He desires. And then, do what you can to make it happen, and pray for God to fill in the rest.

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An Invitation to Intimacy

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Yesterday our priest's homily centered around the scripture from Hosea accented by the gospel message. He said we must consider Lent an invitation to a second honeymoon. That is, Lent is an invitation to renew our intimacy with God.

I stand, perhaps in a better place to speak about this than many. Perhaps cradle Catholics have not had this experience. Upon first entering the church, there is a fire, a fervency, a desire to serve God in this new place that burns brightly; however, as the fuel for that fire tends to be sparse the flame is of short duration. Soon, from whatever cause, the fire has died down and is banked, the embers are rarely stirred beneath their fine white covering of ash. Such a faith provides a certain warmth and glow, but not the all-consuming blaze that the Lord would like of us.

Lent is a time to consider how to move once again toward that intimacy, toward an all-out conflagration rather than a simple house-warming fire. It is a time of renewal--not of hardship. The hardships of Lent are incidentals that receive entirely too much of our attention. Fasting, Prayer, and Alms are not strange entities to pull out only at this season--rather they are constants.

Lent is a time to consider all of our activities and to integrate them into the one goal of serving the Lord. This does not mean we abandon our entertainments necessarily, but that we refocus them and make them purposive. We don't stop jogging in the morning, because that is a good thing, oriented toward bodily health which in turn honors God and helps us to fulfill His purpose. But perhaps one changes one's route, or one's music, or one's thoughts during the time. Perhaps in the course of that regular routine, we allow ourselves the luxury of not listening to our Ipods and our white noise, but we take in the ambient and begin to forge a new sense of creation.

The same goes with all other activities. If we like to cook, we do not stop cooking, but we cook with God in mind, perhaps envisioning Jesus as the house-guest we have awaited so long.

In other words Lent is about repentance--literally, rethinking where we are now. This repentance should be more than superficial. It should give us the ground of real substantive change that last beyond the gates of Lent and brings us closer to God, even is only baby steps.

So this Lent it is my prayer that the practices substantively change my spiritual life and the lives of all of those who really desire change and reorientation toward God's way. I also pray for those who are simply going through the motions another year that it awakens in them a thirst, an ardent longing for a better life that is defined by more than material success. May their hearts learn to yearn for the Father. And even for those of us who already yearn, may it become the guiding light and the foundation of the rest of our lives. May the habits we cultivate in Lent take hold and transform us.

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Soon Enough-Lent

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I know that by this post I am treading in the place of the Rat; nevertheless, I have cause to think that this might give her some delight.

from Sermons Parochial and Plain
John Henry, Cardinal Newman

Sermon 7. The Duty of Self-denial Seasons - Lent

"Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child." Psalm cxxxi. 2.

{86} SELF-DENIAL of some kind or other is involved, as is evident, in the very notion of renewal and holy obedience. To change our hearts is to learn to love things which we do not naturally loveā€”to unlearn the love of this world; but this involves, of course, a thwarting of our natural wishes and tastes. To be righteous and obedient implies self-command; but to possess power we must have gained it; nor can we gain it without a vigorous struggle, a persevering warfare against ourselves. The very notion of being religious implies self-denial, because by nature we do not love religion.

Self-denial, then, is a subject never out of place in Christian teaching; still more appropriate is it at a time like this, when we have entered upon the forty days of Lent, the season of the year set apart for fasting and humiliation.

If time permits, you may wish to consult the entire sermon here
"To change our hearts is to learn to love things that we do not naturally love." This is the core of the ongoing Christian vocation. In this simple sentence Newman speaks of detachment without ever once uttering the scary word. We must learn to love what we do not by nature love--to do so, we must unlearn our entanglement with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Lent gives us the beginning of an opportunity for this self-denial. But it is the merest beginnings. Many of us start Lent, fresh as triathletes at the beginning of their ordeal, and we end winded and happy to be released from these self-imposed burdens to return once again to our life as we knew it before Lent.

Here's a mental challenge--take what you plan to do at Lent and stretch it out over a lifetime. Can you continue this self-denial? Is it a good form of self-denial? Does depriving yourself of chocolate for 40 days really mean anything? Or could the denial take the form of one day a weak of a Catholic Fast and prayer. Every weak, inside Lent and Out. Eat a little bit less and keep in mind those who have need of more?

Each year I am challenged by Lent to grow, and each year I reach the end with a certain sense of disappointment. I have not kept to what I have promised with the earnestness I would have liked. And each year I realize that I am relying on myself. I did not do..., I did not keep. . ., etc. Each Lent I'm invited to surrender and I use the Lenten practices to build my cozy fortress more tightly around me.

Meditate then upon these words from a different Sermon:

And be sure of this: that if He has any love for you, if He sees aught of good in your soul, He will afflict you, if you will not afflict yourselves. He will not let you escape. He has ten thousand ways of purging those whom He has chosen, from the dross and alloy with which the fine gold is defaced.

Perhaps God's affliction takes the form of my own disappointment and living with less than the best. Perhaps it takes the form of knowing we can do better and consistently refusing to do so. These too are forms of affliction. But as God does love us, He can use these things to transform us. As God does love us, He will use every means to get out attention. Let's face it folks, some of us just need to be slapped upside the head before He speaks so we'll pay attention. Nothing less will work.

P.S. I truly love the opportunities that Lent presents to grow in love. If only I could preserve those wonderful gifts through the rest of the year!

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Blog in Haste. . .

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repent at leisure. The remainder of the Scupoli/Robinson passage which I only managed to get to at lunch time.

A fall should make us detest the fault "and the unruly passions which have occasioned it." That is, rather than allowing ourselves to be overcome with emotions of self-disgust or anger at ourselves, we should direct our dislike onto the fault itself and the disorganization in our nature that has led us into sin. Too much attention to the fact that it is we who have failed may very well deflect us away from what it is we have done. The sin itself is, as it were, left unscathed and its attractions really unaltered, because our energy has not been directed against it itself.

. . . There must be real contrition, but the energy generated by our reaction to the fall--if I may put it this way--must be spent on hating the sin and resolving to fight it more effectively in the future.

. . . Scupoli says the following:

I would that these things were well considered by certain persons so called spiritual, who cannot and will not be at rest when they have fallen into any fault. They rush to their spiritual father, rather to get rid of the anxiety and uneasiness which spring from the wounded self-love than for the purpose which should be their chief end in seeking him, to purify themselves from the stain of sin, and to fortify themselves against its power by means of the most holy sacrament of penance.

If I may say this in a way that makes a certain sense to me--in the matter of sin, there must be a prayerful metacognition that seeks to separate the fact that we sinned from the sin, the occasion of sin, and the fault that spawned the sin. That is, rather than feeling hurt, wounded, and scared and going to confession on that basis, we need to seek God's insight into what provokes us and prayerfully ask His assistance in the avoidance of future occurrences of the sin. We need to use the mirror of our fall to reflect on the fault that caused it, not upon the hurt sinner. Finding the fault, we must seek, with the grace of the sacrament of penance, to excise it completely and allow God to fill the empty spaces that the cancerous sin had once occupied.

True contrition for sin seeks to track down its cause and eradicate it--always with grace as our foremost weapon. It does not roil about in self pity or blithely excuse the fault and sin on the basis of modern psychology.

Hope this helps to amplify and clarify the previous post in which I may have given the indication of too blithe and nonchalant an approach to sin and sinfulness.

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I'm looking for things to read during the great Lent. If you are as well, you could do worse than St. Thomas More's The Sorrows of Christ or Fr. Richard John Neuhaus's Death on a Friday Afternoon. But I happened on a book once started, since abandoned, and related to the theme of an upcoming silent Carmelite retreat: Spiritual Combat in the Carmelite Tradition--Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat as amplified by Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory. (Jack, get moving. I really want to see the entire original without the extra notes and I can't find it anywhere else.)

Any way, I dipped into this book at the place my marker indicated that I had stopped and I came upon something perfect as a pre-thought for Lent or for any time.

We can examine whether we have developed genuine self-distrust or not by observing the effect made upon us when we sin. "If thou art so saddened and disquieted thereby as to be tempted to despair of making progress or doing good, it is a sign that thy trust is in self and not in God." We make a resolution, for example, to be patient, and we fail; or we make a resolution to avoid an occasion of sexual sin and then enter into the occasion and perhaps fall. In both cases there is often a disproportionate sense of failure and of grief. How could this possibly happen to me? What's the use of trying? The whole thing is unrealistic; I'll never be any good anyway.

This reaction shows we have been depending too much on our own efforts. If we really mistrusted ourselves, we would not be surprised when we fall, nor would we give way to despondency and bitterness. We would recognize that our sin flows quite naturally from the sort of people we are and that our reaction is occasioned as much by hurt pride as by sorrow at having offended God.

In other words, "Cowboy up. Stop yer bellyaching, and get back on the horse." Oops! I ate meat on a Friday--well, then repent and don't do it again. Oops, I meant to give x up and ate some or had some anyway. Oh well, it's time to trust in God renew the resolution and start all over.

Know that you will fail (at times spectacularly)--only God in you will succeed. If I rely upon myself I will find nothing but failure. If I rely on God, then my failings will meet with Brother Lawrence's reaction, "See what happens Lord, when you allow me to go my own way." Our failings are not the end of the world. Let God lift you up, brush you off, and then set out, as any toddler would, to explore the world anew, knowing all the while that there is more falling than standing up. But also knowing that Papa is there to lift us when we fall.

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A Divine Smack Upside the Head

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Sometimes the Lord, in His infinite mercy sees fit to smite us.

James 1:5

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.

I can't begin to say how the truth of this verse has begun to dawn on me after years of being Catholic. The truth is something that it takes a great deal of wisdom to discern. I lack it all over the place. I have so little wisdom, so little capacity to discern for myself. I like to think of myself as exalted and lifted high in the realm of intellect. But I am not. In the realm of thinkers I have an exceedingly small mind, a brain incapable of much in the way of original thought. Wisdom is very far from me and yet still I deny it.

How the stubborn self fights that reality thrashing out now this way, now that way. I write in part as a way of denying that I am nothing special. Graciously enough that very writing has brought home the magnitude of this reality. I write to show how wonderful I am, and in writing, I discover how small I am.

But God does not smite merely to leave us reeling. Indeed, it's rather like the hysterical person in previous times--one good smack upside the head to get my attention, a short point following, and then the embrace of Love. When He shows me these things, I am then the most certain that He loves me because He tells me all of these things not to destroy me, but to bring me home. Unlike the majority of people, God does not fear telling us the truth, He relishes it--not because it is hurtful or difficult, but because it gives us the chance to grow toward Him.

So, smite away Lord, so long as you are there to pick me up, I will know your love. It can be hard to face, but when I look at you I face eternity, not the mirror, and what a glorious sight it is. Thank you!

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Even Our Amusements Matter

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For me one of the difficult aspects of Christian life to internalize is that there are no compartments. It isn't possible to be part-Christian. God is a God of extremes. As I've often said before, it is "all or nothing at all." Too often, I find myself fighting this notion, most particularly as regards my amusements and diversions.

This notion came to mind because I happened to pass a colleague's cube at work. I heard him describing a "game that's like Monopoly only you can unleash viruses and total nuclear destruction on your opponents." I had to physically restrain myself from saddling up my hobby horse and riding it to death. To explain, I have studied psychology professionally, and I have yet to decide on the issue of whether playing such games is a release of aggression or an inculcation of aggression. I tend to think it is something that differs from individual to individual. As a very aggressive individual myself, I have found that playing games such as Doom or Quake tended to reinforce aggressive tendencies. I found I was less cooperative and more strident in my dealing with others, most particularly those close to me. I do not mean to imply that this happens to everyone, but I suspect that there are about half of us for whom this is the rule.

This tendency suggests that we need to be cautious in all of the things we take in as entertainment. We must choose our books and movies and music with a Christian framework in mind. I have recently adopted a standard that if I would not want Samuel doing it (whatever IT may be) I will refrain from it myself.

Our entertainment affects us--some people more than others. Something seen cannot be unseen; something read cannot be unread--the harm is done. I learned this the hard way through sad experience. And there are some things better left unseen, some things better left unread, some actions better never tried. God has been merciful to me, and so I have few of these things in my past, but they act as markers and reminders. When someone asks me if I want to see such-and-such a movie, I simply recall one or other examples and have a ready answer.

Being Christian means that all of our actions are drawn into the Christian realm. Everything we do affects the community of the body of Christ. Our sinfulness, our oversights, affect the entire body--that is part of the need for and meaning of reconciliation or penance. It is not only a private act between penitent and priest, but also a public act which seeks to redress and repair the breeches we have created in the body of Christ through our sinful actions. Our focus is often on ourselves, but the effect of grace is such as to touch both us and the body as a whole. As we are repaired and restored, so the body is healed. We cannot compartmentalize--we cannot separate out certain things and separate them from our Christian vocation. As John Donne said in a different context,

Meditation XVII
John Donne

No man is an island, entire of itself every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee.

Our actions affect all who hold to the truth we hold, so our amusements matter. Don't fool yourself into thinking that they are optional or meaningless. There is nothing in the life of a Christian that is meaningless. Even the smallest thing is a matter of great import in heaven. When we keep this in mind, it becomes easier to act in cooperation with grace. If we ask, God always gives us the strength to do what is right, fitting, and to His greater glory.

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Der Hölle Rache

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All morning I have heard "Der Hölle Rache" echoing through my head. For those who don't know, "Der Hölle Rache" is an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Even in an Opera as extraordinary as The Magic Flute with its dozens of gorgeous pieces, even in the realm of opera as a whole, "Der Hölle Rache" stands out as a transcendantly difficult and beautiful piece. The aria, sung by the Queen of Night, allows a truly finely trained coloratura soprano to press the limits of her art and voice. Done well, there is nothing in the repertoire to match it; done poorly, there is nothing in the repertoire to match it. Alas, too many who are not truly capable of it attempt it to dismal effect. In the course of this aria, the soprano's voice ascends her entire range and ends up sounding a pure, musical tone at the upper end of the register. Indeed, the Queen of Night's voice becomes the voice of the magic flute--the human element of the voice is gone and all that remains is the pure clear sound of the flute. An extraordinary accomplishment.

What is interesting about the Aria is that its beauty is in direct contradiction to its content. The first line of the aria is variously translated "the wrath of hell burns in my heart" or "the revenge of hell burns in my heart." In the Aria, the Queen of Night sings of her betrayal and adjures her daughter that if one of the characters of the Opera is not killed by this daughter then:

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart;
death and despair flame around me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

Obviously not a candidate for the mother of the year award. But the aria, gorgeous and corrupt as it is mingles those elements so utterly human so well that it becomes a real metaphor for much that transpires here below. How often do I nurse this very flame? Are there not times when all I really want to do is to even the score? Are there not times when vengeance is justified?

On the contrary, the Lord promises "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19) And what form will this vengeance take? It will take the form of a Man on a cross, arms outstretched through all eternity to embrace humankind. God's vengeance becomes love in the person of Jesus Christ. His vengeance is not against the person, whom He wishes to save, but against the passion that seeks to destroy one of His children. There will be vengeance, the flames of hell will burn hotter, but they will burn for the passion, not for the person. For God's vengeance is against evil and takes the form of salvation, of rescuing from the jaws of Hell all who call on His name.

Oddly enough the sequel to the verse immediately above is the proper formula for Christian vengeance:

Romans 20-21

20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

When we return kindness for hatred, love for hate, compassion for ruthlessness, we are scourging the demons that drive our enemies, we lend a helping hand to our brothers and sisters who labor under the heavy burden of sin, and we become God's warriors of vengeance against the forces that would deprive Him of His children.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there is not one, not a single person, no matter how awful, repugnant, terrible, fierce, hate-filled, destructive, out-and-out evil, there is not one whom God does not desire to return home. He wants every one. When we learn how to return good for evil, we become conquerors through Him who conquered death and sin. And as conquerors we become liberators, leading our brothers and sisters out of death and into life.

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Opportunities for Discernment


One of the scripture passages I'm always trying to find and which never comes to hand when I need it is Matthew 15: 10-20.


And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand:

[11] not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." . . .
[17] Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on?
[18] But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man.
[19] For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.
[20] These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."

What comes out of a person reflect the internal landscape. What I say when I am not prepared to say anything is a suitable indicator of who I am and what I am about and the progress the life of grace has made within me. What I say to the person who is rude to me, to the person who cuts me off in traffic, to the person who aggravates me, all of these are pointers to where Jesus wants to work with me.

It would be a gross overstatement to say that there is nothing I can do about these reactions and statements. There are some things; however, merely suppressing what I would say under the circumstances doesn't really change the landscape. It is a start, because I refuse to cooperate in what would harm another. The reality is, as in all spiritual things, that God accomplishes what He will within me, the best I can give is cooperation and prayer. I must ask that he transform the anger and darkness that is within me and that I become aware of only in these off-instants into true love for my brothers and sisters. I must ask that my consciousness of being part of God's family be more present and that the roughness of the interior landscape be subdued, and brought into proper focus. In short, I pray this sonnet:

Holy Sonnet 14
John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I cannot know the freedom of God unless God overcomes my own barriers and defenses and brings me to the life He has to me. I can only pray that God break down those things that keep us apart. I can only ask for the gift. But in the asking I know "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. . ." (Matthew 7:7).

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Blinded by Proximity


One of the most difficult things for me to come to realize in my walk with God is how blinded I am by those things closest to me. St. John hints at this in his first letter when he says:

1 John 4: 20-21

20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

If we cannot love what we do see, how can we begin to love that which we cannot see. But the trap is that if we "fall in love" with what we do see, it tends to blind us to the cause of what we love, which we cannot see. Say we love sunsets, or roses, or the ocean--we might be tempted to spend time enjoying these things, so much time that the pleasure the things themselves produce becomes an end rather than a means to an end. We start by admiring the handiwork of God and end by admiring a sunset. Surely a good thing to admire, but only in its right order within the sphere of allowable things. When we admire the sunset more than the maker of the sunset we have misplaced our priorities.

I know that this is very, very easy for me to do. It is entirely too easy to admire the creation and forget the creation. The senses can be overwhelming and the pleasures that come from the senses can distract us from the real End and true Purpose of all that we see.

In a sense, the ability to see God in creation is what detachment is about. That is, you do not cling to the sensual pleasure that comes from the object, although you do not reject it either, but you see beyond it to the Cause of all pleasures and the End of all Being. You look beyond the surface and embrace the God who has made all of this possible.

Detachment then is not outright rejection of any of God's licit goods, but rather the proper orientation of them so that God is always in the foreground--He never recedes, but our great pleasure in the event is pleasure in the presence of God in that created thing.

It is easy to be blinded by proximity, however, if the Light is always between us and what is being illuminated, it can never fall into another background element. If we allow God to illuminate our pleasures, with will be God who is the focus and not our pleasures.

Or so it would seem.

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Reading around blogdom, I have come to realize that society is infused with a sickness which is unto death. I'm not unique in this observation: as a people and as individuals, we are distracting ourselves to death.

Not so long ago a work day was fourteen hours plus, then one came home and tended to things on the homefront that needed tending. We had bigger families and more help, but hours were long and recreation limited. Most people worked at least six days a week. (In fact, the Church obligation to attend Mass was set as a kind of charitable acknowledgment of the fact that Lords would have worked their serfs to death if attendance were not mandatory. The penalty was set for those who did not attend AND for those who obstructed another's attendance.)

Now most of us work eight hour days. We come home and probably grumblingly do some housework and then sit down in front of the television. According to one source, football and Harry Potter can be seen as definitive elements of community binding. I read this list from Christian Science Monitor with a kind of heartsickness. Of all of the events listed in the roster only one approached anything like a true community event (Fourth of July Celebrations). Most of the rest were endless distractions and amusements. Where were baptisms? Weddings? Eucharist? Confirmation? Prayer? Service? Where were the true things that help you know who you can really call upon in a time of great trial? I didn't see them on the list. No doubt Harry Potter fans are very generous, but I suspect that if my house burned down, I would turn rather to the members of my Church and my circle of friends for help, comfort, and solace. Are football games and The DaVinci Code and CNN the sum of what binds us together as society and community? If so, what a very sad statement on our culture.

Some have claimed that reading the Bible is too hard. I know that part of what they mean (for me at least, and perhaps for many others) is that it gets in the ways of other more amusing distractions. I can't read my twenty-two mysteries a month, or watch my eighty-nine movies, or indulge in my six must-see series, or play my softball, bowling, or curling matches. Coming up will be an endless cycle of Olympic broadcasts, the results of which I will glean from postings on the Blogs. And Blogs themselves--an amusement that can have a serious side, but really an amusement.

How can we identify when these things are a problem? I think it's fairly simple--do you craft a schedule around them? Does everything stop when the show comes on? Do you get irritated if someone interferes with quality reading time with a request for homework help or housework help? Do you resent giving up the time you would otherwise devote to the activity? Are you churlish, boorish, mean-spirited, or otherwise petty when someone suggests that your time might be better spent? Do you resent, just a little, any interference with your planned recreation?

I know that I can answer a big yes to many of these questions about both reading and blogging. If I am not ready to abandon the amusement at once to attend to important things in life, then the amusement has too much control over me. If my amusement prevents me from having a full prayer life or from reading scripture every day, then it is a sickness unto death--because the amusement has moved squarely between me and the God I must adore, worship, and glorify in all that I do.

This whole post started with the thought that "Bible reading is too hard." I said in a previous post that it has never been hard for me. And it hasn't. But I haven't done nearly enough of it. I began to ask myself why--and it occurred to me that my distractions and my amusements have become the entangling weeds of Jesus' parable. They are good things in themselves that have grown into me and become twisted by my own twisted spirit, my own reluctance to do what is good and right.

So now, for the evening, I'm leaving the blog. I go to do my Bible reading, to spend time with the wife and my beautiful son, and to ask God to give me the strength to do likewise every day of my life. Only grace can save us from our distractions once they have grown too strong and too encompassing.

(Sorry, if this is a downer, but I was commenting to someone the other day that I felt weary. I realize the source of that weariness is the utter sapping strength of my amusements and distractions. I am not doing what is right and good, only what can be good in moderation--and because moderation is lacking in many areas, the very goodness of it is questionable now. I know--typical Carmelite detachment talk--but where would you all be if it didn't come up every now and then?)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from February 2006.

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