Christian Life/Personal Holiness: March 2006 Archives

The End of the Road

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from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

In the Passion and death of Christ our sins were consumed by fire. If we accept that in faith, and if we accept the whole Christ in faith-filled surrender, which means, however, that we choose and walk the path of the imitation of Christ, then He will lead us "through His Passion and cross to the glory of His Resurrection." This is exactly what is experienced in contemplation: passing through the expiatory flames to the bliss of the union of love. This explains its twofold character. It is death and resurrection.

What more is there to say. The culmination of a life of contemplation is a direct participation in the death and resurrection of the Lord. The passage through the Dark Night means death to the senses (which is not to say that one becomes an unanchored, floating, ethereal spirit) and ultimately leads to Union with God. Said Union is a union in both the Death of Christ, and so a Union on the way of the cross, which, by supporting our own burdens (always with the help of grace), we help to lift some of the burden to the cross itself, and in the Resurrection of the Lord, which is a resurrection into His eternal life while here on Earth. That is the meaning of Spiritual Union--actual participation in the Being of God while we live today--and I can't imagine a state more to be desired and yet which also summons up such great fear. And so the sum of my spiritual life is approach-avoidance. I look in on this wonderful spectacle and desire to participate, but innate fear (and of what I cannot say) keeps me back. Nevertheless, His grace is stronger than my fear, and so I trust myself to Him and know that eventually (I hope in this life) I will come to Him and be what He has made me to be.

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The Veil of Veronica

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from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity

He will communicate His power to you so you can love Him with a love as strong as death ; the Word will Imprint in your soul, as in a crystal, the image of His own beauty, so you may be pure with His purity, luminous with His light.

In prayer and in surrender to Jesus, we become imprinted with His image as did the cloth with which Veronica wiped His face. But the image imprinted upon us is a living image, full of purity and luminosity--bright beyond brightness, light so light that what we see as brilliance is all dark. In the spiritual union that occurs in deepest prayer, each person assumes the place assigned and does the work appropriate to that part of the body--some the head, some the heart, some the feet, some the hands--all One Christ, one mystical body serving our brothers and sisters in all that is done.

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Why She's a Saint and I'm Not

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Amongst other reasons:

from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints:
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The cross is again raised before us. It is the sign of contradiction. The Crucified looks down on us, "Are you also going to abandon me?" . . . The fountain from the heart of the Lamb has not dried up. We can wash our robes clean in it even today as the thief on Golgotha once did. Trusting in the atoning power of this holy fountain, we prostrate ourselves before the throne of the Lamb. . . .Let us draw from the springs of salvation for ourselves and for the entire parched world.

A true found poem embedded in the prose-- see it:

The cross is again raised before us
the sign of contradiction--
the Crucified looks down on us,
"Are you also going
to abandon me?"

The fountain from the heart
of the Lamb has not dried up--
we wash our robes clean in it even
today as the thief on Golgotha once
did. Trusting in the atoning
power of this holy fountain,
we prostrate ourselves before
the throne of the Lamb.

Let us draw from the springs
of salvation for ourselves
and for the entire parched world.

It isn't just the trickery of playing with the lines, the words themselves are the poetry of salvation. Mechanics and poetry combine in the Cross and open wide the doors of its saving power--princes, poets, people of all walks of life are invited to walk through. They are invited to add their love to the love of centuries, the love of ages, the love without end--perfecting the perfect by making it present in every day.

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The Illogic of Sin

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For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom 6:23

The wages of sin is death--possibly the eternal death of punishment in Hell. But there is a more immediate implication as well. Each time one sins, one alienates oneself from God; one turns one's back on the good, the true, and the beautiful. And for the duration of the time that one's back is turned, one is dead to some of the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world. Sin deadens the sensibilities until it becomes nearly impossible to say what is sin any more.

Sin delivers a double whammy--one offends God and one steals from oneself. All the time spent pursuing the illicit good of sin, the small pleasure that may come from it, is time that is not spent in pursuit of the real good. This may not seem like much, but as with watching television, an hour here, an hour there adds up to a fifth of a lifetime with nothing to show for it.

Sin is so interesting because its illusory pleasure dims with each repeat of the action until the person committing the sin no longer does so for the pleasure, but out of sheer deadened habit. At the same time the sensibilities are so worn down that what once cheered and gave cause for rejoicing now activates a dull echo in the deepest chambers of the heart. Our longing for God becomes a mere dull ache that is terribly hard to reawaken.

But take heart. God promised His people:

And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh Ez 11:18

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. Ez 36:26

Twice within the span of a single prophet, and many other times, God promises redemption from our own hardened hearts. He will give us one heart--His Own heart, the sacred Heart of Jesus that bleeds and is wounded for all of humanity--this is the heart that gives life, that breaks the chains of our bondage to sin, that strikes off the shackles we have so willingly taken onto ourselves. God speaks, it is He who promises redemption--He redeems our stony hearts and gives us hearts that can feel again. When we turn even a little bit, when we even desire to say yes, when we hearken enough to the grace that He showers upon us moment by moment and turn to Him, He can make real blood come from a stone. Just as He caused water to flow from the rock, He can cause our hearts to beat once again with His blood and His life and His redemption for all.

We may be dead in sin, but we are not without hope, for God dogs us, chasing us through the years and the passages of our lives, waiting always for us to turn and accept the embrace of Love that gives life.

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First, it should be perfectly clear that Holy Mother Church in no uncertain terms condemned a certain brand of Universalism. (Mr. Sullivan disagrees with me on this, and I acknowledge that, but respectfully disagree with his interpretation of the anathemas.) The type condemned is that which say that at the end of time God will be reconciled even with the fallen Angels and all shall be restored to his good graces. There is a Greek word for this that I have to look up every time I refer to it and the thought has been attributed to Origen, although perhaps incorrectly.

The Church, wisely, is silent on the question of the disposition of any given soul, and although theologians speculate, the Church remains silent on the question of whether or not all people will be saved. There is certainly a good deal of scriptural evidence that can be argued either way on this point.

However, one reason that I am Catholic is that this door remains ajar. Admittedly, it takes a person of strong constitution to deny that there are people who are capable of saying no to God out of sheer cussedness. I believe this is possible, but I do not believe that it is common. Moreover, I do not hold with those who say that a great many shall be condemned. I know that the visionaries of Fatima seemed to see this, but Fatima, being private revelation is not binding on anyone except, perhaps, the visionaries themselves.

The Catholic Church is agnostic on the question of who is saved and who is not, even while remaining adamant that Hell exists and contains at least the fallen angels, and that unfortunate part of humanity that rejects God's mercy and salvation.

Here are some points that I often reflect on. I have no answers, because I can argue back and forth using scripture, theology, logic, common sense, intuition and any number of other even less effective means. Is God's arm too short, or His grace too weak to save those He wills to save? And who does He will to save--only the remnant, the smallest portion of humanity? If the latter, what sort of God is He, who claims to be love, and yet out of hand condemns the majority of His creation to an eternity of punishment? What is the meaning of love, if we can say in one breath God is love, and in the next, but the majority of humanity is damned? What must a person do to be saved if God is so busy keeping track of all of our sins to send us on the express freight to Hell? And what does this say of the image of God as father?

I will suggest answers to none of these, because there is a perfectly legitimate series of counter questions that could be asked: If God is simple and purely Holy, how can He abide what is unholy? How does perfect justice allow the unrepentant sinner to come to the same end as those who lived lives of forbearance and service to others? The list goes on, but I don't ponder that list nearly as much, and there are better people to ask and answer those questions. I point them out merely to indicate that the question is not so cut and dried as I would like it to be.

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Jesus and Baha'ullah

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You might not ever have heard of Baha'ullah; however, back in the before times, this saintly man was very important to me. I considered for a long time whether or not to join the Baha'i faith, and finally decided in the negative because of a logical inconsistency. Baha'i's insist that all revelations of God are indeed revelations of God and they are all paths to God and as such equal, except for Baha'i which is the true path to God. This sort of syncretism appealed to me very much because, as I hope to explain in a later post, in my religious thinking I have always skated around the brink of universalism. However, if all were equally valid, how could one be better than any of the rest; what impetus had I for choosing Baha'ullah over Mohammed or Jesus? (The Catholic Church gets this point exactly right, noting that God has granted to each religion some rays of light, some truth, some of the knowledge of Him, but the fullness of knowledge of Him and salvation lay only in the person of Jesus Christ.)

Anyway, my point wasn't so much to analyze Baha'i as to point out one very concrete realization that was brought home by my assoication with some very good Baha'is. During his lifetime Baha'ullah was "martyred" for his faith, which is a renegade Muslim offshoot (I'm overgeneralizing, and if any Baha'i stop by, please forgive my elision here.) As Muslims don't have a high regard for heretics, he was probably constantly in danger of his life and he was frequently imprisoned. Baha'is would point out to me that Baha'ullah was imprisoned because of the sinfulness of humanity.

I thought about that a lot. Baha'ullah went to prison for my sins. And I contrasted that with Christ died for my sins. With that contrast, I had a new view of the atonement. I was nearly completely unmoved by Baha'ullah's imprisonment. After all, he could have preached elsewhere, gone someplace more hospitable, etc. His martyrdom, which involved very real suffering, was certainly more than I might be willing to bear for the majority of humanity--but months, years, even decades in prison don't begin to convey to me one iota of the sacrifice made even during the trial of Jesus.

While the justice of God may require in some way I don't begin to understand the death of His son. I do understand though that in some deep human way, this sacrifice speaks to me as none other could. The atonement may be required by God, but it is clearly required by the broken, perverse humanity Jesus sought to serve. Jesus was whipped for you sins (even badly), or Jesus went to trial for your sins, or Jesus was imprisoned for your sins simply doesn't speak to me. It is simply a yawn. Jesus died for my sins--THAT gets my attention.

Perhaps I am simply in a minority.

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Spiritual Insulation

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Taking a Lesson from Gregory of Sinai, via TSO: “But he who writes to please men, for fame or for display, loses his reward and will receive no profit from this either here or in the life to come; more, he will be condemned as a sycophant and a wicked poacher of the Word of God.”

What follows will please few, but it is the fruit of my own hard experiences. To reinvent the old phrase: If the artificial exterior covering of the pedal extremity is of adequate but not excessive dimension and geometry, it would behoove one to ornament the anatomy with it.

I don't know how it goes with other St. Blogs parishioners, but when I examine my own habits, I discover some disconcerting tendencies that ally me closely withe the Pharisees. Let's pause for a moment and consider the Pharisees as a group. Why was Jesus so hard on them when he welcomed tax-collectors, publicans, women of ill-repute, adulterers and all manner of other thief and scoundrel. I think the answer lies not in the fact that the Pharisees were particularly bad but in the fact that they had developed an elaborate schema for insulating themselves from God. By raising the Law to the status it had and by carefully observing the exacting letter of the law, but removing oneself from complying with the spirit, the Pharisees managed to insulate themselves against God's grace. The phrases Jesus speaks to the Pharisees are like battering rams, seeking to break through the armor and to open them up to the work of the spirit. "Ye whitewashed sepulchres. . ." he's claiming that they are beautiful outside and ritually unclean on the inside. "But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Luke 11:42)" Gosh, He's saying that they aren't really observant. There are many other examples--examples of unparalleled harshness in speaking to people--Jesus does not even speak to those who executed Him in this way. He ardently wants the Pharisees to hear God and return to Him wholeheartedly.

Those of us who are intellectuals and bibliophiles have developed a new Phariseeism. We acknowledge the error of the Pharisees in raising law to the ultimate heights and forgetting about God. However, in recognizing their plight, we disregard our own. How many times do I pick up a book to insulate myself from God? How many times do I read about the bible or read about the Church or read about prayer, to avoid doing anything about these issues? How much Bible Study have I done to avoid actually engaging the text of the Bible?

My tricks are subtle, so subtle that I have difficulty recognizing them. But they are all designed to keep me away from intimacy, away from the true dedication to the "one thing necessary" that should be the hallmark of my life.

How many times do I "not have time for prayer" and yet seem to finish two, three, or four leisure reading books in the week? How many times do I read about prayer rather than pray? How many times do i write about prayer as a means of avoiding it? There is a time and place to every purpose--reading and writing as well as others. But I have to be honest with myself--I spend more time in leisure than I spend in prayer and my leisure time is NOT prayer time no matter how much I want to fool myself into believing it is. I am not "practicing the presence of God" when I'm reading Mickey Spillane, or even when I'm reading Flannery O'Connor. How many people who read Flannery O'Connor are really there to engage her grappling with eternal spiritual truths and how many are there because she has a unique, idiosyncratic and engaging voice? (I tend to think the more people are there for the latter because, while I can build up a case for the spiritual message of O'Connor's story, it is often just as easy to completely ignore them and get on with the reading.)

I recognize the need for moderation in most things, but I also realize that it is important to be absolutely immoderate with regard to devotion to God. I would say that more often I am immoderate in my devotion to literature and subliterature and quite moderate in my approach to God.

But as any 12 step program attendee will tell you recognizing the problem is the first step toward a solution. God will give each person who asks the grace of self-knowledge. How we choose to employ this will certainly be guided by the Holy Spirit if we ask. Perhaps it's time to evaluate those things we do to see it they bring us closer to God or if they are useful tools for keeping us at a distance.

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Reasons for Not Loving God

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People are amazing in their ability to come up with reasons for not loving God. One of my personal favorites is a quote from Groucho Marx, "I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member." The people who hold the position don't speak it in those terms, it is nevertheless the fundamental reality underlying their stated objections.

The reasoning, not explicit, goes something like this. God loves everyone. God, therefore, has no standards; He is a profligate. If he loves me as much as He loves Hitler, His judgment can't be very good. Do I really want to hobnob with a Deity who marks no differences among people?

Others may refute the error inherent in this reasoning in their own ways. Not having the skill at theological argument, I will present the weaker argument from analogy, knowing that it has inherent flaws.

We all know of human parents who after hearing about the crimes their son or daughter has committed, simply deny the charge, saying that it is impossible for the child to have done so. They are hiding from reality for the sake of their love. They do not stop loving their child because of their crimes. They love their child every bit as much as they did before, equally with all the other children they have.

God DOES NOT hide from our crimes. But being the source and exemplar of love, He does continue to love us despite our crimes and our sins. He cannot stop loving us because it is against His nature to do so. God is Love, if so and acknowledging that opposites cannot coexist in the simple, God cannot be not-love (whatever form that might take.)

In other words, yes God is profligate, and in being profligate, He teaches us the right form of profligacy. Jesus did not spend an hour lecturing the woman caught in adultery. He did not say to Levi, "Go and sin no more, and after you haven't sinned for six months, come and get a check up and we'll talk about you becoming one of my disciples. God knows we sin, He knows we err, He knows we do not love Him as much as we ought. As Parents (and children) we know the same is true with our relationships with children and parents. We don't love our parents as much as they deserve and our children only gradually grow in their appreciation of us (after their teen years). We don't stop loving because our children don't love us as we feel they ought.

So, yes, God sets no standards on His love. He does set standards on our conduct, although He has provided the One who took all standards upon Himself and bore them away. So long as we long to be forgiven and pursue the right remedies according to our faith, God will forgive. So long as we wish to be healed, we shall be healed.

We cannot hide from God's love. We can sit in the shade and say that we don't see it, but just like the sun, it is shining all around us nevertheless. God loves all. He loves all with all that He is, and so He loves all equally, though He endows some with special favors to receive and acknowledge His love.

Yes, God is profligate, but that doesn't mean He isn't to be trusted in His love--it means rather than His love and the reception of His love through grace makes us lovable to the degree that we are. His special grace makes some more readily reflective of His love, but He longs for all of us to return to Him and acknowledge Him as God and Father of all. He places no conditions on His love--we should place none on our love and trust of Him.

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Garments or Hearts?

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We're a little more than half-way through Lent, and it would probably do some good to look back over the past few weeks and ask ourselves, has there been more rending of garments, more show, more self-esteem improvement in how heroic our sacrifices can be than there has been a change of heart? If so, it's time to change focus.

Our penances and mortifications, our additional attempts at prayer, our striving to make ourselves ready for Easter has allowed God to harrow the desolate earth of our hearts and make them ready for new seeds of faith. Now, as we continue those practices that have brought us to this point in Lent, it is good to focus our attention on what God wants from us beyond these temporary practices. In our practice of Lent, what is God saying about how we should live the rest of our lives? How has love grown in the time we have made our penitential practices? How have our lives been altered by this deeper focus on God? There's probably nothing dramatic, perhaps only a dawning realization of the need for service, or the need to change some aspect of our habits, or of the need for additional prayer or additional Christian practice.

As you fast, pray, and give alms, listen for the still small voice that does not make itself heard in the thunderstorm or the earthquake, but which shouts loud in the silence of the heart. Listen to the things God reveals to you during this time. He speaks loudly if we will push away the sheer brilliance of our Lenten performances only long enough to hear. He tells us this is a good start, but He wants more. In fact, He wants everything--but a step at a time.

So now is the acceptable day and the proper time. Look not so much at how well you have kept to your Lenten practice, but look to what God wishes to make of it. This is the beginning of a lifetime and God wants that lifetime to be productive, beautiful, and completely within Him. He is telling each one of us how that might be done. If we still ourselves for a moment and listen, perhaps we will hear and His grace will help us to fulfill His word to us.

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Pure Bloods

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Many people regard the Harry Potter series with a great deal of suspicion. I don't wish to argue the point now (or ever, for that matter), but to lift a major theme from the works for a moment of reflection.

Throughout the six-book series thus far much emphasis is placed by some on being "Pure blood" wizards. In almost every case, those who insist upon purity of blood are at best loathsome and most often outright evil. Rowling isn't writing allegory, but if we look in the world at those who insist upon purity of blood as a mark of rank, we will more often than not encounter ideologies that are antithetical to life.

What brought all of this to mind was a minor passage in Wilfrid McGreal's At the Fountain of Elijah: The Carmelite Tradition, a well-written and brief survey of the history of the Carmelite Order. In the chapter on the contributions of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, McGreal notes:

It is also interesting that both Teresa and John, to use a modern terms, were 'disadvantaged' and were therefore in a special way already poor. Neither Teresa nor John possessed limpieza de sangre--'purity of blood.' They had Jewish forbears, and this ancestry was viewed with suspicion and could be the reason for persecution. By the end of the sixteenth century religious orders in Spain had made limpieza de sangre a condition for admission. Fortunately the Carmelites did not put such legislation into place until 1596.

What a crime against love! Today, many of us can see that this is simply unacceptable for any Christian. It would be difficult to say and believe "You will know they are Christians by their love," under such conditions. And yet, such is the history of humanity--not merely of Christianity. And it is horrifying to think of what we would have lost had this edict been in place some years before.

Prejudice is ugly whenever and however it occurs. We have grown too haughty and proud--we think ourselves beyond it. But prejudice raises its ugly head in every corner and every precinct. Even now, each day, we are tempted to formulate opinions based on appearance, creed, or opinions. Prejudice hates a person for an artifact of that person. Christianity stands in firm opposition--loving the person but showing no mercy to the illicit accidents of the person. Whenever the cry of "Pure blood!" is raised, it is certain the the inevitable end is that blood will be spilled--"pure" and otherwise.

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Elijah and Mary

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In the Carmelite tradition, Elijah and Mary are brought together most closely in the image of the cloud that forms over the sea.

1 Kings 18:42:45

[42] So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Eli'jah went up to the top of Carmel; and he bowed himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees.
[43] And he said to his servant, "Go up now, look toward the sea." And he went up and looked, and said, "There is nothing." And he said, "Go again seven times."
[44] And at the seventh time he said, "Behold, a little cloud like a man's hand is rising out of the sea." And he said, "Go up, say to Ahab, `Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.'"
[45] And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel.

Verse 44 is the relevant verse, and how one gets the image of Mary from that, I do not know, except that when one understands it in the way of the Medieval Carmelites, it is a most beautiful metaphor.

Mary is the cloud that rises out of the sea. The sea is saltwater, undrinkable, a vast body of water, next to which the kingdom can still thirst and die. The sea is salty, impure, an image of fallen humanity with its admixture of sin. Mary rises out of this sea, pure and perfect, laden with the water of grace that will pour out through her to all humanity--not the source of Grace herself, nevertheless the container into which all is poured until it overflows out to all people, limitless, and life-giving. Not God, but human, Mary rises from the sea, pure and Immaculate in her conception, formed as a vessel of God's grace and a place of refuge for His people.

Mary may not have made her appearance in the Old Testament, but through years of meditating and contemplating the story of Elijah, the Carmelite monks and friars came to understand this passage in a Marian sense. In so doing, they enriched the understanding of Scripture and provided another key to its depths.

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To Die of Love

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The Saint of the Little Way, well known for her French schoolgirl and sentimentality, disliked by the intellectuals, a little repugnant to modern sensibilities, had this to say:

Our Lord died on the cross in agony and yet this is the most beautiful death of love. . . To die of love is not to die in transports.

-St. Thérèse

Spoken by one in the throes of a most excruciating crucible of ravaging tuberculosis, it carries the weight of authority. This is not some starry-eyed Schoolgirl--this is a young woman facing her own death, alone as Jesus was alone, in the midst of the deepest, darkest night any of us can begin to imagine. She neither turned her back on it, nor did she flee to seek refuge in some vain hope or in bitterness. Instead, knowing full well what was at the end, she embraced it and went to it. This she did because of her love and Jesus and her thirst for souls.

The exterior of the package, no matter how much sugary dressing it may have, does not reveal the interior strength, the beauty of the soul that even now "Spends [her] heaven doing good on Earth."

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Reflection on the Rule III

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In part this is a reply to and confirmation of a comment made in the entry below about the Carmelite rule. I had been mulling this over for some time, and the response was the kind of confirmation I needed to go ahead and post these thoughts as disparate and tenuously connected as they are.

from The Rule of St. Albert

Chapter 18

Since man's life on earth is a time of trial, and all who would live devotedly in Christ must undergo persecution, and the devil, your foe, is on the prowl like a roaring lion looking for prey to devour, you must use every care to clothe yourself in God's armour so that you may be ready to withstand the enemy's ambush.

The subtlety of this translation is particularly appealing. Note that the phrase used is "God's armour," not the more usual "Armor of God." This is an important difference, even thought the Latin can usually be translated either way. God's armour is the armour that belongs to God , His own battle gear, as it were. The Armor of God is armor that is not necessarily a personal possession, but rather a creation of God himself.

During our recent retreat, the retreat master went to great lengths to lay out a clear biblical exposition of the meaning and presence of God's armor in the scripture. He took great pains to make us aware that this armor was not our own armor that was "manufactured by God," but it was the very armor God himself wears when he is figuratively described in battle in a number of old-testament passages. When we clothe ourselves with it then, following the whole concept of the Simplicity of God, we are putting on God himself.

Chapter 19 of the rule goes on to give the traditional description of this armor, following closely that in Ephesians 6. What Father John-Benedict pointed out very clearly is that the vast majority of this weaponry is defensive. There is only a single offensive weapon--the sword of the word. We put on the armor to protect ourselves in the midst of the ongoing battle, not to launch an assault ourselves. The battle is the Lord's, He is the victor, and His victory is already won, we are protected by God's own armor as we walk the battlefield--but Jesus Christ wins the battle on His own merits. Our job in the battlefield is to wait and pray for all of those who have not put on the armor, who are not protected and who are not even aware that they are walking through a war zone.

Spiritual combat is never directed at another person, as Joachim notes below, it is always directed at fighting evil within us, and we do very, very little except don the armor and let God fight (see the notes on grace and will below). The spiritual battle is good vs. evil and we fight it every day in the most seemingly insignificant choices we make. Do we give alms, or do we ignore? Do we judge or do we help? Do we choose what is forbidden us, or do we accept God's commandments as a central pillar of our lives? One by one, or all at once, we face these choices in seemingly little things--for some it may be the question of whether they buy the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated; for others it may be returning the extra 5 dollars that came back to you by accident in change. These are small, but meaningful choices and our ability to make them in accordance with God's will is fostered by putting on His armor.

Each moment has decisions enough for a lifetime--accept God's will or reject it. And we can only perceive and understand that will when we are encased in His own armor, one body of Christ fighting the evil within ourselves by allowing the Lord to enter and win the battle, taking back the world one person at a time through His grace. So, as I concluded a day or so ago when I reopened comments--don't look to wage the battle "out there," although the battle rages there also, fight the battle within--your choices there will echo and reecho throughout the outside world, changing it slowly, subtly, bit-by-bit, to be more a reflection of what we choose moment to moment.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20: [19] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,
[20] loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them."

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Grace and Will

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Perhaps this reminder is only for me, but perhaps there are others out there who are secretly lured into the waters of quietism--I don't know. However, when I pause to think that I can do nothing by myself except sin, the temptation is to do nothing whatsoever, because at least in so doing I won't be sinning. This isn't a realistic attitude, it is fatalistic, and it comes upon us when we forget the dual mechanism of Grace and Will.

It is true that I can do absolutely nothing on my own except sin, that grace powers every good thought or action. Grace inspires them and grace sees them through to completion. Explained that way, it almost seems as if a human mechanism were not required at all. If grace is doing all this stuff, why do I need to be involved at all.

The fact is, grace causes and completes all of these actions, BUT no action is done without the cooperation, however weak, of the will. True, grace supports even this cooperation--nevertheless, at some point along the line we must say, "I will it, let it be so."

Forgive the inept analogy, but grace and will are akin to a person who has long been laid up in the hospital or in a rehabilitation facility. Grace brings a wheelchair to the door, opens the door, puts the wheelchair where we can sit in it, walks around to help us lower ourselves into it, and then simply waits until we decide that we will actually do so--will. Every motion of the will is fostered, supported, and enshrouded by grace, but grace doesn't come and push us into the wheelchair. Grace waits. Not wishing to cripple us and make us less than our human selves, grace never forces the issue, it simply makes available every possible help to accomplish the actions of the will that correspond to God's will. God is the Divine Physician, and grace is His nurse. This is not to imply two different sources or a separation of grace from God, but rather the role grace plays in our healing--helping, aiding, constantly attentive and supporting.

Grace always works to move our will to where it should be. Just as the nurse getting the patient into the wheelchair will say, "Okay, everything is ready, now just slowly lower yourself. . . that's it, keep going, almost there." The nurse may hold the patient's hands or support the patient in some other way as the patient, aided by all of this seeks to comply.

I cannot do anything good of myself. Grace inspires all, supports all, completes all. But the good that I do, I must will to do and I must, at a minimum, cooperate with grace. (I won't go into the fractal nature of this process pointing out that even our cooperation with grace is supported by grace, because it becomes too mind boggling.) Grace makes everything possible even to the point of carrying us when all we can say, is "I want to do it." However, grace of itself cannot accomplish anything in the person who resists it. When we remember this key, the threat of quietism disappears. We can't sit around and wait for grace to do it all, we must move as she coaches.

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Fear of the Lord

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The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Proverbs 9:10

from The Office of Readings: Thursday Second Week of Lent
from A Treatise on the Psalms,St. Hilary, Bishop

We must begin by crying out for wisdom. . . . Then, we must understand the fear of the Lord.

"Fear" is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or are made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encounters a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.

But of the fear of the Lord this is what is written: Come, my children, listen to me, I shall teach you the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord has then to be learned because it can be taught. It does not lie in terror, but in something that can be taught. It does not arise from the fearfulness of our nature; it has to be acquired by obedience to the commandments, by holiness of life and by knowledge of truth.

For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection.

The fear of the Lord is an acquired "skill," one necessary to wisdom, that does not spring from the primordial fear that accompanies us as guardian and protector (although often it gets out of hand and becomes tyrant). Couple that with the fact that this fear is learned and the fear takes on a new name: awe.

In today's world, many seem to have lost the sense of awe. Nothing seems to inspire people to the same heights that have been recorded in the past. We build taller buildings, we launch more ambitious projects, we see more majestic things, and there is a collective sigh and yawn. We are the children of the age of Ecclesiastes--we've seen it all and it is all futile and boring.

St. Hilary points out that to acquire fear of the Lord, at least three characteristics must be present in the life of a person: obedience, holiness, and truth. Awe cannot be present if any one of these is lacking. The order might be stated somewhat differently--a person must know the truth (of God and His commandments) and be humbly obedient to it as a prelude to holiness of life. Truth and knowledge are not the only requisites of a holy life, they are merely the start; but they are a powerful, meaningful start. These begin the "fear" of the Lord, which is perfected in the love that grows from them.

The dailiness of the day, the horrifying ennui of the movement from day to day, is broken by awe. A moment of sitting in the presence of God and recognizing Him who is and I who am not is sufficient for anyone to be revitalized, to regain a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of God. Without this necessary action even "billions upon billion of stars," are mere glowing balls of gas in the night sky.

If you look at young children, they have not yet forgotten awe. You see it in their faces as they look at each new thing. You see it in their behavior as they begin to react to these. Gradually, we train children out of this awe--we introduce them to the "real world," and work very hard to remove the stars from their eyes--not usually deliberately, but nonetheless effectively. I remember not so long ago when Sam would ask us what it was like before he was born. "What was it like when I wasn't born, when I was up in heaven with the angels and God?" He would ask this as though he had some memory of being in Heaven--it was magnificent, a breath of awe. Those questions come less frequently now, though we have done nothing consciously to remove them; nevertheless, our lack of response, of even being able to understand the question causes these questions to vanish, this memory of his to fade.

World-weariness, weltschmerz, is the dangerous offspring of a life not lived in holiness, obedience, and truth. One does not see this in the lives of the Saints. Rather one remarks in their every movement and every word a sense of profound joy, of profound peace. This is the proper offspring of love of God inspired by fear of the Lord. And this love of God brings the fear of the Lord to perfection.

O Lord,

This Lent,
teach me to fear you
as the prelude to proper love.
Set my feet in the paths of
truth, obedience, and holiness
that I may spread the light of your peace and joy
and be your humble servant here on Earth.

Amen.

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Comments Again

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aka The Problem Isn't OUT THERE, It's IN HERE. (points to heart).

I know you must tire of hearing about me. However, I always find helpful any insight, any retelling of the struggles one experiences in the spiritual life.

About a week ago, I closed the comments section for Lent. I did so because I thought that it would eliminate one particular temptation I had against the completion or even the doing of morning prayer. (This is a temptation that has crept into the repertoire or recent date, I not know whereof it comes.) I've received a number of e-mails both supportive and castigating (sometimes in the same e-mail).

What I discovered is that once the comments boxes were closed, new things cropped up that attempted to distract me from morning prayer. As I would deal with these externals one by one, I came to be aware that I was battling not the powers of this world, but the thrones, dominions, and principalities of the world beyond this one. In such a case my own efforts are futile without the aid of grace. God allows these temptations to strengthen my resolve to stay true to the discipline of the Church and more particularly to the Order to which I belong. And so, no amount of cracking down on the externals is going to remedy a flaw internal. Thus, it is better to accept the temptation and pray for the grace to remedy the internal flaw, whatever it may be, that gives rise to them. This is the more direct and useful mode of dealing with them.

As a result, I am reopening comments. Please be aware that if you do not receive a timely response to your comment, it is not because I am not interested, I am snubbing you or ignoring you; rather, it is because I am attempting to keep to my resolve with regard to this temptation.

And my deep appreciation and thanks to all who have commented and who will comment. This is one of the reasons community is so important in the life of every Christian.

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Simply, love, redux

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Disputations

Tom shares with us the beginnings of thought about God, God's love, and God's simplicity. Simply beautiful. And I thank you once again Tom, God bless you for your generosity in sharing.

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A Theology of Atonement

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verbum ipsum

That appears to put blame squarely where it belongs--with us, not God. I don't know about the other aspects of this theology, but I find it far easier to believe that God did not require the death of Jesus, but inexorable humanity demanded it.

It may be a misunderstanding, and if so, I will submit to the proper understanding when I learn it, but I'll keep looking and keep loving, and keep being aware that the problem is squarely centered on ME. I need to stop calling down blood by my own actions. I must cooperate with Grace to lead the life of love God would have me lead.

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La Madre's Way of the Cross

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It should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with St. Teresa of Avila that her vision of the Cross is completely interpenetrated with love; not the Love of God for humanity, which she acknowledges and exalts, but the love of the person for Christ and His Cross. This is an interesting perspective and one that may help shed some light on the question of "taking up our crosses."

The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints St. Teresa of Avila

They are too attached to their honor. . . . These souls, for the most part, grieve over anything said against them. They do not embrace the cross but drag it along, and so it hurts and wearies them and breaks them to pieces. However, if the cross is loved, it is easy to bear, this is certain.

For St. Teresa of Avila, love is the measure of all things. Everything that a person does is measured by the love lavished on it. When someone loves to do carpentry, the shelves, cabinets, and woodwork of his (or her) house shows the attention given to detail. When a person loves to cook, the meals prepared show the investment of time and love.

Most people's embrace of the cross is summed up in the word endurance. The cross is not to be loved, or even to be examined, and only just barely is it to be borne, and then, often, only with ill grace. What the Saint says here is that whatever makes up the cross for a person needs not merely be borne and dragged along--in this there is mere destruction. But it must be loved, loved as the present it is from the God who gives it. While wearing braces, a person does not love them, but afterwards, for years of straight teeth and good service, the love of them grows. Leg braces are nothing great to wear, causing the owner pain and humiliation, but without them there is no motion of one's own.

The cross is a gift from God. The crosses a person is called upon to bear are to right the irregularities in that person's spirit, to repair the flaws of original sin, and to make that person a perfect vessel of grace. It's hard to love what hurts, but when what hurts leads to perfection, a person can do it. It often hurts to lift weights, to jog, or to engage in other such activities--but because of the benefits that accrue to these activities many people do them, and many people "love" them. If so for things that help make better the life of this world, then how much more so for things that help make better life now and in the world beyond?

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St. Thérèse quoted in Carmelite Spirituality in the Teresian Tradition Paul-Marie of the Cross O.C.D.

Merit does not consist in doing or in giving much, but rather in receiving, in loving much. . . . It is said, it is much sweeter to give than to receive, and it is true. But when Jesus wills to take for Himself the sweetness of giving, it would not be gracious to refuse. Let us allow Him to take and give all He wills.

Our merits increase as we empty ourselves and allow God to fill us. Utter self-giving means utter Divine receiving, and whatever merits we might have accrued dim in comparison to being spouse to God. Once again, St. Thérèse is so right on the mark. And one of the great difficulties of our time is that so many know well how to give, but receive very, very poorly.

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The Wily One

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And I don't mean Mr. Coyote. . .

Okay, it all depends on how you look at it. But let me share with you a story of temptation--so far resisted by the grace of God, but undoubtedly to return.

I announced this morning after much agonizing that I was going to close the comment boxes. And I did.

This afternoon, driving home from work, I got this sudden inspiration. The purpose of my blog is to teach and what if the students can't get hold of the teacher. What then? I felt the Earth shift a little in its orbit, presaging some sort of sun-stopping move, or perhaps a cataclysmic shift in the magnetic field.

Grace stepped in and said in her sweetest voice, "You presumptuous buffoon. Why do you think you "teach" anything? When did you ever announce some intention to teach? Where did this vocation suddenly come from?"

And I realized how presumptuous the thought was and how counter everything I do here. Tom, at Disputations teaches, and he teaches well. I maunder, I share my small experience of the interior world, and my understanding of those who wrote texts about it. This does not a teacher make. (first) And second, who summoned these mythical students who long to drink at the font of my prodigious wisdom? I rather think I've acquired a number of very good friends who stop by to see how I'm doing. They will still do so, and I'll be able to drop by their places and the world will neither shift in its orbit or stand still. All will be well.

So, by grace, for the moment, the comment boxes remain closed, but I can see that just that small action fired up a mercenary group of devils (or a lot of psychotropic chemicals) to run an assault against me. Every time we take the smallest step in the direction of obedience, you can anticipate that three thousand very good reasons for not doing what is required will surface. Pray and let them pass by you. God knows what is happening and He will not allow you to be tempted past your ability to withstand.

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From a Little Flower

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Great beauty. The thought and admonition are absolutely beautiful.

St. Thérèse quoted in Carmelite Spirituality in the Teresian Tradition
Paul-Marie of the Cross, O.C.D.

You are not sufficiently trusting, you fear God too much. I assure you that this grieves him. Do not be afraid of going to purgatory because of its pain, but rather long not to go there because this pleases God who imposes this expiation so regretfully. From the moment that you try to please him in all things if you have the unshakable confidence that he will purify you at every instant in his love and will leave in you no trace of sin, be very sure that you will not go to purgatory.

I know nothing of why Saints receive the honors they do of the Church, but I'm convinced that St. Thérèse, who is adored by both traditionalists and by others in the Church, is actually the Saint who most significantly changed our understanding of God and of Salvation. I think that she opened our eyes to the supremacy of love and to the nature of God as Father, in ways that might have been touched upon, but certainly never thoroughly explored before her. While never denying Church doctrine, look at the shades of understanding in the passage above--God "regretfully" imposes the expiation of Purgatory. Certainly not the traditional view of either God or purgatory.

This is certainly not the God one would have encountered in the writings of Saints before Thérèse; and it is an image of God a great many have tremendous trouble accepting even now. The school that so adamantly opposes Hans Urs von Balthasar's contentions in Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?, would be disinclined, it would seem, to accept such an image of God. And yet there is part of me that is certain that St. Thérèse got it exactly right. God may allow some of His children to escape His love, but if so, it is done not in anger, wrath, rage, and righteous indignation, but in the way a human parent finally has to let their wayward teenager come to the end of his or her own road in a jail or halfway house. They cannot (and God does not) interfere with self-will, but both parents and God are heartbroken at the choices made by their children.

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Another Lenten Checkup

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"Rend your hearts, not your garments. . ."

Do my penances and observations of Lent cause me to long for God more, or are they exterior--for all the world to see without interior effect? If my garments show more sign of wear than my heart does of being moved, I must conclude that I am still not where I need to be in my Lenten practice.

Lent is a joyful time of repentence, re-evaluation, and movement toward God. The joy may be solemn, but this Lent, God has granted me such joy in my practices and in the enhancements they make in my family life and in my life in General, that I could only wish the season to last for the rest of my life. God has been very, very good to me--now, how can I be very, very good to Him?

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The Shorter Way to God

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from The Practice of the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection;

Quote in Carmelite Spirituality in the Teresian Tradition
Paul-Marie of the Cross O.C.D.

We look for methods. . . to learn how to love God. We want to get there by I don't know how many practices. A multitude of methods makes it more difficult for us to remain in God's presence. Isn't it much shorter and more direct to do everything for love of God, to use all the works of our state in life to manifest our love to him, and to foster the awareness of his presence in us by this exchange of our heart with him? Finesse is not necessary. We need only approach him directly and straightforwardly.

It's been my experience that when the means of approaching God are multiplied, my attention to God is divided. The means become the ends; methods become the focus of attention. Brother Lawrence here suggest a "shorter, more direct" way of approaching God, a simpler way. But, as with St. Thérèse's little way, simpler is not easier. The Carmelite way of things is very, very simple, just as most Carmelites are fairly simple; however, the Carmelite way, properly lived, I'm coming to discover, is not at all easy. Nevertheless, in this, as in all that pertains to God, if our hearts are simple and our desires quieted until only one voice remains, it is possible. And these things are possible through Grace alone. We cooperate and prepare ourselves to receive the grace (although even this is not done without Grace) and it is Grace alone which accomplishes all that need be done. We must simply focus on the End rather than all the means, and we must love the End more than any of the intermediary means. Simple, but not easy--apparently a hallmark of the Carmelite way.

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Lenten Checkup

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At this point we have traveled through nearly an entire week of Lent and its a good time for a reevaluation. The following prayer is the closing prayer from evening prayer for today:

Father,
look on us, your children.
Through the discipline of Lent
help us to grow in our desire for you.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

For those who do not keep to a regular rhythm of morning and evening prayer, spend a few moments with the prayer above.

After you have done so, ask yourself--are my Lenten disciplines actually causing me to grow in my desire for God? Can you say honestly that what you have done up until now really makes you think of God more often? Does your heart turn to Him more regularly throughout the day?

Or does the discipline of Lent simply make you miserable and unpleasant to be around? Are you grousing because you can't have your cigarettes, chocolate, coffee, or cola? If so, your practices may be off-target. Refocus, ask the Holy Spirit what will make you turn to Him more often. How can you have more "Mary" moments in your "Martha" world? This is the purpose of lent. Heroic penances and terrible sacrifices are meaningless if they do not turn you more toward God. They are nothing more than the puffery of spiritual pride--the ability to outdo your neighbor in self-abnegation.

But what is the purpose of that abnegation? If it isn't to bring yourself into the presence of God and to increase your love and intimacy with Him, then it is entirely wasted. If it is more than what the Church demands of her children, it doesn't even have the merit of obedience.

So take this opportunity to make your Lent joyful and productive. Leave yourself behind and move forward. Move constantly toward God.

And use the prayer as a check every day. Are my disciplines really making me decrease that He might increase, or are they having the opposite effect? Remain open to the prompting of the spirit and prepared to change (always strictly obeying the regulations of the Church and the guidance of your spiritual advisor). Be prepared to add to all of your other practices the one thing that will allow you to attend to the Lord in all joy.

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Entering the Word

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Of the "legitimate" reasons I have heard from Catholics for not reading the Bible more often, one stands out. There is in a certain sector of the Catholic population a fear of "private interpretation" and of "going Luther" on the Church.

While one should not discount the possibility of this happening, one does well to put the whole thing in perspective. Luther was a highly trained religious, steeped in knowledge of the Scripture and exposed constantly to some real abuses occurring in the Church of the time. Admittedly these abuses were not necessarily pervasive, and I do not know enough history to say whether or not they were condoned by the hierarchy of the time. Nevertheless, they were enough for a man concerned about true holiness to begin to have his doubts about the Church, its laws, its rules, and its structure.

Most of the people who are concerned about this seem to live in fear of what they might find in scripture--as though just beneath the surface is a great Kraken that will drag them under and convince them that all they have known and loved since childhood is mere fairy tale. By turning the pages of this great love letter from God, the thought goes, we become progressively more fundamentalist.

Well, there's a great deal more to fundamentalism than merely turning the pages of the Bible. The Bible was "defined" by the Church and is one of the great gifts of Catholic Tradition to the world of Christians. It is true that after Luther a certain amount of suspicion accompanied the private reading of Scripture, and it did take the Church populace (if not the hierarchy) an unduly long time to get over this--in fact, many are still not over it entirely.

I'm here to tell you, as a former Baptist and a fair reader of scripture, that if you are one of the people worried about reading scripture for this reason, you will find nothing there to trick you into leaving the Catholic Church. If your faith is otherwise secure, if you aren't one of those who thinks that there's a lot of fact around The DaVinci Code, in short, if you are in the solid middle of St. Blogs, there is nothing in scripture that is going to drag you under. The Church will not suddenly transform into the Whore of Babylon and the Pope will not assume the aspect of the beast with seven heads and ten horns.

No, indeed. Proper reading of the scripture will reinforce all you already know from other sources. As a Baptist and a fundamentalist, following the rules of my own Church in the reading and interpretation of Scripture, I found that the Catholic Church had gotten it right and we had it wrong. One dip into John 6 without compromising your fundamentalist principles and you're sunk--the real presence is real, the Eucharist is not a symbol, and so forth.

"Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church," might be subject to illimitable debate in some circles, but as soon as one glances casually at the historical reality, one is struck with the harsh reality of the establishment of the Catholic Church with Peter at its head.

Scripture is filled with reconfirmations of Catholic thought and doctrine because the Catholic Church is built on the dual foundations of Scripture and Tradition. Tradition gave us the scripture, and Tradition assists us in understanding scripture.

If you follow the Church's very clear guidelines on how to read the Bible, (in short--you never read it alone because others have read it before you and all of presently defined practice comes out of understanding it with the mind of the Church) you will not travel off into the realms of private interpretation.

Surely there are problems in the Church of today. And surely the Church does sometimes fail its children in their formation and essential understandings. But the reality of the present-day situation is that we have enough books and enough guides and enough helps for reading the Bible that no one is left completely to their own resources.

In short, the "Luther" excuse for not reading the Bible every day is not a valid one. So a couple of tips for reading the Bible:(1) one may still be in the grip of fear, but pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance before starting, and trust in the Holy Spirit, the same spirit who guides and has guided the leaders of the Church throughout the ages to lead you to the truth. He will not lead you astray. (2) Don't read the Bible looking for an offensive weapon or a way to "combat" protestants, or to lead your fallen Catholic friends back to the Church. The Bible is not a weapon, proof-texting is not a profitable enterprise, wrenching Scripture from its context and applying a single verse rather than an interpretation that encompasses the whole. The Bible is a love letter. Read it as such. Stay with it. Linger over it. Read a passage time and time again. Memorize it--not to use in an argument over the veracity of this or that doctrine, but as a memento to carry with you wherever you go--as words to cherish and savor in those moments when you have nothing else to do and no Bible to hand.

Keeping these points in mind, the reading of Scripture becomes an opportunity for conversation with God, and, for a change to allow God to do most of the talking. Remember in the words of Fr. John O'Holohan, "It is not, 'Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking,' but 'Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.'" You don't need to fill up the silent spaces, you don't need to talk incessantly. Just read and spend time with the Lord in scripture. If for no other reason, read for the poor souls in purgatory--the Enchiridion of Indulgences grants a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions to anyone who spends a half-hour a day reading scripture. For less time a partial indulgence is granted. So, if you can't bring yourself to do it for yourself, offer yourself the opportunity to help those most abandoned, and longest separated from the beatific vision. With this beginning you may find that the habit of scripture reading takes hold and your whole faith life is enriched beyond your greatest expectations. That, at least, is certainly my prayer for those of your who take up this most wonderful of practices.

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The Command of the Lord

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Psalm 19:7-8

The law of the Lord is perfect,
it revives the soul.
The rule of the Lord is to be trusted,
it gives wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
they gladden the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear,
it gives light to the eyes.


What then is this command of the Lord?

Deut 6:4-5

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

And what is the natural result of this?

Matthew 22:37

37] And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
[38] This is the great and first commandment.
[39] And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
[40] On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

The command of the Lord is clear,
it gives light to the eyes.

or in the RSV

The commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes.

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Here's a thought that I am only beginning to come to terms with:

from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints: St. John of the Cross

On this [narrow] road there is room only for self-denial (as our Savior asserts) and the cross. The cross is a supporting staff that greatly lightens and eases the journey.

I have a few minor problems with the first part. Mostly they are problems of proportionality and my role. I must deny myself, but in denying myself, I may not deny others. For example, I may give up a great many things, but I cannot impose upon my wife and child to give up those same things. I can encourage and I can lead by example, but an imposition from without is not self-denial but simply oppression.

Self-denial may be difficult, but I at least understand it. I'm only beginning to sense the truth encompassed in the second sentence, and I probably won't be able to make much sense of it to you, but here I go anyway.

When you love deeply, everything you do in love is made easier by being in love. Self-denial isn't self-denial, it is making a gift of yourself. You want the best of everything for the person you love and you're willing to see to it that they get it. You deny yourself some small trinket or even something necessary in order to fulfill the need you perceive. When your love is Jesus Christ, taking up your cross is part of His being able to bear His. We all participate in being Simon the Cyrene when we choose to carry our cross and deal with the burdens of the world at large. In this sense the cross becomes a staff. It is something we have taken up in love, not in thinking about ourselves, but in thinking about Jesus.

True self-denial denies even the concept of self-denial. It cannot be self-denial if it is given in love. Yes, you are incidentally denied something, but that something you are denied contributes to the welfare of another, if only in the spiritual realm. Self-denial does not always see the denial, it sees only the end for which the denial occurs--Jesus Christ. Thus, taking up the cross becomes not so much a chore as an exertion of love--a sign of our Love for the savior. Indeed, when love carries the burden, it works so strongly that it lifts us up as well.

Do what you do not for fear of hell or hope of heaven, but for the love of Jesus Christ. When that motivates all that we are and all that we do, the world itself is transformed, and what appear to be heroic acts of virtue are baubles, trifles, never enough to satisfy our desire to give. We suffer with the suffering of being unable to give enough, of being mortal and confined and limited. Our suffering greatly increases as our love increases and I wonder if even the suffering is not suffering, but it is part of the transformative union that allows us to share the aloneness of Jesus on the Cross for a single moment. If for an instant I could be with Him when He was most abandoned, what a consolation that would be to the entire world. If I could enter into that dark and terrifying place and say, "I'm here Lord," what a consolation that would be. Suffering would still be suffering, but it would be transformed in Him.

I go on too long. I am only beginning to understand, and my lack of understanding makes many words of what is probably a very simple thing. But it is a thing I need to know better and embrace more completely. Self-denial is meaningless if all I ever look at is my self and what is being denied. Self-denial seeks to look beyond the mere temporal object to the final Glory for which we have surrendered the object so important to us.

What a joyful, wonderful time Lent is. I want to say to all the world, "Come on in, the water's fine. And the company is just grand."


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Paradoxes of Faith

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from The Way of the Cross with the Carmelite Saints: St. John of the Cross

[W]ho seeks not the cross of Christ seeks not the glory of Christ.

Christ's cross is His Glory. The resurrection, which affirms the triumph of the Cross is also glorious and joyful, but the act in which the separation of humankind from the intimacy of God was accomplished was the death on the Cross. If we seek to avoid the Cross, if we avert our eyes from it, we are averting our eyes from His glory, His great triumph. On the Cross He reunited God and His children. In the great Alone of His suffering, He forged the unbreakable covenant of our Salvation.

Honestly, I can't begin to understand it. I can't begin to tell what it means. But the words echo in my mind and the reality thrills my spirit as few things have done. What a gracious, loving, merciful, welcoming God we have. Isn't it time for all of us to stop rebelling and return home?

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Joyful Lent

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Lent is such a time of solemn joy. My heart rejoices in the opportunity for renewal and for reflection and for spending time with God. Rethinking one's life is a critical part of Lent. The fruits of that rethinking are all too soon gone with the coming of Easter and it's great joy.

But I was thinking, shouldn't the coming of Easter actually cement in place those good things we have done, those practices we have established. Shouldn't the coming of Easter be a true resurrection--not of the old habits and ways, but of the spirit within. If I have found a way to build a cell and retire to it during Lent, shouldn't that cell still be strong and vibrant in the Easter light and shouldn't it hold for me the same attractions? Indeed, greater attractions as it has become my home?

The solemn joy of Lent becomes the glorious Joy of Easter, and all the good we have done, all the practices we have begun can become a cohesive part of our lives.

I think the all-too-common problem with Lent is that people see the solemnity, but fail to pick up on the joy. We give things up in a spirit of penitence, but it should be thought of as shedding things that keep us away from the Lord. It isn't penitence, but joy that lights up all those practices that bring us closer to God.

Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say it, rejoice. And this is Always--Lent included. So rather than thinking about what we are "giving up," think about what we a shedding, sloughing off. Each little thing we can let go of changes the old person, each moment of grace we take advantage of is a ray of light to that seed scattered on the ground. Each observance of lent, be it a full stations of the Cross, or a single aspirative prayer, helps us to move closer to God, all through His grace.

Oh, Lent is such a season of great joy and great opportunity. Seize it. Seize the day, seize the light that is offered!

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Okay, more like Changes in Longitude--Tampa isn't that far south of us.

One thing I derived from my weekend was the need to strengthened my Carmelite vocation in everything I do. As a result, I decided to abandon my daily reading of In Conversation with God. This series of meditation is very powerful, very useful, and very helpful, but it is a different way of spirituality and hence somewhat subversive of the things I am called to practice as a Carmelite.

Carmelites occupy a great middle way of asceticism. The Saints adopted the practices of the Church during their times, but Carmel's way has never been one of extraordinary penance or mortification. Rather, Carmel's way has one ascetical point--prayer in solitude, prayer in the desert of the heart.

Now, this doesn't sound like much, but the practice of solitude and silence in the ordinary day of a married man (in my case) or woman is actually an enormous discipline. Try to find a space of two minutes when one thing or another isn't demanding your immediate attention. Physical solitude is a difficult thing to find, and it is an even more difficult thing to want when one has a spouse and a child as dear to them as mine are to me. Nevertheless, this is the ascetical practice to which I am called, and for which I will need to develop a plan.

As a result, the small mortification of the day, and penances, and other practices suggested by those with an Opus Dei spirituality, simply don't fit into the Carmelite way. They are not bad practices--indeed, they are very, very good practices, but one thing I am learning about vocation is that it must be observed with a laser beam focus if it is to mean anything. To this point I have had the focus of a bare light bulb. Light goes everywhere but does not illuminate much of anything well. A light bulb cannot be used to perform the surgery that true adherence to a vocation entails. The laser focus gives God the tool with which to remove the cataracts and restore vision. With that same light He purifies and refines until I am what He has called me to be.

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God Spoke One Word

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Twice during my retreat I encountered this phrase from "The Sayings of Light and Love" of St. John of the Cross.

"God spoke one word."

I knew immediately the meaning, but it took a while for the implications to sink in. If God spoke only one Word, what are all those words in the Bible about? Yes, I know I'm slow, but obviously, every one of them is about Jesus Christ. How? Until I meditate on every one of them I cannot tell you. Truthfully even afterwards, I suspect that I will not understand the full mystery of it. Nevertheless, I know that it is true.

To give you an example, in this morning's Office of readings:

"Therefore, say to the Israelites: I am the Lord. I will free you from the forced labor of the Egyptians and will deliver you from their slavery. I will rescue you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment."

There's more, but let's stop there.

What I heard as I read this substituted the words "your sins" for "the Egyptians."

" I am the Lord. I will free you from the forced labor of your sins and will deliver you from their slavery."

How will he do this? "I will rescue you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment." Arms outstretched on a cross--the mighty acts of judgment, those which condemned the savior and brought Him to the cross, but also those that occurred after His death, in which the veil in the temple was torn in two, breaking the barrier between the Holy Spirit of God and His people.

This is an anticipatory reading of the passage. That is to say, it is reading into the passage and not the literal meaning. The literal meaning must be preserved, but the language used eerily forecasts the kind of redemption we were to receive.

Rolling this all into a ball and sending it spinning across the field, we come back to "God spoke one Word."

Praise the Lord!

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A Lenten Pause

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A hard, joyful word from St. Josemaria Escriva:

from The Way

17 Don't succumb to that disease of character whose symptoms are insonstancy in everything, thoughtlessness in action and speech, scatter-brained ideas: superficiality, in short.

Mark this well: unless you react i time--not tomorrow: "Now!"--that superficiality which each day leads you to form those empty plans (plans 'so full of emptiness') will make of your life a dead and useless puppet.

We can be pushed to and fro by the winds of self and slavish devotion to our own awkward notions of things. As our notions change, so to do our whims, our directions, our motivations, our path of life. Ultimately we do as Dante says of Dame Fortune: "Her changes change her changes endlessly." We become mere avatars of change, waffling, uncertain, and unhappy.

The discipline of Lent is the beginning of a discipline of life that can help us to alter those circumstances. We can choose not to succumb to whatever wind passes our way. We can choose to adhere closely to the truth and not be driven forward on an endless journey seeking our own ends. Simple, humble obedience and a constant recourse to the Lord in prayer and our lives become something other than what they were. We move on toward life. Or we cleave to our own ends and wind up with a life that is truly as meaningless as the postmodernists would tell you it is. The choice rests with each one of us because God's grace alone is sufficient.

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Yesterday I read in In Conversation with God

In order to make progress in the interior life it is a great help to have several little mortifications in mind, fixed, in advance, decided upon beforehand, so that we do them every day. . . .

Other mortifications can be directed toward overcoming our desire for comfort. . . we can have in mind specific mortifications at meals, in our personal appearance etc.

Frankly, I hate advice like this. It comes off as cryptic--guess what I'm thinking. I'm certain the author doesn't intend it--after all in a small page and a half there isn't the room to go into any detail at all. But being of a practical bent I want to know what this person is thinking about. What exactly are these small things.

Well the irritant produced a faux pearl. I was thinking about this passage in particular and one example occurred to. I could eat food exactly as it is brought to table. No salt, no pepper, no additional seasoning, no condiments--simply as it is in all its splendor.

Now, at Erik Keilholtz's table or Julie's table or the Mama's tables this might not be a mortification. But I can tell you as a cook with an aversion to salt--any salt, any amount--at my table most people would be mortified (in every sense of that word!)

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The Comments Box Below

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The comments box of the post immediately below has the more substantive writing of today. The question of the Cross has a certain prominence in this Lenten Journey and I, for one, am only beginning to come to terms with it. But in our journey here on Earth, I wonder if we ever really get beyond the beginning--it is so deep and wide and broad a mystery that it is unfathomable to those of us with little minds for this kind of thought. I know only the little I am given to know through my engagement with other, more knowledgable souls. But I will continue to share the little I can in hopes that it will inspire those better than me to continue the exploration.

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Elsewhere I posted a response that I wish to remember here because too often I forget it. I will not repeat the original questioner's name out of deference to him, but I post the question asked and my response. Not because my response was particularly good, but rather because when I went back and read it, it spoke to me as though someone else had written it--thus I assume God means the message for me. That happens sometimes. (And if by this, I give offense to the original poster, I beg your pardon. Drop me a line and I'll remove this. Otherwise, I thank you for your charity in allowing me to share it.)

Q: Do you equate the routine trials, discomforts, griefs, aches, pains and frustrations of normal human existence as *the Cross*?

A: And I would ask--do you maintain they are not part of it? St. Therese of Lisieux said that there was sufficient mortification in daily life to bring about the detachment necessary to join with God. Many of the Saints have said that the suffering of daily life was enough. Is it equivalent? No. But Jesus didn't say we would carry HIS cross, we were to carry our own. If we were to carry HIS how could he say, "My yoke is easy, my burden light"? A cross is a cross--some part of that comes through the routine of the day and some part of that is extraordinary. That is the principle of the sacrament of the present moment. God sends to us moment by moment what it is He means for us to have, cross and consolation, joy and sorrow--they all come from Him, through Him, and by His grace. So, yes, the ordinary trials of the day are part of the cross we bear--and no they are not nor have they ever been the equivalent of the cross Jesus bore. But then there is no one who ever carried the burden of that Cross save Jesus Himself--nor was there ever anyone who was expected to.

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Like physical therapy, the disciplines of Lent that we assume must be customized to the particular faults we aim to remedy. For some, the daily round of Liturgy of the Hours isn't particularly a discipline--it is part of the routine of the day--but to spend a single day without reading the newspaper and tut-tutting over the bad behavior of others is nearly unthinkable. For others it may be that introducing morning prayer is the most that could possibly be accomplished. For still others, there are other disciplines that train us in love and obedience.

A good physical therapist doesn't spend a half-hour working your shoulder if the primary disability is in the knee. Yes, you'll probably have additional body work, but the focus will be on what ails you. So, too, with Lent. Don't look around and see what everyone else is doing and wonder whether you've chosen the right things to get you started. Instead, look at God and ask Him if you're doing the right things. Ask the Divine Physician what your therapy needs to be and adjust your course accordingly. Keep to the minimum of what the Church requires and add as God dictates, not as the disciplines of others dictate. None of us are wounded in the same way--none of us needs the same care and healing--thus, the treatment of each person will be dictated by the person, the nature of the injury, and the relationship that person has with God.

Don't worry that there are some real Olympic-style fasters out there--or some J. Paul Getty alms-givers. Focus instead on looking at the God who loves you and wants you only for Himself. He'll tell you how to get to Him; He will guide you with leads of love. (Hosea 11:4)

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The fast that is acceptable to the Lord is the fast that helps us see Him more clearly. Any other kind of fast is a self-indulgence--a source of spiritual boastfulness. The Lord tells Isaiah that the fast He wants has nothing to do with not eating, but rather, with feeding those who do not have enough and giving justice to those who languish for lack of it.

Joel tells us to "Rend your hearts, not your garments." Rending our hearts helps to break up the stony, dried-up surface. Our hearts like soil without water grow hard and impermeable to grace. When we rend our hearts we make them like the fields of the farmer freshly plowed, we break up the clods and make our hearts arable. The seed will have good soil to fall into.

What form should this rending of the heart take? God alone knows. Each person must follow the path that He has in mind for them. But part of what we can do is turn more often to prayer and to the little things we neglect. In the morning read the Mass reading and take into the day a single verse or phrase to use as a prayer for the rest of the day. Today for example it might be a phrase from the psalm, "Create a clean heart in me, O Lord." Or from the prophet, "Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful."

This little word will help to break up the hardness of spirit that has overcome me. It will penetrate through the dried up surface. It becomes the seed that will take on new life through grace if only I will cooperate.

Now is the acceptable time, now is the season of Salvation. Hear Him and go to Him. Let your fast be a fast that brings a fastness in the Lord. Lent is a time of growth, of renewal in the roots that will blossom forth at Easter. The dead of winter is passing and we are moving into new life. Let it flow. Let God flow, from your lips, from your actions, from your heart.

May God bless all of us with His grace and mercy. May He give us new and human hearts. May He give us eyes that see Him and ears that hear Him in the ordinary circumstances of the day. Seize this day the opportunity to hear Him in all that happens around you. He is there and He is waiting for you to turn to Him with your whole heart. It can be done.

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

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