Christian Life/Personal Holiness: April 2006 Archives

Continuing Conversion


from Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

The young abbot was speaking to his community one day and he made a remark that shocked me on my first reading of it. "There are more people converted from mortal sin to grace, than there are religious converted from good to better." Over the years the more I have experienced of life and thought about the statement the more I have been convinced of its truth. Yet one may ask, what is so shocking about it? . . .

Putting the saint's observation in simple contemporary terms may help. Bernard was saying that there are more men who give up serious alienation from God, mortal sin, than there are people who give up small wrongs, willed venial sins. And there are even fewer who grow into heroic virtue and live as saints live. If we are not saddened by this realization, we ought to be. . .

Yet a bit more unpacking is needed. A large part of the sadness is the expectation that anyone who basically loves another (real sacrificing love, not mere attraction) in important matters (for example, a husband loving his wife) would naturally go on to love her in smaller ones. I would assume that he would stop being grouchy and abrupt and harsh, that he would be at pains to be kind and gentle, patient and forgiving. I would assume the same in her behavior toward him.

A step further: We would suppose that a person who realistically and fundamentally loves God would be at pains to avoid all smaller offenses against him: gossiping, laziness, overeating, as well as the venial sins mentioned in our previous paragraph--and myriads of other minor wrongs. . . . But everyone knows that such is unhappily a rare occurrence in the human family. Something is amiss--and on a large scale. Yes, if everything were normal in society, deep conversion would be common, and life would be incomparably happier for everyone.

Something is wrong with the life of a person who claims to love God and cannot leave off those things that offend Him the most. Mortal sins are relatively easy to drop. One knows that one is committing them and knows that they are wrong. The sheer enormity of them, unless habit has dulled us to their grossness, is enough to help us shy away.

But how many claim to love God and then reel out all sorts of pettiness on those around them. I count myself among these people. I know how harsh and unforgiving I can be. I am aware of how easily I am aggravated, irritated, and angered. All of these stem from my overweening Pride--a pride so large I cannot even see its boundaries and recognize it as pride.

That is one of the reasons I love Father Dubay's writing so much. It puts me back in touch with central realities of the faith.

Isn't a life in Christ about becoming ever more like Him? Does that leave room for myself in the equation. The more I am myself, the less I am Him. It is the reverse of kenosis. And a lack of awareness about how full I am of self is the first problem. When this floats up to awareness, my first reaction is to back away and pretend that it isn't true. My second reaction (equally useless) is to read through the book as quickly as possible and thus find all the ways to give the lie to pride, thus avoiding engagement with the problem at all. Reading is rarely prayer, it is an excuse not to have to do prayer. This is one of the reasons that the Ignatian Exercises during which we were given a single verse of scripture to meditate on for an hour, were so difficult. I want to read, not to spend the time meditating. It is the temptation in lectio to keep reading, not to pause over what gives one pause--but to get to the end of something or to find more fruitful territory. All of these are manifestations of spiritual pride.

But the thing to remember, to keep squarely in mind, is that the Lord is in control, if I allow Him to be. I can't see the gross outlines of pride, but He has mapped it, charted it, and knows full well how to fold it back up and stow it away. Alone I cannot tangle with the intricate mysteries of self that produce such unpleasant effects for others--anger, envy, sloth, pride, lust, gluttony, avarice. But He knows the contours of these things and those remedies that are most effective. He is the divine physician and nothing that is wrong with me is beyond His skill to heal. Now, I need merely the grace to help me keep my determination to walk the path and to put myself aside (for if I'm serving myself, I can serve no one else). My joy is in the Lord Himself, who in His mercy will set me free from autotyrrany. He will be Lord, and no longer I. This is the promise He has made those who truly wish to follow Him. As I pray every day, "We are his people, the flock He Shepherds." So let it be with me starting this hour and moving into the future. And when I fail, I must renew the prayer and rely on His grace, for my failures are to teach me as well.

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Good Lord, Forgive me

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Here is a reconstruction of the psalm to indicate my particular experiences over at Zippy's and Disputations of recent date:

Revised Psalm 131

1] O LORD, my heart is way lifted up,
my eyes are ever raised too high;
I stuff myself full of things
too great and too marvelous for me.
[2) And I have incited and roiled-up my soul,
like a child unfed and squalling at its mother's breast;
like a child that is mid-squall is my soul.
[3] Nevertheless, I hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.

I don't know why I engage in these ways. I haven't the intellectual wherewithal to do it, and it amounts to mere temptation to pride. But at least the two discussion have been fruitful and I think I begin to understand some things that have never made much sense to me. If you're inclined to do so the comments at ,DNR at Disputations can be quite mind-boggling. The discussion centers around the question of what post-resurrection bodies are/will be/ can only be and whether or not they are the "same" bodies that are present here and now. (I was going to write, that we "possess" now, but that seems rather wrong for a whole raft of reasons I'm unready to reel off.) But the discussion is exemplary of the way an exchange of ideas may take place that helps those attentive to and desirous of the truth to move toward the truth even if its fullness eludes them.

Nevertheless, it would be pure and damnable hubris to claim that I am in any way up to the discussion and that to engage in it is not engaging things far beyond my own capacity. I only hope that by listening and asking questions I can come to fuller knowledge--God will be merciful even as I am not.

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On the Film Version of DVC


Around St. Blogs right now there seems to be a couple of issues that surface and resurface. One of them is particularly hot at the moment and that is "Whatever shall we do about the new DaVinci Code movie?" This is a troublesome issue from several points of view: (1) it has a major box-office draw (for others, personally, I haven't liked Tom Hanks in anything since Joe v. the Volcano); (2) The director is high-powered with an enormously popular repertoire (here again, I'm out of the loop--I haven't cared for anything since EdTV).

What I find disturbing are those who rail against the people who say that the movie presents an opportunity for evangelism. My own view of it is that people who talk about the evangelism opportunities have been given lemons and are attempting to make the best of it. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the conversation that might ensue from The DaVinci Code, but if it fires up interest in those unchurched and I'm there to answer questions and direct them to resources, then perhaps I can make the best of a bad thing.

Will some lose their faith over this? I honestly don't know, but if so, there wasn't much substance there any way and such faith needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. The best one could say is that it was a jerry-rigged faith that one zephyr or another was bound to topple. It is the disadvantage of living in the age of the poorly catechized church.

However, I do say that we should not be so hard on those who are trying to see the "up side" of the inevitable. Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ which was made by a director who was popular only among the film critics, Ron Howard has a huge popularity base. The only real hope for failure of this film is terrible screen-writing that takes what was always a very cinematic plot and turns it into a boring maundering through the museums of the world. So, I don't think we can hold out a lot of hope for its utter failure. Given that, those so inclined need to consider the opportunities for evangelism and for education. Stock up on the resources out there to combat the serious errors of The DaVinci Code and keep in mind the words of Paul, who says (and I paraphrase), "The sower does not see the seed to harvest; he cannot know what fruit springs therefrom." In other words, your conversations in the wake of this storm are important. Your ability to defend your faith and support Church teaching in a way that is both convivial and accurate are critical elements of any conversation. Your ability to refer truly interested parties to resources that can lead them closer to God can make of this an opportunity for the salvation of souls. It isn't an argument on the best ground, nor is it the way I would prefer to engage those who are seeking; nevertheless, it is what we have been given.

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Psalm 51

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This is the only Friday of the year on which we do not pray Psalm 51. And, frankly, I miss it. I know that we are in the season of light and joy; and yet, I find psalm 51, despite its penitential tone to be full of light and joy."O purify me, then I shall be clean;/O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow." And these lines are so perfectly consonant with the antiphon for the first psalm on Easter Sunday: "The splendor of Christ risen from the dead has shone on the people redeemed by his blood, alleluia."

In the before times--times before I had become Catholic, and times that were somewhat more conservative and more prone to the influence of traditional thought, there was much emphasis among the protestant crowd on being "washed in the blood of the lamb." I haven't heard this much among the Catholics I've associated with, but it has a long protestant tradition and stems directly from several passages in scripture. This is one of the holdovers I have from the before times, and I still think in these terms. I am redeemed by His blood and it has been placed on the doorpost and on the lintel of the door to my soul--I am marked by God by my confirmation, my baptism, and my reception of the sacraments. I am among His chosen people so long as I choose to be. The only thing my will can effect that is not inspired by grace is to reject this great gift. I can choose at any time to reject the Lord, to say no to His gift, to walk away from His people. This is a very real possibility, AND it is the only possibility that lies outside His grace; however, it does not lie outside of His permissive will. The Lord is not a rapist, He will not force His love on those who choose to reject it.

But in thinking through these things, I begin to understand where the "once saved, always saved" error intrudes into some Protestant thought. When one enters the Church and/or accepts Christ as one's savior (allies one's will to the will of God), the desire to continue in Church, to receive the sacraments, to discover more about this magnificent heritage, to worship the God who gave all this to us grows. Yes, it can be dimmed by our own sin, it can be rejected by pique or by rebellion. But the reality is that it is hard to reject these things once one has partaken of them and understands what one has tasted. They are extraordinary. How many of us converts would return to the fold from which we have come? I daresay, despite the many problems in the Church, it would be precious few. I know what I have found here and what I was never able to find elsewhere, and it is far too valuable to throw away no matter what the provocation. So, too, I suspect with any person who willingly embraces the faith and comes to love God. Salvation is not assured, but it becomes difficult to reject God. There is always the intent to follow. It can be suppressed and crushed, but Jesus is there to revive it, to seek out the one lost.

Truly, once marked by the blood of the Lamb, and accepting that mark ourselves and making it our own, I become one of the sheep of his flock. I grow in love for the Lord by His constant attention. Nevertheless, just as a man can walk away from a woman at any time, no matter how profoundly he has declared His love, it is entirely possible for me to walk away from the Lord. And though the mark is indelible, the gift that comes with it need not be accepted.

These are the thoughts that occur to me with the recitation of psalm 51. Wash me and I shall be white than snow. When I pray that line, I am renewing my humility, my willingness to be near and with the Lord. Each Friday is a day of joy because I can unload that sinfulness (in one sense--though not the sacramental sense) and dance once again in the presence of Him who washes me clean.

Another thought occurs as I write this. When I say "Wash me and I shall be clean," I am also becoming as one of the little ones. Few adults ask others to wash them; some are forced to accept the ordeal, but few take it upon themselves. Whereas we all know that small children are washed and cleaned by their parents. It is a moment of parent/child intimacy that will linger with the child throughout his or her life, even if it is unconscious rather than conscious. When we pray this way, we are admitting our littleness, our infancy in the face of the Lord; how can he help but react as every reasonable parent reacts and take us up in His arms, and hold us tight to Him.

"O wash me and I shall be whiter than snow."

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Get Serious About Prayer

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That's what I say to myself. Stop the endless fragmented, half-hearted, attempts at prayer and get serious.

Getting serious is, of course, only possible through the grace God gives me. I can't will myself to be serious about prayer, although I can conform my will to His desire for me to be serious about prayer. I can start doing things that would lead me deeper into a life of prayer.

"Such as?" I ask myself. (And I note, lest I be accused of semi-pelagianism, that even these things must start with, be fostered by, and culminate in Grace.)

Fostering an environment, internal and external, for prayer.

(1) The external is less important except as it eventually can help shape the interior space, but I must follow the chain of grace into the life of real prayer. I must fill the space with light from the wisdom of the Saints and from the scriptures. I must take off the shutters that I have long used to deny access to the delicate archive of false self. Let the strong rays burn away what is not of God.

(2) Controlling frivolous and detrimental speech. Too many words water down whatever there is of importance, even when these words are not directly involved in the action. More, overuse of words weakens their essential power to move us. And still more, we tend to start believing what we speak--it is part of the power of the words. That is why Jesus tells us that it is what comes out of a person that makes him or her unclean. When I speak ill of another, I begin to believe what I say and I condemn myself thought lack of charity. The fullness of my heart overflows into my words. So rather than speak every idle thought that enters my head, perhaps a span of time should be placed in front of whatever response I am to make, and in that short span, I should really search my heart for the Gem that I know lies under the ash and allow it to shine forth in whatever words I must use.

(3) Removal of all those things that keep me away from God in whatever way. And by removal, I don't mean mere physical disposal of these things, but true attention once more to God's grace and His call. I've already seen how mere will-power can be utterly ineffectual in weeding out those things that lead us astray. Only grace can allow us to leave all for All. However, grace doesn't work by itself. I mustn't lapse into quietism. My will and my desire is required. Without my consent, grace, unless prevenient is utterly ineffectual. God will not force me to Love, but He is constantly inviting me.

Getting serious about prayer is getting serious about the one thing that matters and the one thing that has any potential to help me and the world around me. So, why do I continue to waste valuable time?

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(A personal reflection)

I was startled today to realize that for the better part of ten or eleven years of pursuing a Carmelite vocation I have really been pursuing an illusion conjured by my reading of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of √?vila--the dream of the mystic encased in God. But Carmel is really and substantively about total immersion in God's word with resultant service to His people as summarized by this reflection:

from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

Two contemporary Carmelites, Kees Waaijman and John Welch, have reflected on the closing lines of the Rule and have something to say that may help us respond to today's needs. The concluding lines of the Rule are as follows; Here then are a few points I have written down to provide you with a standard of conduct to live up to: but Our Lord at his Second Coming will reward anyone who does more than he is obliged to.

According to Welch and Waaijman this passage seems to refer to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Carmelite is the Innkeeper and Christ has come bringing the sick and the wounded asking that they be cared for--that everything possible be done to help. Christ will return and then repay the Innkeeper. According to this interpretation the Carmelite has his or her world turned upside down by the visit of Christ. We are asked to care for people with all their needs and wounds. This request, which causes inconvenience, challenges the Carmelite out of any egocentricity and reminds him or her that life is a mess and unpredictable. Spirituality is not a cosy option but is the call to respond to the gift of God's love by our involvement in what is often a dark and difficult world. Waaijman suggests: 'Real giving is essentially dark, and this is 'the going beyond' of the Rule into a desert of love, a night of trust.'

We spend time in the Scriptures to learn how to serve the Lord of the Scriptures and by serving demonstrate what true love means. In this round of life we may taste of the delights that are described by the Mystics. But whether this happens or not what matters is complete obedience to what God asks of us through the rule. Our obedience is its own reward--nothing more need come from God to me save the grace to obey and so to serve and to love.

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Treading the Thin Line

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I don't often think about how difficult the life of a priest can be, but they are constantly called to a certain balance and aplomb. This passage from The Collar makes a case-in-point.

from The Collar
Jonathan Englert

As far as the magisterium went, Don's resistance had been in the area of sexual teaching. The Church clearly opposed birth control, but Don couldn't really accept the Church's position. Somewhere along the way, Don had read Pope John Paul II's Gospel of Life, and it had convinced him that birth control, abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are part of a continuum. The organizing principle is the sacredness of each human life. To be against one of these principles meant that a person was against all four. He had reflected on his own marriage in light of this and had become convinced that part of the reason for its failure had been that his wife had never been open to the prospect of children. They had used birth control from the start, and Don now believed that taking the procreative possibility out of the act of making love deprived it of a profound and holy dimension and risked reducing it to a selfish pleasure. Done knew how complicated this area was and how carefully one had to tread--especially as a pastor in a nation where a reported 75 percent of Catholics did not hold the Church's view. (p. 108)

The priest is in a teaching position, responsible for educating his flock in the truth of the Catholic faith. To do so he must, first of all, not alienate the majority of them. In addition, no matter how well formed, it is entirely possible that a priest may question the truth of some of these teachings himself.

Don's journey describes in part of its arc, my own journey into the truth of the Church, and I cannot but suspect that even for someone raised within the Church, the encounter with these truths often takes some time. I can conceive of a man called to the priesthood in all good conscience who might have some difficulty wrestling with this issue in view of all the problems in the world. Nevertheless, as a man of integrity and as a personal representative of the Church and as the local "official" spokesperson, it is necessary for the priest to try to teach the Catholic truth, even where his own convictions may differ. I know that there are a good many priests (probably all of them) who fail in this in one field or another. Where they are orthodox on sexual teachings, they may have problems on social teachings, or ecumenism, or any number of other areas. Nevertheless, the priest must teach.

Assume for a moment that the priest does hold to the truth of the sexual teachings of the Church. He could walk up to the ambo one day for the homily and harangue his congregation about the evils of birth control. In so doing, he might convince one and alienate a hundred. He must convey the truth, but he must do so in a way that can get through the defenses and bring the people he serves to their own knowledge of the truth. The messy fact about the truth is that it can only rarely be taught, often the best one can do is summon up the arguments and wait for the person one is speaking to to experience the truth. Because, after all, the truth is a person.

The priest finds himself in this delicate situation with regard to nearly every revealed truth the Church has to offer. As one obliged to lead his flock to the truth, it is a difficult responsibility. There is a passage in the book of the prophet Ezekiel (EZ 33:2--see extended entry) in which God says something like, "Woe to the watchman who does not keep his watch and whose people are destroyed because of it, for their sins shall be upon his head. But woe unto the people who do not attend the watchman. . ." You get the point. As appointed watchmen, it is incumbent upon the local priest to reveal the truth as taught by the Catholic Church. And as pastor of souls, it is his duty to try to capture the greatest number possible in the net--so a harangue from the ambo may not serve as the best means of convicting the majority.

I honestly don't often think about this. But in a microcosm, we are all in the same position. If you have a friend or friends who you know are practicing birth control, you can stop your conversation to inform them of the grave sinfulness of their practice. That will be received differently depending upon the degree of friendship, but it is likely to have a souring effect. One must be as "cunning as serpents and as innocent as a dove." Thus, we find ourselves addressing these wrongs in ways that can be heard by the people we love and hope to help. It may take months or years to convey what there is to know. That is the duty and responsibility of each person to the extent they are capable. Each person needs to stand for the fullness of the truth that resides in the Catholic Faith. My approach, more often than not, is not to attempt to correct the error directly, but to express my doubts about a given proposition and suggest where one might find some elucidation on the matter. If someone asks me questions indicating a certain affinity with a position of moral relativism, I might nudge them in the direction of Veratatis Splendor explaining that while I have not the intellectual wherewithal to engage in such a high-level discussion, here is one who has addressed it far better than I could. And so on. I suppose it is a way of copping out, but it is also a way of turning someone on to the truth as the Church teaches it.

Next time you're tempted to ask your priest why he doesn't produce thunderous sermons on the nature of sin and its punishments, pause and think about the make-up of your local Catholic community and imagine how it might be received. There was a time that such sermons were a mainstay of Church life, but today, there are any number of places a person can go, including merely to another parish, to escape the unpleasant reality of Church teaching. It is the job of the priest to convey those truths in such a way as to guide the greatest number of his entrusted soul on to glory--the rest he must trust to providence. At one time, no one would gainsay anything a priest might teach--sometimes this had disastrous consequences. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see a parishioner berating a priest in the Narthex after Mass. There are "champions of orthodoxy and purity in ritual" who don't think twice about upbraiding a priest in public for any abuse, liturgical or homiletical, real or imagined. Given these truths, it is not hard to conceive of why a priest might be somewhat more toned-down than we might consider right and proper. In truth, the position of a priest can be a most unenviable situation somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

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The wise man knows how to run his life so that contemplation is possible. Gabriel Marcel

Although the statement seems to beg a certain amount of chicken and egging, one wonders why it would be a wise person who would choose contemplation. After all, the wisdom of this world informs us that contemplation has nothing whatsoever to do with success. The wisdom of this world is inextricably bound up with notions of success. Resting on one's laurels, as contemplation is often seen, is hardly the road to advancement. And as far as worldly wisdom is concerned with respect to perceived advancement, the argument is essentially correct.

Contemplation does not get the housework done; it doesn't merit promotions in our jobs; it doesn't put food on the table; it doesn't buy a new car, truck, or boat; it doesn't pay for a vacation. Contemplation seems little more than a way to fill the idle hours that one has if one doesn't watch television.

Of course those who bother to read these words don't buy into any of these myths; however, many may not be aware of the true wisdom of seeking contemplation. It is wisdom because despite all the many ways of approaching God, the only real way to intimacy with God, in this life or the next, is through contemplation. We can study God's word, philosophize, theorize, synthezise, metabolize, internalize, externalize, realize, and irrealize, and never approach closer to God than when we take a cup of tea or a spare moment and simply spend time with Him. This can take any number of forms. Those of us with busy minds might like to have a short text in front of us to focus our attention and keep out some of the more distracting elements. Those inclined to a naturally serene modus vivendi may not require such external helps. However it is done, spending time with the beloved is a wise thing to do.

Study, analysis, and rigorous reasoning can bring one a great distance in understanding of God; however, they often don't help at all in understanding God. The only way to begin that is as with any object beloved--spend time. When a person spends the time with the beloved, things once very dark become lighter. Patterns only scarcely discernable in one's own life become marked as though with phosphorescent dye. Questions fade into realizations.

Wisdom comes not from knowing about but from knowing intimately, as intimately and more intimately than one knows one's spouse, because the God one wishes to know dwells inside us and waits only for a moment's turning to open a person up to His hospitality.

There comes a time when study must end and conversation must begin. Growth continues from the information in the mind to the formation of the Soul in the very image of Him who fashioned all creation.

God awaits a moment's opportunity. A moment that can become an eternity even now--timeless and beyond time--a period of intimacy with the Lord who is Love.

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Lenten Joy/Easter Joy

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This post might as easily have been entitled, "What Joy Means to Me."

Easter has come and marked a change in time. Were I to take this very fine post at Disputations at face value, I would be very much concerned. The deeper into penance one goes during Lent, the higher into joy one goes when Easter comes. And this seems very true. However, my Easter season is little different from my Lenten season--there is no profound surge of emotion, no exultation that was not already present in Lent. What there is instead is a quiet reassurance that what began in Lent will continue quietly through the Easter season and beyond. The changes that have started can take root and transform life. This quiet assurance that marked the whole of Lent, marks Easter as well. God is present. He conquered Death to be present to us.

Hence, a word of caution about what "joy" might mean. It may, in its popular understanding be mistaken for happiness; but, that is not the fullness of meaning, and certainly not the fullness Tom was aiming for when He wrote. The essence of Joy is living in the presence of the Lord. As proximity increases, so too does joy. When proximity is such that all that is present is the darkness that comes when God wishes to draw us into Himself, joy is still there in the clinging to faith and the standing firm on God. Easter joy may not come upon one as an emotion so much as a confirmed change in life, a determination to move ahead less full of oneself and more full of Christ.

Easter joy takes many forms, not all of which would be readily understood as such by everyone; however, this joy dwells in the heart and it may affect different people quite differently. As with the gathering at a charismatic prayer group, there will be those who are loud and express God's word in great joy, and those who quietly relish His presence among His people.

If your joy is not the shout out and dance experience, don't worry. Treasure what God has given you in the secret recesses of your heart and determine to take the small gift and make the most of it. Move closer to the Lord with each day, with each prayer. Turn the penance of Lent to good purpose by looking on the face of the Lord. Grow in love with Him--that is part of the season of Easter. The good work begun in you at your baptism is brought each year to this fullness and transformed in His light.

May we all continue to grow in His ways in fullness of heart and great joy at the assurance of His tender love for us.

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Seniority at the Seminary

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Reading The Collar by Jonathan Englert and found this rather interesting observation:

from The Collar Jonathan Englert

Seniority at the seminary was curious and certainly not the kind of thing found at schools with age-based grades. The diversity of ages and experiences at Sacred Heart turned this sense of the word "seniority" upside down. Nevertheless, a distinct sense of seniority existed at Sacred Heart. The men close to ordination tended to be looked up to and deferred to. More than that, they actually seemed to be more mature than the newer men. Indeed, some men who had been married and had children and grandchildren could seem younger than others who were decades their junior. It was as if upon entering the world of the seminary, bereft of the usual markers of a life, each man somehow betrayed his spiritual age and the distance he still had to go to become a parish priest. A man like Don Malin, a consummate example of the formation process, provided a yardstick again which these "younger" men could be measured and also could measure themselves.

Isn't this true of how many approach a priest in real life? Men who are decades or years younger than oneself are fonts of wisdom and those we go to to solve problems. From the description provided here it would seem that the formation process is a finishing school, a place where vocations are discerned and persons refined and "polished" to a high gloss. There are, of course, as many different kinds of priest as there are kinds of people, quiet, boisterous, wise, foolish, smart, and not-so-smart. From all of this one can discern what differentiates them all from everyone else--if properly formed, they have discerned and nurtured a vocation, a calling from God, in such a way as to prepare them (although I'm sure many would wish for even greater preparation) to support the people of God in all of their wanderings.

Or so it would seem from the course of the book. I don't know how many priests plan to read it. Although as professionals in their fields, I would suspect a great many would look at it as I would a book about palaeontologists--just to see if the author got the details right--whether or not it rings true. There are certainly things here that seem very sound and very well-grounded.

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May God through the glorious mystery of His Risen Son grant each of us a blessed, holy, and joyous Easter season.

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More Thoughts on Service

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It would seem that the life of service springs from the fullness of love. Recall the scene in Ben-Hur when Judah Ben-Hur encounters Christ on the via dolorosa. Ben-Hur wishes to serve Jesus, just as he was served by Jesus. The impulse may be in part obligation, but it is also gratitude and a true love and awe that has begun to grow in Ben-Hur through his encountering Christ.

When most people meet Christ in the form of simple services, that desire to serve begins to grow, and fed enough, will begin to overflow. The small acts of service received each day blossom into a realization of love and a life of service.

Love is at the center of service. The love of Jesus Christ is the motive for all service worthy of the name. Because of the love of God and person is willing to go out of his or her way to help another. It is only this love that will inspire that kind of service. In the sacramental bond of matrimony, the husband and wife are bound to one another through love, of course, but also by ties of mutual service. The service grows from the love that forms the core of the relationship, or the service does not grow at all.

When anyone begins to seriously consider the life of Christ and His many demonstrations of love for each of God's children, the consideration cannot end in anything less than the desire to imitate the Beloved. The greatest joy of love is to serve another

A person does not start serving to learn love, although that may happen. A person learns love and then starts to serve. Until love is at the center, service is more self-serving and self-satisfying than it is service. A person serves for the small good feeling it gives to be helping someone else, or perhaps from other less gracious motives. However, even this beginning can grow into the service that stems from love. All service to the physical and spiritual needs of others is good and it is a good place to start from. But the service that stems from love is divine--in origin and in effect. God takes the obedience and humility offered in service and transforms them into glory, if only the person is ready to receive it.

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“Unless I wash you. . . "


What a wealth of meanings springs from this simple phrase. Holy Thursday is a day to think about leadership and about service. It is the day we celebrate the institution of the Priesthood, the body dedicated completely to the service of God's people.

It is interesting that when Jesus was about to go through His passion, he saw what today is called "a teachable moment." The apostles were all gathered for the Last Supper, although they did not know it at the time. When supper had come to an end, Jesus takes off his outer garments and assumes the character of a slave, a servant of no meaning to the apostles. Peter objects to this and Jesus tells him, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me."

Notice the phrase was not, "Unless you serve me." It is , "Unless I wash you." And this single phrase seems so replete with meaning that one does well to spend a moment and unpack it a little. The first and most obvious meaning, I shall return to in a moment as the bulk of this post. But hidden here is the knowledge of the death He would suffer and Jesus spoke in the fullness of the revelation of that death. "Unless I wash you," certainly refers to the present situation of washing the apostle's feet, but it refers also to the shedding of His blood--that precious blood poured out as a gift and a libation to all of humanity. When we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we become Jesus, we are transfigured as He was upon Mt. Hermon where Mark tells us, "And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them" (Mk 9:3). So too is the believer transfigured with not only clothing becoming radiant, although that clothing is Christ Himself, but also the person--who is permeated through by Jesus Christ. As John says, this is the inheritance of all the saints: And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 7:14). There is no white without the crimson of His Blood; there is no share in His inheritance that does not accept His ultimate service to all on the cross. There is no other name by which people are saved and this salvation comes at the cost of accepting that He must wash us clean.

That is only part of the point of this weighted phrase. More immediately, Jesus was showing the apostles and all Christians the meaning of Christian life. He washes the feet of the Apostles, the leader stoops down to service. But no, Jesus tells us that it is the duty of the leaders to be servants to the people of God. Peter, who will become the head of the Church is told with all the others, I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.

The person who would be with Jesus and who would lead others to Jesus must be willing to serve. We have seen that time and time again through history--the great and exalted humble themselves to become the servants of the most needy. St. Margaret of Scotland, Queen and servant to the Poor. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, princess and servant to the poor. These people of high standing, abandoned their thrones and led the people they served through the example of their service. In the Carmelite rule, the Superior of a group of monks or friars is called upon to be the servant of all of the monks. He directs the community, but much of his direction comes through his example of service. he becomes a teacher by virtue of the service he gives to the brother monks.

Every Christian is called to this same servant leadership. Whether a person holds an exalted position in the community or is simply one of the many, each one is called to serve neighbors, enemies, and friends. Each person is called to sacrifice--for family first if the married vocation calls for it, and then for all the rest of the community. The leadership a Christian shows is the leadership of washing feet. As with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the leadership of her community rested upon leading all the others in service to the poor and to each other.

Servant leadership is an important part of the baptismal call of all Christians. Priests demonstrate this through unstinting service and through the sacrifices they make in the paths of their lives. As they serve God's people giving bread and wine, the Body and Blood, at the banquet of the Eucharist, their example should inspire us to serve others with food, water, clothing, shelter, compassion, and deep and abiding love. As priests serve selflessly, they teach service to one another. But the example of the priest is ultimately the example of the Priest, the single High Priest who presides in Heaven over every service offered on Earth. He is the exemplar of service, giving first His life and then His eternity in service to those who do not appreciate it.

And that is another aspect of service--very often it will not be embraced. The servant will be cast out, rejected, and cut off. The person who serves will be seen as passive, ineffective, not meaningful in a dog-eat-dog society. Quiet service vanishes in the face of self-service. I recall that Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Princess Diana both died at about the same time, and for much of the time the death of the Saint was eclipsed by the Death of the Princess. I recall even seeing posters that linked these two women, and while I have nothing against Princess Diana, who did do much to serve others, she never rose to the levels of service that Mother Teresa showed throughout her life.

Service is the keynote of the Christian message, and it may be one of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life to internalize. Most people do not really want to serve; it is far easier to relax and be served. Few really rejoice in the opportunity to serve unless that opportunity comes with the possibility of being noticed. Most service is a weak and paltry thing outside of the shining spotlight of fame. And yet, that is the lot of the Christian. Each person must consent to be served by our great Teacher, Leader, and High Priest, and then follow the example He laid down for us and serve one another. Our service is not so much to God, although God counts it in our favor, but it is to God's people. The service God has assigned to the Christian is bearing truth, love, and the knowledge of the ways of God to all of His people.

He showed us how to do this when he washed the feet of the apostles in the moments before he was to be taken away forever. Pause for a moment and consider--Jesus did not merely demonstrate service to the Apostles, He demonstrated composure, serenity, assurance. He was in the moments before the long glory of the Passion and resurrection. His mind must have been filled with what was before Him, and yet, rather than impatience, he showed the apostles kindness, loving them at the very end in ways that would become meaningful only after the events of the coming days. Jesus was full of the torment that would surface in the Garden, and He spent His time washing feet rather than wringing hands. His service was His joy, His delight in the moment with the company of His friends. And so all service stems from this central joy. For when anyone does as Christ has instructed, that person is among the friendship of the apostles. God serves each person to give each person the strength to serve others. And so with Peter one might be inclined to excess: “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” But Jesus will not rebuke the enthusiasm--merely reassure--you are already clean. Jesus will give the strength and the serenity for service and He will be helping those whom we think we help.

All this so that one day we might say with our brother and teacher Paul:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 2 Cor 4:5.

May it be so for all who follow Jesus.

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No Other Name

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from Death on a Friday Afternoon
Richard John Neuhaus

If, in the mercy and mystery of God, people can be saved who have never even heard of Christ, they are still saved only because of Christ, "for there is salvation in no one else."

Many Christians are embarrassed by this claim. They are intimidated by a culture that decrees that all truths are equal. Who are you to claim that you have the truth and others do not? That is indeed an intimidating question, unless we understand that we do not have the truth in the sense of its being a possession under our control. The Christian claim is that we have been encountered by the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ and by his grace we have responded to that encounter by faith. We hope and pray and work for everyone to be so encountered and to so respond.

Christians are often responsible for the common misunderstanding of what is meant when we say, "there is salvation in no one else." We are heard to be saying, "My truth is better than your truth; my religion is better than your religion (Or nonreligion)." But Christ is not my truth or your truth, he is the truth. He is not one truth among many. He is the truth about everything that is true. He is the universal and cosmic truth. Everything that is true--in religion, philosophy, mathematics, or the art of baseball --is true by virtue of participation in the truth who is Christ. The problem is not that non-Christians do not know truth; the problem is that they do not know that the truth they know is the truth of Christ.

To speak of Jesus is to speak Truth, and the one Truth that really matters. We are called to evangelism not as some arcane religious competition to see who can create the largest number of converts; we are called to evangelism to spread the truth. And one important point about the truth is that it cannot be spread at gunpoint or knifepoint, or through threat of a bomb or of annihilation. Orwell's 1984 introduced the reader to the minitruth--a ministry dedicated only to the truth of the day, to the eradication of the contradictory past and the promotion of the present truth. The truth of the totalitarian is not truth at all, but will made into a species of "fact" without basis.

Jesus is not totalitarian, nor is Christianity. A Christian, by virtue of his or her baptism, is required to share the truth--in words, but usually more profitably in the way one leads one's life. But first each Christian must know the truth and understand it to the extent that a person is capable of doing. In knowing and understanding the truth, there is no temptation to grandstand or to get into the "my truth is better than your truth" competition. For truly, to know this Truth, the chief faculty required is not the intellect, but the heart. One cannot know Christ Jesus in the head alone. Unless Jesus is the center and core of life, He is nothing at all to the person who claims to follow Him. If Jesus is not constantly in the heart, He has no home at all, because Jesus is not an idea. Jesus is incarnate love, and such love only has a home in the faculties capable of love--we refer to these as the "heart." If Jesus has not been allowed to enter and transform the human heart into His temple and throne room, then He is a transitory visitor. He will continue to visit, of course, because He is all mercy and kindness. But the person for whom Jesus is not the center is not a person who can witness for Christianity in any believable way. The central truth of Christianity has not taken hold. There is no effective evangelism apart from love. And once love has taken hold, there is no effective eradication. This we can derive from the history of Christianity in Japan, which, although now a small percentage of the population, survived the most ruthless and barbaric oppressions to still emerge, sometimes in strange native shapes, but nevertheless, the light of Jesus is still there.

Where Jesus has been made at home, the person is ready to witness to the truth. And this person is more likely to witness in their service to the poor and dying, to those oppressed or overcome by temporary hardship, by those in need of a friend or a visit. The heart of Christianity is Christ in the heart. Anything less is the shell of Christianity--Christianity as nice idea once it is implemented, Christianity as construct or institution, Christianity as historic edifice. One must first hear of Jesus and learn about Him, but at some point, one must make a conscious and deliberate decision to allow Jesus to take His rightful place at the center of our being.

A person can choose to keep Him out. And in His mercy, He will honor that decision. And a person can choose to allow Him a sort of shadow existence, so long as He promises not to get in the way too often. But this latter never remains for long. Either the person gives way completely, or he or she pushes Jesus out the door. There is no middle way. God's love is all or nothing at all. Half a love never appeals to Him. Someone either accepts God and thus His love entirely, or rejects it entirely.

It often seems too many Catholics, perhaps too many Christians of all stripes, try to walk a balance line--it seems that they want to retain autonomy all-the-while wanting to have God as well. It is as though we wish to be in a driver training car, where we hand over the wheel, but at any point can take back control. Tepid faith, angry apologetics, internecine divisions over every point of rubric or doctrinal interpretation--these are the signs that God has not been given a welcome in too many hearts. For if God were at the center, all other things would fall into place, just as promised, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you."

Catholics are not wont to speaking of "giving your lives to Jesus," or , "Accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior." The language is alien and seems to embody some sort of alien concept of salvation and of religious life. But the truth is that we can attend all of the sacraments and spend hours in Church, but "if you have not love, you are as a clanging cymbal." There is much noise about the religious life, but no substance. The substance of religious life is complete surrender to Jesus Christ. Say this with whatever words are necessary to convince, but there is no deep faith without love. If one fails to look always at the face of the One who loves, one cannot maintain the fervor of faith--one is like the seed on shallow hardened ground which sprouts and then dies in the light and heat of the troubles of the day.

This week more than any other, a Christian has a chance to walk the path of love and see where it leads. It is frightening and it is heartening--because through the many trials, pains, and terrors of the way, the end result is always life, light, and love. When one looks upon the face of Love in trial, and sees how it is set like flint in doing what is right and not what is easy, one can be transformed. Holy Week is an invitation to transformation as the Church journeys once again through the last days of Jesus. His love is shown in the washing of the feet, in the trials before Pilate and Herod, and in his suffering to the last moment and His shedding to the last drop His blood. It is in that blood that there is forgiveness of sins and the spark that will give life to half-a-faith.

"Lord, I believe, help thou, Lord, my unbelief."

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"Leaving God for God"

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Quoting Blessed Titus Brandsma

from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

So the contemplative prayer of the Carmelite is also the strength of the active apostolate. The influence of the contemplative soul is not withheld from the apostolate. . . . So there is no opposition of the contemplative life to the active. The former is the great support of the latter. The mystical life is in the highest sense apostolic.

Titus believed in the seamlessness of the Christian life--prayer and work were parts of the whole. Whenever he was called from silence and solitude to help someone he would say that he was leaving God for God.

In the Lay Carmelite life, prayer should find its expression in service in the world. We go to prayer to meet God and in meeting God we are given our work to do. It is a fine balance--making time for prayer and for the service that springs from it, while actively serving our families and our Churches.

But the apostolate of the Lay Carmelite is not merely contemplative prayer, but showing how contemplative prayer "works-in" with an active life. We are blessed and nourished by our prayer and our example, when lived according to the Rule and in accordance with the disciplines of the whole Catholic Church, allows others to see the integration of the contemplative and active that may occur in every person. One of the primary messages of Carmel is that contemplative prayer is for everyone. The way of Carmel is a special call, a vocation; however, contemplative prayer is available to all outside of Carmel. A person who is part of no lay order is invited every bit as much as one who has joined. God wants intimacy with all of His children. Lay Carmelites demonstrate that it is possible to live an active life of service fueled by contemplation--Martha tempered by and informed by Mary. Perhaps it is not the highest or best calling--that is reserved for those whose entire vocation is contemplation. But we don't really want all the best gifts, but rather the gifts most suitable for us as God sees us.

Thus Blessed Titus shows us that leaving our prayer to help a friend, or leaving our prayer to feed the poor is leaving God for God. In this life of apostolic contemplation and service we can never really leave God.

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Do you ever find yourself writing out a comment on site and suddenly realize that you aren't really saying anything that needed said--that, in fact, you are detracting more than adding to the point?

I just found myself over at another site doing this. I had an elaborate and complicated post full of subtlety, ingenuity, profound reflection, perspectives that St. Blogs couldn't even conceive of, and wit, sparkle, and charm. Most of all the post was full of ME, me, me, me. I was writing to hear myself talk again and so that all the world could admire the sheer brilliance and panache that has come to be known as the Riddle Comment.

Enough was too much. After saying all that I had to say in excruciating detail, I deleted the post. And that was so liberating. I had defined in my head the parameters of meaning, I had conversed with the author of the post in a way that was more edifying for him that it would have been otherwise, and I was done. I'd said all that I needed to and I had thought through my objections and cross queries.

Would that God would grant me the wisdom to do so more often. There's no harm in writing all the comments in the world that never get posted, and so much potential harm in a single comment that goes awry. Too often I am excited or incited by the ideas I see purveyed that I stumble in and make idiotic remarks that add nothing to anyone's understanding or enjoyment. Better that I confine my remarks to things edifying. Or perhaps even better yet maintain in other venues an edifying silence.

Alas! that is not in my personality, so the best I can hope for is to at least offend no one. Because if anyone has an idea, I'm there to talk about it. And I like comments and talking about ideas. So, I suppose I will slip up occasionally--a salutary lesson in how best to go about commenting. I won't stop because of a mistake, but perhaps the mistake will allow me to let go enough to let God take better control of the action. When that happens, perhaps I will be able to edify. But then, it won't be me doing the edifying, it will be the Holy Spirit within me. It is presumptuous and rude to think that of myself I can do anything worthwhile. Whatever is good comes from God, the rest I can claim for my own.

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A Call to Life


from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

The writer Chris O'Donnell is influenced by the theology of von Balthasar when he says that Thérèse has something to teach the post-Vatican II Church. If we want a renewed and missionary Church we need to move away from mere organisational and structural change and live love. We will see then the wonderful reality of the Communion of Saints and learn to understand how much worth there is in an act of pure love--in living the "Little Way". In her discipleship Thérèse is in many ways a wonderful window into the faith of Mary, whose unconditional trust lived through Calvary and then experience the fullness of the Resurrection.

I don't know about the theology of von Balthasar, or even about Thérèse as a mirror of the Blessed Virgin; however, one thing struck me right between the eyes. The only way to change the Church for the better is to live love. No amount of governmental change, or tinkering with rubrics, or modifying this, that, or the other discipline, or arguing the merits of one view of atonement over another, or, in fact any critical or supportive action will mean so much as transforming ourselves first. And by transforming ourselves, I mean the utter surrender to God's will that allows us to learn how to live love. I don't know what this statement means of myself. I know it only through the action of the Holy Spirit in the transformation of my person. I do not now live love. I don't even know how to live love. But I do know that I won't find out from however many books I read or lessons I study. I haven't grown beyond learning more about God in these ways, but I will never find out the essential quality for a life pleasing to God, because this is learned only at the School of His Holy Word, in the presence of Christ the Lord. Unlike the disciples, I must learn to stay awake and heed His teachings. Only in complete attention to Him do I even learn the meaning of love. The phrase God is Love is utterly meaningless without living His life. I can make guesses at what the words mean, but it is only in my living them out that they come to the fullness of meaning. And that may only happen when I turn everything over to God. I learn love by being Love--that is the only sufficient school.

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The Mystery of Redemption


Here is a passage that intrigued me.

And yet. God reconciling the world to himself is also God reconciling himself to the world. In working out the plan of redemption, the Bible does not say that man became God, but that God became man. Further, he reconciled himself to the world by "not counting their trespasses against them." He forgave us not by ignoring our trespasses but by assuming our trespasses. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." God became what by right he was not, so that we might become what by right we are not. This is what Christians through the ages have called "the happy exchange." This exchange, this reversal, is at the very epicenter of the story of our redemption. In the Great Vigil of Easter we sing of the felix culpa--the "happy fault"""O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!"

God becomes a person so that people may be divinized and assume their places in God. God reconciles us to Him by reconciling Himself with us. This is the great mystery of the incarnation, a deep mystery and one that could be a profitable source of meditation for an entire lifetime. I will never come to understand it completely. In fact, it is so far beyond my comprehension that I simply accept it. In every story one reads about God (with a few exceptions for the Hindu stories of God) the God or God's stand on their rights and demand that we ascend (or descend) to them. Our God descends to us and takes us up with Him in the ascension. We are the constant subject of the table talk of God the Father and Jesus at the eternal banquet. There is not a moment that passes when each one of us is not on His mind. We are emblazoned there and treasured there, mind and heart, heart and mind. God's every thought is for each of us, His tender will--our redemption and restoration to the rights of the throne room. We are carefully nurtured, constantly attended.

All of this from the God we chose to kill and whom I choose to kill each day again with my litany of sins. I speak words with my lips and drive in nails with my hands. I give Him a moment's attention and count myself the best of friends, pat myself on the back for all the work I've done to maintain the friendship. And yet mere guilt and shame, both of which I feel to some degree, are insufficient and counterindicated. Rather than either, He prefers my love, my ardent attention, my devoted heart. He cares more for what I do now than what I have already done. He covers my sins through the act of His Son, but which all sins have been covered. And all He asks of me is that I love Him; because it is not in battling temptations, nor in serving in the poor, nor is preaching the word, nor in a multitude of prayers that I make amends for what has gone before. Rather it is in the love from which all of these things and more spring. God asks only that I give Him love. So rather than guilt and shame, whose good purpose leads me to the confessional, He wants me to put my former life behind me and put on His life. He wants me to cooperate with His grace and put on the life of Jesus Christ my redeemer who comes to me this week as King and whom I kill s thief in my daily interactions.

May it not continue to be so. May I learn the depth of the love of God and so manifest it to all those around me. By loving Him may I love all of them. God rescues me so that I may lead others to be rescued--that is the chiefest sign of my love for Him, that I bring back to Him what He treasures about all treasures, what is more precious than precious, what is His and His alone--the people He died for. When I walk the via dolorosa I will know the weight of what He has done for me and feel that cross squarely on my shoulders to that I might feel what it is like to return to life, to come back from the graveyard of sin and emerge once more into the light.

A blessed Holy Week to you all.

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from Death on a Friday Afternoon
Richard John Neuhaus

It is difficult to face up to our complicity because the confession of sins does not come easy. It is also difficult because we do not want to compound our complicity by claiming sins that are not ours. We rightly recoil from those who seem to wallow in guilt. The story is told of the rabbi and cantor who on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, lament their sins at great length, each concluding that he is a nobody. Then the sexton, inspired by their example, laments his sins and declares that he, too, is a nobody. "Nuh," says the rabbi to the cantor. "Who is he to be a nobody?"

Who am I to be a nobody? Especially as God has created me to be a somebody in His image and likeness. And yet, so long as I continue in my sins, this sinner is, in fact, a nobody--in direct opposition to God's will I insist and demand that I be nothing at all to the Body of Christ. Sin does that to one--the terrible sense of freedom and of doing everything "My way." And then the terrible sense that my way is long, winding, crooked, unpaved, unshaded, and awfully lonely.

Until I leave off sin and seek to do the will of God, I am a nobody. Unless and until I can surrender to God and take my rightful place in the body of Christ, I am more an infection in the body of Christ, a rogue cell, a carcinogen, than I am a properly integrated member. And outside of the Body, there is nothing at all. If I am not part of Christ, I am part of nothing--literally, for nothing that was created was created apart from Him. Outside of Jesus, I declare my affinity with nothing at all. That is the price of the freedom I insist on in my sinfulness.

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A Thirst for Souls


Reading this in evening prayer tonight inspired in me another line of thought:

But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight. KJV

(Of course I didn't read it in that magnificent language.)

It is said that as one grows in sanctity and in the paths of God that the desire for the salvation of souls increases to the point where it is almost a mania. If one looks at any of the great Saints, we see motivating their works love for God and hence love for His people. This love demonstrates itself most practically in how one views other people as regards the eternal things. That is, one may not like one's neighbor, but one loves one's neighbor enough to sacrifice greatly to see to it that the neighbor arrives in heaven.

A sure sign of increasing intimacy with God is increading concern for the flock He shepherds and an increading desire to help those already on the path live more perfectly. This is just one of the signs of growth, but it is an important one, because it marks the beginning of the turning away from self and concern about oneself and marks the beginning of selflessness without which there can be no intimacy with God either now or in the world to come.

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And perhaps it is time to take stock of how our lives have changed and what miracles God has wrought in the course of our trek.

For one thing, I am not saddened by the sense of failure that often comes to me toward the end of Lent, where I wonder where the initial enthusiasm went, and where all my determination to grow closer to the Lord. The Lord has blessed me with a quiet and profound growth that I feel can survive the end of Lent. My penitence has not been harsh and so it has proven durable. I have found a way of life that will move me a step closer to the way of life I ultimately wish to have. The Holy Spirit has blessed me greatly this season and I hope I can begin to share those blessings with all of you as time goes on and blessings become time-worn habits that tamp down the road that ascends Mt. Carmel.

I would suggest that you spend a little time yourselves and see what fruit you can gather from this season and carry on into your lives. Each lenten season should lead us a little closer to the Lord. And as with approaching a whirlpool, the currents that lead to Him grow stronger as we near, there will come a Lent in which you are caught up in the torrent of His love and drawn inexorably to Him for the joy and the benefit of all of humankind. For there is no closeness to the Lord that does not manifest itself as a closeness and a bond with the people around us. There is no love of the Lord that does not shine out as love and service to all of humanity.

God has been good to me and continues His goodness in the small trials and the small revelations of each day. I only pray that I can continue to see Him clearly and move toward Him through grace. May God bless each one of us with an intimacy with Him and the pure joy that flows from it and sustains us in all of our ways.

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from At the Fountain of Elijah
Wilfrid McGreal

She [St. Teresa of Avila] is aware from her own conversion experience of the need to grow from a solid human basis. Prayer comes from a life of practical love, from detachment and humility. We cannot talk to God if we do not speak lovingly to our neighbour and we need realism, and a grounding of our lives.

What may surprised many, coming from a cloistered nun, is the revelation that prayer comes from a life of practical love. Sometimes we have an unrealistic vision of the cloistered life as one of ethereal and fantastical encounters with God while floating through a day of prayer. And while the life of the cloister is completely imbued with and dedicated to prayer, it has some hard realities. And in St. Teresa of Avila's time, those realities were probably a good deal harder.

What is practical love? What forms does it take? What do our lives look like grounded in practical love? It would depend upon one's state in life, one's means, one's personality and inclination. But regardless of these three it will always show in a willingness to share what God has given us with those less fortunate, less knowledgeable, or less aware of God and His Mercies. A life of practical love will always be a life of sacrifice. We will give ourselves up and surrender to the ones we love much of our energy, time, talent, and the goods of the world that have been bestowed upon us. As parents in means serving our children and bringing them up in a way that will foster their service to God, neighbor, and country. It often means long hours of what seems thankless work and doing things we don't particularly care for in correcting and instilling discipline in our children. Yes, there are great rewards and joys in this service, and that is the consolation of many acts of practical love. But practical love is based on these consolations, but on the purest love of God that makes a person constantly hunger and thirst for ways to show that he or she loves God. Practical love stems from the desire to make manifest to God, to ourselves, and to the world the overflowing love with which God fills us as His own unmerited gift of grace.

Practical love is substantially grounded and completely devoted to "other." And practical love is, well, practical and commonsense. You don't hand a starving many a worn coat. You don't give to the naked a can of baked beans. This should go without saying, but often, we are trapped in our own sense of what needs might be and we don't see far beyond our own borders.

Practical love is simply the natural outpouring of the love God pours into us as we come to know Him better. It overflows, it cannot be contained, and so it spills out in the light of the world in small acts and in large, but all of them flow from a deep and abiding love God has for us. We become Him as we pour out His love on all the Earth, seeking to return some little for the vast fortune He has bestowed upon us.

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Both Tom directly (see link below), and Ryan (indirectly) make a very important point.

While I try to think with the Church at all times, there will be times that I fail. Most often I fail from ignorance, not malice; although I will not preclude the possibility of the latter.

One is wise to question everything and its authority, particularly if it is the opinion of one person before accepting it as a reasonable premise and then to test the reasoning. Mine is, honestly, not top notch. I am a contemplative first, a thinker second. As a result, some of my thought lines can be muddled.

So I guess the caution here as well as elsewhere around the Blog circuit, or even in the world at large is Caveat lector. Whatever you read, ask questions, check it out, think it through.

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Two Wolves

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This is one of those things that may be making the e-mail rounds, but it really spoke to me and I wanted to preserve it so I could find it again. Thanks little sister!

Two Wolves

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a war that
goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

"One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false
pride, superiority, and ego.

"The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

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A Story of Transformation

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It is useful to look back over one's life to see where one has been. Often one learns new and interesting things by that exercise. Frequently, one is brought to knowledge by a sudden action of God. I'd like to share an instance.

Last week, in conversation over lunch, I suggested to a friend that she might want to focus a bit on the Blessed Virgin and her role at Cana and at the foot of the cross. This friend pulled out her trump card, "I don't see the Blessed Virgin as you do."

"What do you mean?"

"I believe that Mary had other children, that Jesus had real brothers and sisters."

"Well then, you would be wrong, wouldn't you."

My friend didn't notice this comment, but almost upon it coming out of my mouth I was utterly astounded. I was raised protestant--indeed fundamentalist. When I came into the Church the Blessed Virgin was more roadblock than pathway. I wouldn't say a rosary and thought those who did were little short of idolaters.

God has nudged me bit by bit through my interactions with Catholics, through my reading, and through my prayer to come to a more Catholic understanding of the Blessed Virgin. Most influential were toss-off remarks, or fragments of homilies (Priests who read this pay attention) that would get down inside and roll around and around until the logic of them became evident. I recall a Priest at the Byzantine Church TSO often mentions saying something of the feast of the Conception of St. Ann (aka The Feast of the Immaculate Conception) about how the Blessed Virgin was made the vessel for God and in the knowledge of what she had carried could carry no other children because of the infinite merit of the first. I don't remember the exact phrasing, but I remember being impressed by the statement and the argument.

I guess over the years all these accretions have trickled down to the point where I find myself reflexively defending what I would have attacked not so long ago.

God moves us by degrees if we are willing. I remember praying in the matter of the Blessed Virgin, as I was considering becoming a Carmelite, "Lord, I'm not there yet but you lead me to the truth that you would have me know about Our Lady." God will not leave such a prayer unanswered. Even now I pray, "Lord, let me know and understand the teachings and the meanings of your Church, lead me to the understanding you have for me." Because every day requires conversion. Every day requires a change of heart and a change of mind. Every day requires renewing my love for God, and He gives me so many ample demonstrations of it that it becomes impossible to resist.

As He did in the matter of the Blessed Virgin, let is so continue until I am squarely in the center of the truth. May His wisdom so inform me that I cease to rely upon my own and lean only upon His. May His understanding be my own. Step by step and patiently, but may I arrive there in His time according to His will.

God is so good!

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The Garment of Immortality


from Office of Readings--Monday of Week 6 of Lent
St. John Fisher

Christ first offered sacrifice here on earth, when he underwent his most bitter death. Then, clothed in the new garment of immortality, with his own blood he entered into the holy of holies, that is, into heaven. There he also displayed before the throne of the heavenly Father that blood of immeasurable price which he had poured out seven times on behalf of all men subject to him.

This sacrifice is so pleasing and acceptable to God that as soon as he has seen it he must immediately have pity on us and extend clemency to all who are truly repentant.

We approach the end of Lent, still having time to move in directions that will carry us away from Lent on an entirely new course, a course that brings us ever closer to God in a deteriorating orbit, as our own stubbornness gives out, as the Gravity of His love overcomes the inertia of our selfishness, we fall into Him as into the gravity well of a planet or star, as the prodigal falls into the arms of the Father who welcomes him back. We can begin to wear the garment of immortality, tasting of it as we taste of God and of His holiness.

Lent passes away, not so our chances to increase our intimacy with God, not so our opportunities to prayerfully serve those around us. They increase daily as we become aware of them. God calls us to Him as we live today. We resist, but let the resistance subside, take a little step, and a little step, and a little step. One step at a time God conquers us when we allow it. One step at a time, He proclaims His triumph and glory. One step at a time, we become the Love that saved us.

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I will be the first to admit that the doctrine has a number of pitfalls for the person who holds it. There are the dual dangers of complacency and presumption. That is, if we trust our intuitions that all are led eventually to God's will, it might cause some to think that they are not instrumental in this leading. Some might abandon their efforts or reduce their efforts or make no efforts whatsoever. We are God's present and physical instruments in this world. If people are lost we are, in part, responsible. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. We are charged with making present the awesome love of God. If people do not experience love from us, how can they come to know how God loves them? (Another of many reverse implications of the first letter of John--"If you do not love what you can see, how can you claim to love what you do not see." If people cannot see love in this world, how can they begin to know the love of the world beyond (except of course by the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit).

The second pitfall or error that might result from relying too heavily on this belief is presumption. If God saves nearly everyone anyway, then it mustn't be all that difficult, and I'll wait until the last possible moment and then say yes. Or, more commonly, I can pretty much do anything I want because I've got God on the scopes, so I'm okay.

To say that most or all eventually arrive at God is not to say that the road is either easy or guaranteed. If it is only most, some do not make it. If it is all, who knows how long the sojourn in purgatory for those who took up the offer too late.

No matter what we believe about the ultimate disposition of souls, it is requisite upon us to act as thought the opposite were true. Even if all might be eventually saved, isn't better to work as though they would not? Isn't it also better to cut that "eventually" to a "here and now?" Wouldn't we all be better off if more people recognized right not the necessity for following God's will? Wouldn't each person benefit from all the others who have achieved union with God in this life? Would the world be a worse place for being overrun by saints?

I do not base my actions in Christian life on the basis of what I may think about the possibilities of salvation. Prayers and works of mercy must continue unabated and we all must work out our individual path of salvation, and assist to the degree possible, all of those around us. In fact, most of the time, the question of "how many are saved?" isn't really even a question for me--it makes only the smallest of ripples in the larger ocean of life. It is an incidental, a codicil, a thing that is interesting to speculate, but which cannot be known until after we have died and start to experience God's reality. Our immediate duty is to our sisters and brothers here and now.

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In the previous entry on Universalism, I made what might be a tactical argument in approaching the argument from the negative side. What I hope to present here is the mirror image. The two are of a piece, but they say things in somewhat different ways and perhaps clarify the point of what I was trying to say.

The beginning of this post is in the three below. When we consider God's Sovereignty, God's emeth and hesed and the "power in the blood," things seem to come together in a pattern. To me the pattern suggests that God is reluctant to let anyone go. That is, rather than the great and unmoved judge (which He also is) He is the God who goes out seeking His people and inviting them back.

When I think about sovereignty and emeth and hesed, I think about a fundamental commitment to all of His people. When I concentrate on these aspects of God, I am left to wonder how many people have the strength to resist God's grace. Yes, it can be resisted, but God is the importunate widow for most of us--He accosts us right and left, day after day, every day, every hour, every minute, until we give in. It takes a great deal of resistance to be able to resist so long.

So what I have is not an argument, although on both sides of this issue one could compile scriptural references and quotes from the Fathers and any number of other "proofs" until the cows come home. Ultimately, we must go on what we know about God. If our vision of God is that of a Father, the father who welcomes the prodigal, we might be hard-pressed to envision how such a father would not go to all extremes to assure the safety and integrity of His children. That is not to say that all people will return the Father's love--I will never deny that it is possible. But when someone is wooing you every day of your life, every moment of every day, when someone is completely interested in every aspect of your life and existence, completely devoted to you and to your salvation, it is going to be difficult to escape Him.

Francis Thompson said it rather well.

from "The Hound of Heaven"
Francis Thompson

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --

"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."

It's a negative way to think about it, but here is the divine stalker, the one who pursues and will not lose the object of His desire. However, this is not stalking as we know it, because the end of this is rapture in eternity. Does the Hound of Heaven capture every fleeing soul? Perhaps not, but given His strength, His knowledge, His power, and His endless self-giving love, it is my belief that it is a very rare and extraordinary soul who manages to escape this much attention.

Hence, we have not so much an argument as an intuition. It could be wrong. But the image it gives me of God is one that allows me to love God more because I see how much care and love He has lavished on me and on all the people around me, all of whom flee--some at a greater rate than others. The God I see in this is one who prizes each one of us so much that the loss of one is unthinkable. It puts me in mind of the Father who sacrificed everything in His Son to bring us back to Him.

Ultimately it puts me in mind of the fact that I am not grateful enough for so generous a God. My love fails, but His does not. And with enough time and with grace, His love becomes my own.

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Nothing But the Blood


This is the kind of song I did not understand or appreciate enough a couple of years ago, and certainly not in the time when I was far more likely to have sung it than my sojourn in the Catholic Church. And yet, now we sing it in Church and I am compelled to allow it to run through my head and my heart:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.


Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

--Robert Lowry

How utterly and unearthly beautiful. I am made whole by His brokenness, I am cleansed by what is ultimately "unclean." (See the Hebrew ritual laws regarding contact with blood.) My cleanness is purchased by His unclean death, my wholeness at the cost of His brokenness. "Oh! precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow."

Praise God for His hesed. Other words fail me right now.

Later: Here's a link to the melody.

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Emeth and Hesed

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I am by no means a biblical scholar, nor a professional student of Hebrew, nor even one who knows very much about Hebrew. But these two words are so important to any understanding of God and most particularly any understanding of God's relationship with His people Israel. By extension, they are "qualities" or attributes of God, and of God in His simplicity who has no separate qualities or attributes that are not part of the wholeness of God.

Emeth is faithfulness. But very often it seems much stronger than what we might call faithfulness. Interestingly enough, in many of the stories of the Golem, it is with word "Emeth" which animates the man-of-clay and he is laid to rest by erasing the first letter (which I'm told is a aleph) so that what is left is the Hebrew word for death. Thus faithfulness and death are close and emeth might be considered faithfulness unto death. Unto our deaths, individually, and unto His own death on the Cross. This is the end of emeth, the faithfulness that is stamped on all the pages of history--the story of God's complete surrender to us, complete faithfulness to us. Emeth, is His promise to be with us always unto the end of time. Emeth is His promise to lift us up from our graves and restore us to our places at God's table.

Hesed is also variously translated. The mildest translation I have seen is "mercy." Mercy seems too light a meaning for such a loaded word. I have heard some say that hesed is "a wrenching of the bowels," a feeling so deep it tears up the guts, as it were. Hesed is sometimes translated as loving-kindness, which goes a long way toward making it sound namby-pamby; but hesed is the love that carves us on the palm of His hand, sets us as the apple of His eye, is announced in the "It is finished" from the cross and then rushes out through the world to causes cataclysmic earthquakes which result in the sundering of the temple veil, the separation of humankind from the all-loving God. Hesed is the font of love and the commandment to love and the fulfillment of love from within the deepest reaches of God. Hesed is touching God's heart.

Emeth and Hesed, the words that describe God's covenantal relationship with the People of Israel, and by extension to all of us. Faithfulness that cannot fail, and love that reaches into death and pulls out life. These are the qualities of God's attention to each one of us. Emeth and hesed--faithfulness and loving kindness from the depth of being. How can we return anything less?

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God's Sovereignty


This may or may not work into later explanations from the bright side on universalism; however, it is a notion that has been brewing for a couple of days and which seems not to want to go away--so it is better to deal with it.

What does it mean when one says that God's will is sovereign or that God Himself exercises sovereignty? How can this statement be reconciled with free will?

I think the simple answer is that it need not be. To say that God is sovereign is to say that His will is done whatever it is a person chooses to do. A person may choose to cooperate with God and thus do God's ordained will, or a person may choose to go against God's will, and find him or herself in the paradoxical position of doing God's will anyway because God permits this action. His permissive will is every bit as much His will and as perfect His will as His ordained will. Either way, whether I cooperate or whether I go against God's will for me, still I do God's will. That's what sovereignty means--His will rules all will. Even when my will is opposed, still He uses that opposition to accomplish His ultimate end of the salvation of the human race. How this happens is deeply mysterious and beautiful beyond description. It is just one of the many things that make you sit in wonder before the majesty of God.

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About this Archive

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

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: March 2006 is the previous archive.

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