Christian Life/Personal Holiness: May 2006 Archives

There are really two points to this post. The second is that radionics still exists and is practiced as medicine in some parts of the world. Most interesting. The first follows:

from A Far Cry From Kensington
Muriel Spark

At the time Abigail showed me her Box I was somewhat relieved to find it futile, because, as I pointed out, if the Box could do good it could also do evil. 'It stands to reason,'I said.

'Oh,' said Abigail de Mordell Staines-Knight, "how right you are. But don't let Ian hear you say so. To him it's impossible to do anything wrong with the Box. And in fact, it does nobody harm, let's face it.'

She was a really nice girl in spite of her name. I, too, didn't think you could do wrong with the Box, nor right with it, nor anything.

What I find interesting and worthy of further consideration here is that the ability to do good comes coupled with the ability to do evil. Moral neutrality is moral invisibility and perfect inviability. The only way something can have no moral content is if it is incapable of being used at all, and hence has no content period.

This is interesting to think about. The only object that is outside of moral questioning is the object that is utterly useless to anyone. That is not to say the objects themselves possess morality, but the morality stems from the use of them. If an object can be used and cause good, it stands to reason that it can be misused and cause evil. If an object has no use whatsoever, then it is truly neutral ground. For our present purposes the planet Venus is most likely a morally neutral object. The idea of Venus, however, may not be.

What is remarkable in the passage above is the way that Muriel Spark finds to put a very coherent, difficult, and perplexing question into an amusing scene. This trait, introducing moral complexity, is a key feature of Spark's novels and is one of the things that makes for such compelling reading. One is instructed or persuaded beyond the power of the events in the book alone. In a sense, it is the better part of art to be didactic. Once art has lost its ability to teach, it has lost its ability to mean and it becomes one more useless object. That isn't to say that art is completely encompassed by its didactic nature, but that the teaching element of art is ever-present in any true work of art. If nothing else, art teaches us to see anew. And in that sense Spark's novels are art.

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For one thing, you're probably tired of hearing about her and until I raise a great tide of readership, I shall simply have to continue to regale you with excerpts of her fine works. But for another, there's this:

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

I had some savings and a small pension, so I had no need to find another job immediately. In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York's arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.

'Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest.'But no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest. About the time that the Ullswater Press folded up I recall reading a book about one of the martyred Elizabethan recusant priests. The author wrote, 'He was accused of lying, stealing, and even immorality.' I noted the quaint statement because although by immorality he meant sex as many people do, I had always thought that lying and stealing, no less, constituted immorality.

I think this character would have looked upon TSO's blog (at very least the title) with some great approval.

What is interesting here is that Spark has done something unusual for her works. The book is narrated in first person by a (so far) very likable narrator. This does not allow her the enormous distance she tends to keep from her characters. Nevertheless, this main character is cool, ironic, and sardonic--looking upon things as from a distance. She is among the more engaging characters in the opera so far.

I'll let you know how she gets on as the story continues. At very least expect a review within a week or so.

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Analysis might suggest that society has undergone an ontogeny in faith similar to the development of the individual with respect to his or her relationship with a parent. More succinctly stated, the relationship of God the Father to humanity has changed through time, not because God has changed, but because humankind has undergone a maturation which leaves us, at the present time somewhere in the stage of middle adolescence.

The ontogeny of society with respect to faith began in the infancy of the spread of the Gospel through Israel and to parts beyond. As with most infants, growth was rapid, indeed prodigious, and resulted in a few growing pains--commonly known as heresies.

Through the post-apostolic period, up through the reformation, we can see the development of faith in the stages of childhood--a rocky toddler, learning to stand and walk, gradually coming into his or her own and exercising a kind of power. But all through this time, a dead-level certainty in the wisdom, power, and deep love of our Father. Never any doubt as to His love for us, but rather some questions about what form that takes and what exactly obedience to that might entail.

With the Reformation, we begin the outright rebellion correlative to the teen years. There is a questioning and a refutation of all power figures, because indeed the flaws in the figures are exposed for all to see. Simony, the selling of indulgences, and other figures of a Church gone awry in parts, are all too present blemishes on the facade. So rather than rejecting the blemishes, humankind rejects the entire authority figure, and with it, the idea of God that was implicit in the figure.

With the Reformation, doubt about God's abiding love surfaces. First it makes its appearance in the puritan's fear of the world, then with Quietism, Jansenism, and Deism. (That's probably out of chronological sequence, but you get the drift.)

Present day, it seems we're in the height of the teen rebellion years when the Father (God) and Mother (Church) figures are so stupid as to cause astonishment that they have survived at all to this point. Everything they have said or have to say is immediately suspect because they have said it. There is every possible infraction of every possible rule. We've moved from the Divine Chain of Being to the autonomy of the individual. In this stage humanity shows its indestructibility and arrogance as it stumbles from one disaster or near-miss to another.

This gives cause for hope. There is a saying (I can't find the attribution at the moment) regarding the fact that at 15 I couldn't believe how stupid my parents were, by the time I was twenty-one it was amazing to me how intelligent they had become. So one can hope with respect to the maturation of society. Surely there are no signs of it as yet, but then, when do the "signs" of the maturation of a teenager actually "set-in." Is it not the case that the teen gradually moves out of rebellion and into accord with the manner of his or her upbringing (assuming that it was not abusive) almost completely silently? One day you turn around and discover that this child who had spent ten years making life sheer hell has suddenly agreed with you. (I know it was true for me as a teenager and young adult.)

There may be no signs and symptoms that are readily recognizable. But we have the absolute certainty, the perfect assurance that "The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

What does this mean to the Catholic practicing today? Do not abandon hope! Live as example of one faithful to the Father and to the goodness of the Church. Don't preach, don't rail, don't despair, don't fret. All of these things make for ugly siblings. Rather, live in the joy of the Lord, thank God daily for things as they are and pray that they may become ever more as He would have them be, and then live to make it so. Remember the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing; God never changes.

Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

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First an apology: this theme has probably been beaten into the ground at this blog; however, it is so important and such a help to stability of faithfulness.

When a faith-life enters the doldrums, or even when it is humming along on an even if unenthusiastic keel, one thing which can be very helpful in ratcheting it up a notch is gratitude. Too often I am so self-centered that I forget to give thanks for the myriad of small things that make every day so wonderful and beautiful. Caught up in the tide of what needs to be done next and how do we manage this, that, and the other thing, and where is my next hour of entertainment coming from, and such like petty desires and thoughts, I forget the importance of being thankful and thus lose a certain graciousness, a connectedness that might otherwise blossom and grow more perfect.

Gratitude for small things inclines the heart to God, or at least so it seems. At very last gratitude for small things inclines the heart away from self and directs thoughts to another. Thankfulness for the courtesy of a held-open door or elevator; thankfulness for the smile on a small child's face, brought about by some trifling attention or by nothing at all; thankfulness for one's faithful and loving spouse, who while showing no great act of self-sacrifice or giving, shows constant self-denial and self-giving in the daily acts of living; thankfulness for gainful employment; thankfulness for sun when it's sunny, for rain when it's raining; thankfulness for the birds, the trees, the clear sky full of high white clouds, traffic lights, hibiscus in bloom, sundials, gardens, giant squids, and living fossils.

Thankfulness helps reignite a tepid faith life. Gratitude moves us from the central, fibrous core of self into the realm of God who grants all of these good things.

Gratitude. Thankfulness. Two indispensable words for one essential reality--recognition that everything I have comes to me as a gift from the fullness of the love of God. Even the words I read and write come to me from Another--One whose love completes me by helping to eradicate me and replace me, still myself, and yet now more Him.

Gratitude. Thankfulness. These too are gifts which may be had merely by thinking about them and inclining oneself to feel them. Grace makes this possible.

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About my own faith-life I have reached a conclusion that emphatically will not apply to all, but which may apply to others.

The more I worry about such important things as justification and the mechanics and details of atonement and salvation, the less capable I am of living anything like a life of faith and belief.

While there is no certainty as to the origins of the problem, it would seem to stem from an inability to atomize, to dissect, as it were, and to regard the object under the microscope as the living fabric of faith that it is. More simply stated, I cannot at once concern myself with these things that strike me as the mechanics and mechanisms of salvation and with the Person through whom redemption and salvation have come. The analytic intellect clicks in and all that looms large is the meticulous reality of the great machine that whirs and clicks away.

It's a shame, but the personal, in this small case in my life, means far more than the theoretical. And it's strange because in most other aspects, the exact opposite holds true. Calculus and higher mathematics were always a breeze so long as they were theory along, once they became "practical," they were a sheer muddle.

Not so in the encounter with the Savior. The Person of Christ looms large, and in that Person all that appertains; they are part and parcel and I need not try to fathom how one works within the Other. I need merely accept that the Person of my salvation cares about me with a love that transcends time and death.

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The Secular Scripture

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from The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark

This became certain as Selina began to repeat, slowly and solemnly, the Two Sentences.

The Two Sentences were a simple morning and evening exercise prescribed by the Chief Instructress of the Poise Course which Selina had recently taken by correspondence, in twelve lessons for five guineas. The Poise Course believed strongly in auto-suggestion and had advised, for the maintenance of poise in the working woman, a repetition of the following two sentences twice a day:

Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind, complete composure whatever the social scene. Elegant dress, immaculate grooming, and perfect deportment all contribute to the attainment of self-confidence.

Even Dorothy Markham stopped her chatter for a few seconds every morning at eight-thirty and evening at six-thirty, in respect for Selina's Sentences. All the top floor was respectful. It had cost five guineas.

Where faith and prayer are absent, something will rush in to fill the gap. Here, it is the seemingly innocent chant of self-confidence/self-esteem, that replaces, say, morning and evening prayer. But it isn't innocent because it is a prayer said to oneself, a chant designed to praise and adore the person within.

This is the form that all worship not outwardly directed takes. In fact, it seems to be the form that much outwardly directed worship takes as well. When one allows oneself to be carried away by distractions of one's own making: constant monitoring of the flow of Mass to be certain that no technical errors are made in the performance of the rubric, analysis of the lyrics of hymns to determine whether or not they are worthy of singing or truly give God praise, concern about the gestures or lack thereof made by one's neighbor, analysis of the homily to be certain that nothing heterodox has crept in, critiquing the voices of the readers as they perform their functions, and so forth, one is concerned primarily with oneself. This concern is expressed in the way of outward things, but the real message from all of this is, "I don't like the way things are going--they are not being done to my taste."

Self-worship creeps in in so many ways--the likes and dislikes that drive one this way or that, the little, seemingly meaningless "preferences" that fill up the worship service, flipping through the prayer book to find a new or different invitatory because one has prayed the old one to death, looking for a new song, a new psalm, a new translation, a new commentary. . . all things that relate to sensation and appetite transform the proper outward focus into a deliberate inner focus. One may as well be praying or chanting the Two Sentences.

Self-worship enters every time the attention is deflected from God to anything not God. And as with temptation, the mere deflection of thought is insufficient, it is the embrace of the distraction that marks self-worship.

I heard tell once of a priest in a parish who upon hearing an infant cry in the back of the Church stopped his homily and said, "Will you take that squalling infant out of here!" The person who told me the story had not been back to Church in twenty years. Nursing that offense is one form of self-worship. The offense itself was a form of self-worship. The error made being always to allow anything to come between oneself and God, and more particularly to allow anything not of charity to do so.

The possibilities of self-worship are endless and endlessly misleading. The reality of true worship, a single fine thread. Truly, "strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life, wide is that path that leads to destruction." And each person chooses the way he or she will go.

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Look For God


And you will assuredly find Him. Or rather, you will finally notice that He has been finding us. Recounting his concentration camp experience, Viktor Frankl writes:

from Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth--that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way--an honorable way--in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

His parents named him Viktor, and indeed, he was. He survived the camps, and not only did he survive them, but he came out of them with a more intimate knowledge of God and of human nature.

For humanity, there is no higher goal, nor anything more sustaining that contemplating the image of the Beloved. Yes, there is much good in remembering the lesser goods, all of our beloved family and friends. But the highest form of contemplation, the form that breeds intimacy and speaks to salvation is contemplation of the Beloved. In this is salvation even in the worst of circumstances. One cannot even begin to imagine what life was like in the long haul of survival in the camps; however, in those same infinitely horrible, infinitely blasphemous camps, one man at least, survived and came to the rest of humanity with the message he received. He redeemed a science by acknowledging that our greatest good does not lie in ordering what is within, but in giving all to that in which we live and move and have our being. One moment of love of this Beloved is better than a thousand years of the bliss of love on Earth, as excellent as that is.

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Every choice matters.

Any time there is a choice to be made, the way one decides determines to some extent the choices that become available thereafter.

In many cases choices are between two equally legitimate goods. In some cases the choices are between two goods, one of which is a greater good. In some cases the choices are between a good and an evil.

When this last is the case one must take a lesson from Church Teaching and from Harry Potter, one must always choose what is right not necessarily what is easy. The remarkable thing is that when one is trained in such choices, what is right becomes what is easy.

And each choice is a training in choices. That is why each one matters.

Now it is possible to read this too strictly and become paralyzed, uncertain of which way to go--doing the Christian equivalent of consulting the auguries over whether to have the baked potato or the sweet potato. That choice does matter, but it is so small a choice and the relative differences between the two so small that the "wrong choice" whichever it might be does not carry the weighty consequences of an incorrect moral choice. However, to dismiss it as an insignificant choice is to miss the point. Every opportunity to choose is an opportunity to learn. Every chance one has to select one thing over another is a chance to see what the consequences of a choice may be.

Some choices are enormous, thoroughly life altering. For example, on the mundane level, the choice to take a job near family and present friends or to move to a distant place to take a job. This choice does, in effect, shut down a lot of other choices that could be made. Either way, certain avenues are closed off.

So, too, when one is faced with a moral choice, but in an even more profound way. A choice to abuse recreational drugs may start out as a choice and may wind up as a necessity as the body becomes dependent upon them. The choice to cheat "just a little" on income tax, expense reports, petty cash vouchers, makes the next time just a little easier.

Every choice matters. Probably the place where this is most often overlooked is in our entertainment. There are a great many good, licit, and helpful choices that can be made regarding which types of entertainment we indulge in. However, for every good choice there are any number of bad choices. These bad choices, either because of lack of quality or lack of morality, move us downward, ever so slightly. Suddenly, from a life of enjoying Shakespeare and the western classics, one is watching Daisy Duke and reading "Classics Illustrated" comics. These are not things that happen with just a single choice, but a series of choices lead us down roads from which it is hard to turn away.

If beauty leads to God, lack of beauty, lack of goodness, must perforce lead away.

So many things seem not to matter. Watching this film, reading this book, going to this store, all are minor in themselves, but rich in their influence on future choice. When one deliberately lowers standards in order to "fit in" or "get along" or even "take it easy" or "chill out," the compromise has ramifications. It is impossible to guess where they might lead.

Now, all of this would be very dire if there were not recourse to God. Everything matters to God, even the smallest things done. It doesn't matter in the sense that salvation hangs upon every action, but it matters in the way that any good parent is concerned with everything his or her child does. God wants what is best for each person. God wants the proper choices to be made and He wants for each person to approach Him more closely. The choices one makes affect how closely one can approach God, therefore, God cares about those choices. Because He cares, He stands ready to help. Prayer is a constant help. Dedicating meals to God allow the participants to eat and enjoy the food prepared in a proper and balanced way. Prayer at other times helps prevent erroneous choices or redeem poor choices already made.

Prayer is the proper tool, the correct "weapon" in the war of choice. Prayer will guard and protect, advise and inform, and ultimately, the door opened to God and the Holy Spirit through prayer will allow the light to shine needed to see in the darkness of this present world. Whenever a choice is before us, a moment with God will suffice to help ensure the best choice is made. "Who has God lacks nothing."

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The genesis of quietism seems to be very easily explained because it is a paradox any Christian of good faith will butt up against in the course of living out a vocation.

If one accepts that there is no good action that does not begin with grace, continue sustained by grace, and end in grace, one is presented immediately with a problem--How do I know that I have the grace to proceed? If proceeding without grace is presumptuous and fruitless, how can one tell precisely when to begin? Telephone calls, post cards, and billet-doux (of a personal nature) from God are rare. How does one know when one is following God's will in a matter as subtle as moving on in prayer?

To this question, there does not appear to be a ready answer. One cannot assume that one has the grace and the go-ahead to proceed, but the desire to move on could probably be taken as a strong indicator that that is the direction one is called.

So what if one starts out on this road and fails? Or what if other things interfere? How do we sort out our presumption from interference by infernal agents?

Again, there seems to be no ready answer. However, this is one reason a person to discuss the spiritual life with is so important. Such a person should have broad knowledge and experience of the life he or she is trying to guide others to; he or she should be aware of the barriers to progress and the nature of these barriers. Is the barrier such that one should return to discursive meditation or vocal prayer, or is it one that requires persistence in the realm of mental prayer.

Quietism is one danger of an extreme interpretation of the doctrine of grace. It is one that is hard to avoid and very easy to give way to; however, we have as one indicator our own knowledge of the possibility. It would be relatively easy to identify extremes of behavior or attitude that suggest quietism--it's just the earlier stages that might present the pray-er with some difficulty.

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from Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

There are two kinds of human excellence, the first of which is on the level of natural talents, gifts, accomplishments. . . . The second and higher type lies on the level of personal goodness, integrity, virtue, sanctity. . . .

It is immediately obvious that someone can be eminent n the first area of talent and accomplishments and a moral wretch in the second. There are thew few who excel on both levels: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila. It should be obvious to a consistent theist that to be a saint is immeasurably more important than to be a world class scholar, violinist or an Olympic gold medalist. . . .

This last sentence is the show-stopper. It should be immediately obvious to a consistent theist--first, is it immediately obvious? Do our actions, our choices, our outlooks, our interests, the direction we take on things show that this is our consistent outlook? Or do we rather tend to laud those who write well or speak well or play football well. Am I more interested in the poet laureate than in the saint down the street?

Second, I think we can read this to mean that a consistent theist's life should make this obvious. Do the things we are concerned about, fret about, talk about, lavish time and energy on, all reflect to the unbiased observer our knowledge that moral excellence is the superior excellence? Or do I have to go up to that observer and over the din of my book and television reviews, comments about this and that social agenda, remarks about other Christians and followers of other faith, inform him or her that I value above all else moral excellence.

If I am any measure (and I admit that I am at best a poor measure), our lives are not representative of the truths we claim to hold most dear. Most of us are more interested in the quality of our brew or smoke or dinner or literary circle.

The truth is that there is no harm in enjoying the simple pleasures of life on Earth. But our enjoyment of them should be secondary to our pursuit of excellence. Unfortunately, I know that it is not so for me. I pursue excellence half-heartedly as it seems to recede from me far too quickly.

Nevertheless, there is s remedy. I cannot change myself by myself. But "with God all things are possible." With God's grace and strength, I can begin to live the life that gives witness to the world of His strength and glory. When I can come to terms with my own emptiness and smallness, when those concepts are more than words stolen from other writers, I will have made some progress. When I can pray as consistently and as frequently as I should like to, when I can regulate my entertainments as well as I can my diet, when I can surrender to Beauty and make it known--then I will have made progress. All of these things are possible. Not only are they merely possible, the are potential. That is, a slight tipping of the scales, a moment of exerted will, a dollop of grace, and what could be becomes a reality.

This is true of everyone who has faith in a God who saves. It is true of everyone who wants to make the attempt. It is true of all the saints of St. Blogs. And we are all His saints, now, if we could but live our lives after the fashion of those raised to the honors of the Altar, how much better would our world and all those around us be for it?

As a great spiritual guide once said, "All is gift, All is grace." And All is for all people at all times. Gods grace, like potential energy stored within us, simply awaits our attention to be made active, simply calls for the movement of will that we need to shed our slothfulness to make. And in making that movement, grace begins the transformation of self. All we need do is get out of the way--cooperate to the extent we are able, and move forward in His light.

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Reading Howard's wonderful Dove Descending, I am reminded of how much goes into the art of poetry--every ounce of the life of a poet, and all of the skill that goes into summoning words into living, meaningful, vibrant representations of what is in the poet's head. Eliot was one of the last to write truly meaningful "exterior" poetry. After him a seemingly endless parade of posturing, grinning, self-aggrandizing, self-destructive confessional poets who have as their wares only themselves and their numbingly wearing and wearying dreary dull lives. (Any life lived where the sole object of attention is that person in the mirror who hates me is not worthy of the word "life.") Eliot is one of the few with something important to say. And this is what I both love and hate about Eliot. Unfortunately, there are times when he is all too aware that he has something to say. And sometimes it shows.

But putting that aside for the moment. This morning opening up Howard I tripped over a passage that sent me back to the poem leading me to share with you this marvelous sentence.

"Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter."

It is literally dropped in from nowhere at the end of East Coker, and it is a magnificent and true observation. Love is only love when the self is out of the equation. That can only happen when here and now cease to matter. Howard makes the point a different way:

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

But what is this about love being most nearly itself when her and now cease to matter? Just that. The man in whom love has been perfected is at home in any place (here or there) and in any time (now or then). He has gone beyond the futility of nostalgia and wistfulness. He is as fully at peace under the lamplight as he was under the stars with his new beloved. No lamenting a lost youth for him. There is a time for this. It is appointed. The wise man of Ecclesiasitcus has already told us so.

(With that last sentence, I'm a little confused, perhaps because I don't know Ecclesiasticus the way I ought, but isn't it the wise man of Ecclesiastes who told us that "there was a time for every purpose under heaven?")

Selflessness allows the person to range freely and comfortably through time and space. No Billy Pilgrim here with the vertiginous careening through Trafalmadorian interference. Even unstuck in time, the person in whom love is perfected is not disoriented by where or when. Because the where and when is eternal. When love is perfected on participates fully in the life of God and thus partakes of eternity while here on Earth.

So once again, I encourage you all--all you fans of Flannery, you champions of Walker, you admirers of Waugh and friends of Spark; in short, all you who love and support Catholic literature--seek out Eliot's poem (you can find it on the web, if you don't care to embarrass yourself with pretentiousness in a library) and read it. And if it makes no sense, read it again. And if there still isn't an inkling, do Ignatius Press and Mr. Howard a favor and buy the book. You really will be glad you did.

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from Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

An accurate synonym for conversion, as we are using the word here, would be transformation. Put simply conversion is a basic and marked improvement on the willing level of the human person. Even more pointedly, it is a fundamental change in our willed activities from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best. Anyone who is fully alive will find this a stimulating set of ideas. We can put the matter in still another way. Conversion is a change from vice to virtue: from deceit and lying to honesty and truth. . .gluttony to temperance. . . vanity to humility. . . lust to love. . . avarice to generosity. . . rage to patience. . . laziness to zeal. . . ugliness to beauty.

From the point of view of attention to and intimacy with God, supreme Beauty, supreme Delight, conversion includes a change from little or no prayer to a determined practice of christic meditation leading eventually to contemplative intimacy, "pondering the word day and night", lending to a sublime "gazing on the beauty of the Lord" with all its varying depths and intensities (PS 1:1-2; 27:4).

I love the works of Fr. Thomas Dubay. I have read most of them. Some take a good deal longer than others to internalize. It took me over a year to read and understand The Fire Within. I still have not completed, or even fully started The Evidentiary Power of Beauty. His writing is dense, sometimes difficult, but always fulfilling. So, too, it appears with this book. The passage noted above is one that I've read every day for the last week or so, trying to encompass all that is said here. The surface of it is clear enough. Conversion is the willing change of life for a better, more intimate relationship with God. But the real depths lie in the comparisons and in the things Dubay indicates may happen and in the underlying assumption that an increased intimacy with God will connect us with both with God and with a sense of beauty and wonder at His magnificence.

Significant to me is the last of the list of transformations--from ugliness to beauty. Now, this is an interesting point. By growing closer to God, ugliness will be transformed into beauty. Obviously Fr. Dubay is speaking of something other than mere physical appearance, because we know that God's intimates run the spectrum from the exquisite beauty of Rose of Lima and Elizabeth of the Trinity or Edith Stein, to St. Margaret of Castello. Physical beauty, while surely a gift from God, is not what Fr. Dubay is talking about here. So one assumes that he is speaking of a life imbued with beauty--with the ability to perceive the beauty that is God underlying all created things, and with a life that is lived beautifully--in union with Him. When we look objectively at the life of someone like Mother Teresa, we don't immediately say, "Oh, what a beautiful life." Our initial reactions may be more along the lines of, "What a heroic life," or "What a difficult life." But when we delve a little deeper, we break in upon sheer loveliness, a loveliness that was reflected in the person of this diminutive friend of the poor. She was not beautiful to look at in strictly aesthetic terms, but her loveliness was greater than that of her near contemporary in death, Princess Diana. Her life was a beautiful jewel in the slums of India.

As I continue to read this book, I shall probably return to this passage from time to time. It ignites all sorts of thoughts, and provokes all sorts of inspirations and influences. It serves as a road map and a clear sign marking out the territory. And Fr. Dubay has clearly made growth in sanctity a beautiful and desirable thing. While this is always a vague desire in the background, I sometimes think that it really a pretty boring preoccupation alongside, say, surfing or diving or parasailing. But the interesting point is that none of these things are in conflict with sanctity--only seemingly so. One can live a life completely devoted to God and still partake of the good things of the world--certainly not to excess and not to the point where it intrudes upon ministry; however, the licit goods are good for all. St. John of the Cross went for long walks through the country, enjoying the beauty that gave ample evidence of the glory and presence of God. Pursuit of holiness does not mean that the world is tossed away. Indeed, as the great saints show us, it often means a more authentic and more realistic involvement with all the goods of creation--a proper use, a proper ordering, and a proper caring for the things God has given to us.

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from Four Quartets: "East Coker" III
T.S. Eliot

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

from Ascent of Mount Carmel I.13.11

St. John of the Cross

To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
You cease to cast yourself upon the all,
For to go from the all to the all
You must possess it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing
nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down,
because it stands in the centre of its humility.

In the third division of East Coker, T.S. Eliot embarks upon the journey into dark. At first this journey is equated with death, "O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark," is the first line of the section. He then goes through a litany of who "they all" are and the fact that they all go into the dark. He seems to make the point that the dark comes upon everyone whether or not they are prepared to enter it. Then, at the end of the section, Eliot segues to a different dark, another kind of death--the death, while yet willing, of the self and selfishness, which can only proceed along the dark way, the via negativa the "dark night of the soul." It is a dark night because cherished false images of self must die in the light of God Himself. Indeed, the light of God Himself is so light that it appear dark to those ill-equipped to receive it.

Death to self is not death of self. To travel to God in this life, one must die to self, to selfishness, to self-involvement, to all the illusions and images of oneself that have become so cherished. One must consent to being stripped down to the barest nothingness and reconstructed in God's image. This is terrifying, at least in the abstract. But when one stops to consider that nearly everyone experiences this to one degree or another without tremendous instantaneous repercussions, it becomes less terrifying and more inviting. Children are taught by the parents from very early on not to be selfish and self centered. They are constantly reminded "please, thank you, excuse me." They are constantly told, although not in so many words, to die to self.

When a person behaves in "conventional" ways, following the rules of courtesy or etiquette, that person dies to self a little. It isn't a major, earth-shaking trauma, but a small turning away from serving oneself and toward serving another. When one gives place, willingly or unwillingly to another, one dies to self--sometimes reluctantly and bitterly, engendering rage and a desire for vengeance. Sometimes willingly, engendering love and charity.

The death to self must be complete to continue on the path to God. These many small things add up, but each person is asked for more. Each person is asked, in fact, for everything. But most of the time they are not asked for every at once. It is a slow growth, a gentle path, as yet winding through the foothills that lead up to Mount Carmel. The steep ascent is another matter entirely, and there must be a certain amount of shedding of self that occurs before one can set foot on the mountain proper.

But everyone is called, and in this life or the next, all will Ascend through the darkness of the weight of self into the light of the Father. This is what purgatory and heaven are all about--shedding self to become God while remaining distinctly who one is in Him. Salvation--to be who one is without shame; to shine always with His light. But the path of salvation is dark because people tend to love themselves almost to the exclusion of everything else. So it is through darkness that we arrive at light, although as we travel, God's light is all around--so brilliant one calls it darkness.

Later: One is lead to wonder as well whether the first lines of this section of East Coker are not meant to hearken back to a previous poet. Tennyson seems to be referred to, particularly with reference to this poem:

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

But following the rule of three, one would have to find other correspondences before anything so bold could be asserted. Notes for a future consideration of the two.

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

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