Christian Life/Personal Holiness: August 2007 Archives

Morning Thoughts


You know, poetry really says it all. If you bother to listen to the voice under the voice, if you read between the lines, or if you just enjoy for the moment and let the moment linger--poetry says it all. I suppose that is one reason, one very good reason for praying the psalms. Poetry is, by its nature, closer to God. Which is not to imply that God is a poem--but God is at the heart of every good poem--just as He is waiting to surprise you in every work of art and nature, if only you are willing to be surprised.

It's amazing to me how the night
passes and the morning thoughts
born of dreams pass silently away,
unencumbered by the obligation
to teach, unaffected by the need
to nurture. They present and then fold
passing briefly into the light of memory
and fading with the stronger morning.

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The Emptiness of Prayer


We have long known that Blessed Mother Teresa went through a long dark night of the soul. I don't know that anyone knew its extent or depth, and shortly we should all be privileged to be able to find out. Privileged, I say, because such things are the substance of the life of faith and if we ignore them, we do so at our peril. More importantly, they are things that any person of deep faith is likely to experience. Likewise, they are things that ordinary sinners experience all the time. The two have different causes and sources, but the end result is similar. In the case of the sinner, the darkness is troublesome and not peaceful--something fought against, struggled against. In the case of the Saint--well, I wouldn't know that yet.

All of this in preface to a marvelous little passage that says it quite succinctly.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

My mind is a stretch of barren country and swirling dust; my heart has shriveled to the size of a dried pea. But this is all my private comedy. The emptiness of prayer is deeper than mere despair. Preparing us for a love we cannot conceive, God takes our lesser notions of love from us one by one.

Have you really never seen it, Brother James, somewhere in the grim efficiency of your industrial meditation? Have you never once seen all your goodness turn to dust? I tell you that until you do, all your prayer is worse than useless. It is gears of greed, grinding. Love is not fuel for the usual machinery.

What is remarkable is that this is in a work of "light" fiction-- something little more than a romance--what is it doing there? How did the author get it there without sounding preachy and overbearing? What is his point?

I suppose if I sustain my reading, I shall find out the answer and I hope I'll be pleased with it. Either way, I'll let you know.

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More Crossover Wisdom


More derived from reading Buddhist books. I should note a caution here--Buddhism is not something that everyone should approach or that the person young in his or her Christian vocation should look into extensively. There is a seductiveness to doctrine and idea, and particularly to the very appealing notions in Buddhism that allow us to overlook certain intrinsic difficulties with the dogmatic side of the religion.

I present here parallels in Buddhism. They are parallels. Buddhists and Christians do not share the same faith structure nor even, in any meaningful sense, the same cosmology. Nevertheless, we are adjured to take what is good among all the good things in the world, and Buddhism has much in it that could strengthen a Christian vocation. For example:

from Cultivating Compassion
Jeffrey Hopkins

In order to value the time we have--to cherish it--it is important to reflect on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when death will be. In meditation, contemplate: "I will definitely die--as will all of us--but I don't know when I'm going to die. It could be at any time!" Such reflection puts a value--a premium--on the present, on the time you have.

Be prepared and aware of death which comes as the end. An awareness (though not a constant fear) of the end can inform the entire life in ways that bring forth the potential for sanctity. St. Therese of Lisieux has a passage that parallels the above, though not in its memento mori aspects. She notes that all our sorrows are in the past which cannot be rectified or in the future, which we have not seen, but the authentic Christian life is lived mindful of the present, which is all that we have. That is the "premium" of focusing on the end--a realization that every moment is precious, valuable, and important. God blesses us with time--we don't know how much--so it is better to count all the time in the moment and not to look into far futures that may not exist. Not to worry oneself over things that cannot be controlled, but to focus attention on those things which are within our control.

Before continuing to a final point, it is useful to reflect for a moment on a passage immediately preceding the one quoted above.

The actuarial tables say that males as a whole will live so many years and females as a whole will live so many more years, but such figures are irrelevant with respect to any specific individual; if you're going to die next week, it's a hundred percent chance you're going to die then. It's not a such and such percentage that you might live to be seventy-eight. If you are to die on the road today, it's a hundred percent certain you'll die on the road today.

Having quoted the first passage, in which there is nothing objectionable to Christianity, I deftly ignored the sentence that begins an exposition immediately following. I will note it below:

"Since it is obvious that the body and possessions are left behind, on need to put more emphasis on consciousness."

I'm intrigued by this statement as it seems to imply that consciousness does not pass away and if consciousness is the Buddhist equivalent of a soul, that goes without saying. But nothing I've read suggests this to be true. Consciousness is incredibly important in Buddhist thought because of karma. Every conscious act is at once the ripening of one of the potentialities of karma and the setting of new potentialities. And again, we can draw parallels, but this emphasis on what we would lightly read as aspects of the self can be misleading.

Now, to do justice, we must recognize that Buddhists do not think that Mind (consciousness) is equivalent to "self." And so to assume that what is meant by the common usage of the word consciousness is what is meant when discussing Buddhism is an error. However, it is an easy error that can easily lead astray. Hence my recommendation that Buddhist texts are not for everyone. There's too much there when read with the literalist, rational, western mind can be misread or mistaken for something other than what is actually meant. Better, if one is likely to stumble into this trap, to stay out of that forest entirely.

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Buddhist Compassion

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Go to this link for a further link to a very, very interesting short video about the Dalai Lama and the Pope.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is compassion, which is equated with mercy. Jeffrey Hopkins explains it this way:

from Cultivating Compassion
Jeffrey Hopkins

Chandrakirti pays homage to three particular kinds of compassion. The first is called compassion seeing suffering beings, because prior to cultivating wishes for person to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, you need to reflect on the dire condition of beings trapped in cyclic existence.

He describes the process of cyclic existence-birth, aging, sickness, and death--as stemming from ignorance and nourished with attachment and grasping. This means that our sense of self is exaggerated beyond what actually exists, and based on the exaggeration, we are drawn into many problems. Once the "I" is exaggerated, the "mine"--things that are owned by the I, mind and body--also becomes exaggerated overblown. . . . It is true that mind, body, hand, head, house, clothing are "mine"; they do belong to us, but we have an exaggerated sense of owning them.

In a word, the deplorable condition of humankind is a result of sinful pride. Buddhism wants to see an end to the deplorable condition of humankind and thus to its causes--sin. Buddhist compassion is not simply about alleviating suffering, but the causes of suffering. The difficulty with Buddhism is not what it wants at the root, but how one proposes to get to this end.

Compassion in Buddhism is a laudable quality. It is laudable in a Buddhist, it is laudable in a Christian. A Christian should desire to see the end of suffering and its causes, and ultimately hopes for this in the beatific vision. The ends are not so different--the means are a world apart.

Cultivating compassion is not an exercise in alleviating suffering--at least not at first. It is an exercise in becoming aware of the suffering of humanity that is directly caused by the fault of humankind--pride and attachment. Only secondarily does one enter a phase that desires to do something about it. Each of the great Christian Saints showed this compassion differently. Some showed compassion by combating the errors about God and Christ that led people into practices that were not pleasing to God. Some showed compassion by remaining in the cloister and praying for all humanity. Some showed compassion by feeding the poor, tending the sick, visiting those in prison.

A desire to see the end of suffering is not incompatible with Christianity. That Christianity recognizes that some good can come out of suffering is an artifact of the reality that whatever is our present condition, God has willed it for His own purposes and "all things work to the good of those who love Him and work according to His purposes." But even the great saints recognize physical suffering as a natural evil--not a good in itself, but good in its possible effects on the receptive soul.

To suggest then this wide gap between the two is to make a distinction where one is not so clearly made. I think part of the popular appeal of Buddhism, a great part, are Buddhists themselves. They are their own best advertisement. When one sees the peace, equanimity and calm that tends to surround a Buddhist who has long been tending to his or her practice, there is a tremendous appeal there. Even the best Christians seem to be washed around by the tide of circumstance--on again and off again. But this apparent imperturbability suggests a great well of calm, peace.

Of course, we don't live with the Buddhists we see in the news 24 hours a day. Few of us know any Buddhists who have come far in their practice. The reality is probably quite different than the appearance, but being one of the many not personally acquainted with a Buddhist deep into practice, I hesitate to say more than that.

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Compassion and Christianity


One of my frequent frustration with Christianity (although not especially with the Catholic Church, which as a teaching body does much better than the Body of Christ tends to do) is the lack of focus on the duty of love and on compassion in general. Too often different Christian groups are so busy arguing the merits or faults of their doctrines that they tend not to put those doctrines into practice. Try finding a Christian book about compassion and compassionate treatment of others. This tends to be left to the Buddhists, and so, for refuge, I sometime find myself turning there to learn what their great teachers taught.

Reading Cultivating Compassion by Jeffrey Hopkins, I stumbled across this "daily exercise" in compassion. The following prayer, mantra, reminder (call it what you will) is to be brought to mind six times a day:

I go for refuge to Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community until I am enlightened. Through the merit of my charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.

This has few parallels in Christian prayer--although the Prayer of St. Francis comes to mind. And because I don't find myself taking refuge in Buddha, I would need to change the prayer:

I go for refuge to Jesus, his doctrine, and the mystical body until I am made holy. Through the merits of charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve holiness (Saintliness) for the sake of all beings.

What good is personal sanctity if it does not better the lives of those with whom we have the closest relationships?

The Church hits this theme time and time again, but because we are the people we are we tend to regard these teachings with suspicion. Mention Social Justice and see how many good and faithful Catholics look at you askance. If you hear talk about a preferential option for the poor, it is likely to remain just that--talk. How often have we been stirred by understanding these teachings to actually make the lives of some other person better? Often the preferential option for the poor is left at the foot of the altar as the congregation goes out to play parking lot derby. Not only do we not internalize the teachings, much of our behavior suggests that we reject them entirely.

I was musing this morning as I drove my car in to work how much better things might be if every car was equipped as mine is. I have a hybrid civic, and one of the ways you can configure the instrument panel is to give you feedback on your driving to see how certain behaviors help to conserve gasoline and increase milage. As a result of these readouts, I have seen large changes in my behaviors behind the wheel, and coming with those changes, I have experienced a completely different attitude most of the time when I drive. Other drivers don't become obstacles or problems, but people in their cars, just like me, just as scatter-brained as I sometimes am, just as courteous as I can sometimes be. When I see a person driving foolishly, sudden starts, screeching stops, I think about how they might be different if they understood the effects of their actions.

Compassion, understanding that all people at heart want the same things we want for themselves and for their children. Compassion is one of the roots of charity--when we look at people in all their strengths and weaknesses and see ourselves.

Jesus taught compassion through His words and works. The Church extols and sets up institutions and groups to cultivate compassion. Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers are one such group, but far less radical and far quieter are the innumerable Martin de Porres or Vincent de Paul societies that are part and parcel of our Church.

But compassion isn't just for the church or just for a meeting--it is part of a way of life--living in Christ's love, being Christ's heart for the salvation and redemption of a world gone astray. That is part of the imitation of Christ to which we all are called. That is the root and source of sustenance for Christian compassion.

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Philippians Again


William Barclay tended toward universalism; that comes through clearly in the passages that follow. His universalism was of the sort that was taught and accepted by the Eastern Church and still has strong undercurrents in the Orthodox Churches. However, the universalist perspective, the underpinning of hope for all sinners, provides a unique and useful perspective on Philippians, the most hopeful, the most truly joyous of all of Paul's letters. There is in the text an undercurrent of such incredible intensity and joy that it's hard to rephrase it to make it more clear.

From William Barclay's Commentary of Philippians

It made certain that some day, soon or late, every living creature in all the universe, in heaven, in earth and even in hell, would worship him. It is to be carefully noted whence that worship comes. It comes from love. Jesus won the hearts of men, not by blasting them with power, but by showing them a love they could not resist. At the sight of this person who laid his glory by for men and loved them to the extent of dying for them on a cross, men's hearts are melted and their resistance is broken down. When men worship Jesus Christ, they fall at his feet in wondering love. They do not say "I cannot resist a might like that," but, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all." Worship is founded, not on fear, but on love. . . .

Php.2:11 is one of the most important verses in the New Testament. In it we read that the aim of God, is a day when every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. These four words were the first creed that the Christian Church ever had. To be a Christian was to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (compare Rom.10:9). This was a simple creed, yet all-embracing. Perhaps we would do well to go back to it. Later men tried to define more closely what it meant and argued and quarrelled about it, calling each other heretics and fools. But it is still true that if man can say, "For me Jesus Christ is Lord," he is a Christian. If he can say that, he means that for him Jesus Christ is unique and that he is prepared to give him an obedience he is prepared to give no one else. He may not be able to put into words who and what he believes Jesus to be; but, so long as there is in his heart this wondering love and in his life this unquestioning obedience, he is a Christian, because Christianity consists less in the mind's understanding than it does in the heart's love.

Christianity consists less in the mind's understanding that it does in the heart's love. Doctrine will all be blown away when we stand in the presence--the need for understanding will be gone because we will stand in His presence. And who among us really understands any other human being, much less God? Why do we presume to think that we can better understand God and His commandments than we can understand the person whom we are supposed to love, cherish, and help through life?

And, "Worship is founded, not on fear, but on love." Too often we seem to think the two are somehow related. And yet are we not told, "Perfect love driveth out fear." Fear as we understand it apart from such scriptures as "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . ." is a negative predecessor to generally even more negative descendant emotions. Next to anger, I would suggest that the fear is one of the principle fountainheads of sin. Fear tends to drive people to despair and to desperate acts born of unreason.

But Worship is born out of love, not fear. Worship is the perfection of love. The adoration and whole-hearted devotion that is the essence of worship is a perfection of love--love unbounded. And Paul, in Philippians, clearly teaches the loosing of love on the world.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from August 2007.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: July 2007 is the previous archive.

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