Commonplace Book: April 2006 Archives

Comme il faut

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Sorry, but there's so much worthwhile and really amusing stuff. Comme il faut is French for, "as it should be, or quite proper according to ettiquette or rule."

from The Finishing School
Muriel Spark

Nina was conducting her comme il faut class. "Be careful who take you to Ascot," she said, "because unless you have married a rich husband, he's probably a crook. Even if he's your husband, well. . . Not many honest men can take four days off their work, dress themselves in a black suit and a silk hat with all the acoutrements, and lose a lot of money on the horses, and take you out afterward or join a party of people like him, For Ascot you will need warm underwear in case it's cold. You can wear a flimsy dress on top. But your man is bound to be a crook, bound to be. It teems with crooks. . . "

"My Dad doesn't go to Ascot," said Pallas.

"Oh, I didn't say all crooks went to Royal Ascot, only that there are plenty of them at that function."

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Muriel Spark--Two Instances

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from The Finishing School
Muriel Spark

We find, now, Nina, taking one of her casual afternoon comme il faut talks, as she called them. . . .

"In case you are thinking of getting a job at the United Nations," Nina told them, "I have picked up a bit of information which may be useful, even vital to you. A senior member of the U. N. Secretariat passed it on to me especially for you young people. First, if you, as a U.N. employee are chased by an elephant stand still and wave a white handkerchief. This confuses the elephant's legs. Second, if chased by a large python, run away in a zigzag movement, as a python can't coordinate its head with its tail. If you have no time to run away, sit down, with your back to a tree and spread your legs. The python will hesitate, not knowing which leg to begin with. Get out your knife and cut its head off."

"Suppose there isn't a tree to lean against?" Lionel said.

"I've thought of that,"said Nina, "but I haven't come up with an answer."

And quite a bit later in the book

The prior, who had a becoming white beard, caused them to be served carrot juice, which was, he held, a good drink for high altitudes. The friars made a wine which they sold to merchants in the French valleys. On the labels, in English, it was pronounced to have "a great personality in the mouth, savoring of prunes, tobacco, wild fruits."

These are some of the delights that await the reader of Muriel Spark. I've always enjoyed her prose and it seems a more fitting tribute than I could write to enjoy some of her novels and make them known to others. In that way, even as she enjoys the life of the world to come, she has a presence with us here and we can enjoy her company.

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Continuing Conversion

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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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What Labels Do

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from "What is an Arminian"
John Wesley

2. The more unintelligible the word is, the better it answers the purpose. Those on whom it is fixed know not what to do: Not understanding what it means, they cannot tell what defence to make, or how to clear themselves from the charge. And it is not easy to remove the prejudice which others have imbibed, who know no more of it, than that it is "something very bad," if not "all that is bad!"

The effect of labeling is not to identify, but to categorize without benefit of appeal. In Wesley's time it was "Arminian" now it is "Democrat," "Republican," "Liberal," "progressive," "Conservative," "Ultramontane." These are useful, much as the word "weed" is useful in dealing with whatever plant, no matter how native and how beautiful that creeps into the monoculture of the American front yard. A label is a deadly device, serving not so much to identify as to categorize and dismiss. And a label admits of no reprieve, because you have to know what so-and-so means when he says "Liberal" to know whether or not the shoe fits, and if it doesn't how one might address the error.

There are very good reasons for disliking labels even for those of us who are at heart essentialists.

(A distant thanks to Sirius who promoted the trip whereby the quotation was found.) Even more interesting in regard to the thrust of this post is point twelve on the document linked to.

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Present Reading

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A passage from a book recommended in a list of Catholic Authors:

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

Guy entered the room. 'Tell us,' said Susannah, 'what could be better than marriage, Guy?' 'Salvation,'he replied. His elders howled. 'Where do you learn these words?' asked Susannah. 'I learned that in R.E.,'said Guy. 'I'm not sure exactly what it means, but it's meant to be very good, so it might be better than marriage.'

'Can you have both?'

'Well, I suppose so, but salvation is still probably the better of the two.'

'The better of the two,' repeated Susannah. 'Very good, Guy. Very good.' 'OK,' he said. He now remembered what he had come in for. 'Can I have another caramel?'

Something not very many people realize is that when reading fiction, you must talk to the book and ask questions. The same is true to a lesser extent with non-fiction. Normally the questions that result from non-fiction reading are of a very limited scope--either questioning the veracity of what one is reading, or looking for clarification of one or more points.

However, in reading fiction especially well-constructed, thoroughly considered fiction, there are a myriad of questions to ask, and answers to be had. What exactly is the author about. Why these words at this time in the mouth of this character? What exactly is her message regarding marriage and salvation? What does this mean for Susannah and Nicola (the other person in the room during this conversation)?

Fiction gets at the same truths as fact in a way that is very much different in technique and intensity. Fiction often slips in under the radar and we often toss it off as if nothing at all. But it is in a close look at fiction that we begin to uncover what is really going on.

It is because we have gotten lazy in our habits of reading that a trifle like The DaVinci Code stands to do as much harm as it may. People accept fiction uncritically as fact--and it helps that in the particular case the author is interested in making money and holds up his poorly executed research as fact. (A glance at any of his other published work will show that it is a worm and error-riddled as the work in question.) We think that because it is something for leisurely reading, fiction has no real effect.

The fact is, all of our choices have an effect. We can read light fiction and derive from it both pleasure and some insight, or be blindsided by it and find ourselves thinking through things we thought we had already considered. Every choice matters and is important. Thus reading critically is an important skill to cultivate, and it is not a skill that very many have. Many have not yet learned to converse with the work. They pop them into their brains like so many bon-bons and then it's on to the next work without much consideration of what one has just read. Most light works don't require much. Perhaps a review for the edification of others is sufficient to draw out all that can be gained from engaging such work. But some need extended conversation. We need to hone our critical faculties to determine which is which. Which work is substantive and worthwhile, and which merely a passing jeu.

Of the books before me now, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that The Collar is an interesting non-fiction read. It's substance is yet to be determined as I am only about half-way through, but it does raise some interesting questions. His Majesty's Dragon is a bon-bon, a froth, a zephyr on an otherwise overly warm day, and it appears that Ms. St. John's book shall be one that requires some extended consideration. She appears to be writing in the themes of Graham Greene and others, but in a more modern setting and mode. She is the companion along the way to the recently departed Muriel Spark, and to other such writers. I don't know if the work will hold the weight of much critical review and questioning, but until one starts to ask, it will be impossible to tell.

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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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Mary, overshadowed by the Spirit of God,
is the Virgin of the new heart,
who gave a human face to the word made flesh.
She is the Virgin of wise and contemplative listening
who kept and pondered in her heart
the events and words of the Lord.
She is the faithful disciple of wisdom,
who sought Jesus--God's Wisdom--
and allowed herself to be formed and moulded by his Spirit,
so that in faith she might be conformed to his ways and choices.
Thus enlightened, Mary is present to us
as one able to read 'the great wonders'
which God accomplished in her
for the salvation of the humble and of the poor.

Mary was not only the Mother of Our Lord;
she also became his perfect disciple, the woman of faith.
She followed Jesus, walking with the disciples,
sharing their demanding and wearisome journey
--a journey which required, above all, fraternal love
and mutual service.

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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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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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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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A Call to Life

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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

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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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Complicity

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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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Theodore Roethke--In a Dark Time

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I've been thinking about this poem for much of the afternoon. A friend and I were talking about Paul's "thorn in the flesh" and for some reason, this came to mind. I've probably posed it before, but here it is again.

In a Dark Time
Theodore Roethke

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks--is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

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from The Free Press
Hilaire Belloc

The Free Press I PROPOSE to discuss in what follows the evil of the great modern Capitalist Press, its function in vitiating and misinforming opinion and in putting power into ignoble hands; its correction by the formation of small independent organs, and the probably increasing effect of these last.

This argument to his essay might suggest that Belloc would be in favor of blogdom. Perhaps.

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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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Little Surprises Everywhere

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Reading Eliot's Four Quartets: East Coker prior to reading Howard's study of the East Coker section of the poem. I stumble onto this very interesting, very surprising passage.

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie‚ÄĒ
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

The entire poem is a meditation on time (among other things). Here is an interesting moment of becoming "unstuck in time." When I first encountered "In daunsinge" I was ready to run for the dictionary again (Eliot can do that to one.) And then I read"signifying matrimonie," and I started to be clued in. With "A dignified and commodiois sacrament" I knew that I had been transported back into time, most likely to the glorious 17th century, the century of Eliot's beloved metaphysical poets.

Eliot can do that to one, can turn one around and deliver new shocks and surprises in the language. It's both the pleasure and the panic of reading Eliot. Is this a new word, is this made up, or does this have some other meaning? The answer might be all three at once. And yet the poetry is tight and strong and far more interesting that those who followed in imitation, because Eliot still had something to say. Most of his imitators do not.

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Medieval Contemplation

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Carmelite Style:

from The Ten Books on the Way of Life and the Great Deeds of the Carmelites--Book 1 Chapter 2

The other goal of this life is granted to us as the great gift of god, namely, to taste somewhat in the heart and to experience in the mind the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory, not only after death but already in this mortal life. This is to "drink of the torrent" of the pleasure of God. God promised this to Elijah in the words: "And there you shall drink of the torrent."

From Earliest times, Carmelites saw themselves as disciples and brothers of Elijah. Elijah still is our example and our model. It is to Elijah and to the Blessed Mother we turn for examples of how to live a life in God.

The passage quoted above is practically the only excerpt in English that you can find of this famous work. But it is such a beautiful passage and so perfectly stated that it is worth lingering over and thinking about.

"To taste somewhat in the heart. . . the power of the divine presence" all while we still live. That is the goal of a Carmelite life--for a Lay Carmelite a proposition that can be difficult because of the ordering of life that must occur to allow one to spend the time in contemplation. And yet, it is promised to those who give God the time and the space and the willingness to change. And as I want to be only what He would have me be, I want to change as He would have me change.

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Smokefall

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Being a lunchtime fantasia borne of reading Thomas Howard/T.S, Eliot and listening to Josh Turner at the same time.

Thomas Howard provides a very nice commentary to Eliot's poem, but there are points at which I think things are glossed in such a way as to convey a less full sense of the language in the poem. The following is an excerpt from the first of the Four Quartets, "Burnt Norton."

from Four Quartets
T.S. Eliot

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Hauntingly beautiful lines, that Howard does an excellent job of starting to unpack. (Of course he's writing a commentary to a point he's not going to unpack everything for us. Where I think there is a slight faulting is in Howard's analysis of "smokefall."

from Dove Descending
Thomas Howard

And what's this "smokefall"? There is no such word. No: but Eliot, the poet ("makers" is what Aristotle called poets), can make up the word, and none of us need be in any confusion as to what it means. High noon? No. Rosy dawn? No. The quivering heat of mid-afternoon? No. It is twilight, probably the most apt time for this sort of haunting vision.

I think this is partly true. But I think smokefall is also a reference to the timeless eternity of the blessing with incense. Perhaps at twilight, whose very atmosphere conveys the sense of smoke falling, but certainly as the altar is censed, and certainly as the people are censed, and as the Holy Relics are censed, there is smokefall with its blessing of the sense of smell, that momentary transport of eternity--a fragmentary blessing that blesses us even in the recollection of it.

I think smokefall suggests this moment in the draughty Church as much as it suggests twilight. Perhaps I read too much into it, but given the context of the rest of the poem, it fits nicely.

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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

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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.

Refrain

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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This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from April 2006.

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