Critiques & Controversies: December 2002 Archives

More on Spiritual Reading

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More on Spiritual Reading

I really like much that is said at The 7 Habitus, for example:

In any case, at various times, I have tried to read both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, without much success. I have to admit I canít make heads or tails out of St. John and reading St. Teresa brings itís own problems for me. First, there is the guilt that I feel for being such a spiritual slug in the face of such holiness. Then, there is the heightened tendency to selfish introspection (ďLetís see, am I in the first mansion or can I claim to have progressed to the second mansion?Ē And ďWill I ever be able to make it to the third mansion?Ē) that is not at all healthy. I view this inability to read these two great saints as a grave personal shortcoming, but there it is.

It so amply demonstrates my point re: St. Thomas Aquinas. I, for one, do not see this a grave shortcoming--I see it as a manifestation of God's grace. Jesus told us "My Father's house has many mentions." God doesn't want to put us all into a cookie press and squeeze out identical cookies--rather, we are gingerbread people, each exactly equal in His eyes, but carefully, deliberately decorated with grace--some of us like chocolate, others (yes, I gasped when I discovered this reality) do not.

I do believe that St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila present insuperable difficulties to a great many people, even to Carmelites. That is why my Carmelite group is reading St. John of the Cross together. Forty minds puzzling away with guidance and help are far more likely to come to some comprehension of the work than a single mind on its own. But, being confused and led astray by entry into these wilds is not a personal shortcoming--it is rather a sign of God's particular will for us. For example, I have a personal distaste for many of the legends that surround St. Francis of Assisi. I can't tell where the truth is in that bramble, and so, rather than denigrate the Saint and many of his followers, I conclude that I have absolutely no inclination toward Franciscan Spirituality--it is confusing to me. This isn't a shortcoming, but a clear signpost that God has granted that says simply--don't go here--it is not, for whatever reason, for you.

That is why I don't see that my impression of St. Thomas Aquinas is particularly deleterious. There are those who are called to him, and others who are warned away.

And here is another important point, which if I read correctly, confirms and supports all that is said above:

So there are saints that we might have great difficulty reading or might never be able to read and appreciate, depending on our spirituality. But you see, we donít have to read St. Teresa, we donít have to read St. Thomas, and we donít have to read St. Francis to be good and faithful Catholics and Christians. We can understand that they all have something to teach us about the truth of our faith, and they have given the Church the great legacy of their individual wisdom, but not all of us will be able to read all of them with the same benefit. Each of us is different and drawn to God in a certain way and it is important for each of us to try to discover that way and do our best to grow within it.

Absolutely true! In fact, for some of us, as I said, we may be warned away from some of these. And it may be that with time we grow into approaching them. For the longest time, the prose of St. Louis De Montfort, the seeming excesses he describes, and just his mode of expression was so utterly aliment to me that I couldn't read more than a sentence or two without revulsion--yes, very strong reaction, but remember I had a long road to walk from being a Baptist to acknowledging any sort of Marian Devotion. However, with time, God led me to a place where I not only see the value of St. Louis, but I recommend him highly to those trying to learn more about devotion to Mary.

So--spiritual reading, as with all things in the spiritual life, is a matter of careful discernment. One does not plunge willy-nilly into anything and everything. In fact, often reading can be used as a substitute for the more important matter of prayer. We become attached (to use St. John's terminology) to spiritual reading, and thus what can be a very good thing becomes a barrier in the way of God's grace for us. Anything to which we become attached--blogdom, books, a certain kind and place of devotion, a certain church--literally anything that we are not willing to let go with joy, becomes a roadblock on the way to God. These seemingly minor things serve as well as great sins to keep us from approaching God. After all God is the All in All, to want anything less is to completely miss the point. Spiritual Reading should not become a way to sidestep correct prayer and contemplation of God. Spiritual Reading should always lead us TO Christ, not just BY Him.

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On the Intellect

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Mr. Moffat commented below, and his astute observations are such that I felt needed to address them lest there be a primary miscomprehension of what I have been trying to say.

Mr. Moffat's Comment I too suffer from what you call "the temptation to pride" in intellectual matters, but I wonder if denying a gift given to us by God, or trying to suppress such a gift, is not in itself a form of pride? I do struggle with that question, this is not an accusation, just something I ponder regularly.

This is a wonderful comment because if there is anything Catholicism doesn't need more of it is anti-intellectualism. If my posts re:Thomas Aquinas are read as some sort of crypto-support for the anti-intellectual crowd, then my words need clarifying. We are to use the gifts God gives us, and use them in humility and in His service. We should not attempt to "suppress" the gifts, just as Mr. Moffat states. Such gifts are positive goods.

However, sometimes we take a gift and development to the detriment of other aspects of ourselves, aspects that God has also gifted. Sometimes we allow the intellect to dominate the spirit and the emotions. Sometimes we develop one at the cost of another. We should not therefore eschew the intellect, but we would do well to direct our attention to other gifts--diamonds we have too long left in the rough. That would be my explanation for joining the Carmelites. I have long felt that God gifted me with a great brain--no greater than that of the vast majority of people out there, but He also gave me the impulse to focus on the intellect. I spent so much time in my head that perhaps I neglected my heart. I struggle now daily to have the heart of Jesus for His entire creation. I struggle to grow spiritually. My comments re: Aquinas are simply to say that that path holds many dangers for me.

I do not think that St. John of the Cross is any less "intellectual." Many of the things he has to say are very deep theology and very difficult to understand in sheer thought. But St. John of the Cross feeds my heart and encourages me to Love rather than to think.

Aquinas and Augustine defined two ends of a spectrum--"First I know, then I love," "First I love, then I know." I have tried knowing first, and it has been partially successful--I will only grow if I try loving.

But that doesn't mean that suddenly I should become an empty-headed follower of everything, that I should abandon all critical faculties in favor of visions, locutions, and other consolations. In fact, the intellect becomes even more important as one of the guardians of the spirit--advising and recommending what to read, what to do, how to react, where to seek Him.

We must use all of the gifts with which God has so generously graced us, and we must use them in a careful discerning manner. They are all lenses to focus the light of God. We need to adjust them to make the light clearer and more universal, not use them to burn and destroy.

Mr. Moffat, thank you so much for the comment. One of the strains of Catholicism that I find most trying is that which says we should abandon all of what God has given us and "love" in the sense of emotion more often than in the sense of an act of will accompanied by a positive action. I hope this has helped to clarify how I think of these matters.

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Spinning a Metaphor--Potential Energy

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T.S. O'Rama in a most excellent post on his site, gives me an opportunity to spin a metaphor than may or may not work. We'll see.

A Baptist pastor continually preaches the following thing on the radio (I don't have a specifically Catholic radio station in tuning distance so I listen to the local Christian one):


"Christians have to spend more time remembering their position in Christ, not their condition."


In other words, focus on who you are - God's - and not your condition, which is often disconcertingly poor. It is interesting to this cradle Catholic that even Protestants have problems with legalism and "position vs. condition".

Now I want to show how incorrect the Baptist Pastor is in this saying. An object has energy by virtue either of movement of the body (kinetic energy), movement of its constiuent particles (thermal energy) or by its position and/or condition potential energy. It is this last that I want to use as a metaphor for the Christian life.

Too often we have great stored energy in Christian life. We make no harsh commitments, we don't drive ourselves too hard, and we don't really challenge ourselves in the things that matter. As Dubay and others have pointed out, the harsh reality is that We are not saints because we have not yet chosen to be. By that, all the writers mean that we have not made up our minds to let God's will be our will and to live our lives in that reality.

That is where potential is. We are all potential Saints. Thus we must move from potential to actual. And our potential is precisely in both our position in Christ and our condition in obeying God's word and will. If we are remiss in the latter, our position in Christ imparts some energy toward our sainthood--but we are like a loosely bound spring sitting on the ground. When we spring up, our motion is done, feeble and not enough to move us very far. However, if we change our condition, we may also change our position in Christ. Right now we wait on the ground near his feet. But as we obey we become like springs more tightly wound and compressed, and God lifts us up. From a height, when the tightly bound spring is released, the energy is much greater, the potential becomes powerful kinetic energy and we are suddenly transformed in Christ and become signs for all people. We are Saints.

Sainthood is possible for each one of us. Not only is it possible, it is necessary. Too often we excuse ourselves saying, we are not like St Therese, or St Teresa. But the reality is, God already made a St. Therese, he doesn't need another. He already has a St. Teresa, a St. John of the Cross, a St. Philip Neri, a St. Swithun--He has no need of more. But what He does need and what He wants is a Saint Steven Riddle, a Saint _______________ (put your name in the blank). We have no excuses for not responding to God's need. We are simply lazy people. We think that Heaven will come to us if we wait long enough.

Now, please bear in mind, though this was spawned by some thoughts at Mr. O'Rama's site, this is in no way a particular indictment of him. It is an indictment of every one of us (myself included) who has not yet made up their minds to be Saints and to tread whatever path God has laid out for us in that direction. I long for Sainthood, but I want it to be easy. It's time to change my position or my condition, because I'll need all the extra energy I can get from that stored potential to overcome the inertia that I allow to keep me in my deadly, ungodly path.

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A Dialogue/Commentary on Slavery

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Please forgive me for simply repeating the contents of one of my comment boxes here; however, I feel the words important enough to rest at the upper level of an archive and not to rely simply upon the vagaries of commenting systems to survive or die. Many commenters have made very cogent remarks regarding a post below, and I would like them to be prominent and useful for the future.

Thanks for your indulgence.

Steven,

Thank you for sharing your insights. Slavery is a tough one; it existed when Jesus was alive (as human) and He didn't do anything about it.

Pax,

Katherine
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Dear Katherine,

True enough, but neither did Jesus say a word about procured abortion, which, while not as prevalent as it is today, was still common enough practice to be denounced in the Didache.

His silence does not indicate approval, merely that there was limited time in His mission to say all that was essential to carry the world forward in pursuit of God.

In addition, the Old Testament Levitical regulations certainly indicated that no person should be kept in permanent bondage (one of the purposes of a Jubilee year).

Thus I see a two-fold approach--we look to the wisdom of the old Levitical law and we use that, in part as a basis for moving forward in pursuit of God.

Surely if we follow Jesus we cannot allow that He would have whole-heartedly approved of slavery. He might have noted that the slave was in a better position to access God than the person who "owned" him. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. . .")

In sum, I think the issue may be easier than we make it out. We are not supposed to "make our treasure here on Earth" but to "store up treasure in heaven." By this reasoning, we certainly should not be in the position of owning people.

Perhaps Jesus did not comment directly, but I believe His instruction and his attitude are quite clear in the words that are left to us.

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to elaborate on this very important thought. We must never allow a similar system to crop up here again, and justice demands that we work to the best of our ability to abolish this practice wherever it may exist in the world today. Call it what you may--reste-avec, slavery, it cannot but be clear that persons must never be regarded as objects to be owned and used at will.

(By the way, I know that you did not imply any of this in your reply--I do not impute these thoughts to you. But I do thank you.)

shalom,

Steven
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Steven,

I for one do not think that slavery and freedom can be defined by the presence or absence of chains, fences, concentration camps, and other devices that commonly come to mind when these words are used. Such devices delimit forms of physical slavery, which indeed may never exist again in this country, but that is not the only form of slavery. There is slavery that can be mental, emotional, psychological, and against these forms, which are debilitating to the mind and soul if not the body, I think we are still struggling.

We enact laws to proscribe the outward forms of slavery, but our laws are powerless to affect the workings of the human heart. We can prohibit someone from legally owning another, but we have not the means to prevent someone from seeking to subjugate another's will to their own. And conversely, we cannot force freedom on someone who does not fully desire it.

The mistake I think many people make is to assume that since the signs of slavery are no longer evident, we need be concerned about it no longer. But if by slavery and freedom we mean something more than the physical and the legal, then we need to look a bit deeper into what we are seeking to avoid and what we are seeking to promote. But such an effort is today complicated by the fact that slavery and freedom are emotionally-loaded words, and rational discourse on such subjects is frequently difficult.

Everybody nowadays "knows" that slavery ended a long time ago, and also "knows" that as a consequence everyone is now free. But ask them what they mean by "free" and more likely than not you'll get them upset. This may be because thinking with catchphrases is easier than defining one's terms. But I think it is also due in part to chronological snobbery, the attitude that ours is the first generation in human history that had everything figured out, and the vast bulk of humanity were all unwashed heathen, whom time and death have cast into the outer darkness to wail and gnash their teeth.

This attitude scares me, because it entails scorn and derision for our ancestors and their beliefs and traditions, and raises the distinct possibility that we will most likely be condemned to repeat history, since we lack the humility to learn from it. No, I don't think we'll resurrect the plantations, but there are more invisible and consequently more effective forms of slavery.
Franklin Johnston
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I think the important point about the Revolution is that the founding fathers had the right words and the right goal: endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and freedom. What they lacked was the intestinal fortitude and the follow through on the "for all." They did, however, fight with their lives and livlihood for fuller embrace of these principles. Sadly, it took much too long and much too much blood.for the fullness of these words to achieved for people of all races. Yet, these failings to attain a full embrace of this noble goal should not diminish the courage it took to gain what was gained. What truly diminishes us as a nation, is that we, in this time of plenty and wealth unimagined, are consciously choosing to RETREAT from these these noble goals. Our mantra is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- for all races, religions, creeds, sexual orientations as long as you happent to be economically viable and not a resource drain on society or your family and friends. In other words, the unborn, the chronically ill or disabled, and the dying are excluded from these inalienable rights. This truly is sad. It is one thing to have the most noble of goals and fail to attain it; it is another to achieve the most noble of goals and then repudiate it.

Anonymous
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Dear Anonymous,

Thank you, well spoken and quite poignant. Agreed and seconded in all points.

Dear Franklin,

[post edited to reflect the fact that in my haste to comment, I simply repeated what Franklin says above, implying that he did not say that Slavery may return and those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.]
However, slavery is NOT gone from the world--and that is a tragedy that must be addressed. In Haiti they have the institution of the Reste-avec (means Stay-with) in French, which is ostensibly a servant, but in all practicality a slave. I do not know that the hacienda system is completely dead everywhere in the world--but to be owned by the company store is slavery. I do not think we should suggest that the scourge is eradicated. Because it does not exist here does not mean that it does not exist.

However, the thrust of what you have to say is extremely important. Such attitudes and trends make possible atrocities beyond our ability to conceive. T. H. White's dictum, which I am fond of quoting notes that 90% of humanity are sheep; 9% are blackguards and knaves; and the 1% fit to lead, know better.

As long as we are sheep to fashion and the world, we are in danger. It is only in becoming the sheep of Christ that we have the power to resist the glamours of the world.

shalom,

Steven
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Such thoughts and words should not be allowed to vanish into the dim depths of commenting archives where they may or may not survive. I love good dialogue about important issues, and this issue has stirred a great deal of very good thought. Thank you all for contributing and thank you for helping me to grow in understanding and in my walk with Christ--for it is only in facing the truth squarely that we begin to see His face in the events that surround us each day.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Critiques & Controversies category from December 2002.

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