Loving God: September 2003 Archives

On Miracles and Simplicity

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In this passage, Mr. Longenecker makes some incisive and interesting points:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

To speak plainly, the main problem for sophisticated people is not that miracles are incredible, but that they are an error in taste. To profess belief in miracles takes one perilously close to faith healers, the souvenir stalls of Lourdes, and lurid pictures of Jesus with googly eyes. There is a breed of spiritually minded people who reduce Christianity to the highest form of aesthetics. Beauty us to Truth, but beauty without truth is false, and that which is false and beautiful does not remain beautiful for very long. If the faith is no more than a pretty face, then the aesthetes are also atheists. Since miracles are an error in taste, it is far more subversive and therefore far more Christian to accept the miracles. It's also much more fun--rather like wearing a hideous hat on purpose.

If Benedict's biography gives the sophisticated soul miracles to stumble over, Thérèse's story gives tasteful grown-ups an even bigger obstacle. To find Thérèse, the modern soul has to climb over the stumbling block of her style. We modern-day pilgrims are presented with a nineteenth-century teenage nun with a pretty smile and schoolgirl enthusiasms. She speaks in language that seems archaic and sickly sweet. Among other sentimental touches she calls herself a little flower of Jesus and a little ball for the child Jesus to play with. She thinks God is her "Papa" and likens herself to a bowl of milk that kittens come to drink from. It's easy to turn away such greeting-card spirituality in distaste, but this is precisely the first test. Thérèse swamps tasteful people with sentimentality and sweetness, and only when they survive the taste test can they begin to appreciate her wisdom. She is one of the best examples of the secret Catholic truth that says the tasteful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. (p. 46-47)

There is so much more profound and interesting insight on these pages that I must encourage you all to get the book if you can. This passage continues and says many wonderful and remarkable things about the style and what Thérèse was and what she was trying to do.

I think style is the biggest complaint I hear about Thérèse; how people can't push themselves through the sticky images and the sweetness and light. And I sympathize--greatly. Up until the magisterial translation offered by the ICS, I had similar feelings. The Beevers translation and earlier works were just dreadful and incredibly off-putting. I couldn't find any spirituality for all the treacle. When the Carmelite Group proposed reading this piece of school-girl drivel I just about went mad (although, truth to tell, I was instrumental in proposing it.) But when I read it, and really searched it to find out what the Church saw here, I was truly astonished at the depths that opened up before me. What was school-girl drivel suddenly became something else entirely. I can't explain it. All I can say is that this person who prizes above much else elegance of language and expression, sophistication of writing and idea suddenly discovered the elegance of saying precisely what was right for the person who was writing. It opened a door to riches beyond imagination. From saccharine schoolgirl, my image of Thérèse transmuted into Great Saint, perhaps one of the very greatest of Saints--a true Doctor in the sense of conveying in language anyone who wished to could understand profound truths about prayer and our relationship with God.

And in fact, I think Longenecker has hit upon a key point. Entry to Thérèse means submitting with great humility to the fact that a teenaged "silly" schoolgirl has something profound and life-altering to teach those of us who have been in the world approaching twice as long. Surely this babe in the woods could not know anything we have not already learned. And the barrier that demonstrates approach with proper humility is the ability to get past the language and the image. Until then, you are not really permitted a glance at the profound wisdom and truth that is offered through the writings of this unlikely nun.

Thérèse presents more than anything else a challenge to our sensibilities and our aesthetics, a challenge that offers a small taste of the meaning of detachment. We must detach from our own preferences, our own sense of style, our own love of the high language and great art of many of the other saints, and accept a story-book saint--flat, wooden, and girlish. And as in some fairy-tale story, when we do so, she comes alive and tells us truths that will change our lives and our relationship with God.

(Oh--one additional tip for the hopelessly stymied--for whatever reason, all of this that is so off-putting in English, is greatly subdued if you read it in French--this discipline is finally what allowed me to enter the door and sit for a while at this great teacher's feet. Praise God!)

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Gross Incivility

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I'm often stunned by the gross incivility displayed on both sides of any given debate. This was brought to mind this afternoon by the success of yet another ill-titled, conceivably ill-tempered Al Franken book, pumped up by various media interests to match the insidiously vitriolic and questionable accuracy of Ann Coulter. (She does not miraculously become correct if she happens to express many opinions with which I can agree. I have a bad track record as regards my opinions.) As much as I like to look at Ms. Coulter, I think that being in the same room with her (or with Mr. Franken) would likely be a most unpleasant experience.

Part of this is the human tendency to attribute only the most malign motives to anyone who opposes us. And I think this a mistake. For example, I think it a mistake to attribute malign motives to most people who support a limited right to abortion. They can be wrong and even wrong-headed without any intent to be malign.

It seems to me that the better part of any conversation would be to assume the motive of the conversant is basically driven by good-will. (Mr. da Fiesole has disagreed with me in the past on this, but his reasons did not persuade--it seems the better part of charity to start with the assumption that most people act out of good will or at least with no malignant motive until proven otherwise.) Only in this way may one truly address the issue at hand.

Now this leads to a second assumption, one in which I am more often than not truly disappointed. I assume that two disputants who are talking about a serious issue really seek the truth on the issue. That's not to say that anyone's mind will be changed in a sudden stroke, but rather both are seeking input to modify the worldview accordingly. It may not be input to modify the position they hold, but it may be a deeper understanding of why someone would hold the opposite opinion and what the implications of that may be. In many matters, it is unimportant ("Make it pink, Make it blue.) But in a great many issues to not seek the truth is great folly. However, many people see the ideas they hold as somehow personal possessions, and a challenge to those ideas is a personal affront--an attack on the integrity of the person. I recognize this tendency in myself, and often have to back away to consider what has been said and what it really means to the notions I hold. I take a great deal of time sometimes to assimilate new notions and change my mindset and behavior to accommodate them. It is better to take a short period to cool off and then realize that the idea is not part of the self--to relinquish a bad idea is to strengthen one's Christian armor. Truth is far more important than either my personal opinion or the possibility that I might seem foolish to some. Foolish or not, I need to listen and to try to understand, and to seek God's way--the truth in all things.

And so I know that neither Ms. Coulter (whose previous book I did read, and whose present book I made a stab at but found so full of the pestilence of ill-humor and self-righteousness, not to mention a generous dollop of vitriol, gossip, and acrimony) nor Mr. Franken (ditto, ditto, ditto--and add to it that like many for whom he writes toeing the party line is more important than truth) have much, if anything to say that will enlighten my perpetual darkness.

In fact, why should it surprise anyone that the Right lies or the left lies, or the news is slanted this way or that? It may be dismaying, but as we all learned long ago, every story is told from a point of view--there is no perfect objective point of view in the human realm. That, in part, is what the Fall is about. So why should we be surprised if we find that a reporter has obscured this point or that, or that they have told only half of the story. Anyone willing to believe anything printed in a newspaper or news magazine deserves the world view it is likely to give them.

If we seek the truth, then we should seek it in places where it dwells--in the heart of Jesus Christ, in the center of the Gospel, in the message of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, in the lives of the Saints, in prayer. Seeking the truth beyond these bounds is an endless, fruitless, and ultimately depressing, oppressing, and empty endeavor. Knowledge of truth apart from God is not knowledge at all, but opinion, for in Him resides the fullness of the truth, and all else is inconsequential.

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There are great insights within the book, so many it is impossible to share them all. I thought this excerpt regarding "ordinariness" was especially helpful for those seeking a way.

from St. Benedict and St Thérèse: The Little Rule and the Little Way
Dwight Longenecker

Benedict and Thérèse call ordinary Christians to extraordinary perfection--not by being extraordinarily perfect, but by being perfectly ordinary. Being ordinary means letting go every vestige of snobbery and learning that we are not special after all. Once we grasp this troublesome truth it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that "being ordinary" mean fitting in and becoming "one of the boys." While being ordinary had nothing to do with snobbery it also has nothing to do with being one of the crowd. Snobbery has destroyed many lives through its snooty pride, but the reverse snobbery that will do anything to "fit in" and be part of the hoi polloi is also destructive. It is just as artificial for the aristocrat to affect working-class manners as it is for the social climber to put on an upper-class accent. In that sense, being common is just as false as being uncommon. Being ordinary means being none other than who we are. As a result it is just as possible for a duchess to be as ordinary as a dustman.

Besides noting that Our Sunday Visitor needs a careful copyeditor--the insights to be gained from this passage are enormous. I particularly like the notion of being called to the extraordinary not by extraordinary endeavors but by the perfection of the ordinary. In other words, become who you REALLY are in Christ and you are more than halfway to your goal. Your responsibility is not to perfect the gifts given to others, but those given to you. While I might look on with admiration at some of my very favorites reasoners--John da Fiesole at Disputations, and Mark at Minute Particulars, or with a certain awe at Mothers who want to be and are extraordinary (as there tends to be a raft of blushing among this set, I will not venture names), or any number of other gifts I observe in all my blogland travels--humor, political insight, knowledge of the present state of the world, etc. --I am not called to perfect any of those remarkable talents or virtues. I am called only to recognize those gifts God gave me and to offer them back to Him, well cared for, polished, and in better condition than they came to me.

Too often we deride our own accomplishments and our own endeavors with some sort of apology--either looking for compliments or encouragement, or genuinely reflecting our puzzlement over our own unique constitution. We are, each of us, what we are and that is all we should be, in the sense that we are not called to be other than what we are in Christ. We are called to be perfected in Christ. Anything less does not honor God, it buries the talents He gave us to be returned without interest. However, when we follow our calling in constant prayer and devotion, seeking always to cleave to God's path and not our own, we will, through His grace, return a harvest of souls that we have not been privileged to see--saved and brought to God through our work. Nevertheless, the work of our own perfection must, of necessity affect those around us. In achieving perfection, we drag into the Torrent of His love countless souls whom we may simply have passed in a hallway and smiled at.

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"Who hates his neighbor has not the rights of a child." And not only has he no rights as a child, he has no "father". God is not my father in particular, or any man's father (horrible presumption and madness!); no, He is only father in the sense of father of all, and consequently only my father in so far as He is the father of all. When I hate someone or deny God is his father, it is not he who loses, but I: for then I have no father.

... Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

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On Vocation

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I suppose as long as I am a parent of a young child I shall attend mass in a blur of admonitions. "Look forward." "Please be quiet." "Don't look at that little girl." 'You can pray with us." "Stand up." "Kneel or stand if you want to see Father." "No, Jesus isn't always on that cross." "No you can't have any bread when we go up." "You're not old enouogh. . ."

I think you get the idea. Ask me after most Sunday homilies what the priest said and I'm as like as not to say "Priest? What priest?" Well, it's not that bad, but starting along about the end of the Gospel reading, and really revving up during the time when you most want quiet and most want not to try to tell your child why it is necessary to be quiet, there is a nearly constant stream of whispered instruction and admonition, settling down, and focusing attention. Oh yes, the Eucharistic prayer present the perfect forum for young children to turn to their neighbors and let them know what has been happening in their lives for the past six months.

BUT, presently, that is the small sacrifice I make for the enormous delight of having a young child. I do my best to see to it that he doesn't disturb those around us, and I miss the entire Mass. But, would God rather have it that I left Samuel home? I think not. Is it better to not train up a child in the proper conduct during Mass? Probably not.

So, in loving Samuel and spending the moments to try to let him know what is going on and why it is important for him to pay attention/be quiet/stop provoking the other children around him, I am loving God. I am offering my son a glimpse of the glory everlasting, and I am allowing God a moment to rejoice in the beauty of this wonderful child.

I do feel bad about it often. I think that I should do better, that perhaps something in the daily discpline fails, that perhaps I am not doing the right thing. But so long as it is only me who is distracted and at odds, so long as I can preserve relative peace and not disrupt the entire congregation, I suppose I have done as much as I can. Each child has a different temperament, and there are times when I could wish that Samuel would be more like that quiet child over there, or that one who can sit still for almost thirty seconds at a time. But then he would not be Samuel, would he? And so, I accept the challenge of the moment and pray that the grace of the Mass does not leave me, and that I partake in some share in the community of worship. Nevertheless, there is always the nagging doubt.

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Our Fallen Condition

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I spend an awful lot of time wondering why I am so good at not doing what I should. It's not remarkable: Paul said, "I do the things I would not do, I don't do the things I would do and I have no strength in me." What I fail to find amid the consolation of numbers and longevity is the real solution to the problem. Of ourselves, we are capable of so little, and everything is dependent upon grace.

So I come back around to the "little way" and wonder. Perhaps the will is so weak that it is a matter of one thing at a time with th conscious deliberation. Perhaps that is what the little way is about. Little children have many "deficiencies" compared to adults. But one thing that they have to their advantage--when they are focused on something, nothing else in the entire world exists. A common ploy from childrearing books suggests that when your child is focused on the electrical outlets or your version of a Ming vase, the best thing to do is refocus.

Perhaps what I lack is sufficient focus on the moment. My mind is here, there, or somewhere else, and the moment is left to fend for itself as I'm battling the monsters of the future or the past, or indulging in the dreams of grandeur and wealth, or at least the delights of the thought of a new plaything (PDA, PDA).

Perhaps part of the little way is not only to do little things, but to take on the focus of the little child and in the moment that is before us, here and now, to make the right choice, with the help of grace. And these moments, one at a time, ultimately lead to Glory. If each choice is made in obedience to God, then we foster both trust and love of God and we move onward.

The little way sounds so simple. It sounds as though no doctrine at all, but the depths and the subtleties of it are such that I am not certain that we will ever plumb the fullness of it.

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More On Fire and Brimstone

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In another comment to the same post referenced below, Jeff Culbreath notes:

Fire and brimstone sermons are a good thing. We need more of them in the Catholic Church. I would hope that neither you nor Erik object to the hellfire in Puritan homiletics, but that you rather object to the Calvinist notion that God's grace is arbitrary, and that certain unfortunate souls were created by God for hell with no possibility of repentance.

I wrote a hasty reply and wished to give this further consideration.

I don't know that "fire and brimstone sermons are a good thing--" part of the purpose of writing this is to explore that notion a bit more. I don't know that they are a bad thing. I suppose I would say that I think they are perhaps a necessary thing. If not fire and brimstone, at least a better articulation of the doctrine of sin, what happens to sinners, and how to avoid that happening. Now this can take a great many forms, from Edwards, discussed below, to Joyce, mentioned below, to many other sophisticated articulations of the same doctrine. However, it seems to largely have vanished from the Catholic scene. The "Spirit of Vatican II" interpreters seem not to care for the harsher side of Catholic Doctrine and it is often left to the lay people to insist upon God's justice as strongly as God's mercy. This is a pity.

If our pastors felt more call to carefully pronounce anathema on those things the Church condemns, and to do it with great regularity, it might serve as a check not only upon wayward congregants but upon wayward inclinations within the clergy itself. Reminders that salvation is not guaranteed, nor merited, nor earned, nor in any way dependent upon ourselves, but utterly dependent upon God's grace and our acceptance thereof (so to some extent dependent upon us, but even His omnipresent grace makes possible that initial acceptance) are salutary. They encourage the overall health of the body, not by terror, but by precaution.

Frequently we should hear from the pulpit that abortion is wrong and procuring one or assisting in the procuring even to the extent of supporting the legality of the action is wrong and incurs de facto excommunication without any such being pronounced. This truth should not be left to the ranks of apologists and pro-life lay people. We should see the spectacle of Bishops refusing communion to prominent pro-choice politicians on a more regular basis. This should not be a point for marveling, but the expected occurrence.

We would do well to hear about everyday sins--taking things home from the office, exploiting other people, adultery, fornication, and all manner of other sins.

I suppose current theory has it that one can catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar. But the impression I get more often from many Catholic sermons and speakers is a sense of complacency. That everything is copacetic and we live in the best of all possible worlds, ice-skating or rollerblading our way into heaven. We should be aware of that great folk song that advises us:

"Oh I can't get to heaven
(Oh I can't get to heaven)
on roller skates
(on roller skates)
Cause I'll roll right by
(Cause I'll roll right by)
those pearly gates
(those pearly gates)


I ain't gonna grieve my Lord no more,
I ain't gonna grieve my Lord no more,
I ain't gonna grieve my Lord on more.

I cannot believe that Paul wrote "I work out my salvation in fear and trembling" for no reason. Thus, while I do believe in the mercy of God and in the ultimate possibility of heaven, I doubt I would come to any harm if someone were to tell me the consequences of sin, or even speak about what is and is not a sin.

I don't know that I'd want to hear this every day--but perhaps Mr. Culbreath is correct. Perhaps a bit of fire and brimstone is a salutary remedy for the complacency and mediocrity with which many go about their Christian lives. Perhaps a bit of reminder of what we have been freed from and what we are called to through the incredible sacrifice of our Lord is a remedy for many of the ills we are presently tracking in the Church.

Perhaps we need to start the next "Great Awakening."

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From the Root to the Tree

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Following on the post below, it occurs to me that if we accept God as Father, the next step stemming from the radical image is to truly regard each human being as brother and sister. Again, we're good at using the words, but for most of us that fact has no reality because it does not influence in the slightest the way we live. That is where the truth of our beliefs lay--if they shape what we do they are real. If they are silent and do not inform us, they are dead, beliefs in word only.

The reality of the human race as family escapes many of us. Perhaps it escapes most of us. Maybe only the great missionary saints really have any idea of what it meant. But it stems from the fact that God is our Father. He is our Father in more than a distant and fearsome way. He is our Father in a way that will transform and change us, if we allow it. More,

from Psalm 139:13-16
13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully [and] wonderfully made: marvellous [are] thy works; and [that] my soul knoweth right well.
15 My substance was not hid from Thee when I was made in secret, and intricately wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect; and in Thy book all my members were written, which in continuity were fashioned, when as yet there were none of them.

He has thought us, each one, individually into being. He has guided our making with a tender hand. He is the founder and root of our being. Our parents conceived us, but He guarded us on the way to our birth, and He nurtured and knew us in the womb. How much more a Father then, than one who may only supply the genetic material.

We are family. We so often show it through sibling rivalry and our attempts to beat each other up. Perhaps it would be better if we thought of ourselves all sitting down to Thanksgiving Dinner after a pleasant day of preparation and reacquaintance. Perhaps we should try to be on our best behavior rather than parade our "us and them" attitude.

The logical consequence of truly believing that God is our Father is to believe that we are all brothers and sisters. If we do believe this then it is time to stop making excuses about why we cannot express it, or how we aren't called to this or that ministry, and make the attempt to treat the people we encounter each day more than civilly. We must learn to treat them with a deep-rooted love of a family with so loving a Father.

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His Song to Us

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This is what I imagine He sings all the time:

All or nothing at all
Half a love, never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I'd rather have nothing at all.

All or nothing at all
If it's love, there is no in between. . .

That's the way it is with God. All or nothing at all. As soon as something else creeps in that something tends to dominate our thoughts, actions, and words. When we slip a little, we always slip a lot. So my goal is that He truly become My Lord and My All, not in words only but in every aspect and facet of my life.

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Quotation for Meditation


A wonderful prayer starter from Wilfrid Stinnisen Nourished by the Word

"God doesn't act in an arbitrary way but according to certain principles. Love has its own way of behaving. What God did with Israel, he can also do with the individual human being."

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Quotable Samuel

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This morning before we went into the Church for mass we heard the enormous ruckus of a pair of Sandhill cranes coming from points undisclosed in the parking lot. Samuel and I trekked through a couple of plant barriers that had narrow gaps to go and look at this truly remarkable and wonderful pair of birds. In the course of doing so Samuel got scratched on his lower leg. He noticed this at Mass and pointed it out to me.

Later in the car on the way home he said, "Some sticks are pointful, but many are not."

Isn't that a wonderful reflection for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, for our Lord has hurt by both those that are "pointful" and those that are not. Lord, forgive us our sins, may we triumph by the sign of the glorious Cross.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Loving God category from September 2003.

Loving God: July 2003 is the previous archive.

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