Spiritual Direction and Reading: 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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From the Anchoresses Rule

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from Ordinary Graces
edited by Lorraine Kisly

The Anchoresses Rule--c. 1220, England

The swine of gluttony has piglets with these names. Too Early is the name of the first, the next Too Fastidiously, the third, Too Freely; the fourth is called Too Much, the fifth Too Often. These piglets are more often born through drink than food.

I talk about them only briefly, because I have no fear that you feed them.

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From St. John Climacus


The next couple of entries concern "the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

from Ordinary Graces
edited by Lorraine Kisly

St. John Climacus

When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another. He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again. He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it. He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry while he is taching it. Having come to his senses, he sighs and shaking his head embraces his passion once more. He denounces laughter and while lecturing on mourning is all smiles. In front of others he criticizes himself for being vainglorious, and in making the admission he is looking for glory.

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The Power of Words

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In the Boltzmann entry below I mentioned the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster. Did I pause to mention it's cause?

Wind. Yes--one of the great structures of contrete and steel was laid low not by the powerful winds of a tornado or a hurricane, but by ordinary gusts channeled throught the neck of the narrows at the right frequency.

Wind--words. As the ordinary wind has this power, so too do the words we choose to say. We can "make" someone's day, equally we can "break" it simply by what we choose to let out of our mouths.

And the scariest part of all of this is that Jesus tells us that it isn't what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out of the fullness of his heart. And this is why words are so important, so powerful, and so much in need of careful examination and studious consideration. Nothing should leave our lips, ever, that we have cause to regret. If we are uncertain what to say, the best course is to say nothing at all. James warns us that we shall be called to account for every idle word. He does not say that we shall be called to account for those that grace has given us the strength not to say. Good to confess those, but they have not been unleashed in the whirlwind of words to damage others. We are accountable for the thoughts, but not if we don't brood on them. At most they are an imperfection of our nature--something to be weeded out.

But let's face it. Daily we let loose with a torrent of words that have varying purposes, meanings, and effects. We don't much think about the harm they can do when we make a cutting remark. We don't much consider how our spouses or children might consider not just the word but the tone of what we say.

Words are the human wind that can bring down the Tacoma Narrows bridge. We can choose to gossip and destroy a reputation. We can repeat things that have not been verified and tear a person apart. Because we do not know the strength of the bridge and because we can do nothing about it once the forces are in motion, perhaps we would do better to think carefully about what we have to say--and when it is hurtful to choose not to say it.

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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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Here's a biography/study of St. Francis de Sales from 1639, approximately 17 years after the Sainted Bishop's death. It looks like a wonderful précis of his thought and spirituality.

An excerpt drawn quickly, at random:

from The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales
Jean Pierre Camus

Distrust of self and confidence in God are the two mystic wings of the dove; that is to say, of the soul which, having learnt to be simple, takes its flight and rests in God, the great and sovereign object of its love, of its flight, and of its repose.

The Spiritual Combat, which is an excellent epitome of the science of salvation and of heavenly teaching, makes these two things, distrust of self and confidence in God, to be, as it were, the introduction to true wisdom: they are, the author tells us, the two feet on which we walk towards it, the two arms with which we embrace it, and the two eyes with which we perceive it.

In proportion to the growth of one of these two in us is the increase of the other; the greater or the less the degree of our self-distrust, the greater or the less the degree of our confidence in God. But whence springs this salutary distrust of self? From the knowledge of our own misery and vileness, of our weakness and impotence, of our malice and levity. And whence proceeds confidence In God? From the knowledge which faith gives us of His infinite goodness, and from our assurance that He is rich in mercy to all those who call upon Him.

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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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Ludwig Boltzmann

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Ludwig Boltzmann needs no introduction, but I shall give one anyway. He is largely responsible for our theories of molecular motion and for the development of Boltzmann's Constant which helps us to calculate the kinetic energy of translation of gases. (I know, I hated that statics part of physics as well--bear with me, there is an interesting tale.)

Boltzmann was apparently a genius of the first water, and as with many geniuses, his discoveries went largely ignored until after his death. (Depressed by the lack of interaction and comment, he took his own life.)

To the story--it is said that Boltzmann invented a device that could find the harmonic frequency of any object to which it was attached. The story goes that Boltzmann decided to test the device on his own house.

Now for those who don't know, the harmonic frequency is the sound frequency which causes an object to vibrate. The classic example is the opera singer whose voice can shatter crystal. The other classic example with which everyone should become acquainted for its spectacular engineering failure is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. (Link takes you to a short excerpt, find more here and here.)

Anyway, Boltzmann decided to test the device by placing it on his house. He set the device and left, returning several hours later to a pile of rubble and a device that had been destroyed in the test as well.

Though certainly apocryphal, I find something deeply resonant (pardon the pun) in this story. How many of us determine to test ultimately destructive things using ourselves, our loved ones, or our necessary things as test objects? We barrel headlong into spiritually questionable ventures without a thought as to the consequences. Some tinker with astrology, others with odd spiritualities, still others with "methods" of praying that appear to have little wrong with them, but are capable of spreading the infection of paganism and belief in sympathetic magic. Worse, we sometimes feel we can directly contravene divine will and thousands of years of teaching and put ourselves in the position of near occasions of sin. Humans being what they are, almost always a near occasion will preciptiate the sin itself. Not every time. But a near occasion of sin is a Boltzmann device, and when we choose to place ourselves in it, we set the device on our own houses. The oddest part is that we know full well what the consequences of that choice are likely to be, and yet we do it anyway, "just to see what might happen." Curiousity is a wonderful character trait, but we would do far better not to make a Tacoma-Narrows of our lives.

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More on St. Thérèse

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Regarding the difficulties many have with reading the work of the Little Flower

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

If the first-time reader has to struggle with the mundane minutiae of sixth-century monastic life in Benedict, then in Thérèse he has to struggle with an even more difficult dose of "ordinariness." At least there is some historical interest in reading about the sleeping arrangements of sixth-century monks, but Thérèse takes us into the detailed life of the nineteenth century French bourgeoisie. Her writings are full of spiritual points made through the events of ordinary days. So we are plunged into the details of visits to relatives, a first train ride, trips to the seaside, and the traumas of a little girl's school days. We are told about playtime with her sisters, quarrels with the maid, and the joy of cuddle with Mommy and Daddy. Those who are looking for a lofty spiritual treatise will find in both Benedict and Thérèse a hefty does of ordinary life instead.

And doesn't this just make perfect, natural sense. Ordinary life is where our spirituality plays out. Even if are advanced contemplatives, we are not transported bodily from where we spend time sweeping the floors and caring for children. God speaks to us in the trauma of our children, in the difficulty of getting a stain out of the carpet, in the trials of cleaning baked-on cheese and who knows what-all off of the casserole. He speaks to us in the commute to work and in the trials of the day (getting enough paperclips--getting rid of too many paperclips, the copier is skipping pages--the copier is making two copies of every other page). Spirituality is not divorced from life, it is reinforced by life. Our reactions and our actions of each day are what come out of our hearts. They are where we are most real, where we have the least time to don a mask and put on the "company face." And so they are the best mirror of our spiritual life. Exalted states of prayer are, for most of us, the exception rather than the rule. As Longenecker says elsewhere in the book, "The divine is in the details." And the details are ordinary.

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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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Finding A Way


It occurred to me in the middle of reading Father Dubay's very fine Prayer Primer that I was once again on the wrong track. One of my tendencies is to derail so easily. Once again I was in my head looking for God. And He is there, as surely and as fully as He is anywhere. But it is harder for me to find Him in my head because there are so many distractions there.

Back to the heart. I am driven time and again away from the intellectual pursuit of God and back to the understanding that God is found through love. I do understand that you cannot love what you do not know. However, I also understand that if something becomes the object of study, the love you have for it is not the object itself, but the intellectual satisfaction of studying the object. That is where I often wind up when I pursue the path of the mind toward God. I do love Him, and it is a good thing, but what I really Love is the pursuit of knowledge of Him--not really Him at all.

God granted me the privilege of being a father so I could further learn to love without intellectualizing. I do love my wife in this way, but I needed to expand my repetoire. I needed to love someone who starts out utterly dependent and who grows into his own person. I needed to learn to love someone as a Father loves a Son, so that I could understand the family of the Trinity--not in the theoretical precision of love and procession, but in the intimate details of how a Father gives his whole heart to His Son, so at the merest slight the Father's heart aches and sorrows.

This is the purpose of all the mundane details of life. All of the things we are reluctant to share because they are too trivial. It is in this trivial realm that we become the real people that we are. Everything else is, to some extent, patina and pantomime--mere surface and sensation.

We become Holy by learning to love through all the lessons of life, difficult and easy. We do not learn this from a book or from study, although both of these things are very helpful along the path. We learn more from a Saint's life and actions, I believe, than we do from a Saint's words. Because as good as those words may be, they cannot convey the fullness of the experience of God in the way a Saint's life does. There is something about a life that allows no mask of misunderstanding to intrude and override. We do not need to interpret through the muddle of words, but are confronted with direct action.

Now, I also know that the inspiration of each person comes from different directions but always from the same source. So, while I say that I am more inspired by a life, others might be more inspired by writings, or a word, or some other aspect of encounter with God's grandeur. The important point is to know and to understand where you best meet Christ and to go there often, wherever it may be. If you find Him in the writing of Dorothy Day, then it would be well to spend time with the writing of Dorothy Day. If you find Him in great art and literature and music, so be it. Most importantly, be very honest about where you really encounter God. No matter how much I love literature, words, music, and art, it is in my interaction with my precious wife and son that I am made most aware of God's guiding hand. It is in the small kernel of the loving family that I become aware of what I am called to and God gives me the strength to answer the calling. Sometimes inspiration springs from other quarters but love stands naked and needy at the heart of the family, and it is there I am most likely to see Him, embrace Him, and welcome Him. It is in the detail of daily life that I become most aware of the action of God.

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While I'm In Embarrassment Mode

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I thought I'd mention Davey's Mommy, who in several places about her blog wonders about the purpose of blogging on mundane matters and not talking about deeply personal, close-helf stuff. And I just have to interject that it is often though what others consider the mundane aspects of their every day lives, that I find new elements and moments of grace. Endless discussions of what the Bishops are doing wrong or right, or why these Catholics are bad Catholics and those are good ones, or why some foreign yahoo I don't even know is kindling for the fires of the Inferno, simply don't open me up to the workings of grace. But to hear the small triumphs of a day--building a castle with blocks, making dinner, just being who we are and living out our vocations--those things speak to me in a voice that demands change. They teach me things and they call me to be a better father, a more compassionate friend, and all round a better exemplar of Christ.

So to Davey's Mom and to all of those who wonder whether it is worthwhile to share what you do--the answer is YES. You do not know who you bless or how with what you choose to share. Even if you don't dive down into the muck and murk of your own souls and dredge up all manner of grisly objects to show the world, you bless us (come to think of it, perhaps more than if you ran an online confessional monologue). Don't worry about not being able to talk about deeply personal matters. You don't know how simply and mundane things transform your audiences bit by bit. You make all of us better people by simply living your lives and sharing what you choose to share with us. Thank you.

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What is Our Cross?


I read this and it completely changed my perspective on the day. Please read it before continuing, it is worthy and more than worthy of your attention.

On the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, I did not ask myself what my cross was. Every day I have a new idea of what that might be. And I realized reading M'Lynn's entry, that my cross is myself. It isn't all those little things that burden me each day. It isn't someone else or something else. It is nothing other than myself and how I choose consciously or through habit, to react to what is happening around me.

I remember when Samuel was a little baby, he was as unlike other little babies as you can begin to imagine. Whereas other children would sleep through Mass, Samuel would fuss and then cry, every mass without fail. I'd go into the Church and he'd be practically asleep and when the entrance hymn started those eyes would fly open and the fussing would begin. It would, if untreated, quickly escalate into outright screaming. The only remedy for it was for me to get up and go back into the entrance hall and walk around through all of Mass. And I remember feeling sorry for myself and wondering why he couldn't be like all the other children who slumbered peacefully during Mass. At points I concluded that I had gotten the "Omen" baby. I don't know that I ever really got over it, but when it became clear that it would happen every week, I adjusted to the fact--not gladly.

That reaction is my cross. In fact my reaction to much of the world is my cross. It was these lines that made this so clear to me:

M. is not my cross--as my hubby said afterwards, she's just perched on top of our crosses, looking cheerful at being able to get a good view of everything, maybe jumping up and down a little. I wonder what the congregation is getting from watching me hustle my decidely odd child around the church.

And I'd like to share what I get when similar things happen in my own church. Though you may not believe it, I am blessed. I am blessed by a mother who is aware enough of her child to care, and who is aware enough of the people around her to try to do something. I am blessed by having someone else to pray for rather than being stuck in the rut of how everything isn't going precisely the way I would like it to. I am blessed by the knowledge that we are all "fearfully and wonderfully" made and all deserving of love.

And as I am blessed by all of those who struggle, and who should not be ashamed or embarassed at their burden, so too I've been blessed by what M'Lynn has written for us. She's made me aware that my greatest cross is me--not others, not the world, not my burdens, but my reactions to them.

M'Lynn has reminded me that every moment, no matter how difficult, every breath I draw is a gift, it is a moment that God is present to me, if I choose to make myself aware of it. Every moment is Divine, in the sense that He is Lord of all time and outside time. And now I feel called to return to Jean Pierre de Caussade Abandonment to Divine Providence. Perhaps one of the meanings of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is that we are to see how relatively unburdened we are all compared to that Man who took all upon Himself and put an end to it once for all.

(Thanks M'Lynn for the reminder.)

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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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Reflections on Faith


from Guigo the Carthusian.

Guigo the Carthusian quoted in Ordinary Graces
Lorraine Kisly, ed.

We all live by the same bread, each of us receiving his own share. . . In this gift which I have received I possess the whole of Christ and Christ possesses the whole of me, just as the limb which is possessed by the body in its turn possesses the whole body. Therefore that portion of faith which has been distributed to you is the fragment put in your mouth; but unless you reflect, often and devoutly, on what you believe, unless you will as it were break it up into pieces with your teeth, that is, with your spiritual senses, chewing it and turning it over in your mouth, it will stick in your throat, that is, it will not go down into your understanding. . . . Faith offers to us things which we cannot see, and there must be great intellectual labor before such things are passed down into the mind. Unless this dry bread be moistened by the saliva of wisdom coming down "from the Father of light," you will labor in vain, for what you have gathered up by thinking does not penetrate to your understanding. . . Therefore your faith will be idle unless by often thinking about it "you earn your bread by the labor of your hands." And yet, you cannot think about all you believe, or understand at once all that you think, but only by degrees, and as it were in fragments; and so your food can be properly prepared only by great labor.

Further the deponent sayeth not.

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Simple Gifts


Simple Gifts

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free.
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The Shakers were/are an interesting protestant contemplative/mystical order. They maintained celibacy for all members and gained members only by recruitment. Presently there is a small community of Shakers living at the ancient residence of Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

Theologically they were terribly wrong about a great many things, unless you slant and nuance them just right. But this song encapsulates a truth that can resonate through Christianity regardless of the denomination.

This page will tell you far more than you might ever care to know about the Simplicity of God. But let us just accept for the moment that God is simple, of single substance, indivisible, whole, and uniate. Then, it would seem, to best mirror Him, we should be likewise. We should not live with a divided heart. All that we have and all that we are should reflect God's glory.

But the reality is that we are a divided people. Our hearts rest only when they rest in God, and for most of us that means that our hearts rest only momentarily before skipping on to other concerns. God is a strong presence in our lives, but for many of us, the slightest breath of discontent or of pleasure, and God is wiped out of all consideration--suddenly we are on our own.

Jesus tells us, "Where your heart is, there your treasure shall be." He teaches simplicity, "You cannot serve God and Mammon." But we do not practice it. And we do not practice it because we convince ourselves that it isn't true. That we can do both--we are superpeople, capable of conquering the world and subduing it and rendering right sacrifice and duty to God.

For those who really think this, a newsflash--"We are more than conquerers through Him. . ." not through our own efforts, not through what we do, but through what He IS.

So, throughout the day, I find myself singing this song and recalling that indeed, it is a gift, perhaps in our language a Grace, to be simple. And in being simple, we become free. For the only freedom lies in service to God and to our fellow man.

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On Vocations

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Yesterday I received news that a good friend's daughter recently entered Mother Angelica's Poor Clare convent. After a moment of shock (I had never known anyone who actually took this step--so I was surprised) I warmly congratulated the very proud father who had shared this news.

I shared this news with a couple of other people and invariably I have gotten the same reaction from them, "Wasn't she kind of young to make such a decision?" Now, I'll admit the thought had flashed across the surface of my brain, but I rejected it remembered St Thérèse, St. Dominic Salvio, and St. Aloysius Gonzaga, all very young.

It seems that nowdays, a person of eighteen years or so is considered too young to make a lifetime decision. But I wonder--isn't it a bit presumptious on our part to preempt the action of God. It isn't as though a vocation is a choice in the ordinary sense of the word. Certainly one must ultimately choose to follow where the vocation leads, but if we understand vocation properly, isn't it the tender tug of the person toward God under God's aegis?

So then, who is too young to follow God? Medieval hagiographies had legends of children who from the womb were preaching the word of God, and while that may be more than a little odd, St. Thérèse spent much of her young life playing at "Nuns in the Convent" with her sister Celine.

No matter, I am truly delighted that this young woman is exploring the meaning and possibility of vocation. There is good reason for long internships in the course of joining an order. The discernment of vocation is no easy task. It is also no decision to undertake lightly. Please pray for this young woman as she begins the journey of discovery of vocation. Pray that if she has a vocation, it is made resoundingly clear to her and that she remain true to it despite the currents of the world.

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A Most Interesting Note from Thoreau


A Most Interesting Note from Thoreau

As ever I greatly lament the paucity and the weakness of my own writings when I compare them with even the hasty jottings of one like Thoreau. This excerpt had me completely spellbound and captive.

Journal of Thoreau excerpted in Ordinary Graces ed. Lorraine Kisly

In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction; both its weariness and its refreshment were sweet to me. This earth was the most glorious musical instrument, and I was audience to its strains.

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Witnessing Christ in Creation


Witnessing Christ in Creation

A superb slender book of excerpts regarding facets of the Christian Life, Ordinary Graces compiled by Lorraine Kisly presents a number of quotations regarding the Christian encounter with the natural world. I'll excerpt two.

from Ordinary Graces compiled by Lorraine Kisly

from the work of Poet Christopher Smart

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven time round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying. . .

from The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms
Hans Urs von Balthasar

Christ as recapitulation of creation: as new Adam he encompasses everything human, but he also incorporates the animal realm in himself, since he is lamb, scapegoat, sacrificial ox, ram, and lion of Judah. As bread and as vine he incorporates the vegetative. Finally, in the Passion, he became a mere thing and thus reached the very bottom of the world's structure. This reification is most evidenced in the sacraments and especially in Christ's quantification in Communion wafers and in his multilocation Christ as printing matrix, as generic article. Such reification has its cause not at all in a subsequent desacralization of the holy by the Church, but in an intensely profound personal decision of the Redeemer, and in the strongest possible effects of the redemption itself, whereby the Lord makes himself irrevocably a thing at the disposal of anyone who requests it.

One quick note--even in his aphorisms von Balthasar is incredibly long-winded.

I loved both of these excerpts because they gave points to ponder--a direction to look in order to see the sacred in the ordinary. To look at one's cat and see the mind of the maker is a cause for great joy--to see how perfectly attuned and constructed such an animal might be to the will of God is indeed an insight.

The second insight probes our understanding of Jesus. Again the notion of Jesus recapitulating all of creation is profound and thrilling. Paul hints around at it in Romans when he says that all creations groans awaiting the redemption--but this direct statement is gorgeous and a new way of thinking about the efficacy and sufficiency of God alone.

I hope the book continues to provide readings of such caliber. There will be much to be learned from it.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Spiritual Direction and Reading category from September 2003.

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