January 14, 2005

Today's Providence

My PDA has a little screen that hum , whistles, vibrates, or screams at me to inform me of a meeting. When I clear that screen the last application I was using crops us. In this case MyBible with the following words highlighted:

"Christ Jesus has made me his own." Phil 3:12

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Chaos and Weak Determinism

Tom has a very interesting post on determinism as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas. The description is very similar to some aspects of chaos theory. Chaotic systems look random, but they follow a pattern called "weak determinism." The determinism is weak because while the next few steps of the pattern can more or less readily be predicted from knowing initial parameters, small variations in the initial system result in large divergences very rapidly. (The popular name for this is "the butterfly effect"--a term coined by or about the work of meteorologist Edward Lorenz.) Weak determinism is interesting because even though it is weak because predicatability is poor, the determinism includes every variation back to and including the initial stages. That is, the initial stages strongly, if unpredictably, influence the entire "chain of being." What happened in the past is present and influential at every moment. (See Mandelbrot's discussion of the price of cotton in The (Mis)Behavior of Markets.)

The net result of this is that one can start with two objects that to all appearances exist in identical circumstances, subject them to the same influences and still come up with different results because (1) there were differences that were minute, but important in the initial makeup; and (2) there were differences in the influences.

What does this analogy mean for determinism? It means that two people can start at what looks like the same point as far as human eyes can see and wind up at very different places. As Tom points out in his discussion--determinism is in part influenced by free will. That is the choices that we make influence the array of choices that are available to us at the next decision-making nexus. When we choose not to take the job in Seattle--all contingencies based on that job more or less pass away and the path is closed--we are weakly determined by that choice. We may know what lies immediately ahead. What we cannot know is that by not taking the Seattle job we missed out (10 years down the line) on a volcanic eruption that buried our house in 15 feet of ash. That path is closed.

Each choice I make via free will in closes some doors and opens others. When I choose to "sin a little bit" by investing time in pornography, I may find that I subtly alter the current of things in such a way that the door to adultery is opened (or perhaps not). The choice to sin closes some doors (doors leading toward God) and opens others (those leading away) Always keeping in mind, however that all of the doors back to God are never completely closed, there is always at least one wide open--the door of the confessional.

The analogy of weak determinism speaks seems to tread the middle road between complete determinism and complete randomness or free will. Each choice alters parameters and constrains future choices, while at the same time opening other channels. We have some things set in motion about which we can do almost nothing--biochemical factors, certain environmental conditions in youth. However, we do have a choice about how we react to these factors and how much we allow them to guide our lives. An alcoholic may or may not be able to do anything about the biological condition that predisposes him or her to alcohol addiction; however, they can do a great deal about what they choose to do as a result. Free will is not easy, but biological determinism is not the final factor and things can be done to combat predispositions.

This is one reason I'm extremely dubious about the so-called "gay gene" and its deterministic effect on behavior. You may have a predisposition, what you do not have is a requirement to act upon that predisposition--you are, in fact, free. Once again, we should keep in mind that what is freely determined is not necessarily easily undertaken. Carrying the ring to Mt. Doom was freely chosen; however, in the end, it was not easily accomplished. And unfortunately, we all have rings in our lives that need undone--we all have the same quest to undertake to rid our lives of the power of darkness. Christ's yoke is easy, His burden light--choosing to assume them is what is difficult.

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Beginning the Ascent

An interesting bit of serendipity stemming from yesterday's writing regarding the Letter to the Philippians. I had not yet encountered this passage from Sr. Ruth's book. Even if God isn't talking to anyone else, He sure is hammering home the message to me.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

John says if you want God, if you want to begin the ascent of the mountain, then you have to make a decision against self-importance. You have to remove yourself from the centre-stage, see yourself as a member of a family, a community which you must serve. This is what Jesus taught and Paul after him. Never think yourself more important than others, never put yourself before them. . . . Think little of yourself and be happy that others do not consider you very important. Have a lowly opinion of yourself, not in the sense of unhealthy self-denigration but in that you do not consider yourself the pivot of the universe. Keep correcting in the silence of your heart the contrary natural attitude. Keep reminding yourself that others are more important than you are, that their well-being is more than the satisfaction of your ego. Let your actions conform to the this truth. Do not demand that circumstances change to fit you, do not labour to control events for your own benefit. See yourself as the servant of others.

Okay, now time for the really hard questions. How many of us, well-intentioned though we may be actually live this? How many of us really see ourselves as servants? I might use the language, but is my real image of myself that of one who waits on others? Absolutely not! I am in a position where I am required to lead others, to send them here and there, to tell them what to do, how could I possibly be a servant. The reality of the matter is that whatever it is I do here and now, it is momentary--a task that is not eternal. I must practice whatever influence I have circumspectly, realizing that I am the servant of all in Christ. In fact, I should seek to be the servant of the servants of God, thinking nothing whatsoever of myself, but seeking to give all in service. For example, as a husband I should seek to serve the needs of my family, caring more for the needs of my wife and my son than for my own. If I do things that are not acknowledged as readily as I would like, then so long as I do not become nonplussed and put-out about that fact, it is a jewel in the crown. Because just as I owe them this service, so to they "owe" it to me. I should not sit around waiting to be waited on. Rather, I should work to be a greater servant. I should do as I would be done by--not because I expect the return of the favor, but because it is the right thing for a servant of the Most High to do. Treat others as you would be treated and do not expect to be treated in return with this high regard.

I think one of the hardest things for the rugged individualism of the people of the U.S. is to think of ourselves as all connected. And if we are all connected the really difficult thing is to seek to be in the portion that serves, not in the portion that is served. We need to break down the arrogance of our false masks of freedom, independence, and stoic isolation and surrender entirely to the notion that by our baptism we are called to service. This means service of rude people, mean people, people who you'd really rather just kick and get it over with.

There is no real love without service. St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught that love is not merely a feeling, and not merely an act of the will, but it is expressed in concrete terms of small individual services. It needn't be anything spectacular. For example, I might serve someone by listening to them with a patience I do not have--by listening when I really just want them to come to the point and be done with it--by not deconstructing everything they say into the components of self-importance they seem to represent. Service takes many small steps.

"Think little of yourself." I like this expression for its productive ambiguity. It is both to think of yourself as small and as a servant, but it is also not to so intensively direct your thoughts inward. Rather think little of yourself and let the majority of your thoughts ascend to the throneroom of Heaven. Think little of yourself and more about who needs help and what form that help can take. Think little of yourself and rejoice in the good that accrues to others. Think little of yourself and immerse yourself in the vast world of all that God has laid out for you. Let your gaze follow that of the Blessed Mother, babe in arms, and let it rest always upon the face of Jesus--the face of the person God has sent to you in this moment.

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Interfering Courts

Once again the courts have overstepped in and pushed the secularist agenda.


A federal judge in Atlanta, Georgia, has ruled that a suburban county school district's textbook stickers referring to evolution as "a theory not a fact" are unconstitutional.

Now, I'm not in favor of these stickers, nor do I think it particularly helpful to muddy the waters about what the word "theory" means in science. Nevertheless, to put a sticker on a textbook that says something is a theory not a fact is not governmental support of religion. If the government said, "Evolution is wrong, God created all in seven days," then you would have a case. However, they did not. They said merely what is NOT usually said in textbooks--the theory should be critically evaluated on its own merits. They did not propose what the alternative might be to evolution nor did they encourage children to believe whatever alternative there might be.

Once again the courts are pushing the limits--suggesting that any demurral from the empiricists is a suggestion of religion. In other words, Science has become the state religion and to dissent from it in any way is now unconstitutional. This is sheer nonsense. To start with the establishment clause is invoked as the gag order is enforced and once again we look at the establishment clause which states specifically "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Now it seems to me that a school board posting a sticker is hardly congress (that's the first point). The second point is the second half of the clause which the court in fact violates. By removing this sticker, they are in fact establishing a religion and violating the free exercise of one already established.

Since when is a school board Congress? What happened to the idea that whatever rights were not granted the centralized federal government belonged to the states themselves. Will a sticker on a textbook lead to rampant theocracy and a subversion of the imagined separation between church and state? Hardly. Might it lead to subversion of free religious practice? No, because it already abrogates free religious practice.

I don't know what to do about activist courts. But if I were on the school board in that county, I would simply say with Andrew Jackson (with whom I disagree as to application) "Mr. Marshall has made his law, now let him enforce it." Are you going to send in police to confiscate textbooks and remove the stickers? The time has long since come when small acts of civil disobedience in defying the idiotic courts are in order. The activist judiciary needs to be defied right and left until they start interpreting law and cease making it. And their interpretation of that law should be confined to what is written, not what has been invented since FDR deconstructed the courts in the 1940s.

Okay, I'm over it. I don't agree with the message of the stickers. I think it is misleading and misrepresenting how science works and what science is. Nevertheless, I don't see the court stepping in to correct every ill-considered action of a school board. They need to keep their noses out of community affairs and learn what the word "interpretation" means. Interpretation does not equal reinvention.

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Satellite Tsunami Photos

That appear to have some veracity:




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January 13, 2005

Moore and Gibson

Via Verbum Ipsum

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The Purpose of Self-Denial

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

The whole aim of John's asceticism is to release us from the tyranny of the ego. Influenced by his scholastic framework he seems to write as if the senses had a life of their own and must control their actions; that the appetites, passions and emotions must likewise curb themselves. But of course, this is not so. It is really the will, the faculty of choosing, that is involved. True, the eye sees, the ear hears automatically; passions are aroused automatically, but it is the will that must choose to turn away the eyes, refuse to listen, control the instincts. Everything therefore will depend on what I really want, what I prize, what I hold to be my true good. Meditation, as we have said, keeps us looking at the values of Jesus so that we may choose to make these our own. Jesus is always summoning us beyond ourselves to the Father, bidding us deny the powerful tendency to seek fulfilment within ourselves and the limits of the created, making the aggrandisement of the ego the implicit motivation of our thinking and acting.

Throughout life at different times each of us faces the trials experienced by Jesus in Luke 4.

Luke 4:1-14

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit [2] for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. [3] The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." [4] And Jesus answered him, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone.'" [5] And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, [6] and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. [7] If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours." [8] And Jesus answered him, "It is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'"
[9] And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; [10] for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,' [11] and `On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" [12] And Jesus answered him, "It is said, `You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" [13] And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. [14]And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we do not respond as Jesus does. For a variety of reasons, different reasons at different times, we succumb to the temptations offered. The reason for meditating on the Scriptures and for practicing a certain level of self denial is to prepare us for the time when these temptations present themselves. Jesus "practiced" self-control and self-denial in a marathon 40 day fast in the desert. He withdrew from all of the wonderful things of God's creation--food, wine, people, comfortable lodging, everything that we see as the necessary minimum in life. This prepared Him for answering Satan when the temptation was offered.

Now few of us are up to a complete fast for even a single day. The thought of a pang of hunger is enough to send us running to our pantries to check out our famine supplies. But neither God nor St. John of the Cross is telling us that it is a really good idea to fast for forty days. In fact, for some of us that presents a temptation all its own--the temptation to being "holier than thou." A kind of spiritual "extreme sports." 'I can fast longer than you can AND I can sit on a taller pole in a higher wind.' "Well I'll take your fast and raise you a 10 cord discipline twice a day.' It sounds silly, but people being what they are seem to be able to take pride in just about anything.

What we learn from St. John of the Cross is that we do well to deprive ourselves of small luxuries, things that in the normal course of life no one will notice except God. Then we are neither likely to take pride in them--so long as we do not deliberately bring them to the notice of others--nor are they likely to derail us by their sheer heroism. In fact, the are more likely to reinforce humility when we realize the tremendous effort we must take to momentarily deprive ourselves of something we don't really need anyway.

And all of this is about conforming the will to what God would have us do. We must make the choices, we must take action--but our action must conform to God's plan for us for it to mean anything. And this is the purpose of any self-denial or any discipline we impose. If our goal is anything less than total-self-giving to God, our actions will not have their intended consequences. As Sister Ruth points out, we must make the choice for our own greatest good. And the difficulty there is that we must wake up and come to realize what our own greatest good entails. Meditating on the scriptures will help us to open our eyes and to see what is right there in front of us, rather than what is six years (six years we don't have) down the line either direction.

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Advice from St. Paul

I have a large number of bad habits. One of my worst in the ecclesial realm is that I am an absolute addict of Bibles. I have about 40 of them around the house--every translation, configuration, set of notes, theme, print size, and binding you can imagine. They range from the Good News Bible to the Bible my Grandmother gave me when I was six years old (and which I was expected to carry, read, and use -- the King James Version--says a lot doesn't it?) So last night I indulged my Bible addiction yet once again and updated my Laridian Palm Bible with notes from the Life Application Bible and the NIV study bible. Most pocket bibles do not carry Catholic Editions or Catholic Study notes (are you guys from Ignatius paying attention?--a real market here. Get us a palm-study-Bible and you'll have a corner on the highly lucrative seven or eight person Catholic PalmBible market!)

Well, of course, having purchased the Bible aids and loaded up the RSV and KJV I had to start using the new features (highlighting in six different colors and a new note-taking device.) Given that I had to start work IMMEDIATELY, what better place to begin than. . . you guessed it Paul's Letter to the Phillippians.

And here's what occurred to me to share today:

Phillippians 2:3

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.

Count others better than myself? You mean I am not to curse and rail and slam on the horn and hit my steering wheel when someone cuts me off clearing my front bumper by no more than two inches? You mean I should hold a door open for the rudest person in the universe who will then rail at me because I think them incapable of opening a door for themselves? Where does this self-effacement end?

If properly conducted and infused by the Holy Spirit, it ends in divine union. We continue to decrease until there is only God steering the vessel. We give no thought for ourselves, but our entire attention is dedicated to and devoted to others. We do nothing from selfishness and conceit (through grace) and all is directed to the betterment and love of others.

The doctrine of St. John of the Cross is not new. It wasn't new when St. John wrote about it. It wasn't new when St. Bonaventure wrote about it. It wasn't all that new when St. Paul wrote about it. (Okay, it was only thirty or forty years old then--but you get the point.)

Nothing St. John has to tell us about truth is new. What is new is how to approach the truth. What he does have to tell us are things that might help us better execute this admonition of Paul.

So, here is Paul's gift to us for the day--the constant exercise of Christian self-abnegation, aided by grace leads inevitably to the throneroom of God. Of course, the assumption is that all of this is surrounded by prayer and completely supported and led by the action of the Holy Spirit. But we must do our minimum--cooperate with His action in our lives.

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January 12, 2005

Newman on Logic as a Rigorous Master

from Pontifications.

His commentary includes this small gem:

"Between faith and nihilism there is no firm place to stand. We are moving either toward the Truth and Realty who is Jesus Christ or toward that utter emptiness which is modernity, whose name is Hell."

While I was there I stole this as well so it can go in my commonplace book:

"You ask, will the heterodox be saved…. Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins…. I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever."

St Theophan the Recluse

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Poetry--Our Lady of the Snow

A lovely poem from a very nice site

Our Lady of the Snow
By S. M. R.

Sum nivis semita solis pedibus Dei.
--Apocryphal Gospels.

O path of whiteness for the feet of God,
O path wherein Divinity hath trod!
No stain of earth did thy fair body know,
Thou whiter than Mt. Selmon's trackless snow.
Thy crystal beauty blended with the tide
That poured for us from Christ's spear-riven side.
Transformed of Love, God's path of virgin snow,
Thou art the channel whence all blessings flow.
O Mother-Maid, O Heart of purity,
Be thou our way to thy dear Son and thee!

Source: The Ave Maria, August 5, 1905.

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Fleeing or Being?

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

We cannot sufficiently stress the need for emotional control, especially today when the reaction to emotional repressions of the past has caused the pendulum to swing the other way. In certain circles feelings are taken as all-important. An enormous amount of attention is given to them with the result that people are very conscious of how they feel and quick to think they have an absolute right to feel 'well'. . . . It seems to me that sooner or later each of us has to learn to put up with painful emotions, pay little attention to them, get on with doing what we have to do, attending to our neighbours' welfare, putting all our trust in God. We who know Jesus can surely afford to feel insecure--if we do! We can afford to feel fragile, fearful. Surely these painful emotions can be an opportunity for pure trust. . . .

We find it hard to give up the idea that there is a magic answer somewhere, that it must be possible to get this burden off our backs. We have deep conviction that we are being wronged: our environment is wrong, our companions are responsible; if we had a different job, if this person was not around, if,if, if. There is no answer but facing reality. Do we not see that the truly happy people are not those who have spent themselves avoiding life’s difficulties, seeking escapes and alleviations, trying to control life so as to provide a secure base for the ego, but those who have done battle with themselves, who have tried, not to change the world but to change themselves, to adapt, to accept, to bend, to die. It is a strange thing that one of the hardest things some people are asked to do is precisely to stop being miserable, to choose to be happy in a world of limitations, the world that really is, not the world of make-believe! We prefer to cling on to self-pity, self-contempt, self-recrimination. At least it is safe. It means I cannot be disappointed and no one can blame me for not expecting too much of myself or of life. Such an attitude is an escape from living and loving. It is an egocentric prison.

[Emphasis added]

What I love about Sr. Ruth's book is that she details certain points at which the modern psyche so completely diverges from the "weltanschauung" of St John's time that we must be careful about how we follow his advice. That the emphasis on HOW to go about things has shifted a bit, even though the things we must be about remain eternal.

I also like the head-on confrontation with the common complaints, experiences, attitudes, and actions of the present day. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have knowingly or unknowingly bought into Robert Schuller's "be-happy" or "prosperity" gospel. As a society we long to feel good about ourselves. We seek to make the road as smooth and painless as possible. Sometimes this means that rather than helping the poor myself, because I can't possibly fit it into the schedule of a busy family life, I give money to let others help the poor. Giving money is a very, very good thing to do, especially to legitimate agents who can reach into places too distant for me to touch. However, that does not remove the necessity for me to substantively help the poor in the place where I live. It does not remove the obligation for serving in soup kitchens or helping the St. Vincent de Paul society at my church.

There are other attitudes. "I am Christian and God promised Christians a happy life." Now, I doubt anyone says this quite so boldly; however, it seems to be an underlying attitude. As soon as I run up against a snag, it's time to flee. I shouldn't be inconvenienced. I certainly shouldn't be harmed or caused distress.

St. John of the Cross suggests that the remedy is to choose the most unpleasant tasks--to inure oneself to the idea that we are not promised a bouquet of roses. His chief modern explicator St. Thérèse of Lisieux has quite a different take on the matter. She tells us that life deals quite a few bad hands as it is--it isn't up to us to make our hand worse, but rather play the hand we are dealt with as much joy and fervor as if it were the ultimate winning hand--because, in point of fact, it is. So Thérèse tells us that we don't have to use the discipline and the calice to mortify ourselves--life offers ample opportunities. (As one who died so young she did not experience all the opportunities of old age--but I think the rigors of tuberculosis are quite sufficient to make what she had to say a living reality.) For Thérèse, we don't have to go out and look for trouble, we can find it in the person of the old nun down the way whom no one likes and at whom Thérèse makes a special effort to smile and be pleasant--not because Thérèse felt any marvelous love for this woman, but she nevertheless trained her will to act in love to all.

Our modern world has rigors all its own--pains, pressures, fears, hurts, losses. When faced with one of these we can either choose to flee (the course I know I most often take) or to face them as God's intent for the moment and be strengthened by living the moment and deriving from it the grace God has offered. This is not to promote a kind of false stoicism, but rather to acknowledge as the Buddha did that life is suffering, pain, and hardship (in some large proportion). If we flee these, we flee life itself. We flee the strengthening that comes through testing and endurance, we flee the opportunity for abandonment and trust. That is not to say that we should not take steps to alleviate what suffering we can; however, the reality is that no matter how much pain is removed, there will always be something left that we will either endure or flee. It is better for us to endure it, not because suffering in itself is good or because God wants us to suffer, but because God has allowed it and through it and through our reliance on Him graces will accrue.

If we are paying attention, Thérèse tells us, life offers enough opportunities for mortification and for uniting our sufferings to those of Jesus on the Cross. We needn't go out and seek more. And Thérèse is, in many ways, the "modern" voice of St. John of the Cross. She has taken his teaching and distilled it into a more-or-less modern context. (Although truthfully, even her time is quite distant from our own in many very important ways.) What Sr. Ruth emphasizes in her work is that the truth of St. John of the Cross endures even if some of the methods might be better suited for his own time rather than our own. However, it is necessary to separate the kernel from the hull, because we would tend, on our own, to discard both. The practice is outmoded so the teaching must be perishable. What St. John of the Cross teaches endures--whether the practices he enjoins are meant to be taken for our own times is up to the individual with the help of a spiritual guide to find out. But the truth of the way of self-denial, of taking up our crosses, is not one that originated with St. John of the Cross--he was, perhaps, one of the greatest of its explicators, but the truth is eternal. As with Holy Mother Church--the doctrine is eternal but subject to growth and reinterpretation through time, but the discipline is for the time and it may vary from age to age without any reflection upon the eternal verities in which She is grounded.

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January 11, 2005

Recently Discovered

Another Carmelite blog This Moment

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More from Sr. Burrows

I was very excited to read these two passages:

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

Everything we perceive that does not help us to grow in love of God and others must be denied at whatever cost. 'If your eye is a cause of stumbling to you,' says Jesus, 'put it out.' A highly charged metaphor to impress on us the unutterable importance of pleasing God, living as he would have us live. Nothing counts beside this, not our pleasure and satisfaction, not an easy comfortable life, not wide experience of sense, not 'happiness'--nothing. All occasions of sin must be avoided absolutely in so far as depends on us. When they cannot be avoided and we find ourselves caught up in pleasures that do not help us to God then we must detach ourselves from them, refuse to savour them. But the pleasure that attends all innocent use of created things is to be enjoyed reverently and gratefully. There is no question of denying ourselves just for the sake of doing so, as though this is what God wants. . . .

We need pleasure, but it may be that earnest love sees that we cannot hope to deny ourselves wrong pleasures unless we have undergone a prepartory discipline and learned to say no to perfectly innocent ones. This renunciation is for a purpose; one might say it is a temporary expediency. Our use of creatures, whether we forgo this or that, will be a very personal matter. Nobody can make rules for another. . . . But when all is said and done it is we who must make the decision, and never are we more lonely than when we do so in moral areas. Each has his or her own vocation in life with its own specific demands. No one can live out the full range of human/christian values. We have to choose, and the choice depends on the vocation to which God has called us.

To reply to a previous commenter--how often do you hear this on Oprah or from Pollyanna? Deny yourself--reject legitimate pleasures? More often we hear "Seize the day." Sr. Ruth is not offering us a way of lollipops and roses, nor is a way for perfect people. Sr. Ruth is pointing our the path clearly marked by St. John of the Cross. This is reality, hard and fast reality. Admittedly it is reality of a higher order than many of us ever experience, but it is not of a higher order than what God offers for us to experience.

But what I liked here is the notion that sometimes denial of innocent pleasures is a kind of training for denial of those not-so-innocent. So, in a sense, we give up those things we crave the most as a mortification. We give up beer or wine or chocolate so that we are better equipped to give up taking lustful pleasure in looking at a woman (or man) etc. I will have to weigh this all out, but it is commensurate with John's actual life as reported by others. He loved the countryside and often spent time wandering there. If these created things gave him pleasure and the point of detachment was simply to remove everything that gives pleasure, then we would not have wandered in the fields or spent time in nature in prayer. So this interpretation of Sr. Burrows rings true both with the magnificent poetry and with the life of St. John of the Cross. Now, the danger lies in being too lenient with ourselves as well. How much enjoyment is innocent. How do I stop at the chocolate before gluttony? As Sr. Burrows points out, the choices and the use of created things is something that must be decided by the individual in council with a wise advisor.

So detachment is not about denial for the sake of denial, but carefully considered and discerned denial in service of growing in love of God. We rely upon grace for all of this, we cannot do it unaided, but we must also rely upon carefully considered human reason, to help us make our choices and to discern properly. If we must give up something, if me must deny ourselves, that too should be in pursuit of the ultimate goal--not denial for its own sake, but denial to help foster deeper love of God.

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On the Difficulties of St. John of the Cross

Because she is such a hit with a least one reader, more from Sister Ruth.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

John can sometimes give the impression that we must renounce all love of creatures:'He who loves anything besides God is incapable of divine union'. . . But of course God is not an object and therefore lies totally ouitside the range of our thinking, imagining, loving. One of the implications of his hiddenness is that he cannot be held, looked at, enjoyed directly in this life. He is in all; things are only because of his self-communication to them. To love anyone or anything purely is to love him; to relate them in accordance with his designs is to be in union with him. In our unsullied enjoyment of creatures, in our delight in others, we are enjoying and delight in him. We ask everyone and everything about him:'Has he passed by you? Show me what he is like. Tell me of him. We ask these questions not merely with the mind in meditation; we ask in action by using creatures as they should be used.

It would be very easy to misread this. Some apparently have already done so; however, understood correctly, I think Sr. Ruth is, on the whole, on-target here. Any creature available to the senses can be loved either for itself or for God in it. That is we can seek to use it illicitly or licitly. When we see God through the object or person, we are loving properly. It is the object of our love that is critical. Do we love what the person or thing can do for us, or do we love that person or thing as an object of God's love and being? I apologize because I recognize that I am not making clear what I really want to say here; and it does seem really quite simple. However language is so fraught with implicit dangers that it is difficult to say. Were I to say that we are to "love God in the creature" it might imply that we could not love the creature--that is bestow some good upon it as a logical outgrowth of love. But that is not what is meant. We must love God in the creature and the creature as an outgrowth of our love of God, thus we may do good as an outgrowth of that love. But more often than not we love the creature only for what it can do for us. We love money, or we love some other legitimate good, not because they give glory to God, but because they give glory to us. The proper use of creatures is a very difficult line to define. That may be why St. John of the Cross is so frequently misunderstood to say abandon all creatures. He does not do so. And yet, as Jesus instructs us, it is better to abandon them, even be they so close as our own eye or hand, than to be unable to enter the kingdom. When we begin to love and lust after a creature for itself rather than for God-in-it, we have moved from the proper "use" of things into the self-aggrandizement of the ego.

This is what St. John of the Cross would have us understand, I think. Anything created thing we want for the thing itself becomes an object that bars us from further growth in God. However anything loved for the loved of God can help us on our way.

It makes a certain amount of sense. Out of love for the nuns at Beas, St. John of the Cross wrote many of these works and commentaries. Obviously he did not abandon, no more did he cease to love them. He loved them for God -in-them (purely) and was led naturally to seek their betterment as love will do.

The proper use of created things is use according to their dignity, stature, and ordained purpose in bringing us closer to God. Any use other than that is obstructive to our growth and it may be sin. We cannot love creatures for what we can get from them in this world and still aspire to the kingdom of God.

(Or, at least, so my weak understanding carries me. There are a great many unresolved questions regarding this in my own mind and my formulation is far from complete, but here's a start.)

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 10, 2005

Our Relationship With Created Things

According to the interpretation of St. John of the Cross by Sr. Ruth Burrows.

I loved this passage and I dedicate it especially to Rob.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

Turning now to the Ascent we understand that John is not demanding that we cast a pall over all created things and live in some sort of void but that we impose a night on the ego. 'It is not the things of this world that ensnare and injure the soul, for they do not enter within it, but the desire for them which abides within it, that is the ego which always seeks itself and therefore abuses and destroys." The ego curls inwards and, like a carnivorous flower, draws everything else within it, destroying both them and itself. This ego-centred movement is a perversion, it is disobedience in the fullest sense. It is sin. In Paul's terms it is the flesh that lusteth against the spirit. Called beyond ourself to the enfolding transforming love of the infinite, and never happy save in obedience to this call, we nevertheless shrink from commitment to it. Innately obstinate in us (and how strong!) is that which expects, demands, looks for fulfilment within this world, even though we know experientially and intellectually that it cannot be.

I love the metaphor of the carnivorous plant and particularly the lovely use of the word "curl" rather than "turn." Curling suggests a withering, a drying up, a post-mortem effect. That is the place of the ego--withering and death. It is the place of the spirit where we have enfolding and unfolding and the transformation of the seen into the plant.

In case you can't tell, I'm really enjoying sister Ruth's book. It seems so practical, down-to-earth, and ordinary. It takes away the sting of much of the phrasing of St. John of the Cross and reveals (or so I think) the underlying truth of what he teaches about the Spritiual life.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:40 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The End for Which We Are Made

This weekend I asked my Carmelite community whether detachment was a means or an end. We concluded that it was something of both (at least for Carmelites). That is, the real end is loving God completely and having complete freedom in God. For this to happen, we must be stripped of everything that has a tendency to keep us from God; hence detachment is a means. Nevertheless, once we have achieved the real end--proper love of God, we will also have achieved detachment whether or not we have consciously striven for it. The two fit hand-in-glove. So, while there may be other paths to achieve union with God, they all ultimately involve dying to self. Now this prospect sounds hideous, but I think this passage from Ruth Burrows clarifies what is meant.

from Ascent to Love
Ruth Burrows

We ourselves are mystery and our proper ambience is mystery. When we speak of God's hiddenness we are saying he is the answer to our yearning. He is unfathomable mystery offered to us. Through Jesus he reveals himself not only as our beloved--the object of desire--but as our lover. The we realise that he has always been our beloved for the simple reason that he is our lover. We learn that there is a fulfilment to our endless longing but not within ourselves, not with the limitations of this world or our own achievements, but as pure gift. There is an inevitable conflict between our true self and its deepest desire to be enfolded, possessed by our beloved, and the innate drive to control, posses, to find fulfilment within ourselves. This we can call the ego. It is our basic self-orientation which is a dead end. Let us say the true self is loyal to transcendence, the ego betrays it and settles for limitation. 'We must courageously resolve to pass both interiorly and exteriorly beyond the limits of our own nature, so as to enter illimitably within the supernatural which has no measure and contains all measure within itself. " But it is precisely our nature to go beyond the limits of our nature so as to enter into God! The self must triumph over the ego.

When we speak of dying to self, this is what we are referring to. We must put aside the ego--the false self, the sense of ourselves that we have constructed and by which we identify ourselves, and discover our identities in Christ. In Sr. Burrows's words, it is the ego that must die so that the self can assume its proper and divinely appointed place within the body.

Naturally we fear this because once our construct is dead, we will be naked and exposed. The whole world we see us for what we are and we do not know what that will be. Nevertheless, if what lies buried under this burden of ego (speaking for myself) resembles St. Anselm, St. Patrick, St. Thomas More, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis Xavier, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Clare of Assisi, etc. then what have I to fear when I stand exposed? The world may hate me, but God will have taken me and made me already one with Him in the body of Christ, aware of who and what I am and what my purpose for His glory is. Even at a distance I can acknowledge this as what I would like to achieve. Loving union with God for all eternity starting here and now--for that end the stripping away of ego, no matter how painful, is worth the effort and the pain. Now, it's just overcoming the fear and the selfishness that hold me back.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Birth Announcement from Katherine

As this was sent as a general announcement, and many here were praying for her safe delivery, I give you the announcement in Katherine's own words, with one small edit to ensure the privacy of the family:

Franklin and I are delighted to announce the birth of our sixth child, Brendan Matthew Timothy . He was born here in our home on Tuesday morning, the 4th of January. He weighed 10 lb 8 oz and was a whopping 22 inches long. He has black hair.

Both mother and baby are doing very well. It was a difficult birth but, God was our provider every step of the way.

Please join me in congratulating the parents and thanking God for this ordinary Miracle.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack