Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Gift of Truth

I am posting this late Thursday afternoon as I am heading into poustinia this evening for a day of silence, prayer, and fasting. But we’re on a schedule with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit this week, so I can’t skip a day!

The sixth gift is that of understanding. The best way to understand it is by contrasting it to knowledge. That gift pertains to seeing creation from God’s perspective, to knowing what created things are, and are for, from His own perfect knowledge of them.

If knowledge is about understanding creation, then understanding is about knowing the Creator. Specifically, the gift of understanding is God’s own gift to us to enable us to penetrate the truths of Scripture, the doctrines of our faith, to ‘get’ the sacraments and what they are and do, to have a deep and beautiful knowledge about spiritual life, its verities and principles and practices.

This gift of understanding has not one thing to do with academic learning or even intellectual capacity. I always like to mention, when talking about this gift, of a man I knew in my first year as a priest who confided in me after some months of acquaintance that he was illiterate. He had left school early to work on his family’s farm, and somehow reading and writing just hadn’t taken with him.

This man had the most penetrating insights into God, the Bible (he had a greatly developed oral memory), the sacraments, the virtues and spiritual life. He was a deeply devout and (I would say) holy man, and the gift of understanding operated in him at a high level indeed.

St. Therese of Lisieux would be another example of someone with minimal formal education and yet a depth of insight into God and the things of God, and particularly the path to God of littleness and simplicity, that has made her a Doctor of the Church. So it is nothing whatsoever to do with being a theologian in the modern academic sense. I wouldn’t say that formal education is bad for the gift of understanding, exactly – just that it is unrelated to it.

With both knowledge and understanding, we can see something that eludes us often in our confused times. In our era of post-modern fragmentation and relativism, we can often conclude that truth is just something so fraught with difficulties, so unknowable perhaps, and if known so prone to make the one who knows the truth arrogant, intolerant, even violent that… well, it’s just best to leave the subject alone. Truth – what is that? Pontius Pilate said it, and we’re all living in a Pilate world now.

But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Why would God not want us to know the truth of things, and the truth of Himself? Truth is not a weapon to be wielded or a comforter to wrap oneself up in, or a pedestal to climb on so as to look down one’s nose at others more efficiently.

Truth is communion. Truth is when the ‘what’ of the other, or the Other, resides in my own intellect. When I say ‘I know you’, and I say this rightly, it means that, in a sense, you live in me. You and I are in communion. And we are meant to have this kind of communion with all creation, and with God above all.

It is the Holy Spirit then, both in knowledge and understanding, who gives us this gift of communion. Of course this communion exceeds our intellectual grasp and conceptual expression of things and of God—it is much deeper than what our poor little minds can say. But it does shape and illuminate and purify and heal and strengthen our poor little minds so that they are not quite so poor, not quite so little.

These gifts enrich us—knowledge by giving us a great and properly ordered understanding and hence love of all creatures and especially of that creature our neighbour, understanding by giving us a properly ordered knowledge of God, from which we cannot help but love Him as we should. ‘To know Him is to love Him.’

God does not want us to grapple blindly in the dark, not really knowing much of anything and prone to terrible errors that can cause such great injury to ourselves and others. He wants us to know the truth, not to make us proud and arrogant, but so we can love rightly. And that is what both of these ‘intellectual’ gifts of the Spirit are about.

Come, Holy Spirit.

The Gift of Science

Our tour of the gifts of the Holy Spirit has taken us to gift number five, which is the gift of knowledge. Or as I prefer to call it, based on its Latin name, the gift of science.

Now I realize that in our modern use of the word ‘science’ we don’t exactly experience it as a mystical gift of the Holy Spirit. The word science has been degraded (yes) from its rich and full medieval expression to a much more circumscribed and limited usage—namely the experimental physical sciences by which we learn through a disciplined process (the scientific method) the verifiable properties of physical objects of various kinds.

This was not unknown in the medieval world, although the silly historical illiterates called the New Atheists like to pretend it was. Scientific research and progress, and the technical innovations that arise from that, were part of the High Middle Ages, more often than not happening in the monasteries that were the locus of intellectual life in that era.

The medievals had a much broader concept of scientia than that, however. Their concept of science and knowledge was broad enough that they could speak of its highest expression in the gift of the Holy Spirit of knowledge.

The science yielded by the physical experimental sciences is of tremendous value, as far as it goes. It tells us how things work, and how they work in concert with one another. Because of that, it tells us how we can make things work for us to achieve purposes of our own design. All of which is good, very good indeed.

What the physical sciences cannot tell us is what things are, and what things are for. And any real scientist is quite happy to acknowledge that. We know quite a bit about how oak trees work—photosynthesis and root systems and all that. The experimental sciences have not a word to tell us about what an oak tree really is, or what an oak tree is really for.

Now, if we were content to leave it at that—yes, botany cannot tell us these things—that would be fine. But in our modern utterly illogical and unscientific thought processes, we declare more often than not that because botany cannot tell us these things, these questions are meaningless and cannot be answered by any other science, any other knowledge.

That this is a statement that derives from no scientific experiment (and cannot) and is as thorough-goingly metaphysical and indeed theological in its scope and claims utterly eludes the poor modern materialist who (I hate to break it to him) is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Indeed, if the question is declared meaningless and void, then the claim is that all physical objects, which includes you and me, are nothing but assemblages of atoms in various patterns—there is no inherent reality to things, and certainly no purpose.

I am going on at a bit of length about this because we cannot understand the Spirit’s gift of knowledge without challenging something of the inadequacy of our modern notion of ‘science’. But that’s enough about that.

Knowledge is that gift of the Spirit by which we come to see all created beings as God sees them. Instead of our narrow and limited human view, by which we only see other creatures as either serving our purposes or impeding them, as giving us delight or causing us sorrow, and in which we see our own selves even more dimly and inaccurately, God wants us to share in His own God’s-eye-view of creation.

To see that the oak tree is a thing that gives glory to God, that in its beauty and strength it speaks of the beauty and strength of God, His protection, His goodness manifest in a tree. And a tree is one thing; my brother or my sister, the stranger on the street is quite another. Knowledge allows us to penetrate the veil of appearances and reactions, our own selfish and limited perspective of one another, and see the person as God sees them. Knowledge also gives us the ability to put creation in its proper place—a good and delightful thing, given to us to manifest God’s glory and serve our real needs in this life, but not the ultimate good, not the ultimate point.

Knowledge allows us to love creation with making it into an idol, to affirm the goodness of everything God has made while holding that goodness to be very little and unimportant compared to the goodness of God.

From knowledge, then, we have the wisdom to apply our mastery of the physical sciences, our insights into how things work, so that we use them not simply to do whatever we think is best, but to really serve the good of humanity.

The Spirit’s gift of science, then, orders all the other sciences of our human intellect so that they serve the true good, the true dignity and value of the human person. In our world today when science is used to pour poisons into the earth, air, and water, when it is used to kill unborn children and the elderly, and mutilate men and women confused about their genders, we need the science of the Spirit to show us the truth of things, and of people.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Gift of Guidance

We continue to go through the gifts of the Holy Spirit this week, in preparation for the feast of Pentecost this Sunday.

The gift of counsel is that gift by which we discern what God wants us to in the concrete, the now, the specific situation that we are faced with at the moment. It corresponds to the natural virtue of prudence, whereby we use right reason to figure out the proper course of action in the here and now.
Counsel begins where prudence leaves off. Prudence is a vital virtue, one of the cardinal virtues, necessary for any kind of serious moral life. We need to be able to apply the precepts of the moral law and the practice of all the other virtues specifically and concretely to the actual choices we are making; prudence is the normal virtue by which we use our intellects to figure that out.

Prudence is not enough for our lives, though, not if we are going to live the divinized life that Jesus came to make ours. We are called to live a life transcending our human limitations, to live a life on a divine scale and scope. Clearly, human reason is not sufficient to tell us how to do that in practical terms.

And this divine life is one of total union of will with God the Father. Jesus in His sacred humanity practiced perfect obedience—to live a life in the Trinity, then, means to be utterly pliant and available to everything the Father wants us to do.

The Little Mandate of Madonna House contains the line “Listen to the Spirit – He will lead you.” I write about it here, and won’t repeat everything I said then. This is the gift of counsel.

It is so important, really. Sometimes we look around at the Church, at the world, at our own lives perhaps, and wonder why things aren’t turning around too well. People, especially young people, are leaving the Church in large numbers. The world is full of heartache and misery. The culture of death goes from triumph to triumph—yesterday abortion and same sex marriage, today euthanasia, and what will tomorrow bring? Radical extremism is on the rise, and it’s hard to see where all that is going.

Now I realize the causes of all these situations are very complex and involved. Yes, indeed. And that is why we are doing such a lousy job (frankly) responding to them. Far too many baptized Christians, including the leaders of the Church, are operating out of the level of human prudence, human calculation. Perhaps of good will, perhaps trying to make some difference in the world, but according to our own ideas, our own strategies, our own ‘pastoral planning’ and creativity.

Pastoral planning and human ingenuity are useless. Useless, that is, unless there is first the exercise of the gift of counsel. It is not a question of visions and mystical utterances, although these are not unknown and should be heeded. We are facing widescale apostasy and growing hostility to our beliefs in this country; the bishop at that link is facing the wholesale slaughter of his people, and says that Jesus has told him and his people what to do to avert it. That’s a perhaps extreme example (for an extreme situation) of the gift of counsel.

But we need that to happen all the way down the line. Faced with any kind of difficult situation, any kind of serious need to know the right course of action when it is murky—not ‘well, let’s put our thinking caps on and get this thing figured out!’. Rather, ‘Come, Holy Spirit – we beg you to show us God’s will for us here.’

The first step is actually wanting to do God’s will and not our own, being willing to be utterly detached from our own (brilliant!) ideas to make room for God’s somewhat more brilliant ideas. In practical terms, living our life in such a way that the Gospel and its constant guidance on how to live is our daily bread, the words and actions of Christ daily confronting our own words, actions, and thoughts to purify and heal them. (I know a book that might help you in that task!)

But always, at the heart of it, the prayer of our heart for God to come and show us, come and help us, come and teach us, come and guide us… come, Lord, come. Not just in exceptional and desperate situations (prayer—the last refuge of the scoundrel!), but as a way of life. This is the gift of counsel – the radical choice on our part to be, well, counselled by God, to be directed, guided. And in that, the assurance that if we are asking and wanting and longing for this, God who has given us His Spirit will not withhold from us the help and guidance we need, but will find His ways to show us what He wants of us. We need this so badly, and even more so, the world needs it so badly from us—our own human cleverness and human thinking has done nothing to make things better.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Gift of Love

This week I am going through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in preparation for the feast of Pentecost this Sunday, to stir up our desire for the Spirit’s sway in our life, and to open ourselves to His promptings.

The gift of piety has a bad rap, no doubt. For many people, the word ‘piety’ and its related adjective ‘pious’ evoke the picture of an exaggerated, even showy kind of religious fervour. The pious person is the one who makes a big fuss about being religious, who bows and genuflects ostentatiously, who cannot help but put on a show when they are saying their prayers, whose conversation is ceaselessly, remorselessly sprinkled with an endless spiritual syrup of ‘God bless yous’ ‘God willings’ and a menu of other stock religious phrases, and who indeed seems incapable of talking about anything other than a short list of approved ‘pious’ topics.

Most of us, even the most devout of us, find this sort of thing somewhat annoying, and certainly not especially commendable. Fortunately, this has precisely nothing to do with the gift of piety. To be strictly accurate, this kind of showy ostentatious affected religiosity is called pietism, and it is no virtue, let alone a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So what is real piety? The best way to describe it is to back up and look at fear of the Lord and fortitude, the first two gifts we have examined. These first three gifts are all about bringing our human emotions, our passions, properly ordered in the divine life. The gift of fear properly orders, well, our fear, by so grounding us in the love and beauty of God that we dread absolutely anything that takes us from it—sin, in other words.

The gift of fortitude properly orders our anger, if you will. That fighting spirit in us that allows us to overcome any evil, any opposition, anything that comes against us. Spiritual fortitude gives us such a depth of communion with God that not only is our anger utterly purified of its negative and harmful elements (rancour, bitterness, hatred) but strength and courage flows to us from the heart of Christ to bear us through any evil and suffering.

Piety, then, orders our love properly. Our affectionate love, that is. The gift of piety gives us a genuine love of God as our Father, of Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, of the Holy Spirit as the ‘sweet guest of the soul’ who gives us all these good things in a personal way.

Instead of God being ‘that guy up there’ and Jesus being some remote historical abstraction or ‘that guy on the crucifix over there’, and the Spirit being a meaningless cypher, with piety we actually do begin to love the Trinity with genuine love. And because of that, we do have a genuine reverence and respect for God and the things of God that affects how we carry ourselves in church, in prayer, in our speech and manner. Real piety is not the ostentatious artifice of ‘religiosity’ (which has as much to do with egoism as anything else), but a real and sincere reverence flowing from love.

There is a great healing in this, perhaps the greatest healing of all. The core wound of our humanity, after all, is that we genuinely do not believe that God loves us, or that He is real at all, or that He is with us, or that He is good and desires our good. The wound of original sin at its very heart is a wound of mistrust, an alienation of affections, as that good old fashioned phrase puts it.

Out of that mistrust comes a terrible sense of isolation, of abandonment, and out of that comes all sorts of things—hardness of heart, bitterness of spirit, or a plunge into every worldly and sensory pleasure available to us. Piety, then, heals this in us.

God wants us to know Him. And to know Him is to love Him. The gift of the Spirit is that which gives us the knowledge of God, not on some intellectual level of theology and doctrine (these are not without value), but on the level of personal encounter and transformation.

Piety also bears fruit in a genuine love of all men and women. When we start to actually love God, then we love what He loves, and He loves all His children. Piety yields compassion, concern, mercy as its obvious and immediate fruits.

So, it’s a good deal! And let us pray for a renewed gift of piety and deepening of this gift. The world is a hard place these days—so much anger, so much distress, so much coldness. We need more people both on fire with love and tenderized by love, and it is the Spirit’s gift of piety that makes us that. Come, Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Gift of Courage

In this week before Pentecost, we are going through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so as to stir up our desire for God and our openness to all He wants to do in our lives. The gifts of the Spirit are, essentially, given to us by God in baptism so that we are enabled to live the divine life in our human flesh.

The second gift is that of fortitude. This can be understood as strength or courage. It is a simple fact, isn’t it, that we have to be strong and brave in this life? Even if our own lot in life is not filled with terrible dangers and travails, there is no one whose life is so charmed that they do not need fortitude. Particularly if you set yourself to live a good life, to do what is right and just, to be a lover of God and of man, you need strength. The good path is rarely the easier path.

And there is a natural virtue of fortitude which is available to anyone, part of our God-created, God-imaged humanity. And we need that natural fortitude to do just about anything that takes a bit of effort, anything that comes with a cost. A weak-willed person who has no fighting spirit whatsoever is not going to be able to do much of anything at all—sooner or later there are obstacles to overcome, difficulties to surmount.

The gift of fortitude is quite different from the virtue, though. Natural fortitude strengthens us in the battle to achieve the reasonable good. The good we can see is possible, that while it may be far off and fraught with difficulties we nonetheless know is attainable. I suppose one of the most obvious examples of that reasonable good is the enormous effort and work that goes into raising a family. It is very hard, and demands everything from the man and woman who essay it, but it is nonetheless a reasonable thing to do—if you simply keep going day by day providing, protecting, and teaching the children God gave you, you have a reasonable expectation of producing a bunch of more or less functional adults. But it certainly takes fortitude to persevere in that work.

The gift of the Spirit of fortitude picks up, however, where natural fortitude leaves off. That is, it strengthens us for the unreasonable good. When there is no good outcome in view, when life stretches ahead of us as a bleak vista of endless grey days and arid landscapes without relief, when death itself is looming, when our plans and hopes all seem to have failed, and we are left simply with our commitment to whatever vows and promises we have made to God and man, which no longer seem to hold any joy or life for us, only bare fidelity—that is when we need the gift of courage.

This gift, then, shows itself most beautifully in the witness of the martyrs. When there is literally a knife at your throat and all you need to do is deny Christ to keep your head attached to your shoulders, and you instead cry out the name of Jesus, and die—this is fortitude in its most supernatural expression, its most beautiful and radiant effulgence.

Well, we know this is not some distant historical reality in our world today—it is happening now. Martyrdom is part of the Christian experience of the 21st century, wondrously. While the evil being done to our brothers and sisters in so many countries of the world is terrible, and we should grieve for the evil doers, at the same time we really do need to recapture the joy and glory of martyrdom that was the hallmark of the early Church.

Our brothers and sisters killed for Christ are flying up to heaven, you know. And it has always been the case that the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of faith—their deaths are the most powerful weapon there is precisely against the hatred and zealotry that killed them.

It is spiritual fortitude that makes all this possible. And makes it possible for all of us to persevere in less dramatic and violent circumstances as well. To stay in a marriage when it has become very difficult, or the priesthood or in religious life when the joy of it has fled or become elusive. To forgive enemies when there seems little profit in it for us. To go on loving in situations where it is not reciprocated and seems to do little good.

Whenever we are called to fidelity beyond rational calculation or reasonable expectation, that is when the Spirit must come to our aid with the gift of courage, of strength, of fortitude. And that fortitude comes from that which the Spirit gives us in essence—the knowledge of God, of His love, His fidelity, His own total gift of Himself, out of which we can and indeed are mysteriously impelled to give our whole selves to Him by living and if need be dying for His sake.

We can’t go looking for martyrdom, nor do most of us want to. But today we can go looking for where our fidelity to God pushes us beyond what is reasonable, what is ‘fair’, what makes sense to us. And, in the current parlance, ‘leaning in’ to that and so tapping into this infinite reservoir of strength that is not ours, but His, and rejoicing in it.