Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living As If God Exists

The attempt, carried to extremes, to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads us more and more to the brink of the abyss, toward the utter annihilation of man.

We must therefore reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment [to live by only those truths that would be true even if God did not exist] and say: even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God did indeed exist. This is the advice Pascal gave to his non-believing friends, and it is the advice that I should like to give to our friends today who do not believe.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

Reflection – I am back from holidays, nicely rested up thank you, and ready to roll for another year of blogging (among other things). I thought I would start off this round with a return to some vintage ‘Ratzinger blogging’. Those who have discovered my blog more recently may not know that it used to be called ‘Life with a German Shepherd’ and was dedicated exclusively to the writings of Pope Benedict. I did my licentiate thesis on his thought, and have a wealth of references from him in my files.

I always recommend the book quoted here as a good starting point for those who want to read something by Ratzinger. It is short, topical, lively, provocative. Today’s quote is a good example. Fashioning a social world without reference to God seems to many to be the path of freedom and tolerance. Let everyone think what they wish, privately, about religious matters, but let our public life together be officially agnostic, if not atheistic. This has been advanced, and continues to be advanced, as the most peaceful way to live together.

It is illusory, though. We cannot, individually or communally, avoid ultimate questions. If there in fact is no God, or if we at least live our lives as if there is no God, the ultimate questions about truth and meaning and what is good do not simply wither away on the vine. Human beings are made for meaning—we cannot stop looking for meaningfulness in life. And if that meaning is not given, it must be fashioned. If it is not something to discover, it is something to make. It cannot be, and never is, something we just forget about. We’re not really built that way.

And so we have, in this seemingly tolerant agnostic/atheist approach to social life, the transference of questions of ultimate meaning, truth, and goodness to the sphere of political and sociological transformation of the world. When there is no God in heaven to which we can refer the matter of ultimate happiness and the consummation of human striving for perfection, then we must labor to create a heavenly life (or some poor facsimile of same) on earth.

And if this does not take place in the sphere of political ideologies or moral crusades (some people, after all, are genuinely apolitical by temperament), then it will take place in the naked pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power, or some potent combination of these. But all of this—ideological agendae and self-seeking gratification—are in fact matters that occur in public that affect all of us. The religious impulse, the sense of God and of ultimate reality that is outside of us, is forced into a private expression that is more and more hemmed in, while all of the other efforts to force meaning upon a meaningless reality rampage publicly and increasingly intrude upon us all.

And so we have the seemingly mild and irenic advice given by Cardinal Ratzinger. Act as if God exists, even if you can’t see your way to really believe that. Act as if the questions of ultimate meaning and happiness are in fact given and not made, as if there is a hope for human fulfillment that lies outside our own striving and violent effort. Act as if we do not have to press so hard to make this life on earth a heaven for ourselves, as if there might just be a heaven awaiting us.

It seems like a very mild and simple prescription for what is truly a complex and very serious problem, but I believe he is pointing the way to a real remedy for our post-modern ills. If God does not exist, we are plunged into an abyss of meaninglessness which forces us into a terrible strife and clash with one another and with a cold and lifeless cosmos. 

If we but grant the existence of God, leaving aside for the moment the specific questions of His nature and revelation to us, we find ourselves on solid ground, able to simply work with a measure of peace to make this world a more kindly and lovely place, since at the bottom of the abyss lies not black nothingness but a Living Presence that sustains and supports us and gives us hope that all is not lost, that all, in fact, shall be well in the end, well not by our own efforts and virtues but by a mercy that comes to us from the One who made all that is. And that is what we have, if we decide to live ‘as if God exists’.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Have Nothing But Gratitude

So today is my tenth anniversary of ordination. I find myself quite at a loss for words, uncharacteristically, and can only say that I have a heart full of nothing but gratitude to God for allowing me to be in this most sublime and awesome vocation. Thank you, God.

Probably my lack of words is also connected to the fact that this is my last blog post for a couple of weeks, as I depart on my annual vacation tomorrow. Blogging will resume as normal on September 21.

Meanwhile, since I am a man without words today, here are some things I’ve written in the past on priesthood and my own call to it that say what I would say if I had anything to say!

Here are my thoughts on the day I was ordained.

And here are my reflections on Catherine Doherty’s sense of the priesthood.

Here are my reflections, with Pope Francis, on being a minister of God’s mercy.

Finally, here is what I believe it is all about, not only priesthood, but life in Christ, and it is to this reality and this mystery that my life is pledged, poor enough job that I make of it most of the time.

And so, besides those four last words (for now), I leave you with one of my favorite choral pieces which expresses what is really in my heart ten years later. ‘Praise the name of the Lord, praise the Lord, you servants of His, alleluia.’

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Walking By Starlight

With a hymn composed in the eighth or ninth century, thus for over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as “Star of the Sea”: Ave maris stella.
Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope.

Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).
Spe Salvi 49

Reflection – With this entry I will have now successfully blogged the entire encyclical Spe Salvi,  on the salvific nature of hope. I’ve taken this last week or so to revisit and finish my blogging on this encyclical because it seemed timely. The world is in some very difficult and sad times—yesterday’s second beheading of an American journalist is one more movement towards what seems almost certainly a renewed military engagement in Iraq, and of course that is only one small corner of the world that is in great turmoil and distress—Eastern Europe and Western Africa are in sore need of prayer and aid now, too.

The sea of history is indeed ‘dark and stormy’ and it is all too easy to lose sight of the destination of the journey in these times. The passions—anger and avarice, gluttony and lust, despondency and sloth, pride and vainglory—all too easily beckon us when the world is in turmoil. They seem to offer us a way through these dark stormy waters, but to what end?

We can strike out against our enemies in anger, tightly cling to our own wealth, drown ourselves in physical pleasures, collapse into despair, or exert our mastery to put everyone else underneath us—but to what final end? What good is it, indeed, to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul?
And so we have the stars of hope, the light shed by the saints in glory, and above all by the great Mother of God who lights the path to the true end of humanity. It is so crucial in these days when the world does seem to be blowing up just a bit (and, we’ll see, perhaps quite a lot), to know that this world and our life in this world, good and precious as it is, is not the destination of the journey, not our ultimate home.

‘The true stars of our lives are people who have led good lives.’ What a lovely and simple sentence to explain the devotion to the saints which has been part of the life of the Church since its very beginning. This is why it is so important to read the saints and know something of their lives, the choices they made, the sufferings they endured, and what it was all about for them. So many genuinely foolish mistakes about Christianity and what it means to live as a Christian in the world would be avoided if we would let ourselves be taught by our betters, the men and women who have done this thing, lived this life, and whose lives serve as brilliant guides to us along the ways of the world.

Mary is supreme among the saints. She shows us that, no matter what the circumstances of our lives, no matter what is going on around us, inside us, in our world and in our own little worlds, the road to the good end of life is the road of fiat, of faith, of humble obedience to God. That the whole purpose of God in creation and in humanity is to make of us an open door for Himself to enter in, that the world’s salvation and ours does not come through human power and mastery, not by violence and not by sensuality, but through the work of God transforming our flesh into His, our lives into His, our humanity into His divinity, as His Spirit overshadows us as it did Her.

Our Lady is the star shining brightly in all the world showing us that this is the path of life and that it leads to a brilliant and glorious end. I don’t know what the great political and (possibly) military solutions are to the very real problems we are facing in the world today. I do know that we haven’t a chance of finding our way through these times if each of us personally does not set our course by the stars of hope the Lord has laid out in the heavens for us, and that the true way of peace in the world comes only through walking the path God opened up for us and that Our Lady reveals to us in its fullness and its beauty.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Losing Hope, and Finding It

For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly.
Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer.
This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.
Spe Salvi 34
Reflection – We jump ahead in our reading of Spe Salvi now to the section on prayer. I have now done almost the entire encyclical on this blog now, and the whole thing can be found here.

The power of purification in prayer that Pope Benedict writes about here is explained beautifully in the previous paragraph: “When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves.”

The Cardinal Van Thuan he refers to here was the Archbishop of Saigon when it fell to the Viet Cong, who spent 20 years imprisoned by them, much of it in solitary confinement. He is the great apostle of hope in our times, and should be much more well known than he is. His books Testimony to Hope and The Road to Hope are modern spiritual classics. 

Deprived of his ability to function as a bishop, only able to even celebrate Mass with great difficulty and at great risk, and with little prospect of ever seeing the world outside his prison, he chose to simply live as a Christian within the circumstances he had been given. He strove to love the only neighbors the Lord had provided him with—his jailors. And he strove to pray as best he could each day, and in so doing to deeply entrust his life to the Lord each day. He emerged from his long imprisonment a man transfigured by grace, and ended his years in Rome, a living witness to the power of Christ to redeem the worst and most hopeless situations.

And so we need to really apply this to ourselves, don’t we? Most of us are not so badly off as Cardinal Van Thuan (well, really all of us, since anyone reading this blog post is not languishing in solitary confinement as a victim of religious persecution). But we all can choose to in some way or other lose hope, to focus on those elements of our life that are difficult or painful, that do not seem to be conducive to health and happiness. We can all choose to turn from God, stop praying, despair in His power to redeem our situation. We can all be so sure that the only way we can become joyful is if the painful and difficult things go away, that we miss the gift of God that He is trying to give us in the midst of these painful and difficult things.

And this is losing hope, when we are so determined to find our happiness in this life and in having things as we want them in this life. Meanwhile, God is continually opening us up to this much bigger, much deeper, much more enduring happiness. And it is prayer, the choice to perpetually and continually turn our face and our heart toward God, be it in the liturgical and Scriptural and devotional prayers we have learned or in the simple outpouring of our hearts to God, that continually purifies our hope and makes it grow stronger and more well founded.

And this is our call today—to pray and to let God purify our hearts to seek Him in whatever circumstance we are living in today, good, bad, or something in between. So, let’s get on with that.