Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Essence of Christianity

Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbour which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor ).
Deus Caritas Est 18
Reflection – The Pope here has been exploring the question of how love can be ‘commanded’ – how is it possible that a feeling in the depths of one’s heart can be commanded by an external law? We know it is so: ‘a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John ). But how are we to obey this commandment?
The answer he gives in this passage is so perfect, but expressed so simply and briefly, that we can miss it. And it really penetrates to the very heart of the Christian faith, to what our deepest understanding is of this strange religion God has inducted us into, this strange Way that God has opened for humanity.
Essentially, the Law of the Christian is not a set of rules, a list of prohibitions, a bunch of dos and don’ts. These exist, but they are not our law.
Our law is Jesus Christ. And the obedience to this law is this deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ that He calls each of us to enter. We cannot simply draw up a list of all the things Jesus tells us to do, and the somewhat shorter list of things he tells us not to do, and then say ‘This is our Christian Torah! Here’s the Law of the Gospel’.
Well, we could do it, but it would be ridiculous and impossible and we would end up looking very stupid. Not recommended.
What we are called to on every page of the Gospel is not to simply substitute a bunch of new commandments for the old ones of Moses, but to plunge into a depth of relationship with Jesus that is truly transformative. To turn to Him each day and cry out, “Lord, that I may love as you love! That I may love as you love! Have mercy on me, Jesus! Increase my love!” That’s the law of the Christian.
And out of this constant transforming encounter, which is not a once and for all affair, but must be renewed daily, and indeed moment by moment if we’re really going to do it, well then of course we will not fornicate, or seek revenge, or hate. Of course we will go the extra mile, be indifferent to possessions, share generously with the poor. Of course we will listen to the Church and allow our minds and hearts to be formed by its teachings. Of course we will pray constantly and fast and give alms.
Not because there is some list of rules, and a big man with a whip threatening us, or eternal fires of Hell threatening us. No! We will ‘of course’ do all this because Christ is coming to us moment by moment and changing our hearts so that we want to do it, even when we ‘don’t want’ to do it!
Our Law is Jesus, this Law is given to us by the Father, and is being promulgated in our hearts by the Holy Spirit moment by moment, who gives us the power to live it as He teaches it to us. And this is the very substance and essence of Christian life in the world.
Pretty good religion we got, eh?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Way of God

Love of neighbour is [indeed] possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.
Deus Caritas Est 18
Reflection – I don’t know—is it possible?—that some of the readers of this blog have ever had the experience of finding it difficult to love a certain person? Is it just within the realm of possibility that any of you have ever encountered that particular problem?
Yes, once in a while it has been known that we meet a person who annoys, irks, repels, disgusts, enrages us. This is actually, of course, a fairly common human situation.
The wisdom of the world says, in those cases, ‘well, to Hell with them, then!’ Love those who love you, or love those who you like, and forget the rest of them.
This is not the wisdom of the Gospels. This is not the way of God. And we have to choose. Do we belong to the world, or to God? Who are we following?
To love those we dislike is a work. It doesn’t just happen. And this work is a matter of, as the Pope says, drawing closer to Christ. This intimate encounter with God, this crying out to the Lord: “That I may love this person! That I may see them as you see them! Have mercy on me, Jesus!”
This is the love that transforms our own hearts into a fire of love. This is the love that provides warmth and light for the world. Without this kind of love, this kind of movement towards God, we are just one more bunch of worldly people—nice, maybe, but nothing special.
God wants us to be fire and light in the world. And the quickest way to that fire and light is to commit ourselves to loving in difficult circumstances, with all the prayer and struggle that entails for us.
It’s our choice, but on that choice hangs a great deal. Will we shine the light of the Gospel into the world, or will we be part of the world’s darkness? Catherine Doherty puts it well: “The day you no longer burn with love many will die of the cold.”

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Failure of Reason

We must affirm that this Enlightenment philosophy, with its related culture, is incomplete. It consciously cuts off its own historical roots, depriving itself of the powerful sources from which it sprang. It detaches itself from what we might call the basic memory of mankind, without which reason loses its orientation, for now the guiding principle is that man’s capability determines what he does.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 41
Reflection – Reason alone! This is the summary of the Enlightenment philosophy Ratzinger critiques in this passage. Rejection of authority, of tradition, of faith, of any source except its own self. The assured faith (paradox alert!) that it is by unaided and untrammeled reason that the human race will obtain happiness and security, solve all problems and heal all ills.
Well, it has failed—I don’t quite know how anyone can seriously disagree. We’ve had centuries now of reason doing its thing (a good thing in itself, let me hasten to add), and the results have beeen… well, mixed to say the least.
Antibiotics. Nuclear bombs. Organ transplants. Pollution. Improved crop yields. Zyklon B. Adult stem cell therapies. Machine guns.
Reason is a powerful tool penetrating how things work and how to make them work for us in a host of different ways. But unaided reason, reason cut off from anything outside its own narrow technological and scientific investigations, does not do so well in determining what we should do, what is genuinely for the good of humanity.
And so we see that all sorts of perfectly rational scientific men over the past centuries have used their reason to create instruments of death, terror, and destruction that in fact threaten the very survival of the human race and the planet. And that is not to mention the host of philosophies and ideologies that ‘reason’ has come up with and which have wrought carnage on a scale unprecedented in the history of humanity. Communism alone killed tens of millions of people in less than a century.
Reason—untrammelled, autonomous reason—is incomplete, as Ratzinger so summarily puts it.
We need context. We need a framework: what is humanity for? What is our good, anyhow? What is the meaning, the purpose, the goal? What is the value of man and his works? From this, which is what Ratzinger means by the ‘basic memory of mankind’ we can determine how technology and scientific progress can truly serve the good of humanity. Without this, we are simply thrashing around aimlessly and doing ourselves great harm in the process.
We cannot kill some human beings to benefit other human beings, even if the humans we are killing are very, very small. We cannot give the power to deal out life and death to the medical profession, as euthanasia advocates would have us do. We cannot by legal fiat change the fundamental realities of human life and its origin and nurturing. Man and woman come together, and this is how babies are made—the state has an interest in strengthening those relational bonds. The state has no interest whatsoever in any other relational bonds among people.
Underneath the Enlightenment philosophy is a sense that reality is infinitely malleable, that there is nothing ‘real’, really, that we can change and shape things without limit, or the only limit being our own power to do so. This is false, and the falsehood is currently driving our society to the brink of poverty and ruin.
There is reality; there is truth; and truth comes to us down the centuries from the sum total of human experience and reflection. We reject this traditional wisdom and insight at our own peril, and I fear this peril is imminent and grave in this year of 2012. Let us come to our senses, and allow our reason to be shaped by wisdom, and our wisdom informed by the witness of the centuries, before it is too late.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Toughest of the Tough Questions

What has [the] Messiah Jesus actually brought? He has not brought world peace, and he has not conquered the world’s misery. So he can hardly be the true Messiah who, after all, is supposed to do just that. Yes, what has Jesus brought?.. He has brought the God of Israel to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel’s Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God. He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and the world. This universality, this faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—extended now in Jesus’ new family [the Church] to all nations over and above the bonds of descent according to the flesh—is the fruit of Jesus’ work. It is what proves him to be the Messiah.
Jesus of Nazareth, Part One, 116-7
Reflection – Here we see the fearlessness of Pope Benedict. He is not afraid to confront the toughest of the tough questions, which is not the question about same-sex marriage or priestly pedophilia at all. Rather, the question of ‘what good is Jesus, anyhow?’
This is the question that confronts all of us in our life somewhere. Besides the more global political concerns he lists above, there is the individual struggle we all have with our faith, one way or another.
Christians have the same problems as everyone else. Christians can and do fail in pretty much the same ways that anyone else can fail. Believing in Jesus is not a magic pill that takes all the pain away and instantly heals every illness and neurosis.
So what good is it? This is the tough question. It is not a tough question in my own inner dialogue, to be honest. I know what Jesus has done for me, the difference He has made in my life, and it is quite enough, thank you very much. Quite enough to leave me prostrate on my face before Him for the remainder of my years, even if He never does another thing for me.
It’s more the challenge of explaining this difference to those who may not have experienced it or something similar. What the Pope outlines above may seem a bit remote or abstract—so all nations can worship the God of Israel now. Ohhhkay… that clears that up satisfactorily! Not. But actually he knocks it out of the park here, as is his wont.
What it means is that every human being, because of Jesus, has direct access to God. God in Jesus has made Himself utterly available and present to every member of the human race. God is with us; we are not alone, and Jesus is the One who works this miracle.
I can hear the collective shrug of at least a few shoulders reading this. “God is with us – even if I believed that, whoop de doo! I should care why?”
And that’s where the challenge comes in – how to explain the difference this makes to those who may not quite know it already.
All I can say is that, if I had to choose between 1) having every physical and mental illness and being dirt poor and friendless and having God in Jesus; and 2) being in perfect health of mind and body and filthy rich and surrounded by friends and not having God in Jesus, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. Monte, I’ll take what’s behind door number one!
And this is what the martyrs show us above all, and the great saints, too. They chose death rather than forsaking Christ, they gave up wealth and comfort and health and endured all kinds of trials and tortures rather than forsaking Christ. Words are cheap, easily written, easily forgotten. When we see the long and glorious line of men and women from the year 33 to today willing to die for Christ and proving it by dying, willing to live for Christ and proving it by heroic lives of service—well, we start to get the picture. Jesus makes a difference, if we give Him everything we have.
And this difference is available, here and now, for everyone.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Way of Love in the World

Can we love God without seeing him? And can love be commanded? Against the double commandment of love these questions raise a double objection. No one has ever seen God, so how could we love him? Moreover, love cannot be commanded; it is ultimately a feeling that is either there or not, nor can it be produced by the will. Scripture seems to reinforce the first objection when it states: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn ). But this text hardly excludes the love of God as something impossible. On the contrary, the whole context of the passage quoted shows that such love is explicitly demanded. The unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbour is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether. Saint John's words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God.
Deus Caritas Est 16
Reflection – I have already blogged about the next paragraph of the encyclical, where the Pope addresses the question of love being ‘commanded.’ Here, he tackles briefly the thorny question of the relationship between love of God and love of neighbour.
Personally, I have always found one of the most challenging, confronting sentences to be something the Lord said to St. Catherine of Siena, to the effect that “The degree to which you love the person you love least in the world is the degree to which you love Me.” That’s something to ponder.
Of course, it’s not a complicated matter. God created everyone. God loves everything He created. To love God is to love what He loves. Therefore our love of God (that mysterious commodity) can be ‘gauged’ by our love of what He loves.
But what this simple little syllogism does to us is immense. It plunges us into the passion of faith, into the crucifixion of our emotions, into battle with the world, the flesh, the devil. When we really get that our very communion with God which is the very essence and substance of life for us, is bound up with how we treat that obnoxious co-worker, that malicious relative, that person who swindled/lied/cheated/abused us… well, this may be simple, but it sure ain’t easy.
But it’s a passion of faith we must enter. God is waiting for us in the midst of that struggle. God is offering us, at the heart of these most painful encounters when everything in us cries out ‘Strike back! Don’t take that! Don’t let him do that! Don’t let her get away with that!’—God offers us, in the midst of all that, Himself. An intimate sharing with his own life, his own way of love in the world.
If we refuse, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to Hell, necessarily. But it does mean we are distancing ourselves from God. It does mean that we are choosing not to become saints. It does mean that we are choosing to not burn with love in the world, and the world is so very cold right now, you know. So many people are shivering and freezing because so few people are willing to burn with love of God and neighbour.
Well, it’s up to each one of us. No one can make me love; no one can make you love. But it seems to me that this is the way of it – we choose the path of universal love, with all the struggle and anguish it entails, or we choose the path of least resistance, loving those we like, loving when we feel like it, and meanwhile returning slap for slap and insult for insult. Perhaps not a wicked way of living, but also not a way of living that makes much difference in the world.
If we want to make a difference in the world, we have to meet God in the battlefield of love, where his love sets our hearts on fire, and our hearts on fire pour out towards everyone, without exception, loving with out counting the cost and clinging fiercely to God in the midst of it all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Words About Words

[With writers such as Wittgenstein] positivism has now very largely taken possession of philosophy… this means that today both natural science and philosophy no longer seek truth, but only inquire about the correctness of the methods applied, and experiment in logic… quite independently of whether the starting point of this form of thinking corresponds to reality. In any case, reality seems to be inaccessible.
Faith and the Future, 17
Reflection – OK, so we’re back in territory that is a bit unfamiliar to most of you, right? And perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Well, I’ll come back tomorrow when Fr. Denis is writing about love or the Eucharist or the US presidential elections or something.’
Stop! Don’t touch that mouse pad! Yes, I’m talking to you! Hang in there.
While details of Wittgenstein’s thought are, indeed, a little beyond us all (I studied this stuff, but a looong time ago, and the details are hazy), the basic point is not beyond us at all. In fact, it’s quite a familiar refrain.
In the intellectual world, the academic business of philosophy, there is this strain that has abandoned metaphysics. We cannot know anything about ‘reality’ as such, so let’s forget all about it. Philosophy in this sense becomes a matter of words, ‘words about words’, making sure that we follow correct rules around the use of language. What ‘correct’ means in this form of philosophy, since we have no idea of truth or reality, is where I get lost, I must confess… how do we know our use of words is correct if we have no access to extra-lingual correctness? What standard do we apply to judge our use of language?
But here’s where all this admittedly rather abstruse philosophy actually has to do with us. We too can easily say ‘no, I don’t really care about the big picture, about what is true or not. All I care about is how things work, and getting them to work for me.’
While Wittgenstein-ian philosophers are a rare breed these days, people who say some variation on the above are common as dirt. But the same objection holds. How do you know things are ‘working for you’ if you don’t know what your life is about, what it’s for? If you manipulate and lie and cheat and steal and mess around because ‘that’s what works for me!’ you may find yourself burning in Hell for all eternity. Frankly. So I guess it didn’t work too well for you after all, eh?
So the big questions of life, death, God, sin, virtue, and judgment are not questions we can just bracket off as irrelevant to our daily business and getting the job done. The choices we make each day are either opening us up to Life or closing us off from Life, and hence killing us. Isn’t it just about the most practical concern in the world to figure all this out? To figure out which way is up, in other words?
I guess I’m still really worried about all these young people I read about the other day who just don’t bother their little heads about matters metaphysical, about deep questions of life. Don’t they ever stop and think that the car they’re driving merrily along down the highway of life might be heading for a cliff? And if there are large signs posted to that effect, and guard rails—well, isn’t it practical to take note of such things?
When we reject authority as any sort of guide to our choices, then the only teacher we have left to us is experience—and Experience is a mean, mean teacher. Experience teaches with a boxing glove to the face, a kick in the groin, a blow to the kidneys.  Experience sometimes kills its pupils.
Gee, it’s too bad there’s no other way to learn, isn’t it? Too bad God didn’t think of establishing an authority on earth to preserve and pass on moral wisdom to each generation! Oh wait… you say he did… well, where is it?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We Are Not Pigs

The relationship of creature to Christ, of the first to the second Adam, signifies that the human person is a being en route, a being characterized by transition. He is not yet himself; he must ultimately become himself.
In the Beginning, 64
Reflection – Have you ever noticed that your dog doesn’t have too many existential crises? That cats don’t spend much time anguishing over their identity? I’m just wrapping up writing my latest book (publication details pending…) on the effects of technology on our humanity, the subtitle of which will be Staying Human in a Digital Age. But we don’t see pigs publishing books about staying porcine in a bovine age, or fish publishing about staying piscine in a mammalian age.
And its not just because of the lack of opposable thumbs, either. There is something deeply human about the very fact that we don’t know what being deeply human means. We have to struggle and wrestle and labor at our humanity, toiling and spinning around madly in a way that the birds of the air and the lilies of the field just don’t have to do. They just are; we just aren’t, not without a fight.
This is actually one of the great arguments against atheistic materialism, if you think about it. If human beings are just one more form of protoplasm, just one more blob of tissue in a universe that is nothing but one big blob of tissue… then why do we mind so much? Why, if we are just meaningless products of a wholly material universe, do we constantly kick against the goad, constantly look for some deeper meaning, some deeper definition or identity or human expression? Because we do, you know, and it’s across cultures and civilizations, across history and place.
Human beings ask questions about human being, and seek to become what we are not.
Ratzinger explains this universal human experience in light of the creation of the first Adam in the image of the second Adam. Adam (humanity in its origin) is made with a view to, in consideration of Christ (humanity as perfected by the divine indwelling).
Human beings are created, then, to be open vessels, empty cups, a space in which God can give Himself in a unique way, a being incomplete in itself, but opening up to be completed by the gift of its Maker. We are a creature endowed, not only with a present reality, but a future destiny that surpasses it, that surpasses our own capacities.
Sin complicates this, of course, as we try to fill that empty space with any number of created goods and fulfill our destiny in all sorts of self-directed ways. And so we get all confused and conflicted and frankly miserable.
But this second Adam, who is not merely an abstraction or an idea, but the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, the Christ of God, comes to each of us, I maintain, to work in us precisely this completion of our humanity.
It ties back to exactly what I wrote about yesterday. Love comes to us; love is given to us. Love is our destiny, our divine identity, and to be filled with the divine love is what we are made for. And this love comes to us, not just 2000 years ago when Jesus was born, but here and now, every day. And not just in some abstract or mysterious esoteric way—no, Love comes as food and drink, concrete, specific, real, tangible, in the Eucharist.
We are creatures in transition, en route, becoming. But this becoming has to be guided and shaped by the One who is our destiny, or else it goes badly awry. Cats and dogs, pigs and fish, birds and flowers are all OK. We need help! And that’s OK, as long as we know that help has been given, it is available, and all we have to do is show up and ask nicely for it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Soup Kitchen of the World

Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine, his very self, his body and blood as the new manna (cf. Jn -33). The ancient world had dimly perceived that man's real food—what truly nourishes him as man—is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us—as love. The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God's presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in his body and blood. The sacramental “mysticism”, grounded in God's condescension towards us, operates at a radically different level and lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish.
Deus Caritas Est, 13
Reflection – After yesterday’s political post, it is good today to ground ourselves back into the depth of reality. Politics come and go: love abides forever. And love, only because of what Jesus did and revealed to us, is not sentiment or physical urge, not vague benevolence or kindly feelings. It is bread and wine, food and drink.
It is as real, as concrete as a slap in the face (but better than that, somehow!). Love is not something ‘out there’, something hidden in some recess of God that we have to spend our life searching for. Love is not a scarcity commodity that we have to scramble for and wrestle away from others for ourselves.
Love is not something we have to be so desperate to get that we do terrible things to get it, prostituting ourselves out for little crumbs of love (as so many young girls and women do, if I can put it rather bluntly), or plunging into every internet brothel and x-rated site we can find to satisfy that urge for love in a pale and shoddy physical substitute for it (as so many young men do).
Love is bread and wine, food and drink. Love pours itself out upon us from every altar, every tabernacle, every Mass. There is no shortage of love; God’s love is poured out upon all, all the time. We just have to receive it.
But what is this reception? Yes, there is the mere fact of being a practicing Catholic and receiving the Eucharist, and this is no small thing.
But it seems to me that, if this reception of the Eucharist is to be understood and known by us as the reception of every bit of God’s love, the whole of Love Itself poured into our souls with every reception of holy communion, we have to be living in a certain way.
It is this ‘wisdom’ that the Pope talks about. Wisdom in the Biblical tradition is not esoteric knowledge or speculative intellectualizing. It is practical: how are we to live? What are we supposed to do? Hokmah (Hebrew) or Sophia (Greek) is what tells us how to live a good life.
So this Eucharist which is food and drink, which is God’s love poured out, is also Wisdom. It tells us how to live. In other words, if you want your hunger of love to be filled, love. If you want to know yourself to be loved by God in a total, unconditional, free, life-giving, all-embracing way, then at least start to love that way yourself, at least a bit, as much as you can. Pour yourself into the task of love in the world, and then turn to God to receive His love as food and drink. Empty yourself out, and then show up at the great Soup Kitchen of the world, the Mass, with your beggar’s bowl to be filled up.
That’s all there is to it! Simple, huh? It hurts like blazes to live like this, and pushes us beyond anything we can imagine, but it is the only way to live in the precincts of love and gift, the only way to be really and truly filled with everything we hunger for.
It’s the only way to be happy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Looking for Another City

The fact that Christians are journeying toward the other city [i.e. the New Jerusalem]… allows us to be healthy and our states to be healthy. For if men have nothing more to expect than what this world offers them, and if they may and must demand all this from the state, they destroy both their own selves and every human society.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 71
Reflection – I admit it – I am a political junkie. I know, I know—it’s bad for me! It’s fattening! Causes cancer in lab rats! Linked to higher rates of depression! (actually that last one is true…) But, as the movie line has it, I find myself saying to political games of all stripes “I wish ah could quit you…” but I cain’t…
To make matters even worse, Canadian politics are just about the most boring spectacle on the planet, and always have been. Right now we have one party, Conservative in name if nothing else, who have a virtual lock on power with its almost freakishly competent leader, while the other two parties are in deep disarray, devoid of either leadership or viable ideas. Not a lot of scope for political interest there.
So I’m forced to illicitly feed my political addiction on the black market, smuggling  American politics across the border and consuming it in back alleys and seedy news dens until I pass out amidst the fumes of newsprint…
OK, enough cheesy metaphors. I like politics, and I’m following the American presidential campaign with great interest. Doing so, it seems to me that the above quote from Ratzinger could well be read and reflected on by everyone involved, which means every American citizen, The USA being a democracy.
What do we expect from this world? What do we expect from the state? Do we have this orientation towards the New Jerusalem, towards heaven? The criticism has always been that Christians are so focused on heaven that they ignore the poor and injustice. This has always been a ridiculous criticism (yeah, that Mother Teresa sure ignored the poor!). We could counter that those who despair of heaven mostly try to drag heaven down to earth… which results in hell on earth.
That’s what happened in Russia under Communism, in Germany under Nazism, and what is increasingly happening in North America and Europe under secular liberalism. The Obama administration is trying to force the Catholic Church in America out of charitable activity by forcing them to fund contraception for their employees. If the Catholic church in the States is forced (because we cannot violate our conscience on this matter) to shutter its hospitals, schools, adoption agencies, and every other social service, what will that mean for the poor? A terrible increase in suffering, that’s what.
But the underlying problem is this terrible idea fixed in the minds of so many that the government, the state and its various extensions, is the primary agent in society, the one to whom we look for just about everything. A terrible exaltation of that most frail and flawed human institution—government—to the grave diminishment of personal responsibility and action and small group initiatives and works of charity and justice.
It really does revolve around the question of the New Jerusalem. Are we trying to build heaven on earth? Better give all power to the state, then! If we know that there is another city, another world, another place where alone true happiness will be ours, then our lives here fall into proper perspective. We can spend our days serving the poor and striving to live justly. We will not look to politicians (for crying out loud!) to solve our problems.
So to my American readers, you have my great sympathies and good wishes as you move through this election year. To them and to everyone else, let’s try to put politics in its place—a low place, really. Let’s keep our eyes fixed on the Lord, our hands to the plow of good works and service, and our feet continuing to trod towards that City where every tear will be wiped away.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Something Bigger

All the more we are forced to face up to whether the question of God does not simply surpass the boundaries of human ability so that to this extent agnosticism would be the only correct attitude for men and women: in keeping with the nature of being honest, in deed in the profoundest sense of the ‘pious’ – the recognition of where vision ends, respect for what has not been disclosed to us. Ought it perhaps to be the new piety of human thinking to leave what cannot be investigated and be content with what we are given?
To Look on Christ, 16
Reflection – The above describes perfectly what is apparently a growing attitude, especially among young people today. I recently read a statistic that some large number (30%?) of young adults have simply decided to ignore questions of meaning, God, the deeper purpose of life and the universe.
As Ratzinger goes on to discuss in the passage (and indeed it is one of his common themes), this attitude only seems to be modest, humble, and unassuming.
The truth is, we cannot adopt a neutral stance towards the deep questions of life. These questions are not simply matters of esoteric knowledge or trivial information. I can live my life very well knowing nothing about string theory; whether or not Accra is the capital of Ghana is also irrelevant to my daily decisions.
But the underlying structure of all reality? The question as to whether or not human life is going anywhere? Is there a God who made us for a reason, and to whom we will have to give an account of ourselves? These questions are not irrelevant. They cannot be ducked.
If I say that ‘I am not going to worry my silly head about these things – I’m not smart enough, and anyway, who cares?’ what I am really saying is ‘There is no significant meaning or purpose, there is no God, the world and my life is not going anywhere, really.
Mind you, I am not talking here about people who genuinely anguish with doubts and questions, who do not know, really, what to believe, but who struggle to hold on to the truths they know. What Ratzinger and I are describing is an attitude of indifference, a kind of metaphysical despair which just plunges the individual into pleasure seeking, worldly pursuits, transient sensations and trivia.
This is not a neutral attitude. In fact, this attitude always throws the person holding it more and more into egoism, into living life tightly constrained by my own lights, likes, thoughts and attitudes. Because there is no larger meaning calling me out of myself, I inevitably collapse into myself and whatever I want and choose.
We are always being summoned to something bigger than ourselves. Christianity identifies this ‘bigger’ with the God who made the universe who became man in Jesus Christ to lead us to heaven. This I believe with all my heart. Others believe differently, but those who suspend the questions, who decide to dismiss the whole matter from their heads—these people are well on the way to barbarism, to living a life without any depth, without anything existing outside themselves and their small circle of self-chosen concerns that matters to them. And this is, sadly, more and more the situation we are confronting in our post-modern world. Let us confront it with the good news and hope we hold in Christ.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What Science Cannot Do

Up to [the dawning of modernity], the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay “redemption”. Now, this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world. This programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope. Thus hope too, in Francis Bacon, acquires a new form. Now it is called: faith in progress. For Bacon, it is clear that the recent spate of discoveries and inventions is just the beginning; through the interplay of science and praxis, totally new discoveries will follow, a totally new world will emerge, the kingdom of man. He even put forward a vision of foreseeable inventions—including the aeroplane and the submarine. As the ideology of progress developed further, joy at visible advances in human potential remained a continuing confirmation of faith in progress as such.
Spe Salvi 17
Reflection – This passage brings up once again one of Pope Benedict’s perennial themes: the substitution of human progress for salvation in Christ in the modern era. The age of discovery and inventions (still ongoing, of course) held out at one time an assurance that in time, human beings would solve every problem, crack all the riddles of existence, and be able to eliminate suffering from the world.
It is truly hard to see how anyone can maintain this attitude today. I’m not sure anyone does, really. For myself, growing up as I did in the world science created, a world that in my childhood was continually threatened by the prospect of nuclear destruction, the ideology of science holds little appeal.
As Ratzinger has always underlined throughout his writings, the problem is that scientific and technological progress tells us how to do things; it does not and cannot tell us what we are supposed to do. It certainly has no faculty at all to tell us what we must not do if we wish to remain human at all.
It can tell us how we might alleviate the suffering of a given disease, but cannot tell us that experimentation on murdered human fetuses is a crime against all justice and goodness, a callous destruction of human life that calls into question the entire human project.
It can tell us everything about fetal development, and the delicate bonds that connect the life of the growing child to the life of its mother; it cannot tell us that we must not deliberately sever that bond and end that life, and that to do so unleashes evil into the world beyond our comprehension.
It can tell us so many things… except the things we most urgently need to know if we are to live happy lives of dignity, freedom, and joy. Science has nothing to say, nothing at all, about these matters. And we have to be clear about that.
So we cannot put our ‘faith’ in scientific progress. It is valuable indeed, and who would want to live in a world without the discoveries of the past 500 years? But it is not the source of happiness. For that, we must go somewhere else: to the quest for perennial wisdom, the deep plunge into the wellsprings of human thought and understanding, the challenge to penetrate and contemplate the meaning of life and existence.
In the Christian religion, we understand that God has offered Himself in Jesus Christ to humanity to open the path of wisdom and goodness to us. Clearly, not everybody feels they can accept that path or believe that God has done this. But for those who are not or cannot be Christians, there is a call nonetheless to find a path of truth and wisdom that is deep enough, persuasive enough, to shape the development and use of technology and scientific invention. Without this, we are truly at the mercy of the powerful elites who control the levers of the world… and they may not know anything more than we do about what they should do, but they certainly seem to know what they want to do… to us.
And this is among the most urgent tasks of our time – to provide a rational and persuasive basis to resist this exaltation of power and control over the whole of our lives. This is what Pope Benedict has labored hard to provide; this is what this blog is about.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The True Ark

[Mary is] the true Ark of the Covenant in Israel, so that the symbol of the Ark gathers an incredibly realistic force: God in the flesh of a human being, which flesh now becomes his dwelling place in the midst of creation.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 65
Reflection – We all remember the climatic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark—the one with the melting Nazis and all that. While it made for a stirring action film, we have to be clear that the real ark of the covenant is a much more profound reality, much more beautiful, much more meaningful.
God has made his home among men—this is the point. The historical ark of the covenant, as we read in 1 Samuel 4, truly symbolized the presence of God among his people, but we see there how they used this object as a way of ‘making God’ fight their battles. The ark, the physical object, begins to be used as a magical object, something we can manipulate so as to manipulate God.
This project of ‘manipulating’ God by manipulating the signs and symbols of our religion is not exactly alien to us. We may not be quite as crude about it as the ancient Israelites, but many of us harbor the idea that if we just say certain prayers, if we just carry around certain sacramentals, if we just follow certain rules—well, then, it will all turn out all right. Everything will go according to (our) plan.
And of course, this form of ‘religion’ is doomed to failure. We do not manipulate God. Our life is not about our own plans and ideas. The whole point of all reality is the obedience of faith, the total surrender of the human person to the mystery of God and his love for the world. It was no doubt by the mercy of God that the original Ark was lost forever, as it would have continued to pull Israel into this totemic kind of magical religion, instead of the true dynamic of faith.
So we have Mary emerging from the heart of our Christian faith as the true Ark of the Covenant. The one who makes a home for God in the world precisely through this obedience, this totality of surrender. If we understand this—that the home of God in the world is found only in this obedience, this act of surrender, then all our shabby and rather pathetic ways of trying to make God present fall away.
No longer do we try to ‘please’ God by slavish ritual or fearful rule-keeping; no longer do we try to impress God with a ‘pious’ demeanor or a continually cheerful countenance. The obedience of faith is very different from all of that, even though it encompasses fidelity to ritual, moral life, true devotion to piety, and a radical commitment to joy.
But it’s all about love, not fear. It’s about knowing the One who we follow is awesome, beautiful, glorious, and good beyond measure. It is not about a grubby little effort to make God behave Himself.
Mary stands before us always as the great icon of the obedience of faith, the human creature who was so obedient, so given over, that God could actually physically take flesh in her womb. And that is why we hold Mary in high esteem, keep her statues and pictures in prominent places in our churches and homes, and ask her help and intercession continually. She knows what the presence of God is, and how to place ourselves in that presence, and how to offer ourselves to Him so that we too can become his tabernacles in the world today.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Who Wants to Be Free?

Freedom [is seen] as the right and the opportunity to do just what we wish and not to have to do anything which we do not wish to do. Said in other terms: freedom would mean that our own will is the sole norm of our action and that the will not only can desire anything but also has the chance to carry out its own desire. At this point, however, questions begin to arise: how free is the will after all? And how reasonable is it?
“Truth and Freedom,” in Communio Spring 1996, 17
Reflection – Ah, the perennial question of freedom! A favorite of Ratzinger’s, a favorite on this blog. The above idea of freedom is exactly what most modern people would unhesitatingly say, if you pressed them for a definition. ‘Being able to do what I want to do!’ – it sounds so very reasonable. What else could freedom be, anyhow?
But, as Ratzinger says, ‘questions begin to arise.’ If that is the only measure of freedom, the only meaning of freedom, then how free is it? How valuable is it? How real is it?
‘I am free. I do what I want.’ But where do your desires come from? Are they just the animal drives of your passions: “Og want food now! Og want sleep! Og want pretty cave woman! Urg!’ If that’s the whole source of your desires, then you are not free in the slightest. You are the slave of your desires, being borne along irresistibly by whatever sensible object is placed before you that you like. The greyhounds chasing the rabbit around the race track may be having a good time, but one would not call them free.
Or are our desires informed by something outside us? But then the question is, by what? Society, the world we live in, places all sorts of ‘things’ in front of us as things to be desired: home ownership, a successful career, a stock portfolio, marriage, children (two or three, maximum, or else you’re irresponsible!), etc. But if we simply sign on to whatever society decrees the good life to be and go chasing after it… well, how free is that? When everything you want is simply everything society has told you from day one of your life that you’re supposed to want, you may be many things, but free is not one of them.
Maybe you’re an idealist of some sort, and your freedom consists in having decided to live by certain ideals. Well, we’re getting warmer here, but again… what ideals? Where are they from? What are their origins? Have you examined them? Are they true? Because to embrace a bunch of ideals that are not really true is just another form of slavery to desires or soical conventions.
Again, society and the larger culture (whatever that means) have a whole set of ideals they present in every age to their more idealistically inclined citizens. Right now tolerance is a prime ideal, and environmental stewardship. These are not bad things, of course, but if you uncritically accept the current slate of ideas and intellectual fads… well, again, you may be many things, but free is not among them.
Ah, freedom! It is elusive… and people, seeing the difficulty of its demands, can sometimes decide it’s just too much bother. Isn’t it easier just to chase the objects of desires, sign on to society’s norms of the good life, and console oneself with the fashionable ideologies of the day? Is freedom such a great thing, after all, since it seems to be so much bloody work?
But… we are made for freedom. And we all know that, somehow. It’s not so easy to just say, ‘well, forget about freedom – I’ll be a society drone sating myself on bread and circuses.’ Something in us resists that – we are made for freedom.
So we know it’s not slavery to passions, or to social expectation, or to fashions of thought. What is freedom, then? It is, as Ratzinger develops magnificently in this article, a response in love to the demands of truth. Freedom, once we accept its yoke, makes us into pilgrims seeking the truth, the goodness, and the beauty of all things, and demands of us a responsible attitude towards this truth, which is the embrace of love.
This pilgrimage becomes a very deep matter indeed. It is not just the truth that ‘chocolate is yummy’ – so let’s embrace it with love and enthusiasm! It is the deeper truth – what is the world for? Where is it from? What is the point of it all? If we are to be free, and remain free, these deep questions emerge inevitably. How can I live in truth, if the horizons of truth are reduced to the immediate and the obvious? If truth is smaller than me, how can it be the framework in which I live?
There is much more to be said here, and I will return to the subject on this blog, as I have many times already – but that’s enough for now. The questions insistent upon all of us, though, are ‘what is freedom? Is it real? Is it valuable? Am I free?’

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Man's True Peril

The Greek world, whose zest for life is wonderfully portrayed in the Homeric epics, was nonetheless deeply aware that man’s real sin, his deepest temptation, is hubris—the arrogant presumption of autonomy that leads man to put on the airs of divinity, to claim to be his own god, in order to possess life totally and to draw from it every last drop of what it has to offer. This awareness that man’s true peril consists in the temptation to ostentatious self-sufficiency, which at first seems so plausible, is brought to its full depth in the Sermon on the Mount in light of the figure of Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth, Part One, 98-9
Reflection – ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ – this is the text the Pope has in mind in this passage. It really is all about the perennial question of philosophy, which is really the perennial question of humanity. What will make us happy? What is the good life? What are we to be?
We see all around us the playing out of precisely this hubris that the Greeks were so aware of, this strange idea human beings get that what is best for us is that we get to unilaterally decide what is best for us, that the road to fulfillment and goodness is the road of the unhampered ego, that the more power we have, the more we get to call the shots in our life, the better off we are.
Because this attitude does not actually correspond to the metaphysical reality of the cosmos, of course it sets us on a path to disaster. We are not little gods, able to make up our own version of reality. Reality is. When we flout it, reality bites. If I smoke a pack a day, I will get emphysema; if I eat lots of bad food, I will get fat and worse; if I refuse to think clearly and seek truth, I will become dull and stupid; if I do as I please with my passions, my relationships will lie in ruins.
Simply on the ‘natural level’ (whatever that means, really) I am not a little god making up reality. I have to conform my choices to the real world in which I live, or I will perish. But we can experience this as a necessary evil, I think - something we have to accept, but would change if we could. What the Sermon on the Mount tells us, what Jesus tells us, is that in fact we are blessed to be poor, to be meek, to be seeking righteousness. To be in this condition of dependency, of bowing to truth and goodness, to be the seekers, the contemplators, the disciples, not the masters and fashioners of reality—that this is blessedness.
Jesus can tell us this because He actually is God, and this is the way He chose to come to us. Not in almighty power making a big show of it, not bashing heads and laying down the law in a harsh masterful manner. He came in poverty, in lowliness, in weakness. And He is God.
And as the Christian Church received the Gospel and began to meditate on it, the whole doctrine of the Trinity began to shed some light on this mystery. That God the Son, who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary in Jesus the Christ, Himself in the fullness of his divinity received everything that the Father was—this becomes a fact of enormous significance to us.
Even in the very Godhead, in the very reality of divinity, in God-as-God (not only God-become man, in other words) there is an attitude of receptivity. God is entirely different from us, in ways that beggar our understanding and hence our language, but nonetheless, the Son receives Being from the Father; the Son is (God forgive me my poor words!) not autonomous. The Son, who in Jesus shows us the path of true human life, reveals to us something so astounding about God that we truly do not know what to say about it.
In the face of this revelation, all we can really say is that we really don’t know very much about reality. We really understand almost nothing. But we have been given, in God’s gracious mercy and love, a Teacher, a Shepherd, a Master. We don’t need to understand a whole lot about how it all fits together: God and Man, freedom and law, discipleship and lordship. We need to come to Him and listen, take his yoke upon our shoulders, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He knows how to be human, and He is God. He knows what a happy human life is, and He Himself is our happiness. Listen to Him.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tried By Fire

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are.
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgment according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor -15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
Spe Salvi 45-6
Reflection – This is a lengthier passage from the Pope than I normally quote, so my reflection will be correspondingly briefer. I couldn’t really excerpt it or cut it up into small pieces without it ceasing to makes sense. It is interesting that the Pope here makes a profoundly scriptural argument for Purgatory, using the quote from 1 Corinthians, along with a philosophical argument based on what we all know of human behavior, mostly from our own interior self-knowledge. Most of us desire goodness, freedom, love, joy, and yet most of us act otherwise, at least some of the time. How is God to receive such conflicted messed-up creatures into the kingdom of light and love? By washing away our impurities, by purging us of them… that’s all. It’s truly not a complicated doctrine. The imagery used to describe this purgation is just that—imagery—and my own opinion is that the traditional images (fire and lengths of time and all that) are no longer terribly helpful for us. But the resistance one often hears about Purgatory - that it's some kind of horrible heavy teaching, baffles me. What do we want - to be filled with selfishness and malice and all sorts of nonsense for all eternity? How can we become pure if God doesn't purify us?
It truly is God’s great mercy towards us that leads us to posit this doctrine – we know that in heaven there is nothing but love; we know that almost all of us are a mixture of love and hate, light and darkness. We know, then, that God in his mercy helps us do what we seemingly could not or would not do during our lives – transforms us into all light. This probably hurts (we know it hurts in this life to repent and turn away from sin). But in his love he hurts us, so as to save us and enfold us into his kingdom, where we will be joyful forever. Thanks, God! Thanks, Father! Thanks, Jesus, for giving us Purgatory!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Justice is Mysterious

To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph ). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice.
Spe Salvi 44
Reflection – Today in Madonna House we are burying one of our members, Paul Holland, as I mentioned a couple of days ago. This passage from Spe Salvi is quite apt, then, for the mystery of community is once again going through, the mysterious passage of one our own from death to life through this strange and terrible encounter with Christ, an encounter that none of us really knows anything about until we pass through it.
There is justice, and there is grace. There is justice because God loves us. We matter to him, and so our actions matter to him. What did we choose to do in this world? How have we chosen to love? What has our response been to the Love given to us in Christ by God? These things matter; there is justice, there is a reckoning. What that reckoning looks like and how it is managed—well, that we don’t know too much about. But God’s genuine love for us demands it. It is no sign of love to say to someone, “Oh, whatever – I don’t really care what you did.” That’s not love – that’s indifference, and when we humans say that kind of nonsense to each other (usually in the name of love) it really means, “I want what you give me so badly that I will ignore everything real about you.”
Of course we keep loving people who do wrong things, but we are never indifferent to the harm they do to themselves and to others. That is not love; that is selfishness.
So our loving God exercises justice towards us… but in that justice there is grace. There is mercy. There is Christ, and his wounds, his death, his strange and most mysterious self-offering for us.
There is justice, but ‘justice’ itself comes to mean something very different in light of all this business of Jesus and his saving work. How to make sense of it all, especially since none of us will ever know exactly how it works until we are there? Well, we come, I believe, into an encounter with Christ somewhere in all this mystery. For some, it may even be before death – this strange moment when there is ‘just me’ and ‘just Jesus’ – no pretence, no hiding, no fighting—just encounter. And this encounter is just—everything in us is that is not love is burned, consumed, smelted, sifted—all the images we care to use to describe purification. But there is grace, there is mercy in this encounter. The one who judges us died to save us. If we have any openness to this gift of salvation, he will take it and draw us through justice to mercy, through purification to illumination and union, through mystery of death into mystery of life eternal.
And so we are getting ready to bury Paul Holland on a cold Canadian winter day. Paul was a very ordinary man, with the ordinary struggles and pains, brokenness and goodness of all ordinary men. And now he is somewhere in this mystery, and so we pray for him. And all of us ordinary men and women—all of us are moving into this same mystery, this same strange, strange encounter with Him, with Love, with the just and merciful One. So let us pray for one another, too, that grace may temper justice, and God may be merciful to all of us.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A New Freedom

A new freedom is created with regard to this habitual foundation of life, which only appears to be capable of providing support, although this is obviously not to deny its normal meaning. This new freedom, the awareness of the new “substance” which we have been given, is revealed not only in martyrdom, in which people resist the overbearing power of ideology and its political organs and, by their death, renew the world. Above all, it is seen in the great acts of renunciation, from the monks of ancient times to Saint Francis of Assisi and those of our contemporaries who enter modern religious Institutes and movements and leave everything for love of Christ, so as to bring to men and women the faith and love of Christ, and to help those who are suffering in body and spirit.

In their case, the new “substance” has proved to be a genuine “substance”; from the hope of these people who have been touched by Christ, hope has arisen for others who were living in darkness and without hope. In their case, it has been demonstrated that this new life truly possesses and is “substance” that calls forth life for others. For us who contemplate these figures, their way of acting and living is de facto a “proof” that the things to come, the promise of Christ, are not only a reality that we await, but a real presence: he is truly the “philosopher” and the “shepherd” who shows us what life is and where it is to be found.
Spe Salvi 8
Reflection – Today’s post follows upon yesterday’s reflection on Hebrews 10:34 – the persecuted Christians who were willing to lose their ‘substance’ (property) because they had hope of another ‘substance’ (eternal life). Earlier in the encyclical the Pope had introduced the ancient image of Christ as philosopher and shepherd, guiding us on the path of wisdom that leads to life.

So we see in this part of the encyclical the value of consecrated life, of the promises or vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience being lived out by individuals and communities. Those of us called to this vocation make visible to the whole Church the simple reality that this world is not the only one there is, that the goods of this world are not the most important goods human beings are to pursue.

We are not to scramble after money and hoard it like a dog with a bone; we are not to look to human relationships and intimacy as if they will provide us with the love and communion our deepest hearts desire; we are not to stake all our value on self-determination and self-will. The practices of poverty, chastity, and obedience being lived by those of us called to that form of life are meant to have an application in the life of each baptized person. It will be very different for married people, for single people, for young people still searching for their life vocation, but all are called to hold worldly goods in low esteem, to turn to God and God alone for the love they crave, and to seek his will in all things.

Of course, if there is no God and no hope beyond this world, all of this is silly nonsense, and harmful nonsense at that, since it deprives us of the only happiness there is—a surfeit of worldly delights—for an illusory joy. That the worldly happiness on offer is fleeting at best and eludes a large percentage of humanity most of the time—well, that’s just too bad. Life sucks and then you die.

So for me, and for any of us who have been beckoned by Christ onto this beautiful road of consecrated life, there is a powerful imperative to bear witness to the goodness, the joy that these renunciations bring. And so I do that, here and now. What God has given me in Christ is so much beyond the trivialities I have given up for him (money, marriage, career!) that I have no words for it. I give him finite temporal goods; He gives me His infinite self. And joy. And peace. And hope. And love.

If anyone happens to be reading this who is troubled by a vague sense of call to some consecrated form of life—religious life, priesthood, maybe even Madonna House!—I encourage you to not be afraid, but to boldly throw everything aside and run after Christ. Even if He turns out to have another plan for you, He is not outdone in generosity, and will use your generous self-abandonment to bring you exactly where He wants you to be. And what else do we need, than to be where God wants us to be?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Prayer Request

One of our Madonna House members, Paul Holland, died today after a lengthy and at times quite difficult time of old age and illness. He was our oldest man, dying just shy of his 90th birthday. Pray for him, and for all of us as we accompany him on the last lap of his journey into the mystery of God and eternity.

What Gives Us Security?

[In Hebrews ] the author speaks to believers who have undergone the experience of persecution and he says to them: “you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property (hyparchonton), since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession (hyparxin) and an abiding one.” Hyparchonta refers to property, to what in earthly life constitutes the means of support, indeed the basis, the “substance” for life, what we depend upon. This “substance”, life's normal source of security, has been taken away from Christians in the course of persecution. They have stood firm, though, because they considered this material substance to be of little account. They could abandon it because they had found a better “basis” for their existence—a basis that abides, that no one can take away. We must not overlook the link between these two types of “substance”, between means of support or material basis and the word of faith as the “basis”, the “substance” that endures. Faith gives life a new basis, a new foundation on which we can stand, one which relativizes the habitual foundation, the reliability of material income.
Spe Salvi 8
Reflection – In a time of economic instability and uncertainty, these words from Pope Benedict are timely. Well, they’re always timely, aren’t they? ‘Do not worry about what you are to eat, what you are to wear, where you are to live’ (cf. Mt ). It is one of the permanent areas of struggle for a believer to take these words quite literally and not get paralyzed or trapped by anxiety over material goods.
And of course this is an area where many can raise a host of perfectly reasonable objections. Money does not, in fact, grow on trees, and all those perfectly sensible, perfectly reasonable observations about the practical realities of life in the world.
Granted. We are not to be improvident, not to be silly about things. But we have to take the words from the Lord in Matthew’s Gospel, the words from Hebrews, the words of the Pope to heart nonetheless. It’s a question of knowing where our security lies. It does not lie in a bank balance, an RRSP or whatever alphabetized jumble you have for your retirement. It does not lie in having a nice home or a secure job or an impressive resume.
We are seeing these days what we all already know: all of that can be swept away at any moment. The house can burn down, the money or stock portfolio can evaporate quickly in a changing volatile economy, the job can vanish too. If our security is found in these things, we are building our life on sand and there are other Gospel passages (not to mention building codes) advising us against that particular course of action.
The question looms large these days, but it’s a permanent question: do we have anything else? Is there another ‘possession’ which gives us a better security? And what implications does this have for our life here and now?
Many people, it seems to me, are paralyzed somewhat from fear of economic ruin these days. Young people are slow to get married, not only because of financial reasons, but certainly because they are told they have to be financially and professionally secure before considering marriage. Practically, this means they cannot marry until their late 20s or early 30s… and realistically this means they will not live chaste lives. We all know that, yet so many, even practicing Catholics, uncritically accept the priority of financial security over the peril of mortal sin. Better to fornicate together than be poor together, I suppose the reasoning goes.
Clearly there is little understanding of the real grounds of security for our lives in this particular calculus. But I have seen this in other contexts, too. Young people who feel called to explore consecrated life, but the anxieties around money, jobs, careers press on them. There is a real terror about taking the time to give God a chance to get a word in edgewise, because it thrusts us away from the security of worldly goods into some other elusive security.
So we have to decide, don’t we? Where is our security? Is God real? Is heaven our goal? Is money going to get us there, or is love and fidelity? And, having decided, we have to order our lives according to what we have decided is our security. Wordly goods, or faith, hope, and love. Which is it going to be?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Calumny and Lies (I Tell You!)

In the gradual unfolding of this encounter [with God], it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man's potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God's love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved. But this encounter also engages our will and our intellect. Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the “yes” of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all-embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never “finished” and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. Idem velle atque idem nolle—to want the same thing, and to reject the same thing—was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God's will increasingly coincide: God's will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self- abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy (cf. Ps 73 [72]:23-28).
Deus Caritas Est 17
Reflection – Well, I’ve been at this blogging thing for over six months now, and just over 200 posts, which means I’ve been pretty much having a daily encounter with the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict all that time, not to mention the year I spent immersed in his writings doing my thesis on his Marian writings.
So when I run across a passage like the above one, it is all the more astonishing how utterly astonished I am at this man, his clarity, wisdom, profundity, simplicity… I mean, the above passage clearly, briefly, beautifully and with a stunning depth of insight explains what it means to love God, and from that, what the very nature of love itself is. I hardly want to say anything about it – it’s just there, folks. Read it, meditate on it, take it to prayer. This is the path of love.
And this is what humanity is crying out for, underneath all our other cries and anguish. “I wanna know what love is (whoa whoa),” as the power ballad of my youth bellowed. Well, here’s what love is, this and nothing else. The rest is mere sentiment and hormones, which are not wrong (God made our bodies and emotions after all) but are not sufficient to see us through life.
This is why one of the few things that really gets my Gallic temper up is the persistent character assassination of Ratzinger/Benedict in the mass media, which deters so many people from reading him. He writes simply, clearly, and deeply, with a great understanding of the modern world and its struggles, and with a tremendous ability to show the modern world the path of Christ and the Gospel.
Because—and here comes my Gallic temper!—there have been lies upon lies told about this man by powerful people who shape the public perception, so many people will not read him, dismiss him, reflexively scoff at him. It is evil, and I for one don’t believe it’s entirely accidental. The one writer who in a simple, accessible, and authoritative way presents the path of Christ and the Gospel to modern people, who writes in a way that any reasonably literate person can follow his thought, has had his reputation blackened by calumny and lies (calumny and lies, I tell you!!!!!). As the church lady from Saturday Night Live used to say, I wonder who could be behind that? Could it be…. (if you don’t know the punchline, Google it!)
So that’s why I’m blogging – Ratzinger/Benedict has the vision, the answer, the Gospel proclamation we need today. He is able to tell us what love looks like, the beauty of truth and the splendour of goodness, the freedom that comes from obeying the moral law, the dignity of the human person in the light of Christ—everything our poor battered world needs so badly.
Read him. Encourage others to read him. It’s really important.
(OK, I’m done ranting now…)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

That's All, Folks

True, no one has ever seen God as he is. And yet God is not totally invisible to us; he does not remain completely inaccessible. God loved us first (1 Jn ), and this love of God has appeared in our midst. He has become visible in as much as he “has sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9). God has made himself visible: in Jesus we are able to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Indeed, God is visible in a number of ways. In the love-story recounted by the Bible, he comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross, to his appearances after the Resurrection and to the great deeds by which, through the activity of the Apostles, he guided the nascent Church along its path. Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first”, love can also blossom as a response within us.

Deus Caritas Est, 17

Reflection – How are we to love? For some this question is more acute and painful than for others. Some people have a certain reservoir of what appears to be ‘natural’ love – a predisposition to like most people, a generally positive view of life and humanity, an easy-going temperament, a natural affection.
Others lack this, and struggle mightily to ‘play well with others’ as the saying goes. But for everyone, as the true nature of love, its demands, its cost unfolds itself through our lives, the question becomes acute. How are we to love as we have been commanded to do?
The answer of the Bible, which is the answer of the Pope in this paragraph of the encyclical, and was also one of Catherine Doherty’s favourite quotes is that God loves us first, and his love is meant to become our love.
This means that the first business of life is to live in such a way that we are available to receive God’s love. Without His love we cannot love as we should, and are condemned either to superficial ‘good relationships’ which may be pleasant but don’t really take us anywhere, or to perpetual struggle, conflict, and warfare with the rest of humanity, which takes us somewhere, all right—into deep loneliness and isolation if they are unchecked.
In talking about where we are to go to receive God’s love, the Pope significantly highlights the life of the Church. It is there that: “he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives”
As we begin today another stretch of ‘ordinary’ time, it is good to reflect on the most basic basics of life. We are to love one another as Christ loves us; this is impossible for us unless Christ is giving us his life; Christ gives us his life through the ministry of the Church. As Porky Pig was wont to say, ‘b’dee, b’dee, b’dee that’s all folks!’
But let’s not kid ourselves. We cannot drift through life just being nice, getting along, playing well with others. The world needs something more from us than that, and it doesn’t really work anyhow, in terms of making us happy.
It’s not complicated, the path that God in Christ has laid out for us in his Church. Not easy, but not complicated. Go to Church, say your prayers, receive the grace of the sacraments, and knock yourself out every day of your life loving and serving and giving to everyone as you are able. That’s all, folks.