Saturday, March 31, 2012

Talking About Conscience XVII

No one may act against his own convictions. But the fact that one’s conviction is naturally binding at the moment one acts does not mean a canonization of subjectivity. One who follows the conviction at which he has arrived, never incurs guilt. Indeed, one must follow such a conviction.

But guilt may very well consist in arriving at such perverse convictions by trampling down the protest made by the anamnesis of one’s true being. The guilt would then lie on a deeper level, not in the act itself, not in the specific judgment pronounced by conscience, but in that neglect of my own being that has dulled me to the voice of truth and made me deaf to what it says within me. And this is why criminals like Hitler and Stalin, who act out of deep personal conviction, remain guilty. Such grotesque examples are of course not meant to lull us into security about ourselves. They are meant to give us a shock that will bring home to us the seriousness of the prayer: “Clear thou me from hidden faults.” (Ps 19:12).

We are left with our starting question: is truth—at least, in the way the faith of the Church presents it to us—too lofty and difficult for human beings? After all our reflections, we can stay that the steep path to truth, to the good, is not easy. It makes great demands of man. But remaining comfortably at home will not redeem us. That leads only to atrophy and the loss of our own selves. If we set out on the mountainous path to the good, we will discover more and more the beauty that lies in the efforts demanded by truth, and we will grasp that it is this that redeems us.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 97

Reflection – Well, we’re on the home stretch here of this lengthy essay on conscience that I’ve been blogging about off and on these past months. Ratzinger has earlier described the deepest level of conscience—what he calls the anamnesis (remembrance) of the good and the true—that lies at the heart of every human being made in God’s image.

I have jumped ahead a bit in the essay, omitting a rather technical description of the second level of conscience, which is that of conscious decision-making about what actions are permitted in general and what I will do right now. He concluded that section by saying that it is on that level that ‘an erring conscience’ excuses. We do, indeed, have to do what we think is right at any given moment.

But ‘any given moment’ lies in the larger context of our lives. If we drift along ‘comfortably at home,’ not making any serious effort to form our consciences and to truly learn what is good and evil even at the cost of our own comfort and complacency, then we may indeed never commit any great act of evil, but our guilt remains.

Every human being is charged with a great responsibility. The mountain of truth and goodness stands before each one of us; each of us is obliged to go into the depths of our being, to open to the breadth of human experience and knowledge, and to ascend the heights of spiritual wisdom. Each is obliged to do this according to his or her own capacities and gifts, but nonetheless this is the human task, the human experience.

Holy Week is upon us. The depth of life and love that opens up around us at this time of year is essential in all these questions. We live our human lives in freedom, called to exercise that freedom in truth and love, and this is morality.

But Ratzinger is about to take this essay in a wholly different direction. Morality and our own life of free choices is not the last word of reality. As we contemplate the deeds of God in this next week, we are inexorably pulled into this ‘last word’ by what we contemplate. Our moral strivings and the great responsibility placed on us to live thoughtful moral lives is nothing but a vehicle—although for sure a necessary vehicle—to bring us to this deeper reality, about which I will blog tomorrow.

Friday, March 30, 2012

When It is Wrong to 'Do Good'

Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil—no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: what’s real is what is right there in front of us—power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 28-29

Reflection – This passage is, of course, reflecting on the temptations of Christ in the desert. Specifically, it refers to the temptation to ‘bread and power’—to turn stones into bread. In this narrative, Pope Benedict sees the perennial struggle of man with the most insidious of all allurements: the temptation to do good.

This temptation to do good is a powerful one because—well, the good is what we all want to do. When a course of action is presented to us, with compelling logic, as the right, proper, loving, kind, just, and helpful thing to do, it is ‘only human’ for us to immediately go down that road.

So much harm is done that way. Women become pregnant in difficult painful circumstances, so of course ‘the good’ is to help them attain abortions easily. Men and women with same-sex attractions fall in love, so of course ‘the good’ is to allow them to marry. Men and women become unhappy in their marriages, and meet other, more attractive, people. Of course ‘the good’ is to allow divorce as easily as possible. And when man and woman fall in love, of course ‘the good’ is to consummate that love sexually whenever they want to.

So many ‘goods’—and in the political sphere, even more. The great ‘evil regimes’ of recent world history that I hardly need to name all engaged in their atrocities in the name of some good or other—the worker’s paradise or the thousand year Reich or world peace. And on the daily sphere of normal life, so much of the wrong decisions we make are in the name of some good we are aiming at. True wickedness is rare; misguided goodness is common as dirt!

What is the way through such a morass of truths, half-truths, illusions and spurious goods? ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ Jesus replied to Satan. When our focus is the bread, the immediate good we want to achieve, we will inevitably end up doing something evil in its pursuit. When our first concern is to seek and do the will of God, whether or not there is an immediate bread bonanza, then all our goods fall into order. Not without struggle, not without discernment and work, but nonetheless.

When something else matters more than God, his Word, and his Will, then we have already started well down the road to perdition. When our first, last, and ultimately only concern is this Word and Will, then even if we make occasional mistakes in discernment, all shall be well. Personal prayer, personal relationship, and personal fidelity to the moral law and the word of God—that’s what preserves us from the temptation to (shudder…) do good.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prison Break

We have said that believing means sharing in what Jesus sees, relying on Jesus; St. John, who leans on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, is a symbol of what faith as such signifies. To believe is to communicate with Jesus, freeing oneself thereby from the repression that is contrary to the truth, freeing my own ‘I’ which is shut up in its own self, and making my “I’ a response to the Father: a response to the Yes of love, the Yes pronounced over our existence, that Yes which is our redemption and which overcomes the world.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 113

Reflection – As Holy Week draws near, it is good to ponder these essential things. We are coming into a time of intense Christo-centric focus in the life of the Church. Over Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, the Church invites all of us to really put everything else away, just for a week, and direct our gaze very directly and exclusively on the Lord Jesus, and his ‘Yes’ to us, which is the Father’s ‘Yes’ to all his Creation.

It is a question of breaking out, busting loose, going over the wall, tunneling out—a prison break in the most radical sense. Have you ever noticed how popular that genre of literature and movie is? Even when we know the escapees are actually criminals and probably really should be locked up for their own and society’s good, there’s something about escaping a prison that stirs us deeply.

It’s the story of humanity, actually. We are all prisoners, not of the state or the system or some external force, but of our own selves. Locked up in our own desires, our own egos, our own minds and their (to say the least) limited understanding—we crave release, even if we hardly know what that means.

And salvation is liberation, precisely from this bondage. God comes into our prison in Jesus, and breaks us out of it. And this is the faith Ratzinger describes here—that God in Christ has penetrated into the very depths of our humanity, the deepest recesses of our souls and minds, and has shed the light of truth and love there.

So we are not prisoners anymore, not lost, not limited by our own poverty. And this is the great mystery we are invited to contemplate over this coming week or so. The chains have been broken, and we have escaped, and there ain’t been no prison built since that can hold us. Happy Holy Week (coming!).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mourning Has Broken (But It Hasn't Broken Me)

There are two kinds of mourning. The first is the kind that has lost hope, that has become mistrustful of love and of truth, and that therefore eats away and destroys man from within. But there is also the mourning which is occasioned by the shattering encounter with truth, which leads man to undergo conversion and to resist evil. This mourning heals, because it teaches man to hope and love again.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 86

Reflection – Well, ‘tis the season to be mourning, right? Fa la la la la, la la boo hoo… Tis the season… for quite a few of you, my Catholic readers, in these last weeks of Lent ‘tis the season for parish reconciliation services, for making one’s Easter duty, the annual requirement to confess all grave sins of the past year.

Mind you, I fervently hope that this is not the only time of year you all go to Confession. To bring your sins to the Lord and receive his mercy is precisely the movement of grace that makes the difference between the two kinds of mourning Pope Benedict describes here.

Our sins, our unloving and rebellious responses to life, to God and neighbor, yield this sadness that ‘eats away and destroys us from within.’ Repentance is precisely the ‘shattering encounter’ with truth, the truth that our sins are met by the love and compassion of our Father in heaven, an encounter that shatters our illusions of self-sufficiency and independence, and opens us up to the hope and love that are his infused gifts to us.

It really is a question of where our life is coming from. If our life is from and for ourselves, if the whole point of life—its source and summit—is our own ideas, wants, hopes, abilities, strength, then we are on a path to the mourning that destroys us. We are not strong enough to bear that weight placed upon ourselves. Sooner or later, one way or another, our number is up—we are defeated, love runs out, trust is betrayed, destruction is upon us and the abyss yawns at our feet.

If our life is from Another, if the source and summit of our life is not us but this mysterious Other, this Being, this God who is so very hidden and yet so very present to us, then the mourning that does indeed come to us—the revelation of our failure, the disclosure of our shame, our guilt, the manifestation of our profound poverty in whatever form that takes in us—this mourning leads us to joy and life.

It is precisely this experience that breaks us open to the God who loves us and who wants to give us everything. We don’t precisely ‘need’ to take this route: Our Lady never sinned, never failed, lived without shame and guilt, and she was open to God from the beginning. But we have to be realistic—for almost of us, the tendrils of selfishness and egoism are such that the path to joy must lead through mourning.

But this mourning, even as it breaks upon us, will not break us. Or if it does break us, the God who loves us will put us back together, this time the right way. ‘There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in,’ sings Leonard Cohen. Mourning is that crack (the crack of dawn?), and so the light of mercy and love gets in to all of us, if we want it to. And that’s what Lent is about, in essence, and what confession is about, in essence.

So git to Confession, y’all. God’s waiting for you there, to turn your mourning into joy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In the Strange Twilight

One can always say with Thomas [Aquinas] that unbelief is unnatural, but at the same time it is always true that human beings cannot completely dispel the strange twilight that hangs over the question of the eternal, that God must cross over to them and talk to them if real relations are to be established with him… but how should this happen?

…God’s speaking to us reaches us through men and women who have listened to God and come into contact with God.

To Look on Christ, 29

Reflection – Ratzinger has often reflected on this theme, namely, the difficulty of faith for human beings at all times, but most especially in our time. He has reflected on it in books such as Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, Introduction to Christianity, and Faith and the Future.

It is this paradoxical situation: we are made to reach out beyond ourselves and beyond the natural order into a transcendent reality. Religion is a naturally occurring phenomenon, universal across all human cultures and civilizations. At the same time, this ‘reaching out’ is a reaching out into darkness, into mystery, into the great unknown. And so there is a drawing back that is equally ‘natural’ to us (at least it feels natural).

We are filled with longings and desires that pull us beyond ourselves and that are satisfied by no created being. At the same time, we are afraid of the heights, afraid of where this mysterious Being who draws us out may take us, afraid of the Great Unknown. And we hesitate. We are strange, confused, contradictory creatures, we humans.

And God indeed must come to us. We cannot just go to Him. To some degree this is because of our fallen condition, our heightened fears and selfish tendencies that result from our rebellion against God and against truth. But I think it’s also how God intended it in the beginning—not that it be so hard, but that it be His initiative, His movement towards us. In the garden, God came to the man and woman and walked and talked with them in the cool of the evening. God comes to us; we cannot go to Him.

And so now, as Ratzinger has often said in his writings, this terrible gap, this terrible abyss that has formed between God and man has been bridged. First by Jesus, but then by the host of men and women, Mary first among them, who have come to know God through, with, and in Jesus.

The saints—this is how we come to know God and come to real relationship with Him. Not only the canonized ones, but the truly good, spiritual people who we are blessed to encounter in our lives. People who walk and talk with God in the heat of the day and the cool of the evening. People who have listened to God and let Him shape their humanity into a divine pattern.

This is how we come to know God. This is why (I maintain) Jesus established a Church, a place where we could come together, to know the Lord together. Where my darkness can meet your light, and your darkness can meet my light. It’s so simple. We help each other, even in the midst of the human struggles and difficulties of life in the Church. We help each other, or at least we’re meant to. And it is in our own ‘walking and talking’ with God in the light and darkness of our lives that we become those very saints, become  what we are meant to be.

And as we help each other as we’re meant to, we shine that light to those outside the Church, those who may be searching for God and not quite know where to find Him. If they see us loving each other, they may just draw a bit closer to us, and to the Lord who brings us together. And that’s how the New Evangelization works.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Sign of the Woman

The church must relearn her ecclesial being from Mary. Only a conversion to the sign of the woman, to the feminine dimension of the Church, rightly understood, will bring about the new opening to the creative power of the Spirit, and so to Christ’s taking form in us, whose presence alone can give history a center and a hope.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 59

Reflection – A happy feast of the Annunciation to you all! Well, we launched the parish mission here in Herring Cove, Nova Scotia last night to rousing success, and I talked precisely about this feast and this mystery of Mary that Ratzinger so eloquently reflects on in this passage.

This truly is the heart of the matter for him and for us: we have to live like Mary lived, if we want to be the Church Christ wants us to be. This is the main theme of my book She is Our Response, that Mary is the icon of humanity redeemed by Christ, the icon of humanity receiving God first before we can give Him to anyone, and that without this dynamic Marian reception of God we are doomed to mere programs, agendae, bright ideas and politics. Towards the end of the book, reflecting on various themes I have explored earlier at length, I write:

The Marian witness—Mary’s presence in the Church’s proclamation of the Good News to humanity and her presence to the Church itself in its own acceptance and penetration of this Good News—is necessary to show forth the truth of this Gospel on the level of the individual concrete historical being who receives it and strives to live it. Mary’s presence to the Church in the modern world is necessary for the Church’s proclamation to be certain and unhesitating, as Mary alone shows forth the fullness of the dynamic of God in man. Her presence is also necessary for the Church to persevere in its own integrity—its own truth to itself and to the God who constitutes it.

We do not offer a product or project or ethos or program; we receive the Word so as to speak the Word. We receive God to give God. We become a new creation (in contemplative receptivity) so as to live the life of the new creation (in compassionate love) and to radiate the goodness of this new creation (with joy) to all.

Mary, who lived this, teaches the Church how to live it; Mary, who embodies this in her virginal maternity, continues to bear Christ in the world by making the virgin Church fruitful through her maternal solicitude and intercession; Mary, who in her immaculate being is humanity in its integrity, thus prevents the image of God in man from being utterly effaced from the modern age; Mary, who in her assumed glory shows forth the goodness and end of creation, draws all creation after her through her queenly mediation and prayer.

So this is our feast. As we contemplate this little girl standing before the angel and saying a bold and total ‘yes’ to God’s invitation, we contemplate our own mystery—what God wants each of us individually, and the whole Church collectively, to become. Without this becoming, this ‘yes’ coming from each of our hearts, the world is doomed to continue its path of darkness and negation. But if and as we say ‘yes’ to God, the light of Christ breaks through here and there, and hope is reborn on the face of the earth.

This is the most urgent task of our times. There are political and programmatic things we need to do, but unless they are coming from hearts that have deeply and totally said ‘yes’ to God they will be of no avail. This is what Madonna House is all about; this is what Pope Benedict is all about, and this is what this little blog is all about. Say yes to God; the world needs your ‘yes’ so desperately.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mutter, Sigh, Groan, Scream, Speak

The exclamation of Elizabeth to Mary (Lk 1:45) [i.e., ‘Blessed is she who believed that what the Lord said would be done to her’] becomes the key word of Mariology… For Mary… faith is trust in, and obedience to, God, even when he leads her through darkness. It is a letting go, a releasing, a handing over of oneself to the truth, to God. Faith, in the luminous darkness of God’s inscrutable ways, is thus a conformation to him.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 49

Reflection – The words here are very beautiful, luminous, simple, attractive. A fine example of Ratzingerian prose stylings. The reality behind these words, while certainly very beautiful, luminous, simple, and (ultimately) attractive, is also very challenging indeed.

It is one thing to regard Mary and her obedience, and to nod our heads sagely. Oh yes, she trusted God and isn’t that wonderful! And look how it all turned out – Jesus saves the world and Mary is assumed into heaven and is queen of heaven and earth. Isn’t that lovely!

We look at the whole picture, knowing full well how the story would unfold and how it would end. But what did Mary see, that little 14 year old girl, pregnant in an utterly inexplicable way, faced with a whole world that would look upon her with contempt and perhaps even violence, not knowing in the slightest what was going to happen to her next? What did she know? What kind of surrender did she have to make, right then and there?

And (more to the point) what about us? We can look at the biblical story and it’s all very lovely, but what about us, when we are in the ‘luminous darkness of God’s inscrutable ways’? A lovely phrase, but that darkness is pretty darned dark, and pretty darned inscrutable, and at times the ‘luminous’ aspect seems pretty obscure!

We have to be clear about this. Faith is hard. Faith is really, really hard. When ‘life’ (or Divine Providence, as we used to call it in more faith-filled times) blows up all around you, when terrible things happen to you or to the ones you love, when you are confronted with painful, searing choices, when all the lights go out, when all the supports and consolations of faith shatter and vanish like they never existed—it is hard.

It is hard to believe. When the real moment of faith comes, when God is truly leading us through such darkness that we scarcely know any more that God is leading us, there is no room for a vague sentimental piety—pastel colored angels flapping their wings while Mary (and we) ‘meekly bow our heads’ to say yes.

We may say yes, but there’s not much pastel coloring to it. More blood red and pitch black. As it was for Mary. We have to get that: Mary was a real person, a girl, a woman—she knows all about this passion of faith. And she really can help us through these pitch black, blood red moments when we are called to mumble our own fiat through clenched teeth and frozen lips, at what feels like enormous personal cost.

She knows what that’s like. She did it herself. Today (liturgical laws notwithstanding) is the feast of the Incarnation, of Mary’s fiat and God’s becoming flesh. And you see, that’s what’s at stake in all this. That’s why ‘blessed is she (and we) who believe.’ Because when we mutter, sigh, groan, scream, or simply speak that fiat—God becomes flesh once more, in us.

And when that happens, the kingdom of God is close at hand. The power of God is unleashed on earth, here, now, in our lives. You and I, right now, have that invitation from God – to say yes to Him, and so receive His life into our life, His flesh and blood into our flesh and blood. Fiat, whatever ‘yes’ God is asking of you and me right now, in all its ‘blood and guts’ realism, is the gateway to that kingdom, to that blessedness, to that beautiful, luminous, simple, and attractive mystery of peace, joy, and glory that God desires to give us.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Used and Used Up

The mystery of Mary means precisely that God’s word did not remain alone; rather, it assimilated the other – the soil – into itself, became man in the soil of his Mother, and then, fused with the soil of the whole of humanity, returned to God in this new form…

To be soil for the word means that the soil must allow itself to be absorbed by the seed, to be assimilated by the seed, to surrender itself for the sake of transforming the seed into life. Mary’s maternity means that she willingly places her own substance, body and soul, into the seed so that new life can grow…  Mary makes herself entirely available as soil; she lets herself be used and used up, in order to be transformed into the One who needs us in order to become the fruit of the earth.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 14-15

Reflection – Well, I’m writing from beautiful Herring Cove, Nova Scotia, where I am to be giving a parish mission over this next week. The Atlantic Ocean is glistening away outside my window on a beautiful sunny morning, and the tang of salt in the air is a novelty to this normally land-locked priest.

And so we continue to contemplate the mystery of Mary as we approach her great feast day this Monday. We see here in this passage both the uniqueness of Mary’s vocation—she is the unique soil that God assimilated to Himself so as to forge this once-and-for-all change in the human condition—and the extent to which she reveals to us our vocation.

We are to do, in our own proper way, what Mary did. We are to be ‘absorbed’ by the seed, to ‘surrender ourself’ for the sake of the seed and its life in the world. This seed in Christ, his life in us, his will to become incarnate in our life, not as he did in Mary’s, but incarnate nonetheless.

We are to make ourselves available, to be used and used up, so as to be transformed into other Christs, so that the earth be fruitful.

We must contemplate these matters deeply. One of the greatest temptations and greatest tragedies of the human race is the choice to stay on the surface of things, to hold back from really plunging into the depths of life, God, love, meaning. To ‘settle’, to decide that these heights and depths are not for the likes of me, but for saints and mystics only. I will settle into having a nice little life, for sure being a good person who helps others, but nothing too dramatic.

We are made for more than that. We are made to give our soil, our flesh to God, and giving that soil and flesh to God, our life (whatever it consists of) to Him, to receive in turn His life from Him, and so bring (through Him, with Him, and in Him) the kingdom of heaven onto earth.

This may all happen in the very heart of your and my ‘nice little life’ where we help others out as we can. But there’s an element of depth that God wants to bring us to here, an element of surrender, of trust, of prayer.

And this is what Mary shows us. An ordinary woman who did this extraordinary thing in a very ordinary way. A baby who needed feeding and washing and raising, a boy who needed to be taught and clothed and nurtured, a young man going forth into the world while his mother watched and prayed, a mother watching her son die. The details have been repeated millions of times in the history of the world, and each individual element of it is ‘ordinary’.

But beneath the surface, what depths lie there. Totality of love; totality of surrender; totality of obedience; totality of forgiveness; totality of trust. And this is what God wishes to work in each of our ‘soils’, each of our hearts, so that He can bring us into the totality of grace in this life, so that our lives may be totally conduits for that grace in the world which needs it so desperately, and bring us into the totality of glory in the world to come.

Mary knows the way we are to walk, and this is why we turn to her and ask her help in all things.

Friday, March 23, 2012

We Are Not Sponges

The Church is the body, the flesh, of Christ, in the spiritual tension of love wherein the spousal mystery of Adam and Eve is consummated, hence, in the dynamism of a mystery that does not abolish dialogic reciprocity….[this] mystery of the church… remains within the proper measure only when it includes the mystery of Mary; the mystery of the listening handmaid who – liberated in grace – speaks her fiat and, in so doing, becomes bride and thus body.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 26

Reflection – We are approaching one of the great feasts of the liturgical year—the Annunciation. Because March 25 falls on a Sunday, and in our Roman liturgical cycle the Sundays of Lent take precedence over Solemnities of Our Lady, it is moved to the following day. But it remains a great feast, the feast of the Incarnation, of God the Son taking to Himself a human body, soul, and nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

So I think I’ll do a little series on Mary over these next four days. In the midst of Lent and its rigors, it’s good to ponder the face of our Mother and what she has to teach us about life in Christ. I’ve written a couple of books on the subject, and so always have lots to say.

The above passage is dense, but worth sitting with and pondering a while. It’s this whole business of Adam and Eve and marriage being a sacrament—that is, a sign pointing to another, deeper reality. And that reality is Christ and the Church. The coming together of man and woman to be one flesh, and in that one flesh to experience love and creativity—new life flowing from the union of their bodies—is a sign of the fundamental movement of God towards his Creation. God loves the world, and is in communion with his Beloved Creation. From this love and union springs forth newness of life, a true explosion of life and love that goes on into eternity.

In other words, we are not just passive sponges receiving God’s gifts. We are truly participants with Him in the dynamism of creation and redemption. He is God, the One who creates and redeems, who initiates and is Lord. But we are not nothing in this. Next to nothing, perhaps, but not nothing.

We are agents, actors. We are the bride, the one who lives in ‘dialogic reciprocity’ with God, who accepts his initiative, his action, his ‘proposal’, if you will, and gives herself to it, and so brings her own beauty and gift to meet God’s beauty and gift.

This is the whole substance and meaning of creation, of humanity, of you, of me. The point, the purpose, the glory and joy of it. And Mary is the one who keeps this mystery before us in a vibrant, beautiful way.

She does this because she lived this mystery to a degree that we do not. Our ‘dialogic reciprocity’ is marred by sin and rebellion. Hers was not. Our ideas about agency and freedom are perpetually corrupted by ideas of autonomy, that our freedom consists in standing against God somehow. Her freedom is expressed in standing with God, in giving herself to the divine project unreservedly.

While our fallen and corrupted notion of freedom leads to death and futility (since to turn away from God is to turn towards non-being), her freedom becomes a doorway by which she enters the divine sphere of reality. The maid of Nazareth is assumed into heaven and becomes Queen of heaven and earth.

So Mary shows us how to be human, how to be the Church (which is the same thing), and shows us that this is a Good Thing. And I will continue to meditate on this Good Thing for the next few days, so that we can truly celebrate on March 26 the gift God and Mary have given us—our Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the Verge of Pouncing

Sin has become a suppressed subject… [which] has nonetheless remained real. What is remarkable to me is the aggressiveness, always on the verge of pouncing, which we experience openly in our society—the lurking readiness to demean the other person, to hold him guilty whenever misfortune occurs to him.
In the Beginning, 80

Reflection – Ratzinger again shows just how aware he is of the dynamics of contemporary society. It is a tremendous irony, this aggressive censoriousness of secular society. We reject the idea of good and evil, but denounce Obama/Santorum/Romney/ Gingrich/Harper/whoever as ‘evil’. We reject the notion of sin, but delight in ill-natured gossip about the misdeeds of the rich and famous. We preach tolerance and relativism, and fiercely attack those of different political or religious persuasions than ourselves.

And all this happens in the secular sphere. It seems that this is an application of the old saying about kicking nature out the door only to have it come in by the window. We can kick our sinful nature out, but it sneaks back in.

Of course, the trouble with the secular reappropriation of sin and evil (generally using other language, of course) is that once God is taken out of the picture, we are left to the judgment of man. And hence, judgment without pity, without mercy, without compassion. And so we have this ‘agressiveness… the lurking readiness to demean the other person, to hold him guilty…’

If we’re going to have sin, and it seems like we can’t really navigate our human waters without having some concept of it, then we had better have forgiveness, too. Otherwise we are truly trapped in a cycle of sin and blame, condemnation and contempt. We are named by our sins these days, at least by those of the ‘opposing’ camp. Our stumbles, our wrongs, our failures, our sins are understood to reveal the true person, the true reality of our situation.

Religion—authentic Christianity, anyhow—names us differently. We are not named by our sins, but by the love of the Father. We are not defined by what is wrong with us, but by what God has given us. Sin is not master in our life or the world’s life; Jesus is.

And because of this, we have no fear of looking at our sins, frankly acknowledging them, refusing to rationalize them away. Because there is mercy, and mercy is stronger than sin, we don’t need to hide our sins.

And in that same awareness of mercy, we have no need to be harsh or aggressive or judgmental of anyone. We’re all sinners; we’re all in need of mercy; mercy is poured out for all who wish to receive it. This is the spirit of Lent, and as we head into its final weeks, let’s pray for a gift of mercy to descend upon all hearts, so that hatred and contempt be washed away by the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Expectation of God

Note: The context of this passage has been a discussion of the meaning of faith in the Letter to the Hebrews, and its relationship to hope.

We must continue with a brief consideration of two words pertinent to the discussion which can be found in the tenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. I refer to the words hypomone () and hypostole (). Hypomone is normally translated as “patience”—perseverance, constancy.
Knowing how to wait, while patiently enduring trials, is necessary for the believer to be able to “receive what is promised” (). In the religious context of ancient Judaism, this word was used expressly for the expectation of God which was characteristic of Israel, for their persevering faithfulness to God on the basis of the certainty of the Covenant in a world which contradicts God. Thus the word indicates a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope. In the New Testament this expectation of God, this standing with God, takes on a new significance: in Christ, God has revealed himself. He has already communicated to us the substance of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty.

It is the expectation of things to come from the perspective of a present that is already given. It is a looking-forward in Christ's presence, with Christ who is present, to the perfecting of his Body, to his definitive coming. The word hypostole, on the other hand, means shrinking back through lack of courage to speak openly and frankly a truth that may be dangerous. Hiding through a spirit of fear leads to “destruction” (Heb ). “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control”—that, by contrast, is the beautiful way in which the Second Letter to Timothy (1:7) describes the fundamental attitude of the Christian.

Spe Salvi 9

Reflection – ‘A life based on the certainty of hope’ – that’s the central phrase in this passage. And this is the central matter in the encyclical itself—in some ways this paragraph is the key to the whole encyclical.

Faith, in the traditional scholastic definition, is a matter of the intellect—the mind assenting to divine truth with the assistance of grace. Hope and love are matters of the will—shaping our will to choose to live our lives in a certain way. Hope directs us precisely to this hypomone, this patience that comes from the assurance that God is faithful, that God is not going to allow our lives to fail, ultimately. And so we can be faithful to Him and His Gospel in the midst of what may look, feel, and smell like total failure, total destruction.

God is not going to fail us. This is the fundamental stance of hope, and so we will not be swerved from our path. The world—our little world—may fall apart. The Church may be in ruins. Secular society may indeed increase its hostility to us to the point of persecution. We may (well, at some point we certainly will) die. But we will not be moved. God is not going to fail us. Our lives, ultimately, will be glorious and beautiful. And this ultimate beauty and glory will last forever.

So, hope. Looking ahead to a future that is not here yet, but that our faith tells us in assured by the love and mercy and gracious gift of God in Christ. And it leads to fidelity to Him and His Gospel. Love is the fruit of this attitude. Hope gets us turned towards God at all times in expectation of his faithful deliverance; love follows from this as we come to realize that God is already with us, His life is already given to us, even now, and the beauty and glory we expect in fullness in heaven is already dawning on us. And so we can pour ourselves out in love, in gift, in service, in suffering, because God is truly living in us, the communion we desire already is granted us.

Faith, hope, and love. So central to our human Christian lives. So central to our constant prayer: “More faith, please! More hope! More love! Thank you, Jesus!” Let us turn to God and ask him for the graces we need to live faithful, hopeful lives of love in the world today.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fascism Redux

Christianity has understood itself to be the religion of the Logos, to be a religion in keeping with reason. When it identified its forerunners, these were primarily, not in the other religions, but in that philosophical enlightenment which cleared the road from the various traditions that cluttered it in order to turn to the search for truth and to turn toward the good, toward the one God who is above all gods. As a religion of the persecuted, and as a universal religion that was wider than any one state or people, it denied the government the right to consider religion as part of the order of the state, thus stating the principle of the liberty of faith.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 47-8

Reflection – We live in a time of creeping fascism. I know, I know—this is something I tend to harp on a bit on this blog, and it may get a bit tiresome. I promise I won’t mention contraception this time, OK?
I also know that the word ‘fascism’ has been devalued in recent decades to become a synonym for “I don’t like you very much, you poopy-head!” A mere term of invective drained of any positive content.

But fascism is an actual political philosophy, and it is a growing one in Canada, the States, and Europe. It is, simply put, the philosophy of the exaltation of power of the state over all other social entities. Mussolini summed it up as “Nothing but the state, nothing without the state, nothing outside the state.”

In other words, the government has the right to call the shots in virtually every area of human life, without exception, and virtually every area of human activity is to be guided and governed by government policy, without exception.

The fascist regimes of the 1920s and 30s were ‘hard fascist’—jackbooted repressive regimes, brutally imposing the state’s authority by the most violent and thuggish means. And a ‘strong man’ at the head of it, making the trains run on time and promising peace and security through an all-powerful state apparatus.

The increasingly fascist regimes of the 21st century are ‘soft fascist’—made up of ever-expanding thickets of regulations and ministry policies crafted by faceless nameless bureaucrats in back rooms and enforced not so much by prison camps and executions as by a system of punitive fines and fees and inspections that force us all to live our lives under the constant watchful eye of our state overlords.

Well, this is the world we live in, and it is unclear how we can change it at this point. Simply voting for a different political party next time doesn’t seem to do it; they’re all in on it, apparently! And the courts seem to be on the side of the state most of the time (witness the recent Canadian Supreme Court decision that all families in Quebec must allow their children to be taught that all religions are equally true). Violent rebellion is not an option for a Christian—which I guess leaves us with prayer and fasting!

But we have to be clear: the two bulwarks against fascism are, and always have been, the family and the Church. The family is prior to the state and has inalienable rights that the state must not transgress; the Church is not an organ of the state, and must vigorously resist government incursions into its operations.

As governments continue to overstep their boundaries in more and more intrusive ways, this means we have to be willing to accept persecution. It’s unfortunate, and we don’t welcome this. We wish that those faceless nameless bureaucrats and their elected bosses would come to their senses and realize the grave harm and evil done by fascism to basic human flourishing. But they don’t seem to be doing that.

In all this, though, the Church has a great opportunity to emerge as what it truly is: the great defender of human liberty and the rights of individuals, families, and other social groups against the state. And in this defense of liberty, to proclaim the gospel of Christ with renewed vigor and appeal—we are to be free in political society because we are made eternally for the freedom of love and truth, and this is vouchsafed to us by the revelation of God in Christ of his plans and purposes for human life.

So the crisis (and I do believe it is just that) of fascism in the 21st century, painful and unpleasant as it is, is a moment of hope and an opportunity for evangelization for the Church. So let’s take this opportunity, with prayer and fasting for sure, but also with bold proclamation of the freedom of the Gospel and the kingdom of God which surpasses all earthly kingdoms and stands as their eternal judge.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Neigh Sayers

The creed of materialism is that the irrational stands at the beginning… Reason is a by-product of the irrational… This makes man the assembler of the world, which he designs according to the criteria of his goals.
A Turning Point For Europe?, 105
Reflection – Atheistic materialism of the Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennett variety normally touts itself as the great voice of reason and science as opposed to religious nonsense, superstition, and unreason. Ratzinger in this short passage, which in its brevity contains several key themes of his life’s work, shows the fragility of this New Atheist rationalism. It is a matter of strict logical argument: if one is an atheist materialist, then reason is not at the center of reality. The universe somehow just happened or is just happening, or has always been happening—for no reason. Literally this must be so. As soon as one interjects ‘reason’ into the origin or structure of the universe, one has posited a ‘god’ of some sort, and this is the one thing a materialist will not and cannot do… and remain an atheist.

So reason, if it exists, comes from unreason. Again, strict logical necessity here. The universe is irrational from the beginning. We are not from the beginning by any account of things, so our ‘reason’ comes out of unreason. Reason, far from being supreme, is an accidental byproduct of unreason.

Essentially, this means that everything collapses into unreason. The rational efforts of human beings, including Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, are of no more significance that the clucking of a chicken or the mooing of a cow. Chickens cluck, cows moo, horses neigh, and human beings write long learned tomes about how everything is meaningless. The women of River City in The Music Man are quite correct: pick a little, talk a little pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep! We are all just common fowl.

Anyhow. Now the atheist materialist may counter with, essentially, “Yeah, and so what?” The universe is meaningless, you’re meaningless, I’m meaningless. It’s an ugly picture, but that’s reality.” The argument would be, then, that religious people flee from this meaningless ugly picture into a fantasy land of gods and laws, while the courageous Brights face the stark truth without fear.

But this is nonsense. Because of course in doing this sort of thing atheists project a whole field of meaning of their own onto reality. They are the brave ones; we the cowardly. They the progressive ones; we the backward. They smarties; we dumb. You Einstein; me Tarzan. Ugh!

Anyhow. A whole ‘meaningful’ understanding of human life and the human project is present throughout the atheistic literature. Why do they get so irked at religion? After all horses neigh, cows moo, and human beings, among other things, theologize! If its all just clucking, why is one kind of cluck ‘good’ and another cluck ‘bad.’

They argue that religion causes violence (which is laughable), but if meaninglessness is king, then what’s wrong with violence? Bears are violent, and so are wolves—why not us? Cows eat grass, humans kill one another in wars. If the universe is, as they claim, vacant of any ‘law,’ what’s the problem?

The truth is, we cannot not seek meaning. We cannot avoid value judgments of good and evil, even if we contort ourselves to avoid using those specific words, freighted as they are with religious overtones. And the truth is, the position of materialist atheism is not a result of clear logical analysis, but of emotion-driven arguments. They don’t want God to exist. So they say nay (or neigh) to it. But even without God, they posit meaning, right, wrong, having only cut off the possibility of these things having any rational or solid basis.

Atheism, far from being the bastion of reason it claims to be, is a tissue of emotion, sentimentalism, and irrational prejudice. And the God hypothesis remains as the most rational, simplest explanation of human experience, particularly the human experience of the universe as a meaningful, rational, and moral entity.

What do you all think of that?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Talking About Conscience XVI

The anamnesis which is given to us and is inherent in our being needs help from outside in order that it may become aware of its own self. But this ‘outside’ is not something opposed to anamnesis. It exists in order to serve it. It has a maieutic function, not imposing something alien upon our anamnesis but activating something that is its own, activating the openness of the anamnesis to receive the truth.

In the case of faith and the Church, whose radius reaches from the redeeming Logos over the gift of Creation, we must however add a further level, which is developed with particular care in the Johannine writings. John knows the anamnesis of the new ‘we’ that has been bestowed on us in our incorporation into Christ. We become one body, i.e., one ‘I’ with him. The Gospel observes several times that the disciples came to understanding only subsequently, when they remembered.

That first encounter with Jesus gave the disciples something that all generations now receive through their fundamental encounter with the Lord in baptism and the Eucharist: the new anamnesis of faith that, like the anamnesis of Creation, develops in the continuous dialogue between ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ This is why John could reply to the presumption of Gnostic teachers, who wanted to persuade Christian believers that their na├»ve faith ought to be understood and formulated in quite different terms, by saying, you do not need that kind of instruction, because as ‘anointed’ (baptized) Christians you know everything (1 John 2: 20).

This does not mean that the faithful possess an intellectual knowledge of every single point of doctrine, but it does mean that Christian memory is unerring. It is always learning anew; its sacramental identity allows it to distinguish ‘from within’ between that which assists the development of its memory and that which destroys or falsifies it.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 94-5

Reflection – OK, so this is a pretty dense passage. Bear with me, and I will make it all clear (promise!).
So Ratzinger is talking, as he has been, about the primeval ‘anamnesis’—remembrance—in the heart of every human being, our inner knowledge of the moral law written in our hearts. The moral law does not come to us merely from outside, but is an interior reality, an essential part of our humanity. This is why the wage of sin is death: not because God is a vengeful tyrant obliterating us for our transgressions, but because in sin we destroy our own selves in their deepest core.

But Ratzinger is concerned here to show how the teaching authority of the Church in matters of morality relates to this inner core of anamnesis. And he hits upon the word ‘maieutic’, which may not be the first word you or I would come up with, eh?

Maieutic means ‘mothering.’ That’s all. The sense is that this primitive inner knowledge of the moral law needs some help from outside. Needs some nurturing to grow and become fully operative in us. The Church does not write the moral law, or impose the moral law on people as an alien force; it fosters, nourishes, calls forth, reminds, cares for, encourages the human person on his or her moral path.

Do the human beings who are actually in the Church’s magisterial office at any give time do a very good job of this? Well, that’s up for dispute, even if as Catholics we maintain the Church’s freedom from actual error in its teachings. But that’s what the teaching authority of the Church is for; it is at the service of conscience, not in replacement of it.

He goes on, though, to add an even deeper reflection. God has not simply left his creation in its primeval state. Remembrance is not only to know what God has made, but what God has done with what He has made. Christ, salvation, the Church itself, the sacramental flow of grace—this too is written on the hearts
of each baptized person, and the Church here too serves a maieutic role in reminding us of God’s gifts.

It is a very rich and beautiful picture Ratzinger unveils for us in this passage: God’s love for each of us, his personal gift to each of us both in the order of creation and of salvation, and then the communal dimension whereby these personal intimate gifts of God are fostered and strengthened so as to become the fundamental principles of action and mission for each of us in the world.

Conscience remains primary in this picture, mind you, as the individual faculty whereby each one of us makes this beautiful picture our own picture, what we have chosen to live. And this is why we must defend the rights of religious conscience against incursions of the state if we are serious about religious freedom in our society.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

More! More! More!

Modern scientific thought has increasingly shut us up in the prison of positivism, thus condemning us to pragmatism. Much can be achieved by doing so; it is possible to journey to the moon and still farther into the immensity of the universe. Yet in spite of this, man always remains in the same place, because he does not surpass the real limit, which is set by what can be quantified and produced. Albert Camus has portrayed the absurdity of this freedom in the character of the emperor Caligula: everything is at his disposal, and everything is too little for him. In his insane craving for more, for something bigger, he cries: ‘I want the moon, give me the moon!’

By now it is more or less possible to have the moon, but when the real boundary—the boundary between earth and heaven, between God and the world—does not open, even the moon is merely an additional piece of earth, and by reaching it man is not brought one step closer to the freedom and plenitude he longs for.

Called to Communion

Reflection – Condemned to pragmatism! What a fate! When the only question that matters is ‘can we do this?’ then this pragmatic trap is upon us. We are hungry creatures; it is indeed the very nature of human beings to always reach out for more, more, more… something.

We want more. And so we have crazy Caligula baying for the moon. In our day we have crazy trans-humanists baying for genetically modified human beings, a new super-race that will improve on what God has made. We constantly reach out for more, more, more. The moon is mere pocket change at this point.

It is a trap. What we long for is not greater technical capability, greater mastery of the universe and its secrets, greater ability to manipulate reality. We do not really want freedom from all moral constraints and a total carte blanche to fashion our lives as we please. Our longing, our hunger, is channeled into those directions, but it is not satisfied in those directions.

The longing is for self-transcendence, for breaking out of the merely human level. We truly are made for something greater than what our capacities can achieve. Technical competence, even if it takes us to the stars, leaves us at the level of our humanity. Moral lawlessness reduces us considerably below the level of our humanity. It is breaking through to that which is above our humanity, and which loves us in our humanity, that is the desire of our heart.

This, or rather He, is what cannot be quantified or produced. Only received, only contemplated, only loved. And in that contemplation and love, true freedom and plenitude are given to us.

We all have to grapple with these questions at some point or other. We can continue to be earth-bound, simply trapped in one form of pragmatism or other, living life bound by our own plans. But we have to know that the earth and all that is in it is passing away. The desire of our heart for true transcendence must take us beyond what our earthly limits and ambits set for us.

It is Lent, and a good time to ponder afresh these things. What are we made for? How are we going to get there? What is holding us back? And where is God in all this? Good Lenten questions. To escape the trap of pragmatism and break through to what God wants to do in our lives would be a good Lenten intention for all of us.

Friday, March 16, 2012

People of the Look

Christianity is the remembrance of the look of love that the Lord directs to man, this look that preserves the fullness of his truth and the ultimate guarantee of his dignity… Christians stand with their own life under this look of love; with this look, they receive a message that is essential for man’s life and for his future.”

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 71

Reflection – I suspect if you were to ask a wide sampling of Catholics what Christianity was in essence, few if any would come up with anything even resembling this passage. Yet, here we are, my fellow Catholics. This is what our Pope says Christianity is. And what a strange and beautiful vision of our faith it is.

We are often, along with Jews and Muslims, described as ‘people of the book.’ Here, Ratzinger says we are instead people of the look. ‘God looked on everything he had made, and said that it was very good’ (Gen ). This ‘looking’ of God, this seeing of God which is at the heart of creation, is so vital to our understanding of things.

‘Man looks upon appearances, but God sees the heart’ (1 Sam 16:7). God’s seeing is true. When God looks upon us with love, He is not simply being a nice Guy. He is seeing what we truly are. And our receiving this look of love then confirms and conforms us to the deep truth of who and what we are.

‘Jesus looked at him and loved him’ (Mk ). And Jesus calls him (the rich young man) to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and follow Jesus. This look of love is not, then, just a patronizing pat on the head. It penetrates to the heart of who we are and tells us who we are to become. It calls us to forsake everything else for the sake of that becoming. The look of love of God in Christ changes everything, and asks us to stake everything on that change.

The look of love Jesus gives us is most profoundly given to us from the Cross. This is the ultimate statement of God towards his creation, the ultimate declaration of ‘it is very good’. God is willing to die for his creation. It is impossible for God to die, but He does it anyhow. It is this look which above all bears us into the truth and dignity of our humanity. And this truth and dignity consists in assuming the same stance towards creation, and towards each other, as God assumes. God looked on creation and said it was good enough to die for;
we are to look at one another and say ‘you are good enough to die for.’

And proceed to do just that; lay down our lives for one another out of love, impelled and strengthened in this by the constant ongoing look of love God is giving us, a look which speaks to us the deep truth of our inner being, and the deeper truth of God’s inner being and His disposition towards us.

This is our faith, our holy Catholic faith that comes to us through the apostles. Learn it, love it, live it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Aiming For the Stars

“To stir a response in love and good works”: these words of the Letter to the Hebrews (10:24) urge us to reflect on the universal call to holiness, the continuing journey of the spiritual life as we aspire to the greater spiritual gifts and to an ever more sublime and fruitful charity (cf. 1 Cor 12:31-13:13). Being concerned for one another should spur us to an increasingly effective love which, “like the light of dawn, its brightness growing to the fullness of day” (Prov ), makes us live each day as an anticipation of the eternal day awaiting us in God.

The time granted us in this life is precious for discerning and performing good works in the love of God. In this way the Church herself continuously grows towards the full maturity of Christ (cf. Eph ). Our exhortation to encourage one another to attain the fullness of love and good works is situated in this dynamic prospect of growth.

Sadly, there is always the temptation to become lukewarm, to quench the Spirit, to refuse to invest the talents we have received, for our own good and for the good of others (cf. Mt 25:25ff.). All of us have received spiritual or material riches meant to be used for the fulfilment of God’s plan, for the good of the Church and for our personal salvation (cf. Lk 12:21b; 1 Tim ). The spiritual masters remind us that in the life of faith those who do not advance inevitably regress.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us accept the invitation, today as timely as ever, to aim for the “high standard of ordinary Christian living” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31). The wisdom of the Church in recognizing and proclaiming certain outstanding Christians as Blessed and as Saints is also meant to inspire others to imitate their virtues. Saint Paul exhorts us to “anticipate one another in showing honour” (Rom ).

In a world which demands of Christians a renewed witness of love and fidelity to the Lord, may all of us feel the urgent need to anticipate one another in charity, service and good works (cf. Heb 6:10). This appeal is particularly pressing in this holy season of preparation for Easter. As I offer my prayerful good wishes for a blessed and fruitful Lenten period, I entrust all of you to the intercession of Mary Ever Virgin and cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.

2012 Lenten Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Reflection – I concluded my blog post yesterday by saying that Christian maturity is the same thing as holiness, and that the only good outcome of our lives is to become saints. Anything else is tragic, actually.
I hadn’t actually looked ahead to see where Pope Benedict was going in this Lenten message. It’s always nice when he and I think alike! For here he is, calling all of us to holiness, the ‘full maturity of Christ.’

When we hear of the call to holiness, many people understandably draw back a bit. ‘Well, I’ll try to be a decent Christian, but I don’t know about becoming a saint! I’m kind of a louse, you know!’ It seems a bit presumptuous somehow to speak of wanting to become a saint. Or a bit scary: anyone who knows any lives of the saints knows that they had to go through a lot of suffering to get where they got. Can’t I just be a (kind of) nice person? Why aim for the stars when I can have a decent enough life here on earth?

“Those who do not advance inevitably regress.” This has been the universal experience of the spiritual masters of the Church. There is no ‘stasis’ in spiritual life. Either love is growing in us, which is the essence of sanctity, or love is dying in us. Our life is either expanding or contracting. If we’re not aiming for the stars, we are not going to have a decent life on earth.

This is built into our humanity and its fundamental nature. We are made for God. We are made to be open vessels receiving the life of God. This life of God in our life is another way of expressing the essence of sanctity. When we close off to this life, we generally fill ourselves with something else, and when that doesn’t work too well, begin to shrink down, reduce ourselves to something less than what we truly are and truly made to become. And this is a tragic loss, not only for ourselves, but for the world.

Saints are what the world needs: lovers, God-bearers, Christ-bearers. Anything else we can become or offer the world is a poor and ineffective substitute. Sanctity is the only fitting goal of human life. To not become a saint is tragic. It is Lent, and it is time to ponder these things, and humbly and simply ask the Lord to put us more firmly and fully on the road to become the saints he made us to be.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Part of Me

This “custody” of others is in contrast to a mentality that, by reducing life exclusively to its earthly dimension, fails to see it in an eschatological perspective and accepts any moral choice in the name of personal freedom. A society like ours can become blind to physical sufferings and to the spiritual and moral demands of life. This must not be the case in the Christian community!
The Apostle Paul encourages us to seek “the ways which lead to peace and the ways in which we can support one another” (Rom ) for our neighbour’s good, “so that we support one another” (15:2), seeking not personal gain but rather “the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor ). This mutual correction and encouragement in a spirit of humility and charity must be part of the life of the Christian community.

The Lord’s disciples, united with him through the Eucharist, live in a fellowship that binds them one to another as members of a single body. This means that the other is part of me, and that his or her life, his or her salvation, concern my own life and salvation. Here we touch upon a profound aspect of communion: our existence is related to that of others, for better or for worse. Both our sins and our acts of love have a social dimension.

This reciprocity is seen in the Church, the mystical body of Christ: the community constantly does penance and asks for the forgiveness of the sins of its members, but also unfailingly rejoices in the examples of virtue and charity present in her midst. As Saint Paul says: “Each part should be equally concerned for all the others” (1 Cor ), for we all form one body. Acts of charity towards our brothers and sisters – as expressed by almsgiving, a practice which, together with prayer and fasting, is typical of Lent – is rooted in this common belonging.

Christians can also express their membership in the one body which is the Church through concrete concern for the poorest of the poor. Concern for one another likewise means acknowledging the good that the Lord is doing in others and giving thanks for the wonders of grace that Almighty God in his goodness continuously accomplishes in his children. When Christians perceive the Holy Spirit at work in others, they cannot but rejoice and give glory to the heavenly Father (cf. Mt ).

2012 Lenten Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Reflection – The Pope develops here more explicitly a thought he has already alluded to, and which I reflected on a couple days ago: namely, the degree to which we are truly inter-connected, truly part of one another.

We are such individualists in North America (I can’t speak for the rest of the world) that this is one of the hardest things for us to grasp. We can choose to be nice to other people, even choose to care deeply for other people. But I don’t think we easily grasp the depths of interconnectedness we share with other people, especially that we the baptized share with our fellow Christians.

‘The other is part of me.’ This strikes us as strange, perhaps. Even unpleasant, perhaps: what’s left of me, then? Do I have no autonomy? Am I hopelessly bound up with all the rest of you losers forever? Don’t I have enough problems of my own without being necessarily saddled with all your problems?

So our thoughts can easily go. But this connection, this unity, this being brought together for better or for worse into a body—all this is working something very deep in us. The great lie of our humanity is that we find happiness/wholeness/fulfillment in some sort of independent stance, some kind of closing off of ourselves from the other. We become fully mature human beings through independence and autonomy.

This is a lie. We become fully mature human beings by so opening ourselves up to the mystery of God that His way of being—the unity of Three in One and One in Three—becomes reflected in our own human life. His way of loving—total gift and total reception of gift—becomes our way of loving.

We become fully mature realized adult human beings by transcending our human limitations and breaking through to the mystery of God and love. This itself is achieved by His grace, by the breaking out of our own self-imposed limits on our actions. But in the immediate sphere of life, the sense of being together, of sharing responsibility for each other, of needing to take care of each other—this is what pushes us towards this transcendence and the maturity it brings us.

Of course, the other name for this maturity is holiness. We are made to be saints; anything less is a tragic waste of a life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Not So Nice

“Being concerned for each other” also entails being concerned for their spiritual well-being. Here I would like to mention an aspect of the Christian life, which I believe has been quite forgotten: fraternal correction in view of eternal salvation. Today, in general, we are very sensitive to the idea of charity and caring about the physical and material well-being of others, but almost completely silent about our spiritual responsibility towards our brothers and sisters.

This was not the case in the early Church or in those communities that are truly mature in faith, those which are concerned not only for the physical health of their brothers and sisters, but also for their spiritual health and ultimate destiny. The Scriptures tell us: “Rebuke the wise and he will love you for it. Be open with the wise, he grows wiser still, teach the upright, he will gain yet more” (Prov 9:8ff).

Christ himself commands us to admonish a brother who is committing a sin (cf. Mt ). The verb used to express fraternal correction - elenchein – is the same used to indicate the prophetic mission of Christians to speak out against a generation indulging in evil (cf. Eph 5:11). The Church’s tradition has included “admonishing sinners” among the spiritual works of mercy.

It is important to recover this dimension of Christian charity. We must not remain silent before evil. I am thinking of all those Christians who, out of human regard or purely personal convenience, adapt to the prevailing mentality, rather than warning their brothers and sisters against ways of thinking and acting that are contrary to the truth and that do not follow the path of goodness.

Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other. As the Apostle Paul says: “If one of you is caught doing something wrong, those of you who are spiritual should set that person right in a spirit of gentleness; and watch yourselves that you are not put to the test in the same way” (Gal 6:1).

In a world pervaded by individualism, it is essential to rediscover the importance of fraternal correction, so that together we may journey towards holiness… There will always be a need for a gaze which loves and admonishes, which knows and understands, which discerns and forgives (cf. Lk 22:61), as God has done and continues to do with each of us.

2012 Lenten Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Reflection – And so the ‘hits’ keep on coming. The Pope is really challenging us in this Lenten message. So often we think that being ‘loving’ towards others is the same as being ‘nice’ to them. Everyone is nice! Everything is nice! Nicey-nice-nice!

But if my brother is committing a grave evil, that is not nice. If my sister is doing something that may imperil her soul, that is not nice. And if I am silent about this, maybe  I’m not being so nice, either. Not so much loving.

This does not mean we are to be perpetual scolds, of course. Soon no one would listen to us, if that was our normal practice. There is prudence and a true delicacy of love needed here. We cannot whap each other freely with the big baseball bat of Truth.

But we have to be able to call a spade a spade. We have to be able to say that the use of contraceptive devices and chemicals to prevent pregnancy is a grave evil. We have to be able to say that homosexual intercourse is a grave evil. We have to be able to say that cohabitation before marriage is a grave evil. And we must—we absolutely must—continue to say that abortion is a grave evil.

Not speaking out of anger, or hatred, or contempt, but out of a passionate love for those who are engaged in those practices. We cannot allow the world to go on its merry way to perdition, not without at least trying to cry out against it, so as to save at least some people from the wreckage.

This is deeply challenging, of course. Deeply confronting for all of us: how are we to love? How much do we love? And of course, I am a sinner, too. I need to be admonished for my sins, and had better welcome that from others, if I want to call myself a Christian.

But here it is: the ever deepening challenge to love and serve, not only in ways that may make us feel good, but in ways that are likely to be resented or rejected, that are likely to bring us trouble and turmoil. Lord Jesus, have mercy on us, and teach us how to love as you loved the Pharisees, as you love us.