Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's Not Really That Controversial

It is obvious that the concept of liberty on which [modern European] culture is based inevitably leads to contradictions, since it is either badly defined or not defined at all. And it is clear that the very fact of employing this concept entails limitations on freedom we could not even have imagined a generation ago. A confused ideology of liberty leads to a dogmatism that is providing ever more hostile to real liberty.”

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 35-6

Reflection – You know, I’ve been sitting on this quote for some weeks now, reluctant to blog about it. As I said recently, I am Canadian, and don’t especially seek out or enjoy controversy. And I know that this passage from Ratzinger is controversial…

But we need to speak out, whatever we think about this or that issue, if genuine liberty is to be preserved. It’s not really all that controversial.

For example, there has been a brouhaha in the States this past week where the owner of the Chick-Fil-A fast food chain, widely known to be a devout Christian (the restaurants, remarkably, are closed on Sunday), stated his personal support for the Biblical notion of marriage and family. This was in response to a question asked in an interview, not something he just said randomly.

Now, these restaurants do not discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring or in their service. The actual quoted statements by the man were very mild, non-derogatory. But not only were there threats of boycotts of the chain (which I have no problem with), but politicians in Chicago and Boston threatened to deny business licenses to it, in defiance of all and any constitutional principles. You know, free speech and all that…

All of this was for stating a view that is held by roughly half if not more of the American population. And this kind of thing is becoming more and more common. The mere expressing, even in the mildest and most conciliatory of terms,  of certain ‘unpopular’ views, views that a mere twenty years ago were commonplaces of conventional morality and a mere fifty years ago were universally held, is increasingly liable to bring the full authority of the state down upon you with fines, lawsuits, loss of business permits, petty harassment, etc.

Like I say, I have no problem with boycotts. I won’t go to Starbucks, due to their aggressive support of same-sex ‘marriage’. People are free to spend their money wherever they please for whatever reason they please. It’s the coercive power of the state, brought to bear not on offenses against the public order or human life, but on peacefully held and peacefully expressed opinions, that is truly shocking, and it really is happening now, today, in my country and in the great land that is our immediate neighbor.

We need to think about these things, you know. It’s easy to fulminate, rage, rant, or mock the politicians involved (and I actually heartily support that last option, as ridiculous behavior by powerful people deserves to be ridiculed). But we need to go deeper if we wish to actually turn back the rising tide of fascism in our lands.

Ratzinger here helps us immeasurably. It is a wrong or confused idea of liberty that actually drives this neo-fascism. Either liberty is understood in a sort of Hegelian-Marxist sense of the unfettered march of progress, in which case ‘Christians to the wall’ is a perfectly rational position, or liberty is vaguely held to be the suppression of any statement by anyone that would impede my doing just what I please. Although how the Mr. Chick-Fil-A’s statement is going to prevent anyone from doing anything they please is beyond me, frankly.

It is this confused vague sense of liberty, this ‘don’t be a hater, dude!’ that I suspect many people act out of. The idea that to tell anyone that something they want to do is wrong or may be wrong is hateful and intolerable and somehow ‘must be stopped!’—that’s what is operating in the general population.

But to be honest (and I hate to sound paranoid) I suspect the Hegelian-Marxist concept of liberty is what animates the powerful when they act to curtail the liberty of those of us who beg to differ with the current orthodoxy.

And this is where the real threats to liberty are in the present situation. Restrictions on speech, restrictions on any religious action outside of worship, restrictions on what have always been normal legal uses of one’s time, money, and activity—these are all coming from the ‘progressive’ side of society. And they must be firmly resisted if we are to remain in any manner a ‘free’ country.

This is not really controversial. We can and do all disagree about all sorts of issues and questions of public and private morality and policy. But when one side seizes the reins of power and uses the coercive force of the state to silence, intimidate, and browbeat the other side, this is unacceptable, and all people on all sides of all issues should be able to agree with that.
So… agreed???

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Broad Place

The Word Incarnate in Christ, the Logos, is not just the power that gives meaning to the individual, not even just the power that gives meaning to history. No, he is the creative Meaning from which the universe comes and which the universe, the cosmos, reflects. That is why this Word leads us out of individualism into the communion of saints spanning all times and places. This is the ‘broad place’ (Ps 31:8), the redemptive breadth into which the Lord places us. But its span stretches still farther… Christian liturgy is always a cosmic liturgy.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 151

Reflection – ‘You have set my feet in a broad place.’ It is hard for us to grasp at times just how big the Christian religion is. We show up at church on Sunday, and there’s boring old Fr. X. or nice-but-not-too-spectacular Fr. Y. or maybe it will be Fr. Z. who we really like and who preaches really well… and then there’s boring old us and our usual problems and complaints and trials, worn thin and smooth with time…

And there’s Mrs. G. who annoys us, Mr. R who is a bit odd, A, B, C, and D who we like but who (really) are nothing too special. And (oh yes,) there’s S and T praying away over in the corner who are really quite holy—always nice to have a saint or two on the premises!

And the music is so-so or OK or terrible, perhaps, and the church itself is either nice or ugly, depending on who you ask, and the readings and prayers are what they are, familiar with time and usage and perhaps not too closely listened to…

Cosmic? Are you kidding me? Maybe closer to comic some days, but cosmic? Really?

Yeah, really. We little ordinary mediocre (perhaps) people doing this humble ordinary liturgical thing which we may or may not do very well—this is the cosmic liturgy in its essence.

The very stars and nebulae and galaxies are gathered together in the great Collect of the Mass. The very particles and quanta, the sub-atomic level of reality, is joining us in singing the great doxology. The readings, well or badly delivered, resonate off of wood and stone, marble and glass, and are carried on the air to the ends of the earth.

All creation is offered in the bread and wine. The whole universe revolves around the altar, that still point in a changing world where Christ Himself enters, blesses, breaks, transforms. The medievals were right, after all: the earth is the center of the universe. All the spheres of the heaven rotate around this one moment, this one place, this one Offering, this one act of worship and encounter.

All creation, the whole cosmos, flows from and flows towards the Word of God, made visible and tangible in Christ the Lord. All creation, then, is made what it should be, brought to its completion, its consummation, its great nuptial fulfillment, in every Mass, in the one Mass, the one offering of Christ to the Father, poured out as love and food for the world. The whole cosmos is set to right, is put in order, as that little container of bread and little chalice of wine is brought to the altar and touched and transubstantiated by Christ before our very eyes.

This is our holy Catholic faith, and this is why (of course!) it’s so important that we ‘do’ the Mass, at least our minute part in the Mass, with all the reverence, care, hard work for beauty, that we can muster. We are so very little, and God is so very big, and what He is doing in Christ, in the Church, in the priest (boring old Fr. X or whoever), is so very, very big.

Cosmic… and yes, comic, in fact, in the deeper sense of the word. This is the great ‘happy ending’ of the universe, to be offered up to Christ, made one with Him, and blessed from the heart of the Trinity in this encounter with love.

And that’s what we do in church every Sunday - that's the broad place where the Lord has set our feet. Cool, eh?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Crazy Messy Humanity

On the one hand we find ourselves before a strictly metaphysical image of God: God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape.

We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God's relation to man and man's relation to God. Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration. But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one. As Saint Paul says: “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17).

Deus Caritas Est

Reflection -  Well, my weeks of family ministry are over for the year, now that I have completed both my Cana Colony week and Nazareth week. I always look forward to this time of the year and that particular variety of priestly ministry. Besides being a lot of fun, I have a great love for families and children and the whole messy, maddening, massively difficult vocation of marriage and family life.

I think marriage, for me as a celibate, points me to something very deep about God and the whole reality of God and man, this strange messy, maddening, massively difficult reality of Life itself and how God and we are wrapped up together in this mystery. God is love; God loves us; God unites himself to us in love.

How easy it is to say all these things. How clichéd they become, how trite. But the reality of it is anything but. At the heart of reality, the heart of humanity, the heart of life, is the fact that we are made for a relationship, that this Other stands before us, above us, all about us, and beckons us out of ourselves into a passionate love affair, not with this woman or that man, but with the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the maker of heaven and earth.

The image of marriage then, and its lived out messy reality, is central to the whole meaning and point and purpose and essential reality of my life as a celibate and every human beings life as a person. God summons us out of ourselves and towards Him, and in this summoning there is union, the two do become one flesh, one heart, one mind, and out of that union does come a bliss beside which sexual consummation is small, and a fruitfulness beside which the begetting of a hundred children pales in comparison.

And of course this bliss and this fruitfulness is what every human being, married, celibate, single, is called to, although we who are consecrated to celibacy are invited to make this a visible concrete reality in our whole way of life.

But the point is not celibacy—the point is God! God’s love, God’s passion, and God’s action in taking us to Himself—this is the great mystery of humanity. It is a mystery we will not fully grasp (or perhaps even grasp much at all) until we see Him in heaven. But it is there nonetheless.

The strange and beautiful aspect for me is that the married couples I know who are trying to live a faithful Catholic marriage embody this mystery in a very nitty-gritty way. All the dirty diapers from babies and dirty looks from teenagers, all the toil of inter-marital communication—the call to forgiveness, to understanding, to listening, all the endless routine of household work and financial stress, all the constant, ceaseless, overwhelming demands that require you to forget yourself and serve the other(s), to put everyone else’s needs before your own—all of this reveals something so very deep about God, about Christ, and about the human vocation.

It is beautiful, and that’s why I love families so much, in all their crazy messy humanity. So I heave a sigh of regret at being done with family camp ministry for another year, and plunge back today into my own version of crazy messy humanity in the MH community of love. Talk to you all again tomorrow.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

This Post is About Sex

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011.
The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images. God's relationship with Israel is described using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage; idolatry is thus adultery and prostitution. Here we find a specific reference—as we have seen—to the fertility cults and their abuse of eros, but also a description of the relationship of fidelity between Israel and her God. The history of the love-relationship between God and Israel consists, at the deepest level, in the fact that he gives her the Torah, thereby opening Israel's eyes to man's true nature and showing her the path leading to true humanism. It consists in the fact that man, through a life of fidelity to the one God, comes to experience himself as loved by God, and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness—a joy in God which becomes his essential happiness: “Whom do I have in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you ... for me it is good to be near God” (Ps 73 [72]:25, 28).

Deus Caritas Est 9

Reflection – “The Church should get out of the sex business.” I still remember one of the MH staff quoting that to me years ago, words spoken to her by her brother. The Church’s teachings on sex and marriage have never been easy to obey; in the past fifty years they have become for many incomprehensible, unacceptable, even ridiculous. Since no one (hardly) even is willing to entertain the Church’s teachings on these matters, why doesn’t the Church stop making itself ridiculous (religulous?) and just drop the whole subject? The gross and widely publicized infidelity of a few of the Church’s priests and bishops doesn’t help the cause.

This we all know. In this passage from the encyclical, though, we see a glimmer of why the Church just cannot do it. We can’t get out of the ‘sex business’ for a simple reason: sex is not a business!

It is not a commodity, a good to be used and abused, a unit of exchange among human beings, a bargaining chip in relationships, a field of the endless power struggle between men and women and all variations therein. Sex as a business is a depressing reflection of how we fallen human beings actually think of it and what we do with it, though, isnʼt it?

Sex is in truth a reflection, we learn from the prophets, of the very nature of God, and his disposition towards humanity. It is a deeply theological reality in its essence. The nuptial imagery of Hosea, Ezekiel, Isaiah is not a tangential, secondary reference in the Old Testament. Rather, it is a deepening of a theme introduced in Genesis 2 – the nuptial joy of Adam and Eve mirroring God’s joy in his creation, a joy which finds its summation in his making man and woman ‘in his own image’.

This nuptial joy, this erotic theme of the Bible, finds its summation and glory in Christ, revealed as the Bridegroom, the one in whom the union of God and the human person is consummated – made complete, brought to its deepest realization this side of paradise.

And this is why we just cannot relax our sexual ethos into the modern laissez faire attitude. Sex is this stubbornly incarnate element of our humanity which is supposed to reveal to us, in our most deeply fleshly experience of life, something deep about the truth of God.

Sex, therefore must occur in a faithful covenantal relationship that is open to life. Otherwise it does not communicate the truth of God and becomes a sort of incarnational heresy. And this is the great tragedy of our modern age – the very place where we are meant to enter into the deep truth of God’s love has become a place of business, of selfishness, of something else, anyhow – some kind of extension of egoism or self-will. God made us, and it, for something better, something much, much better.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Religion and Politics

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011.
We have raised the question: can our encounter with the God who in Christ has shown us his face and opened his heart be for us too not just “informative” but “performative”—that is to say, can it change our lives, so that we know we are redeemed through the hope that it expresses? Before attempting to answer the question, let us return once more to the early Church. Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.

Spe Salvi 4

Reflection – The distinction between ‘informative’ and ‘performative’ is something Pope Benedict has explained earlier in the encyclical. It means something I referred to a couple posts ago - that the Christian revelation is not just interesting (maybe) data about God and the world, but that it does something to us. It changes us, or it least it is meant to, and if we receive it sincerely, it most certainly will, for that is its very nature.

In this passage we touch upon the delicate and complex question of the political ramifications of Christianity. It is important to read this passage correctly; a quick or careless reading could make it sound like the Holy Father is removing Christianity from the sphere of political change or liberation entirely.

This is not correct, nor is it what the text says or even implies. Pope Benedict has lived, as a 20th century European, through a great deal of political upheaval and violence. He is well aware of the tendency in the past centuries to locate messianic hope or eschatological expectation in the sphere of political change. If only we can establish the right form of government, the proper social and economic structures, the right leadership… then and only then we will have a just and peaceful society.

He knows well the dangers of this approach. Elsewhere he writes that when politics becomes messianic it promises too much and becomes demonic. The effort to usher in the kingdom through political change, because it is doomed, leads to greater and greater intensity of effort, terminating in violence and tyranny.

It is the encounter with God that changes the human heart that ushers in a world of peace, justice, and love. We are indeed supposed to transform our world; we are supposed to seek justice for the poor, care of the needy, a beautiful society based on social justice and charity. But the primary field of transformation is the human heart; without this inner transformation, which can only come from a living encounter with the God of love, nothing really changes.

In Madonna House terms (and really, our little community is so much of one mind with Pope Benedict) it is the poustinia of the heart where God fashions us into a sobornost, a unity, so that we can go forth into the world as stranniki—pilgrims—proclaiming the kingdom with our lives. We can thus live as urodivoi (fools), with the foolish generosity of divine charity rooted in the deep interior molchanie (silence) of God (see Madonna House Publications for details of these words and their meaning!). That, and not this or that political or economic program, is the hope of the world.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ecclesia Delenda Est!

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011.

The thirst for freedom is the form in which the yearning for redemption and the feeling of unredemption and alienation make their voices heard today. The call for freedom demands an existence uncramped by prior givens that keep me from fully realizing myself and throw up external obstacles to my chosen path…  The limits that the Church erects seem doubly burdensome because they reach into man’s most personal and most intimate depths. For the church’s rules for ordering life are far more than a set of regulations to keep the shoulder-to-shoulder traffic of humanity as far as possible from collision. They inwardly affect my course in life, telling me how I am supposed to understand and shape my freedom. They demand of me decisions that cannot be made without painful renunciation. Is this not intended to deny us the sweetest fruits in the garden of life? Is not the way into the wide open closed by the restrictive confines of so many commandments and prohibitions? Is not thought kept from reaching its full stature just as much as the will is? must not liberation consist in breaking out of such immature dependency? And would not the only real reform be to rid ourselves of the whole business?

Called to Communion

Reflection – Ratzinger shows in this passage how well he understands the modern world. He had, after all, been a university professor in 1968, when student riots swept across Europe. The soixant-huitards and their anomic anti-authoritarianism would define the next half-century in European intellectual and cultural life.

Ecclesia delenda est – the Church must be destroyed – this is the spirit of the age. It tells us what to do, and this is intolerable. For anyone to tell me what to do is intolerable. Ecrasez l’infame! Voltaire’s cry rings out louder than ever today. How dare—how dare!—the Church tell me what to do.

It is an interesting phenomenon, though. The indignation at the Church’s moral teachings does not seem to extend to other groups and individuals who have their own ideas of what we should do.

For example, the environmental movement tells us what to do every day of the week, and even indoctrinates schoolchildren to spy on and hector their parents. The government never tires of telling us what to do: what to eat, how to exercise, what we can and cannot do on our own private property (to use a quaint old-fashioned term!). The secular gurus – Oprah and all that – never ever cease for a day doling out instructions on how to live, shop, love, budget, what to read, what to think, etc. etc. etc.

And yet, when the Church, which has no police force, little indoctrination of children these days (alas), and nothing remotely approaching Oprah or Dr. Phil’s Neilson ratings, tells people what to do, there is outrage. Or, rather, OUTRAGE!!!!!!!!!

Hmmm. One might be tempted to suspect that the Church’s advice on the meaning and mores of life, unlike all of the above parallel magisteria of secularity, actually hits something in us, something deep and true, some innate knowledge of God and the truth of human life that we cannot quite suppress. So when Holy Mother Church tells us not to fornicate, or contracept, or abort (I mention these, not because they are the only or even most important teachings, but because they are the ones that cause the most OUTRAGE), it is intolerable.

We’re trying to forget; don’t remind us. We’re working on our denial; stop bothering us. We’re hardening our hearts against truth in favor of self-will; don’t touch those places in us that still know, a little bit, the truth of life.

I can’t think of any other reason why the Church’s teachings provoke such anger and rage when the far more intrusive and omni-present teachings of everyone else provoke none. Can you?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Bitterness Towards God Might Be a Good Thing

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011.

The world of the Bible presents us with a new image of God. In surrounding cultures, the image of God and of the gods ultimately remained unclear and contradictory. In the development of biblical faith, however, the content of the prayer fundamental to Israel, the Shema, became increasingly clear and unequivocal: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Dt 6:4). There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who is thus the God of all. Two facts are significant about this statement: all other gods are not God, and the universe in which we live has its source in God and was created by him. Certainly, the notion of creation is found elsewhere, yet only here does it become absolutely clear that it is not one god among many, but the one true God himself who is the source of all that exists; the whole world comes into existence by the power of his creative Word. Consequently, his creation is dear to him, for it was willed by him and “made” by him. The second important element now emerges: this God loves man.

Deus Caritas Est, 9

Reflection -  We who come from a culture shaped by millennia of monotheistic Biblical faith often find it hard to imagine the world of polytheistic paganism. God for us, even if we are not especially religious or educated, is (if he exists) the Big Guy, the Head Honcho, the Man, the One.

This sense of multiple gods and goddesses reigning over different corners of the world, of competing forces treating humans like chess pieces or like toys to be played with and then tossed away, of a universe springing out of chaos, bloodshed, and strife and only precariously held in balance by gods of limited power—all of this we might know from our reading of Homer, the Greek myths, the great tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, or various other sources.

But we know it from within our own deeply ingrained monotheistic conditioning. I use that word deliberately as opposed to ‘faith’, as I am thinking here of people who may have little if any religion but who nonetheless still bear the cultural inheritance of Christianity.

I think of people who have little faith and less religion, but who have a deep bitterness towards God for the injustices, evils, and sufferings of the world and in their own life. Yet why should they be bitter towards an 'uncaring' God… unless they have a deep sense that He should not be so? Only in very late paganism, the paganism that frankly was wide open to the proclamation of Christianity, does that note of bitterness towards the gods appear. A normal pagan would never imagine that the gods should be other than what they are: capricious, vengeful, bloodthirsty little two-bit despots running a sort of cosmic protection racket – ‘nice world you’ve got here… shame if something happened to it.’

And even if there is a good god who he liked, the pious pagan was well aware that some other god or goddess, not so nice, could always seize the reins of power at least temporarily and get a few licks in.

The Jew, the Christian, and the post-Christian deeply know that this will not do with our God. He made it, He’s the only Show in town, and He is supposed to love us and be on our side. This generates for us the fearsome problem of evil and suffering, which is no small matter, and which (at least in this post, which is too long already!) I have no intention of getting into.

For now, it is important to realize that our very concept of God and the world and their inter-relation is wildly different from the non-Biblical one, and that this Biblical conception, while it generates its own questions and quandaries, opens us up to a genuine encounter with the Reality behind all realities, an encounter that at least promises to be an embrace of love and care.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Breaking the Stronghold of the Self

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011.

[Speaking of Church as Body of Christ we see that] the Semitic concept of the ‘corporate personality’ stands in the background; this concept is expressed, for example, in the idea that we are all Adam, a single man writ large. In the modern era, with the apotheosis of the subject, this notion became entirely incomprehensible. The ‘I’ was now a fortified stronghold with impassable walls. Descartes’ attempt to derive the whole of philosophy from the cogito – because only the ‘I’ still appeared accessible in any way – is typical in this regard. Today the concept of subject is gradually unraveling; it is becoming evident that the ‘I’ locked securely in itself does not exist…”
Called to Communion, 35

Reflection – Ah yes – individualism! The air we breathe, the ocean in which we swim, the first principle of life, at least in the formerly Christian West. In Madonna House, where we live what most people consider a fairly intense communal life, we’ve had a large number of Korean guests over the last ten years or so. They have enriched our lives in many ways--regular infusions of kimchi among them!

More seriously, we’ve had many opportunities to reflect on the differences between the individualistic culture of North America and the communal cultures more typical of Asia. What for us is an intensely, almost intrusively communal life for most of them barely registers as communal life at all. It has been good for us to learn and reflect that modern individualism (which we cannot help carrying within us, children of our culture that we are) is far from being the only way of being human in the world.

Individualism in fact poses a serious problem for the proclamation of Christ to the world. Ratzinger in this passage expresses it well: when the ‘I’ is everything, a fortified stronghold, the measure of all reality, the beginning and end of personal identity, then the call to find one’s deepest truth, one’s most essential reality in the Word and Love of Another is either an outrage or a complete cipher. How is it even possible to receive one’s life from another? I am I and Jesus is Jesus – both of us locked in our subjective realities. Isn’t it some kind of sick co-dependence for me to look to Him for everything? Shouldn’t I grow up?

The path out of this impasse with Christianity is the path out of individualism. We are in fact made for others; we are in fact made to experience our human dignity and freedom in our life with and for others. We are in fact constituted as a self, a person, a subject who can choose to love or not love, serve or not serve, by being first known, loved, and served as an object by the One who made us.
That this One who made us is so intensely relational, yet One, within His Triune Self,  implies that He has made us to be this one body, this one collective group, in Him. Yet it is not the collective we have rightly come to dread of the soviet, the communist collectivist Hell where the individual is crushed in the name of the spurious whole.

The collective of the Body of Christ, because it comes from the Heart of Love, dwells in this Heart, and is oriented always and everywhere towards this Heart, this love, crushes no one. In fact, it is the pathway to true life and joy, which we cannot experience as isolated individuals. We are made to be part of a family, a group, a society; only in God can this society be one in which our true and deepest selves flourish and grow to their full measure.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Way to Rational Bliss

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011. 

Theology exists only through awareness that the circle of our own thinking has been broken, that our thinking has, so to say, been given a hand and helped upward, beyond what it could achieve for itself… The advantage given to the seeking spirit is the Word, which is quite reasonable. In the procedure of science, the idea comes before the word. It is translated into the word.  But here, where our own thinking fails, down to us from the eternal reason is thrown the Word, in which is hidden a splinter of its splendor—as much as we can bear, as much as we need, as much as human speech can encompass.”

Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 31-2

Reflection – The ‘New Atheism’ of recent years (the Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennett/Harris variety) has suggested that religious faith and human reason are utterly unrelated, even opposing elements in the human person, and that one has to choose between them. To be a religious person means some kind of foreswearing of the use of one’s intellect; to be a scientific, rational person means allowing nothing into one’s consciousness except what empirical testing can verify.

A very different picture of the relationship between faith and reason has been a major theme in Ratzinger’s writings, one which will show up on this blog periodically. His presentation has many facets and nuances, and displays precisely the kind of subtle reasoning skills that the Dawkinses of the world deny religious believers are capable of.

In this passage we see the awareness that scientific reason, what in philosophy is known as postivisitic reason, has its limits. It is limited to singular, repeatable, quantifiable phenomena, and cannot extend to the whole of reality, to questions of value, purpose, meaning. Only a deeper type of reasoning can even begin to broach these sorts of matters, the reasoning of the metaphysician, the ethicist, the poet, the sage.

Ratzinger is aware, however, that these deeper thinkers themselves have failed to penetrate by their own lights the depths of the mystery of reality. And so comes the breaking of ‘the circle of our thinking’ – this Christian conviction that Divine Thought – the Word of God – has been thrown down from Heaven to us, to elevate our minds to where they could never go of their own power.
It is a beautiful vision: God giving us a Word, the Word which is Christ, which bears to us as much of the hidden splendor of Reality as we can bear or comprehend, so that our minds can in Him be broken open to the infinite depths of the Godhead. And from this breaking open of the human limitations of intellect, we can attain new heights of reasoning, of insight, of penetration into the truth of things.

Faith meets reason and takes it where it cannot go. Reason, far from being negated by faith, is empowered by it. Human reason, informed by the Word of God, begins a pilgrimage into the very heart of the Trinity, a pilgrimage barely begun on earth, and which will continue in rational bliss for eternity.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Seeds of Totalitarianism

I’m away this week doing ministry at a family camp not affiliated with Madonna House. As I did when I was at Cana Colony, I am re-posting some good old posts from my first month of blogging, before anyone knew I was here. Hope you enjoy these voices from the distant past of July 2011.

The scientific façade [of totalitarianism] hides a dogmatic intolerance that views spirit as produced by matter and morals as produced by circumstances. According to its dictates, morality should be defined and practiced on the basis of society’s purposes, and everything is deemed moral that helps to usher in the final state of happiness.

This dogmatism completely subverts the values that build Europe. It also breaks with the entire moral tradition of humankind by rejecting the existence of values independent of the goals of material progress. Depending on the circumstances, anything can become legitimate and even necessary; anything can become moral in the new sense of the term. Even humankind itself can be treated as an instrument, since the individual does not matter, only the future, the cruel deity adjudicating over one and all… the greatest catastrophe encountered by such systems was not economic. It was the starvation of souls and the destruction of the moral conscience.

“The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” In Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, and Islam, 72-3

Reflection – Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a country ravaged by totalitarian Nazism, and lived the great part of his life as a cleric confronted by the Iron Curtain bisecting this same country, and all of Europe. Understandably, he has written quite a bit over the decades about the confrontation of Christianity with totalitarian ideologies.

Totalitarianism outside of China, North Korea, and a handful of other states, is in abeyance in the last decades. But he points out here that the underlying spiritual impulse of these ideologies is far from absent among us. When we determine that  nothing, but nothing, matters except material happiness and prosperity, that there is no moral rule we will even acknowledge, let alone keep, if it will lessen our immediate prospects of these, that everything, every standard, law, right, must be sacrificed for the immediate good of the individual or society as a whole—well, when this is afoot in our lands, then totalitarianism is not so much in abeyance, at least in prospect.

Can we torture to obtain information to make ourselves secure from attack? Can we kill human embryos to harvest their stem cells for medical research that may cure this or that disease? Can we silence dissenting voices on contentious social matters such as same-sex marriage with threats of fines and costly legal actions? Is society, represented by the power of the state, of course, allowed to do just about anything to advance whatever goals it sets before itself?

It seems to me that many in our own societies would answer yes to these questions—certainly, if they were being honest. Behind that ‘yes’, however, is a view that the universe is essentially amoral, that moral rules or laws are some added and optional feature to reality. Also behind that ‘yes’ is an attitude to suffering that sees it as intolerable, as utterly unacceptable. Better to massacre embryonic human beings by the million, better to torture everyone, better to do anything, than to have to endure suffering.

There is a deep spiritual crisis in all this. We are made by God to live in conformity to his will and being; suffering is a necessary presence in every human life in our current situation. To reject these propositions places us on a road that terminates in the Gulag, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the camps of the Third Reich. We are a long, long way from the terminus of that road, but we must be clear that that’s where it leads.

And if we are that road, there is only one human course open to us. Repent, and believe the good news.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gone for the Week!

Well, I'm off again, this time to Nazareth family camp, which I recommend highly to any Catholic family.
As I did when I was at Cana, I will be re-posting old posts from a year ago when I had many ideas and few readers. Now that my readership is up quite a bit, some of youse new guys might enjoy reading some of those older posts.
Back on Sunday - talk to you all then!

This Strange Passionate Mercy

We have seen that God's eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God's love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.

Deus Caritas Est 10

Reflection – Powerful words here. Hosea is a powerful prophet, and the Pope’s meditation on Hosea takes him to a powerful place. God’s love so great ‘that it turns God against himself’ – this is a powerful image.

It seems to me that all of our lives spring from this, whether we know it or not. The initial reality of God’s creating love, out of which comes His choice to make you and me in the first place. And then, as we all fall into some form of adultery, some type of running after other gods and other goods, some breaking of the covenant, this strange passionate mercy which comes after us, descends upon us, blazes around us.

This is the foundational experience of faith. Experience is a loaded word, I realize. I don’t suggest that everyone has a mystical experience before they come to believe (clearly, not), or some kind of big emotional high or something. But there is something… perhaps in the quiet hidden depths of the soul, or in the outward concreteness of the confessional or the altar. Something, some way in which our poverty, brokenness and sin is… met. God’s love, and His passionate flaming mercy, and from this we can build our lives in and with Him.

What is revealed in this Hosea passage is indeed so very strange. God’s heart recoiling within his breast, God seemingly at war with Himself. Imagery, poetry, anthropomorphism? Well, OK, but even so, this is a true revelation of God here. Pope Benedict is right to see in this something that will only become clear in the death of Christ on the Cross. God’s love which is so powerful and overwhelming, so all-encompassing that it brings Him from heaven to earth and down into the pit of hell, even. Death itself is not too far to go for the living God and his love for us.

God is un-godded by his love for us, in a sense. That is, the strict separation between God and man, which on our part is so important to maintain out of reverence and proper humility, He has no problem in bridging. God’s love and mercy is so utterly utter—this strange passionate mercy—that He does ‘ungodly’ things like suffer and die and descend to hell for us. And so we come to know in this ‘ungodly God’ (paradox alert!) the true depths of who God in fact is.

Oh the depths of God, the unfathomable depths of his mercy and love! We will spend all eternity plumbing those depths and plummeting into them. Here and now, they provide for us the only sure foundation on which to build our lives, the only true and solid rock on which the house of humanity sits secure.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Mark Your Calendars!

I have decided to announce a Year of Faith. It will begin on 11 October 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and it will end on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, on 24 November 2013. The starting date of 11 October 2012 also marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a text promulgated by my Predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, with a view to illustrating for all the faithful the power and beauty of the faith… Moreover, the theme of the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that I have convoked for October 2012 is “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”. This will be a good opportunity to usher the whole Church into a time of particular reflection and rediscovery of the faith.

It is not the first time that the Church has been called to celebrate a Year of Faith. My venerable Predecessor the Servant of God Paul VI announced one in 1967, to commemorate the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul on the 19th centenary of their supreme act of witness….  The great upheavals of that year made even more evident the need for a celebration of this kind. It concluded with the Credo of the People of God, intended to show how much the essential content that for centuries has formed the heritage of all believers needs to be confirmed, understood and explored ever anew, so as to bear consistent witness in historical circumstances very different from those of the past.

Porta Fidei 4

Reflection – Mark your calendars! The Year of Faith is coming—what are YOU going to do about it?

These ‘years’ of the Church, of which there have been quite a few over the last decade or so, are interesting creatures. Remember the ‘year of St. Paul’ (2008) or the ‘year of prayer for priests’ (2009?) or the ‘year of the Eucharist’ (2006)? What is the Church doing when it pronounces these years, and what are we supposed to do about them?

Well, the document Porta Fidei which I’m going through paragraph at a time will answer what the Church is doing. It is doing what it always does, or at least tries to do. It is calling us to conversion and to deepening of our commitment to Christ. Whether it is by delving into the apostolic spirit of St. Paul, the gift par excellence of the Eucharist, or praying for us priests to become the saints we’re supposed to be, these years are a vehicle to communally plunge deeper into the mystery of Christ and the faith.

And so it is with this year of faith. In timing it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism, it seems to me that Pope Benedict is making a very basic point that needs to be made. Namely, the essential unity and necessary connection between a living, vibrant, apostolic, missionary faith and an adherence to the deposit of faith which takes concrete form in the doctrines of the Church.

Too often in the past 50 years we have disconnected these two or even opposed them. ‘Away with all the formulas, creeds, dogmas, and rules! Vatican II called us to a living relationship with Christ!’ This is a common attitude, especially among Catholics of a certain age (cough-Boomers-cough). (Incidentally I am precisely one year too young to qualify as a Boomer and so can adopt a Gen-X pose of slacker hipsterdom and ironic cool.)

Anyhow, enough inter-generational politics…

The Pope makes the point, by linking Vatican II and the Catechism, that without content, without doctrine, without a concrete binding dogmatic core, the living relationship with Christ becomes a mere abstraction. Christ becomes a projection of our own egos and ids, our own devices and desires. Only when we are bound to the Church’s teaching do we break out of this and enter into a true living relationship with the True Christ.

The Church in its teaching office plays, then, a necessary role in bringing us to Christ. Not the Christ of our imagining, not the Christ of our making, but simply Christ. And She does this, not exclusively, but certainly by her teaching office which is encapsulated in the Catechism. And because we enter through this into a real relationship with the real Christ, we can go forth into the world with apostolic courage and a deep concern for the needs and cares of our time.

Mark your calendars – the Year of Faith is coming! What are YOU going to do about it???

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Easy Compromises Benefit No One

The Gospel is addressed, not merely to individuals, but to the culture itself. Evangelization is not simply adaptation to the culture, either; nor is it dressing up the Gospel with cultural elements, along superficial lines, so that with modified figures of speech... the job is done. Faith is always open to bridge-building; it accepts what is good. But it is also a sign of opposition to whatever in the culture bars the door against the gospel. Thus, it has always been critical of culture also, and it must continue fearlessly and steadfastly to critique culture, especially today.... Easy compromises benefit no one.
On the Way to Jesus Christ, 48-50

Reflection – Someone posted this on my Facebook page, and it seemed topical. It speaks to something I’ve been personally wrestling with on and off on this blog. I am a Canadian, which means I’m culturally predispositioned towards being nice, conciliatory, peaceable in my dealings with others. I don’t really enjoy having fights with people. In Canada we all get cooped up inside for six-seven months of every year, so our national character is to search for peaceful co-existence at all costs, as the alternative is freezing to death.

At the same time, I am French-Canadian, and have the full expression of the Gallic temperament: fiery, passionate, heavily invested in ideas and philosophies, extravagant in speech. Furthermore, I care deeply about certain grave social issues and ills, especially those around human life and sexuality. I have deep convictions, and am deeply convinced that our current social norms and practices are, in fact, killing people, and not only in the direct reality of abortion.

But then there is Internet culture, which is polarizing, argumentative, confrontational, and quick to degrade every discussion down to nasty personal wrangling and invective. And of course this culture of division and anger is not limited to the Internet—our public and private discourse is increasingly quarrelsome and vicious. As a Christian I reject that mode of discourse and strive to find another way.

But finally, just to lay out the full contours of my challenge, I am a Catholic priest, and have a most solemn obligation to present the whole Catholic faith as it has been handed to me—not my opinions about it or my own bright ideas, but the Catholic faith. I happen to agree with the Catholic faith (good thing!), which makes it easier. But I need to do that on this blog no less than in the pulpit or in the confessional…

Anyhow, none of this is to whine about how hard it is. I voluntarily started this blog, and I love it – I just said to my superior yesterday that this blog is not ‘work’ so much as an really enjoyable hobby. But the challenge is real, nonetheless. It’s a good challenge. We have to find ways to talk about things that matter, things that people have very different opinions about, and find ways to speak strongly and seriously about matters that are, in fact, strong serious matters.

So Ratzinger in the above passage certainly encourages me, and I hope he explains here why we cannot just ‘be nice’ all the time. Contemporary culture needs to be evangelized, and evangelization does have this aspect of prophetic confrontation and critique. I’m always struck by Peter’s first homily on Pentecost Sunday (Acts ) where he says, among other things, ‘You killed Jesus! But God raised him up…’ Not a feel good homily, eh? Not very Canadian…

Our culture, our society is killing a lot of people. And it is despoiling the innocence of millions more—I just read a story the other day about ‘sexy’ clothing being marketed to six-year old girls. And it is deadening the capacity to think, to love, to commit, of millions upon millions more—I’m thinking of all the young men captivated by pornography these days. And… so much else is going on, but again I’m Canadian and I really don’t want to rant.

But, as the Lord says in Ps 50:21, ‘You do this, and should I keep silent?’ We have to find words to say what is wrong, what is evil and destructive and harmful in the world today, or how else will the world ever repent? In my case, because of my intellectual bent, I also search for ways to present the underlying philosophical errors-relativism, positivism, atheism-that drive many of these destructive forces.

So this blog post is a bit of an apologia pro bloggo mea. I will continue, off and on, to struggle to say hard things on this blog. I will struggle to say them charitably and to use language carefully, but say them I will. Let us pray for one another and for the world, and for all the innocent victims of our culture who have been deprived of having a voice in these discussions.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Folly of Faith, The Path of Truth

When we live close to God, our sight is restored: when we use our eyes, they bear witness to his truth. Pascal’s advice to his friend may seem skeptical, but it is correct, begin with the folly of faith, and you will attain knowledge. This folly is wisdom; this folly is the path of truth.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 115-6

Reflection – Pascal’s wager may not be entirely familiar to everyone. He suggested to a skeptical friend that essentially we are throwing the dice on whether God exists or not. If He does not exist, and we act as if He does we have risked little, living a good decent religious life and then passing into non-existence. Meanwhile, if He does exist and we act as if He does not, we risk everything—eternal damnation for the sake of a few passing pleasures. He concluded his advice by suggesting his friend essentially ‘fake it until he makes it’—go through the motions of faith and religious observance, and eventually as he does so faith will come to swallow up his skepticism.

So yes, Pascal’s wager does seem cynical, and always has to me. It has also never seemed all that persuasive. If I was a non-believer I would counter that spending my life—my only life, my few short years of existence—serving and obeying a non-existent God seems to risk everything I’ve got with no possibility of return.

Anyhow, the debate around Pascal’s wager and its legitimacy as an argument for faith has gone on for centuries. Ratzinger is picking out just the one aspect of it, however, for commendation. Namely, that as we go through the motions, as we live as if God does exist and act accordingly, we do come to see the truth of His existence.

The folly of faith leading to the path of truth: this is a paradox of almost Chestertonian scope. It’s as if we are asked for directions to some nice ordinary destination—the corner store, say—and begin by saying, ‘Well, first you have to jump off this cliff, but at the bottom of the cliff there’s a nice level footpath that takes you straight there.’

We begin with wild assertions—God is three and one! Christ is God and man! Christ is risen from the dead! God’s Spirit dwells in us by faith and the waters of baptism!—and having jumped off those formidable cliffs, can only then say with courage and conviction that 2+2=4 and that little boys and girls should keep their promises, and that life is a good thing and should not be thrown away or destroyed.

This is our Christian claim, and it is being borne out by experience. The most obvious and banal perceptions of reality, ‘common sense’, rest upon wild mysticism and divine mystery. As society increasingly rejects the mysticism and the mystery, common sense has flown out the window. Already we destroy lives by the million each year, promises mean nothing to little boys, little girls and (alas!) big boys and girls either, and I’m sure 2+2=4 is up for the chop next…

Well, I’m not going to rant about the world and its evils today (sighs of relief from the readership…). It is this strange conviction that the folly of faith leads to the path of truth that I want to focus on. That drawing near to God and calling out to God is the pre-condition for seeing things as they are.

If we allow this, even for the sake of argument, the implication is that we are all in the position of the man in the Gospel who is blind and begging at the side of the road. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” This is the human race, you see. We do not see rightly, until God touches our eyes. We do not know what’s what, until we cry out to God for mercy. We don’t know that 2+2=4 (symbolically speaking) until we confess that 1=3 and that death leads to life and that Christ is, in fact, risen from the dead.

Confessing these unfathomable and invisible mysteries, we can then see all things in the light of God’s truth, and enter into and rejoice in the true beauty and goodness of all created things. If anyone is reading this who doesn’t have faith—well, maybe Pascal’s wager is not such a bad risk after all. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Going to the Dark Side

The mutilation of reason means that we cannot consider it to be rational at all. Hence, it is incomplete and can recover its health only through reestablishing contact with its roots. A tree without roots dries up…

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 43

Reflection – This passage goes down a path often traveled on this blog. Still, I suppose it bears repeating; Ratzinger certainly thinks so, as he has often returned to it in his writings. The reclamation of reason and its ordered relationship to faith has been a major theme of his, from his Introduction to Christianity in the 1960s to the Regensburg Address just a few years ago.

The mutilation of reason he speaks of here is that wrought by logical positivism, which limits reason solely and exclusively to the scientifically verifiable. If a statement cannot be proven in a laboratory or expressed in a mathematical formula, it is irrational, meaningless.

As I pointed out just a few days ago, of course this means that positivism itself is irrational and meaningless, as its own truth claims cannot be so tested out. Put that way, logical positivism is shown to be a fairly silly theory, self-refuting in its first principles.

And yet positivism stubbornly remains with us, and seems persuasive to many. The New Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, etc.) is founded on it. And this is points to a darker reality, I’m afraid.

Now when I begin to go down this road of exploring this darker reality, I need to say that little of this happens on the level of conscious choice and deliberate decision. There are secret chambers and depths in all our hearts where all sorts of less than creditable impulses and drives reside. We don’t always know why we think and act as we do, and I do definitely mean we here.

Why is positivism, that ridiculous theory, so persuasive to so many? I think there is a desire not to think too hard or much at all about the deep questions of life. Thinking might lead to insight; insight might lead to understanding; understanding might lead to conviction; conviction might require… repentance.

And I do think this is at least part of the picture. We want to do what we want to do. Don’t we? Nobody likes to repent, likes to change. I know I don’t. Change is hard. And if we think too hard about what we’re doing and what it all means and whether or not there’s a God in heaven who might have an Opinion or two on the subject, then we might conclude that we have to change.

So there is positive value for us in positivism. That voice that comes in right away in the reasoning process and says, “Oh well, nobody can know anything about these things anyhow! Hey, there’s a really cool book by Richard Dawkins! Read that instead! Positivism rocks! Now go back to your x-rated websites…”

Like I say, I don’t think this is exactly a conscious thought process for most people. Just a curious reluctance to do any serious thinking about life’s deeper questions, a resistance to beginning a process that might force us to change our behaviors, and a spurious clever-sounding theory that gives us intellectual cover to justify that lack of thought.

But as Ratzinger says, a tree without roots dries up. Reason unfounded in rationality dies. As I have often said here, the Christian version of reality gives a cogent coherent account for human reason and its probative force. Atheist materialism does not. And without some rational account for reason’s existence and validity, thought becomes pointless and impossible. And I think this is what we are seeing more and more in our culture: an incapacity to think, and an unwillingness to think. So… something to think about, eh?

Monday, July 16, 2012

No Controversy?

In a rare departure for me, not only am I not blogging about Pope Benedict today, but I want to share this video, which I think is really important. The video speaks for itself, so watch this and pass it on if you like it:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Need a Saint!

What faith really means for a man cannot be represented abstractly; it can be made visible only by and in men, who have lived out this attitude to its logical conclusion... by and in such men, and basically only thus, can faith declare clearly what sort of decision it really is… Such men show that faith is fundamentally a particular kind of passion, or, more correctly a kind of love which seizes a man and points the way he must go, even if that way is wearisome.

Faith and the Future, 26

Reflection – Ratzinger is talking here in this early work of his about the saints, and how it is the saints who alone can show us what Christianity really means and is. Our faith is not an abstract system—the systemic bits of it are very much antecedent to the lived heart of the matter. Our faith is not a code of ethics—the moral law is real and must be obeyed at great cost, but it is not the heart of our faith.

Our faith is… well, if Ratzinger is right, I can’t say what our faith is, not on this blog, not in words! I can try to describe it, I guess, in some of the very beautiful people I have known in Madonna House and who I would not hesitate to call saints, leaving any definitive determination about that to the Church, of course. I will confine myself to those who have died, so as not to embarrass the current bunch of saints I’m living with!

There was Mary Pennefather. She was a brilliant woman who suffered from crippling social anxiety all her life, causing her to literally tremble with fear much of the time. In MH her limitations meant she spent her life mending clothes, washing dishes, folding laundry… and praying. And praying, and praying, and praying. Mary was a mighty prayer warrior while doing the most menial ‘low’ tasks there were. And light and grace and peace and beauty flowed forth from her, trembling and all…

Then there was Jim Guinan. A little Irish-American leprechaun of a man, full of Irish charm and wit. His constant stream of (very funny) jokes and teasing concealed an extraordinarily loving and praying heart. Jim simply loved everyone who crossed his path every day, and somehow always found ways to express that love in warmth and personal interest, always accompanied with a joke and a smile. Being around Jim was like warming your hands at a wood stove on a cold winter day – he exuded love and warmth.

Then there was Fr. Gene Cullinane. A brilliant man, a ‘great man’ in his younger days, he had been a pioneer in Canadian social justice circles, an educator and scholar of some reputation. But then God and his beloved Mary picked him up and deposited him at MH in its earliest years when it was a ragtag bunch of suspect Catholic fringe radicals. And so began a great process of simplification, of being little, of doing little things well for God. When I knew Fr. Gene he was an old man entering a time of physical fraility and illness. He spoke very little, but in his silence communicated total dedication, total prayer, total listening to God and an iron determination to obey whatever God asked him. I learned from Fr. Gene what a priest was, although he was past the point of being able to celebrate Mass, give direction, or ‘do’ much priestly ministry. He simply was a priest— a living offering to God. At the end, when I entered his sick room, I always had a powerful urge to genuflect towards his hospital bed—he was like a living tabernacle.

I realize, writing this little portraits, that they communicate little if anything. And those reading who didn’t know these people (i.e. the vast majority of my readers) might say, ‘Well, these were nice people. That’s… nice, I guess.’ The world is full of nice people, actually, and it’s not really a big deal to be nice.

These three (and I could easily go on with another ten – I have been blessed to live among saints, really), were not ‘nice people’, really. Something else flowed through them, something bigger than them. Something not quite human, although it flowed through all their human powers. It cannot be communicated in words; it must be experienced. And those who have known a saint or two know exactly what I’m talking about.

Those of you who haven’t – well, pray that God sends you one. “I need a saint, Lord, pronto, so I can see what our faith is, finally!” Or, hey! “Make me a saint, Lord, so I can live what our faith is, finally, and maybe even show it to others.” Now that’s a prayer…

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Moral Idiocy

Discussions about [the content of theology] remain isolated and losing skirmishes if no consideration is given to the question: Is there, in the course of historical time, a recognizable identity of man with himself? Is there a human ‘nature’? Is there a truth which remains true in every historical time because it is true? The question of hermeneutics is, in the last analysis, the ontological one, the question of the oneness of truth is the multiplicity of its historical manifestations.

Principles of Catholic Theology, 17

Reflection – OK, so we have headed into dry-technical-land here, after yesterday’s sensationalism of drugs and terrorism. It’s worth noting, mind you, that these dry technical questions, remote as they seem to be from our daily experience and thought, can be in fact the key underlying drivers of much contemporary mores and manners.

Here we have the whole question of truth and human nature. Is there such a thing? Do we have any access to it? Is it all just shifting sands and endless plasticity, ‘evolution’, not in the scientific sense but in the broad cultural usage of the term?

As I have said many times on this blog and will continue to say, this strict evolutionary relativistic plastic approach to reality has inherent incoherencies. There is no human nature… and you are wrong, aka ‘inhuman,’ if you say there is. Which is it? Either nothing is particularly human or inhuman or it is.

All standards are mutable and right and wrong are continually evolving… yet (for example) acceptance of same-sex marriage is heralded as ‘progress’ in human morality. Again, which is it? If there are no set standards, there can be no progress. What are we progressing towards? Progress by definition requires a fixed notion of the good. A football team can progress down the field towards the end zone only if that end zone stays put. If some mischievous genie kept moving the end zone after every play, now to the sidelines, then to the concession stands, then to the parking lot, then to the high bleachers, no touchdown will occur. Moving the goalposts—favorite sport of the blogosphere! But it makes any real discussion, and any real understanding of issues, impossible.

So it is in morality. We cannot get ‘better’, morally, unless there is a stable and true good to move towards. And if this stable and true good does not reside in a fixed human nature, some kind of abiding human reality that informs us of what we are to be and how we are to live, then where exactly does it reside? Social consensus? The state? Talk about building your house on shifting sands! Inexorable edicts of an absolute deity? Well, I have no real problem with that, but somehow I doubt that’s what advocates of same sex marriage and abortion rights envisage as the basis for their moral claims.

And so Ratzinger is arguing here that we need to talk on this basic level, lest our debates about this or that issue remain ‘isolated and losing skirmishes’. The question of hermeneutics—that is, the interpretation and understanding of things—resolves to questions of ontology—that is, whether or not there are any ‘things’, really to understand.

If there is no human nature, no abiding truth to man and his life in the world, then in reality we may as well kill and rape and rob and savage one another. We may not want to, because we’re socially conditioned to be nice people, but there’s no serious moral reason not to. We may not want to, because the state will arrest and imprison us, but there’s no serious moral reason not to.

As soon as we say that those actions are wrong, not just socially unacceptable or evolutionally unwise, we are committed to a fixed human nature or to a divine law imposed on us from outside, or both (which is the classical Christian understanding). One either becomes a moral idiot (in the precise etymological sense of that word) or must commit to some form of natural law theory.

I think what I have written here is strictly logical and based on no theological presuppositions or data. I think the conclusions I have come to are fairly unassailable. I would love for some atheist or relativist to come along here and (try to) explain to me why I’m wrong.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fight or Flight

The real untruth of the worldview of which drugs and terrorism are symptoms consists in the reduction of the world to facts and in the narrowing-down of reason to the perception of what is quantitative.

A Turning Point for Europe?,  35

Reflection – This short passage may seem a bit obscure. It may even seem like practically nonsense, a bunch of familiar-type words jumbled together into a single sentence. Whassit mean?

Now of course this is one sentence lifted from a lengthy analysis of the subjects mentioned, namely drugs and terrorism. It’s nice to know that Ratzinger has really engaged with all the manifestations of modernity in his writings. A while ago I mentioned that he has theologized about rock music; here he philosophizes about the drug culture and terrorism.

These two may seem unconnected from one another, especially since the form of terrorism we are most familiar with right now is the Islamist variety. What does the quest for the global caliphate and universal sharia law have to do with toking up? But both drug use and political violence spring from a common source, which Ratzinger deftly identifies here.

Namely, the world of ‘facts’ is a bad world. All we have are facts, ‘the way things are,’ and the way things are is bad, bad, bad. And so, let’s get high. Let’s escape from the way things are into a cloud of artificial bliss. Sure it’s not real, but reality is highly over-rated, right?

Or, let’s blow stuff up. Let’s force the world of facts to change by violent direct action. The lives destroyed by this may or may not be regretted, but the bottom line is that the way things are is intolerable and we must pull it all down around us, tear it to pieces, and make things be some other way.

Flight from reality or fight with reality—drugs and terrorism, two different responses to the same apprehension of things. And Ratzinger rightly links this to the logical positivist approach to reality that I have often discussed on this blog: that all we have are the bare quantifiable facts, that there is no reality outside those facts, and that there can be no reality outside them, and we are all trapped in a world of brute matter and meaningless clashings of particles and energy fields.

Fight or flight—that is all that’s left to us in that positivistic world. Oblivion or destruction—what a choice! And even for those few of my blog readers who are neither raging coke fiends or members of terrorist cells, the ‘fight or flight’ approach to reality may beckon. We can fly into other things besides drugs, into banal entertainments or ceaseless busyness or (Internet users beware!) constant low-level intellectual stimulation. All of this can take us out of reality in ways subtle or not, out of our own hearts and the here and now demands of our lives.

And we can ‘fight’ reality in ways that don’t involve plastic explosives or high jacked airplanes. All the paths of manipulation, dominance, spin, influence peddling, politicking, and the manifold rejections of the moral law and rationalization therein, can be ways of rebelling against reality, bending and shaping it to my specifications and ideas with little regard for the human costs of that rebellion.

Fight or flight—when all we have are bare facts, and those facts are painful and ugly, that’s all we can do. But what, then, is the Christian alternative? It is to go forward towards reality, towards ‘the facts’, and embrace them in love. To meet the world as it is with the love of Christ, a love not our own, but given to us in baptism and fostered in us by the life of prayer and virtue.

This calls us, then, not into oblivion or destruction, but into the passion of faith. Because the world of facts will do to us what it did to Christ; it will crucify us. But because we are not bound by the mere brute facts, because there is a deeper, higher, truer reality around and within us—the nascent kingdom of God—we can enter this passion, this crucifixion.

We do not have to flee from reality or attack it. We can love it, and in loving it with the heart of Christ, enter into His work of transforming reality into Reality, facts into The Fact, meeting brute matter with the power of the Holy Spirit and in that power raising up a fallen world into the new world, the new heavens and the new earth, coming to us not in violence or terror or fantasy or escape, but as a gift of God descending from Him out of love for us.