Wednesday, October 31, 2012

After Twenty-Five (Billion) Years, It's Nice to Know

We live faith, not as a hypothesis, but as the certainty upon which our life is based. If two people regard their love as merely a hypothesis that is constantly in need of new verification, they destroy love in that way.

Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 20

Reflection – ‘Do you love me?’, Tevye asked his wife Golda in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. While the song eventually comes to a happy conclusion (‘I suppose I do!’), she initially finds it hard to answer the question. For twenty-five years they have lived together and she has done all for him that a good wife should do… but (cue the music)… ‘do you love me?’ Love, while present, proves to be an elusive, hard to verify element in their married life.

So… does God love us? Can we base our life on that love? And what does that look like? What does it mean to base our life on the certainty that God loves us? What does it mean that He loves us—what difference does it make to us?

These are deep questions, but it is the Year of Faith, and a good time to ask such deep questions. The dynamic Ratzinger describes in this short passage of the couple in love who constantly require ‘proof’ of the other’s love and so destroy the relationship is a familiar one. To have so little trust in the other person, to constantly insist on demonstrations of love, shows an insecurity that eventually erodes any hope of real communion. If we wish to be in a stable relationship with another person, we must choose to trust his or her word to us.

And so it is with God. God could say, in the theme of the song from Fiddler, that for 25 (billion) years he has given us life and provided our needs, made the sun rise, the rain fall,  and the crops grow. For 25 (billion) years He has ordered the universe in such a way that life, and then rational life, and hence all other good things (love, peace, joy, truth) are not only possible but actual realities.

But fundamentally we have to decide to trust His word to us. Do you love me? ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’ Do you love me? ‘The love of the Lord is eternal, abiding forever.’ Do you love me? ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

And this faith, this choice to base our life on the certainty of God’s love, means that we accept and build our life on all the other words he has spoken—the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor.

It also means believing in His steadfast presence and constant care of us, which admittedly takes a lot of believing in the tough times and hard twists and turns of life. But His word tells us He is with us always and that He is providing just what we need—certainly not what we want, but what we need right now. And so our whole attitude towards life becomes one of response, of accepting what is and meeting it with love and fidelity to God’s word.

To demand God prove His love generally means demanding God conform the universe to our desires and plans. While this is an understandable attitude (who of us has not begged God that some painful circumstance change, or that some terrible turn of events not be averted?), it is not faith. God’s love is the certain base of our life, even if everything else in our life falls apart, even if (or especially if) He seems to take away every other possible certain base for our life.
This is faith, and this is living by faith. And this is the constant challenge of faith before us all, and a good reflection for all of us in this Year of Faith.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Truth and Freedom II

[For Sartre,] man has no nature, but is sheer freedom. His life must take some direction or other, but in the end it comes to nothing. This absurd freedom is man’s hell. What is unsettling about this approach is that it is a way through the separation of freedom from truth to its most radical conclusion: there is no truth at all. Freedom has no direction and no measure.

“Truth and Freedom,” Communio 23 (Spring, 1996), 25

Reflection – Well, I seem to be having an unintentional theme this week on the blog, around the whole business of ‘truth’. It is, actually, unintentional – I have a sort of random process by which I normally select passages from Ratzinger’s writings, and these last few days the process is coughing up one truth-related quote after another.

Well, maybe it’s because so much of the media focus, at least for my largely American readership is focused so intensely on the last week of the interminable US presidential election campaign season. In a time of half-truths, no-truth, and endlessly accelerating political spin (aka BS, if you don't mind my language), it is good perhaps to ponder the utter centrality and necessity of truth and the knowledge of the truth in our lives.

So here we have a reflection on Sartre’s absurd philosophy of freedom. For Sartre, any kind of ‘reality’, any solid and unyielding fact is an outrage against freedom. Freedom is sheer unfettered action; anything that impedes our action is an assault on our liberty.

The very physical universe in its solidity is a source of nausea, and other people in their pursuit of freedom are hell for us—l’enfer-c’est les autres.

I’ve always found it hard to know what to say about Sartre’s philosophy. Little of it is argued by Sartre—he is big on the sweeping assertion and the unsubstantiated claim. His freedom seems to be a curse and his world an essentially tragic one. We are free, but there is nothing worth doing with this freedom. We are unfettered, the chains of our degrading servitude have been broken, but it turns out there is no point to life anyhow. His notion of freedom casts mankind into a prison, ironically, of utter solitude and impotent paralysis. There is literally nothing for us and nothing really worth doing in this life.

Well, if this is true, and I don’t see any great reason to think it is, then to hell with it. If that is where philosophy and careful thought about life leads us (and again, there is no reason to think they do) then to hell with them, too! And that seems to be where Sartre ended up too—I don’t think it’s any vagary of fate that he became a Stalinist Communist in his later years. If freedom leads us to such an empty tragic abyss, who needs it anyhow?

But freedom does not lead us to an empty tragic abyss, really. Freedom is essentially part of a dialogue for human beings. Reality is from God, made by God, and comes to us both externally (the created world around us) and internally (our own human being) as a given, as structured and ordered by the Other who is God. And that, basically, is what we mean by the word 'truth'.

Our freedom is our response to this given. And the response is to receive it in love and care for it in love, and to come to know that the One who gave it to us is Himself love. Freedom is our entry into this dialogue of love, this reception and return of love that is the whole purpose and joyful fulfillment of the human person. Far from l’enfer, c’est les autres, we Christians say, le paradis, c’est l’Autre. Heaven is this Other, this God, this Father who made us, who loves us, and who beckons us into a free return of love.

Like I say, I have never understood Sartre, and he always seems to me to be a tragic pitiable figure. Nietzsche, I understand and even sympathize with, but Sartre, no. So my response to him is undoubtedly inadequate, but there it is. Our Christian faith, and it seems to me that it is borne out by experience, calls us into an adventure of love and freedom that asks everything of us and promises everything to us, that plunges us into a world of risk, arduous labor, and pain, but also a life of beauty and joy beyond imagining. How Sartre’s pinched, nauseous, dark, tragic and ultimately self-defeating notions of freedom could ever be seen as better or even worth a hearing is beyond me. Meanwhile, the call of the Gospel and of love beckons me today. Goodbye, Sartre; hello, Jesus!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Truth and Freedom

The salvation offered by the Logos, by the Word of God made man, is of its nature a liberation from the slavery of appearance, a return to the truth. But the transition from appearance to the light of truth takes place in the figure of the cross.
To Look on Christ, 81

Reflection – My previous post was about truth as the necessary ground for communion. Without a shared reality, without at least some shared meaning, no communication, and hence no community is possible.
This passage takes up the theme of truth and develops it further. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Truth is liberation – to live in reality is to live in freedom from illusion and artifice. But this truth comes to us, Ratzinger tells us, in the figure of the cross.

Now what does that mean? I don’t have the original passage in context in front of me, but I see two interwoven meanings here. First, when we come into the truth, we see things as they are, as opposed to what we would like them to be. Reality is what it is; our desires are not king of the world. The entire cosmos, in a sense, is like Rhett to our Scarlett saying to us, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn (what you want).’

So of course, to live in truth is to live in humility, and of course this hurts our ego. We must accept that we are just one little person in a very big world, and that our primary call is to accept things as they are, since all our efforts and energies can only make a small difference in the world.

So this hurts, and so truth comes to us in the figure of the cross. But there is a deeper meaning to all this, of course. The cross is not merely a symbol of pain and helplessness, right? Jesus died on the cross, and the cross then becomes not only the symbol but the deep realization of the deepest truth of all.

And this truth is the infinite love and mercy of God poured out, freely given, big enough for every human being to have a full share in it. This is the deepest truth of reality, of the cosmos and what lies beneath and above it. Reality comes to us hard and unyielding, like the wood of the cross, yet it is by lying on that cross that we come to know we are sharing it with our Lord who loves us.

‘The cross is the marriage bed of Christ and humanity.’ To accept the sorrowful mystery of things as they are, and to discover within them the mysterious awesome presence, power, and love of God—this is the truth that liberates us. We have nothing to fear. There is no reality we need to flee from or deny or reject. Even the most horrific and agonizing turns of fate can be and indeed are met by the mercy and love of God coming out to us from the very heart of the world’s anguish.

This is our Christian faith, and from this faith comes the power to love and spend ourselves freely for the life of the world. And that is what we mean by freedom in our religion.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Truth and Community

To the extent that men allow themselves to be guided and cleansed by the truth, they find the way not only to their true selves, but also to the human ‘thou’. Truth, in fact, is the medium where men make contact, whereas it is the absence of truth which closes them off from one another.

The Nature and Mission of Theology, 39

Reflection – I’m in Toronto this week, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned on this blog yet. We have a Madonna House here in the big city, in the west end on Parkside Drive, and I’m giving a retreat and offering my priestly services to the seven valiant souls preaching the Gospel with their lives here in Canada’s biggest city.

So, being in Toronto this week I’m much aware of the five million human ‘thous’ surrounding me on all sides for miles around. It’s… very different from Combermere! And the challenges of peaceful co-existence in a big city are very real. Ratzinger’s reflections about this are penetrating and profound, worth a careful reading and reflection.

The general tendency of modernity is to say that, for purposes of peaceful co-existence, we have to set aside questions of truth. After all, in a big city like Toronto, people of all religions and no religion are all jostling up together in the subways and on the sidewalk. Surely we must adopt a sort of ‘practical relativism’ at least, just to be able to live together. It’s common sense, right?

Ratzinger challenges this ‘common sense’ approach. He observes that unless there is some common ground, some shared medium of reality, no communication is even possible at all. There has to be some shared truth for two people to even exchange a greeting or meet on the same field of reality. Suppose I say ‘hello’ to you, but for you ‘hello’ means something grievously insulting. You haul off and punch me in the face, and I say something appropriate to that situation (and inappropriate for a G-rated blog!), but that pithy sentiment to you means ‘thank you! Do that again!’ Well… what we have here is a failure to communicate, as the old movie line said.

This is pure logic, that any communication requires a commonality of meaning, of truth. But we have to take this logic and run with it as far as we can. Because what is shown here is that it is not truth which divides and isolates, but a lack of truth. If we simple leave things at the level of ‘you think what you think, and I think what I think, and that’s the end of the matter,’ then it truly is the end of the matter. It is certainly the end of the conversation. If the matter is important enough, it may be the end of the relationship. When there is no way of seeking the truth together, when there is no chance of at least coming together in a mutual desire to know the truth, we are deeply isolated.

De gustibus non disputandem—there is no discussion in matters of taste. I like hot foods and you like sweet and there is no right or wrong, truth or falsehood in that. But in our post-modern world, all statements are reduced to matters of taste. I like the taste of Catholicism and you like the taste of radical atheism… and so there is nothing to discuss.

Taste is about what we want. When all truth claims are reduced to this, then it becomes a matter of appetite and desire and wanting to believe what we want to believe. It all gets very dark and sub-rational and somehow less than human. And in this, communication fails; community fails.
Truth, then, stands as the great safeguard and guarantor of human community and communication.

Unless we have a commitment to seek the truth and accept its demands, unless we accept a certain asceticism of the truth, we cannot be together with one another. Ultimately, we are just concerned with our own wants, likes, dislikes, and everything and everyone else is subordinated to those. Truth, and the humility and discipline it demands of us, is the precondition of genuine love and communion.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Spittle-Flecked Rant?

The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history—that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity. And so the Bible no longer speaks of God, the living God; no, now we alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do… any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; … only the supposedly purely scientific kind of exegesis, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast of the times.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 35-6

Reflection – You know, at the risk of sounding a bit self-centred, sometimes I wonder if I haven’t actually started this blog as a sort of spiritual exercise in self-control. I seem to delight in challenging myself to write about subjects that I feel extremely passionate about, things that get my emotions all fired up and ready to go… and then try to write about them with some degree of calmness, not devolving into a spittle-flecked wild-eyed rant, a screed which would send my readers running to the hills and (probably) send my superior in MH to tap me on the shoulder and suggest I take up some other hobby that will be not quite so hard on the blood pressure. Knitting, perhaps.

Like yesterday’s post on the liturgy, and today’s post on the Bible, and our modern disease of somehow relegating God to some strange place in both those forums, a place of inactivity or at least no direct activity or presence. A weird (frankly) approach to both liturgy and the Word where it is human action and human thought that bear the meaning and value of the thing, not the real presence of the living God.

I am passionate about these matters. God is real, and the real God is really acting in our lives. If this was not true, I at any rate would be dead, I think. When the real Lord really found me and really spoke to me a word of love and life, all of which really happened when I was 16 years old, I was at that time a pretty miserable wretched specimen of a human being. I don’t honestly think I would have made it very far into adulthood, to be perfectly honest.

God saved me. God saves so many people, and I firmly and deeply believe His whole desire and constant action in time and history is to save every person. And this salvation came to me (really) in the Eucharistic presence of Christ and has been repeatedly and profoundly confirmed and deepened by his living Word where he really has spoken and acted in my life.

So, yes, I get a little passionate about these things. This strange modern attitude which always keeps God at one remove (at least) from human affairs and human history is utterly incomprehensible to me. It is bloodless, lifeless, pointless. When liturgy becomes all about me or all about us, when the Scriptures become mere human documents that can be pulled and twisted to mean ‘whatever’ because there is no actual inherent meaning, then we lose the living God in a cloud of obfuscation and vagueness, entomb him again behind the stones of subjectivity and egoism.

Well, He cannot be entombed, and does not stay so. And that’s the Good News, of course. God breaks through our nonsense—‘creative’ liturgies and bloodless scientific exegesis, and continues to reach down from heaven to earth to save the poor and lowly ones who cry out to Him. It happened to me; it can happen to you or to anyone. God is real.

So there—how did I do today? Anyone flecked with spittle yet? OK - end of rant. See you tomorrow!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The End of Creativity

‘Creativity’ cannot be an authentic category for matters liturgical… creativity means that in a universe that in itself is meaningless and came into existence through blind evolution, man can creatively fashion a new and better world.

Modern theories of art think in terms of a nihilistic kind of creativity. Art is not meant to copy anything. Artistic creativity is under the free mastery of man, without being bound by norms of goals and subject to no questions of meaning. It may be that in such visions a cry for freedom is to be heard, a cry that in a world totally in the control of technology becomes a cry for help. Seen in this way, art appears as the final refuge of freedom.

True, art has something to do with freedom, but freedom understood in the way we have been describing is empty. It is not redemptive, but makes despair sound like the last word of human existence. This kind of creativity has no place within the liturgy.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 168

Reflection – Ratzinger speaks strongly here, and of course his words have to be understood properly. In a very different context he speaks positively of creativity, saying that “We can only be really creative if we are in harmony with the Creator of the universe. We can only really serve the earth if we accept it under the aegis of God’s word. Then we shall be able to further and fulfill both ourselves and the world.” (In the Beginning, 52).

We are all, however, all too familiar with ‘creativity’ within liturgy, when a certain attitude emerges that practically the one thing we cannot do in the liturgy is what the book tells us to do—any other words, gestures, arrangements will do except the ones given by the Church. It is this which Ratzinger criticizes, along with an idea that what is truly valuable in liturgy is what we creatively contribute, not what is already there, given.

This idea—that the ‘given’, the ‘already there’ is of little value until we gussy it up a bit—is troubling outside of liturgy, but is blasphemous within it. What is given in liturgy? The Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, right? Whatever human contribution we make to this Supreme Given is of relatively little importance, right?

Ratzinger goes on to discuss modern theories of art. I have to confess (non-artist that I am) that I simply have to take his word on these matters theoretical. But if these theories are indeed dominant in the art world, then there truly can be no place for them in liturgy. Liturgy is the place of supreme meaning, absolute truth, the perfect form of God coming down to form us according to the pattern of his divinity. Art as rebellion, as a protest against form or meaning or truth, cannot be expressed in this wholly divine way.

I guess as a priest and not an artist I tend to look at myself here, though. We priests have to be very careful in our ‘creative’ license, liturgically. I am glad that with the new translation of the Mass has come a renewed emphasis on simply saying the words that are written down in the book. No paraphrasing, no creative editing, no ‘in these or similar words’ any more. Just say the black, do the red. Hurray!

But even then, even with a total fidelity to the rubrics and texts, we priests have to be very careful. It’s a matter of the heart, a sense that it is on us, somehow, to make this Mass ‘meaningful’, that our (brilliant, of course!) homily or our inflections or our dramatic flourishes are somehow really really really important if the Mass is going to have an impact on people.

Ugh. The Mass is meaningful because it is Full of Meaning, and that Meaning is the living presence of Christ. It has an impact because the full power of the living God is there, not because Fr. Lemieux is so wonderful (snort!), but because Jesus is.

We have to go deep into these things, all of us. Because Fr. X or Fr. Y or this or that liturgical expression or way of singing or habit—all of this is passing away. We have to abandon our false creativity and plunge deeply into the Creator of all who is there at the heart of the Mass and at the heart of each of our lives, awaiting us. He will show us how to be creative according to his truth and his love.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Breaking Up Tiles

Evidently, knowledge of the content of faith is essential for giving one’s own assent, that is to say for adhering fully with intellect and will to what the Church proposes. Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God. The giving of assent implies that, when we believe, we freely accept the whole mystery of faith, because the guarantor of its truth is God who reveals himself and allows us to know his mystery of love.

On the other hand, we must not forget that in our cultural context, very many people, while not claiming to have the gift of faith, are nevertheless sincerely searching for the ultimate meaning and definitive truth of their lives and of the world. This search is an authentic “preamble” to the faith, because it guides people onto the path that leads to the mystery of God. Human reason, in fact, bears within itself a demand for “what is perennially valid and lasting”. This demand constitutes a permanent summons, indelibly written into the human heart, to set out to find the One whom we would not be seeking had he not already set out to meet us. To this encounter, faith invites us and it opens us in fullness.

Porta Fidei 10

Reflection – This passage is among the most beautiful in this apostolic letter. The Pope first links the whole business of the content of the faith—the creed, the dogmas, the Scriputures—to the underlying deeper dynamic of faith. We hand over our lives, accept the Lordship of Christ and the gift of God’s life for us, in a way that is essentially and inextricably united with the assent of the intellect to revealed truth.

In our post-modern world there is a great movement, a sort of centrifugal force towards the separation of things, the fragmenting of reality. Everything is broken up into little bits and we all go foraging to pick up the little bits that suit us. It’s like mosaic work, where ceramic tiles are broken up into tiny pieces that the artist assembles into the picture he or she desires. All of reality is broken up tile, and every one of us is making up our own picture from the fragments.

This fragmented approach to life is simply not the Catholic vision. Our whole Catholic tradition is that reality is a whole, an integrated piece, a seamless garment. Not a mosaic made up of fragments, but an icon written by a sure strong hand. Do not forget that the very word Catholic is from the Greek kata holos—roughly, ‘corresponding to the whole’. Universal, all-encompassing, complete, in other words.

So we cannot, must not, make blanket statements of separation and fragmentation. Well, I believe in Jesus, but the Church I’m not so sure of… well, I like the Gospels, but all these dogmas drive me crazy… well, I like the New Testament, but the Old is so harsh… well, I like the theology of the first millennium, but things went a little crazy after that…

Breaking up the tiles! Making a mosaic! Creating a little picture of Catholicism that corresponds, not to the whole of it, but to the little bits that I like. Essentially, making Catholicism over again in my image, according to my likeness.

We have to be very careful about that, as it is the spirit of the age, and all of us are subject to it to some degree. We do live in a broken, fragmented world, but our Catholic faith is that God has communicated to us the unbroken image, a restored vision of reality and truth that comes to us through the ministry of the Church, itself made up of broken flawed individuals.

Of course, in this it is so beautiful and compassionate that the Pope offers such deep respect and concern for the many people who search and struggle and cannot find their way to the Catholic faith but who nonetheless earnestly desire the truth. This is a holy struggle and a blessed search, and the whole pastoral energy of the Church—of all of us—must be towards putting forth the Catholic vision of life with greater and deeper clarity so that all these good, hungry people might find their way to it more easily.
And so this one paragraph, Porta Fidei 10, which I’ve blogged on these last days is a truly marvellous thing—a whole vision of faith in the heart which is expressed on the lips and yields an all-embracing integrated vision of reality. There is enough in this one paragraph to give us food for thought, prayer, and action for this year of faith.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Leaving the Cupboard

Confessing with the lips indicates in turn that faith implies public testimony and commitment. A Christian may never think of belief as a private act. Faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with him. This “standing with him” points towards an understanding of the reasons for believing. Faith, precisely because it is a free act, also demands social responsibility for what one believes. The Church on the day of Pentecost demonstrates with utter clarity this public dimension of believing and proclaiming one’s faith fearlessly to every person. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us fit for mission and strengthens our witness, making it frank and courageous.

Profession of faith is an act both personal and communitarian. It is the Church that is the primary subject of faith. In the faith of the Christian community, each individual receives baptism, an effective sign of entry into the people of believers in order to obtain salvation. As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “ ‘I believe’ is the faith of the Church professed personally by each believer, principally during baptism. ‘We believe’ is the faith of the Church confessed by the bishops assembled in council or more generally by the liturgical assembly of believers. ‘I believe’ is also the Church, our mother, responding to God by faith as she teaches us to say both ‘I believe’ and ‘we believe’.”
Porta Fidei 10

Reflection  - There is much to muse on in this passage, much food for thought. There are always two extremes which distort the nature of faith. There is the social/communitarian model of faith, whereby faith is just ‘what everyone does.’ We’re all Catholics, so let’s all go to Mass now—that kind of thing. While this was more common reality in previous eras, people who grow up in strong religious families can still fall into this extreme. We’re Catholics, Catholics have certain rules that they live by, and here’s what they are, so shape up, buddy!

Of course what is missing here is any sense of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, with God as Father, with the Holy Spirit as a real active presence. But then this personal model of faith can also become distorted. Me and Jesus and that’s all there is to it, a wholly individualistic and private matter of the heart. Very little if any sense of a community, a responsibility to be part of a group, a body, a society with moral obligations. Just… me and Jesus! All very cozy, but not really right.

Because Jesus didn’t live that way, you know. And ‘faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with Him.’ Jesus’ own relationship with the Father clearly had and has a personal intimacy and a directness that beggars our imagination – we’re talking about the relations of the Trinity here, about which we know precisely nothing! But the way Jesus lived out this intimate unity with His Father plunged Him fully into the life of the community, of the society of his time and people.

His engagements with the Pharisees, His teachings about the law and its application, His own practice of the Jewish liturgical life, His profound development for his disciples of the moral demands, the social principles, the all-encompassing implications of his Gospel—all of this makes nonsense of any kind of individualistic ‘me and Jesus’ faith.

Catherine Doherty used to tell a favourite story of her patron saint Catherine of Siena. St. Catherine began her life with God living a solitary life of prayer and penance in a cupboard under the stairs of her family home. This went well for quite a while, and she had mystical graces and all that good stuff. But one day Jesus said to her, “Now I want you to go out and serve my people.” She objected that she wanted to stay there and just be with Him. He said, “Well, you can stay in the cupboard, but I won’t be here!” And St. Catherine promptly went running out of the cupboard and dedicated the rest of her life to passionate, heroic service of the sick, the poor, and the troubled Church of her day.

Jesus calls all of us—even those genuinely called to be solitary hermits—out of the cupboard. Faith begins in ‘the cupboard’—that beautiful intimacy with Christ in the depths of our hearts—but once Christ is there, the cupboard door flies open, and we are called to live and love and serve and ultimately die for the world. Because that’s what Jesus did, and faith is all about standing with Him and living His life.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Place of Yes and No

At this point I would like to sketch a path intended to help us understand more profoundly not only the content of the faith, but also the act by which we choose to entrust ourselves fully to God, in complete freedom. In fact, there exists a profound unity between the act by which we believe and the content to which we give our assent. Saint Paul helps us to enter into this reality when he writes: “Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” (Rom 10:10). The heart indicates that the first act by which one comes to faith is God’s gift and the action of grace which acts and transforms the person deep within.

The example of Lydia is particularly eloquent in this regard. Saint Luke recounts that, while he was at Philippi, Paul went on the Sabbath to proclaim the Gospel to some women; among them was Lydia and “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). There is an important meaning contained within this expression. Saint Luke teaches that knowing the content to be believed is not sufficient unless the heart, the authentic sacred space within the person, is opened by grace that allows the eyes to see below the surface and to understand that what has been proclaimed is the word of God.

Porta Fidei 10

Reflection – OK, time for another little series on the blog. One unfortunate result of the last two weeks when missions and operations (which all sounds very military and special forces…) have reduced my blogging capacity severely is that I more or less have missed this whole first couple of weeks of the Year of Faith. So let’s spend a few days on our ongoing journey through Porta Fidei, why don’t we?

Pope Benedict in this key passage from paragraph 10 of the letter alludes to an old and key distinction in the term ‘faith’. In technical language, there is the fides quae, which is the actual doctrines, creeds, propositions that make up our Catholic faith: God is three persons in the one divine nature; Christ is true God and true man; the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. But then there is the fides qua, the very act of believing, what we are doing when we give our assent to these truths, and what it means for our lives.

As the Pope points out so rightly, though, these two ‘faiths’ are intimately united. It is part of our content of faith, the ‘quae’, that faith is a response to grace, a gift of God in its first movement to which our freedom gives its assent. God is the initiator, the first mover in our life of faith, and this is so crucial.

The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to receive the words Paul preached. This is the first movement and the most essential in the life of faith. And yet what a mystery this is! Don’t you find it so? Why do I have faith (presuming, Lord have mercy on me, that I do!) while others who seem just as good if not much better than me do not? What is this strange gift of God that in our Christian understanding is necessary for salvation, and yet seems to be given to some and not to others.

And yet… God must offer this gift to everyone, surely? It really is very mysterious, and I suppose ultimately we are not going to understand God’s ways on this matter until we are on the other side. As Aslan said to Lucy in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, no one is ever told any story except his own. I know that God has come to me and opened my heart to accept the Gospel as His own truth; I know He did this because He loves me very much indeed; I have to assume this same love and mercy are at work in every human heart, and that the fullness of time will show this to be the case.

It’s this whole business of the heart, that secret silent sanctuary buried deep in each human person. That’s where the action is going on, the strange mysterious encounter of each man and woman with God, the place of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, a dialogue no other human being is privy to and a wrestling match that occurs strictly under cover of darkness and alone (cf. Gen 32).
That is where faith starts, but it’s not where faith ends. And that’s what the Pope will go on to discuss… tomorrow. See you then.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Human Respect

[Christianity] has always defined men—all men without distinction—as creatures of God, made in his image, proclaiming the principle that they are equal in dignity, though of course within the given limits of societal order. In this sense, the Enlightenment has a Christian origin, and it is not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 48

Reflection – OK, well I’m back from the land of sickness and ready to resume regular blogging. I hope I still have a reader or two out there!

We see in this passage one of Ratzinger’s most refreshing qualities, which is the ability to give credit where credit is due, and to give full honor to all that is true, good, and beautiful in his opponent’s views. I have come across passages in his works where he remarks on the good points made by Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx, and atheism in general. He has a great quality of magnanimity that pervades his writings, where disagreement does not require being disagreeable, and controversy can be conducted without calumny or condemnation.

It is refreshing to come across this in the world today, where so often it is quite the opposite. The political sphere, in particular, is so very rancorous, so ludicrously revved up in manufactured outrage (cough, ‘binders of women’, cough) and caricatures of villainy. Academia is not much better, as it is all too common in that world to excoriate one’s ideological opponents not simply as wrong, but as crazy, stupid, or evil.

And yes, in the religious sphere we don’t always do such a great job, either, of this. As those who read this blog regularly know, I’m pretty passionate in my pro-life, pro-traditional marriage views, and in my commitment to the Church’s vision of human sexuality. It is important for me, then, to truly try to understand the mind and heart of the passionate same-sex marriage proponent, the sincere ‘pro-choice’ activist, the people who genuinely and sincerely think the Catholic Church is bananas about sex.

They’re not wicked, for the most part. They’re not stupid or crazy, generally. They think what they think for reasons, and it behooves me as a Christian, with all my passionate French-Canadian intensity, to try to understand those reasons. Not so I can be persuaded of the errors of my ways (cuz I’m right, you know!), but so that I can actually converse with people in a respectful loving fashion.

It all comes back to this human dignity business, and how everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. No human being is a devil or a brute animal, either intent on evil and ruination or intent on the mere satisfaction of appetite. All of us carry within our being, even if it is buried under a mass of sinful choices and false ideas, that spark of the divine image. All of us carry within us at the very least some deep disposition towards the true, the good, the beautiful.

We cannot, then, demonize or dismiss the other. Every voice must be listened to; every human heart has a story to tell, a ‘truth’ that is worth hearing, even if that truth must be rescued from the shipwreck of illusion and lies it is foundering in.

As Christians, in other words, it is up to us to rescue and redeem the project of the Enlightenment, which at least in part was about the inherent dignity and hence rights of each human person. This is gradually, or maybe not so gradually, falling apart in our nations.
It is our mission, if we are to be truly pro-life, truly pro-human, truly pro-dignity of man and woman and the sacred structure of our God-imaging humanity, to enter the difficult but necessary task of loving, respecting, listening, and washing the feet of all our brothers and sisters, but perhaps especially those who are opposed to us in these vital social and political questions of our times.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Going Home

Well, I’m not quite recovered from my surgery earlier this week just yet, not enough to resume my regular blogging reflections about the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. Meanwhile, like all authors, I am thoroughly jazzed, excited, pumped, over-the-moon—whatever cheesy adjective you want to use—about my new book Going Home. So I thought I would just include an excerpt from the first chapter as a ‘sneak peek,’ with (of course!) the nefarious intention of persuading you to buy the book for yourself, as a Christmas present for your loved ones, as a Year of Faith purchase for your study group, parishes… etc, etc, etc. We authors are a shameless lot. You can order it at

Here is the excerpt:

When he came to himself he said “Here I am dying of hunger! I will rise and go to my Father…” (Luke 15: 17-18).

Arise. Go. (First words of the Little Mandate of Madonna House)
We’re not home—that’s the first point. Let’s start there.

In other words, we are not where we should be. Where we want to be. We are… elsewhere.

There is a restlessness in every human heart, a lack of rest, a need to be… well what is it, really? What is it we need/want to be? Elsewhere? Different? Better? Something.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

New Book Out!

OK, to heck with convalescing! My new book is now officially out and available for purchase. It is called Going Home: Reflecting on God's Mercy with Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and is an exploration of the parable of the prodigal son, drawing on Catherine's many and profound insights into the merciful love of the Father and its implications for our lives. You can order it from my publisher, Justin Press. A perfect book for anyone who needs mercy, especially for anyone who struggles with really believing in the mercy of God.
Here is the cover:
So, order it - just in time for the perfect Christmas gift for all the sinners on your list!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Those wondering why the blog has gone quiet the last two days, wonder no longer. I had surgery yesterday on my throat, removing an errant salivary gland.
The surgery was not serious, but did involve general anesthesia, so I am on the convalescent list for a few days. Probably back posting towards the end of the week. Until then!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Limited Government

We need to be very conscious that evil is not some nameless, impersonal and deterministic force at work in the world. Evil, the devil, works in and through human freedom, through the use of our freedom. It seeks an ally in man. Evil needs man in order to act. Having broken the first commandment, love of God, it then goes on to distort the second, love of neighbour. Love of neighbour disappears, yielding to falsehood, envy, hatred and death. But it is possible for us not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21). It is to this conversion of heart that we are called. Without it, all our coveted human “liberations” prove disappointing, for they are curtailed by our human narrowness, harshness, intolerance, favouritism and desire for revenge. A profound transformation of mind and heart is needed to recover a degree of clarity of vision and impartiality, and the profound meaning of the concepts of justice and the common good.

Address to Government and National Leaders, Lebanon, Sept 15, 2012

Reflection – Well, yesterday I certainly got lots of eyeballs looking at the blog, as I decried the quickening slide into tyranny of my home province of Ontario. Yesterday was all about freedom of speech and conscience, the absolute necessity for a peaceful society to engage in peaceful disputation, in a free and non-violent exchange of opposing views on any and all subjects.

Today this theme of freedom goes deeper. We see here the Pope reflecting very profoundly on the fundamental issue in every society, every civilization, and every human heart.

It is the conflict between good and evil that each of us engages in only and absolutely as individuals. Social programs can help people have opportunities, or save them from starving to death on the streets. Economic recovery plans, tax code reforms, stimuli of various types can all work, at least potentially, to encourage investment and entrepreneurial risk-taking. Legal reforms that protect minorities or outlaw discrimination do what legal reforms can do: punish and thus curtail bad behaviour.

But every revolution, every social program, every reform, every external change of law and policy is doomed to fail, utterly and completely, without this ‘profound transformation of mind and heart’ to justice and charity in the individual.

As Pope Benedict says so well, without this, we human beings are susceptible to simply lapse into narrowness, revenge, harshness, intolerance, falsehood, envy, sloth… all the usual suspects, eh? Without conversion of heart, there is not a legal system, a social program, an economic arrangement that can produce human happiness and a flourishing of human civilization.

Well, we have to know that, and know the limitations of law and the structuring of civil society. It can curtail outrageous excesses of cruelty and injustice; it can prevent people from starving to death; it cannot make society thrive and flourish in a vibrant human way.

That is the role of cultural, religious, educational, individual human formation in virtue and goodness. This is why government needs for the most part to basically stay out of the way of the very bodies that provide that formation: churches, schools, the whole network of clubs and service organizations and mediating institutions that daily call people out of their own self-interest and self-sufficiency into a communal shared project of care and help. In our modern world we take it for granted that the government needs to have a finger in every pie, be both underwriting and supervising and, increasingly, micro-managing the work of all these groups. I think we need to question this assumption and return to a much smaller government with a much more focussed role. In our day of spiralling national debt and fiscally over-extended governments living on credit, we have to find another way to organize things.
We are seeing in Canada and elsewhere that an overwhelmingly huge government, a government that pays for all services and supervises all aspects of life, is not conducive to the delicate play of freedom and human formation in virtue and goodness. Government is a blunt instrument of coercion and compulsion; what is needed for society to flourish are free men and women freely choosing to love and serve and care for the body of mankind out of their own freedom. Only thus is evil driven back and a clear space for goodness and justice to thrive in created.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I Beg to Differ

In order to make possible a future of peace for coming generations, our first task is to educate for peace in order to build a culture of peace. Education, whether it takes place in the family or at school, must be primarily an education in those spiritual values which give the wisdom and traditions of each culture their ultimate meaning and power. The human spirit has an innate yearning for beauty, goodness and truth. This is a reflection of the divine, God’s mark on each person! This common aspiration is the basis for a sound and correct notion of morality, which is always centred on the person. Yet men and women can turn towards goodness only of their own free will, for “human dignity requires them to act out of a conscious and free choice, as moved in a personal way from within, and not y their own blind impulses or by exterior constraint” (Gaudium et Spes). The goal of education is to guide and support the development of the freedom to make right decisions, which may run counter to widespread opinions, the fashions of the moment, or forms of political and religious ideology. This is the price of building a culture of peace!

Address to Government and National Leaders, Lebanon, Sept 15, 2012

Reflection – Well, meanwhile this week in Ontario a government cabinet minister declared that the Catholic school system will no longer be allowed to teach that human life is sacred from conception to natural death.

Ontario recently passed a sweeping ‘anti-bullying’ law, the primary effects of which seem to be that the Catholic school system can no longer teach Catholic sexual morality and now, fundamental Catholic values of respect for human life. Apparently, the law of the land now in Ontario is that no one is allowed to be a bully… except the government.

The effect of this law, and this approach to civil society, is not an education in peace and tolerance. Children are actually being educated in power politics. The real lesson of the day, class, is that whoever seizes the reigns of power gets to control the speech and ultimately the lives of others.

This is not peace; this is tyranny. This is incipient fascism. Those of my blog readers who do not like my habit of using that word… well, you don’t live in Ontario! Count your blessings.

The Pope’s words here are very telling, very important. A true society of peace and tolerance requires, demands, a commitment to freedom of speech and conscience. People must be allowed to freely grapple with competing view and voices in order to freely choose the true, the good, the beautiful.

Some counter the Pope’s words by pointing out that the Catholic Church has not exactly been renowned in its history for its commitment to freedom of thought and conscience. There is  some truth to this, yes. But that actually makes his words that much stronger. Basically, the Catholic Church has a long history of mistaken policy about religious freedom and the coercion of conscience. We have been down that road and paid a heavy price for it (essentially, the Protestant reformation). We have also repeatedly apologized for it, not that anyone noticed or remembers.

Disallowing the Catholic voice calling for religious freedom is like discounting what a recovering drug addict has to say about cocaine and meth because, ‘well, he did it!’ Yes, he did, and so he knows where it leads, right?

There is a pernicious and dangerous idea growing in the formerly Christian nations of Europe and North America that peace and tolerance require the suppression of speech and the squelching of minority views. It is like we believe human beings cannot bear to be exposed to differing opinions. This is not a path of peace, but a path to a power struggle to the end—whoever wins gets to suppress everyone else’s views.

Peace and tolerance require education in virtue and character. We need to be strong enough that we don’t fly into a homicidal rage or collapse with the vapors when someone tells us abortion is wrong, or that abortion is right, that marriage is between a man and a woman or that marriage is whatever the government decided it to be last week, that contraception is a grave moral evil or that contraception is the best thing that ever happened to women.

We need to have some back bone here – all sorts of people think all sorts of things, and the only truly peaceful society is one is which we all get to have our say and teach our children what we believe. Otherwise, the goose-stepping jackboots have arrived at our door step and we appear to have invited them in and offered them a cup of tea.
Well, I beg to differ, and I will continue to say so on this blog and wherever else I can. So there.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Whoever Listens Understands

There are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty -- indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer. We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith. We see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: We are ravished by the vertical lines that reach heavenward and draw our gaze and our spirit upward, while at the same time, we feel small and yet yearn to be filled. … Or again, when we listen to a piece of sacred music that makes the chords of our heart resound, our soul expands and is helped in turning to God.
 I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach -- in Munich in Bavaria -- conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt -- not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart -- that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: "Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true" -- and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God's truth…

Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God. Cities and countries throughout the world house treasures of art that express the faith and call us to a relationship with God. Therefore, may our visits to places of art be not only an occasion for cultural enrichment -- also this -- but may they become, above all, a moment of grace that moves us to strengthen our bond and our conversation with the Lord, [that moves us] to stop and contemplate -- in passing from the simple external reality to the deeper reality expressed -- the ray of beauty that strikes us, that "wounds" us in the intimate recesses of our heart and invites us to ascend to God.  

General Audience, August 31, 2011

Reflection – I’ve been posting a bit sporadically lately: I just finished a parish mission, and was in a rectory where wi-fi access was limited… anyhow, time is still much lacking, so here is the rest of the Pope’s general audience on art and beauty, with minimal commentary from me.

Perhaps, though, as we enter the Year of Faith it is worth mentioning that this beauty found in the arts is a key way of evangelization, and that we would do well to look for ways to promote beauty of art, music, literature in our social and social media circles this year. Beauty is the splendour and goodness of the truth shining forth – it is a powerful mode of evangelization.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Door to the Infinite

On several occasions in recent months, I have recalled the need for every Christian to find time for God, for prayer, amidst our many daily activities. The Lord himself offers us many opportunities to remember Him. Today, I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that "via pulchritudinis" -- "way of beauty" -- which I have spoken about on many occasions, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another -- before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music -- to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter -- a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds -- but something far greater, something that "speaks," something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colors and sounds. Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man's need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.

General Audience, August 31, 2011

Reflection – This past Sunday one of our Madonna House artists set up his canvas and oil paints on the front lawn of the house to capture something of the fall glory on the Madawaska shoreline in a painting. Unlike many artists, he is a chatty gregarious fellow when he works and welcomes spectators and kibitzing on the work in progress.

(In this he is the polar opposite of another MH artist, Joan Bryant of happy memory, who used to have a sign posted some feet away from where she was painting which read, “If you can read this sign, you’re standing too close to me.” Come to think of it, we could all do with a sign like that on some days… but I’m getting distracted).

Oh yes, art…  I watched him work for a while; not being slightly artistic in any visual medium I was fascinated to watch the little blobs of paint on the palette slowly arranged on the canvas… at first a formless melange of shapes and hues, and then… autumn! Water, sky, the fringe of red and yellow leaves on the shoreline trees, and the distant hills aflame with color and flame. To non-artistic me, it was quasi-miraculous, like the water changed to wine at Cana.

Of course by the end of the afternoon and the attendant loss of light it was still a rough beginning of a painting, but I’ve seen lots of this guy’s finished works, and know what to expect. He takes a sliver, a piece of the landscape, generally a fairly ordinary one, and reproduces it realistically, faithfully on the canvas. And it is breath-taking – the beauty, the splendour, the magnificence of a hay field, a river, a cloudscape, a fence. Seen for the first time, these ordinary ‘nothing special’ elements acquire a new depth and meaning.

This is the power of art, although I know there is much more that can be said about it. To take what is and hold it up in a mirror for us—the mirror of a painting, a sculpture, a poem, a song—and we see it in that mirror and realize we have never seen it at all, at all. I know something about dappled things because of Hopkins poem; I know something about love and loss because of the songs of Leonard Cohen; I know something about a certain time and place in America from the paintings of Hopper.

Artists show us what is, and in that showing, we see a glimmer of What Is – the hand of God resting upon his creation. ‘The door opened to the infinite’, as the Pope says, but that door is already present in the thing itself. The artist, I would suggest, provides the key to open that door, so that in their artistic light another Light at least begins, even in the most secular artists,  to seep through.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's All Very Simple

What is God’s will? How do we recognize it? The Holy Scriptures work on the premise that man has knowledge of God’s will in his inmost heart, that anchored deeply within us is a participation in God’s knowing, which we call conscience. But the Scriptures also know that this participation in the Creator’s knowledge, which he gave us in the context of our creation ‘according to his likeness,’ became buried in the course of history. It can never be completely extinguished, but it has been covered over in many ways, like a barely flickering flame, all too often at the risk of being smothered under the ash of all the prejudices that have piled up within us. And that is why God has spoken to us anew, uttering words in history that come to us from outside and complete the interior knowledge that has become all too hidden. The heart of this historically situated ‘complementary teaching’ contained in biblical Revelation is the Decalogue given on Mount Sinai.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 148

Reflection – ‘All moral questions are complicated if one lacks principles.’ One of my brother priests reminded me of this Chesterton quote last week. It is true. We have this buried knowledge of the true, the good, the beautiful, this ‘participation in God’s knowing’ that we call conscience. We also have all these layers of ash and rubble—all the false knowledge of what we think or wish to be true, good, and beautiful, more often than not all mixed up with the genuine article. It’s all so very, very complicated…

But then, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And suddenly abortion, for all the complex emotions and hard situations that surround it, becomes very, very simple indeed. Medical science tells us that a new human life begins at conception; God tells us we are not to kill one another; abortion is always and everywhere morally wrong. Simple.

Remember, simple is not easy. The same holds with lying. Oh, it’s all so complicated, and there’s so many reasons to tell lies—to save trouble or inconvenience, to spare someone pain, to cut corners, to self-aggrandize, to… oh, it’s all so complicated!

But then. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against one’s neighbour.’ Oh. Okay. Simple. Not easy, but simple.

The context here always is relationship with the God who made us. God made us, and everything else. His law planted in our beings is simply the correspondence of our minds to the reality He created. His law coming to us in Scripture and through the teaching authority of the Church is simply a reminder of that which is planted in our beings, not exactly an extrinsic force coming to bear on us from outside, but an anamnesis (remembrance) of what is truly there.

And this God who made us, loves us. His law is for our happiness, our delight. His plans for us are good plans, and so we can entrust ourselves to them. It is simple. It is not easy, because we have fallen into sin and our wills are pulled this way and that way, but it is a simple affair.

It is made even harder by our social conditioning. It’s not just my own compromised intellect and will lying under the rubble and ashes of sinful choices and desires; the world is lying under that same rubble and ash. And so there are great loud voices clamouring about how very difficult and complex it all is, or how simple it all is – just do whatever you want, whenever you want – simple!

As we enter the Year of Faith this Thursday, part of our living this year could be a re-taking of our stand upon the Word of God, upon the guidance of the Church into that word, upon the simple truth of how we are to live and what things we must not do if we are to live that way.
What is God’s will? How do we recognize it? Oh, it’s all very simple…

Sunday, October 7, 2012

It's About People

I continue to blog about the Holy Father’s  visit to Lebanon Sep 14-16.

While more evident in countries which are experiencing armed conflict – those wars so full of futility and horror – there are assaults on the integrity and the lives of individuals taking place in other countries too. Unemployment, poverty, corruption, a variety of addictions, exploitation, different forms of trafficking, and terrorism not only cause unacceptable suffering to their victims but also a great impoverishment of human potential. We run the risk of being enslaved by an economic and financial mindset which would subordinate “being” to “having.”

The destruction of a single human life is a loss for humanity as a whole. Mankind is one great family for which all of us are responsible. By questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family, some ideologies undermine the foundations of society. We need to be conscious of these attacks on our efforts to build harmonious coexistence. Only effective solidarity can act as an antidote, solidarity that rejects whatever obstructs respect for each human being, solidarity that supports policies and initiatives aimed at bringing peoples together in an honest and just manner…

Nowadays, our cultural, social and religious differences should lead us to a new kind of fraternity wherein what rightly unites us is a shared sense of the greatness of each person and the gift which others are to themselves, to those around them and to all humanity. This is the path to peace! This is the commitment demanded of us! This is the approach which ought to guide political and economic decisions at every level and on a global scale!

Address to Government and National Leaders, Sept 15, 2012

Reflection – The Church’s social doctrine, of which the above passage is an admirable example, does not fit into tidy political categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’

This is because the Church is concerned primarily not with ‘society’ or ‘economy’ but with human beings, with the individual, and with individuals coming together to form the family of man. And so the extremities of any political economic ideology are to be condemned. A top-heavy planned economy where a central government stifles innovation and entrepreneurial spirit is bad for individuals, does not foster the flourishing of human gifts and potential.

At the same time, a coldly laissez-faire approach where people are divided up into ‘makers’ or ‘takers’ – and their value as human beings assessed in those terms, violates human solidarity and human dignity.

As always in the case of human affairs, virtue lies in the middle, and as always in the case of politics and economics, that middle will be an elusive ever-shifting point. At the moment, speaking personally, I favour less government and more room for private personal initiative, simply because the current system doesn’t seem financially viable for too much longer. People are going to need to learn to shift for themselves when our governments actually run out of money in the next decade or two—we may as well start learning now!

But these are always prudential judgments about which we can differ, not ideological dogmas. Certainly the Church, while stating very clearly the focus and the broad principles of social and economic morality, carefully avoids giving magisterial support to specific policy questions of individual governments.

Government and economic policy is at the service of the human person and of fostering human dignity. And this dignity is expressed both in subsidiarity (people taking maximum responsibility for their own lives) and solidarity (the lively awareness that we are all one human family responsible for one another). And these principles don’t just apply to government leaders and the decisions they make, but to how you and I are going to live our lives today, the choices we make and how we treat the people around us.

In fact, if we don’t get it right—don’t allow subsidiarity and solidarity (which are fancy ways of saying justice and charity!) to guide our actions, how can we expect politicians and business leaders to do so?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

This Nameless Grace, This Hidden Virtue

The supplices – our being bowed low – is the bodily expression, so to speak, of what the Bible calls humility (cf. Phil 2:8). For the Greeks, humility was the attitude of the slave, and so they rejected it. The transformation of values brought about by Christianity sees in it something different. Humility is the ontologically appropriate attitude, the state that corresponds to the truth about man, and as such it becomes a fundamental attitude of Christian existence. St. Augustine constructed his whole Christology, indeed, I would say his entire apologetics for Christianity, upon the concept of humilitas.

He took up the teaching of the ancients, of the Greek and Roman world, that hybris—self-glorifying pride—is the real sin of all sins, as we see in exemplary form in the fall of Adam. Arrogance, the ontological lie by which man makes himself God, is overcome by the humility of God, who makes himself the slave, who bows down before us. The man who wants to come close to God must be able to look upon him—that is essential. But he must likewise learn to bend, for God has bent himself down. In the gesture of humble love, in the washing of feet, in which he kneels at our feet—that is where we find him.
Spirit of the Liturgy, 205-6

Reflection - “Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience. It is unspeakable wealth, a name and gift from God, for it is said: ‘learn not from an angel, nor from man, nor from a book, but from Me, that is, from My indwelling, from My illumination and action in you; for I am meek and humble in heart and in thought and in spirit, and your soul shall find rest from conflicts and relief from thoughts’” (St. John Climacus).

This ‘nameless grace’ of humility which is liturgically expressed in bowing, genuflection, kneeling, is an urgent topic of concern for the world today. The paper’s yesterday report that researchers were able to grow baby mice from the skin cells of an adult mouse; the technical skills to do this with human beings are in the future, but we plow ahead with acquiring them, with never a thought or concern as to whether this is a good thing to do.

We won’t… bow. We seem to be unable to acknowledge—really acknowledge—that there is a God in heaven above us and that we are not the unfettered masters of the universe. That which is the most obvious fact of life, that we are very small creatures and that the reality surrounding us is very big and not in our control, that there is a world of moral principle and virtue that we do not devise and to which we owe obedience—obvious facts that everyone besides King Canute and a few other assorted lunatics have known and known well for all human history elude us today as if they were precious arcane bits of lore.

We won’t bow. And God came to us, comes to us really, in every Eucharist, to teach us how to bow. Jesus bowed down to wash his disciples feet; the same Jesus in the Eucharist and in the confessional bows down to wash us, revive us, feed us, heal us.

Humility is this nameless grace, this hidden virtue, this reality of bowing deep in our soul before God. It is very mysterious—even to talk about humility somehow alters it, adulterates it. Like Job in the face of God’s awesome self-revelation, one is inclined to say ‘I have spoken once; I will not speak again’ (Jb 40:5).

A nameless grace, a hidden virtue… but I fear that if we do not learn to bow, we may break. Hybris is the tragic flaw in the Greek dramas that lays low the great heroes. It will be—already is—our tragic flaw, too.

We who are Christians need to delve into this nameless grace, this hidden virtue. Perhaps we need to model it for the world. Perhaps we need to bow down to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters, as God has washed our feet, so that people can see the beauty of humility again. That is where we find God, and that is where we show God to the world which so badly needs Him, and (most of the time) doesn’t know it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Getting a Word in Edgewise

Mary’s divine maternity and her enduring attitude of openness to God’s word are seen as interpenetrating here [in the Annunciation]: giving ear to the angel’s greeting, Mary welcomes the Holy Spirit into herself. Having become pure hearing, she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 72

Reflection -  Well, it’s October and I haven’t posted about Our Lady yet. That’s wrong. October is one of the months dedicated to the Mother of God, and specifically to the rosary and its place in the life of the Church.

We see here in Ratzinger’s brief reflection on the Annunciation, the first joyful mystery of the rosary, a penetration into the very meaning and structure of humanity, of creation, and ultimately of God Himself. It is this whole business of receptivity—the entirety of our humanity and its divine origin and destiny can be summed up in that one word.

We receive being from God, and then He wishes to give us His own divine Being. Our received human being is meant to be consummated, completed, by the reception of the Holy Spirit, of the Word of God. Our flesh, itself a gift from God, is meant to be open, receptive, completed by the gift of God Himself in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is all gift and reception. And that is why receptivity is a virtue, a habit of mind and heart, that is of the utter essence for our human life.

We express this receptivity fundamentally in the act of listening. To know that, as the agents Mulder and Scully used to say, ‘the truth is out there.’ It’s ‘in there’, too, in our own hearts, but it’s primarily and fundamentally outside ourselves. And so we are to listen—listen to the word of God in the scriptures, listen to the Church’s teaching office, for sure. But also, listen to the person sitting across from you, listen to the sounds of nature and of the city of man, listen to the cry of humanity coming from so many directions.

Listen to the people we disagree with, and may consider dangerously wrong in their ideas. We still have to listen to them. Listen to people who may seem utterly foreign to us, who we have no idea why they think, say, and do the things they do. All the more reason to listen to them.

The Christian should be all ears. All Ear, all reception, all concentrated determined choice to hear the other, to hear the Other, to receive into one’s being what is not ourselves, always with discernment, with careful and judicious thought, but always listening.

It is this attitude of mind and spirit, which is closely connected to humility, that allows God to instruct us and teach us the way we should walk. Even more, it is this humility of heart and openness of spirit that allows God to finally come to us and make our flesh an expression of his Word for the world today. I don’t see how this can happen if we bluster around with arrogance and aggressive self-assertion—can God get a Word in edgewise into our flesh?

I’m aware of this in the context of the times we live in. The Americans who make up the bulk of my blog readers (hi guys!) are in the final weeks of the usual red-blue contentious election season. Global strife is hotting up in the usual places among the usual players, and the future looks a bit bleak on that front.

There is just so much hostility, hatred, polarization, division. So much shouting. We who are Christians need to curb that in ourselves at least, and cultivate quiet listening hearts. We need to bring the Word to the world, not our own endless wrangling words. And Mary…and the rosary… can help us here a great deal. October is the month of the rosary.