Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Getting Even

I have been dedicating Wednesdays on the blog to going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, my presentation of the ancient doctrine of the 'eight thoughts', in later tradition become the seven capital sins, and how to overcome them with the help of lectio divina, the prayerful disciplined reading of Sacred Scripture.

It is not my intention in these blog posts to give the whole content of the chapter--that would be, well, unproductive in terms of getting people to buy the book. Rather, I'm just giving an overview and perhaps a thought or two that didn't make it into the book itself. 

We are now on thought number four. The first three thoughts were all matters of simple desire, gone awry in our fallen natures. Gluttony for food, lust for sex, avarice for security through wealth--all of these are matters of wanting what we want, and the sad fact that we don't always want exactly what is good for us or what will truly make us happy.

The next three thoughts are all concerned with what happens to us when we don't get what we want. Where do our thoughts go, when the original simple thoughts of desire and possession are thwarted? The first place our thoughts go in these moments is towards the thought of anger. 

This is not the raw emotion of anger. Emotions come and go in us and in themselves have little moral significance. But the thought of anger is the thought, confronted with something that is wrong in our lives or in the world, that happiness lies in getting even. Revenge, payback, doing unto others what the others just done did to you, and then some--this is the project of the angry mind. The absolute conviction of the one who has bought into that thought is that 'I cannot be happy, cannot find peace, until I have paid back mine enemies with a mighty smiting.'

This thought does not always come with temptations to physical violence attached to it. There are all sorts of ways we seek payback. There is the whole dreary project of score keeping, the careful tallying up of exactly what everyone is or is not doing, so as to make sure that perfect justice is always being observed in all fields of life.

There is the passive aggressive project - moods, silent treatments, making darn sure the person knows you are displeased with them, not that you intend to tell them why or what they should do about it. They should know! There is verbal abuse, nagging, pick-pick-picking at people until in desperation they just give in and do whatever it is you want. And just plain coldness, withdrawal, the deliberate intention to hurt someone who hurt us, even if it is just by the frigid refusal of any basic warmth or humanity. And oh... a whole host of other angry, vengeful ways--we're not, most of us, the Count of Monte Cristo hatching elaborate schemes to ruin the lives of our enemies, in other words.

Anger is a deep thing in the world today. Be it the truly monstrous evil being done by actors like ISIS and Boko Haram, or the increasingly vicious political climate in our own countries, there is a spirit of anger in the world and every one of us has to address it, first in our own hearts, lest we succumb to its allure. And it does have an allure. Anger comes from something in us that is so deep and true that it has great power in us.

Namely, anger comes from our innate sense of justice, which in turn comes from our being made in the image of God the All Just One. It is indeed a matter of 'getting even', of restoring balance and order to an off-kilter, unjust world. The lie of anger, however, is that we attain justice through violence, through exerting our will on others to deal out reward and punishment as we see fit.

It doesn't work. Never has, never will, not on the personal level nor on the societal or international level, either. The revenge motive, coming so deeply out of this sense of justice in us, has done nothing in human history but beget more evil, more unbalance, more violence, more wrongs that in turn need to be avenged in an endless cycle that leads to mass graves and killing fields.

It is a hard lesson that may take many years for us to learn, but the only way our lives can be a force of healing, restoration, and justice in the world is the path of suffering love, of sacrificial generosity, of forgiveness and mercy. In particular, to be vigilant in our mercy and love for our 'enemies', whoever they may be, and for our neighbour--that is, the small group of human beings who are in our immediate proximity.

It is this and this alone that brings order into the world, this and this alone that 'evens up' an uneven world. And it starts at the level of the individual, of you and me and the choices we are going to make today, in the face of whatever injustice or frustrations we encounter today. Vengeance or love -- what will it be?

And you can read the rest of my thoughts, and the path of the Gospel laid out for us in these matters, in my book, if you would like to buy it! Have a great day, and remember - don't get mad, get even!

Monday, September 28, 2015

God Doesn't Want Our Bull

The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth…

He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.

“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;

your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?..

But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes,
or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
“You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child…

“Mark this, then, you who forget God,
or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.
Psalm 50

Reflection – I now resume regular blogging, after a bit of a hectic week last week that made it impossible. Psalm 50 is a fine polemic against ‘lip service’, against a religion of external acts of piety unaccompanied by real devotion and sincere faith.

This is one of the great themes that develops in Judaism throughout the Old Testament, and in particular in the prophetic era. The sight of people dutifully bringing their sacrifices to the temple and saying all their prayers just right, but then proceeding upon leaving the temple to oppress their poor neighbor and engage in a host of sexual, financial, and malicious sins stirred up the prophetic spirit of God to some of the most fiery denunciations of hypocrisy we have, Psalm 50 ranking right up there with the best of them.

We have to be very careful in our reading and praying of this psalm. There are two ways to pray this psalm that are less than useless and positively harmful. First, we must not pray this psalm against ‘those people’. You know, the ones over there… those people who are not me! They’re the ones who are lousy hypocrites, right? Why, look at how they voted in the last election! Call themselves Christians, do they? Huh.

Yeah, that’s no good. We have no idea what is stirring in the hearts and minds of any other human being, so let’s not pretend we do and start handing out report cards for the faith life of our neighbors, OK?

The other harmful thing is to pray it against ourselves, in a certain sense. To say, “Oh yes. I am indeed a worthless piece of ****. No real faith here! Boo hoo. Well, may as well give up… (the last is often just under the surface of our consciousness).”

This is not helpful. So what is the place of this psalm and the many other related texts in a healthy spiritual life? Neither judgment and sneering condemnation of neighbor or of self, so what is it?
Psalm 50 and its ilk are texts above all against complacency. Against any kind of easy assumption that we’re all right with God – hey, didn’t I just go to confession and then receive the Eucharist? Vital and beautiful and tremendous as that is… it’s not enough. It must be lived, and this psalm is a clarion call to live the mystery we celebrate.

And to be, not down on ourselves over our failures to do so, but continually calling on the Lord for his mercy and grace. To be very aware that any one of us falls short of the total devotion, total consecration, total gift of self to God expressed in total love of neighbor. But in that awareness, not to become embittered or hopeless, but rather to turn again to God, always from a place of humility, always from a place of confidence in his love.

It’s pretty simple, really. We need to live lives fully aware that ‘without [Christ] we can do nothing’ (John 15:5). And that the external duties of piety and religious practice, essential as they are, must bear fruit in lives of virtue and justice, or they really are for naught. And that all of us together live in a state of profound need for God’s grace, so all of us together are simply one human family bound together both in our poverty and weakness, but also in the love of God. And it is this love of God which is the path of salvation He promises to show us, so long as we humble ourselves and call upon His name, plead His mercy, and daily try to do what is good and true in our lives.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - Sep 19-25

I apologize to my regular readers for being so sparse on the blogging this past week or two. It has been a busy time in my life, and there have been days where I have been away from the Internet altogether. Hopefully I will be back to something resembling a regular blogging rhythm soon.

Madonna House is in an 'ordinary time', I would say. On the work front the big project remains the harvest, with potatoes being the major crop brought in this week. Three afternoons everyone who could went to the farm to dig potatoes. While I haven't heard any figures, it seems to have been a good harvest.

Beyond that, our ordinary life continues apace. The addition to the farm house (added living space for our somewhat over-crowded farmers) now has siding and is starting to look positively finished... on the outside at least. Still lots of interior work to do, not the least of which is connecting the new addition to the old farmhouse with a door!

Outside of the work scene, probably our biggest concerns in MH have been events outside of MH this week. Locally, there was a terrible tragedy which sent shockwaves through the whole Valley - a triple homicide in and around nearby Wilno. In a small community like this, everyone either knew one or all of the victims, or knows someone who knew them, not to mention the man who committed the crime, so the emotional weight of it has been very heavy for our neighbours and friends. It has been a great call for prayer for us here in MH.

Of course like everyone else the other focus of our attention has been Pope Francis' trip to the United States and the World Meeting of Families. Four of our members are in attendance at the latter with a book table, while many of us watched the former as we could, or read the transcript of his address to congress. We are all united in prayer with you for many graces and conversions of heart to flow from this historic event.

Beyond that, life in MH is as normal and quiet as can be right now. The weather has turned sharply cool, and we are appreciating the fall colours as a result. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, it is a season of transitions in MH, with quite a number of our members being moved from one house to another, some houses changing directors, and so forth, all of which creates a certain energy in the house - new faces in the dining room, leave takings of others, and the like. Our new applicants are settling into their rhythm of classes, work, and life, about which I may say more later.

So... what to say? Life is good, life is full, life is quiet, life is busy... life is life here, and we unite our lives in prayer with your lives, hoping that all of us together may continue to build the kingdom of God together in our various ways.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

On Wednesdays I am going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, to discuss some of the basic ideas therein, hopefully in service of persuading a few of youse guys to part with a few pennies to buy a copy.

We are on chapter six now, which explores the thought of avarice. We have talked about gluttony and lust already; now with avarice something new is introduced into our minds. Gluttony and lust are both disordered expressions of immediate physical urges. They are matters of the body, primarily, and only secondarily are ‘thoughts’ about reality, as we make the fatal move of thinking that our true and vital happiness lies in the immediate satisfaction of physical cravings.

Avarice begins the great journey inward to more strictly intellectual projects, while still having an immediate physical expression. Where gluttony and lust, being of the body, are both matters of the immediate moment, of the urgent ‘now’, avarice asks the fatal question: but what about… tomorrow? Will I have what I need for my life… tomorrow?

Happiness as material security—this is the fatal mistake of avarice. It is not a matter of never making plans for the future, or not being responsible and prudent in one’s financial affairs. Dickens’ Mr. Micawber who lurches with his family from one financial crisis to another is not a picture of Christian virtue.

Where avarice goes wrong is that it locates our security for the future in our material wealth, and that it identifies happiness with that material security. The miser clutching his treasure to himself, the greedy tycoon never satisfied with his wealth but always grabbing for more, Smaug the Dragon on his bed of gold coins—these are the common pictures of avarice.

But we have to be careful not to leave it there, in its grossest and most obvious manifestations. Most of us do not sleep on a bed of gold coins (nor would we find it particularly comfortable, not being dragons). We are not thereby assured of freedom from greed.

It really boils down to a question of security. Where do we place our security? In things, and making sure we have enough things to last us? That seems… unwise somehow. Things are flammable, you know. Or is our security elsewhere? Say, in the heart of God?

It’s all about the future, and as Christians we have to take the long view about that particular subject. Our future as we understand it is going to be considerably more than the eighty or ninety years we may hope for, and if our one wealth is what we own… well, I don’t think They receive that currency There.

Money and goods are important in securing our future, though—the Gospels are clear on that point. But the security lies not in hoarding but in sharing, not in piling up but in clearing out, not in taking but in giving. It is impossible to read the Gospels thoroughly and not get it that almsgiving, sharing our treasure with the poor, is of the essence in deciding our eternal fate. I could quote a half dozen passages to you on precisely that point, but really if you don’t already know that to be so, you need to crack open your bible and get reading, because it’s all over the place, directly in the words and preaching of Jesus Christ.

And this is the real damage done by avarice—it chokes off our generosity to the poor. And by doing so, by making it very hard for us to give alms, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, it actually makes our future profoundly insecure, imperils our real future happiness. We are meant to be people oriented towards the future, but that concern for tomorrow rightly understood makes us intensely involved with alleviating the misery of today, serving the needs of our brothers and sisters today.
In the book, I give a whole series of Gospel passages to meditate on to counter the lie of avarice—it is a core theme in the Scriptures. 

And avarice is a core sin in humanity, one that causes so much misery in this world, so much needless suffering of the poor and the abandoned. If every believing Christian took to heart what Our Lord says about these matters and gave what they could, shared what they had, so many tragic and harsh situations would simply not be so, so many evils would be averted.

But to do that we need to believe that Our Father in heaven loves us and is caring for us and that our whole life is nothing else but to live in His presence and share in His love, and that is where prayer and meditation on the Word of God comes in.

I have quite a bit more to say on the subject in the book, but will leave it to you to discover it there.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Lest The Truth Be Too Hard

Without truth language would be a general fog of words above the silence; without truth it would collapse into an indistinct murmuring. It is truth that makes language clear and firm.   The line separating the true from the false is the support that holds language back from falling. Truth is the scaffolding that gives language an indepen­dent foothold over against silence.

Language becomes a world of its own, as we have said already; and language now has not only a world behind it—the world of silence, but a world near at hand—the world of truth.

The word of truth must keep in rapport with silence, however, for without it truth would be too harsh and too hard. It would then seem as though there were only one single truth, since the austerity of the individual truth would suggest a denial of the inter-relatedness of all truth. The essential point about truth is that it all hangs together in an all-embracing context.
Max Picard, The World of Silence

Reflection – I began discussing this quote from Picard yesterday, but found there was more to say about it than could fit into a single blog post. Yesterday I focused on the first two paragraphs, highlighting the necessary relationship of ‘language’ and ‘truth’, and how the loss of that connection, rather than liberating us to be tolerant and inclusive, actually reduces all communication to the base level of naked power struggle and manipulation.

The other side of this, though, is this final paragraph, where Picard emphasizes once again the role of silence in our lives, this time as a necessary counterbalance to the passion for truth and its expression.
For me, this means we need to listen deeply to one another. In the clamorous world of competing ideologies, political and social agendae, and world building projects of all kinds, we need all the more to seek out and embrace ‘the world of silence’, the world where I am not simply trumpeting my views to the world via social media or whatever other platform or pulpit I have, but where I in turn actively listen to that which is not me, that which is other from me.

Not simply so I can spot the weaknesses and fallacies of this other and tear it down with relish, but so that I hear the truth that, indeed, the other has to offer, even if I do disagree with them on the vital point.

This is not mushy moral relativism. I will never seriously consider that I may be wrong on the subject of, say, abortion, or contraception for that matter, or the nature of marriage, or the absolute obligation to care for the poor, or any one of a dozen other matters. For that matter, I am quite certain of the truth of who Jesus is, what the path of eternal life is, the nature of the Church and its necessity for salvation, and so forth. But because I have such opinions and hold them most strongly, believing them to be not simply ‘my own ideas’ but the Truth about Reality—all the more do I need to really listen to those who reject those truths and have other ideas about things.

Truth needs to be balanced by silence, humility, listening, or it devolves quickly into a harsh and hard doctrinarianism. Listening applies not only to listening to another person, although it is that for sure, but listening to the silence of the world, to one’s own heart, to the voice of God, ultimately, shrouded in mystery as that is.

Without this commitment to listening, the words we speak and the truths we advance are doomed to be unpersuasive and fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, even if we are in fact ‘right’ about various matters, the refusal/inability to listen, to have silence as the necessary counterbalance to our speech, dooms us to fall into the trap of arrogance, anger, pride, and a half-dozen other related vices. Being right can become more important that loving our neighbour, and that is a grim mistake indeed.

Language, truth, and silence together yield a very deep humility, a commitment to truth that does not make us into Pharisees or inquisitors or bullies, a commitment to silence and contemplation that is not a retreat into self-absorption and complacency, a commitment to speech and communication that is not merely a parade ground for the ego. And this is more and more the urgent call of our times, when all of the above is all too common. The world is full of people blaring their views at top volume and shredding everyone who disagrees with them with savage ferocity. Picard’s little book on silence and speech offers deep wisdom to offset this most modern mess, and we do well to heed him in this matter..