Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Not Counting the Cost

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Love... love... love, never counting the cost. – We are going through the Little Mandate, the core words of our MH vocation, each Tuesday on the blog. Today we come to this most challenging sentence: love without ever counting the cost.

The three-fold repetition of love is not without meaning here. It implies a choice made over and over again in life. To choose to love is not a one-time affair; it has to be done every day, multiple times each day.

It sound cheesy and hippie-ish to say it, but it is my firm conviction (and in fact the clear teaching of Christ, which is rather more important) that this is the answer to all the world’s woes and the terrible evils of our time. To love without counting the cost, to love without measure or limit or end to our love.

It sounds like a hippy slogan (‘All you need is love, da da da da daaaa!’) because our notion of love is so poor and sentimental. Love for us is either warm cozy feelings and puppy dog cuteness or it is eroticized display. But neither of those things is love, particularly. You may have warm feelings or sexual desire for this or that person, and neither of these is contradictory to love, but love itself is neither of those.

To love is to desire the good for the other, and to pursue that good, to choose that good as if it were one’s own deepest good. In our world today, we think ‘love’ means never hurting anyone’s feelings, but this does not stand up to a moment’s analysis, does it? Some of the best things that have happened to me have involved very hurt feelings on my part, painful realizations of truth about myself or about life. It is not love, but cowardly selfishness, that seeks to protect the other person from some difficult truth lest their feelings be hurt.

Love and truth walk hand in hand. We cannot really know the good of the other nor pursue it as if it were our own if we do not know the objective truth of things and the subjective truth of where this person is, what their life is like. Love involves a lot of listening, a lot of careful and compassionate attention to the other.

And love requires interior integrity, my own fidelity to the Truth about reality. As a Roman Catholic, I firmly believe that truth about reality is revealed by Jesus Christ in Scripture and Tradition, preserved and handed on faithfully by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. And so a loving choice can never be a choice to compromise that truth or deny it in service of ‘friendly relations’.

At the same time, as love requires truth, so truth requires great love, great generosity, great kindness and gentleness and mercy. All of which comes at enormous cost, if we take any of this at all seriously and actually put it into practice. It is the hard and narrow path of the Gospel, and there are so many easier ways to live, constantly available to us.

The way of false tolerance, where we just pretend that everyone’s OK and that nothing really matters anyhow. The way of anger and harshness, where we set ourselves up as a little tribunal of judgment of everyone (and this is hardly limited to, or even especially typical of religious people these days – it is epidemic). The way of retreat into an enclave of like-minded friends. The way of oblivion, selfish concern for one’s own affairs.

And probably a half-dozen other easy ways, none of which do anything in the slightest to heal the world’s ills and make everything so much worse, really. To assume the cost of real love, real compassionate service, real sacrifice and real giving of oneself to everyone God puts before you, and to not ‘count’ that cost—that is what heals the world.

And this ‘not counting’ means that there is never a time that comes when we say ‘no more love for this one!’ Never a time when anyone can do anything, no matter how heinous, that would remove them from the circle of our love, our concern, our compassion, our prayer, our desire for their good. And that is of the utmost importance—it is too easy to write people off these days, to join the baying crowd of condemnation or to consign people to the outer darkness of our contempt.

But if we think hard and clear about that, that is the culture of death in action, isn’t it? The culture of death says that the value of a person is contingent on what they do or can do—fetuses and the disabled or elderly are less valuable and so can be killed, and so forth (to put it rather baldly). But if I decide that your value is lessened, that you are not worthy of my compassion or love because of some misdeed or sin, then I am as much part of that culture of death as an abortionist or a euthanasist.

No, love without counting the cost, love everyone, compassion and mercy for everyone, in truth, in integrity—this is what we need today. It is anything but sentimental and cheesy; it is the rocky road to Calvary, but beyond that to the joy and beauty of Easter.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Fret Not Yourself

 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!
 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.
 Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
 Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

 Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, 
and your justice as the noonday.
 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
 fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! 
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
 For the evildoers shall be cut off, 
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

 But the meek shall inherit the land 
and delight themselves in abundant peace…
I have been young, and now am old, 
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
 He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing…

 I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, 
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
 But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.
 Mark the blameless and behold the upright, 
for there is a future for the man of peace.
 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; 
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
Psalm 37
Reflection – Back to the Monday Psalter, with bits and pieces of Psalm 37. There is quite a bit more in this vein in this rather long psalm (to be honest, and meaning no disrespect, it is rather repetitive).

This is a very human psalm, addressing a very human emotion we can all relate to a bit, I think. 
Namely, the resentment of the prospering wicked. The experience, which everyone has, that in this life justice is imperfect, bad people do quite well for themselves (often) and good people not infrequently get the short end of things. 

This bothers us—which seeing as how it is an incredibly common and normal experience of life in the world, actually is indirect evidence that we are not entirely made for this world, that there is something in us that years for a justice that is not of this world. The human passion for justice is one small argument for the existence of God.

Nonetheless, this psalm is concerned with helping us stay peaceful in the meantime. And the advice it gives is a nice little bit of homely wisdom. ‘Fret not yourself’. This could well stand as good advice for all those using social media. The Internet too often is an  Outrage Machine churning out fodder day and night for us to fret over. Whether it is the latest depredations of our political leaders, the latest misdeeds or silly comments by our celebrity class, some disagreeable or offensive move by some high church official, or just some bad behaviour by some random person that happened to get filmed and went viral—there is always something to fret about, something to get all upset over.

Fret not yourself. While Psalm 37 is an early psalm and there is little sense of an afterlife in it, and hence the psalmist has to assert that justice eventually gets done in this world (we know that it doesn’t, often), we who are Christians can confidently assert that all things will be set at right in the end.

If the wicked are prospering and the good ailing, it is woeful for sure, but it is temporary. And there is little good achieved, and much harm done, by climbing on board the latest outrage ride on the outrage machine, adding one’s voice to the latest Greek chorus baying for blood from the latest wrongdoer.

Fret not yourself. And this psalm is really about keeping your focus where you need to keep it, on doing what is good in your own life, in living righteously where you are, in not getting distracted. That is the harm done by the outrage machine—it distracts us, and diverts our natural human passion for justice from where it should go—to self-examination and zeal for the good—to an ultimately futile and useless expenditure of energy.

Fret not yourself, because it does nothing to add to the store of justice and goodness in the world. All flesh is in God’s hands, and we only need concern ourselves with doing the good that is before us today. So let’s get on with it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Gift Surpassing All Other Gifts, Save One

On the eve of the great feast of Pentecost, we come to the final and greatest gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wisdom. This is truly ‘the’ gift, the one that surpasses all the others, the one that, in a sense, gives all the others their form and sense.

Wisdom is, in human terms, that by which we integrate all that we know, all that is true and good and beautiful, into a whole. That quality by which we not only see each individual piece of knowledge or understanding, but see how all of it fits together into a beautiful picture. This is the normal human sense of the word ‘wisdom’, and of course it is in human terms a property of age and long life experience. Humanly, it is only with the years and much hard won insight into life that we attain wisdom.

Or, it can be given as a free gift of God in baptism, which of course we then grow into with time. The gift of the Spirit of wisdom is that by which we see all reality as having its source, substance, meaning, and end in the mystery of Divine Love. He made us out of love; He made us to love; He made us to be completed by our communion with Love; all created things are given to us to be caught up in the mystery of love given, love received, love known, love loved.

This is the deep wisdom of the Spirit. And this whole integration of all reality into the mystery of the Divine Charity, the Divine Mercy, is not some intellectual grasping, some wonderful conceptual schema that we can diagram out and reduce to precise mathematical formulae.

It is, rather, a contemplation of Love in the contemplation of the Trinity. It is this knowledge that transcends the intellect that the whole of reality is Trinitarian—Love begetting Love, Love receiving Love, Love proceeding from Love, and then the Triune Love pouring out in a endless ceaseless cataract to what is non-love, because it is non-being, to give it being by loving it, and so there is Creation, and then that same Triune Love pouring out to heal Creation broken by the refusal to love, healing it by introducing this very Triune communion of Love into the very place where that refusal to love collapses into futility, non-being, death—the Cross of Christ. 

And this same cataract of Love rushing into Hell, into the tomb, into the very depth of human failure, and (a rising tide raises all boats!) bearing all flesh up, up, up to the heart of the Trinity, the heart of Love—the Resurrection and Ascension.

And then Love comes down again and resides in our hearts—the gift of the Spirit!—and this gift begets in us Holy Wisdom, the ability to receive, contemplate, and understand our whole life and all of reality in the key of love, the key of wisdom, that which unlocks the whole secret, solves the whole riddle, delivers to us the Answer to every human problem, every human sorrow, every human misery and evil in this world.

Wisdom is the greatest of all the gifts, save one. And that One is, of course, God Himself come to dwell in our hearts, the Indwelling Trinity. That is what we celebrate tomorrow as we celebrate Pentecost—God is with us, forever, and makes our whole life, if we will it, if we but cooperate with Him, a sharing in the divine life.

So that is my little catechesis on the gifts of the Spirit. All of them, in truth, are the first-fruits of this Indwelling God within us—the fear which makes us dread nothing so much as losing this presence, the fortitude that allows us to brave any danger for its sake, the real affection of piety for this God who has done this astounding thing.

And the gifts that perfect our intellect—the constant sensitivity to the Spirit’s guidance in the here and now, the divine insight into all creation goods, the spiritual understanding of our revealed faith—these too flow directly from His presence in our hearts. All of which we contemplate by the crowning gift of Wisdom in which we have the means to abide in Him and know His abiding in us.

And so, indeed, come, Holy Spirit.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Gift of Truth

I am posting this late Thursday afternoon as I am heading into poustinia this evening for a day of silence, prayer, and fasting. But we’re on a schedule with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit this week, so I can’t skip a day!

The sixth gift is that of understanding. The best way to understand it is by contrasting it to knowledge. That gift pertains to seeing creation from God’s perspective, to knowing what created things are, and are for, from His own perfect knowledge of them.

If knowledge is about understanding creation, then understanding is about knowing the Creator. Specifically, the gift of understanding is God’s own gift to us to enable us to penetrate the truths of Scripture, the doctrines of our faith, to ‘get’ the sacraments and what they are and do, to have a deep and beautiful knowledge about spiritual life, its verities and principles and practices.

This gift of understanding has not one thing to do with academic learning or even intellectual capacity. I always like to mention, when talking about this gift, of a man I knew in my first year as a priest who confided in me after some months of acquaintance that he was illiterate. He had left school early to work on his family’s farm, and somehow reading and writing just hadn’t taken with him.

This man had the most penetrating insights into God, the Bible (he had a greatly developed oral memory), the sacraments, the virtues and spiritual life. He was a deeply devout and (I would say) holy man, and the gift of understanding operated in him at a high level indeed.

St. Therese of Lisieux would be another example of someone with minimal formal education and yet a depth of insight into God and the things of God, and particularly the path to God of littleness and simplicity, that has made her a Doctor of the Church. So it is nothing whatsoever to do with being a theologian in the modern academic sense. I wouldn’t say that formal education is bad for the gift of understanding, exactly – just that it is unrelated to it.

With both knowledge and understanding, we can see something that eludes us often in our confused times. In our era of post-modern fragmentation and relativism, we can often conclude that truth is just something so fraught with difficulties, so unknowable perhaps, and if known so prone to make the one who knows the truth arrogant, intolerant, even violent that… well, it’s just best to leave the subject alone. Truth – what is that? Pontius Pilate said it, and we’re all living in a Pilate world now.

But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Why would God not want us to know the truth of things, and the truth of Himself? Truth is not a weapon to be wielded or a comforter to wrap oneself up in, or a pedestal to climb on so as to look down one’s nose at others more efficiently.

Truth is communion. Truth is when the ‘what’ of the other, or the Other, resides in my own intellect. When I say ‘I know you’, and I say this rightly, it means that, in a sense, you live in me. You and I are in communion. And we are meant to have this kind of communion with all creation, and with God above all.

It is the Holy Spirit then, both in knowledge and understanding, who gives us this gift of communion. Of course this communion exceeds our intellectual grasp and conceptual expression of things and of God—it is much deeper than what our poor little minds can say. But it does shape and illuminate and purify and heal and strengthen our poor little minds so that they are not quite so poor, not quite so little.

These gifts enrich us—knowledge by giving us a great and properly ordered understanding and hence love of all creatures and especially of that creature our neighbour, understanding by giving us a properly ordered knowledge of God, from which we cannot help but love Him as we should. ‘To know Him is to love Him.’

God does not want us to grapple blindly in the dark, not really knowing much of anything and prone to terrible errors that can cause such great injury to ourselves and others. He wants us to know the truth, not to make us proud and arrogant, but so we can love rightly. And that is what both of these ‘intellectual’ gifts of the Spirit are about.

Come, Holy Spirit.