Thursday, October 8, 2015

Martyr or Idolater?

It is Liturgy Day on the blog – Thursdays we go through the Mass, bit by bit, with an eye to see how the rites of the liturgy are to inform and form our lives. Last week we were talking about the Gospel rite. I will invoke blogger’s privilege at this point (i.e. ‘it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to’) to skip over the homily and go right to the Creed.

The homily, after all, only has one purpose, and that is to make precisely the connections I’m trying to make in this blog series: to connect the readings we have heard with the mystery of the Eucharist and the mystery of how we are to live our lives. There is no other purpose to homiletics than that, and I have nothing much to say (at least not at this time) on the matter.

The Creed, though! After we have heard the Word of God in all its richness through the various readings, and hopefully been enlightened somewhat about that richness through good preaching, it is time for us to do something about it. And the first thing the Church asks us to do about it is to profess our faith in it.

‘I believe…’ and off we go, reciting dutifully the heart of reality, the heart of God and of the cosmos and of the human person. God the Creator, the Son who is God from God, Jesus conceived of the Spirit and born of the Virgin, suffering, dying, rising, ascending, and coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, the Spirit who is Lord and Lifegiver, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, baptism for the forgiveness of sins, the communion of saints and life everlasting.

This, for a Christian, is what life is about. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. All of reality—our loves, our likes, our work, our rest, our interests, our casual involvements and our life commitments—all of this either is taken up into the articles of the Creed in some sense, or it is idolatry that casts us into unreality and ultimately hell.

Yeah, strong language, but… well, yeah. As Origen wrote in the 2nd century, a Christian is either a martyr or an idolater. Either our faith and our worship of God is the central fact of our life, that around which all other facts in our life revolve, which implies that we are willing to die for it, or we do not truly worship God as we say we do.

That the Church asks us, in our first response to the Liturgy of the Word, to profess our faith in it, is a radical thing indeed. We pass quickly over it and may or may not think too deeply about the familiar words that we rattle off each Sunday. But really—these are the core beliefs and the core guiding principles of our lives.

A careful meditation on the Creed provides enough material for examination of conscience to fill a book (hey, now that’s an idea…). I believe in God the Father. Do I, now? Do I believe that the foundational reality, that upon which all else (even God the Son and God the Holy Spirit!) is not some faceless energy or some vague presence, but a Father? That is, Love? That the whole of reality has a personal cast, the whole of our movement through the world is movement from the Father to the Father, a movement which God the Father continually accompanies to provide and protect as any good father does?

Do I live that way? Do I act as if that’s true? What would my life look like if I believed that as I say I do? What would be different? What is present in my life now that is discordant with that first article of the Creed? And so on and so forth—the Creed is not some list of abstract propositions we tick off each week. Or if it is, then we have some serious praying to do, some serious conversion of heart to undergo. The Creed—our holy Catholic faith—is life and light, food and drink, an adventure to be lived, a passion to undergo, a luminous joy to gladden our hearts and a summons to action and heroism.

So… let us pray for the grace of response today, to actually take what we read in the Scriptures and what we profess in the liturgy seriously, and apply it to every moment of our day, today. That is living the Mass, and that is living the Gospel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Just The Way We Like It

Wednesdays on the blog I am going through the ‘eight thoughts’, the subject of my new book Idol Thoughts. These are the typical patterns of interior dialogue that the desert fathers identified as the principal opponents to the work of the Holy Spirit in us—hence idols we worship in lieu of God insofar as we give our allegiance to them. My book shows what each of these thoughts are, and how to pray with the Gospels as one way of being liberated from their tyranny in our lives.

This list of eight thoughts was adapted to the familiar ‘seven deadly sins’ in later Roman Catholic teaching. We have already looked at the first four thoughts, and so far they have corresponded to the list of seven—gluttony, lust, avarice, anger.

But with thought number five we depart from the rest of that list—sloth, envy, pride—somewhat. Pride is still there, but vainglory takes the place of envy, and sloth is broken up into acedia (more on that next week) and today’s thought, despondency.

So what’s that about? How is ‘sadness’ a thought that blocks the work of the Holy Spirit in us? Isn’t it just a normal emotion, one of the spectrum? Isn’t it healthy to be sad when sad things happen? What could the desert fathers mean by characterizing it as a moral problem?

We have to distinguish the simple emotion of sadness from the thought of sadness. Still more do we have to strongly state that the disease of clinical depression is something quite other than those. The desert fathers knew all about depression, although of course they didn’t have the name for it. They speak of a causeless sorrow that engulfs the human person, against his or her will, and which they are powerless to overcome. They are quite clear in their writings that this is not the thought of despondency.

Nor is the simple emotion that thought, either. Emotions come and go and we have little immediate control over them—they are not in themselves morally significant. The thought of despondency is something quite different. It is, essentially, the fixed conviction that I cannot be happy unless I have things my own way. Happiness is getting what I want, and so when I don’t get what I want (which, not being God, happens to me fairly often), I will be sad.

Pouting, in other words. Sulking. We may do it in adult ways (the spectacle of a grown man weeping openly or throwing himself on the floor if he doesn’t get his favourite coffee cup is fairly rare), but nonetheless there is little to separate us from the toddler on this point. I want what I want, when I want it, as I want it. And I will be miserable, and make everyone else miserable, until I get it. Such is the driving force of the despondent soul.

Now of course all of this is sheer and utter nonsense, and a moment’ clear thinking is sufficient to show it. For one thing, if it is truly necessary for happiness that one gets exactly what one wants, then in any normal living situation we must end up in a state of practically mortal combat. What I want will only coincidentally be what you want, and quite often be quite different. So only one of us can be happy at any given moment, if the above notion of happiness prevails. Despondency thus links arms with anger and life becomes a pitched battle for dominance, and nobody ends up especially happy.

There are people whose lives are ruined by the thought of despondency—people who end up so bitter over the hand they were dealt, constantly complaining, never satisfied, always finding something wrong in any day, any situation, and focusing on that with laser precision. And we all know other people who, in spite of fairly serious afflictions and tragedies in their lives, someone come through to a place of joy and peace, hard-won perhaps, but all the more real for that.

Most of us fall somewhere in between, with little flashes of despondency, large or small veins of self-centredness and childish self-will lacing through our person. But the truth all of us need to return to is that happiness has nothing—nothing at all!—with getting one’s own way. Happiness lies in coming to love God’s way, in growing to see that our life, our real life, is to live in a communion of love with God in which ‘what we want’ is more and more purified and simplified to wanting what God wants.

And the great surprise twist ending of not just our life, but the life of the whole cosmos, is that what God wants is, in fact, to fulfill every desire of our hearts in the right way, a true and good way, and that the path He sets for us of obedience and surrender, trust and abandonment, is in fact the path to perfect self-fulfillment, to having everything just the way (uh huh uh huh) we like it, forever.

As the Bible ends ‘every tear will be wiped away’ (Rev 21:4) – sadness ultimately is done away with in the kingdom, but the path to that kingdom is to forget about ourselves and our own ideas and follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Rev 14:4).

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Why People Are Nervous

Today it seems as though language had been robbed of its forgetfulness: every word is present somewhere in the general noise of words around us. In the general noise of words everything emerges for a moment, only to disappear again. Everything is there at the same time and yet not there at all.

There is no longer any present immediacy of the word and therefore no forgetting. Forgetting is no longer done by man directly but proceeds outside his control in the general noise of words jostling one with another.

But that is not a forgetting at all, but merely a disappearing. And so there is no forgiving either in the world today; since now one can never get rid of a word or a thing, it is always bound to turn up again somewhere. And it is also a fact that one never really has a word or a thing today—and that is why people are so nervous.
Max Picard, The World of Silence

Reflection -  I have been working my way through this wonderful book, and periodically have shared some of its nuggets on this blog. This one in particular seems almost eerily prophetic—Max Picard invents the Internet! There are so many choice phrases here that almost exactly describe the world of information today: ‘Everything is there at the same time and yet not there at all… the general noise of words jostling one with another... now one can never get rid of a word or a thing, it is always bound to turn up again somewhere… that is why people are so nervous.’

Well, yes. And almost cliché to say these things nowadays, but this book was written in 1948. To be both constantly engulfed in words and yet at the same time never have them, to be both incapable of forgetting (and hence forgiving) since the Internet is forever, and yet at the same time incapable of remembering, since the rush of words continually races past us (not forgotten, but disappearing)—this is Internet culture, 2015.

And it is unacceptable. Inhuman, and hence incapable of aiding us to be made divine by God’s grace. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us—language is meant to serve its divine purpose always in the end of communion of persons, always towards becoming ‘flesh’ and making our flesh, our concrete experience of life, a communion of love.

Language as a ceaseless flow of binary information across a flat screen is the anti-Incarnation. Language as a roar of verbiage, a clamor and clash of agendas, a fighting for a slight fleeting flicker of attention from the mob, ultimately language as click-bait in the service of generating advertising revenue—this is a perversion of what it is to be. Language is degraded from a quest for truth and understanding ordered towards communion and love to being, essentially, a sales pitch.

In this time of the Synod on the Family, I am concerned to see that roar of language, that clamor and clash and base sophistry of marketing and sales being used to ‘talk about’ (well, sort of) that which is truly a sacred matter, a holy thing. Both the realities of sex, marriage, and family life, but also the reality of the human person made in God’s image, broken by sin but redeemed in Christ—this is the true subject matter of the Synod.

There is a real profanation of the holy, a desecration of God’s image, when the inchoate howl of Internet chatter and punditry engulfs these conversations. I am not talking about the Synod itself—the Pope has decided we need a synod to talk about these things, and I am praying for that synod and doing my best to follow its actual deliberations.

It is the constant blah-blah-blah, the hand wringing, the claxon sounding, the sounding of the alarum against ‘those horrible modernists’ or ‘those horrible traditionalists’, against Kasper or Erdo, Marx or Sarah, the calls to action, the ‘deep concerns and confusion’ of this writer or that writer, the apocalyptic fears on that website or the triumphalist yells on another—all of this is more than divisive and distasteful.

It is sacrilegious. Yes, strong language and so forth. I don’t care. Language is debased and in that debasing of language, actual human beings are damaged, the path of salvation in Christ is obscured, the way of truth and love in the world is made hard to find and ultimately souls beloved of God are made to stumble and fall from that way. And that is scandal, in the exact sense of the word.

So there is a Synod going on. Let us pray for it. Let us address ourselves to our own call to live faithfully the mysteries of family, love, and human sexuality according to our own vocations. And let us otherwise be still and silent. I will not be blogging about the Synod, for the reasons given in this blog post, nor will I be taking any interest in the commentary on same in the media, social or otherwise. And I encourage you to do the same.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mercy is Useless, Unless...

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Psalm 51

Reflection – So now we come to one of the ‘great’ psalms in our Monday Psalter, one which in its own way has been as influential in the Christian tradition as Psalm 23—Psalm 51, the Miserere. This is the great pattern of repentance in our lives – really, a whole theology of repentance can be derived from a careful examination of its text, verse by verse.

Well, we need to talk about repentance these days a little bit more, I think. The Year of Mercy, inaugurated by the Pope of Mercy, is just a couple months away. I was just joking with someone yesterday that I am now officially on the ‘mercy circuit’, going around to various groups in the diocese here especially and talking up the year of mercy and what it might mean in our lives. Mercy is the subject of the day.

But let it be clear, at least to ourselves primarily. Mercy will do us no good in the end without repentance. God is tender, compassionate, kind, gentle, a loving Father. All of this is true to a degree that we honestly are incapable of comprehending. We simply have no idea how much God loves us—we really don’t.

But His love is coming to us, not to creatures who are so awfully good and maybe a little wounded but really have no harm in us, and we’re all quite nice chaps once you get to know us. Uh… it’s not quite like that, is it?

We are rebels. We all have a store of natural goodness and graced virtue in us to some degree, but we have, well, other things too. Malice, impurity of mind and body, dishonesty, pride, vanity, anger, greed. I just wrote a whole book about all that we have churning around in our minds and hearts, and I have yet to have someone read it and say that they did not recognize themselves somewhere in it.
And so this tender, loving, gentle, compassionate God is continually before us—always, always, always. His mercy is unchangeable, unalterable. His entire immutable stance towards us is always that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son—always running out, always waiting to embrace, always clothing us with the robes of our shattered dignity and lost identity.

But… we have to accept that embrace, receive those robes. And that means we have to repent. In the talk about mercy in the Church these days, this sometimes becomes obscured, and we are left thinking that mercy means we never bother about sin and morality ever again. This is a horrible mistake, since our sins are what will drag us down to Hell forever if we do not abandon them. It is hardly an act of mercy to deny that fact, either to ourselves or to other people.

Yes, the presentation of the moral law, the call to repentance always has to be done with such a care for wounded souls—we are not to break the bruised reed or quench the flickering flame. But let’s be clear—mercy without repentance will do us no good. We have to change—all of us have to change, and the whole mercy of God is lavished upon us precisely to bring us to that deep conversion of heart, that profound metanoia of our whole person, to true and lasting repentance so as to enter our Father’s house and feast there forever.

For the rest of what I would say… well, just pray Psalm 51. It’s all in there.