Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Life, Death, and Life Again

But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus:

“Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”
Spe Salvi 10

Reflection – The question Pope Benedict raises here—do we want to live forever?—is one that he goes on the answer in the subsequent paragraphs. I have already blogged about those paragraphs—you can find all my posts on the encyclical here.

I have encountered this attitude of not desiring eternal life—there are people for whom the experience of life is so difficult that the idea of just going on and on without any terminus is not a happy one at all. ‘Monotonous and unbearable’ pretty well sums it up.

The basic answer Pope Benedict gives is that we don’t really know at this point what it means to be ‘alive’ in the full sense of the word. Our experience to this point of ‘life’ is partial and contradictory, marred by sin which is death. ‘Eternal life’ is not just endless duration of this mode of ‘life’.

Rather, it is the total possession of happiness, of beatitude, in a single act of being, an elevation of our being to a participation in the life of God through an outpouring of grace, in technical theological language known as the ‘light of glory’, that we simply have not experienced yet in this short earthly life of ours.

So this is the hope we have. In our popular conception of heaven—I’m thinking of cartoon imagery and the like—we are all sitting around on clouds, more or less the same people we were in this life, with the same limited outlook on things and the same emotional responses. That does seem pretty dreary, and I don’t think plunking on a harp would help pass the time all that much, either. Nor does heaven as some kind of endless party attract me (for example). I’m way too much of an introvert for that to be my idea of a good eternity. Parties are nice, and then they end, and that’s a GOOD thing. And endless bacchanal is more my idea of hell than of heaven.

No, heaven is something much bigger, much deeper, much more real than what the traditional images can really communicate to us these days. We simply do not know what it means to live eternally in God’s presence, and in our days when more and more people have essentially ceased to have spiritual lives in any real sense of prolonged prayer and attentive hearts listening to the Holy Spirit, it is more and more difficult to communicate what it is we are talking about.

But the other point he raises in this paragraph is important, too. Life in this mode, even when it is more good than bad, more joy and delight than sorrow and pain, does wear thin after the first eighty or ninety years or so. Sin and the ravages of sin, the effect of which include the breakdown of matter and spirit, the ultimate collapse of the physical structure, do make the arrival of death in its right time more of a mercy of God than a terrible curse.

We are not euthanasiasts ending life precipitously and in violation of the fifth commandment, eradicating suffering at the price of human dignity and purpose. At the same time we are not vitalists, desperately hanging on to bodily organic life at all costs, intervening medically to prolong life long past the point where there is any hope of recovery or improvement of the patient’s condition.

There is a time to simply allow the person to die, to graciously accede to the process of dying in right order. And the reason we can embrace this inevitability of physical death peacefully is because of our hope of eternal life, that there is something quite different awaiting us, that our lives, in a sense, truly begin when this life ends.

As our society ages these questions of life and death become more and more acute, and it truly will be necessary for those of us who are Catholic to get our minds and hearts clear on these delicate and complex matters. We are never to seek death, never to kill, but we are to receive death as a merciful entrance into Life, a gift ultimately given to us by God, so as to usher us over its threshold into this mysterious thing we call heaven and eternity.

Much more could and needs to be said on this subject (for another day…), but that’s all I have time and space for today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Substance of Hope

We have spoken thus far of faith and hope in the New Testament and in early Christianity; yet it has always been clear that we are referring not only to the past: the entire reflection concerns living and dying in general, and therefore it also concerns us here and now. So now we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?

Is it “performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just “information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information? In the search for an answer, I would like to begin with the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers and the infant's rebirth in Christ.

First of all the priest asked what name the parents had chosen for the child, and then he continued with the question: “What do you ask of the Church?” Answer: “Faith”. “And what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”. According to this dialogue, the parents were seeking access to the faith for their child, communion with believers, because they saw in faith the key to “eternal life”.

Today as in the past, this is what being baptized, becoming Christians, is all about: it is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope.
Spe Salvi 10

Reflection – I have presented already on this blog most of this encyclical, back in the ‘Life With a German Shepherd’ days when I started blogging. When I was contemplating what I should blog about next, it occurred to me that perhaps I should just do the few paragraphs that have gone unblogged so far, so that the whole encyclical has been done. The rest of my posts on Spe Salvi can be found here.

It occurred to me that this is timely because we are in such dark times in the world right now, the violence, war, and vicious attack on innocent lives reaching a new crescendo of evil in Iraq, for sure, but the shock waves of this are felt in many corners of the world. In such times, a word of hope is all that more valuable.

Hope is a slippery, elusive thing. We use the word, properly, to describe all sorts of things: ‘I hope it’s a nice day tomorrow… I hope I get that job… I hope the tests come back negative… I hope she’s OK…’ Normal, natural hope, and sometimes our hopes are fulfilled, sometimes not.

But hope in the Christian sense—supernatural hope—is of a completely different character. It is both stronger and weaker than natural hope. Weaker, because there is nothing we can do whatsoever to secure the hope of eternal life; it is completely beyond our power to attain heaven. Stronger, because God wills to do in us what we can in no ways do ourselves, and while our efforts are prone to frustration and failure, His work is certain, sure, and unimpeded.

I think we often fall into great discouragement because we confound the two hopes. We yearn for all kinds of naturally good things—health and prosperity, peace and happy relationships, worldly success and long life—and that is fine, but then we sort of look to God for these things, as proofs of His love and His real presence in our lives.

But He never promised us any of those things. He promised us eternal life with Him in heaven. He promised us that He would be with us always, live in us. He promised us that He would prepare us a place where He is with the Father. He promised us mercy, forgiveness, and love. Not a word about physical health, financial security, or freedom from trouble and affliction (quite the opposite, really).

Christian hope is meant to be a rudder that keeps us pointed God-ward, heaven-ward, and eternity-ward. 

It is ‘performative’, in that it makes us radically prioritize our whole life towards our living communion with God, our following of Christ, our total obedience and surrender towards Him, not because He’s going to make us rich and famous, but because it is in this communion that we have the hope of heaven and eternity. And it is this hope that sustains us through the collapse of all human hopes, through dark times and fearful events in the world and in our own personal lives. And this is what we will be looking at this next week or so on the blog.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Take a Good Look Around

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth
Psalm 8
Reflection – Monday Psalter time again. We have had quite a sequence of psalms so far that have had strong elements of distress, cries for help, anguish in suffering, and confrontation with evil.

Now, as if to give a relief from this necessary aspect of prayer, we have a psalm that simply praises God and exults in his work and his greatness. There is something of a lesson for us in this, too (the psalms are, among other things, the great schoolbook of prayer for the Church). That is, we have to leave off our lamenting and groaning over the state of the world and of our own lives, once in a while, to simply rejoice in the goodness and beauty of God.

Something is badly amiss in our faith if we never stop, take a good look around us, and glorify God for his majestic name. No matter what is happening in our lives, what terrible sorrow or grief we may carry (and it can be severe, I do know), there is a larger world than that sorrow surrounding us, and a larger God who embraces it, and praise breaks us through to that larger world, on the level of faith if not that of our emotions.

The specific praise of psalm 8 flows from apprehending the beauty and greatness of creation on the one hand, and the immense royal dignity given to human beings on the other hand. The human person as the master of the world, of all created things, given dominion and crowned with glory and honor—this is the great cause of our wonder and joy in this psalm.

Environmentalists have wrongly identified this strand of biblical theology with the subsequent destruction of the environment from the industrial revolution onwards. This is utterly illogical and deeply silly, since I do not think the normal course of being given stewardship over a thing is to wreck it and ruin it. Generally, we take care of things we are given responsibility for.

I also don’t think the architects of the industrial revolution and of modern heavy industry were much occupied with a spirit of deep piety and constant meditation upon Genesis 1. The general idea seems to have been to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, poisoning earth, air, water, and maiming and killing one’s own workers in that process. To lay all that at the feet of the biblical theology of creation is a stretch at best, a ludicrous calumny in fact.

Meanwhile, Psalm 8 is a fantastic celebration of human dignity precisely because creation is such a wonderful, marvellous thing, and God has paid us such a compliment in asking us to take care of it. And this psalm takes on a deeper resonance yet when prayed in the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Human dominion over creation has been elevated to a new height, the man Jesus of Nazareth seated on the very throne of heaven, and calling us to love creation the way He loves it, to have our small human love and care for the world suffused and transformed into a share in the divine cosmic tenderness and mercy for the whole universe.

There is much to ponder in all this, much to meditate on, and much profit to be had from praying Psalm 8 in the spirit of Christian faith. The whole relationship of human beings to God and to creation in a sense is found in this rather short psalm. So let us pray it, and in praying it lift our minds and hearts to this immense vision of life, and above all praise and thank God for having made all things so wondrous and well.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - August 16-22

This was a quieter week in Madonna House, in one sense. After the big events of last week—August 15 and all that went with it—many of our guests left, and we are a smaller house now. A few new guests have arrived, mind you, and so our life goes—they come and they go and the work of hospitality rolls on and on.

It is also more of an ordinary week in our work life, too. Ordinary does not mean inactive or unbusy, but simply that we are quietly attending to what needs attending to. I realize that this column has started to read like the farm report lately, but that is the simple fact of life for MH at this time of year. Our food for the winter hinges on the labor being done by our farmers and food processors at St. Benedict’s Acres, our community farm, and in late August and onwards, that means it is the main event of our life.

So this week we all went up one evening and harvested the onions, and nice big onions they were, too. A good crop, thanks be to God, as this is one of our food staples. They will cure and dry in one of our barns for a few weeks before being put into winter root cellar storage.

Meanwhile, the women who do the herculean job of processing the incoming harvest have been dealing less with our own garden produce and more with donated items that needed processing. Apparently I have been remiss in not mentioning the gargantuan amount of peaches that has dominated the lives of our women guests, who have washed and chopped them endlessly for canning. Meanwhile, two of our men went to southern Ontario to pick up a large donation of tomatoes and peppers that will get the same treatment.

We do try to grow as much of our own food as we can, for reasons of holy poverty, but there are some crops that just don’t do well up in our parts—most fruits, for example, and grains and legumes—so we are profoundly grateful for the benefactors who have given us these items over the years.

I have referred to the ‘food processors’ more than once in recent weeks, but it is worth noting that this job is actually just about the main work of the MH women’s department at this time of year. Most of the other departments reduce down to skeleton crews and just about every able-bodied woman, including most of the women guests who are with us, is up at the farm washing, chopping, slicing, dicing, canning, freezing—the crops start coming in all at once right now and with the exception of the root vegetables they all need something done to them to preserve for the winter.

The three or four women who run the operation go up to the farm early in the morning and often stay well into the evening—it is a genuine labor of love and service to the family without which the herculean labor of love and service of our farmers would go to waste.

So, that’s the farm and food report for the week! Elsewise, our applicants have gone on pilgrimage to Quebec City, where they will visit the saints of Quebec who founded the Church in this country, and go through the holy doors at the cathedral there. It has become something of a tradition that the first-year applicants do something of this nature at this time of year, coming back from the trip no longer first-year, but second year, ready to greet the new applicants who will be joining them on September 8.

Odds and ends: the men in the maintenance department have been doing lots of small repairs around the place. Those who know MH remember all the little railings that surround our lawns and parking lots—they had all gotten pretty time-worn, and are all being replaced with new logs. The place looks great. The shops continue to be busy, and the ‘hospitality department’ (aka, whoever is around the house to receive and give tours to stray visitors!) is in demand just about every day.

As always, I’m sure there are virtually dozens of things going on in MH that I am simply unaware of, but that’s all I can think of for this week. Know that you are in my prayers, and that all of us here are very much aware of and interceding for the world in these troubled times, and offering up the work of our hands and our hearts for the restoration of peace and for all the victims of violence and hatred in our days.