Monday, October 31, 2011

Learned Ignorance

St.  Ambrose of Milan said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind's salvation.” Whatever precisely he may have meant by these words, it is true that to eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is—this is what it should be like. Besides, what we call “life” in our everyday language is not real “life” at all. Saint Augustine, in the extended letter on prayer which he addressed to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow and mother of three consuls, once wrote this: ultimately we want only one thing—”the blessed life”, the life which is simply life, simply “happiness”. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,” he says, quoting Saint Paul (Rom ). All we know is that it is not this. Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist. “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak”, he writes. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this “true life”; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.
Spe Salvi 11
Reflection - What a lovely passage this is from Spe Salvi. I didn't plan it this way (I will spare you the details, but the way I select passages for the blog resembles nothing quite so much as throwing darts blindfolded in the dark - what gets hit, gets blogged about, basically), but here we are on the eve of November, the e'en of All Hallows (hey, that has a great ring to it - someone should turn that into a holiday!). And it is the month of the dead, the month of death in the Catholic calendar.
Time for us, amidst the grey and bareness of the late fall/early winter terrain, to think about that other world, that other life which is simply 'life', simply the possession of happiness, to which we long and yearn even as we thrash about grabbing for every sweet thing we can get our hands on. Candy... and chocolate... and licorice... and (hey, that sounds really good! Someone should come up with some sort of tie in with candy this time of year!)
Anyhow. What a great reading from the Pope. We do yearn for sweetness, for joy, for all manner of good things... and we don't seem to quite find it all here, not really. Too much candy rots your teeth and gives you a tummy ache. But what is this that we want that we cannot find here?
I love the phrase from Augustine - learned ignorance. It means that we have to learn that we do not know what we want. We have to learn that we're made for something that we don't know much about. All the spooky oogly-googly stuff around death and zombies (hey! Maybe that could fit in the candy and all that!) bears witness to that: we just don't know what comes next. Even if we're Christians, we don't really know.
But we know we want something. And hopefully we know and believe (a little bit?) in God's love for us, which is the heart of matter like I said yesterday. So we know and believe, maybe just a bit, that there is a life waiting us, a joy in store for us, that life is gearing us up for a treat, not a dirty, mean trick.
And this is what we will be pondering in the Church in November. Everything around us is dying, but we do not die, even if we die. And so, Happy Hallowe'en! Don't eat too much, and don't let the monsters scare you. There are no monsters, because Christ has conquered death and filled the universe with his victorious light. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn ). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.
We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life” (). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel's faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (; cf. Mk -31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn ), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.
Deus Caritas Est 1
Reflection – Do you know and believe in God’s love for you? Do I? It really is the central matter, you know. All the sound theology, all the ritual observance, all the moral wisdom of the Church (all of which I accept and rejoice in unconditionally), if they lack the central knowledge of God’s immeasurable, personal love for you, for me, for the lady down the street, the young punk on the subway, the obnoxious co-worker, the trying in-laws, for the corrupt politician, the abortionist, the pedophile—if it is lacking that knowledge, that deep knowledge, then all the other stuff is missing its central heart, its core, its life principle.
Theology without love becomes a dead formal system; liturgy without love becomes empty gestures; morality without love becomes the tight-lipped prudishness of the Pharisee. It is the living encounter with God in Christ that gives life and freshness and vibrancy to all the rest of it; without that, everything withers and fades.
The love of God is indeed the central and urgent question of life. But many people would, in fact, hesitate to answer yes to the above question, ‘do you know and believe in God’s love for yourself?’ What are we to do? How are we to come to this knowledge?
Prayer really is the place we come to this, prayer and meditation on the Word of God, particularly the Gospels. Asking the Holy Spirit to teach us; contemplating the face of Christ revealed to us in the Word; repeating the name of Jesus frequently in our hearts: Jesus, have mercy on me, Jesus, I trust you, Jesus, I thank you, Jesus, I love you.
It is here, and in all this, that we are ‘mysteriously visited’, in the words of Paul Evdokimov. And it is out of this knowledge of God’s love, personally poured out for me, that I come to know his love for everyone, especially for those I may not love much, for those I dislike or be inclined to have contempt for. And out of knowing God’s love for me, I can begin to love my neighbour. And this is how we transform our world—letting God’s love fill us, so we have an inexhaustible store of love to share with everyone else.
It really is the heart of the matter.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Behold The New Color Scheme

OK - so people have said the blog is too dark and purply and hard to read. Well, this is what I'm trying. Feedback?

The Next Hundred Years

These hells [of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot] were constructed in order to be able to bring about the future world of man who was his own master, who was no longer supposed to need any God. Man was offered in sacrifice to the Moloch of that utopia of a god-free world, a world set free from God, for man was now wholly in control of his own destiny and knew no limits to his ability to determine things, because there was no longer any God set over him, because no light of the image of God shone forth any more from man.
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 284-5
Reflection – One of the things Catherine de Hueck Doherty found rather difficult about living among North Americans for most of her adult life was that most of us didn’t have a clue, really, about the experience of Russia and Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Oh, we might know the history—and of course, in her earlier years most of the young people with her had lived through the history themselves, but from this side of the Atlantic.
She, meanwhile, had been there. She had been shot at by Communists, bombed by Nazis, heard Hitler and Lenin speak, had to run for her life more than once. She was a witness to the rampages of Moloch that the Pope describes in this passage.
And of course, so was he such a witness, growing up in the horror of Nazi Germany. We who are either too young or from another part of the world simply did not witness it, however well we may have tried to study the history of things.
Both of them, then, speak with a certain intensity and seriousness about this question of building a world without God. The idea that we can toss God out the window and somehow keep on being nice sweet people to each other had been shown to be a lie in their own countries.
The truth is, super-nature abhors a vacuum. If God is dethroned, something else rushes in to fill the void. And that something else has not had a good track record so far: the Soviet worker’s paradise, the Aryan supremacy, the Maoist great leap forward… and tens of millions of corpses later, here we are.
To live without God on a society-wide scale ultimately turns against man; without God, some temporal social good is elevated to the level of the highest good, and since it is strictly temporal, it must be achieved at all costs. And so we kill anyone who stands in the way. This is the simple tragic history of the 20th century. Other centuries have other tragic histories, and some of those tragedies have to do with the dangers and distortions of religion, but the story of the past 100 years has simply been that of the insane outcome to the project of modern atheism lived out in a society.
Atheists will object that all of those massacres derive, not from atheism, but from ideology, and that atheism does not necessarily lead to ideology. What they fail to understand is that atheism does lead necessarily to ideology, for the simple reason that human beings need to have a reason to live. If our reason to live cannot be found in some transcendent, divine sphere, it must be found here and now; if the kingdom is not to come, it must be here, or we will do everything and anything to make it here. And without a God who watches us as Judge, there is no real reason to stay our hands from any monstrous deed to achieve it.
As I say, this is the simple sad story of the last hundred years in much of the world. Will it be the simple sad story for the next hundred years, and maybe not only in ‘those places over there’, but here too? I guess that’s our decision.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Changes in Blog Design

As regular readers will note, I'm playing around with the blog design a bit. I always appreciate feedback, being completely incompetent in matters artistic.

It Must Be For Something

The freedom of the individual to order his own life is declared [today] to be the real goal of societal life. Community has no value whatever in itself but exists only to allow the individual to be himself. However, if the individual freedom presented here as the highest goal lacks contents, it dissolves into thin air, since individual freedom can exist only when freedoms are correctly ordered. Individual freedom needs measure, for otherwise it turns into violence directed against others.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 54

Reflection – Ratzinger continues here a theme which has defined his life: the nature of freedom and its relationship to truth, and what is needed for modern society to remain free.
One of his truly great contributions to the conversation has been this insight that ‘freedom without content [i.e. truth] destroys itself.’ What I want, you want, he wants, and she wants are directly contradictory. If we all pursue our ‘freedom’ without reference to a moral law or some larger vision of reality, we will fight to the death and then none of us will be free.
This has been the tragic story of humanity so many times. The phrase ‘pyrrhic victory’ describes it: even the one who ‘wins’ the battle for supremacy has paid such a heavy price in defeating all others that his or her freedom is either non-existent or utterly valueless. If I have to climb over a mountain of dead bodies to attain what I wish, will I really enjoy it once I get there?
Individual freedom needs measure, Ratzinger says. In other words, freedom has to be for something, a freedom that has a meaning. And it cannot just be whatever meaning I want to give it: that collapses back into the individualistic striving that destroys freedom.
Individual freedom only exists within a communal life, then, within a society where a positive vision of what life is about exists and all can fit their own path of freedom and life into this larger vision.
Religion has always been able to produce such a common vision; secularity has not yet done this, but has left us as little anomic individuals jostling against each other. Atheism, when it has become the dominant social ideology, has produced visions of human life that have resulted in human sacrifice numbering in the millions.
The Roman Catholic Church has passed through 2000 years of engaging in these questions. It has made mistakes along the way (at risk of over-simplifying, the excesses of the Inquisition and the Crusades among them). But it has shown a capacity to learn from its mistakes and presents today, in the person of Pope Benedict among others, a truly deep and beautiful vision of how a society can organize in such a way that freedom rests on truth and human dignity is primary. And this—or something like this—is what our world is urgently in need of today.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Can We Talk?

[By the 19th century] in the final analysis all that man could really know was what was repeatable, what he could put before his eyes at any time in an experiment… he might have resignedly noticed that so far as his past was concerned he was just earth, a mere chance development… he does not need to be disturbed by this any longer, for now, wherever he comes from, he can look his future in the eye with the determination to make himself into whatever he wishes… the reduction of man to a ‘fact’ is the precondition for recognizing him as a faciendum [something to be made], which is to be led out of its own resources into a new future.

Introduction to Christianity, 36-7

Reflection – This passage is from a long analysis by then-Fr. Ratzinger of the devolution of truth from the classical-medieval definition of the mind corresponding to the reality of the perceived object, through truth as only being about our knowledge of our own artifacts, to the movement he describes here: truth as limited to the outcomes of the positive sciences, to what could be proved in laboratory tests, measured and manipulated for some end of our own.
The critique of this reduction of truth to positive science has been a major theme in Ratzinger’s entire career. He has often pointed out that this notion of truth, besides excluding God and the moral law (which many see as a feature, not a bug, and indeed as one of the primary goals of logical positivism!), also excludes the goodness and worth of the human person, the primacy of love, the question of justice, and a host of other human goods that few would want to see removed from this world.
And indeed this is what he is getting at in this passage (which I acknowledge is a bit abstruse). If truth only applies to lab results and technological outcomes, then the way is open for the human person to be manipulated, refashioned, shaped and twisted in whatever way those holding the levers of power deem appropriate today.
We see this in the current aggressive push to the deconstruction of human sexuality. The prior norm of sexuality, heterosexual marriage, has been rejected, and the only norm operative now is consent and autonomy. All forms of sexual expression—the whole LGBTQQI2SLMNOP schemozzle—are equal, and anyone who suggests otherwise is increasingly liable to civil or even criminal prosecution (is this blog post a crime?).
The dangers of this to everyone are obvious. The aggressive push to normalize all forms of human sexual expression and to punish those who (like myself) assert that only human sexual intercourse can only licitly occur within a heterosexual marriage now reflects the ascendancy of relativism and the sexual revolution.
But the one thing we have to say about society is that it’s always changing, and the changes are anything but predictable. What if some other group with some other ideology of sex (say, for example, radical Islam?) seizes the reins of power 50 years from now? By the reasoning of the current wielders of power, anyone who dissents from the socially advanced good of humanity is to be punished and ostracized; will they be content to be punished and ostracized in turn when the balance of power shifts away from them, and some other vision of the social good holds sway?
Underlying this specific controversial matter is the attitude towards truth and the human person that emerged from 19th century positivism and associated philosophies. Is there a truth about human life that is accessible to our minds? Could it include both a norm of human sexuality, and an irreducible commitment to human dignity and goodness? Can we take our stand on the call to radical freedom at the heart of humanity, and can this create a space in society for open speech, fearless debate, a true sincere quest for the real and the life-giving in all areas of life? In short, can we talk about this? Or are we just mute matter to be shaped and formed, bullied and scorned into a rigid pattern of social conformity? A great deal depends on what we mean by the word ‘truth’ and how we understand our relationship and commitment to it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jesus or Barabbas?

At the culmination of Jesus’ trial, Pilate presents the people with a choice between Jesus and Barabbas… But who was Barabbas?.. The Greek word for ‘robber’ [was] in Palestine a synonym for resistance fighter… [Barabbas] was one of the prominent resistance fighters… In other words, Barabbas was a messianic figure. The choice of Jesus versus Barabbas is not accidental; two messianic figures, two forms of messianic belief stand in opposition.
Jesus of Nazareth Vol 1, 40
Reflection – ‘All the kingdoms of the earth shall be given to you, if you bow down and worship me.’ This is the context in which Pope Benedict writes about Jesus and Barabbas here: the third temptation of Christ in the desert by Satan.
The temptation of power, and what a powerful one it is for us! Whether it is the alluring power of revolutionary change, of forcing the world into a better shape through violence, or the more subtle forms of that temptation, salvation through power is, well, a powerful one for us.
What are these more subtle forms? Well, ‘taking control’ of my life. ‘Getting my act together’. ‘Being the boss,’ in whatever forum you happen to have that option.
All of these can have value, properly understood. Someone has to be the boss, after all! But they are not salvation, not the end of the road, not goods in themselves. They’re only good as means to the end which is to love as Jesus loved and give our lives as a ransom for many, through, with, and in Him.
As subtle as its expressions may be in our lives, and as carefully as we must discern what’s going on in our own hearts in it all, it really is a stark choice. Either I’m trying to make my life what it should be by forcing my plans/ideas/agendas/druthers on it, or I’m standing with Jesus before Pilate, before His Father, before the world. And in my life ‘in the crowd’ I have to choose, too: will I go with the powerful, charismatic person who promises to fix everything just nice… if I give him or her control over everything, or do I stand with Jesus, with the strange mysterious Messiah who beckons me on the path of love and obedience, who promises me a kingdom, but not of this world, who promises me eternal joy and bliss and perfect justice wedded to perfect mercy, not as I would have it, but as His Father in heaven dispenses it.
We have to choose, you know. We really do. And so many people choose the way of power and control. To decide that that way is illusory and leads nowhere, and that the way of the suffering Messiah alone leads to life is to plunge ourselves into a totality of  faith that many find daunting. But it is that totality of faith that alone secures our hope, and that security of hope that alone can bring us into the fullness of love. And that love is what will bring us the joy and peace our hearts desire.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What May We Hope?

Let us ask once again: what may we hope? And what may we not hope? First of all, we must acknowledge that incremental progress is possible only in the material sphere. Here, amid our growing knowledge of the structure of matter and in the light of ever more advanced inventions, we clearly see continuous progress towards an ever greater mastery of nature. Yet in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man's freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning. Naturally, new generations can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before, and they can draw upon the moral treasury of the whole of humanity. But they can also reject it, because it can never be self-evident in the same way as material inventions. The moral treasury of humanity is not readily at hand like tools that we use; it is present as an appeal to freedom and a possibility for it. This, however, means that:
a) The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order. Freedom requires conviction; conviction does not exist on its own, but must always be gained anew by the community.
b) Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.
Spe Salvi 24
Reflection - This is such a brilliant, lucid passage from the encyclical that little commentary is needed. We cannot create structures that will ensure a good world, a world where people will do what is right. This is impossible: 'doing what is right' must come from human freedom, and it cannot be compelled.
Whether we opt for an increasingly de-regulated society where the free market more or less is allowed to run its course, or a highly regulated society where government's heavy hand keeps firm control on the movement of goods and services, the reality of human freedom and human choice will still have the last word on whether or not our society is a cold, grasping fight to the finish where (to take a current example) two year old girls are left to die on roadsides, or a human place, never perfect, but where a measure of love and charity softens the hardest blows of fortune's ill wind.
There is no economic or political system that will make people be kind or gentle or giving. There is no religion that will 'make' them do that, either - human freedom is an awesome, irreducible fact. But it is the individual choices that we make to be kind or gentle or giving... or cold, selfish, and mean... that make the world what it is.
And so Pope Benedict leaves us at this point in the encyclical to ponder our choices, to take our freedom seriously, and to shoulder the burden of creating a more human, more loving world, not principally by agitating for social change or political reform, but by choosing today to love my neighbor as myself.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

We See It Over and Over Again

[Reason] becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path, and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself. Otherwise, man's situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgment in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation. Thus where freedom is concerned, we must remember that human freedom always requires a convergence of various freedoms. Yet this convergence cannot succeed unless it is determined by a common intrinsic criterion of measurement, which is the foundation and goal of our freedom. Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope. Given the developments of the modern age, the quotation from Saint Paul with which I began (Eph ) proves to be thoroughly realistic and plainly true. There is no doubt, therefore, that a “Kingdom of God” accomplished without God—a kingdom therefore of man alone—inevitably ends up as the “perverse end” of all things as described by Kant: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again. Yet neither is there any doubt that God truly enters into human affairs only when, rather than being present merely in our thinking, he himself comes towards us and speaks to us. Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their mission.
Spe Salvi 23
Reflection – So we continue our journey through Spe Salvi and what it has to say about human hope and modern progress. It is fascinating, and very telling, that the Holy Father focuses his discussion of hope on the question of human freedom: certainly, our true hope as human beings is that we enter into deeper and deeper expression of freedom in our lives.
What a lie this gives to those who speak of Catholicism as a repressive, totalitarian religion! The whole good of human beings, in the Catholic understanding, is found in total freedom. But this freedom cannot, Pope Benedict reasons, be a matter of everyone doing just what they want. This model of freedom is self-destructive, as what I want may prevent you from doing what you want; what you and I want together may prevent him and her from doing what they want… and so on. If this vision of freedom is the only one on offer, we are stuck… well, pretty much with the world we have now, where all are caught in a battle against all, and it’s winner take all and the divil take the hindmost. And, as the Holy Father say, we see this over and over again.
‘Freedom to’ do this and that has to be held in the deeper reality of ‘freedom for’ – what are we made for, what is the good of life, where do we find it, how do we attain it? Without this we degrade to the animal level of competition and mutually assured destruction. With it, we become human. And this humanity is a matter, then, of being on a pilgrimage of truth and love, justice and mercy. A pilgrimage towards what is real and life-giving, a pilgrimage towards God.
This is what he means when he writes that man without God has no hope. We have to be going somewhere that is bigger than our own selves and their needs and wants. But in the material universe there is nothing bigger than us, except in the unimportant matter of physical dimension. So if we are headed anywhere at all (that is, if there is hope) we must be heading towards something greater than the material universe, and this (as Aquinas would put it) all men call God.
But of course Pope Benedict would not be true to Joseph Ratzinger’s lifetime of reflection if he did not point out that this God we are on pilgrimage towards has Himself made a pilgrimage of sorts towards us. We could never walk to heaven on our little stumpy legs; instead, heaven has come to us, and this is where faith meets reason to make it possible for reason to attain the goal that alone makes reason meaningful and good.
Deep stuff here, eh? And as we look at a world where Gadhaffi is gunned down like a rabid dog, protestors ‘occupy’ any street they can get their hands on, stock markets reel and rock with the latest turn of events, and we all furrow our collective brow with uncertainty and anxiety—well, we have to go into these depths. We are living in deep waters right now; the world is in trouble. Maybe it always is, but we just see it really clearly now. But as the psalm says, ‘deep calls upon deep’—the deep waters we are treading call us to enter the true depths of God, faith, freedom, and hope. Only thus will we attain our safe harbour.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

To Make a World Worthy of Us

As far as the two great themes of “reason” and “freedom” are concerned, here we can only touch upon the issues connected with them. Yes indeed, reason is God's great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human.
Spe Salvi 23
Reflection – We’ve been talking about human progress these past few days on the blog, and of course my motivation in going to the encyclical Spe Salvi and seeing what the Pope has to say there about that topic is the current climate in the world of unrest. Whether it is riots in Greece, Italy, or England, ‘occupations’ on Wall Street and various other cities in North America, or just a persistent feeling of malaise shared by many people today, the question of progress – where are we going? – is becoming an urgent one.
My heart goes out in all this to young people today, speaking as a not-so-long-ago young person. The world does seem to be, if not on the edge of a collapse, at the very least pretty darn creaky right now, and prospects for the future are not terribly bright at the present moment. None of us know what is coming, but there are many signs of impending hardship and the political and social turmoil that will bring.
It was a similar atmosphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that wrought the twin horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and all the human tragedy that came from them. So it is important for us to reflect on where we are going and how we can face the (possible) hard times ahead.
It is in this context that the need for reason, for human reason applied to the problems of the day, arises. God gave us this great gift, the gift to not only be immersed in the immediate present, its stimuli and appetites, but to take in the whole of reality, to behold, to analyze, to determine, and to act in accordance with the knowledge that comes from these acts.
The Pope here underlines that reason detached or opposed or indifferent to God is reason that has fallen short of its task. Human reason empowers us little frail material creatures to be in relationship with cosmic reality, to embrace, to take in the universal truth of Being. So when we ignore ultimate questions – God, morality, love, justice – in favor of mere technical prowess, we become less than human. Reason becomes for us in that way nothing much more than the crocodile’s jaws or the grizzly bears paws: a blunt object to be used to get us what we want.
Reason, to be truly human, must reach out to the ultimate realities of truth and goodness, the origin and end of the universe. But these ultimate realities are not themselves entirely accessible to us through mere analytical technical rationality. There is no laboratory test that will determine the meaning of life, the demands of justice, the measure of love, the beauty and goodness of my brother or sister, or the existence and nature of God.
To limit reason to what we can do in a laboratory cuts us off from everything that makes life good and human and meaningful. And to do that condemns us then, to merely thrash around in the days ahead, struggling to get what’s ours before someone else gets it, to carve out some little personal fiefdom where I and mine, at least, can have an OK life – and the rest of the world can go to Hell, frankly (excuse my language).
We have to do better than that, but the only way to do better than that is to plunge ourselves deeply into the ultimate realities of life: faith, hope, love, justice, beauty, God. And from that we can rebuild our world into something more truly human, something that is worthy of the goodness and beauty God has implanted in us.

Friday, October 21, 2011

If Saint Francis of Assisi Had an Atom Bomb...

Again, we find ourselves facing the question: what may we hope? A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots. On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

Spe Salvi 22

Reflection – Well, this paragraph is a bit heavy, isn’t it! A bit cumbersome, a bit dense, and I’m afraid the next few posts will have this quality – it’s a dense part of the encyclical. But it’s vital – in this current era we seem to be moving into when people are so discontented and there is such a sense of crisis, of looming disaster, we need to clarify our thinking about questions of progress and hope and the Christian view of these matters.
Really, what Pope Benedict is saying here is quite simple. Catherine Doherty, in her inimitable way used to say the same thing all the time. Whenever the subject of nuclear weapons came up, Catherine had one basic thing to say: “If St. Francis of Assisi was in charge of the atom bomb, nobody would worry!”
This may sound simplistic, silly even (what a great picture, though: the Poverello entrusted with the nuclear football, the launch codes that only the president holds!). But actually what she is saying is exactly what Pope Benedict is saying: “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation… then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”
The Pope is clearly not anti-progress here. The Church throughout its history has been a great engine of human progress: so much of the Scientific Revolution can be traced back to the sponsorship of the Church, and indeed from the rational world view that springs from Christian theology, properly understood.
But he is criticizing the ideology of progress – the view that a simple expansion in technical capacity is an unambiguous and sufficient good for mankind. That the hope of the world lies in expanding our human powers, our human control of the forces of nature.
This needs to be critiqued, and he does a masterful job of it here.
The truth is that we have to be something before we can know what to do with whatever power we have accrued to ourselves. And this being is by necessity a question of personal choice, freedom, the decision of the individual to seek the path of righteousness and love.
Pope Benedict is going to proceed to develop this thought, so I will stop here. But I will return to what I’ve been saying, one way or another, in post after post lately. If we want to change the world for the better, if we do say we want a revolution, if we do want a more just and free and charitable society, we have to look to… well, to St. Francis for starters, perhaps. To the saints. To the ones who allowed Christ in to their inmost hearts, allowed him to take them and break them and refashion them according to his own heart. This is what changes the world, this and nothing else.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

There Is No Redemption...

Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx's fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another. Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.
Spe Salvi 21
Reflection – So we see here the failure of Marxism. It is not simply that he had good ideas which got corrupted by his later followers (Lenin and Stalin and Mao, etc.). It is that Marxism is based on a fundamentally flawed anthropology, a vision of the human person that is not correct.
Well, maybe that’s all quite obvious to the readers of this blog, even as Marxism seems to be having some kind of small neo-resurgence, and not just in the OWS protesters. But we have to proceed carefully here: the Marxist anthropology can pervade all sorts of worldviews, even ours if we’re not careful.
If we can just fix the liturgy: liturgical justice for all! If we can just learn the right rules for getting ahead or romantic relationships or having a vibrant social life. If we just arrange the outward realities, be they economic or social or personal or ecclesial or… and above all, if we just seize power in our life, then we can usher in the New Jerusalem.
No. The central key matter is always human freedom encountering God’s freedom. The central and key matter is always my choice, right now, to love or not love, serve or not serve, listen and obey and pray, or not.
There is no revolution, no social upheaval, no programme of change, no dictatorship of the proletariat (or Fr. Denis, or you) that is going to ‘redeem us from the outside’, as Pope Benedict so aptly puts it here. It is the true revolution, which is the living encounter with Love, the flame that shoots from the heart of the Trinity and wills to enkindle our own hearts—this is redemption, and this and this alone is the power that changes the world.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution?

The nineteenth century held fast to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope, and it continued to consider reason and freedom as the guiding stars to be followed along the path of hope. Nevertheless, the increasingly rapid advance of technical development and the industrialization connected with it soon gave rise to an entirely new social situation: there emerged a class of industrial workers and the so-called “industrial proletariat”, whose dreadful living conditions Friedrich Engels described alarmingly in 1845. For his readers, the conclusion is clear: this cannot continue; a change is necessary. Yet the change would shake up and overturn the entire structure of bourgeois society. After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution: progress could not simply continue in small, linear steps. A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God”. Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change. With great precision, albeit with a certain onesided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination. Real revolution followed, in the most radical way in Russia.
   Spe Salvi 20 
Reflection - I think, in light of the current protests going on in various cities, that it would be good to reflect with the Holy Father from this part of his encyclical on hope on the nature of progress, revolution, and our response to social unrest and injustice.
I have heard (obviously, "Occupy Combermere" is a no-go so far, so no chances to observe directly!) that there is a fair amount of Marxist literature and rhetoric present in these protests. I do realize that the organizers and the attendees are coming at the situation from a host of different perspectives, but nonetheless it does seem that there is a revolutionary current at least present enough to be noticeable there.
I'm not sure what to make of that. Marxism came out of the deep sufferings of the Industrial Revolution and the suppression of the working class of Europe, yet was more widely embraced by the intelligentsia and cultural elites of the day. The phenomenon of persistent Marxism into the present day, besides being evidence of a truly alarming historical amnesia, bears witness to something deep in the human soul, I think.
We want a world without suffering. We want justice. We want things to be what they should be. And we know the present state of affairs is not how it should be.
So - tear everything down! Reduce it to rubble! The revolutionary impulse goes deep in us - I think it actually has deep connections to residual Christianity and the promise of the kingdom.
But, a kingdom without Christ. Justice without a Judge. An end to suffering imposed by human fiat, not by the transforming power of Love.
It doesn't work. It never has. And it has brought calamitous suffering and evil in its wake, wherever and whenever it has been tried.
At the same time, we who are Christians, who do (we say) love Justice and long for the kingdom and have compassion for the suffering - we have to do more than just critique and mock the OWS movement. They are longing for something, and at least some of them are looking to, of all people, Karl Marx for answers.
We have another answer, and so I will be continuing to lay out the Holy Father's vision of things over the next few posts. It seems timely.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Do We Get There From Here?

True, the Eucharistic body of the Lord is meant to bring us together, so that we become his ‘true Body’. But the gift of the Eucharist can do this only because in it the Lord gives us his true Body. Only the true Body in the Sacrament can build up the true body of the new City of God.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 88

Reflection –  One of the painful and at times infuriating aspects of life in the Catholic Church in the past 50 years or so has been the frequent occurrence of and reliance on the 'fallacy of false opposites' in theological and pastoral discussions.
You know what I mean by that – we’ve all encountered it. God is either transcendent (beyond us) or immanent (with us). Moral theology is either legalistic (absolute prohibitions) or pastoral (concerned with the needs of people). You must be either a liberal (concerned with freedom) or conservative (valuing tradition). And so on and so on.
Of course all of this is sheer and utter nonsense. God can be intimately present in every corner of his universe only because He is Utterly Transcendent. Nothing is more pastoral, more responding to the real needs of real people than the Ten Commandments. People need absolute moral laws. And it is only by rooting ourselves in the deep truth that has come to us through 2000 years of Catholic faith and holiness that we become truly free, especially free of that most degrading slavery of conformity to the spirit of the age.
A similar false opposition has ruled sacramental discussions, and that is what Ratzinger is addressing here. We have been told that either the Eucharist is a mystical, sacral, priestly sacrificial reality, or it is a community-building event. Either it’s all ‘sacramental magic’ at the altar, or it’s a fellowship meal, building the ‘true body of Christ’ which is our own wonderful selves.
Ratzinger does a fine job here showing that these two realities, far from being opposed to each other, are intimately related. The question is: what is the source of our unity? What are we united around? What makes the Body of Christ, the Church? How does this become, not a theoretical idea, but a living reality?
Of course it is the fact, the sheer physical fact that Christ is truly present in the Church, on the altar, in the tabernacle, and in us as we receive his gift, that alone makes it possible for us to speak of this depth of unity, of identity with each other.
It seems so obvious that I admit I’ve never quite understood how we got so confused on this point. Clearly, though, the broader issue at stake here is the basic question: how are we to become what we are to become? How do we get there from here? Our own efforts, or divine grace? Getting everything just right, or a gift coming down from heaven?
Do we become one with each other by having the right music, maximum participation by as many people in the sanctuary as possible, holding hands at the Our Father, big smiles all around… or do we become one when this One comes into our midst, this mysterious, hidden yet Real Presence who comes to each of us personally and all of us together, and lays down his life for us. Where is our oneness from?
The question is specifically about the Mass and the sacraments, but it applies to everything, doesn’t it? Do we create the kingdom, or receive the kingdom? Do we make the Church, or are we given the Church? Do we love one another out of our own resources and talents and energies, or do we receive love as a gift, out of which we can then work very hard and spend ourselves in loving? Key questions, but a good theology of the Eucharist grounds us in the answers.
Do we achieve happiness, goodness, joy, peace, or do we fundamentally receive them as gifts of God? "Take... eat... this is my body... this is my blood..."

Monday, October 17, 2011

What Are We Capable Of?

God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone, dwells in this Yes given with body and soul; he whom the world cannot encompass can come to dwell wholly in a human being.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 87-8

Reflection – In the chapel of Our Lady of the Woods in Madonna House, directly behind the altar in the holy of holies there is a beautiful icon of Mary. The Greek title of the icon is (and I quote this from memory, so you Greek scholars will excuse me if I err slightly) the platetera tou ouranois – the one who is wider than the heavens.
It is this idea that the icon communicates in color and light, form and beauty. Mary is She who contains that which the whole world cannot contain. Mary, holding Jesus in her womb, holds within herself the One who Himself holds the entire universe in being.
I gave a talk in Ottawa last night based on my book The Air We Breathe. The Q&A afterwards focused on the difficulties non-Catholics have with our Catholic insistence on Mary’s centrality. One of the questions was ‘How can Mary who is a human creature hear all of our prayers and petitions.’
My answer really flows from this whole platetera tou ouranois business. Namely, do we really know what the limits of a human being are? We think we do, but do we? I don’t know about you, but I cannot fly. Normally, humans can’t fly. But St Joseph Cupertino could – it is well attested. I cannot be in two places at once, and neither can you. But St. Martin de Porres could. I only know what I can observe with my senses and whatever else you might choose to tell me, and this is normal for human beings. But St. Padre Pio could know all sorts of things about people, miraculously reading their hearts.
And all these holy men and women were sinners – damaged goods like you and me! But in their flawed and frail cooperation with God they were already able to surpass so many of the natural limits and capacities of humanity. Given that, do we have any concept of what a sinless human being is capable of? Once a woman has carried in her womb the Maker of heaven and earth, what exactly is impossible for her, anyhow, especially once she has entered the realm of eternity of which we know precisely nothing?
This is not just a matter of Catholic-Protestant apologetics or polemics. This is deeply relevant for every human being’s life. What exactly are we capable of? What are we made for? How do we achieve the fullest actualization of, not just our natural human capabilities, but of everything God wants to work in us – flying and walking through walls and reading minds and all that jazz? Perhaps even more astoundingly, truly loving without counting the cost and pouring out our lives for one another to the very end?
Mary gives us the Christian answer, which is what Ratzinger reflects on here. It is by saying yes to God that we become filled with him that the world cannot contain, and so transcend every possible barrier to human-divine fulfillment.
It is simple, very simple. It is also excruciatingly difficult. But it is the only way. And as Mary also shows, it is an exquisitely beautiful and joyous way, too.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Away for the Weekend

Well, I'm off to my niece Jessica's wedding (hurray!) today. I'll be gone all weekend, and so the blog will take a three day hiatus. Back Tuesday.
Hey, Ottawa readers! I am talking Sunday evening (6 p.m.) at Holy Rosary Church on Catherine Doherty and Mary. I'll have books for sale (for a low! low! discounted price!), there'll be refreshments, I won't talk that long... it's win-win!
See you there!

The Doctrine of People Infallibility

To assume that the verdict of conscience (or what one takes to be such a verdict) is always correct, i.e. infallible… would mean that there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence… No door or window would lead out of the individual subject into the totality or into that which is shared with other subjects… if we think this through, we realize that this means that there is no genuine freedom and that the supposed verdicts of conscience were mere reflexes to antecedent social circumstances.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 76-7
Reflection – So I continue to reflect with Ratzinger on the key subject of conscience and moral decision making. Here, he is distinguishing between the primacy of conscience and the infallibility of conscience.
The first is Catholic moral teaching; the second is not. The first means that we have brains and we are expected to use them to discover moral truth, and that we must, having discovered the truly good thing to do, do it. The second means that it is impossible for us to make a mistake. People are, by definition, infallible.
We can see, I hope, that this makes the notion of moral truth and moral reasoning absurd, right? I mean, we all know that we have to use our brains to do math, to do our taxes or whatever. But we all know that we can get the sum wrong. And we know this because we know that there really is an objective answer to 2+2.
To say that we cannot make an error in our conscience because the only absolute principle given us is ‘follow your conscience’ is to say that there is no moral equivalent to 2+2. It’s just ‘whatever’ – whatever you feel, whatever you want… whatever.
Ratzinger is great here, though, in pointing out the isolation this puts us into. The only way we can truly encounter each other in the fullest and deepest level of our humanity is if there is a common ground. If extreme moral subjectivism is embraced, there simply is no common ground for us to meet on. We might meet to do business of some sort, or band together with a common interest, or be bound together by mutual liking or affection… but there’s no real unity, because there is no reality, really. We’re a bunch of disconnected fragments floating in a meaningless universe, unless there is an objective order of reality upon which all of us stand. And this is the ground of religious and moral truth.
Conscience, then, is the faculty of our minds to actually seek, not what we want to be right, but what really is right. It draws us out of ourselves and into a genuine quest for what is real and true and bigger than us. It bids us to seek, find, and obey this bigger reality. And this (ironically, it may seem) is the path of freedom, the invitation to step out of our own subjectivity and its imperatives and truly embrace the universal truth and goodness that overarches all our life and alone makes a communion of love possible for humanity.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Catholicism Isn't Great...

You know, I don't do this very often, but once in a while I read something on another blog that is just so... I don't know. What I would say if I was as good a writer as this person or something like that.
Anyhow, this guy is my new favorite blogger, and is worth the link, to say the least. He claims to be 18 years old, which I really find hard to believe, and I am eagerly looking forward to the scandalous moment when he is unmasked and his true 50-something identity exposed to the world.
Here is a small snippet of a recent post:
The Cross is not an event that took place at one time, at one place in the world. The cross is a spear plunged by God into the void, and the world swells and exists around it.
The life of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the Immaculate Conception – was not merely a remarkable life compared to the human beings around her. The life of Our Lady was the life humanity was made for. The Thing Itself.
The Sacraments of the Church – Communion, Confession and the like – are not mere supplements to life, as one might be supplemented by drugs, literature, friendship, or romance. No, the Sacraments are the Thing that all supplements imitate – from heroin to meditation, adventure to friendship. The Sacraments are 7 rocks flung with violence into the muddy water of things-that-make-life-worth-living. All else is ripple...
Catholicism isn’t great; Catholicism is.
 Read the rest of it - this is just a taste!

What is Easy vs. What is Right

[There are] two criteria for a genuine word spoken by the conscience: it is not identical with one’s own wishes and taste; nor is it identical with that which is more advantageous, socially speaking, with the consensus of a group or with the claims made by political power or societal power.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 87
Reflection - The primacy of conscience-this is the banner phrase for those who wish to uphold the independence of the individual Catholic (or anyone else) from the Church's moral teaching. Just do whatever your conscience tells you - and guess what, the Church says so!
Of course the Church that says follow your conscience also has a lot to say about what conscience is and how it is to be formed... but somehow the people who trumpet the authority of the Church regarding the primacy of conscience tend to ignore the Church's authority about everything else to do with the subject.
What is conscience, then, anyhow? Whatever you 'feel' is right? That would certainly make things simpler, I suppose! But if that's what it was, then why bother talking about it at all? Just do 'whatever'.
Conscience is a type of intellect. When we are building a bridge or a house or anything, we have to use mathematics, and if we get the sums wrong, it all falls apart and people get injured or killed, maybe. Conscience is our moral reasoning process. When we are 'building' a human act, a free and conscious decision to do such and such, we must reason our way towards the good choice, the right course of action. If we get those moral 'sums' wrong, our lives fall apart, and people get injured or even killed, maybe. Conscience is no more about making a subjective judgment than building a bridge is about deciding that 2+2=5.
There is lots to say about this moral reasoning process, and Ratzinger has said lots about it. This short passage is from a long essay on the subject which I'll be quoting in bits and pieces on this blog. This small part signals to us one element of moral reasoning - beware of our own wishes and tastes, and of the prevailing spirit of the age. It's not that these are always wrong, but these particular voices are not the voice of our conscience - this particular point is really that simple. It is always easy to do just as you please (if your money and energy holds out!). It is always easy to go with the flow of society. But conscience is not about doing what is easy; it is about doing what is right. And what is right comes out of a moral reasoning process, not a blind obedience to desire or convention. But what is that moral reasoning process then?
To be continued...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A New Force in the World

Mary is the great believer who humbly offered herself to God as an empty vessel for him to use in his mysterious plan. Without complaint she surrendered control of her life; she did not try to live according to human calculation but put herself completely at the disposal of God’s mysterious, incomprehensible design. All she wanted to be was the handmaid of the Lord, the instrument and servant of the Word.

Dogma and Preaching, 110

Reflection – I’ve been meditating on this blog the last few days on various aspects of ‘how can we make a difference in the world.’ I have been spurred in this direction by the protests on Wall Street, for which I do truly have deep sympathy, even though I (to be honest) disagree with much of their approach, tone, and message.
But the world is in trouble – there’s no question about that, eh! And all people of good will have to come to some conclusion about how we, how I, how you are to do and be something that will help people, even a little bit. All our little bits together can make a big difference.
I truly believe that Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict has a better grasp on what is wrong with the world and what we need to do to help repair it than anyone else alive today—at least anyone else I have encountered. And his vision is deeply spiritual and interior. And Mary stands at the heart of this deep spiritual and interior vision. To hand ourselves over to God; to put ourselves at the disposal of ‘God’s mysterious, incomprehensible design.’ To forsake our own brilliant (not!) ideas and ideologically driven programs (which never, ever work) and cultivate rather an interior attitude: listening, praying, surrendering, seeking God’s face and will, seeking to be his handmaid, his servant.
This is what changes the world. The world changed when Mary herself did this perfectly. The world changed when twelve little fishermen and nobodies from Galilee went out to the Roman Empire talking about this guy, Jesus, who was the Risen Lord. The world changed when Benedict started a little monastery in Nursia, when Francis took off his clothes in the village square of Assisi, when Teresa began her reformed order, when Vincent de Paul started to pour himself out in service of the poor, when Theresa of Calcutta picked up a dying man off the streets.
All of these, we may object, were ‘big’ people who made big impacts because they were so big and brilliant and powerful. But that’s our view of them from the perspective of the time and distance. Each of them was, in him or herself, just one little person trying to listen to God. Trying to love, trying to abandon themselves to Him and His will.
The irony, of course, is that the people who try to change the world by force of their own brilliance or personal charisma or some other ‘way of power’ end up being changed by the world, and the world goes on its not-so-merry way of exploitation and use. The people who entrust themselves to God, who consent to be the seed that falls to the ground and dies, are the ones who set in motion that new force in the world, the energy of love, the power of God, the dawning of the kingdom of heaven in the very heart of the kingdom of the world.
And this is what we must do, if we want to change the world.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How Can We Make a Difference?

Faith is communion with Jesus and thus liberation from the repression that is opposed to the truth, liberation of my ego from its going against the grain of its being, so as to respond to the Father and say ‘yes’ to love, ‘yes’ to being, to say that ‘yes’ that is our redemption and that overcomes the world… it is a breaking out of the isolation of my ego that is its own illness.
To Look on Christ, 37
Reflection – This lovely little passage lends itself to prolonged meditation. The vision Ratzinger gives here is so simple, and so simply expressed, yet possesses the key to happiness, to freedom, to joy.
So often we think in terms of ‘if onlys.’ If only this hadn’t happened. If only I hadn’t made that mistake. If only my community wasn’t like this, my spouse like that, my family like this, my job such and such. If only the economy were doing better. If only society was more Christian, less brutal.
If only, if only, if only… then I would be happy, then I would be free. Ratzinger opens up in this brief passage the reality of our happiness and freedom. Yes, outward events affect us and cause us grief and pain. But it is in the heart that redemption comes to us, not in the miraculous resolving of all our problems and ills. It is within ourselves that we overcome the world, and this overcoming of the world only comes through faith in Jesus.
The bottom line is we cannot do it alone. In fact, we cannot break out of our aloneness alone, by our own power or even by our collective wisdom and goodness. It is this power and presence of Christ in our hearts by faith and by the gift of the Holy Spirit that works to break us free from this terrible isolation that locks us up and makes us so terribly unhappy. And it is this same power and presence that empowers us then to move out in love and hope towards the world, our brothers and sisters, and all especially the poor, the little ones, the ones who most desperately need our help.
For 2000 years this has, factually, been the Christian experience. It is the saint, the one who knows Christ and has been interiorly transformed by his presence and power, who truly overcomes the world and transforms society, the Church—everything. We are living in a time that badly needs transformation. The only path to that transformation is to open the doors of our hearts and minds to Christ and thus become the saints he made us to be.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Prepare to Meet Your Maker

At the conclusion of the central section of the Church's great Credo—the part that recounts the mystery of Christ, from his eternal birth of the Father and his temporal birth of the Virgin Mary, through his Cross and Resurrection to the second coming—we find the phrase: “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”. From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgement has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God's justice. Faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. This looking ahead has given Christianity its importance for the present moment. In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings, which were intended to make visible the historic and cosmic breadth of faith in Christ, it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the west wall normally portrayed the Last Judgement as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine. As the iconography of the Last Judgement developed, however, more and more prominence was given to its ominous and frightening aspects, which obviously held more fascination for artists than the splendour of hope, often all too well concealed beneath the horrors. In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background...

Spe Salvi 41-2

Reflection - Well, we're on the downward tilt of the year, and there's no mistaking it. While we're enjoying in Combermere an unseasonably warm and gorgeous stretch of days, there is no question that 2011 is a dying year.
As the calendar year dies and we head towards winter, the Church begins to move our attention to this whole question of the future, of the coming of Christ, of the new world being reborn from the old.
Of the end of all things that we know, and the beginning of an entire new reality that we know little of as yet, but look forward to with hope. 'Every tear will be wiped away... the Lord will remove the mourning veil... he will set before us a banquet of rich meat and fine strained wines.' So goes the first reading in today's liturgy.
The one thing we do know is that there is a single bridge between this world and the next, between this order of reality, so beautiful and yet so broken, and the one we anticipate where all wounds will be healed. And that bridge is Jesus Christ. The only way across, the only One who can get us there.
That's what all this business of final judgment is about, it seems to me. Are we going to let Jesus carry us across the threshold of hope, as Pope John Paul II called it? We may have lived very good lives; we may have lived horrible lives. But our life, no matter what, will not suffice to bear us into the kingdom. Will we let Him carry us?
'Prepare to meet your Maker' is the semi-comical cliche we use. But our Maker is also our Lover, our Savior, our Re-Maker. So while it is fearsome, of course - this is our eternal destiny, life and death, heaven and hell in the balance - love can overcome fear here.
Lots of people read my post yesterday about Occupy Wall Street and my open invitation to all those well-intentioned to come hang out with us up on Dafoe Street, Combermere. And the offer holds (call first, though, eh? Just so we know how big a porridge pot we need...). But this is the hope that gives us the courage to take on life, the world, the global economy, the environment, war, peace, terror, or whatever it is you have to take on today.
The faith that there is One who made us, who loves us, who sustains us, and who meets us at every turn, and who alone can see our lives through to a Happy Ending, to a successful end, to the banquet that never ends, to the place where tears will never flow again.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Occupy Wall Street... or Another Street

 “SPE SALVI facti sumus”—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. Now the question immediately arises: what sort of hope could ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed? And what sort of certainty is involved here?
Spe Salvi 1

Reflection - For some reason I've been thinking a lot about those protestors in the "Occupy Wall Street" event in New York and elsewhere.
Now, I know, they're a mess in more ways than one. Chaotic in their message - what do they want, actually? Deeply confused in their ideology - one demonstrator's memorable list of demands included that everyone be paid a salary, working or not, and that all debt, everywhere be immediately cancelled. And of course, rather dirty and unkempt and probably using drugs and having premarital sex and...
Etc. Etc. Etc. But, I don't know, there's something about these people that tugs at my heart. Maybe it's because they are just that--people--and they seem to be sort of lost. Sort of angry and sad. Sort of... hopeless.
Probably the shepherd in me coming out - I would like to help them, if I could. I am reminded of the hippy era in MH. Catherine had been down in Toronto receiving some honorary degree or something, and a young flower child, seeing her cross, asked her if she was a nun. "No, I'm a person!" she answered. And so began a remarkable encounter with the hippies in Queen's Park... who started to come to MH by the hundreds over the next years.
They were dirty. They were a mess. They were, often, confused. They didn't like the Church and put up quite a fight when they got here. And yes, they were doing drugs and having premarital sex... although they were generally nice about behaving themselves here.
Catherine saw behind the mess and the dirt and the smell to the people, and she got it, somehow, that these poor young people were looking for... something. Something different. Something better. Something society was not offering them. And she tried to help them find that, and some did. Some joined MH; others became Catholic or returned to the faith here; others came, didn't much like it, and left.
And so, I keep thinking of these occupy Wall Street people. Where is this taking them? Anger, rage, blame, impotent demands that the whole world change right now because I cannot find a job... where does this go? Where is that street taking them? And is there another way, another street?
Is there something else for them? Hey, you Wall Street Occupiers (if any of you stumble upon this blog post --wanna come try something completely different? Come on up to Madonna House! 2888 Dafoe Rd - come and occupy yourselves, and us! We've got all the work you could ever want, three meals a day, and a reason to live! We're a pretty ordinary bunch of nobodies, but we do have hope, and so are able to face whatever arduous present and uncertain future there is. What do you have, right now? What do you have to lose? You are welcome here.