Friday, November 30, 2012

Nuclear Friars and the God of Jacob

We are living in a period of great dangers and of great opportunities both for man and for the world, a period that also imposes a great responsibility on us all. During the past century the possibilities available to man for dominion over matter have grown in a manner we may truly call unimaginable. But the fact that he has power over the world has also meant that man’s destructive power has reached dimensions that can sometimes make us shudder.

Here one thinks spontaneously of the threat of terrorism, this new war without national borders and without lines of battle. The fear that terrorists may get hold of nuclear and biological weapons is not unfounded, and this has induced even states under the rule of law to have recourse to internal systems of security similar to those that once existed only in dictatorships; and yet, the feeling remains that all these precautions will never really be enough, since a completely global control is neither possible nor desirable.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 25-6

Reflection – Ratzinger goes on in this passage to further analysis of the technological mastery of our age and how it has not been accompanied by a strong corresponding moral development. The answer lies there, in a spiritual and moral formation that alone can provide us with the wisdom to rightly use the powers our technology has obtained us.

It is what Catherine Doherty, the founder of Madonna House, always said in her typical pithy colorful way: “If St. Francis of Assisi had the atom bomb, nobody would worry!” The image of nuclear armed friars is, perhaps, an amusing one. But the point she is making is precisely what Ratzinger has made many times in his writing career: human life is not made secure by technical mastery, but by faith, hope, and love.

The whole question of fear and security is a crucial one today. Ratzinger wrote the above passage before 9/11 and the ensuing years when indeed, the ‘internal systems of security’ in countries such as the USA have approached levels unimaginable 20 years ago. And many, many people are basically just fine with that, with trading away freedom for an illusion of security.

And it is just that, of course—an illusion. The government simply cannot protect us from all violent contingencies, and its attempts to do so can only introduce levels of violence and oppression of their own into our lives.

The other great fear driving us today is the fear of economic collapse and global depression. This is probably a more realistic fear than that of terrorism. Even if there is another 9/11-style terrorist attack, horrible as it would be the direct victims would number in the thousands at most. A global depression would affect… well, everyone, more or less. And it does seem like something of the sort is in the offing.

Fear and security—it’s time to think long and hard about these matters. ‘Put not your trust in princes, in mortal man in whom there is no help. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing. He is happy who is helped by Jacob’s God…’ (Ps 146:3-5). Or, ‘man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matt 4:4).

This latter quote is significant, coming as it does in the narrative of Christ’s temptation in the desert. When we are in the desert—that is, when our life is insecure and endangered, when resources are scant—then comes the great temptation to security by any means necessary. It is worth sitting with Matthew 4 in the context of our times, of global economic insecurity, war and the threats of war, terrorism and violence, possible looming persecution of religion in Canada and the United States. Put your trust in the God of Jacob. Live by the true word of God, not the spurious and ever-shifting words of politicians. Worship the Lord your God and serve Him alone.

This is security, and this is the only remedy for fear. This is the only security possible in this world, to fix our minds and hearts so utterly on the kingdom of God and on His love and fidelity that ‘we shall not fear, though the earth should rock, though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea… nations are in tumult, kingdoms are shaken, he lifts his voice the earth shrinks away… be still and know that I am God, supreme among the nations, supreme on the earth’ (Ps 46).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Disease, and the Cure

Today we are living in a society in constant movement, one that has changed radically, even in comparison with the recent past. The processes of secularization and a widespread nihilistic mentality in which all is relative have deeply marked the common mindset. Thus life is often lived frivolously, with no clear ideals or well-founded hopes, and within fluid and temporary social ties. Above all the new generations are not taught the truth nor the profound meaning of existence that surmounts the contingent situation, nor permanent affections and trust. Relativism leads, on the contrary, to having no reference points, suspicion and volubility break up human relations, while life is lived in brief experiments without the assumption of responsibility.

If individualism and relativism seem to dominate the minds of many of our contemporaries, it cannot be said that believers are completely immune to these dangers, with which we are confronted in the transmission of the faith. The investigation promoted on all the continents through the celebration of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, has highlighted some of them: a faith lived passively and privately, the rejection of education in the faith, the gap between life and faith.

Christians often do not even know the central core of their own Catholic faith, the Creed, so that they leave room for a certain syncretism and religious relativism, blurring the truths to believe in as well as the salvific uniqueness of Christianity. The risk of fabricating, as it were, a “do-it-yourself” religion is not so far off today. Instead we must return to God, to the God of Jesus Christ, we must rediscover the Gospel message and make it enter our consciences and our daily life more deeply…

I would like it to be clear that the content or truth of faith (fides quae) bears directly on our life; it asks for a conversion of life that gives life to a new way of believing in God (fides qua). Knowing God, meeting him, deepening our knowledge of the features of his face is vital for our life so that he may enter into the profound dynamics of the human being.

General Audience, 17 October 2012

Reflection – This excerpt from the end of the General Audience is so penetrating in its diagnosis of the state of faith and life in the modern world that I had to quote it at length. Pope Benedict certainly knows the state of affairs in Europe and North American, and of course the cultural influence of these areas is spread globally through media and entertainment.

I don’t know that I have much to add to his analysis, except to offer my hearty concurrence to it. We do see quite a few people pass through MH on a yearly basis, and the struggles he details here—the lack of stability and inability to deeply connect with life, faith, relationship, the ‘do-it-yourself’ species of faith, a private passive religion—these are all familiar turf to us. It’s not everyone of course, and there are other common struggles we see here that he doesn’t mention. One that leaps to mind is a reaction into a sort of rigorism or legalism which surely stems from the vague indefinite quality of much catechesis today.

There truly is a need for a deep catechesis and a deep evangelization—not simply an intellectual presentation of data or a list of apologetic talking points, but an invitation into a living encounter with a Person, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is real, there really is data, facts about Him that do need to be presented—who He is and what He has done and what is this Church He founded and what is its role in our lives.

But it must go deeper than that. He is everything, you know. He is love and light and peace and joy; He is light and water and food and drink. He is healing and salvation and truth. He is heaven. As long as it all stays in our heads as information or in our emotions as nice feelings or in our actions as moral conformity, our faith is very small, very limited.

It is my entire being coming into contact with His entire Being—the Being of God, the gift of absolute love and truth and goodness and beauty plunged into the world in Christ Jesus. It is this, and only this, which resolves all the struggles and impoverishments and profound failures of our world and of the Church in our days.
You know, it is precisely this which tends to happen to people at MH, which is why I like to mention my community from time to time on this blog. We do have something to offer, you know, in this Year of Faith and in the Age of No-Faith. Anyhow, the post is already too long, so I just throw it out there for you all. Keep us in mind, either for yourself or for some struggling soul you may know who is looking for God or at any rate for something solid. Maybe we can help…

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Genuine Articles

Today too the Creed needs to be better known, understood and prayed. It is important above all that the Creed be, so to speak, “recognized”. Indeed, knowing might be merely an intellectual operation, whereas “recognizing” means the need to discover the deep bond between the truth we profess in the Creed and our daily existence, so that these truths may truly and in practice be — as they have always been — light for our steps through life, water that irrigates the parched stretches on our path, life that gets the better of some arid areas of life today. The moral life of Christians is grafted on the Creed, on which it is founded and by which it is justified.

It is not by chance that Blessed John Paul II wanted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a reliable norm for teaching the faith and a dependable source for a renewed catechesis, to be based on the Creed. It was a question of confirming and preserving this central core of the truths of the faith and of rendering it in a language that would be more comprehensible to the people of our time, to us. It is a duty of the Church to transmit the faith, to communicate the Gospel, so that the Christian truths may be a light in the new cultural transformations and that Christians may be able to account for the hope that is in them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

General Audience, 17 October 2012

Reflection – So, how are you going to live the Creed today? Hmmm… we don’t usually think like that, do we? Most reader of this blog are probably practicing Catholics or at least Christians, and could recite the Creed without too much difficulty. But, if asked to explain its direct relevance to daily life, how exactly it is light and water and life for our immediate experience, how it informs the choices we make every day… well, this is not perhaps so obvious to us.

It is a good exercise then, for the Year of Faith, to meditate on the Creed, article by article, asking just how this affects how we are to live today, the choices we are to make today. Let me help you get started on that by doing the first article for you.

‘I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ The first thing we see in this is that we are not alone. We have a Father who loves us, and He is God. The universe is not some dead product of random cosmic energies. The world is not some bitter struggle for survival, and life is not ‘nasty, brutal, and short.’ Not really. We have a Father. We are loved, we are held, we are secure in the embrace of the Father at the deepest level of our existence.

Well, surely this will affect how we approach our daily lives, right? How we relate to people, how we work, the general attitude we bring to bear on the world. If there is a fundamental security, a basic wholeness that our life is resting on, surely we will have a certain freedom to love, to be generous, to be gentle and caring of others without undue regard for our own self.

‘Maker of heaven and earth.’ So everything that is, and more important everyone who is, is a creature of God. Beloved of Him, and fashioned by Him for some purpose, some intent. This means we can’t just treat people however we please. We can’t just treat things, even, however we please. Everything exists for a reason; everyone is a great mystery of God caught up in the divine plan for the world.

So, manipulation and control, using and abusing, an egoistical approach to others and to the world must give way to reverent care, service, wonder and awe. Our Father in heaven is the author of all that is; our life as his children is to participate with Him in his creative loving work, not to initiate our own works apart from Him.

So from the one first article of the Creed a whole ethic emerges of reverent service and ministering care, of generous selfless love for the world God made, a love made possible because our own lives are held by the love of the Father. Not bad, eh?
I leave it to you, then, to meditate on the rest of the Creed. What does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ… in the Holy Spirit… in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church… and the other articles? If there is no incarnational application, it is entirely irrelevant to us, right? But there is… oh yes, there is! Our job is to find it and live it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Loving Jesus, Hating Religion?

God has revealed himself with words and works throughout a long history of friendship with mankind which culminated in the Incarnation of the Son of God and in the Mystery of his death and Resurrection. God not only revealed himself in the history of a people, he not only spoke through the Prophets but he also crossed the threshold of his Heaven to enter our planet as a man, so that we might meet him and listen to him. And the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The Church, born from Christ’s side, became the messenger of a new and solid hope: Jesus of Nazareth Crucified and Risen, the Saviour of the world who is seated at the right hand of the Father and is the judge of the living and the dead. This is the kerygma, the central, explosive proclamation of faith.

However the problem of the “rule of faith” has been posed from the outset, in other words the problem of believers’ faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel, which to be firmly anchored, to the saving truth about God and man that must be preserved and passed down. St Paul wrote: “I preached to you the Gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15:2).

But where can we find the essential formula of faith? Where can we find the truths that have been faithfully passed down to us and that constitute the light for our daily life? The answer is simple. In the Creed, in the Profession of Faith or Symbol of Faith, we are reconnected with the original event of the Person and history of Jesus of Nazareth; what the Apostle to the Gentiles said to the Christians of Corinth happens: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-5).

General Audience, 17 October 2012

Reflection – ‘I love Jesus, but I hate religion.’ OK, I know that was last year’s big viral YouTube sensation, and I’m just slightly slow on the uptake responding to it. One thing I can’t quite get (and don’t really want to get) about blogging and social media is the whole rapid fire point/counterpoint debate club thing. I prefer to take my time, think about things, and respond when I actually have something to say, rather than be pushed and pulled about by whatever the latest ‘thing’ is.

So… hating religion but loving Jesus. It seems to me that this attitude is what the Pope is addressing in his own indirect way. There is this central kerygma (proclamation) of Christ, which we do access directly and simply in the Gospels and other New Testament writings: God coming to us as man, teaching us the path of life, dying for our sins, risen in glory to raise us up with Him, coming at the end of the ages to bring his work to completion. Alleluia.

But… the problem is how we are to remain faithful to this Jesus, how we are to be sure that the One we are following and worshipping is the very One who did and is doing all this. And this is the role of dogma in our lives. You see, it is not so simple. We have to know our own capacity for self-deception. It is so easy to fashion a Jesus in our own image and likeness. We also have to know that the devil is roaming about, seeking to confuse us and lure us away from this true Jesus. And we have to know that the prevailing culture, the spirit of the age, has always co-opted Jesus for its own agendae and ends. In short, the world, the flesh, and the devil—this is why we need religion!

Saying ‘I love Jesus but I hate religion’ is an exercise in anticipated eschatology—that is, it is an unwarranted attempt to live as if we are in heaven when we rather obviously are not quite there yet.

In this life there are these three great forces pulling us away from the true Jesus: the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is the Church, its dogmas and rituals, Creeds and commandments, that binds us (which is the meaning of the word ‘religion’) to the true Jesus and the truth of the Gospel
There is a perception, widespread today I think, that some kind of terrible divide separates authentic faith in Jesus and a faithful adherence to the Church and its doctrines. Perhaps part of this Year of Faith can be our own overcoming this false division and truly understanding better that it is precisely the Church and its doctrinal authority that ensures that the Jesus we are worshipping is the real Jesus, the living one, and not some idol made in our own image or a puppet serving the agendas of the culture, or a demonic parody of Christ. I love Jesus and I love religion, because it is my religion that binds me to Jesus securely and joyously. And… that’s more than enough for today!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Knowing Me, Knowing Thou

The Christian faith, active in charity and strong in hope, does not limit but rather humanizes life, indeed, makes it fully human. Faith means taking this transforming message to heart in our life, receiving the revelation of God who makes us know that he exists, how he acts and what his plans for us are.

Of course, the mystery of God always remains beyond our conception and reason, our rites and our prayers. Yet, through his revelation, God actually communicates himself to us, recounts himself and makes himself accessible. And we are enabled to listen to his Word and to receive his truth. This, then, is the wonder of faith: God, in his love, creates within us — through the action of the Holy Spirit — the appropriate conditions for us to recognize his Word.

God himself, in his desire to show himself, to come into contact with us, to make himself present in our history, enables us to listen to and receive him. St Paul expresses it with joy and gratitude in these words: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” ( 1 Thess 2:13).

General Audience, Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Reflection – The Pope is really a good teacher. We’ve gone in this general audience from an essential statement of what faith is—a living encounter with a Person—to the immediate effect this encounter has on us—humanizing our life by grounding it in the call and reality of love—and now to the heights this encounter makes possible for us—to really know who God is.

There is a post-modern despair that hangs around this subject that can be very hard to penetrate. ‘We just can’t know!’ is the cry, either of exasperation or sorrow, on so many lips. God is up there, out there, over there, nowhere, or somewhere else anyhow, and everyone has wildly different opinions about the matter, and so who can say that their version of God is the true one? Isn’t it the height of arrogance to do so?

In response, it must be noted that any position taken on the subject is a judgment that could be accused of arrogance. To say ‘we cannot know’ is just a much of a sweeping judgment on the subject of God as to say ‘Jesus Christ is the Son of God who reveals the truth of God to us.’

In fact, it’s even more arrogant, if you will. When I say that I believe Jesus is the one who reveals God to us, I am locating the definitive authority and source of that truth outside of myself. The post-moderns who breezily dismiss not only Christianity but every other serious religious tradition, at least insofar as truth claims go (and, let’s face it, 90% of such post-moderns do this without having made a serious examination of the contents of the various world faiths), accepts no authority but their own.

Meanwhile, all sorts of people in our post-modern world still find their way to Christian faith, find the truth of God in the person and revelation of Jesus Christ. It is one of the great joys and awesome wonders of life in Madonna House that we get to be part of that discovery, that journey, that coming to faith of so many people. Young people come here from all over the world and mysteriously encounter this God, this Christ, this truth.

It is a great mystery to us. We’re all such ordinary people at MH—no great geniuses or charismatic super-stars among us, really—but we see nonetheless, over and over again, that God is waiting for people here, and is pleased to show Himself to them in this hidden little Ottawa Valley house.

Hey, here’s an idea for the Year of Faith! Come to be a guest at Madonna House! If you’re in reasonably good health (our life is pretty demanding physically), you are welcome, for a week, two weeks, longer. It’s a good place to come and touch God, hear God, meet God, and be transformed by God’s love, light, and life. Welcome!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Love or a Battlefield?

Is faith truly the transforming force in our life, in my life? Or is it merely one of the elements that are part of existence, without being the crucial one that involves it totally? With the Catecheses of this Year of Faith let us make a journey to reinforce or rediscover the joy of faith, in the knowledge that it is not something extraneous, detached from daily life, but is its soul. Faith in a God who is love, who makes himself close to man by incarnating himself and by giving himself on the Cross, who saves us and opens the doors of Heaven to us once again, clearly indicates that man’s fullness consists solely in love.

This must be unequivocally reasserted today, when the cultural transformations under way frequently display so many forms of barbarity, passed off as “conquests of civilization”. Faith affirms that there is no true humanity except in the places, actions, times and forms in which the human being is motivated by the love that comes from God. It is expressed as a gift and reveals itself in relationships full of love, compassion, attention and disinterested service to others. Wherever there is domination, possession, exploitation and the taking advantage of the other for selfish reasons, wherever there is the arrogance of the ego withdrawn into the self, the human being is impoverished, debased and disfigured. The Christian faith, active in charity and strong in hope, does not limit but rather humanizes life, indeed, makes it fully human.

General Audience, 17 October 2012

Reflection – There is no true humanity except in being motivated by the love that comes from God. This is a rather extraordinary statement, if you think about it a bit. What it means to be human is to receive God’s love and live out of that love. Humanity, then, is fundamentally receptivity, with an openness to what is above and beyond our human capacities.

I had a little debate with a commenter the other day about living by reason vs. living by faith. The virtue and sufficiency of living solely by reason, by our human lights and capacities, begs the question—that is, it assumes the conclusion that there is nothing else for us, no other mode of existence by which we are or could live.

The fact is, reason alone can be used in the service of domination, possession, exploitation, selfishness and the ego. It doesn’t have to be, but there’s nothing preventing that. A rational process is only as good as its starting premises and the data it considers. ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ as the old computer programmers used to say.

If love is truly to be the heart and soul, the essence and point of human life, what makes human life truly human, then faith is needed. There must be a love that exceeds our love, that holds not only our love and our lives but the entire cosmos in its embrace.

I’m reminded of something I wrote in my new book Going Home about just that, so I leave with you with this ‘below the fold,’ reminding you that Going Home would make a nice Christmas gift for all the prodigal and older sons and daughters in your life:

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Good Advent Prayer

The 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council is an important opportunity to return to God, to deepen our faith and live it more courageously, and to strengthen our belonging to the Church, “teacher of humanity”. It is through the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and works of charity that she guides us to meeting and knowing Christ, true God and true man. This is not an encounter with an idea or with a project of life, but with a living Person who transforms our innermost selves, revealing to us our true identity as children of God.

The encounter with Christ renews our human relationships, directing them from day to day to greater solidarity and brotherhood in the logic of love. Having faith in the Lord is not something that solely involves our intelligence, the area of intellectual knowledge; rather, it is a change that involves our life, our whole self: feelings, heart, intelligence, will, corporeity, emotions and human relationships. With faith everything truly changes, in us and for us, and our future destiny is clearly revealed, the truth of our vocation in history, the meaning of life, the pleasure of being pilgrims bound for the heavenly Homeland.
General Audience, 17 October 2012

Reflection – OK, time for another little series on the blog. The Pope has begun a new series of Wednesday general audiences offering a catechesis on faith for the Year of Faith. I’ve read all of them so far, and they’re quite wonderful, so periodically I will take a few days here to present one of the audiences – my little contribution on this blog to the holy year.

He begins here with a clear ringing statement of the essence of faith. Not an idea, not an ethical project, but fundamentally and centrally a transforming encounter with a Person—this is what faith is.

I do love this. As a priest who spends a fair amount of his time doing spiritual direction and listening to people, I can tell after awhile whether or not this encounter has happened in a person’s life. Oh, this one may have all sorts of moral struggles and emotional problems and general mess; that one may have a high degree of moral order and discipline. But the first one seems to know Jesus as a person, as real, and the other simply does not. Which one do you think has more peace and joy, and movement forward in their life?

It’s a very strange and mysterious reality, and I sure don’t pretend to understand it. Why and how some people do have this encounter, and others who seem to have good will simply don’t, at least not yet – it’s beyond me. I do know that this is exactly what God wants to give every one of us—all his children. I do know that praying for faith and asking God to come to us and show his face is salutary and vital. It is a good scriptural prayer—show us, Lord, your face.

It’s a good Advent prayer. Hey, Advent’s coming right up, eh! Show us, Lord, your steadfast love. Grant us your salvation. Come, Lord Jesus. It is your face we seek, Lord… all these good resounding prayers of longing and desire.

All of this is because we know, at some level anyhow, that it is seeing God, seeing Christ, knowing Him, being with Him in a real way, that will save us. It is from the contemplation of his face and the encounter with His person that our life slowly is transformed into love and beauty.

And so, this is our faith. If you’ve had this mysterious encounter already, you know what I mean, probably far better than I do. If you haven’t, pray pray pray for it. I know God wants to come to us and make Himself known to us, in His own way and according to His own perfect wisdom. Pray for that grace, and expect it to happen. That’s the beginning of faith right there.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Deep Realities of God

The idea that God allowed the forgiveness of guilt, the healing of man from within, to cost him the death of his Son has come to seem quite alien to us… [It] no longer seems plausible to us today. Militating against this, on one side, is the trivialization of evil in which we take refuge, despite the fact that at the very same time we treat the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God and slandering his creature man.

But the understanding of the great mystery of expiation is also blocked by our individualistic image of man. We can no longer grasp substitution because we think that every man is ensconced in himself alone. The fact that all individual beings are deeply interwoven and that all are encompassed in turn by the being of the One, the Incarnate Son, is something we are no longer capable of seeing.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 159-60

Reflection – Well, we’re on a bit of a roll here at LWAGS, spending the past few days taking a good hard look at the reality of baptism and what it really means to die and rise with Jesus in those waters, and now taking a good hard look at the substitutionary death of Jesus and what that means for us.

Jesus died for us. This is, actually, a really hard concept to grasp. At times it is parodied into a terrible distortion of what it really is. People will say that God the Father was really really mad at the human race and had to take out his anger on someone, and so put his Son to a horrible death as a sort of safety valve or whipping boy or something.

This is not the God we worship, of course—the abusive father of the universe. What is lost in this understanding is the utter unity of the Father and Son in the One Godhead of the Trinity. Jesus is not God’s Son in the sense that I am Raymond Lemieux’s son. The Father and the Son are one, and so the death of Christ is not something happening outside of the one God.

God died for our sins. This alone, if we take it at all seriously, means that our sins are a really big deal, don’t you think? We can trivialize sin and evil all we like; we can assure ourselves that at any rate we’re not such great sinners. Surely Jesus could have saved us just by stubbing his toe!

Well, apparently not. Each of us has the capacity within us—call it original sin, call it what you will—to extinguish the divine life and light within us. Each of us has the ability, awesome and fearful, to cut ourselves off from God. And this is utter and complete death—spiritual, physical, total.

Now I don’t understand all the deep realities of God and how exactly Jesus becoming man and dying on a cross changes that reality in its essential configuration. I don’t think anyone does understand it, and I don’t think we really will understand it until we are in heaven and God explains it to us. The various theories theologians have propounded over the centuries are just that: theories. The Church has blessed and encouraged such theologizing without ever endorsing any particular theology.

What I know is that the very place of death—sin, rebellion, disobedience, the failure and refusal of love—is now a place where we are met, continually, constantly, always, by Life. The place where everything fails in us is now the place where mercy succeeds for us. The place of the greatest evil—and the human person willingly choosing self-destruction is the greatest evil we can attain—is now a place where the Divine Goodness is poured out.

How exactly, and all the mechanisms and underlying spiritual realities whereby this happens, we just don’t know. But we know it happens, because it happens to us, more and more fully, more and more deeply, more and more certainly and joyously, as we place all our hope and trust in the Lord. And this is the salvation God offers us from the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mercy in This World

On the other hand, water flowing from a spring is a symbol of all life, the symbol of life. That is why the early Church laid down that baptism had to be administered by means of ‘living’ water, spring water, so that Baptism could be experienced as the beginning of a new life.

In this connection, the Fathers always had at the back of their minds the conclusion of the Passion narrative according to John; blood and water flow from the opened side of Jesus; Baptism and Eucharist spring from the pierced heart of Jesus. He has become the living spring that makes us alive (cf. Jn 19:34f). At the feast of Tabernacles Jesus had prophesied that streams of living water would flow from the man who came to him and drank: “Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive,” (Jn 7:39).

The baptized man himself becomes a spring. When we think of the great saints of history, from whom streams of faith, hope, and love really came forth, we can understand these words and thus understand something of the dynamism of Baptism, of the promise and vocation it contains.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 222-3

Reflection – Well, yesterday was all about death and drowning and the high drama of plunging into the Red Sea with Christ, being plunged into the waters by Christ so as to die and be raised up with Him.

Today it’s all about life. Christianity is not a death-cult, but a spring of living water rising up from the very depths of this abyss into which we are plunged. We die with Christ, yes, but so as to rise with Him.

This whole image of a spring is so telling, so beautiful. The image is not of a torrent, a cataract, a waterfall, but a spring. Something homely, something we can stoop at to drink and be slaked. Something that is for us, for our life, geared to our need.

This is the way of love in the world. The cost may be high; the violence of the Cross and the totality of renunciation required may be extreme, but it is all so that this gentle spring, this flowing river of love, hope, joy, peace, faith, kindness, may flow from Christ’s heart through our hearts to the world’s heart.

Leonard Cohen sang in his Song of Bernadette that Our Lady came to tell us that “there were sorrows to be healed and mercy, mercy in this world.” And it’s like that. We are meant to become vehicles, vessels of God’s mercy in this world. Because there is all this other stuff in us—selfishness, judgment, greed, anger, lust, etc.—well, we have to be drowned and killed and all that extreme dramatic stuff.

But it is all for the sake of mercy, all to become a clear channel, a conduit, a spring flowing out (peace is flowing like a ri-i-ver…), a steady stream of water flowing out to all the sorrows of the world. And there are so many sorrows in this world.

Where is the Middle East heading now? So many dead children, so much hurt and rage, no end in sight by any human reckoning. Where are the wealthy nations of the world headed? Do we have any concept of the kind of economic depression the world may well be headed towards? At least in the 1930s society was still largely agrarian, and most people had practical skills to fend for themselves in hard times. It’s all going to get very hard in years ahead, I’m afraid.

There are sorrows to be healed. Will we be mercy in this world? Will we allow God’s mercy to flow through us to our brothers and sisters? They will need it; they do need it. I forget the saint who said, “If you wish to be a channel, you must first be a reservoir.” If we wish to give mercy, we must receive mercy. If we want our lives to be streams of faith, hope, and love flowing out into a parched desert world, we must receive and welcome and cherish these gifts from God.
So this is the life of baptism and Eucharist. Receive love, so as to hold and cherish love, so as to give love freely to all. That is what waits for us on the other side of the Red Sea. That is the freedom of the Promised Land. That is the path of life God lays out for us. That is the New Commandment given unto us, that we should love one another as He has loved us.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Of the four elements in antiquity—water, air, fire, and earth—the first three are all symbols of the Holy Spirit, while the earth represents man, who comes from the earth and to the earth returns. Fire and air in the form of breath are present in many ways in the symbolism of the liturgy, but only water, which comes from above and yet belongs to the earth, has become, as the primordial element of life, sacramental matter in the strict sense.

The Church’s tradition discerns a twofold symbolism in water. The salt water of the sea is a symbol of death, a threat and a danger; it reminds us of the Red Sea, which was deadly to the Egyptians, though the Israelites were rescued from it. Baptism is a kind of passing through the red Sea. A death occurs within it. It is more than a bath or washing—it touches the very depths of existence, as far as death itself. It is a crucifying communion with Christ. This is precisely what is signified by the Red Sea, which is an image of death and resurrection.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 221-2

Reflection – Tomorrow Ratzinger will continue with the second symbolism of water as symbol of life. Here we look at water as death, and hence as a sacramental element, a sign of the giving of the Spirit.

Uh… wait a minute. Isn’t the Spirit the giver of life? Isn’t that what we pray in the Creed every Sunday, believing in the Holy Spirit, ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life’? How is it that the death-dealing properties of water are taken up into the sacramental meaning of baptism?

It is easy and tempting to give the obvious answer about Jesus’ death on the Cross and our entry into that death. Of course that is the correct answer; the trouble is that the words have become so shop worn with use, so familiar to us, that they pass over the surface of our mind too quickly and we move on to other things. WediewithChristorisewithhimsowhat’sforbreakfast.

We need to stop and ponder this a bit more deeply. Water is a symbol of death, and so it is a symbol of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit gives life, but this life comes to us in the form of a death. We need to take hold of this, we modern Christians. There is so very much ‘prosperity Gospel’ Christianity afoot in the land and in our churches. It is not just Joel Osteen and the mega-churches of the American South. The whole idea that Christianity is all about ‘being your best self’, that it is some kind of program of self-improvement, self-actualization, self-perfection, that God’s grace is some sort of spiritual beauty treatment (Extreme Makeover: Salvation Edition!)—all of this is so superficial, so inadequate in light of the life and death, death and life dynamics at play here.

God does make our life better, but first He kills us. We are drowned in the Red Sea so as to pass through to the other side, a wholly new person. It is not about becoming ‘my best self’ – it is about becoming an entirely new creation, according to God’s good pleasure and design.

While this is precisely, essentially, and really what happened when I was baptized at ten days old (I remember it like it was yesterday…), it is also the whole dynamic of Christian life in this world. And we need to know this. Life in Christ is not some kind of triumphal march from strength to strength, a clear and steady upward journey towards my becoming more and more the person I desire to be.

Or rather, it is that… but to my eyes, my emotions, my senses, my deep inward spiritual sense, it seems like a plunge into the abyss of darkness and death, a constant going down into the waters, a constant drowning and resurfacing, drowning and resurfacing, until the final passage where I see Him face to face. And if we don't know that this is how it is supposed to be, that this is what baptism initiated us into, if we think it is all supposed to be and look like 'glory, glory, hallelujah!', we will get very discouraged.

It is not about becoming ‘my best self.’ It is about becoming His best self in me, and the price of that is total on my part, as it was total on His part. Baptism, the simple homely ceremony of dunking a baby in a basin of water with a few sacred words, communicates the heights and depths, the terrible anguish and the sublime hope of the whole Christian life, and we need to ponder that if we are persevere in following Him.
Because it’s hard, you know, to follow Him to the end. But we are baptized, and so His grace is present and is sufficient for the task. Tomorrow we will look at what comes out of this death – the radiant life that pours forth from the Christian following Christ.

Monday, November 19, 2012

We're (not) All The Same

The path of the Asiatic religions seems logically consistent and religiously profound: they start from the ultimate identity of the ‘I’ which is in reality not an ‘I’, with the divine ground of the world. Here prayer is the discovery of this identity, in which, behind the surface illusion, I find my own serene identity with the ground of all being and thus am liberated from the false identity of the individualized ‘I’. Prayer is letting myself be absorbed into the what I really am; it is the gradual disappearance of what, to the separate ‘I’, seems to be the real world. It is liberation in that one bids farewell to the empirical, experienced world with its chaos of illusion and enters the pure nothingness  which is truly divine.

There can be no doubt that this is a path of impressive proportions; moreover it appeals strongly to man’s painful experience, which causes him to wish to abandon what seems to be the illusory surface of being. Only a radical abandonment of being, in favor of nothingness, seems to offer hope of real freedom. It is no accident, therefore, that the way of Asia presents itself as the way of salvation wherever the content of faith is relegated to the level of an untenable piece of Western metaphysics or mythology yet where there is still a deep spiritual and religious will.

I believe that as far as religion is concerned, the present age will have to decide ultimately between the Asiatic religious world view and the Christian faith. I have no doubt that both sides have a great deal to learn from each other. The issue may be which of the two can rescue more of the other’s authentic content. But in spite of this possibility of mutual exchange, no one will dispute the fact that the two ways are different. In a nutshell one could say that the goal of Asiatic contemplation is the escape from personality, whereas biblical prayer is essentially a relation between persons and hence ultimately the affirmation of the person.
Feast of Faith, 24

Reflection – Well this passage is bit longer than what I usually offer – it couldn’t really be cut down or broken up and still make sense. My reflections will be correspondingly brief.

I am struck, as I always am, with the friendly open tone Ratzinger has to ‘the other’, to the different world view. He is always eager to highlight what is true, good, beautiful in any philosophy or religion, while at the same time not lapsing into indifferentism or a false syncretism (we’re all the same, after all! It’s a small world, after all!).

We’re not all the same, and it’s tackling those differences head-on that allows us to genuinely learn from each other and benefit from one another’s point of view. To either demonize the other or to subtly dismiss the other by papering over the real difference in what they are saying closes the door to genuine dialogue and encounter.

Now I’m no expert in Asian religions, so in offering this excerpt from Ratzinger’s writings I cannot weigh in even slightly on how precisely accurate he is on the subject. Since he is a scholar of international stature, I presume he wouldn’t write about them without having done his homework.

But it certainly does strike me as a very profound question, this whole business of the affirmation of the person or the denial of the person. Is spirituality a plunging into something that ultimately negates our perception of existence, or does spirituality (prayer, God) ultimately affirm our actual existence and then draws us to transcendence through genuine personal communion with God?

It does seem to me that the two are very different realities. And that there is a fundamental question of the goodness and truth of what we know, what we experience, where life in this world has plunged us – is salvation an escape from experience, or a transformation of experience by a communion of love with Love Itself?

I am a Christian, and take my stand on the Christian approach to the question. But I would be interested in this learning, this exchange, this encounter of East and West, Asia and Europe, so to speak. There is much to ponder here, and Ratzinger shows us a good way and a good spirit in which to do this pondering.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

We Have to Choose

Everywhere in the history of religion, in various forms, we encounter the significant conflict between the knowledge of the one God and the attraction of other powers that are considered more dangerous or nearer at hand and, therefore, more important for man than the God who is distant and mysterious. All of history bears the traces of this strange dilemma between the non-violent, tranquil demands made by the truth, on the one hand, and the pressure brought to make profits and the need to have a good relationship with the powers that determine daily life by their interventions, on the other hand.”

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 98

Reflection – ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one’… but if you want your crops to grow, you have to sacrifice to Baal. ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father over all’… but for a peaceful life in the empire, burn a few grains of incense to Caesar, right? ‘The brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of God’… but keep your mouth shut about all the disappearing Jews or the Gestapo may be at your door next.

In this Year of Faith we have all sorts of lovely invitations from the Pope. We are invited to delve into the catechism to deepen our understanding of the faith. We are called to study the lives of the saints to come to understand the dynamic and drama of faith. We are called to return to the documents of Vatican II to gain renewed insight into the pastoral program of the Church for the new evangelization.

All of that is very lovely and good and bound to produce good fruit in our lives. Just… let’s not forget that the good fruit it is to produce is a willingness for martyrdom, right? In other words, there is a point in all of our lives when the absolute claims of faith and of God come into conflict with the world we live in, and we will have to choose.

Depending on the tenor of the times we live in, that choice may involve martyrdom (imperial Rome, Nazi Germany), or it may not (say, Victorian England, Canada 2012). But it will certainly involve some cost.

It may involve humiliation. It may involve ridicule. It may involve a loss of money, of jobs, of prestige, of status. It may involve the loss of a relationship, or of easy family ties. God is absolute, and the demands faith in God makes of us are absolute. The world, its powers and principalities, its social norms and written and unwritten laws also want to be absolute in their demands. We have to choose.

Of course, we can choose to compromise, to burn that incense, sacrifice to Baal, keep our heads down and say nothing in the face of injustice or evil. ‘The Jews’ are not disappearing in our day, but a lot of unborn babies are. And it appears, anyway, that many and maybe most people in our society are fundamentally OK with that. Are we? Are we speaking out? Are we doing anything about it? We really must, you know.

The choice to compromise with ‘Caesar’ has its own cost, of course, And that cost is God. Oh, God is merciful and I suppose we can spend a life compromising and making half-measures and awkwardly trying to straddle the world and faith, and at the end repent and be saved, but the cost is a high one for that.

God wants to live in us and love in us, you see. But He cannot do that if we are compromising, if we have one foot in both camps, if we allow all the pernicious nonsense of our times—the culture of death—to have sway in our hearts and minds. The Year of Faith is a summons, not merely to a sort of adult education program, but to action, to mission, to the Cross, and to the Resurrection.

Origen famously said that a Christian is either a martyr or an idolator. He lived in an age of martyrdom, of course, and so we cannot take his words strictly literally. But… he is right, you know. Either God has an absolute claim on our lives, no matter what the cost, or we are worshipping other gods. We have to choose. Let’s choose well.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Real Amen

The [Hebrew] root ’mn [that is the normal word for ‘to believe’] embraces… the meanings loyalty, to trust, entrust oneself, take one’s stand on something, believe in something; thus faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which man gains a firm hold for his life. Faith is thereby defined as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God.”

Introduction to Christianity, 39

Reflection – Well, another year of faith post! The Hebrew root which yields words like faith, faithfulness, belief, to believe, is also the root that yields the word ‘truth’ – emet. And, oh yes, the word 'Amen'. It is fundamentally a matter of something being solid, sound, firm.

The Hebrew language, and the people who created it and were created by it, is a deeply non-abstract, concrete, practical language. All Hebrew words are rooted in intensely concrete physical realities; paradoxically (unless you’re a poet and know how these things work) this also makes Hebrew a deeply poetic language, as the concrete words are stretched and extended into all manner of symbolic and metaphorical senses.

So faith is about deciding that something is solid, firm. Truth is not some up in the air abstraction about the world that has no bearing on action; if something is true, you can base your course of action on it. And faith is a decision that something is true, based on the solidity, the firmness, the reliability of the one telling you that thing.

‘Taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God’ – yep, that’s it, basically. But this word of God calls us into direct action. ‘If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer them the other cheek.’ Good solid advice for life, right? Right? Anyone? ‘Give to whoever asks, and lend without hope of repayment.’ Now that’s how to be a success in life, eh?

Faith says yes to that. Faith decides that God, speaking through Jesus the Christ, knows better than we do what a good life is, what it means to be a success. And so faith says, ‘Well, Lord, I will try… but I think you’re going to need to help me here, because this sounds a bit hard!’ And the Word assures us, ‘I will be will you always, yes to the end of time.’

And so we go through life. Constantly choosing, or at any rate invited to choose, to put our trust in the word of God and act on it. To do what the Gospel says. Hey – here’s an idea for the Year of Faith! Go through the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and just take the little individual bits of it, maybe a new one every two weeks, to specifically put into practice (turn the other cheek… let your yes be yes… go the extra mile… love your enemies and pray or those who persecute you). Do it as a simple exercise of the obedience of faith. This is what Jesus tells us is a solid, firm, trustworthy way to live, and we choose to believe that Jesus is telling us the truth.

That’s what faith is; that is the real Amen to God and to Jesus.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Us Versus Them

[In reference to Matt 5:23 ff], you cannot come into God’s presence unreconciled with your brother; anticipating him in the gesture of reconciliation, going out to meet him, is the prerequisite for true worship of God. In so doing, we should keep in mind that God himself—knowing that we human beings stood against him, unreconciled—stepped out of his divinity in order to come toward us, to reconcile us. We should recall that before giving us the Eucharist, he knelt down before his disciples and washed their dirty feet, cleansing them with his humble love.
Jesus of Nazareth 1, 158

Reflection – One of the most painful realities of life in the Church is the reality of division within the Church. There are many forms of this division: deep disagreements about theology and morality, ethnic clashes and historical wounds carried over into ecclesial life, simple personality clashes, unresolvedhurt feelings, political power struggles at the level of the parish or the diocese.

All of these can mean that Sunday Mass can be a gathering of enemies as much as the fellowship of believers. It is a sad and painful reality—or at least it should cause us sadness and pain—a reflection of our wounded broken humanity carried into the sanctuary of God.

We do have ‘something against our brother’ all too often, and we seem not to know what to do about it, not to be able to do it, or maybe even not to care too much one way or the other.
It’s that latter attitude that has to go, or our worship is a lie. I can find myself helpless in the face of a divided church, unsure of how to effect unity and reconciliation, but I must not callously shrug my shoulders and so, ‘So what! That’s their problem, not mine!”

No. It is my problem, even in the unlikely event that I am entirely innocent of wrongdoing in the matter. We are all one another’s problem, and there is no ‘they’ in the Church. Just us. It’s all about God, you see. It’s all about this God who bridged the gap between heaven and earth, infinity and finitude, divinity and humanity. It’s all about this God who did the unthinkable for us, to heal the wound of alienation and separation that our sins created.

What are we supposed to do for one another, then, in the face of what God has done for us? It’s a deep question, and I’m not providing any pat simplistic answers here. The reality of a divided church is very real, very serious, entirely tragic. The petty and not-so-petty feuds that rend Christianity are a major source of scandal that impede our proclamation of the Gospel and make it much, much harder for people to find their way into the Church’s life.

What are we supposed to do? Pray, for sure. Fast, definitely. Take responsibility for our own part in divisions, absolutely. Forgive anyone who has hurt us, totally and unconditionally.

And examine, searchingly and seriously, how we treat ‘the other’, whoever and whyever that other is. How do we talk to them, how do we talk about them, what is our inner attitude towards ‘them’, whether the ‘them’ is the liberals, the conservatives, the Irish, the German, the French, the stuck-up #$%s who run the parish council or the lazy no-good #$%s who maybe show up most Sundays.

What is the deep attitude of our hearts towards ‘them’? Contempt and judgment? Or compassionate love? If it is the former, more prayer and fasting is required. If it is the latter, then let us thank God for his grace. But we must ask God constantly what more we can do to heal the wounded, divided, fractious Church, so that our worship and our witness may go out from us unimpeded and reach its full power and effect.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The True Story of Mankind

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father, having embraced his son of his return, gives this instruction: “Bring quickly the best robe…” (Lk 15:22). In the Greek text, it says ‘the first robe’, and that is how the Fathers read and understood it. For them, the robe is the robe in which Adam was created and which he lost after he had grasped at likeness to God. All the clothes subsequently worn by man are only a poor substitute for the light of God coming from within, which was Adam’s true ‘robe’.

Thus is reading the account of the Prodigal Son and his return, the Fathers heard the account of Adam’s fall, the fall of man (cf Gen 2:7), and interpreted Jesus’ parable as a message about the return home and reconciliation of mankind as a whole. The man who in faith returns home receives back the first robed, is clothed again in the mercy and love of God, which are his true beauty.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 219-220

Reflection – It’s always a nice sensation when you have written an entire book on a subject to find out that the Pope agrees with you! The above passage from Ratzinger could serve precisely as a thesis statement for my new book Going Home, which I just launched last night in Ottawa. (The launch seemed to go quite well, by the way… sold a few books, anyhow!).

Not to introduce a morbid note to the proceedings, but I have left instructions for my funeral Mass that, in fact, I want the Gospel to be the parable of the prodigal son, precisely because of what Ratzinger says here: it is the story of all mankind. And it is my story. It’s all about going home – everything, that is. It’s all about getting back our real clothes, and entering our real house, and being embraced by our Real Father, and taking up the real work and life of the human person, which is to be loved and to love, to receive mercy and to give it.

Well, it was a bit of a late night last night, what with the drive back from Ottawa. To be honest, I’m a wee bit tired this morning. So in the tradition of lazy authors everywhere, I’m enclosing, below the fold, an excerpt from Going Home about precisely this matter of identity, symbolized by the ‘first robe’ the father places on us:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mighty Mites

The basic reason why man can speak with God arises from the fact that God himself is speech, word. His nature is to speak, to hear, to reply, as we see particularly in Johannine theology, where Son and Spirit are described in terms of pure hearing: they speak in response to what they have first heard. Only because there is already speech, ‘Logos’, in God can there be speech, ‘Logos’, to God. Philosophically we could put it like this: the Logos in God is the onto-logical foundation for prayer.

The Prologue of John’s Gospel speaks of the connection in its very first sentences: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in communication with God.’ (Jn 1:1)—as a more precise translation of the Greek προϛ suggests, rather than the usual ‘with God.’ It expresses the act of turning to God, of relationship. Since there is relationship within God himself, there can also be a participation in this relationship. Thus we can relate to God in a way which does not contradict his nature.

Feast of Faith, 25

Reflection – It is just possible that many if not most readers of this blog have not lain awake at night agonizing over the ontological foundation of prayer and how it is possible for an infinite and transcendent God to hear the prayers of finite humans.

Most of us who pray just sort of take it for granted. You pray; God hears; that’s it. How God answers our prayers, or quite often doesn’t appear to—that’s more the issue that disturbs the peace of the average Christian

Whether or not we get it quite, though, the issue raised by Ratzinger in this passage is very real. God is wholly other than us, an entirely different Being… to the point that we can hardly speak of God correctly in human terms at all. To call God ‘a’ being is misleading, as it implies that God is one being among many. To call God a certain ‘kind of’ being is even worse; that puts God on some kind of continuum with rocks, plant, animals, us, angels. Even to call God Being Itself is not quite-quite—this makes God a sort of cosmic underwriter for the rest of us beings.

It is the strangeness of God that we can easily miss. God is not just a Really Big Guy. He (and even there, we choose the least-inadequate pronoun!) is Infinite Mystery, Infinite Unknown, the Absolute and Utterly Beyond of all beyonds... and even then our words fall badly short and go awry. We can heap superlatives upon superlatives upon capital letters (The Infinite of the Utter Absolute of the Beyond Transcendent Hugeness!!!) and it is all just as infinitely falling short of Who God Is.

And so this strange reality of dialogue with God is indeed a strange reality. May as well strike up a conversation with a super-nova, or the force of gravity, or the color red. Except… that God is a Trinity of persons. God is in conversation with God, and in the Logos who is Jesus, we are drawn into that conversation.

This, of course, has enormous significance for us. It means we are drawn, not just into a dialogue with God, but into the interior life of God. By the simple act of praying, we are drawn into the communion of the Trinity. The wee child kneeling at his bed side saying, “God bless mommy, God bless daddy, and God bless me,” is participating in the life of God.

And we are all that wee child. All of us are tiny mites of being, crawling on the surface of the cosmos… and all of us are immense, terrible creatures called into the very life of God the Supreme One.

Mystery upon mystery upon mystery. And that’s what you and I do every day when we lisp and stutter and blunder through our daily prayers, half our mind on something else (on a good day). We enter God’s life and become filled with that life for the world.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Practical Atheist

The prestige enjoyed by the agnostic solution today does not stand up to colder examination. As a pure theory, it may seem exceedingly illuminating. But in its essence, agnosticism is much more than a theory: what is at stake here is the praxis of one’s life. When one attempts to put it into practice in one’s real field of action, agnosticism slips out of one’s hands like a soap bubble; it dissolves into thin air, because it is not possible to escape the very option it seeks to avoid. When faced with the question of God, man cannot permit himself to remain neutral. All he can say is Yes or No—without ever avoiding all the consequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details of life.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 88-9

Reflection – Well, we’ve been down this road before on this blog – click the agnosticism label at the bottom of the post if you want the full story. But it bears saying again and again; we cannot really suspend judgment on the question of God.

Intellectually, yes we can, of course. It is clearly not psychologically impossible or logically unsound to say ‘I don’t know’ about the God question or any other question. But the God question, unlike, say, the wave/particle nature of light or the average wing span of a swallow (European or African? I don’t know… auggggh!), has direct practical implications for what you and I are going to do today, doesn’t it?

If there is a supreme being—that is, One who created you, holds you in being, and who is the author and end of your life—then you had better be talking to Him/Her/It today, right? If there is a God, you had better be asking this God to show you how to live, right? If there is a God, then prayer is a priority for each one of our lives, without exception.

So if you don’t pray, you are acting as if there is no God. You are a practical atheist, even if you insist that you are an agnostic. It seems to me that there are very few agnostics who end up adopting theistic practice—a rigorous, disciplined life of prayer—while most self-declared agnostics end up living as atheists.

But this whole prayer business opens up for us a whole stance to life that does not stop when we get up off our knees. If there is a God, then the truth, the meaning, the goodness, the point of virtually everything in the universe is not ours to decide. It is ours to discover, but that’s entirely different. Columbus ‘discovered’ North America; he did not invent it. There is a whole attitude towards life that emerges from practical theism as opposed to practical atheism, a reverence, a listening spirit, a deep humility.

I will never forget the shock I had one day when I, still a layman at that point but already in my final promises in Madonna House, realized that by and large I was living as a practical atheist. Generally speaking, I made up my own mind about stuff without much serious reference to… you know, the Big Guy. It was actually a key moment of repentance in my life that led me in a circuitous sort of way to my current state of affairs (where I at least once in a while check in with Him about stuff!).

Anyhow, agnosticism is a bust, practically speaking. Either there is a God or there is not one, and our whole way of life either is based on the existence of God or it is not. It is fairly simple, even though practical atheism can slip into our hearts in myriad subtle ways. And perhaps (realizing that most of my readers are churchy-type people) that’s a good focus for this post—are we living as theists or as atheists? Is God the center of our lives… or something else? Something to ponder…

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Truth and Contemplation

In the ancient and medieval view all being is what had been thought, the thought of the absolute spirit…human thinking is the re-thinking of the thought which is being itself…in contrast, the work of man seems contingent and transitory.
Introduction to Christianity, 31-2

Reflection – This short passage is from a truly glorious section of this book by a young Fr. Ratzinger, that bright Bavarian lad, in which he lays out over the course of a few pages the entire history of the notion of ‘truth’, from the ancient Greeks through the medieval scholastics to Descartes, Vico, Hegel and Marx.
The progression is from truth as being, our mind’s access to the divinely sourced being of things, to truth as merely applying to our own understanding of our own products and creations, to truth as a revolutionary idea—something we are in the process of making and that emerges from the rubble of historical conflict and revolutionary violence.

We have gone from having a true philosophy of communion, of the intellect of man having a genuine access to the mind of God, to the severing of this communion in reason’s self-limitation to its own creations, to a self-divinized man creating a world in his own image, creating truth by force of will and exercise of power.
In the ancient and medieval world the different exercises of the mind were ranked hierarchically, with (if memory serves) intellectus or understanding at the top and ars or (in Greek) techne—artistry, skill—at the botton. This is because of that sense Ratzinger mentions above of human works being contingent and transitory. It is good to know how to make things, but far better is the intellectual capacity to understand and contemplate what God has made.

In the modern world the hierarchy has been reversed. Indeed, all that matters is techne, and everything is subordinated to it. If we cannot produce some device or product from our understanding, and preferably one with market value, then our understanding is of no value. The only point of the mind, in the modern understanding, is to exert control over the world and shape it according to our wishes and devices and desires.

Intellect becomes, in this understanding, something devoid of any great dignity or sublime purpose. It is a weapon, pure and simple, or at best a tool. Bears have claws, crocodiles have jaws, deer have antlers, and human beings have intellect. Each creature simply uses the tools it has been given to get its share of the world’s goods and carve out its space on the planet.

What is lost here is the anthropology of communion. We are made, as human beings, to be in communion with God and with one another. Our minds can attain truth, not merely to force the world into our shape, but so that our humanity can be conformed to God’s shape by a genuine apprehension and a sincere love of the truth.

It seems to me that this is why contemplation is so important in our world today. I think if there is one glaring thing missing from our culture, both secular and ecclesiastical, it is contemplation. We are a people of programs, of projects, with agendae and time lines and budgets and deadlines… busy, busy, busy. We approach our secular life this way, and we approach the new evangelization and the mission of the Church this way.

There is precious little prayer and contemplation going on. Well, at least it seems that way to me. Certainly there is precious little talking about prayer, encouragement of contemplation, calling people to put down their Blackberries and smart phones to simply be in the presence of God and listen to Him. Maybe it’s all going on and there’s some kind of conspiracy of silence to never mention it. Maybe the call to Christian prayer and silence is being text-messaged to people, and that’s why I never hear about it.

Yeah, I doubt it. Dear readers, we are made for communion with God, and without some presence of prayer, silence, receptivity, contemplation in our life, we simply are not doing what we are made for, and all the things we are doing go awry somehow, bear little fruit. We’ve got to turn this around, and the only way to do this is for you and me to start praying more and listening, beholding, receiving truth from Truth Itself, which is a Person who is God.