Saturday, November 10, 2007

How are Prayers to the Saints really Prayers to God?

I haven't posted in a while - I hope to return to it soon.

This particular piece is the response to a question about why several Catholic events that a woman attended did not involve any prayers to Jesus Himself, but only to saints. The events were things like Bible studies, so that's why I'd say it's ok to just have a few Hail Marys or something. Typically, even in spite of what I said to her, one ought to pray directly to Our Lord during a faith based event, just because of the nature of how we as human beings perceive things. Even though a reality might exist that is different from how things are perceived, nevertheless we God has programmed us to operate according to that perception.

In any case, some others had suggested to this woman that prayer to the saints really is prayer to God. Here is my response:


You've got the right idea that prayers to saints are really prayers to the Lord in some way. And you've probably also got the right idea that you don't get it. I say this because its the sort of thing that, in my experience, people don't "get" until they've been Catholic for a while, or for cradle Catholics, until they really end up considering the issue for a while. This was true of me as well. I came into the Church in 2005, and I, like you, accepted prayers to the saints and Mary, accepted all the Marian stuff, but still in practice there was a certain degree of Marian piety that I was still uncomfortable with.

The reason for this is, I think, that it's based on some very advanced theological concepts. The thing is, unlike in [much of] Protestantism, Catholicism is so organic a faith that literally everything is deeply tied to everything else. You can't seperate this from that, as Protestants often do. My point is that theology in Catholicism is not merely theoretical - that is, not merely about God academically, but it truly is and stems from and leads to (all at once) the actual practice of the faith. Talk to anyone that's been studying the Summa Theologiae for a while and they'll tell you that they don't just get knowledge from it, but in some way - as cold and technical as it is - they get some sort of increase in their spiritual life as well. It's amazing.

Another way of putting this is to say that the Catholic faith is true, which means that the theological truths it teaches are a part of the fabric of reality, a part of the fabric of who we all really are as human beings and creatures of God, and so the more one prays and leads a spiritual life focused, the more one begins to recognize all the truths of the world and of themselves that underly every moment and aspect of existence. It's sortof like those movies where they show you all the stuff that's really going on in nature at every moment all around you but you never notice, except a lot less gross.

Now, so far as your specific question, that underlying reality that really matters is that everything that we have - even our mere existence - is just some way in which we are sharing in God. It is really God's own existence that in a certain way we participate in, as theologians say. That's why we have existence. It's ours, but it's also God's. Yet it's not in a pantheistic way, as if everything in existence isGod, either.

I'm sure you're familiar with 2 Peter 1:4, where it says that through Christ we are made partakers of the Divine Nature. What he's talking about is the concept of Divination, or Theosis as they call it in the east, which means that through Christ, we in some way share in what it is to be God. Athanasius, for instance, said in one of my favorite quotes, "By the participation of the Spirit, we are knit into the Godhead." This was the center of the faith in the early Church. It was everywhere, and every doctrine - even ones that seem so completely unrelated - were understood around the framework of it.

Now basically, Heaven is to participate in God's existence to the fullest extent that a creature can. That's what 2 Peter 1:4 is talking about. Hell, on the other hand, is to participate in God's existence to the least degree a creature can - to participate in existence alone, and have nothing else at all. Those in Hell suffer so much because they exist, but that's all. Everyone's experienced a moment in their life where they feel like they're just existing and that's all, and it's absolutely miserable. Hell is like that, except people who feel that way aren't even close to just existing and really have so much more - so imagine how terrible Hell is!

But Heaven is to participate more and more and more and more in God. It is to have more and more of what He has. We can never, ever become God, because we can never have existence in and of ourselves - that's what God has. But we can have nearly everything else that God has, not because we deserve it, but because He gives it to us. The first time I heard this it sounded crazy, but the thing is, we only exist by literally sharing that which is God's, His existence. For God to share with us any other part of Himself is no different. It's all just God giving to us that which is His, whether its existence, which we all have, or something more. So those who object to concepts of the saints having different "powers" or whatnot really have no ground to stand on. For a saint to have the "power" to bilocate, for instance, isn't any different from me having the "power" to exist and sit on my couch! The only difference is that that saint has become more open to God and shares more in God than I do.

The key to remember in all of this, though, is that that which we share in of God is not something that God creates, that is, something that He makes to give us that is like what He has. That's not possible, because He is all that really is at all. While those who do object to the saints "powers" are wrong in the way I mentioned above, they're actually correct at the same time because their reason for it is that only God has these things. And it's true! When I exist, or when a person speaks in tongues, or when Padre Pio bilocated, it is literally God doing that in us. It's not some power that is like God, but it is God. If it were something else, that would mean something existed on its own apart from God.

So when I am talking to you, I am talking to God in a certain sense, because you exist by virtue of sharing God's existence. Now when I talk to a baptized Christian, I am talking to God in an even fuller sense, because that person by virtue of baptism shares in more of God. This is why Christ said that what we do to the least of his brother's, we do to Him. It's true! It's why St. Paul said that it was no longer him living, but Christ who lives in him. To become more and more holy is simply to become more and more a partaker in God Himself.

So Mary up in Heaven, who partook of God more than anyone, was so emptied of "Mary" and so full of God that when we talk to her, we really are talking so directly to God, even though we're also talking to the human being Mary. Same goes for any other saint, just to a lesser degree as they were not as holy as she and participated in God to different degrees.

It's the same as with good works. The Council of Trent taught that the good works of a Christian are really the good works of the Holy Spirit living in the Christian, but in some mysterious sense that they are also the good works of the Christian at the same time. It's that Catholic "both/and" that everyone talks about. And it hints at that tremendous underlying reality to everything, namely, that everything that exists really is all at once both itself and God. It is itself, but it is God's own existence that it shares. This is one of those things we're never going to come close to grasping until we see God face to face.

So when we pray to Mary or to any saint, we're talking to them, but we're also talking to God, in the same way as when I talk to you or as when I feed my homeless brother. Yet we're also talking to God through them in an even deeper sense, because they share in God so, so deeply. They are so emptied of self and so full of God - so participating in God. Furthermore, you're praying - you're asking for Divine favors. That's what God does, and in asking them to grant these through their intercession, you're appealing to the Divine in them that they have become partakers of. So you're speaking to God, even though you're speaking to a human being, just like when I feed a human being I'm feeding Christ, but in a greater sense.

Now, I don't imagine that the people at these events considered all this. It's possible that just living the Catholic life led them, as it so often does, to an unconscious grasp of this aspect of reality such that what they did seemed perfectly great to them. It's also possible they just weren't very good Catholics and didn't care too much about Jesus. You'd be a better judge of that than I would, since you were there. But I bet they cared plenty about Him .

I know this is a ton to take at once, but I wanted to try to answer your question as best I could. I also prayed first, so I hope the Holy Spirit worked a little bit here. In any case, God bless.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Memorial - St. Aloysius Gonzaga
Patron of Youth

If you've ever wondered where Gonzaga University gets its name from - here he is. St. Aloysius was a Jesuit living in the late 16th century. He was well connected, as far as saints go. His cousin was Saint Rudolph Acquaviva. He received first Communion from Saint Charles Borromeo. He was a student of Saint Robert Bellarmine, one of the great saints of the reformation.

This brings up something I have long wanted to point out: scratch a saint, and you will find other saints. If you look through the list of saints, the vast majority of them knew at least one other saint, often times very well. In fact, I don't personally know of a saint who did not know any other saints, though I am sure there were at least a few. There is a tremendous lesson in this. If you want to be a saint - if you want to get to Heaven - hang around saintly people. God makes saints, after all, and the way God works in our lives is through other people. If you find yourself around someone who is very open to God, someone who God seems to work a lot through, well you're in a whole lot better of a position to have God make a saint out of you.

For some of us, this might not be easy. For one thing, we may not know anyone we would think of as saintly. Even if we do, chances are we may have a hard time hanging around them; saintly people do have a tendancy to make others uncomfortable at times. Holiness is, after all, a little tough to stomach for those of us who are attached to sin (i.e., most of us). That being said, try to spend even a little time with them if you know any such people. The more you do, the more you'll find yourself less attached to sin and more attracted to holiness. And if you do desire holiness but just can't seem to get there, well that's the best time to hang around with some saints. Their presence - thanks to the way God works through them - will do wonders for the soul who wants to grow but just doesn't know how or has a hard time. And if you don't know any saints, ask God to send you one. He'll see what He can do!

St. Aloysius - pray for us!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Why did Christ set up the Church?

The Church is set up in the way it is for a very specific reason. Did you ever wonder why we have Sacraments and all that? I mean, in some ways, the Protestant system actually makes more sense. As Catholics we believe in a God who essentially has invited us to become His children; we believe in a God who wants Love, not adherence to some checklist like a strict boss or professor. Even though the Scriptures never use the terminology, we agree with the Protestants that what God desires is a personal relationship with us. He wants us to know Him and Love Him. So if what God wants is Love and Faith - a relationship - well then Sacraments seem to be completely unnecessary.

Our conception of the Church as an authority to speak on matters of truth would still be important; having a personal relationship with someone requires that one know the truth about them. Imagine trying to have a relationship with your earthly father without any certainty concerning the facts about him. Do you get him golf clubs for his birthday, or a violin? Does he like it when you make lawyer jokes, or should you refrain. Is he a lawyer? In fact, when is his birthday, anyways? It wouldn't work. The situation is even more difficult with our Heavenly Father, whom is present not only when we are in the same room as Him but always. Is X a sin - does it offend Him - or not? When the Scripture says we should fast in one place but says we shouldn't in another, what does God really want? When half the Christians interpret a verse one way and the other half another, what's correct? What did God really intend to say?

But not Sacraments. For a God who simply wants a relationship they don't seem to fit. Once we know the truth about Him, what is the purpose of having to go through these rituals? Going back to fathers, if I offend my earthly father, the way to repair that relationship is to ask Him for forgiveness - not to go to someone else, like mom, and ask her to offer his forgiveness, as Catholics do in confession. So the Sacraments seem sortof, well, superfluous at best.

But the reality is that by Christ's own choice He set it up that way. The Sacraments aren't some superfluous thing that the Church came up with for some reason - Christ Himself instituted them Himself. Why? Why, if what He really wants is a relationship?

The reason is that Christ is compassionate. God loves us even if we don't always love Him. He wants those who aren't going to have a relationship with Him to have a chance. He wants as few people as possible to reject Him. He wants us in Heaven, so He didn't simply give us some authority to tell us what is true and then leave us to, if we can get ourselves to, have a relationship on our own. Different Christian groups, and even different schools among Catholics, have many different ideas of how Grace works exactly, so it's impossible to give some blanket statement about the technicalities of it, but suffice it to say that basic human experience shows that however Grace works, the vast majority of people in the world don't seem motivated to have a relationship with God even with the help and promptings of Grace. The truth is that left to out own, most people simply don't take advantage of the Grace God has for them and have a relationship with Him. Few Christians from any group ever really do. So Christ gave us Sacraments - things that work ex opera operandi, as that Latin calls it: "in and of themselves."

The Sacrament of Reconcilliation really does reconcile usto God. If someone is an absolutely miserable Christian and the very most they can muster is being sorry because they are afraid of hell, then the Sacrament will save them from it and - even as what may be a completely unintended side effect from their perspective - reunite them to God.

Christ made the Church in the exact way He did specifically so that poor Christians can make it to Heaven. He gave us last rights so that even the greatest sinner can, on his deathbed, at least say he's afraid of Hell and make it to Heaven, even if that person can't bring Himself to actually Love God or to be sorry for His sins in any real way. He wants us there, and so He gave us a Church with Sacraments exactly as He did so that those with the bare minimum can make it. He'll Give us Love when we get to Him.

Of course, He wants so much more, and so we have the fantastic saints who actually gave all they possibly could, and then people like you and me who hopefully do our best even if we're not quite ready for canonization. But He wants those folks who are just sitting in the pews each week and that's really all they're doing in Heaven, too. And that's at least one of the reasons that He did it they way He did.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


One of the greatest things I've ever seen, and I'm not exaggerating in the slightest.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thoughts on The Feeding of the 5,000

All just personal speculation.

From Mark:

"6:39Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42And they all ate and were satisfied."

First, the people are seperated into groups - but pretty big groups, not small ones. This is much like how we are seperated into different churches, or as it has been called since the 4th century, parishes. Then, they hand out the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Now I have for a little while understood this to refer to the 5 'regular' Sacraments and the 2 Sacraments of Service, Matrimony and Orders.

But I noticed something new: Jesus has the apostles hand out the bread, but He *Himself* hands out the fishes, which Mark says He divided amongst the people. Now this is interesting. The bishops of the Church (through the priests) distribute the 5 Sacraments to the people rather indiscriminantly. They don't have to know anything about you, you just go to your parish (or, in the Gospel here, group) and they give you the Sacraments to everyone there. On the other hand, they don't just hand out Marriage and Orders. These are callings from God, which He Himself divides up amongst the people and gives to them, just as here Jesus divides up the two fishes and gives them to the people.

I thought this was very interesting, so I started thinking about the differences between bread and fish. Bread is more or less - especially when speaking of the time of Jesus - standard fare. It's what keeps you alive. It's what you can't go without. There's nothing all that special about it - it's the minimum you need day in and day out to survive. Fish, on the other hand, is special. It has protein, and it gives you the strength to do your work. It has a special flavor to it, and you savor it. Also, some people like one kind of fish, others like others; some like haddock, some like salmon. Now I don't know if Jesus had different kinds of fish, you get the point I'm making. Fish is special, we enjoy it's savor, and what's more we enjoy one type of fish over another. Fish, unlike bread, has to be prepared. You hand out bread to someone and he eats it. He doesn't need to do anything all that special to eat it, except perhaps that if he's sick he needs to be well before he can keep it down. Fish, on the other hand, you have to scale, take out the bones, and cook. It takes a bit of preparation.

In the same way, the 5 Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Pennance, and Annointing are really the standard fare. Obviously they are very special, but in a certain sense they are nothing special, because they are just the regular 'bread' we need day in and day out to survive. Sure, we enjoy them, but in a relatively common way. In other words, everyone has these things in common, and they bring happiness, but when we add our particular vocation to this 'daily bread,' it brings a fullness to the us that wasn't there with these alone, so the way we enjoy the 5 Sacraments is very different from how we enjoy our marriages or our ordination (or consecration). These we enjoy in a very particular way - they add a fullness to our lives, a fullness particular to us, that is not found in the other 5 Sacraments. Now the 'regular' 5 don't require any preperation, other than being in a right relationship with God, just as bread really requires no preparation other than the healing of an inllness. Marriage and Ordination, however, do require special preparation. Just as a man must remove the scales of a fish to eat it, so we must remove the barriers we put between ourselves and others before we can wed or enter a consecrated life. Just as a man must remove the bones from inside a fish before he can eat it, so must we remove many of the undesirable things within ourselves before we can be given to others, for just as a man may choke on the bones of a fish he is given if they are not removed, so will those we seek to serve in life choke on the bones of our own inner sins if we do not remove them as best we can. Just as a man must cook a fish to purify it of disease and to bring it to warmth and readiness to be eaten, so too must we go through a process of gaining warmth for others and readiness to serve them.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Memorial - St. Boniface

Memorial - St. Boniface
Patron of Germany, Martyr

St. Boniface was one of those great middle of the first millenium saints that made their mark converting pagans left and right (St. Patrick was another).

St. Boniface, you gained eternal glory by dying to preach the Gospel to those who were trapped in the bondage of idolatry, worshipping that which was not God rather than their Creator. Today, millions turn from God for the worship of money, sex, technology, and any number of other idols. Pray for us that we might be willing to die, both to self and in that martyrdom of the body, so that our modern world might find eternal joy in the home of God their Father. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

St. Boniface, pray for us!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Memorial - St. Justin Martyr

Memorial - Justin Martyr
Patron Saint of Apologists

The saints were seized and brought before the prefect of Rome, whose name was Rusticus. As they stood before the judgement seat, Rusticus the prefect said to Justin: “Above all, have faith in the gods and obey the emperors”. Justin said: “We cannot be accused or condemned for obeying the commands of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”.Rusticus said: “What system of teaching do you profess?” Justin said: “I have tried to learn about every system, but I have accepted the true doctrines of the Christians, though these are not approved by those who are held fast by error”.

The prefect Rusticus said: “Are those doctrines approved by you, wretch that you are?” Justin said: “Yes, for I follow them with their correct teaching”.

The prefect Rusticus said: “What sort of teaching is that?” Justin said: “Worship the God of the Christians. We hold him to be from the beginning the one creator and maker of the whole creation, of things seen and things unseen. We worship also the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He was foretold by the prophets as the future herald of salvation for the human race and the teacher of distinguished disciples. For myself, since I am a human being, I consider that
what I say is insignificant in comparison with his infinite godhead. I acknowledge the existence of a prophetic power, for the one I have just spoken of as the Son of God was the subject of prophecy. I know that the prophets were inspired from above when they spoke of his coming among men”.

Rusticus said: “You are a Christian, then?” Justin said: “Yes, I am a Christian”.

The prefect said to Justin: “You are called a learned man and think that you know what is true teaching. Listen: if you were scourged and beheaded, are you convinced that you would go up to heaven?” Justin said: “I hope that I shall enter God’s house if I suffer that way. For I know that God’s favour is stored up until the end of the whole world for all who have lived good lives”.

The prefect Rusticus said: “Do you have an idea that you will go up to heaven to receive some suitable rewards?” Justin said: “It is not an idea that I have; it is something I know well and hold to be most certain”.

The prefect Rusticus said: “Now let us come to the point at issue, which is necessary and urgent. Gather round then and with one accord offer sacrifice to the gods”. Justin said: “No one who is right thinking stoops from true worship to false worship”.

The prefect Rusticus said: “If you do not do as you are commanded you will be tortured without mercy”. Justin said: “We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgement-seat of our Lord and Saviour”.In the same way the other martyrs also said: “Do what you will. We are Christians; we do not offer sacrifice to idols”.

The prefect Rusticus pronounced sentence, saying: “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer capital punishment according to the ruling of the laws”. Glorifying God, the holy martyrs went out to the accustomed place. They were beheaded, and so fulfilled their witness of martyrdom in confessing their faith in their Saviour."

From the Acts of Saint Justin

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Atheism and Reason

Back in the early 80s, there was a somewhat popular sitcom called Benson. This Soap spin off followed the daily goings-on of Benson DuBois, the household manager and later budget director for an unspecified state's governor's office. In the second season episode "No Sad Songs," Benson's mother tragically dies while visiting him. Prior to her death however, an exchange takes place between them over a small wooden cross that she carries with her.

Benson's mother says that this cross was made from wood from the True Cross - the actual cross on which Jesus Christ suffered and died. Benson disagrees. His mother bought the cross from a street salesman in New York City, and he insists that it was simply a scam. 'What makes you believe that is from the actual cross,' he asks her? 'Faith,' she replies. She believes that this little item was made from that sacred wood, and so, in here eyes, it was - and that's all that matters. At the end of the episode, a heartwarming scene occurs in which Benson learns to live life with some faith and to trust that everything will be alright without his mother. Upon this realization, Benson picks up the cross and smiles, apparently having decided that his mother was right after all.

The story of this cross is a perfect example of what is unfortunately a very common misunderstanding of faith which plagues today's atheism in which faith is understood to be some kind of subjective experience, rather than simply belief in an objective reality. This false notion is forgivable, because atheists typically get it from the various theists that hold to it today. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Creation Museum, a new attraction which opens this week in Kentucky. The Washington Post reports that, "One sign [in the museum] sets 'Human Reason' against 'God's Word.'" This is the conception of faith that the average atheist associates with the faith of Christianity, and in a broader context, theism in general.

But this is not faith. This is nominalism. "It is because I believe it is" is not the faith of the Christian, at least not until after the time of the Reformation. (I must quickly point out that neither do all Protestants hold to this notion nor does creationism itself necessarily embrace it; the museum is simply a rather good example from which to draw.) Nominalism is the philosophical doctrine that no objective, but that things are essentially what they are called. Benson's mother believed that her cross was from the True Cross, so her faith made it so, at least as far as she was concerned. But the reality (ignoring for a moment that this was a fictional program) was that this wood either was from the True Cross or it wasn't; her beliefs made no difference either way. If the cross was real, then Mrs. DuBois was merely assenting to a fact. If it wasn't, she was deluding herself into a fantasy with no basis in reality.

And this strikes at the heart of the question of theism. Either God exists or He doesn't. Our beliefs on the matter make no difference to the reality of the situation. Where they do make a difference is to us and whether we are conforming our own ideas to reality or trying to conform reality to our ideas. True faith is not some nominalist adherence to what we choose to believe, but is simply a real assent of our own beliefs to what is true.

Thomas Aquinas would have been appalled at any notion of "faith" based on some subjective grounds. To him, faith was simply the assent to truth of a properly ordered human intellect. God's existence was the most fundamental reality of the universe, and so human reason, properly exercised, would believe in Him - not as some subjective idea, but as the logical necessity of assenting to all the evidence available.

Of course, we all recognize that human reason can, and does, err - not because it is reason, but because it is human. Human reason errs from many human causes. Some people are simply not intelligent. Others operate with incomplete evidence, and lest one claim to be omniscient we must acknowledge that human reason always operates with incomplete evidence. Sometimes, a person's reason works perfectly well, but he simply chooses not to accept it for whatever reason.

This third possibility is nominalism. It is the "faith" of Benson's mother, of some theists, and as many atheists would suggest, all the other theists as well. Reason says one thing, but these people wish to reject that and believe another thing anyways. "Reason shows that there is no God," the atheist says, "and so those who believe must either be stupid, unlearned, or simply rejecting reason."

However, this conclusion rests on a faulty assumption, namely, that the atheist is the one with the honesty, the more complete library, or simply the keener mind. Implicitly, it outright rejects - dogmatically - the idea that a person can be intelligent, well-read, honest, and also believe in God. This idea must be held, or else the atheist's foundation collapses. This is why I say that it is dogmatic, even as atheists criticize the alleged inability of theists to accommodate new knowledge due to their theological dogmas. If the atheist accepts that a person of these various qualities can exist and be a theist, then his case against God evaporates because reason can no longer be opposed to Him, as I will explain.

This brings us to a fourth possibility: the possibility that two honest, highly intelligent, and equally well-read persons can disagree on a point of reason. The idea itself is not problematic; in fact most persons would acknowledge that it happens all the time. The implication, which I have already mentioned, is where the atheist's problem arises. Something besides reason must separate some atheists from some theists, because some atheists are just as honest, intelligent, and well-read as some theists on the question of theism, and yet they disagree. Aquinas would say that what separates them is Grace. Sin darkens the intellect, he would say, and Grace restores it to its properly ordered operation.

In any case, the rejection of this "atheistic dogma" leads to the necessary conclusion that reason alone cannot bring man to the truth. Something else is required. Even if one suggests that it is genetic, as some now claim, this still excludes reason from any definitive role in matters of discerning reality. In fact, it makes matters worse because it subjects our ability to understand reality to an uncontrollable biological predisposition, and more importantly, puts the atheist's claim on equal footing with the theist's, since there is no reason to believe that either predisposition is more in accord with reality than the other. A similar situation arises if one attributes the difference to life experiences (nature versus nurture, as it were).

And so we see that in atheism, a faith does exist. It is a faith simply in the idea that God does not exist. To abandon this faith puts one in the position of having to either attribute certain realities to something beyond humanity and nature (and so supernatural), or to embracing a cold and reasonless nihilism in which we cannot know the truth about reality anyways. For the atheist to retain reason, he must embrace something supernatural.

And this brings us back to the "faith" of Mrs. DuBois, only this time it is the atheist insisting that the wood is from the True Cross -reason be damned. The atheist believes that God does not exist simply because he chooses to believe it is so, for it is impossible to accept reason without accepting that nature is not all that there is to the world. And, like Mrs. DuBois, the atheist must sometime choose to accept reason or die clinging to a counterfeit "faith."

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cheese is Funny

It's real.

Memorial - St. Philip Neri


St. Philip Neri, you brought countless people to God through your gift of understanding exactly what they needed. You recognized that each person is an individual with a unique dignity, deserving of an approach specific to his own situation, personality, and spiritual state. By your prayers and intercessions, obtain for us the Grace to show the Love of God to each soul we should encounter in that way which will most touch his or her heart, and so bring all of God's children home to the eternal glory in which you now rest, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

St. Philip Neri, pray for us.

Longhorns in the Sky

Well, longhorn skulls, anyway.

Friday, May 25, 2007

What Christianity Isn't

I want to address something that I've noticed quite a bit recently. It's something I've come across in many different places in my life. Unfortunately, it is the sort of thing that might make some people feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I just want to say that this isn't directed towards anyone in particular. No one person is the inspiration for this. I've seen this amongst friends, family, acquaintances, and all throughout the blogosphere and other Internet forums.

What I am talking about is, essentially, a false form of Christianity. It is, as the title suggests, what Christianity isn't.

Christianity isn't going to Mass. It's not believing all the right things. It's not standing up for the rights of the unborn, or opposing homosexual marriage, or believing that the Ten Commandments ought to be allowed in public space. It's not living morally - abstaining from sex outside of marriage, being polite, staying sober, and so forth. It's not praying frequently, fervently, or with dedication. Christianity isn't feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and in other ways helping the less fortunate. It isn't reading spiritual books. It isn't standing up against those who are hijacking the Christianity for their own causes, or being the lone voice in the wilderness in opposition to some un-Christian practice or idea. Christianity isn't hating sin or cultivating virtue. It isn't standing up for legitimate "modern innovations" in the Church, nor is it defending the "traditional Church." It isn't opposing heresy, preaching truth, admonishing sinners, or imitating saints.

If you think that Christianity is any of those things, you are worshipping an idol. Your idol may be orthodoxy. It may be Ignatian spirituality. It may be sexual purity. You may worship tradition, the prayer, or even the Mass. In fact, you may have a polytheism in which you worship virtue, prayer, morality, orthodoxy, the corporal works of mercy, and all of the other things that are associated with Christianity. The fact is, Christianity is none of these things. We don't worship the Mass - we go to the Mass to worship God. And God, as St. John tells us, is Love (1 John 4:10).

Christianity is Love. It is nothing else. It is singularly, completely, and unreservedly Love. Indeed, all of the things listed above are a part of Love. One who loves his child will admonish her when she does wrong. One who loves God will believe all the right things. One who loves the unborn will defend their lives against the abortion mill that is western civilization. Yet none of these things, apart from Love, has any place in Christianity. Apart from Love, they are simply idols for us to worship instead of God.

Indeed, many people do worship these things. It is very common to worship virtue. The ancient Greeks were quite good at it. Today, many Christians worship these things. Purity apart from Love is not directed toward God, and yet time after time Christians will practice purity, even look to it as a great virtue, while failing to have Love in their lives.

It's a great thing to defend the faith; the Scriptures command us to be ready to (see 1 Peter 3:15). It's a great thing to oppose some terrible sin that our government is committing. It's absolutely necessary to admonish the sinner (such as pro-abortion politicians), but any of this done apart from Love falls far short of being Christian. Apart from Love, it is simply ideology.

Love is what separates orthodoxy from ideology. Love is what separates purity from prudishness. Love is what separates prayer from babbling, virtue from habit, saints from good citizens, righteous anger from sin. Love is what separates Heaven from Hell.

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy
gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all
mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up
my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and
kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not
insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at
wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all
things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for
prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for
knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but
when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke
like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a
man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to
face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully
known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of
these is love." (1Co 13:1-13)

Love makes Christians Christians. Unfortunately, as I go through life, I see so little of it.

I have to be clear, here. I am a sinner. We are all sinners. I am not talking about sin. Not everybody is Saint Thérèse. I and most other people will certainly fall short of Love in our lives. We will on occasion practice a virtue without Love. We will abstain from sin for selfish reasons. We will do each and every thing on my list apart from Love sometimes. That's not what I am talking about.

What I am talking about is a general attitude that I see wherein these things are so often taken to be all that there is to Christianity. Love is seen as being Christian, but simply as another item on the list rather than the only thing that makes one Christian. In reality, all of those other things are supposed to be subordinate to love. They are supposed to be part of Love - things that we do to Love. They are supposed to be means, rather than ends. Our only end is to be God - Who is Love.

So I encourage you - as humbly as I can - to examine yourself. Examine your motives. Examine why you do all the things you do. If you pray, why do you? If you live a moral sexuality, what is causing you to? How often do you do things - good, Holy, virtuous, pious things - without Love? I can only promise to do the same examination myself, and I will. I think that it's something our world is in such need of right now. If every Christian who is fighting abortion, defending the faith, or trying to restore Christ to our world in every other way would simply stop for a moment and start to Love first and do these things second, our world would turn around in a matter of weeks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Salvation and the Theological Virtues

One of the big differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, theologically speaking, is the emphasis on the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. In Catholic theology, all three of these are required for salvation. If a person is lacking any one of them, he or she will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven, as St. Paul would say. The virtues are called theological because they pertain to God, as opposed to something else. The theological virtue of Faith, for example, is faith in God. The theological virtue of Hope is hope in God, as opposed to hope in something else. Hope in some other thing would be called the natural virtue of hope, for it is hope in something natural.. In Protestantism, faith is regarded as necessary - and faith alone.

This difference naturally leads to quite a bit of confusion on the part of Protestants when coming across the Catholic teaching. "Hope and love," they might ask? "The Bible says we're saved by faith, not hope and love." The biggest question, however, is not one that is particular to Protestants, but one that might be on the mind of anyone considering the idea. Namely, why faith, hope, and love? Why does a person need these three particular things for salvation?

To understand this actually isn't all that difficult if one has a Catholic understanding of God Himself. I oughtn't generalize, as there are certainly many Protestants who have this understanding of God as well, but it's much easier to explain the Catholic viewpoint when contrasting it with another view, one not uncommon in Protestantism. This understanding is what I call the "bouncer" God. In this non-Catholic thinking, God is essentially like a bouncer who guards the entrance into the club of Heaven. Unfortunately, thanks to our sins, nobody is good enough to enter except for Jesus Christ. However, anyone who is with Jesus is allowed to enter by virtue of being associated with Him.

As opposed to this, the Catholic understanding of God is familial. God is understood as not only wanting to be like, but as wanting to be the true and literal Father of us all. He wishes only to adopt us as His children and bring us into His home to receive the true inheritance that we have as His children, but He won't force us to. In life, He offers this invitation. We can either choose Him and enter our home - Heaven - to receive our inheritance, or we can choose other things that we would rather have. When we choose something besides God, this is sin. Of course, there is a true justice to this all. The idea of punishment due sin is not lost, because sin is also understood as real, true moral choices; it does deserve punishment. For those adopted as children of God, He forgives as Father. For those remaining children of the devil, He condemns as judge.

In the Catholic understanding, then, salvation is not simply a matter of escaping hell. Rather, it is a matter of choosing Heaven - or more properly, of choosing God. To penetrate more deeply into this question, then, let us consider what is required to choose anything.

If I were to hold a ball out to you, what would be required for you to choose it? First, and most obviously, you would need to believe that the ball was existed, and beyond that, that it was in fact really being offered. Second, you would need to want the ball. I could offer you the ball all day long, but if you did not want it, you would not choose it. Now, believing that it is available to you and desiring it, you would be required finally to do something to claim the ball. You would need to reach out and take it, or perhaps speak up and tell me that you did in fact want it.

Our example here is of a ball, but it may as well have been anything else in existence. To choose anything at all, then, three things are required: one must believe both that the thing exists and that it can be chosen, one must want the thing, and one must make some action to claim it. These three things are referred to in Catholic theology as faith, hope, and love.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the theological virtue of Faith as "the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself" (1814). This is very similar to a description that the book of Hebrews gives for faith: "Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (11:6). This is exactly the conclusion that we arrived at above in regards to choosing things.; one must believe both that a thing exists and that the thing is available to be chosen. Faith requires that one believe in God and in what He says, namely, that He rewards those who seek Him - He can be chosen.

The definition of Hope that the Catechism provides is also consistent with what we have discovered about choosing things. "Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (1817). If faith is the virtue by which we believe in God and His rewards, then Hope is that virtue by which we desire God.

Finally we come to Love. The Catechism says, "Charity [Love] is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God" (1822). This requires a bit more unpacking. In Catholic Theology, it is understood that when a person is made just before God, God's Love is poured into his heart (see Romans 5:5). When one is just before God, and thus in the state of salvation, the Holy Spirit is present in his or her soul (no Christian would disagree with this idea,so far as I know). The Holy Spirit is that which internally causes us to Love God, and so by accepting the Holy Spirit into his heart, one Loves God. In the understanding of choosing things that we established, one must, upon believing in and desiring a thing, make an act of claim on that thing. One must "reach out and grab" the thing, as it were. The same is true of God. In the case of God, it is Love by which one "grabs" God, because it is by accepting Love into one's heart that one accepts the Holy Spirit. This idea could be embellished upon greatly by analyzing St. John's exhortations that "God is Love" from his first epistle.

In the Catholic understanding, God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, offers us Himself. Our life is a prolonged opportunity to choose, either to choose Him or to choose something else. He will not force Himself upon us, and so if we choose something else, He will respect that choice rather than dragging us into His presence anyways. It is by Faith that we believe in God and that we believe He is choosable. It is by Hope that we desire God, and it is by Love that we actually make our claim on Him (for lack of a better term). It makes sense, then, that no person can be saved if lacking any one of these three virtues. Without Faith, of course, one would not even recognize anything to choose. If one did not have Hope, then one would not want God, and clearly no choice is made in which a person does not want the item chosen. Finally, without Love, a person has not made any claim that He in fact does want God. If you believe I am offering you a ball and want it, it will do you no good if you do not actually do anything and simply stand in place believing and wanting it.

And so we come back to the Protestant belief that faith alone is required for salvation. Part of this is simply a matter of terminology. Most Protestants who believe that faith alone is required define faith differently from Catholics. To them, Faith includes in it the idea of Hope, and generally a sense of Love as well, although in many cases this sense of Love may be rather incomplete. This topic itself could fill up and entire post, or book for that matter, and will not be expounded upon further. It will suffice for now to read the words of Saint Paul from 1 Corinthians:

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy
gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all
mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up
my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing... So now faith,
hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (13:1-3;
Thus we see that Faith, apart from Love, profits nothing. Even dying for Christ will "gain nothing" apart from Love. Love is far more important than most people realize, or at least than most people act as though they realize, and is the greatest of these three crucial theological virtues.

Upcoming Later Today...

...will be two related posts, the first theological, and the second, practical.

  • Salvation and the Theological Virtues
  • What Christianity Isn't

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

St. Thérèse on Love

"One evening, not knowing in what words to tell Our Lord how much I loved him, and how much I wished that He was served and honouredeverywhere, I thought sorrowfully that from the depths of hell there does not go up to Him one single act of love. Then, from my inmost heart, I cried out that I would gladly be cast into that place of torment and blasphemy so that He might be eternally loved even there. This could not be for His Glory, since He only wishes our happiness, but love sometimes feels the need of saying foolish things. If I spoke in this way, it was not that I did not long to go to Heaven, but that for me Heaven was nothing else than to Love, and in my ardour I felt that nothing could separate me from the Divine Being Who held me captive."

Memorial - St. Rita of Cascia

Optional Memorial
St. Rita of Cascia is one of the most varied of all the saints. Both wife and mother, and later a nun, she went through the trials of women in all walks of life. There is little that a woman can experience that St. Rita did not, including an abusive 18 year marriage and a terrible illness. Through all of the trials, sufferings, and rare joys in her life, Rita maintained her faith and trust in God. She is a wonderful example for any and all women, regardless of their calling, place on the journey, or situation.

St. Rita of Cascia, you suffered every ailment imaginable, from the abuse of a husband to the death of your children to the pains of bodily illness. Pray for us so that we, too, may live our lives with the faith, trust, and love that you gave to God, regardless of what circumstances we happen to be in or what troubles we may be experiencing. By the Heavenly glory that you have gained in Christ, show us now how to live our lives for God so as to attain to this same glory, through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Great Deal

One of the great travesties of our day is the loss of sacred musis in and around churches. It used to be that one of the great roles of music in society was to lift the heart of man up to God. We simply don't have that any more.

Of course, we do have a great deal of Christian music out there. I don't mean to disparage modern Christian music. I like a lot of Christian pop, rock, etc. Much of it is very good, and it certainly provides an alternative to the generally sin-filled offerings provided by mainstream music.

That being said, it isn't quite the same as what I refer to when I say "sacred music." It makes perfect sense to imagine a large group of people sining a modern praise song in honor of God, but it would just seem wrong to play the same thing during a visit to the Holy Sepulchre, or even during a wedding ceremony.

There is something that just tells us that the truly sacred moments in our lives call for music that transcends the norm - for something beyond, something sacred, something very special. It may not be easy to define this, exactly, but we know it when we hear it. This is the sort of music that used to be produced often. It's the kind of music that used to be performed during Mass and other sacred ceremonies.

I must admit, I'm no great expert on this sort of thing. In fact, I know virtually nothing about it. I have, however, wanted to get into it somewhat, and to incorporate it a bit into my life. Unfortunately, I really had no idea where to start. Fortunately, EMI Classics has very recently (within the past 2 months) released a fantastic compilation of some of the best of this sort of music over the past 1000 years. This is a 6 CD set with 100 sacred works, from Gregorian chant to some of the rare sacred music that is being produced today. And even better, it's only $20.

If you're interested, take a look!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Memorial - St. Christobal Magallanes and Companions, Martyrs

Optional Memorial

St. Christobal Magallanes, you were martyred because the government of your day chose to abuse the power which it had received from God, turning on Him from whom their authority came and on all those who lived in His Name. Today, the governments we are subject to are growing closer to following in a similar, unjust path, while some are already persecuting the Church of our Blessed Lord. Pray for us that we may enact positive and peaceful change in our governments, and that if called to make the same sacrifice that you made for your faith, we will do so willingly and joyfully.

St. Christobal Magallanes, pray for us.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean and the Fall of Western Civilization

This coming weekend, the keenly expected third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean films will be released in theatres. It won't be the typical summer release, but rather one of those "special" events where people dress up in costumes and go to the theatres at midnight so that they can see the highly anticipated release as soon as is humanly possible. Even beyond that, the theatres will no doubt be packed this weekend with all manner of swashbucklers and salty dogs. In short, most of western civilization will be going to see this film.

It would do them much good, however, to revisit the first film before doing so. This is not simply for the sake of refreshing their memories of the adventures of the buccaneers, but more importantly because the first film contains a message that most of western civilization is in dire need of hearing, and more importantly, of assimilating.

The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, tells the story of a crew of pirates trying to escape the curse of an eternity existing in between death and life as immortal half-men, unable to experience anything other than their own miserable, half-human existence. They can go through neither pain nor pleasure, a state which leaves them to a numb, meaningless, empty existence far worse than even any suffering might provide. The cause of all of this is a curse which came upon them after taking forbidden treasure, and their sole purpose is now one of trying to steal back all of the treasure so that the curse can be reversed.

Watching the film, one can't help but feel a bit bad for these fellows. They are in a simply pathetic state of affairs. What used to be men, they now simply go through the motions of men, even fighting amongst each other with no possible outcome to be gained, as they cannot be injured. These men have been without any meaning to their existence for so long that they don't even realize just how self-destructive and stupid their behaviors are. Fighting amongst selves causes enough delay in reaching a goal; in their case, the delay may be forever, if they choose to fight that long. Any member of the audience at once realizes just how stupid these cursed men are behaving.

Unfortunately, our society has been caught in an existence without meaning for so long that we, too, are essentially incapable of recognizing just how self-destructive and stupid our behaviors are. The reality is that western civilization is caught in the very same situation that these forsaken pirates were. Just like the pirates, we have sold our souls for various treasures. Sometimes it is money, but, as Captain Jack points out in the film, "not all that glitters is gold." One of our treasures is wealth. Another is fame. Sex is one of our treasures, as is science, and even progress in general. As a society, we have thrown aside what makes us human for the treasure - and in many cases, the unknown treasure. When it comes to progress, for example, we do not need to know the ultimate prize, simply that it is in some way moving forward.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the case of abortion and contraception. Here, we take the very life out of us and destroy it, all for the sake of our treasure. Modern science makes this parallel frightfully complete. Biology identifies life as that which fulfills 7 characteristics, one of which is the ability to produce new organisms. Contraception and abortion are designed to hinder and negate this ability, rendering us as not quite alive, but clearly not dead, either. In fact in western Europe, where we see this problem most prominently, the population is decreasing at a rate faster than it was during the black plague and the birth rate is in such that humanity is well on its way to virtual extinction on the continent. Without children to prepare for the future and a new generation to leave a legacy and bestow our accomplishments on, lives are reduced to an utter meaninglessness of going through the motions.

And these pirates teach us something else about the sins that plague our society, as well. Their first sin was a sin against themselves. They weren't so much hurting anyone; any claimants to the treasure had long since died. The only thing truly wrong with the treasure was that it was forbidden. That's the reality of all sin, in one sense: God said "no." There may be more too it than that (and there most often is), but even if there weren't, all that matters is that god said "no."

Yet even such a "harmless" sin leads the pirates into greater sins, sins against other people. The emptiness which they find in themselves after the first sin leads to a need, a need to fulfill what can only be fulfilled by more sin, and greater sin. Now they must steal, murder, and kidnap to fill the hole inside of them.

This is the reality of sin. Nobody sins to commit evil. Every sin is an effort - a misguided effort - to get some good. The pirates didn't go after this treasure to make their existence a constant, meaningless process of going through the motions: they wanted easy money. The person who has sex outside of marriage is trying to find love, even if without realizing it. The young man who gets high on drugs isn't looking to destroy his body, he's trying to find happiness in a fallen world. The woman who has 3 abortions isn't trying to snuff out 3 innocent lives, she is trying to protect her career.

And yet all sin leads to this emptiness, an emptiness created by trying to fill a need with self. We already have ourselves - adding more of oneself cannot fulfill. Selfish acts - and all sin is, ultimately, selfish - simply try to fill that hole inside of us with self, leading us to feel more empty than before; discovering the powerlessness to fulfill oneself is a very gnawing experience. And so the sinner, not knowing what to do, tries to take from others in the hope that they can provide what is lacking in themselves. Yet taking from others is simply another act of selfishness, another attempt to fill the hole with self. It is a numbing cycle in which the western world is trapped.

Ultimately, there are two possible endings to this cycle, both illustrated in the Curse of the Black Pearl. When the curse is finally - and unexpectedly - lifted, Captain Barbossa, the leader of the cursed pirates, has just been shot. Because of the lifting of the curse, he is finally able to feel. He is finally able to experience life - and yet all he can experience is death. His initial reaction is one of joy. He has gone for so long without feeling, that though all he is able to experience is the pangs of death, he rejoices in it. This is, ironically, what he was seeking: feeling and meaning, at any cost. Like today's western world, Captain Barbossa delved into sin after sin in his drive for meaning. Ultimately, the meaning that he found was death, and it came unexpectedly. He always expected to be in control of his mortality - to hang onto his invincibility until he was ready to surrender it. Yet death came, unexpectedly, and ironically, as the utter and perfect fulfillment of all of his desires. He sought meaning through sin, and he found the only meaning sin holds: death.

His crew, on the other hand, meets a different end: mercy. They, too, find themselves subject to death unexpectedly as the curse is lifted while in battle with superior British forces. However, death does not come to these men. They are granted mercy by the soldiers. The commanding officer did not need to grant these pirates mercy - and they had certainly committed crimes far exceeding the warrant of death - but he did. All they had to do was accept it. Their choice was to go on fighting to the death, or drop their weapons and accept the fate of capture.

Yet this is a deeper choice than it would seem, and one which ultimately our civilization will have to make. The pirates had gone for a great time without any meaning in their lives, without any feeling. Finally, they had found it, and they were left with a choice: life as prisoners, or death. They chose the former. This no doubt meant much suffering for them, especially in light of the allusion from earlier in the film that freedom is the greatest and most valued privilege of pirates. They would seem to heartily agree with the famous statement of Patrick Henry, "give me liberty or give me death!" But these pirates had something greater than that: meaning. They had sought meaning for so long, as their single goal, and though they had sought it in every corrupt, wrong, and evil way, by the grace of mercy, they had an opportunity to experience it. Even surrendering themselves to the British, the pirates could experience meaning. They could taste the sweet bite of an apple, or experience the warm Caribbean breeze on their faces and an infinity of other things which anybody else would take for granted. They must suffer for this, but ultimately, it was life, and it was meaning, and they chose it.

And so, this is where the western world stands. Indulging in an endless cycle of a search for meaning, a cycle leading deeper and deeper into sin and meaninglessness, one of two things will happen. Either death will come, quickly and unexpectedly, or mercy will. If mercy comes, it will be on the condition of suffering. There is much penance to be done for the sins our civilization has committed, and redemption will not come without suffering and hard work. And yet, if mercy is offered, and if it is accepted, we will have the chance to experience something beautiful, something incredible, and something well worth any suffering: meaning. If we are willing to lay down our weapons of vice and selfishness, we will find such infinite meaning that we had forgotten existed that the sacrifices required for it would seem radically insignificant. Let us pray for this; let us pray.

College in 3 1/2 Minutes

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Limitations of Knowledge

"To be learned and able to discuss the Trinity will get you nowhere if you do not have humility, and therefore displease the Trinity. Lofty words neither save you more make you a Saint; only a virtuous life makes you dear to god. It is better to experience contrition than to be able to define it.

To be well versed in Scripture and all the sayings of philosophers will not profit you if you are without God's Love and His Grace. All things are vanity. Nothing matters except to Love God and to serve Him only. The height of wisdom is to set your goal on Heaven by despising the world." - The Imitation of Christ, 1

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ascension, the Body, and the Beatific Vision

Today is the official date of the Feast of the Ascension. In some parts of the United States and in some other countries, the celebration has been moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter. However, here in my home archdiocese of Boston, it is still celebrated today. This is the day that, in a certain sense - as Fr. Ventura said at the evening Mass tonight - sums up the reason we're Catholic: to go to Heaven. Jesus ascended into Heaven, and we hope to get there.

GK Chesterton made a similar statement once when he was asked why he was Catholic. Of course, his questioner was expecting some sort of theological reasoning, perhaps a historical reference, or even an emotional appeal to aesthetics or some such thing. However, in classic Chestertonian fashion, the author responded simply, "to get my sins forgiven."

So here we have to answers to the question of why we are Catholic. One is provided by today's celebration, and might be called the more positive of the two: we hope for Heaven! The second might be understood to be more negative, focusing on that which we hope to escape rather than that which we hope to gain. However, in the classic beauty of the Catholic faith, the reality is that the two answers are not really all that different at all, much less opposed as being two different ways of looking at something. In fact, in a certain sense they are very really the same answer precisely.

St. Augustine touched on this point in one of his sermons on the Ascension. He wrote,

"While in heaven [Christ] is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love."
The last statement really stuck out at me when I read it. We can be in Heaven - even now - by Love. This is really an astonishing statement. I'm sitting in a chair right now as I write this, and as much as I might try to love God, I certainly don't feel like I'm in Heaven. I'm in an orange basement, so far as my eyes tell me, and it seem quite far from Heaven, as you might imagine.

To explain this point further, Augustine speaks more specifically of Christ's incarnation, quoting John 3:13:

"He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven."
This statement is very though provoking. It could be the subject of a great deal of meditation. However, the reality is that its not that profound a statement, theologically speaking. It simply states a very basic theological statement, one which any student would learn in his first year of theology: Christ experienced the beatific vision from the first moment of His existence.

Now, the beatific vision is the very essence of Heaven. To be in Heaven, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, consists in"nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence" (ST, I-II, 3, 8). Heaven is - in all that it is - the state of knowing God. Christ states the same in John's Gospel: "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God..." (17:3)

So Christ was literally in Heaven while on earth, and St. Augustine says that we can be too, through Love. If you've noticed, however, I have been capitalizing "Love" most of the time in this post. This is because it's not our love that Augustine is speaking about, but the Love of God, and this brings us back to Fr. Ventura and GK Chesterton. We are forgiven our sins, per Chesterton's answer, thanks to the Love of God, and we are brought into Heaven, per Fr. Ventura's homily, by His Love as well. John expressed this in his first epistle, writing that what matters is "not that we loved God, but that He loved us..." (4:10).

It gets deeper than this, though. Love doesn't cause our forgiveness and beatification to Heaven simply as a final cause, but also as a efficient cause. In other words, Love isn't simply that which inspires God to forgive us and show us the vision of Himself, but it is also the means by which He does this. In our justification, God's Love is "poured into our hearts" (Rom. 5:5). It is this very Love which wipes away sin. Sin and Love are incompatible, because sin is the contradiction of Love. By pouring His own Love into our hearts, God eradicates sin. At the same time, it is through Love that we know God - that is, see Him. With Love in our souls (which is what "hearts" refers to in Scripture[excluding passages referring to the organ]), we see God. On the other hand, "Anyone who loves," St. John writes, "...knows God." (1 John 4:7).

To know God is to Love, but to Love not with our own, human Love, but with the Love that God has placed in us. Further, to know God is, according to Christ, the essence of eternal life. Love is that which at once - simultaneously - forgives sin and infuses the vision of God into our souls. Just as Christ was in Heaven while on earth, we too can be in Heaven, even while on earth. In fact, anyone who is in a state of Grace (does not have unforgiven mortal sin) is in Heaven, quite literally.

This makes more sense when we recall that Heaven belongs to the soul, not the body. Our bodies will be glorified and brought into Heaven, but even then, it is not by them which we experience Heaven (at least not directly; Heaven will involve the body, but not as a fundamental quality. See ST, I-II, 3,3 and ST, Sup., 92, 2 regarding this point). Heaven consists in the soul's vision of God.

The practical implications of this are tremendous. So long as we are in Grace, we are in Heaven, even here on earth. Christ experienced Heaven, even as He hung on the cross, and we can experience Heaven even as we bear some terrible pain or sadness. This explains the ability of the saints and the apostles, as recorded in Scripture, to profess tremendous joy even in their sufferings. By this, they were able to rejoice in their sufferings, as St. Paul said (Rom. 5:3). The pain can be overwhelming, but the soul is still in Heaven.

This also has implications for our consciences. Our bodies are afflicted with sin, even when our souls are striving for God. We will become angry without intention, our eyes will be drawn to look upon an illicit image, evil thoughts will pass through our minds. This does not matter. Our body will do these things even while our souls rejoice - in a certain very real sense unbeknownst to us - in the vision of God. Sin enters when we consent to these things, by allowing them in the door of our souls as it were. Make no mistake, to consent to or willingly engage in bodily wrong is sinful. It is also true that gradually, through living virtuously, God's Grace will heal our bodies so that these things will happen less and less, and if you are blessed in a special way, never at all. This must be what we strive for, but we must also not be discouraged if it does not happen this way. Some of the saints, for example Augustine, struggled with their bodies until their death.

And so as we go through life, it is easy to expect that we will have a lot of "cleaning up" to do in Purgatory. For many of us this will be the case. However, it is also possible that our souls may be much cleaner than we imagine. This is important to understand for the sake of perseverance, as it can be a great encouragement. Nevertheless, there is great danger in thinking of it in any way more than this. We all have many sins which indeed are in our souls, which indeed we do consent to and even engage in purposefully, and we needn't any excuses.

Rather, what we need to do is recognize just what it means to be in the state of Grace and strive to stay there. We need to recognize the reality that our souls are in Heaven even now, and live for that. "Is this song fit for a soul in Heaven?" "Is this movie something that is good to see when I can be seeing God?" "Should I spend time experiencing this when God is there for me to experience?"

And this is where all of this should bring us: to prayer. Our souls are filled with God's Love - they can see God - but because of our emphasis on the body, we don't recognize this. God is there, waiting to be experienced, and we don't even realize it. In prayer, we reach beyond the bodily senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and sound, and reach the senses of our souls, the senses that have direct access to God Himself. We have this power, and we simply don't even realize it because we have never used it. Imagine if you had been fed intravenously your entire life and never had anything put into your mouth so that you didn't even realize there was such a thing as taste for never having used it before. This is the state we are in in regards to our souls.

In prayer, gradually and slowly, we are able to peel off the layers of flesh until we recognize these senses, the senses of our souls. I am not referring to verbal prayer, but mental prayer, to meditation. "Blessed is the man who... meditates night and day," David tells us in the first Psalm. Mary herself, the one creature living in the greatest communion with God, led a life of meditation, as Luke tells us when he says that Mary treasured sayings about Jesus and pondered them in her heart (2:19).

Our souls do not yet see God fully. As we grow in prayer and holiness, we will see God more and more as He is. If it is difficult to pray now, to take the time to do it, or to avoid sin, it will become easier. It can be frustrating when we struggle so much with these things, but we needn't feel this way. As we see God more and more, the choices between sin and God, or between one thing and the prayer by which we know God, will become easier. After all, the more we grow the more we will see Heaven - see God - and the choice between anything and this is really a very simple one when we see the choice we're making.

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Cor. 13:12). St. Paul wrote these words immediately before writing that Love is the most important thing. I want to end on this point. Love is truly the most important thing in the world. To Love is literally to know God! All of our actions, be they of Love, are actions of prayer and actions of Heavenly contemplation. God is Love! When we Love, we are knowing God. If we Love, we are experiencing God, even if we can't quite see it yet. St. Thérèse understood this, and so she Loved. And she Loved some more. And she Loved and she Loved and she Loved. As John wrote, "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19). He gave us His Love so that we can give it to others. By doing this - by Loving - we are entering more and more into the realm of God. Each simple, Loving action is nothing less than another step further into Heaven itself.

Take a plunge.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Heaven in Her Eyes

It's so hard to look towards Heaven when we don't know exactly what it is we are looking forward to. It's no surprise that we sin, that we choose lesser things, when we don't even know what is being offered us. "Heaven..." It seems so abstract, so esoteric, so meaningless, really, as merely a word.

This is the face of St. Thérèse of Liseux. It is the face of a person who is filled with the Love of God and nothing else. Look at her. Look her in the eyes. There, you will see your every longing, your every desire, all that you have ever wanted, and in some mysterious way, so much more.

It is the face of someone who is looking to God and desiring nothing but Him, and who can almost see Him already. It is the face of a person who knows how much she is loved by God, and who lives every moment simply to receive that love so that she can share it with others. St. Thérèse understood how she was loved by God, and as a result you can see God - see Heaven - in her eyes.

This is the very meaning of life: to have what is in her eyes in our souls. No matter what we are going through, what mistakes we have made, or what longings and desires we might have, this is waiting for us. This is true joy, the unending joy that cannot be weakened or taken away. It's there for the taking... all we have to do is receive.

Strive for it. Ask for it. Cast away everything else you have, and it will be yours. Oh, how can we desire sex, alcohol, material things - even human love! - rather than that which is in Thérèse's eyes? All that those things can possibly give, and so, so much more, is right there. This is Heaven. This is what we are offered. Go and live every moment looking toward this prize... towards Love....

Carrying Our Crosses

"Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me," Jesus said," cannot be my disciple." There is a great deal of meaning behind these words, and many Christians do try to pay attention to them. Our lives will contain many burdens we must bear, sufferings we must go through, and personal difficulties we must struggle through. We are called to bear these things as Jesus bore His cross: with humility, patience, love, and even thanksgiving to God our Father. I think we understand this. We don't always like it or do it, but we at least understand it.

However, the problem is that we typically acknowledge this and move on, or we make some half-hearted resolution to do better and then go back to our old ways. What we really need to do is actually carry our crosses, and suffer with Jesus. But this is what we've been trying to do - how can we do it?

There are many answers. The one I want to focus on here is to realize just what it means to carry our cross - and what it tells us. After all, we know we have to carry our crosses, but what does that actually mean? Why do we have to carry our crosses; what difference does it make? We all have some vague idea of it, to be sure. We know that we are sharing in Jesus' suffering when we carry our cross. We know that we are offering a sacrifice of praise to God... but does this mean anything personally to us?

I'm going to say something rather shocking here: Jesus couldn't save us alone, and He didn't. He needed human help. This is an incredibly shocking, if not scandalous, thing to say - but it's the reality, and in fact we are all familiar with this fact even if we don't realize it.

We all know Simon of Cyrene, even if not by name. He's the person that the Roman soldiers forced to help Jesus carry His cross. Matthew, Mark, and here Luke, recorded it: "And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus." (23:26) This shows us that Jesus allowed another person to help Him, and this itself is rather significant. Jesus wants us to be able to play a part... He did what we couldn't do, but He also didn't hoard it all to Himself so as that we can't do anything to help.

I have heard it explained rather beautifully by Rosalind Moss, a writer for This Rock magazine and a Jewish convert. Imagine, she says, a mother baking cookies in the kitchen when her little daughter walks into the kitchen behind her and asks to help. Now the mother doesn't need the child's help; she has the ingrediants, the tools, the bowls and cookie sheets, the oven, and the ability to put it all together to make cookies. In fact, the child could never make the cookies on her own. She couldn't even reach the counter! Is the mother going to not allow the poor child to help? Of course not... she loves her child, and she wants the child to feel a part of it and to help if she likes. Jesus is infinitely more loving than this mother, and so He would do no less for us. After all, if, Rosalind says, you could go back to Calvary and hold up Jesus' arms a little bit as He hung on the cross to take some of that burden off of Him, wouldn't you?

We can see that Jesus allows us to suffer with Him, then. This in itself is absolutely fantastic - to share in God's very own work and suffering. Words cannot convey how wonderful this is! If we only consider this, how can we not carry our crosses, realizing what an oppurtunity we are passing up!

But I said more than this. I said that Jesus couldn't save us on His own - without Simon. Why does it matter that someone else helped Him? Why does it matter that Jesus allowed Him to help, even if it is an astounding participation? Let's ask, then, why did they make Simon carry the cross? The answer must be because Jesus was incapable of doing so. This is the way it was depicted in The Passion of the Christ, and it makes a lot of sense. The Romans weren't nice guys, especially when it came to executions. They were ruthless. They didn't just want to be nice to Jesus here. The only reason they ever would have done this is if Jesus was actually incapable of carrying the cross on His own any further.

There's an incredibly important distinction here. Jesus, in His Divinity, certainly needed no help. God doesn't need help with anything. But in His humanity, Jesus did need help. His human body was spent. It couldn't go any further. He needed the addition of Simon's humanity, as it were, to finish the job.

But to say that Jesus - the God-man - needed Simon is different. He was, after all, God and man, so why could He not simply have miraculously lifted His body up and kept it going? The answer is, no, He couldn't, not if He wanted to save us. Jesus became man primarily to be a human representative - a sinless human representative - to God the Father on our behalf. Some human being needed to offer God a perfect sacrifice, but because all human beings were sinful, none could. Christ couldn't offer this simply as God, because then it would be God offering God a sacrifice; there would be no benefit to humanity, because no human would have made the sacrifice. If Christ had performed some miraculous act to offer the sacrifice, then it would have essentially subsumed His humanity, and the sacrifice wouldn't have been an authentically human act. his role as human Mediator would have been destroyed, and the sacrifice would have been no good for us.

So without Simon's help, Christ couldn't have made it up to Calvary to be put on the cross. What's more, up until the point of actually being put on that cross, the sacrifice couldn't necessarily be said to have been offered, even had Jesus died on the way. His sacrifice was a spotless sacrifice, a sinless one of Christ being obedient unto death (cf. Phill. 2:8). Up until being nailed to that cross, Christ hadn't done that yet. He had gone far, but not all the way. He hadn't actually been obedient to death, because He hadn't put Himself in the position definitely to be killed yet. For example, He could have escaped, or tried to. He certainly could have sinned on the cross, too, by rejecting His death even as He underwent it, but there is something a bit different about this. This would be a different way He could have sinned, but there was still the fact that He had not yet actually gone all the way to death, not volunatarilly. Allowing Himself to be nailed to that cross was truly a consummation of sorts to His acceptance of death.

Simon made up what was lacking in Christ's sufferings, then. In fact, this is exactly the choice of words Paul used in Colossians when he explained his sufferings: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (1:24) This is a wonderfully deep statement, in light of what we have been discussing, and it leads directly to the point of all of this. Note that Paul said that it was in his "flesh" that he made up what was lacking, just as Simon had made up in his flesh. Simon provided what was lacking in Christ's bruised and battered humanity. St. Paul said that he was doing the same.

Let's consider one more thing. Simon was one of the most common names amongst Jews at the time of Christ. Cyrene was an important gentile port city, from which the entire world could be reached. Simon of Cyrene, represents, essentially, the everyman. He is the common Jew, and the gentile from anywhere in the world. The place he took is the place that any person could take. When St. Paul bore his own sufferings well, he took the place of Simon. Paul carried his cross, and in carrying his cross, he was not carrying his alone, but that of Christ. He was adding to Christ's afflictions what was lacking, just as Simon did. And when we bear our crosses, we do the same.

And this is the reality of our crosses. Our crosses are not simply difficulties to suffer through out of praise, but to take part in the true sacrifice of Christ. They are sufferings by which we take part in the ultimate praise, the only praise ever complete enough for God, the praise of Christ's offering on the cross. When we bear our crosses, we bear His, and when we bear His, we become a true part of His sacrifice, His sacrifice of praise, His eucharistion (Greek: thanksgiving). We hold up His arms that little bit - out of love. To be His disciple, we must take up our crosses, for apart from that, His cross would lay on the ground with Him just inside the walls of Jerusalem.

This also means something very important, so much more important than anything else. It means that Jesus didn't just die for us but He died for you - personally. Every step He took on the way of the cross was for you and you personally. In the grand mystery of the Incarnation, His steps were at once for all mankind and exclusively for you. He died because He loves you - not because He loved mankind, not because He loved everyone or because He loved me or us, but because He loved YOU.

Thinking of this, our crosses must seem like toothpicks.