By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Humility Equals Freedom

In the last post, I spoke about two types of obstacles: the ones that say "turn around" and the ones that say "keep going." To recognize those obstacles that tell us to turn around, we need humility, the recognition that we are quite obtuse by nature because of our inherent human limitations. By acknowledging those very real limits on our knowledge, intuition, and natural discernment, we are open to turning around when that is necessary. (Notice how pride so often leads to a refusal to turn around--we plow forward because we refuse to admit error, often because admitting error would require wrenching personal change, change that is also known as conversion.) In addition, because of humility, we can turn around without first needing to fully and thoroughly understand or identify the reasons why we need to turn around (compare this last point to my most recent post on Fr. Philippe's book).

This insight is one potential way to understand the biblical aphorism that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The "fear of the Lord" contains an aspect of realizing that we are woefully limited in our capacity to understand when compared to that of the Creator. We recognize the gigantic difference between our comprehension and His. In this sense, we seriously respect the Lord as being profoundly wiser than we are; and so we are ready to turn around even if we do not comprehend all the reasons for such a course of action.

In addition, recognizing our limits enables us to see and be grateful for the mercy and kindness of the Lord--he rescues us from many terrible mistakes even if "we don't get it" at the time, just as a parent will rescue a small, oblivious child from crossing a busy and dangerous city street. In these ways, humility is a key to wisdom, to docility ("teachability"), to "fear of the Lord," and to thankfulness for his kindness. In the end, humility leads to great freedom because we are not enslaved or manipulated by what can harm us or possess us, just as the sheep who follow the shepherd are "free" to flourish when compared to the sheep that run off into predatory danger. Moreover, with humility, we are free to take risks that often our pride stubbornly refuses to take simply because of the paralyzing fear of public failure or embarrassment. The humble person is truly free from those constraints.

Ask yourself in how many ways pride constrains us. Then imagine living free of those constraints, in humility.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Obstacles, Obstacles

In studying the Hebrew text of Jonah and how the fearful sailors were throwing off cargo in order to lighten the ship in danger of sinking in the great storm-- as Jonah sought to flee by ship from Adonai's command to prophesy to Nineveh, I was reminded of another story of a ship also caught in another great storm in which fearful sailors were also throwing things overboard in an attempt to survive. That story is found in Acts 27 when Paul is on his way to trial in Rome as a prisoner and is caught in a great storm at sea as Jonah was.

Jonah was eventually thrown off the ship and into the belly of a great fish. You are familiar with the rest of the story: the Jonah who initially ran away from Adonai's call to prophesy to the great city of Nineveh, the great power center of the Assyrian empire, ended up on dry land again, out of the belly of the fish in three days, and eventually obeyed Adonai's call to prophesy to the people of the great city of Nineveh.

In contrast, Paul did not undertake his sea voyage to run away from God's assignment. Paul was on the ship heading to Rome as God wanted him to do, so that Paul could testify to the "Nineveh" of Paul's day--the great and powerful imperial city of Rome.

Jonah was fleeing from God on board the ship. Paul was obeying God on board the ship. Yet, both encountered a great storm. Jonah ended up in the belly of the fish. Paul ended up shipwrecked on Malta. Each eventually got to where they needed to go.

How interesting that Adonai sent a great storm in both situations--to the disobedient, reluctant prophet Jonah and also to the obedient, zealous prophet Paul. Our God sends or permits obstacles to arise even when we are obeying him (I credit a teacher for that insight). Remember that next time you face an obstacle. Ask for the discernment to know if you are in the Jonah situation or the Pauline situation, to know if you need to turn around or stay on track. Obstacles in and of themselves do not necessarily mean that you must give up. As in Paul's sea voyage to Rome, obstacles may just be an occasion to demonstrate the power of God even when we are already on the right track.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Catholic Personality: Teresa of Jesus

I quote from the Penguin Classics introduction by J.M. Cohen:

Teresa was no cold intellectual, but quickly became involved in the life and problems of anyone with whom she came into touch. We see her compelling a priest who was living in sin to throw away the amulet with which his mistress had 'enchanted' him, and to set about mending his ways. We learn, too, later in the book, of the alarm with which various other priests viewed her when they began to hear her confessions. They were very much afraid that she might become attached to them in the worldly sense: a suspicion which she found quite absurd. Yet many passages in her works and letters testify to the warmth of her affections, and right at the end of her life she was not ashamed to confess her deep disappointment when an old friend failed to accompany her on a journey. 'I must confess to you, Father,' she wrote to him, 'that the flesh is weak, and it has felt this more than I should have wished--in fact a great deal.'

Introduction to The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, pp. 12-13.

We see the same passionate warmth of personality in Paul of Tarsus:

2 Corinthians 6:11-13 (ESV) 11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. 12 You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13 In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.

Of course, it all goes back to the Psalmist (by the way, Teresa was also of Jewish background):

Psalm 119:32 (KJV) 32 I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.

Such warmth is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is present in the lives of many other saints, known and unknown. We must ask ourselves if our piety is not missing something crucial that was manifestly and noticeably present in them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Anselm of Canterbury

ANSELM: THEOLOGIAN AND DEFENDER OF CHURCH FREEDOM
[emphasis added]

VATICAN CITY, 23 SEP 2009 VIS - St. Anselm, one of the most outstanding figures of the Middle Ages, was the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis during his general audience, held this morning in the Paul VI Hall.


St. Anselm of Canterbury, also known as Anselm of Aosta and Anselm of Bec, was born in the Italian town of Aosta in 1033. The eldest child of a noble family, his mother gave him a careful human and Christian education. During his youth he went through a period of moral dissipation and excess during which he abandoned his studies. He then travelled to France in search of new experiences and eventually reached the abbey of Bec, drawn there by the fame of its prior, Lanfranco of Pavia. There, at the age of 27, he embraced the monastic life.


Three years later Lanfranco was appointed as abbot of Caen and Anselm became the prior of Bec. In his new role he "revealed gifts as a sophisticated teacher. He did not care for authoritarian methods and, likening young people to saplings which develop best if not closed in a greenhouse, he granted then a 'healthy' measure of freedom. He was very demanding with himself and others in monastic observance, but rather than imposing discipline he sought to make people follow it by persuasion", the Pope explained.


When Lanfranco of Pavia was appointed as archbishop of Canterbury, England, he asked Anselm to help him in educating the monks and in dealings with the ecclesial community, which was facing difficult circumstances in the wake of the Norman invasions. On Lanfranco's death in 1093, Anselm succeeded him as archbishop immediately entering "into an energetic struggle for the freedom of the Church and courageously supporting the independence of spiritual from temporal power. He defended the Church from undue interference by the political authorities, especially King William Rufus and Henry I". His faithfulness to the Pope caused him to be exiled in 1103.


Anselm died on 21 April 1109 having dedicated the last years of his life "to the moral formation of the clergy and intellectual research into theological questions", whence Christian tradition has bestowed upon him the title of "Doctor Magnificus", said the Holy Father. He went on: "The clarity and logical rigour of Anselm's ideas always sought 'to raise the mind to the contemplation of God'. He made it clear that anyone who intends to study theology must not rely only upon his own intelligence but must also cultivate a profound experience of faith".


"In St. Anselm's view, then, a theologian's work is divided into threes stages: faith, God's gratuitous gift to be welcomed with humility; experience, which consists in incarnating the Word of God into daily life; and true knowledge, which is never the fruit of sterile reasoning but of contemplative intuition".


"May the love for truth and the constant thirst for God which characterized St. Anselm's life be a stimulus for all Christians tirelessly to seek an ever more intimate union with Christ", said the Pope, and he concluded: "May the courageous zeal which distinguished his pastoral work and which sometimes brought misunderstandings, bitterness and even exile, be an encouragement for pastors, consecrated people and all the faithful to love the Church of Christ, ... never abandoning or betraying her".

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When a Door Closes, Another Opens

One of the great tools of discernment is one that we do not usually like very much: a closed door. The shutting of doors is a gift from God: it is unequivocal direction from God. Even Emerson was able to see that when "the half gods go, the gods arrive" (my possibly inexact quote from memory). Often, we need to know when our particular mission has been accomplished--a shut door can do that. Sometimes, we need a radical change of direction because his thoughts are so far above our schemes and plans--a shut door can do that also.

So next time you face a shut door because someone or some institution or some plan is not cooperating or is not open to what is good, do not take the pagan route of despair or even sadness. But rather, give thanks. Be eucharistic. He has better things in mind for you, even if you do not yet have them in your own mind. The really tragic thing is that too often we fail to see the doors that have just opened because we are so mesmerized by the closed door. In this way, we see again the value of keeping one's eyes on Jesus, as we walk through choppy waters.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Receptive to the Calling

In pages 73-82, Fr. Jacques Philippe in the book Called to Life explores the attitudes that make us receptive to the calling from God. I cannot touch on all of them. But I single out two that make a big difference to me and, maybe, might make a difference to you.

1. "Walking in faith also means consenting to a kind of obscurity, learning to live with questions we cannot answer. . . . Sometimes our condition for turning the page is that everything be made clear to us--and that can't happen. Then the only way to move ahead is by abandoning ourselves to God and his wisdom in showing us what he wishes to show when he wishes to show it. This letting-go is hard, but healthy" (pp. 76-77; original emphasis).

No great enterprise has ever begun with knowing beforehand all the ups and downs, twists and turns, of the adventure. Each of our lives is called to be such a great enterprise that also has to begin with large patches of uncertainty and ignorance of future events and turns. As Josemaria Escriva once said, we cannot let "prudence" become a synonym for cowardice.

2. "[L]iving in the present moment" allows us to follow God's calls because if "we are locked into our plans, we are in danger of missing God's calls" (78). The author quotes a nun who said that: "I am always ready to do, in the next five minutes, just the opposite of what I had planned" (78). Seize the moment. Carpe diem.

Yes, I have included two short points; but they are enough if taken seriously for they enlarge our freedom, our boundaries, our territory, our lives.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Catholic Self-Critique

To be more exact, this self-critique is probably appropriate for a certain subset of Catholics only: conservative, orthodox Catholics. The problem just does not apply to nominal Catholics or very loose Catholics, although the problem may, in some cases, have contributed to such people's distancing themselves from Catholic teaching.

The problem is this: the brooding, legalistic conscience (better known as scrupulosity in traditional language). The problem within the problem is this: according to Catholic teaching, the conscience is the voice of God. We get into trouble when that voice is replaced with our own, let me be frank, neuroses and anxieties. Again, surprise of surprises, we see the need for the biblically revealed charism of discernment of spirits: when is the voice that I may think is my true conscience (the voice of God) instead a false conscience (the voice of my own defect-filled personality and assumptions).

This type of false conscience not only burdens the person bearing it, but it ends up burdening others and, as noted before, scaring people away from the Catholic faith. If you find someone who is too hard on others and thus pushes them away from the faith, you are more than likely to find someone who is just too hard on himself or herself. Being open to the unconditional love of the Trinity is a prerequisite to releasing that same love to others. If we are closed to receiving that love for ourselves, then we will not be to open to granting it to others.

Often, false conscience is seen when we mistake conventional, bourgeois values for Christian values. If we measure Jesus' life and sayings by bourgeois values, he certainly comes short. For example, he urges people to put God before family relations. That would not go down so well with many conservative Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic. He also is deeply suspicious of those who like to flaunt their piety in the way they dress and act in public. That critical view of outward, showy piety would not go down so well with many who seem overly interested in the latest clerical garb and frills. He is also not fearful of ignoring socially accepted boundaries when it means helping the other. He speaks alone to the woman at the well to the scandal of his own disciples. He associates with those viewed as collaborators with the Roman (enemy) occupation. He associates with the worst, public sinners in order to change them. He multiplies food for the crowds even though he knows and says that some will then just follow him to get the physical food and not the spiritual food. He takes risks.

That personality--open, daring, full of life--is the opposite of the brooding, legalistic personality for whom God is, for all practical purposes, a neurotic with an obsessive compulsive disorder. Yes, we tend to create God in our own image, rather than letting the Gospels reveal Him to us. He is very different from many of us. He is just not uptight. He created all the marvels of the universe and sustains them in continuous existence. He is not intimidated or bound by the little things we magnify into a false importance simply because we are full of fear, self-doubt, and even self-hatred.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

When the Good Causes Scandal

There are two types of scandal. The first kind is the type we usually think of: bad or evil acts that disillusion others who placed their trust in a person (it might be a pastor or a friend or a spouse or a teacher). The second type is one not usually discussed: when objectively good acts "scandalize" others who do not understand such acts or whose worldview cannot absorb such objectively good acts. When the young Francis of Assisi or Thomas Aquinas decided to abandon all the trappings of family wealth and ambition, their decisions scandalized their powerful families. I am sure that is still happening today. Mother Teresa of Calcutta caused scandal among some who derided her person-to-person care of the poor as a useless and even harmful distraction in the face of massive, structural poverty. When we come to the Gospels themselves, we see Jesus himself causing scandal: by healing on the Sabbath, by talking to the woman at the well, by intimately healing the sick and disabled, and by associating with the wrong kind of people.

When the jailed John the Baptist sends his disciples to consult Jesus, to ask Jesus if Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus replies by pointing to his healings, to his raising of the dead, and to his proclamation of the good news and ends his listing of all these works with these perceptive (they always are, of course) words:

"and blessed is anyone who does not find me a cause of falling" (Matthew 11:6; New Jerusalem Bible).

In other words, blessed is he who is not scandalized in me; or as the RSV puts it: "And blessed is he who takes no offense at me."

Here is the second type of scandal noted above: scandal over the good, even the radically good.

We see it today when the charisms are exercised. The little charism of praising God in tongues causes great offense among many because it is "too much" even for some who are very pious and devout. The charism of healing causes scandal because some either do not believe such things are even possible today (or ever were) or because of the risk that some will not get healed and thus be disappointed. Or some are scandalized when a baptized, confirmed lay Catholic in a state of grace--who by those very sacraments is a temple of the Holy Spirit--delivers a prophetic message, as if only the writings of dead canonized mystics can deliver such messages. We see offense taken even toward the charism of generosity when people--admittedly, understandably so in our ego-driven, manipulative world--cannot imagine that gifts are granted with no strings attached or with no hidden agenda and not seeking any payback. All of these things seem very "imprudent" to those who do not look further.

Happy are those who take no offense when the good goes beyond the little boxes with which we and our very fallen world are comfortable and to which we are accustomed. The new heaven and the new earth will be the places where the little boxes will no longer exist. That experience of freedom can begin to emerge in some form, even now.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Practicing Detachment

The writings of the late Jesuit priest from India, Fr. Anthony de Mello (d. 1987), veered away from Catholic teaching in several significant, major, and fundamental areas, as explained by a warning to the faithful authorized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 (see this EWTN link). Yet, even the official warning acknowledged some nuggets of value in his reflections:

His works, which almost always take the form of brief stories, contain some valid elements of oriental wisdom. These can be helpful in achieving self-mastery, in breaking the bonds and feelings that keep us from being free, and in approaching with serenity the various vicissitudes of life.


Source link (emphasis added).

Having given the above necessary caveat, let me focus on one of the nuggets of wisdom that does not in any way conflict with Catholic teaching:

Another false belief: If all your desires are fulfilled you will be happy. Not true. In fact it is these very desires and attachments that make you tense, frustrated, nervous, insecure and fearful. Make a list of all your attachments and desires and to each of them say these words: "Deep down in my heart I know that even after I have got you I will not get happiness." And ponder on the truth of those words. The fulfillment of desire can, at the most, bring flashes of pleasure and excitement. Don't mistake that for happiness.

de Mello,
The Way to Love (Image Books, 1995), p. 9 (published with imprimatur dated Mar. 18, 1991, about seven years before the Vatican warning noted above).

Now, the Buddhist approach to suffering, as I understand it, is to kill all desire. In contrast, the Christian approach is to channel desire to God, who is the only one who can fulfill the great fundamental, restless desire to be loved and to love that He implanted in each of us. Not surprisingly, the Psalmist captures this simple but profound biblical idea:

Psalm 37:4 (ESV) "Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart."

The "desires of the heart" are, in my interpretation, the deep, fundamental, basic desires whose fulfillment will indeed give us happiness. They are not the desires that conflict with the God who is self-sacrificial love or agape.

The rest of the Bible and the great tradition, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, also point to the desire for God as resolving our restlessness in the world. In this Judeo-Christian sense and context, de Mello's nugget of wisdom quoted above can be of great help to many of us. As noted in his little book, from which I take the above quote, our Western society keeps urging us to acquire various things from academic degrees to relationships as ways to become happy and fulfilled. The failure rate in these pursuits is astronomical when we look around us with penetrating, honest eyes. It is a failure that transpires even if many or most or all of the things our society points to as sources of happiness are in fact successfully acquired. Too often, as the Gospel says, we gain the world but lose our souls and thus our happiness, even if we get all the toys (including relationships) celebrated and marketed by our culture.

The quote from de Mello also reminds me of the noble, ancient Stoic philosophy which has had some influence on the Christian tradition. The Stoics sought relief from suffering through detachment--at times, through a sort of dehumanized, impersonal detachment. In contrast, the Gospel proposes radical love as the key to liberation from detachment to persons and things that leave us unfulfilled. This radical love is robustly passionate and never icily impersonal or inhuman.

The bottom line is that it can be very good to examine our attachments and free ourselves of illusions and delusions about their power to make us happy and flourishing. The result is freedom.




Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Symeon the New Theologian

SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN: DIVINE LOVE OPENS US TO OTHERS
[Added emphasis]

VATICAN CITY, 16 SEP 2009 (VIS) - In today's general audience, which was held in the Paul VI Hall, the Pope focused his attention on Symeon the New Theologian, "an Eastern monk from Asia Minor whose writings exercised an important influence on theology and spirituality in the East, especially as regards the experience of mystical union with God".

The Holy Father explained how Symeon was born in Galatai, Asia Minor. He began a civilian career in the imperial service but abandoned it in order "to follow the path of union with God" under the guidance of Symeon the Pious in a monastery in Constantinople. He died in the year 1022.

"Symeon focused his reflections on the presence of the Holy Spirit in the baptised and on the awareness they must have of this spiritual truth. Christian life, he insists, is intimate and personal communion with God. ... True knowledge of God ... stems from a journey of inner purification". This journey must pass through "profound penitence and sincere suffering for ones sins in order to achieve union with Christ, the source of joy and peace".

"This saintly Oriental monk reminds everyone to pay great attention to spiritual life. If, in fact, we are rightly concerned with tending to our physical, human and intellectual development, it is even more important not to overlook our inner development which consists in knowledge of God and communion with Him, so as to experience His help at all times and in all circumstances".

Symeon the New Theologian "had certain proof that the source of Christ's presence and action in a person's soul is love", said Benedict XVI. "The love of God grows within us if we remain united to Him through prayer and listening to His Word. Only divine love makes us open our hearts to others and renders us sensitive to their needs, bringing us to consider everyone as our brothers and sisters and inviting us to respond to hatred with love and to offence with forgiveness".

Recalling then how, as a young man, Symeon "found a spiritual director who helped him greatly and for whom he always maintained great respect", the Pope told his audience: "This remains valid even today, as everyone - priests, consecrated persons, lay people and especially the young - is invited to seek the counsel of a good spiritual father, one capable of accompanying each individual in a profound knowledge of self and leading him or her to intimate union with the Lord, that their lives may be increasingly moulded to the Gospel".

"To advance towards the Lord we always have need of a guide, of some form of dialogue; we cannot do it just with our own reflections. And finding this guide is part of the ecclesial nature of our faith".

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fr. Philippe on the Three Axes of Love

Continuing the Called to Life book series, I now turn to the author's treatment of love. The three axes of love are love of God, of neighbor, and of self. What is healthy self-love? It is "the grace to live in peace with one's self, consent to be what one is, with one's talents and limitations" (p. 69). Notice that such self-love produces humility, rather than pride. If one accepts one's unique talents and limitations, one does not need to compete by crushing or diminishing others or by obtaining constant self-affirmation by displaying oneself as somehow more intelligent or better than others. As St. Francis De Sales said, "Be who you are and be that well." Below are some other points from this part of Chapter 4:

1. Being at peace with oneself makes for peace with others: "Many conflicts with others are projections of conflicts with ourselves: I refuse to put up with the failings of others because I do not accept my own. If I am not at peace with myself, I make others pay for my unhappiness" (70). That is a good working definition of a personality disorder, of which there are plenty even among very outwardly pious and devout individuals, even clergy.

2. By loving others, we discover ourselves: "If one is unbending and hard toward others, one's own misery will shortly be disclosed, whereas one's forgetfulness of self in order to love others leads to self-discovery" (71). That is why some rigid, traditionalist types can never have their personalities healed.

3. To accept God's love for me, I must get rid of certain obstacles to healthy self-love: pride, perfectionism, and fear of rejection (71).

4. "Rejecting God leads to self-hatred" (71). I have seen cases where this may not be applicable, but I think that those are especially the cases of persons blessed with very good upbringings with parents who did not themselves reject God. Yet, the case remains that to experience the unconditional love of the Father is the "surest path" to self-acceptance and self-esteem, although some get there without believing in God (and, even in such cases, I believe that they do so by the grace of God, even if unaware of his role).

5. "The core of one's personality, the ground of that intimate security everyone needs, resides upon the dual certainty of being loved and being able to love. . . . Only God can guarantee this double certainty: only he loves us with an entirely unconditional love and only he assures us that, despite our limits, his grace can create in our hearts a true aptitude for loving, for being able to receive and being eager to give" (73). Only God can provide that certainty. Other humans cannot. This dual certainty makes our joy possible and makes it possible to give joy to others, even in the face of rejection and lack of gratitude.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On Cardinal O'Malley and the Kennedy Funeral

I read the Boston Cardinal's defense of his prominent participation in the funeral of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy at the fine Whispers in the Loggia blog at this link. By the way, if you want a, or rather additional (smiling and tongue in cheek) balanced, sane blog on Catholic events, that is a good one to visit. (I recommend avoiding many of the ritually obsessed, traditionalist blogs, especially to those blog readers who tend to scrupulosity.)

My three points about the Kennedy matter:

1. I do not believe there was any need for the Boston Cardinal's presence. It was unnecessary. In my opinion, he should not have gone out of his way to attend. I think that the same holds true for the former D.C. Cardinal-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick's presiding over the Kennedy burial at Arlington. It was just not needed and sent the wrong message at the worst possible time.

2. Having said that, I am certainly not in, or even close to, the throes of anger at either prelate. I just strongly disagree with their decisions to go out of their way to do what was neither necessary nor required.

3. But there is good that emerged. These lines from the Boston Cardinal's blog defending his actions struck me as very true and necessary and should probably be posted on the masthead of many right-leaning Catholic blogs and should be taken to heart by many pro-life activists:

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.


Cardinal O'Malley, source link (emphasis added).

I, for one, do not feel harsh or angry toward either cardinal; and, of course, I do not impute any bad motives to either. I am sure they are far better men than I am. I am simply strongly convinced that they, more than likely, let the emotional, nostalgic sentimentality of celebrity-driven hoopla propel them to an imprudent and unnecessary level of participation in these very public rites. A simple statement of sympathy to the family would have sufficed without participation in either the funeral or the burial. But at least I got a good, useful, and wise quote out of the Boston Cardinal's blog.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

True and False Responses

In Chapter 4 of Called to Life, Fr. Philippe turns to how to respond to the events and situations of life. The first point that he makes is that the true response is not ready-made prior to the existence of a particular situation. Life is, of course, full of surprises that we cannot even imagine. God may surprise us in a way that changes all our usual responses and assumptions. He usually gives us a hope and gifts, including courage and fortitude, that we never imagined, a fact that is proven by how many of our fears and anxieties ultimately prove to be baseless. Recall the prophet's words:

Isaiah 55:8-9 (RSV) "8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

How do we throw away our habitual responses and reach for the true and appropriate response to a new situation?

1. "[O]ne must know one's self and listen to others who often see things more clearly" (p. 64). And, of course, read the Word and pray, activities which are the ways that we begin to know ourselves better.

2. What are the wrong paths?

It may be one's habit to blame oneself for life's problems. Or to blame others. Or to think that one must be heroic in a way that God doesn't ask. A person may have a fear of weakness, believing that he or she must always be strong. Some of us are in denial; some are always taking flight. These are paths that lead to rigidity, worry, and tension.

Philippe, p. 64.

What are some examples of such false paths? An individual may not see, because of an inferiority complex or because of false humility, that the problem may lie in the dysfunction of others and not in oneself. Individuals who are too submissive to authority may always excuse abuses of authority in order to avoid confrontation or any painful conflicts. Or a person may feel that God is asking for sacrifice to the point of irrationality--God does not ask for what is impossible for us. Either it is naturally possible, or He grants the grace to make the task possible for us. Human beings need tangible love and affection, human beings need to be respected, human beings need to maintain their dignity and privacy. If such God-implanted needs are not being met by a situation or relationship, then it is time to change the situation or relationship in positive ways. God wants us to flourish, not to wither on the vine. His will is our flourishing. Others take flight when faced with the challenge of making big decisions and commitments. They keep running away, instead of facing reality. In effect, their lives never really begin at all because of the constant state of flight from decision and commitment, sometimes waiting for a dramatic private revelation that never comes in the form they stipulate but which may have already come in a quiet, nondramatic, and very natural way. Recall the small quiet voice heard by the prophet Elijah:

1 Kings 19:11-12 (RSV) 11 And he said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

3. The difference that the Holy Spirit makes:

"The responses that come from the Spirit . . . . have the flavor of evangelical sweetness, of humility and peace, a note of simplicity and realism," not false, irrational heroism (64). Such responses "lead us out of our repetitious scenarios [such as fleeing commitment], and produce true changes" (64-65).

4. Fr. Philippe gives the example of St. Therese of Lisieux as a teenager, when, instead of bursting into tears at the exasperation of her father concerning her childish behavior, she responded to God's call in this situation and reacted with cheerfulness and boldness, instead of hypersensitivity (65). It is a small event in her life but with great ramifications for her future. We too react in repetitive ways to challenges, ways that do not lead to growth or flourishing. Too often, for example, we allow the opinions and expectations of others to determine our options and choices. By doing that, we are following the call of the crowd which really does not know us (and really does not care to know us) instead of the call of the God who knows us better than we know ourselves:

Psalm 139:1-6 (RSV) O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! 2 Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. 3 Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. 5 Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fr. Philippe on the Events of Life

Continuing our series on the book Called to Life, we now turn to discerning life's events. Fr. Philippe begins by pointing out that the Hebrew word davar means both word and event implying that every life event is also a word from Adonai. A key to the author's counsel is to live out events without necessarily understanding them fully. His suggestions are below.

1. "[T]he essential thing is to welcome events and live them out with faith, even if we don't understand them" (p. 57).

2. Avoid obsessive scrupulosity in understanding events: "Another danger to avoid is a scrupulous attitude, pressuring us to find the meaning of everything lest we violate God's will. This is a fear rooted in a psychological need for security that separates us from the simplicity and freedom of God's children" (57).

3. The goal is to live every situation, however dire, in freedom: "Listening for God's calls makes it possible for us to live every situation positively and opens a pathway to freedom in every situation, even the most seemingly hopeless" (57-8). On this point, Fr. Philippe gives a definition of freedom as "the capacity to live each situation positively, not being enclosed or crushed, but of finding the way of belief and a more authentic life" (p. 58, note 3).

4. In sorrowful events, the call is to grow, not necessarily "to resolve the situation--something often beyond the person's capacity--but to understand and follow the call present in the situation" (59). Sometimes, for example, a sorrowful situation may involve children beset by problems and challenges. In such cases, I recall the advice of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa that we are called to love and accept the actual, living, particular child whom God has given us and not to always be pining away for the child to be different from who he or she really is.

5. Again, Fr. Philippe emphasizes the need to let go of the compulsion to know everything and to learn to serenely accept our limits: "Instead of being bent on getting answers, one needs the courage to leave certain legitimate questions unanswered--something always painful--and adopt a different perspective: 'At the end of the day, what does God want from me in all this?' " (60-1). He goes further in a footnote: "What saves (helps us advance and grow in a positive, fruitful manner) is not being able to explain everything or completely grasping the complexity of every situation or parceling out responsibility. It is finding the right attitude, the one to which God invites us. Faith lies in welcoming situations with confidence and submitting our conduct to the will of the Holy Spirit" (61, n. 6).

6. One step at a time:

"If people know what they must do today and commit themselves to doing it and leave tomorrow to God's providence, all is well. What more can anyone do? Take the step that needs taking today. Take another step tomorrow. Every day wil have its own steps to take" (62). This advice is straight out of the Beatitudes.

7. Change your questions and thus your perspective on events:

"What is God asking of me in all of this?"

"Where are the most faith, hope, and love to be found?"

Instead of "What do I want from life?," ask: "What does life want from me?"

Instead of "What do I expect from those around me?," ask: "What do those around me expect of me?"

Friday, September 4, 2009

How to Read the Word

Fr. Philippe has told us that, unless we read the Word, we end up adopting false identities. Who wants that? So here is how he recommends that we approach the Scriptures:

1. Pray and invoke the Holy Spirit because "humble, persevering, confident prayer is the basis of all exegesis" (p. 52). If the Word is the breath of the Holy Spirit, then it makes perfect sense to invoke the Holy Spirit and ask him to fill us up so we can see and understand what the Spirit is saying.

2. Be certain that God speaks to you personally in the Scriptures.

3. Desire conversion, that is, that the Word may reveal your sins and defects to you so that you will be changed for the better. There are too many of us religious people, running around very busily, who fail to get the personality healing we desperately need. Those around us are aware of this problem. Here is a good quote: "Reading Scripture is taking a risk: that we will be asked to reorder our lives or told things we don't want to hear. We do not work on the Bible. It works on us"" (54).

4. Confirm any personal messages "with important implications for one's life" with a "spiritual guide" (55). "Interpretations that are overly literal or fundamentalist or ignore ecclesial communion [that is, our union with the Catholic Church] are to be avoided. Any understanding of the Word should be reasonable--not narrowly rationalistic, but open to mystery, enlightened by faith, and in harmony with the thinking of the Church" (55).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fr. Jacques Philippe's Book Called to Life

Oh my! It has been about three months since I have written on this gem of a little book (here is the link to the prior posts on the book for those who need some background on the book and the author who is a remarkable spiritual director and retreat master). Today, I will plunge right in as I continue in Ch. 3 on the Word of God. Here are the points I wish to make today.

1. Why read the Bible? Fr. Philippe offers a bold answer: to discover our true identity as children of God. The alternative is to adopt "false identities" (p. 49).

2. How do we "grow in openness to the gift" of being children of God? We do so "by cultivating simplicity, confidence, resignation, acceptance of the divine will, and thanksgiving" (50).

3. I have written before of the phenomenon of young people who are rudderless, a state not limited to the young. The result of rudderless existence is "[a]nguish and insecurity and a sense of emptiness" bolstered by an atheistic, scientific, deterministic mentality and by the view (made so graphic by the sexual revolution) that we are the products of "a more or less haphazard coming-together of a man and a woman who made love without any thought of the new life that might come into existence" so "that new life is seen as a failure of contraception" or merely the chance survivor of the widely used legal right to abort (51). The rudderless person feels orphaned and lost in the cosmos.

4. Note how the so-called "liberating" sexual revolution is a sign of despair, as the author notes: "I sometimes wonder if one reason for the frenzy about sex in today's world is not this need to make contact with our origins" (p. 52, note 12). We feel lost and so are compulsively impelled to seek some escape in sexual frenzy (often in arbitrary, desperate search for the next partner to fill the departure of the previous partner). Substance abuse and even addiction to certain forms of frenzied music also play this role.

There is a great gash and wound in many of us (the wound has been very socially prominent in the West in the last 40 years), as we seek our true origins. (See this N.Y. Times link, courtesy of our Rhode Island reader, which shows that the U.N. is seeking to impose this Western madness worldwide.) In contrast, the Scriptures can tell us who we really are and who our Father is.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When God Calls

There are indeed times in life when we know that God is calling us to some task or some decision. I remember a good friend of mine telling me that she just knew that she was called to the religious life at least for a certain portion of her life. From my own personal experience, these are signs that God is calling:

1. You make a surprisingly firm and bold decision after a long period of vacillation, wavering, worry, and fear;

2. You make that decision in spite of the long anticipated difficulties which have not disappeared or changed at all;

3. It seems as if the decision has really been taken out of your hands and that you are almost a witness to the decision as opposed to being the initiator of the decision;

4. There is a quiet peace and calmness that descends in the wake of the decision.

I think this experience is what St. Paul hinted at when he said that he could "do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). There is a new boldness and authoritativeness that calmly strides forward. Nothing can stop it. What signs of God's call have you experienced? The comment box is open, as always.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Liturgical Psychology 101

Among Catholics, liturgical tinkering and reform are a great past time practiced both by liturgical liberals and liturgical traditionalists. One blogger even claims that saving the liturgy will save the world--a claim which implies, in my opinion, the Pelagian view that we can somehow save ourselves and reach to heaven by building a modern day Tower of Babel "brick by brick." I appreciate the great sincerity and earnestness behind many of these attempts at liturgical reform, but more needs to be said before the train leaves the station.

Go back to Psychology 101, and some of you may recall that the famous writer on religious experience William James (1842-1910) proposed a psychological theory of emotion (now apparently rejected by many) which said that emotion follows from our physiological reactions. In his classic example, James proposed that we do not first fear the bear that we see and then run; but rather that instead we first run and then experience the emotion of fear.

I personally have my doubts about what James proposed. Yet, we see this theory all over our popular discourse: for example, the advice that we should smile so that we will eventually feel happy. Even the great Pascal has a few lines that remind me of the James theory: Pascal advises the wavering believer to simply cross himself with holy water and jump into the practice of the faith so that then the faith will come. Certainly, there is a kernel of truth here: we need to trust and step out in faith so that our faith will increase. As the father who sought healing for his child from Jesus famously prayed: "I believe, help my unbelief."

Yet, notice that, in the case of both Pascal and the desperate father in the Gospel, both begin with an act of faith. Some faith--the size of a mustard seed--came first and then the action that could engender even more faith. This sequence contradicts the James theory (strictly speaking, the James-Lange Theory of Emotion) which proposes that the physical action comes first and only then the emotional content.

It seems to me that many liturgical tinkerers and would-be reformers, whether liberal or traditionalist, really are unconsciously applying the James theory of emotion to liturgical reform: if only this practice changes, then reverence and devotion will follow among those attending the liturgy. The examples are legion: if only the priest faces ad orientem, then the people will really be praying to God; if we do not receive communion in the hand, then the people will embrace the Real Presence; if we use an archaic liturgical language such as Latin more widely, then the people will have a greater sense of the awesome mystery of God, etc. The list goes on and on and includes everything from the style of vestments to church architecture.

In spite of such implied or explicit assumptions, the hard truth is that ritual action alone does not change hearts or lift up our minds to God. There are many who have received the Eucharist for years, some even daily, who show no signs of personal transformation. There are many who have attended for years the most liturgically traditional Masses but show few signs of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their interactions with others. As I heard a very conservative priest say recently, we are not saved by ritual. That is also the fiery message of many of the Old Testament prophets. That was and is also the message of the Jesus who still speaks to us in the Gospels and whose greatest and most vociferous condemnations were reserved for the ritualistic Pharisees of his time.

In contrast to the James theory that action begets the emotion, in the realm of conversion, the Scriptures speak of a gift, an amazing gift, an undeserved gift called charis or grace. That grace then leads us to engage in praise and thanksgiving. That grace leads us to open our hearts in the liturgy to receive more from Jesus. I submit that the biblically and theologically correct sequence is conversion through the grace of God and then liturgical action. Liturgical action alone saves no one individual, much less the entire world. Even the sacraments which always objectively bestow grace will have no visible effect on our lives and personalities if we do not approach them with a heart of initial faith and trust.

So my counsel to the liturgical reformers is this: preach conversion first and the rest will follow. Truly converted people will have no problems showing reverence or belief in the Real Presence. Once there is authentic conversion, all licit liturgical forms of the Church perform beautifully. The key is not which licit form is used. The key is the kind of hearts engaging those licit liturgical forms. It's time to abandon the "James Theory of Liturgical Reform" and focus on conversion and evangelization first. Conversion will make the liturgical problems and abuses disappear, heart by heart.