Monday, January 19, 2015

Darkness As a Kind of Light

There is certainly no shortage of evil so far in 2015. Why does God allow it? Seems no explanation can suffice at times. It’s certainly better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but should we be cursing the darkness in the first place? I wonder. Like any mystery, darkness can be invitation to the mind.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that good signifies “perfect being” and evil signifies “the privation of perfect being”, so when someone acts with a lack of love, or a thing lacks something it ought to have, we perceive the deficiency as evil. For example, blindness is evil for a human because a human ought to have sight. Blindness or darkness relates to evil as vision or light relates to good. No allegory is perfect, but darkness as an allegory for evil is eerily close because no one can really give or bring evil, just as no one can give or bring darkness, one can only take away light.

Darkness is what leads us to seek light provided that we have the right disposition; it can open our hearts and make answers possible for us; it leads to knowledge. Since the mind is made for Truth, it tends to move in that direction if there is nothing to stop it, and darkness need not stop it, but nudge it forward instead. Darkness becomes a kind of light whenever it helps us to see.

We need a certain comfort level with darkness if we are to be led properly. If we insist on peering ahead on our path, calculating each step and determining our own goal, we forsake the guiding hand of God that will take us beyond our expectations.

I once happened upon a labyrinth while out for a stroll at a retreat center. If you don’t know, a labyrinth is a pathway which leads, via a winding route, to the center of an intricate design and back out again. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has only a single path so it is impossible to get lost. The walls or edges keep you on the path. Once you reach the center, you have gone half the distance – you now turn around and walk back out.

Although the origins of labyrinth are pagan, I found it both thought-provoking and challenging to accept some “unknowing” and stay in the moment of each step, trusting that the path would guide me to the goal (the center) and back out again. My instinct was to peer ahead to see where the path was taking me, to calculate how much further I needed to go or how long it might take.

Without at least some acceptance of darkness we’ll try and shake free of that guidance that is trying to lead us to union with God and perhaps travel down a false spiritual path that becomes a mere figment of our imagination.

Once a soul basks in the light of God’s presence (beatific vision), he or she may come to know that the death of a person may have been a rescue of some greater evil had they lived. A painful romantic breakup may have been salvation from an unhappy marriage. The loss of wealth may have meant saving your soul from eternal loss. If you were blind and suddenly got your sight back, even the ugliest things would be appreciated.

“I will lead the blind on a way they do not know; by paths they do not know I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These are my promises: I made them, I will not forsake them” (Is 42:16)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Not the Season for Figs

It’s not uncommon to read a part of the Gospel that has been read many times before and see something entirely new. Such is the case with the cursing of the fig tree as described in a book called To Know Christ Jesus, by lay apologist Frank Sheed

“When he was going back to the city in the morning, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again.’ And immediately the fig tree withered.” (Mt 21:18-20)
This appears to be a time when we have a “not so nice” Jesus demonstrating an irrational display of power; almost a kind of tantrum triggered by the Lord’s hunger and him not finding the fruit he wanted. The Gospel of Mark adds a detail that makes this incident even stranger. “It was not the season for figs.” (Mark 11:13) It was not as though this fig tree lacked some perfection it ought to have, meaning it should have had fruit. It was not the season for figs, so it would have been, in fact, unreasonable to expect to find any. But the Lord cursed the tree anyway.
Showy leaves with no fruit
Sheed suggests that Jesus was once again teaching his disciples by way of parable, but this time by acting it out instead of telling it. He was teaching, not about fig trees, but about us. It was a warning in “fig tree language” about what would happen to us with only an outward showing of religion (a bunch of large pretty leaves) with no real religion (good fruit). As far as the season for fruit, there is no off-season for mankind as there is for fig trees. We can and should be always about the business of loving God and neighbor.

The Twelve were amazed, but when they called attention to the withered tree, Jesus only answered how they would do greater and more astonishing things, provided that their faith does not waver. One is reminded of the same kind of promise made to the Twelve during the last supper discourse (John 14:12).

What kind of “things” could the apostles do that are greater than some things Jesus did? The specifics are not listed, but I should think the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist might be two of those things being foreshadowed. Raising the dead spiritually from sin is a greater fruit than raising the dead physically. Feeding the multitudes with the body & blood of Christ is far more impressive fruit than feeding the multitudes with ordinary bread. Either of these is much more remarkable than making a fig tree wither.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mercy: How God Loves

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus asks the scholar of the law, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” and the scholar replied “The one who treated him with mercy.”

The use of the word “mercy” here may seem puzzling. What mercy was due to the victim by the Samaritan whom he had never before met?

In Cardinal Walter Kasper's book Mercy The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, chapter 5 is entitled "Systematic Reflections" and discusses several ways in which mercy interrelates to other attributes and characteristics of God.

Cardinal Kasper makes the connection between how God is Love and what this means in terms of Mercy. He begins with how the inner life of the trinitarian God is one of love (Kasper 91). 

The expression of love outside of the Godhead to mankind is his mercy. That is, the way God loves is to give way kenotically to the other, to become less, making room for the other (93). We hear more of kenosis, or self-emptying, in Philippians 2:7, where Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance." It is the nature of love to empty oneself to make room for the lover.

The proper response to the love of God is to mirror this same self-emptying back to Him. John the Baptist expresses this in a similar way when he says "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3:30).

As we make room for Him, God is able to enter into us and we into Him (cf. John 15:4). This love is now a mutual indwelling and is His mercy because He is always with us. He walks with us in all our trials and suffering. He gives all of himself to us. 

In my experience, mercy had seemed to be a negative proposition. That is, mercy meant to not prosecute a wrong or to refrain from taking offense. Someone losing a fist fight and is taking a beating might cry "Mercy!" meaning "Stop!" or "Don't hit me!" He is pleading for the other person to not do something.

In Cardinal Kasper’s view, mercy is a positive assertion. Mercy is walking with another in his suffering. It is entering into a suffering that is not your own and giving comfort by virtue of your presence and sympathy (Kasper 119). In the example of the person losing the fight, his crying "Mercy!" could also then mean "Step into my shoes. I am hurt. Feel what I am feeling." It requires a radical transformation of the relationship. 

This is incredibly powerful. It is precisely the “mercy” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan was the only one who entered into the suffering of the robbery victim: he lost money with the victim, he lost time, he allowed himself to walk with him without a prior claim or obligation. 

This mercy is a "love-in-action" reflective of how God loves because he is always with us.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Beware the Boy MOST of All

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom…”
- Ghost of Christmas Present

Many of us may reflect on The Christmas Carol this time of year. We are given an ominous warning about “our business”. Mankind is our business, the common welfare, charity, mercy, forbearance and more. We are to help “the girl”, but our doom seems to stem ultimately from “the boy”. Why? Because what we know directs what we do.

If God is Truth, then Truth should direct the will. If love is an act of the will, then to love or judge something, we need to know it. The primacy of the intellect is important in order to love and judge things in the right way. If we are ignorant of what is true, how will we direct our will? What is our criterion for judging, other than our own desires?

Scripture gives us a subtle warning on the topic. “My people are ruined for lack of knowledge!” (Hosea 4:6). If we chose to ignore “the boy”, then doom will engulf us all, because it all starts with ideas, and ideas have consequences. “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Mathew we hear, “For I was hungry and you gave me food”. This is certainly about physical food, but also about the spiritual work of mercy to feed the intellect. One can think of the truths of our faith as a kind of health-food for the mind.

The seeds of God’s image & likeness are in every person, so we have a natural hunger for truth/knowledge. Stop and contemplate “hunger” for a moment. What happens to people if they are hungry enough, for long enough? They’ll eventually eat something; they’ll eventually eat somewhere, but will it be good food or will it be garbage? Will they care where the food comes from as long as it gives some satisfaction?

The Fall of Man has dimmed the intellect and weakened the will; as a result the human soul easily grows flabby and tired. In other words it is natural for us to be spiritually stupid and lazy. We then default to our animalistic sensibilities and have the habit of replacing God with other masters since it seems to save us so much trouble.

We all like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, but people are like sheep and everyone eventually sits at the feet of a master. Who will feed our intellect about the right to life, human dignity, the nature of marriage, just war, capital punishment, etc.? Will we sit at the feet of Jesus through His Church or will it be some politician or political party, a celebrity or talk show host, a television evangelist, your favorite college professor, or will it simply be the always "infallible" majority? Who is your master?

Whoever it is, be prepared to give an account for what you believe. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak.” (Mat 12:36)


Monday, December 15, 2014

J-O-Y to the World

The word “joy” is used often during the holidays. I’ve heard it said that the key to joy in life is to keep the following acronym in its proper order.

Joy  J-O-Y:
Jesus First
Others Second
You Last

It also helps at times to look at things in different ways, from different angles, completely upside-down or backwards.

Joy backwardsY-O-J:

Obedience has a negative connotation of blind submission that conflicts with our pride. We think of obedience as a kind of strangle hold on our freedom, but try thinking of a hug instead.

God’s laws are not meant to take the fun out of life; they are really laws of love and the boundaries are more like an embrace. The Good Shepherd tells us that if we live within these boundaries, He can protect us, guide us and love us; when we go outside of this embrace, He can't promise us these things. When we sin, we refuse God’s embrace in our life and then we wonder why we feel abandoned, depressed, prayers not being heard or answered, etc.....

“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11)

This gives true meaning to Christmas Joy.

Wise men still seek him...and his embrace.
"...the law of the Lord is his joy;
and on his law he meditates day and night."
(Psalm 1:2)


Friday, December 5, 2014

For the Lonely

Some may feel more loneliness than joy during the Holiday Season. Thanksgiving to New Years can be just a series of obstacles to get through for a whole host of reasons. Perhaps the absence of something or someone haunts us like a ghost of Christmas past. The hustle & bustle of the season can also show us how a crowd can be the loneliest place.

For any believer who feels this way, this brief reflection might help…
“Any experience of being left alone, disregarded, forgotten – if it does not isolate the soul and make it retreat inwardly – invites a recognition. Our unimportance to others can combine with a fruitful realization. The more we disappear from the attention of others the more we are watched by God in a different manner.”

Our fallen nature tends to make us dissatisfied with God and what He gives us; always seeking something “other than God” when he has already given us himself. Emmanuel means "God is with us", so we are never truly alone. Theologically, we can say that God is so “with us” that he holds our being continually in existence. If God were to stop thinking about us or to stop loving us, we would lapse into nothingness, but how can one internalize that kind of closeness? Perhaps a mirror can help.

When you stand in front of a mirror, what do you see? You see your image & likeness. If you leave the mirror even for an instant, what happens to your image & likeness? It ceases to exist! You “being” in front of the mirror continually holds your image & likeness in existence. So God is right there, continually holding us and constantly sustaining us as we journey through the holidays or anytime.

“And behold, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

DADT Faith

Here is a recent post from The Catholic Thing that fits rather well with the general theme of this blog since we have several posts tagged with both “Reality” and “Professor Ratzinger”.

Burden? Really?
The article is about Cardinal Ratzinger reflecting on some comments made by a nameless colleague of his. The remarks were about being grateful to God that He allows so many unbelievers in “good conscience”. Since many would not be capable of bearing the burden of faith and all its moral obligations, they can still reach salvation going another way, as long as they do it in good conscience.

The comments disturbed the Cardinal and he expressed his dismay in the context of reality. Is no truth better than truth? Should we be grateful for a kind of blindness sent by God for the salvation of souls? In this view, faith is only for the strong. Knowledge would make salvation harder, not easier. The Truth will put you into bondage. Why bother to evangelize? Should we pass this burden on to others? In thinking about WWSD (what would Satan do?), this seems like a very clever and effective strategy for a new anti-evangelization that appeals to human laziness.

I convey this kind of misconception to my Confirmation students by comparing spiritual laws with physical laws. I ask the students if any of them babysit small children. Many respond, “Yes”. I ask if they would let the children play on the roof. They giggle a bit and reply, “No”. I ask, “Why not? The roof is a large open space with many inclines and slants to run up and down on. It would be great fun!”

The students understand the law gravity and how to live in harmony with it; the small children they are responsible for do not. Although small children are perfectly innocent, playing on the roof (even in good conscience) is bad for them and will eventual hurt or even kill them. So, is it best NOT to teach children about the danger of falling? Is learning about gravity only for the “strong”? Does knowledge of physical laws make life harder, like a kind of bondage? Of course not, the more mankind understands physical laws the better our physical life can be.

The same goes for spiritual laws. We are fully alive and most fulfilled when we attune our life and safety around the realities of moral law, natural law and divine law and there is no way to do this if we don’t know what they are. Fornication is a good example to use since most everyone thinks it’s “okay” as long as you “love” each other or perhaps just “lust” each other a whole lot.

The Church teaches that a serious or mortal sin against God’s laws has three conditions (CCC 1857):
  • The object of the sin is of grave matter (sexual sins are always grave since they distort what it means to be made in the image of God).
  • It is committed with full knowledge.
  • It is committed with deliberate consent.
It seems the second point automatically excludes any unchurched non-believer from mortal sin, so shouldn’t we be happy for them? No, we should not. We should be disturbed, as if we saw small children playing on a roof.  The damage being done to their souls will need to be dealt with in this life or the next, just like damage to the body from falling needs to be dealt with, even if one is unaware of the law of gravity.

Is faith a gift from God or a burden? Do we believe it gives rise ultimately to joy, or do we believe what you don’t know won’t hurt you? Do we believe the Truth sets us free or are we living by the “DADT” faith policy? Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Which way?