Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Aquinas Regarding Almighty...Again

Aquinas Regarding Almighty was posted in the early days of this blog, but I thought I’d bring it up again because…

1. It’s Aquinas’s feast day.
2. We have more followers now.
3. It’s just cool stuff! Joe and I never get tired of this sort of thing. What sort of thing? Thinking things and connecting things…because thinking means connecting things.
The post relates to the premise that God creates out of nothing. Now, some ridiculous discussions can be had about what really is “nothing”. Some say there is no such thing as “nothing”, which is true if there is always God (being itself), but to avoid sidetracks to nowhere and to bring some additional clarity, it might be better to start by saying that God requires no other condition, or set of conditions to exist in order to create. He is the one reality that requires no other reality.

Aquinas Regarding Almighty
St Thomas Aquinas falls into that category of people I like to call “scary-smart”. Reading his work can result in a peculiar experience, at least for me. I may read something translated to English well using perfect grammar, and understand the meaning of each individual word, yet somehow not understand what was said. Does Aquinas write nonsense or am I not the sharpest knife in the theological drawer? The latter is more reasonable.  Here is a case in point from the Compendium to Summa Theologica chp 70:
“The more remote a potency is from act, the greater must be the power that reduces it to act.”
With help from other Catholic thinkers that explain Aquinas and my blog buddy Joe, I can make sense of such a sentence. Rephrasing in more common language, I think it may read something like this:
The less one has to make something potentially happen, the more power one needs to make it actually happen. But what does this mean when contemplating ultimate things?
Analogies are most helpful………
Suppose you have a new car you wish to start. All that is needed is the key and the ability to turn the ignition; not very difficult. Now take away the gasoline. You now need the ability to get some gasoline, put in it the car and then start it. More resources are needed. In a sense you might say you need more “power”. Now take away the battery as well. You now need to get a battery, install it, get gasoline in the car, and then start it. You’ll need even more “power”.
The more that is taken away from the car, the more power needed to make it actually work. Taking away things to infinity becomes nothingness. Adding power to infinity becomes “all powerful”. If left with nothing to work with (no-thing), no matter, no energy, no force, no time, no space (no outside condition), the only way you could make a car first exist and then start it is if you had infinite power. To create from nothing then, requires infinite power.
St. Thomas Aquinas
1225 - 1274
All of this to truly understand one word in our Creed. The word “Almighty” is not used simply because it sounds lofty and majestic. It describes, from logical necessity, the kind of power needed to bridge an infinite gap between potency and act.
Thank you St. Thomas Aquinas; thou art scary-smart!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why Attend Mass?

Perhaps you have a friend or relative that rarely attends Mass, but did attend at Christmas. Perhaps you asked, or at least thought, “Why you don’t come next week and the week after?” If you were so bold as to invite them back as a kind of New Year’s resolution, you may have received a polite, “we’ll see” in response, which is often translated as “of course not”.
If you persist, you’ll eventually enter a realm the separates man from beast, the realm of the intellect, the desire to know “why”. A Catholic that “believes” to some extent will eventually ask why, even if only asking the question internally. Attending Mass is nice, but why necessary? God is everywhere, why can’t I be left alone to worship in my own way? Replying back that it is an obligation or a precept of the Church tends not to satisfy. Mentioning the violation of the first and third commandments may get more attention, but can still be seen as “finger wagging”. You’d do better noting that if the first is followed, abiding to the third will come naturally.

Another tactic came about for me and my wife as we became involved with the marriage ministry at our parish. One of the things we do is to meet with engaged couples in our home to review the results of their FOCCUS questionnaire. It covers many practical topics of compatibility including finances, communication, extended family issues, sexuality issues, etc. It’s a tool to help couples work through issues before marriage.

Of course, there are religious topics as well and the topics of marriage covenant and religion can be quite awkward when speaking with interfaith couples or catholic couples in which one or both are nominal in their faith. It’s not uncommon for us to dialog with couples in which one or both rarely attend Mass (if ever), and yet they still see it as important to be married in the Catholic Church (thankfully).

The following three areas of reasoning help to satisfy their intellect, at least to some extent. Since what you know will influence what you do, these thoughts just might help you tip the scales in getting someone to Mass. As Pope Francis is actively showing us, we need to meet people where they are at without denying the reality of where they are.

In Terms of Relationship:
It’s especially easy to draw this analogy when dealing with couples in love. Imagine you were married and you spent about one hour at Christmas and one hour at Easter with your spouse with no other interaction throughout the year. What kind of relationship would that be? Suppose it was one hour per month? That’s better, but still lacking. Even if it were once per week for about one hour, we might consider it a working relationship, albeit a weak one.

God desires a close relationship with us and all close relationships require time and commitment. How would you feel if your beloved thought that one hour per week with you is too much trouble?

In Terms of Reality:
The above might be easily refuted by saying, “I pray in my own way all the time. No need to sit in a church building. The man upstairs and I have an understanding.” This is when the imagination must be put firmly in its place with a reality check.

We can think of all reality as being made up of two parts; physical realities and spiritual realities. Think of your physical life. To be a physically functioning human being there are times when you must function alone, like getting dressed for the day, or perhaps you sometimes work alone or maybe you live alone. There are also times when you must function with others, like with family, co-workers, community members, etc. We’re social beings; it’s how God made us.

This parallels our spiritual life. To be a spiritually functioning human being there are times when you must function alone, like personal prayer and spiritual study. There are also times when you must function with others, like community worship (Catholics call this Mass). Once again, we’re social beings; it’s how God made us.

Last, but certainly not least…In Terms of the Eucharist:
This goes beyond community worship; it’s the source and summit of the faith. If the body and blood of Christ is given to us a spiritual food, it stands to reason that this is the most intimate thing God can possibly give to a human being still on earth.

So, the God of the universe wants this extreme level of intimacy with us and our response is…
- Too tried
Thou shalt NOT
have better things to do!
- Too busy
- No time
- Don’t feel like it
- I have better things to do

Think of how offensive this apathetic attitude must be to God? In this context, it seems more than appropriate to refer to skipping Mass as “grave matter”.

If the truth about relationships, the social & spiritual nature of man and the Eucharist really sink in, one’s perspective about attending Mass can change from a pessimistic, "I've got to do this?" to an enthusiastic, "I get to do this!” and it may even turn out that once per week is simply not enough!

“If we attend Mass well, surely we are likely to think about our Lord during the rest of the day, wanting to be always in his presence, ready to work as he worked and love as he loved”
- Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing by

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Dark Wonder

The word “wonder” seems to have a positive or joyful connotation. A baby discovers his or her hands or feet for the first time and is delighted to find out that he or she can control them (to some extent) and waves them about joyfully.  An older child may experience wonder watching Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz open the farm house door to see the colorful land of Oz for the first time, while the baby that just discovered hands & feet may see the same thing and be filled with wonder just because Dorothy was able to open the door.

Adults will express wonder at other things like the innocence of a child, the beauty of nature, the good deeds of others or just the miracle of living. We are but dust that can be blown away at any instant, and yet we are here and conscious of our very existence! This kind of wonder seems to be one of those uniquely human traits not seen in animals to any extent (sort of like religion). At least I don’t know of any evidence that shows an animal has looked up to the stars, observed the behavior of some other animal, or pondered its own existence and wondered “how?” or “why?”

When my oldest daughter was four she was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, watching it over and over. One day I told her I had to go to Kansas for work and she asked me a sincere and serious question. The question was, “Will there be color?” (Kansas is always in black & white in the movie). I stood in wonder of her perfectly objective question.

There is another kind of wonder however, that might be call “dark wonder”. How is it that one can fly a plane full of innocent people into a building full of innocent people on an otherwise beautiful September morning? How is it that a person could walk into a school in Newtown CT around Christmas time in 2012 and randomly shoot children? How is it that a tornado can fall out of the sky in Washington, IL one Sunday afternoon in November of 2013 and carry people off to their death? What awaits us in 2014? We may wonder with a dark wonder.

Whatever we wonder about, we should take heart that wonder leads us to “seek”, opens our hearts and makes an answer possible for us; wonder leads to knowledge. Since the mind is made for infinite truth, it tends to move in that direction if there is nothing to stop it, so it is possible for any dark wonder you may have experienced in 2013 to become a wonder of light. Darkness always becomes a kind of light whenever it helps you to see.

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 great 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 then you got your sight back, even the ugliest things would be appreciated.

Catholics may wonder how, after all the graces we receive from God in the Eucharist, reconciliation and other sacraments, not to mention all the actual graces from everyday blessings, can we still be so faulty and faltering? When we feel depressed by our faults and the faults of others, let us marvel at the Saints who were all just sinners that never gave up trying to be better. Let us be filled with wonder and praise that our God can forgive us so much.  

The following reflection is certainly appropriate for the wonder of the Epiphany and the New Year ahead of us.

Star of Wonder
“O Emmanuel, may the assurance of your unfailing presence be for me the source of unending peace. May I never fear my weakness, my inadequacy, or my imperfection.  Rather, as I gaze with faith, hope and love upon your incarnate littleness, may I love my own littleness, for God is with us. Endow my life with a holy wonder that leads me ever more deeply into the Mystery of the Redemption and the meaning of my vocation and destiny.” – Fr. Peter John Cameron