Paschal Providence

I heard a really superb homily a number of years ago at a retreat, and it was on the mystery of suffering and evil as seen through the lens of faith in Christ. That’s a rare homily to hear anywhere, but it’s undoubtedly true that people of faith long to hear the “Gospel of Suffering,” as Bl. John Paul II dubbed it in his own post-assassination-attempt meditations published as an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris.

[As this post will not be a comprehensive exploration of suffering-evil's "mystery," let me recommend four readings if you want more: A. Nichols' chapter on the philosophical-theological issues at stake; R. Shaw's theological-existential reflections; Peter Kreeft's concise summary of an apology on suffering; and D. Hart's challenging musings on the deep structures of the theological problem of evil-suffering.]

It was the kind of homily that makes one search through their wallet for a piece of paper to write notes on. The quotes from the homilist I include here are all “glossed,” meaning I wrote them as an interpolation mixed with my own simultaneous insights. So it’s a hybrid homily.

The homilist made several excellent points, but I will only comment on two of them here (I’ll hit a third tomorrow).

Divine Providence, not Fate

First, he addressed the way Christians view divine Providence, or God’s wise governance of history. “Divine Providence,” he said, “is the key to finding meaning in life and history.” He noted that the Christian tradition (drawing from its Jewish heritage) rejected a pagan worldview which asserted that history, and even the gods, are governed by a universal and impersonal force called Fate, which is itself essentially blind to justice, terrifyingly capricious and ultimately unconcerned with humanity’s temporal or eternal well-being. Rather, he argued, Christianity proposed a radical Jewish view that all things and all history and under the sway of one Creator-God who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-good, and that the ultimate defining power that stands as judge and ruler over the cosmos is divine hesed-emet, “steadfast mercy.” And even more specifically for Christians, steadfast-mercy as it is revealed fully in Jesus crucified, dead and risen from the grave.

This, he said, was arguably among the greatest thought-revolutions of the ancient world, and one that, as a church history professor of mine once felicitously worded it, “elicited from pagan converts a collective sigh of relief,” i.e. so that’s what stands behind this worn and weary world. Deo gratias!

The homilist continued, saying that though the exact nature of how God governs a history marked by oscillations of good and evil without overriding creatures’ own natural freedoms is largely shrouded in mystery, there are some things we can affirm. One of them, he said, was powerfully stated by John Paul II in his superb book, Memory and Identity, where the pontiff said,

It could be said that human history is marked from the very beginning by the limit God the Creator places upon evil.

God’s Providence, therefore, guides history by limiting the progress of evil, which only advances as far as God permits. The space of this divinely limited permission is, he contended, a “safe space” where we can “hide,” as the psalmist says in Psalm 91, under God’s sheltering wings in absolute trust. This is really, he said, what the sixth and seventh petitions in the Lord’s prayer are about (“lead us not…deliver us”), and is what St. Paul has in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:13,

God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.

The idea really runs through the entire biblical narrative and stands at the epicenter of the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, death, burial and descent into hell is evil’s farthest boundary, the edge of God’s No, while the resurrection, God’s Yes, is the sealing of that boundary’s Gate by which redeemed humanity passes into the Paradise of eternal well-being.

Permitted in view of…

Then he noted, briefly but succinctly, that within those limits God permits evil and suffering only in view of the “greater good” he draws from it (again, think here Paschal Mystery as the interpretive lens). But he added an important qualifier:

We should not think of God’s permitting evil in view of some greater good as God somehow positively desiring evil things to happen to make even better things happen through them. No! Rather, God permits evil only inasmuch as He foresees greater goods can be drawn out of them by His Providential plan. While you might say God’s permission for evil is the “space” required for the evolution of finite freedom toward infinite perfection, you should not say that God wills evils in the same sense that he wills goods, or even in the same sense as He wills the goods drawn out of the permitted evils.

This is important because it means that God’s ordained will (i.e. what He directly and positively wills) and His permissive will (i.e. what He allows but does not directly/positively will) are both defined by His good-will, i.e. His love. He always and in all things desires and wills the ultimate and final good for all. That’s really important to remember if you’re going to have a place to drop your anchor in the storms of suffering; it’s where hope finds a sure hold, the rock of God’s good-will that’s backed up by an infinite power and wisdom by which He is able and willing to accomplish that good-will.

This, he said, is the rock-bottom foundation of our absolute trust in God’s provident care for us, and is what St. Paul meant when he said in Romans 8:28,

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

And it’s for those “who love God” not because God is some sycophant who benefits only His devotees, but because such “lovers” alone are able to pattern their lives in harmonious accord with the patterns of Providence, which are the patterns of love. And that love looks like Christ, who is “the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully [revealing] man to man himself and [making] his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

Divine Providence, I.N.R.I.

I’ll try to keep this short for fear of excessive length). The second point he made (alluded to above) flowed from the first, and that is that God’s Providence, the divine care we entrust ourselves to unconditionally, is to be understood only through the lens of the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s Providence is a “paschal providence.”

He quoted the Latin dictum, per cucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light,” and said that we simply cannot comprehend the divine-human meaning of evil and suffering as a Christian unless we saturate our own “linguistic universe” with the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) refracted through Christ’s traditional seven last words. This was a wonderfully new thought for me! He said,

The Seven Last Words of Jesus sum up, you might say, a Christian grammar of faith in the night of suffering; a faith that engages both a sinful, fallen world and a silent God in a very specific manner. This vision of faith is only intelligible, you might say, from the vantage of a dying God who, though struck down, looks up in trust and dies in the hope of “the joy that was set before him.” But the fact is that this language, these 7 words, apart from faith, are folly, absurdity, madness, scandalous. Those who make that language their native tongue will be seen as fools, even as they become capable of a hope and a love that are truly otherworldly; supra-human.

In case you are not familiar with the tradition list of those seven last words, let me share them in summary for here:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. John 19:28: I thirst.
  6. John 19:29-30: It is finished.
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Horizon-stretching!

For me, those insights were earth-shaking, horizon-stretching ones that pulled together things I knew already in one way or another, but joined them into a new and fresh portrait. Seeing my whole life, my own (weak and fitful!) personal trust in God’s provision for my welfare through the translucent icon of a Crucified Christ through whom all of history finds its meaning, judgment and fulfillment, was, let’s say unsettlingly comforting. It also gave me a new theological lens through which to read a saying my very first spiritual director shared with me when I would fret about the twists and turns of my life,

Trusting God only means something when you’re suspended naked above Golgotha. No need for trust when you’re building tents on Tabor.

[These references, if they are not clear, are to the sites of Jesus' crucifixion (Golgotha) and transfiguration (Tabor).]

When Divine Providence becomes our vision

I will end this unwieldy reflection with a quote I have shared before. It’s by the Russian saint-martyr, the eldest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess St. Olga. Shortly before her murder by the Bolsheviks in 1917, she penned a prayer that reflects this brash trust in God’s “paschal providence,” and bears within it the refracted grammar of the dying Christ:

Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, our neighbor’s evil to forgive; and the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet.  In days when enemies rob us: to bear the shame and humiliation, O Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, bless us with prayer and give our humble souls rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.

St. Olga Nikolaevna Romanova from http://upload.wikimedia.org

Shabbat

from sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

Today is the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat, a day of ceasing from all servile labor in which God’s people breathe deep the sweet fragrance of the Torah and exhale on high a new song of praise and thanks to their Creator and Redeemer.

The Sabbath, commanded by God to shatter man’s slavery to unrelenting work, creates a free space in time for joyfully and thankfully receiving the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God. It also creates a space for us to remember the mirabilia Dei, “the wonderful works of God” that have taken place in history as the eternal God again and again broke into time to save humanity and establish with us an everlasting covenant of mercy.

For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday, the 8th and final day of creation, the day the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death, the Sabbath is especially a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. Liturgy is, you might say, the God-designed manner by which each man and woman enters into the restful Sanctuary that abides at the thrice holy Heart of the life-creating Trinity. On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge into Him, to eat and drink of His immortal life and love. Sunday is our weekly foretaste of that entry into the Unthinkable, the Unspeakable, and Holy Mass is where we amble into the veiled threshold of Mystery.

Not a bad reason to plan your Sunday trek to Mass as a day “set apart” for God.

To-be

As an aside, regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight in February that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7th (which I won’t indent to keep the italics):

Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “everything” for which we give thanks – an opening into a certain “mysticism of being” (or maybe an ontological mysticism) that claims within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over the surplus of meaning, the superabundant beauty that impregnates the Genesis 1:31 “very good” fact of existence itself, i.e. that even before meaning and goodness and discernable purpose are located by us within in distinct āctūs, “acts” of being (e.g. my health, the birth of a child, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud), meaning and goodness and purpose worthy of laud are already/always found simply and without qualification in that fact of esse, of “to-be” itself, regardless of the particular existential colors being presents in any given moment. Just “to-be,” as a reception of the pure-gratuity of God’s eternal-creating Act, should suffice to vacate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. And every moment of to-be that is this received within such a “eucharistic heart” wells up through us, blended with Seraphic hymns, into imperishable eternity.  This point is what for me gives such force to Meister Eckhart’s catastrophically simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” It’s been a revolution within a revolution within a revolution for me.

Cahill’s Shabbat

I recall the day I first read through Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews. I was bowled over in particular by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. These insights made me grateful in a new way for this singular gift the Jews bequeathed to the world and to the Church, and it made me more keenly aware of the tragedy of a Christian people who have largely forgotten what a precious pearl they have to offer the world. Here’s the quote that really took me:

No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation). In this study (or Talmud), we have the beginnings of what Nahum Sarna has called ‘the universal duty of continuous self-education,’ Israel being the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit – and a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, considered slaves.

JP2, We  You

One last point, to avoid making this post obscenely long.

Soon to be Pope St. John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here), and it’s well worth reading. It’s theologically and historically rich, and is filled with plenty of excellent practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite 2 paragraphs in the document. It’s a tad long, but worth the read.

Imagine a world of 2+ billion Christians carrying this out every 7 days. Now, let’s pledge to move from image to reality…

The Eucharist is an event and programme of true brotherhood. From the Sunday Mass there flows a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful, beginning by inspiring the very way in which they live the rest of Sunday. If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behaviour that we cannot be happy “on our own”. They look around to find people who may need their help. It may be that in their neighbourhood or among those they know there are sick people, elderly people, children or immigrants who precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering. It is true that commitment to these people cannot be restricted to occasional Sunday gestures. But presuming a wider sense of commitment, why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into people’s lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table.

Lived in this way, not only the Sunday Eucharist but the whole of Sunday becomes a great school of charity, justice and peace. The presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his people becomes an undertaking of solidarity, a compelling force for inner renewal, an inspiration to change the structures of sin in which individuals, communities and at times entire peoples are entangled. Far from being an escape, the Christian Sunday is a “prophecy” inscribed on time itself, a prophecy obliging the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the One who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and new sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). In the Sunday commemoration of Easter, believers learn from Christ, and remembering his promise: “I leave you peace, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), they become in their turn builders of peace.

 

Spent Love Wins

“Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude…The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar

A few scattered thoughts on a Lenten Friday.

I was recently talking to some seminarians about how Catholics view the Gospel of Prosperity, which (in caricature) essentially affirms that following Jesus leads to temporal surplus and worldly/physical well-being.

The Catholic view, which of course cannot be justly summarized in a quick phrase, might sound like this: following Jesus means that we will be given all that is necessary to carry out our personal vocations, to become the sort of saint God made us to be, and that any temporal surplus and well-being that may come our way is an evident sign of His love for all those whom He has placed in our sphere of beneficent influence. In a word, following Jesus means the Cross, which is the supreme symbol of human and divine life broken and poured out “on behalf of all and for all.”

The saint says with gut-level conviction: “My life is not my own. It belongs to God ‘and the children that God has given me’” (Hebrews 2:13), and those “children” refer to any and all whom God places under our care.

St.Paul refers to the blessings of prosperity this way,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich…You are being enriched in every way for all generosity. — 2 Cor. 8:9; 9:11

Unworthy

Let me share a story that Fr. Tom Hopko referred to in a lecture he gave once on the Cross. It makes my point in a very startling way.

Mother Teresa was being interviewed by a reporter who complained that she (Mother) was healthy, while those she served were sick. The reporter said, “If God supposedly loves them so much, how is that fair that they are sick and you are well?” Mother replied, “If I am blessed with health, it is so that I can spend my health in caring for the sick.” The agitated reporter then went on to argue the unfairness of the general human plight of suffering. Mother attempted to respond by averting to the Christian story of the tragedy of sin and suffering, and God’s compassionate desire to share our sufferings in Jesus. “But,” the reporter interrupted her, “you, you yourself do not suffer. How is that fair? Why do they suffer but you do not?” Mother replied, “Yes, you are right. I am not worthy to suffer so near to Jesus as they do, but I have been made worthy to be near the suffering and love Jesus in them.”

Gasp.

Spent Love Wins

Worthiness. Suffering. Love. Compassion. Health, Sickness. All is gift, inscribed with a law of love and received in order to be given. All. Even the darkest elements of life, the worst of the worst, because of the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection become worthy offerings as darkness has been re-purposed by God and filled with a love stronger than death; a light blazing from the Body of Christ rising from death. God is love, and it is love alone that grants enduring worth to all things. Love, which is to will the good of another, “wins” in those who choose to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ crucified.

The choice to love thus, super-human as it is, must always be preceded by the consent to be loved by the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, God desires to be allowed to love us. To turn a phrase from the old Baltimore Catechism, God made us so that He might “know, love and serve us in this life and be happy with us forever in the next.” Pray on that for a time. And only those who really and truly believe in, or, better, into this God can look and act like Him. As 1 John 4:10 says it,

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

Ignite

On this Lenten Friday, when we reflect on the infinite lexicon of love compressed into the “word of the Cross,” a lexicon we are called to master and employ by the eloquence of our lives, let me leave you with these words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.

Matthias Grünewald, 1510

Fasting

Today I’d like to serve you a plate of wisdom on fasting from our Catholic tradition. May it deepen your commitment to this essential labor of a healthy Christian faith life.

“Do you fast? Then feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, do not forget the imprisoned, have pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, calm, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious, so that God might accept your fasting and might plentifully grant you the fruits of repentance. Fasting of the body is food for the soul.” —St. Basil the Great, 329-379 A.D.

Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, however good they are in themselves, do not constitute the goal of our Christian life, although they serve as a necessary means to its attainment. The true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Fasting, vigils, prayers, alms-giving and all good deeds done for the sake of Christ are but means for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But note, my son, that only a good deed done for the sake of Christ brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is done, if it is not for Christ’s sake, although it may be good, brings us no reward in the life to come, nor does it give us God’s grace in the present life—St. Seraphim of Sarov (a famous and highly revered Russian Orthodox saint, 1754-1833 A.D.)

“This is the charity or fasting that our Lord wants! Charity that is concerned about the life of our brother, that is not ashamed – Isaiah said it himself – of the flesh of our brother. Our perfection, our holiness is linked with our people where we are chosen and become part. Our greatest act of holiness relates to the flesh of our brother and the flesh of Jesus Christ. Our act of holiness today, here at the altar is not a hypocritical fasting: instead it means not being ashamed of the flesh of Christ which comes here today! This is the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ. It means sharing our bread with the hungry, taking care of the sick, the elderly, those who can’t give us anything in return: this is not being ashamed of the flesh!…The most difficult charity (or fasting) is the charity of goodness such as that practiced by the Good Samaritan who bent over the wounded man unlike the priest who hurried past, maybe out of fear of becoming infected. And this is the question posed by the Church today: Am I ashamed of the flesh of my brother and sister…When I give alms, do I drop the coin without touching the hand (of the poor person, beggar)? And if by chance I do touch it, do I immediately withdraw it? When I give alms, do I look into the eyes of my brother, my sister? When I know a person is ill, do I go and visit that person? Do I greet him or her with affection? There’s a sign that possibly may help us, it’s a question: Am I capable of giving a caress or a hug to the sick, the elderly, the children, or have I lost sight of the meaning of a caress? These hypocrites were unable to give a caress. They had forgotten how to do it….. Don’t be ashamed of the flesh of our brother, it’s our flesh! We will be judged by the way we behave towards this brother, this sister”. — Pope Francis

The penitential practices suggested by the Church especially during this Lenten season include fasting This means special moderation in the consumption of food except for what is necessary to maintain one’s strength. This traditional form of penance has not lost its meaning; indeed, perhaps it ought to be rediscovered, especially in those parts of the world and in those circumstances where not only is there food in plenty but where one even comes across illnesses from overeating.

Penitential fasting is obviously something very different from a therapeutic diet, but in its own way it can be considered therapy for the soul. In fact practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening to God. Fasting is to reaffirm to oneself what Jesus answered Satan when he tempted him at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Today, especially in affluent societies, it is difficult to grasp the meaning of these Gospel words. Consumerism, instead of satisfying needs, constantly creates new ones, often generating excessive activism. Everything seems necessary and urgent and one risks not even finding the time to be alone with oneself for a while. St Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever. “Enter again into yourself.” Yes, we must enter again into ourselves if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake but indeed our personal, family and social equilibrium itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. The effort of moderation in food also extends to other things that are not necessary, and this is a great help to the spiritual life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand. This principle can be appropriately applied to the mass media. Their usefulness is indisputable, but they must not become the “masters” of our life. In how many families does television seem to replace personal conversation rather than to facilitate it! A certain “fasting” also in this area can be healthy, both for devoting more time to reflection and prayer, and for fostering human relations. — Bl. John Paul II

“In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God…the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice must be rediscovered, and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel…Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.

At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, Saint John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?” (3:17). Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up (cf. 2 Cor 8-9; Rm 15, 25-27), the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast (Didascalia Ap., V, 20,18). This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent.” – Pope Benedict XVI

Christ the Serene

Recently [which was actually last summer as I just found and edited the draft of this post that I'd saved along with my many other still half-digested ideas] I was talking with several different Catholic couples we know who have children, and we all talked about the challenges of raising children who can hold in tension a strong Catholic identity and a sense of place in our contemporary culture. At home in the world, but not of the world.

Here are some scattered thoughts that surfaced from our wandering conversation…

Valuing Truth

We focused largely on the innumerable challenges posed by a postmodern culture that radically de-centers and devalues the claims of timeless truth by transforming truth into values. In postmodern parlance, values are not universally true and binding realities, but only present biases, cherished ideas given authority by a culturally-bound present generation that, at least for now, holds those ideas in esteem. One friend said it this way: While truth is discovered by the intellect and conformed to by the will (i.e. freely chosen because true, aka “Truth is Happiness”), values are created by the will and conformed to by the intellect (i.e. true because freely chosen, aka “Happiness is the Truth“). The truth becomes my truth, reality’s hard substance becomes soft plastic, and the meaning of happiness is entirely unmoored from any stable foundation.

Because the unifying dynamism capable of creating a moral consensus in a values-based society is no longer grounded in obedience to the given exigencies of “the True and the Good,” these irreconcilably diverse values must be guarded by the new meta-ethical truth, Tolerance and imposed by those whose will-to-power at any given moment bears the most weight. In addition, within our increasingly narcissistic, “selfie” culture, the erosion of a truth-based moral ground offers an intensely hostile environment for cultivating the hard virtues (e.g. chastity, self-sacrifice, marital fidelity) that all great societies require to maintain their productive vitality and cohesive strength.  As an aside on this point, one person remarked that the loss of cultural cache for the virtue of chastity makes the battle to end abortion nearly hopeless, since abortion, so intimately linked to failure of chastity, really becomes the henchman of tolerance, the gruesome guardian of sex-without-consequences.

Lastly, when you weld this moral earthquake to an unstable adolescent psyche that is already looking for permission to self-define over and against any sense of unyielding truth, and then hook them into a steady digital diet that mediates a chaotic and fragmented worldview, you have the perfect storm.

While there’s no way I can here propose a robust alternative (though I have already recommended as one idea Esolen’s new book), I can affirm what a mentor once said to me,

If you can help them acquire a serene and non-defensive confidence in their Catholic identity, they will be free to engage the rest of the world without fear. But to give them that, you have to get it first yourselves! So the first ingredient in the recipe of good parenting is good parents.

Another way that I have thought about this task of planting deep within my children the Catholic seed is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry well known line in Citadelle,

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

“When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.”

If the “sea” is our Faith, then our greatest parental task is to awaken in them desire for God by filling their imaginations with colorful portraits of truth, goodness and beauty, and by constructing a domestic culture, an economy of love, that evidences the joyful freedom that comes to those who stand firmly on the serene Christ.

Parental Shepherding

We agreed that parents cannot surrender their duty to intentionally and intelligently shepherd their children in a world filled with ravenous wolves eager round up shepherd-less sheep. Yes, we’re tired, busy, torn, challenged, weary. But can you conceive of a better recipe for greatness and holiness that does not require you to run off seeking a noble martyrdom in some far off land, like St. Francis once tried? Heroism is best achieved at home.

For this command which I am giving you today is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. — Deut. 30:11-14

Busy, but never too busy

Parental shepherds, in addition to being informed by their faith, must have a well thought out plan, a “rule of life,” be consistent and steadfast, and make room for real time to get to know their children very, very well. I can affirm that the adage, children spell the word “love” T-I-M-E, is absolutely and infallibly true. I recall reading the stat from nearly 10 years ago that the average American parent spends less than 3 minutes a day in non-directive communication with their children, and thinking to myself: “Please Lord, not me!” It’s a struggle. But if we parents have any hope of wielding effectively the guiding staff and defending rod God has placed into our hands, we must take this role very seriously and throw a martyr’s love into our children’s lives. And waste lots of time with them.

1-7

I shared a quote from St Francis Xavier about those especially early years when the basic character patterns are set — “Give me the child until he is seven and I care not who has him thereafter” — and that sparked a lively conversation about what kind of formation those first seven years demand that will offer a child the basis for cultivating virtues. We agreed on the need to make virtue-building a priority, helping children gain self-mastery in age appropriate ways, rightly displacing self-esteem’s pride of place and supplanting it with self-respect, that inner rudder that roots self-confidence in moral character. The greatest graced gift we can help gain for our children is a stable moral character that orients them from within toward the Good God.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

It’s no easy feat, we fail often, but we muddle through it with confidence and perseverance. It must be done and it’s a work of pure grace doused with stinky sweat. Parents must beg God to have Joseph’s ability to dream, Solomon’s deft wisdom, Job’s “big picture” patience, David’s undaunted courage, Abraham’s driven single-mindedness, Moses’ bold meekness, Elijah’s fiery prayer and, above all, Mary’s trusting humility. Without such God-given, saint-witnessed virtues, splashed with copious grace to supplies for our own frailties in the face of so great a task, parents will falter. We need the mind of Christ to think our way through this world, and how grateful we should be that Christ has already shared his mind lavishly out with such a great cloud of witnesses!

Let me add at end this ramble one last point. Many of the “saints” we cling to as new parents aren’t the dead and canonized ones, but living ones in our midst. The many amazing parents and families my wife and I have been blessed to know over the years — I can see all their faces in my mind now! — have challenged us and given us great hope that, even in the midst of our culture’s septic swirl, a creative minority will arise threaten the New Normal with a New Abnormal; with children speaking into the future a Word that has been with us from the beginning. And serenely so.

 

St. Gianna Beretta Molla

Preach it, Preacher!, O.P.

One of the best parts of working at a seminary, aside from the privilege of forming future priests, is getting to hear some really excellent homilies. In particular, we have a Dominican (i.e. “Order of Preachers”) priest who is just a superb orator. His own favorite quote captures the heart of his style,

A [preacher] who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology. —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

His name is Fr. Philip Neri Powell, and he’s got a sense of humor and a joy worthy of St. Philip Neri. This last Friday he preached a homily that knocked my socks off, and I asked him if I could post it here. Gladly, he said yes. His language in the homily was reminiscent of that other Dominican tertiary, St. Catherine of Siena:

O fire of love!
Was it not enough to gift us
with creation in your image and likeness,
and to create us anew to grace in your Son’s blood,
without giving us yourself as food,
the whole of divine being,
the whole of God?
What drove you?
Nothing but your charity,
mad with love as you are!

So, without further adieu, here’s his homily:

3rd Week of Lent (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Francis Tarwater finally sees his chance to baptize the “idiot-boy,” and he takes it. Throwing the boy into the lake, he does the deed and in the process drowns him. As with most of Flannery O’Connor’s “preachers of nihilism,” Tarwater is compelled by a prophetic mission, and ruinously haunted by the Devil. This tension explodes when Tarwater tries to fulfill a promise he made to his uncle to baptize the boy. When he tries, the Devil tempts him with disobedience, saying, “If you baptize once, you’ll be doing it the rest of your life.” What the Devil knows about Tarwater that Tarwater doesn’t know about himself is that he loves. He loves his uncle. He loves the “idiot-boy.” He loves the idea of being a baptizing prophet. And so the Devil says the only thing he can to pull Tarwater away from his promise, “You have to quit confusing a madness with a mission.” When Jesus commands us to love as God loves, to love neighbor and self with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, I think, “Madness!” We can’t survive in this world if our mission is to love as God Himself loves. If we’re to survive, we must stop confusing our mission with the madness of divine love. But that’s the Devil talking, telling me what I want to hear.

Hearing God’s word of love and receiving His love as a gift is not easy. Israel, so often on the receiving end of both God’s love and His wrath, knows this better than anyone. The Lord sends Hosea to His people with a message, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord, your God; you have collapsed through your guilt.” Sounds simple enough. Repent, turn around, and go back to righteousness. But repentance requires more than a muttered “sorry ’bout that.” Repentance requires a fundamental transformation of heart, mind, soul, and strength. It requires a new creation, starting over on the right path in mercy. This doesn’t sound so bad until I realize that true repentance is made manifest by an act of mercy: I forgive those who have sinned against me. If my repentance doesn’t culminate in an extravagant outpouring of forgiveness from me, then my repentance is incomplete. How can I say that I love as God loves if I cannot or will not forgive my enemies? Thus, the Devil calls Tarwater’s mission of love “madness.” And urges him to stop confusing this madness for a mission. To forgive those who have sinned against you is a sure sign of repentance, and a measure of one’s distance from the Devil. So, of course, the Devil wants you to nurse your wounds, to glory in your victimhood, to wallow around in self-pity and hurt. He wants us to forget that the madness of love is our mission.

As difficult as it might be for us to love as God loves, to forgive as we have been forgiven, we cannot forget that He promises us His assistance. He says to Hosea, “I will heal their defection. . .I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them. I will be like the dew for Israel.” We also have the comfort of knowing that Christ’s command to love is a command. Not a suggestion, a hint, or just one option among many. A command. Lord, give what you command, and command what you will. But be careful with this prayer. Before you offer the sacrifice of your will to God’s will, know that there is a madness in His love, a madness that will become your mission, a mission that will attract the voices of the Enemy to pull you away from your anointed task. These dis-easing voices have names: Excuse, Entitlement, Vengeance, Petulance, Stubbornness. But God’s healing graces have names too: Responsibility, Generosity, Mercy, Patience, Obedience. And His names – received in absolute gratitude with abundant praise – will turn the madness of our sin into the divine madness of love, a love let loose to bring the world to kneel.

 

Christ, Hearer of Sins

Orthodox Confession

I have always found sacramental Confession to be powerful. It keeps me accountable for my sins to God and to another human being. And is that not the essence of the meaning of the Incarnation, of being saved by a God-Man and not just by God alone? Confession also allows me to exercise my “sacramental imagination” as I come to this or that priest — Fr. Bob, Fr. Dennis, Fr. Luis — and to see not only this particular man, but Christ. Such an imagination is not a mere work of mental conjuring, though, but rather the effect of divine grace in the soul opening the mind’s eye to the presence of Christ alive in His Mysteries. It’s a gift from God to see the world thus, and is something you should not only practice in your reflective prayer (for example, engaging in St. Ignatius’ imaginative prayer), but should earnestly pray for — an awakening of the Spirit’s gift of understanding that allows you to fathom the unfathomable depths present in the “Sacramental Ocean.”

To help me cultivate that power of spiritual sight, I read, prior to my own Confession, the words an Eastern Orthodox priest speaks to the penitent just before his or her sins are confessed:

 Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me: but tell me, doubting not, all things which thou hast done: and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His holy image is before us: and I am but only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all things which thou dost say to me. But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, thou depart unhealed.

The Gift of Priesthood

I experience such gratitude after every Confession not only for God’s inexhaustible mercy, but also for the priest’s sacrificial gift of himself to hear my ugly sins and bear them up into the Heart of Christ. We should express our gratitude! A priest I used to go to Confession to regularly, as a “confessor,” would always say to me at the end,

Now that the Lord has freed you from your sins by means of me, a poor sinner, pray for me to God that I may not myself be lost but receive the same mercy He has freely given you this day.

What an important reminder that is to the faithful to pray for priests, for we rely on their self-giving and sin-bearing love to make present to us the saving Mysteries of God.

Priest-sinners

Thinking about this also makes me think of the powerful witness Ordained clergy offer when they themselves go to Confession. I knew a Pastor who, at the seasonal Penance services in his parish would begin the private Confessions by having all the priest-confessors go to each other first before hearing the confessions of the lay faithful. It was very moving and communicated a powerful message.

“I am a sinner”

Let me end by allowing Pope Francis, the sinner-Pope of Mercy, to speak to us about the beauty of this Sacrament.

But if a person, whether a layperson, priest or sister, goes to confession and converts, the Lord forgives. And when the Lord forgives, he forgets. This is important. St. Peter committed one of the biggest sins ever – he denied Christ – and he made him pope. The sincere and humble admission of one’s weaknesses, of having “a thorn of Satan in my flesh,” shows that the power of salvation comes from God, not oneself. – Pope Francis

Watch here as Pope Francis puts these words into action:

 

Theological Tapestry

Unknown Weaver, Flemish (active 1470-1490 in Tournai) Source: wikipedia

I view my work as a theologian largely as a work of weaving, creating a colorful tapestry composed of others’ insights, experiences and stories that, taken together and arranged according to ordo caritatis, the “order of charity,” displays more fully the beauty of Christ “come to full stature” (Ephesians 4:13). Everything I say, I have stolen. I’m a legit thief, I guess you could say. So every day I try hard to listen carefully and watch attentively for the colorful threads that are everywhere, all around us, and try later, in a prayerful moment, to worthily stitch them into a work of art.

Today, I want to share two of the more lovely threads I have come across.

Relentless Love

First, I want to tell you the story of two women I have come to know. They don’t work anywhere associated with my work and I will slightly alter the details to ensure anonymity. They both serve in a diner and over the last year I have come to know their stories because, let’s just say, they’re very chatty.

The first woman is in her late 50′s. She’s a widow and has several adult children. One of her daughters has three children of her own, fathered by two different men, is not married and is not interested in raising those children. In fact, she moved away and left them with her mother. So this grandmother now cares for her three grandchildren in her tiny apartment, works two nearly full-time jobs and is putting the children through school.

The other woman is in her 60′s. She has an adult brother in his 50′s who is severely handicapped and lives in an assisted care facility. She was once married but her husband died young. She presently lives with her boyfriend of 20 years, who does not work and is on disability, and she visits her handicapped brother every morning of every day, before going to work at one of her two jobs, just to make sure he takes his medicine. She has adult children as well who don’t help her financially at all, but amazingly she does not hold it against them but blames only herself for not being a good enough mother. To top it all off, one of her sons was killed in a gruesome accident, leaving his wife and children without support.

They are two tragic figures in a morally messy place who, in spite of it all, are filled with an irrepressible zest for life and a steely resolve to live each day so focused on others’ welfare that they simply don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves. In fact, they’ve never voiced a single complaint about their own plight, only about the plight of others. They’re both Catholics and have serious faith, but it’s very understated and homely faith, truly the embodiment of 1 John 3:18,

Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

That’s all amazing to me, and makes me never want to complain about any of my piddly woes. But here’s the part that, for me, is the scarlet thread of rarest beauty. Before Christmas, the first woman came to work crying because she simply did not have the money to buy gifts she so desperately wanted for her grandchildren. The second woman, a woman of meager means, grabbed her shoulders with obvious affection and said, giving her a wad of money, “Here, take this for them.” Both of them now crying, the grandmother resisting the gift but at last overcome by the force of her coworker’s no-nonsense insistence, the whole scene was just otherworldly; like watching a movie. Extraordinary, humbling, an epiphany of God, a sacrifice of two bodies offered up pro multis, “for many,” That what fuels the liturgy of heaven on earth, a worthy offering that, brought to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, saves the world.

Ferocious Love

The second “colored thread” I wish to share with you is from a dear friend of mine in Tallahassee, Florida, named Kathy Behm. I had the privilege of walking with her, as a sponsor, through the RCIA process into the Catholic Church. Kathy’s “a brand plucked out of the fire” (Zechariah 3:2). She came on the retreat I led a few weeks ago in Tallahassee and shared with me on the last day of the retreat a poem that she had penned during the retreat. I was so moved by it’s beauty, I asked if I could post it anonymously and she said yes. But she allowed me to say that it was hers. I’ve left it exactly as she gave it to me, and am certain you will feel blessed to be allowed to listen to her heart sing to God. Truly, this is the greatest gift of my work as a theologian: that I get to receive the beauty of human language offered to God in sacrifice and then I get to give it all away.

FEROCIOUS LOVE OF THE LORD

O Ferocious Love of the Lord
who hunts me down relentlessly
You tear and rend
My heart——-until I bleed
Stains of sin.
Precious Blood—–Fount of Life
Course through my veins
Until you are the beat of my heart

O Jealous Lover of my soul
Your Passions will not rest
Til you have all of me.
Such ruthless love
Shatters me,
All that I thought I was
All that I thought you were
Is but dust.
Breathe life into this clay
Call forth out of this dark void—-
Life
So that all I am not –will become
all that we will be.
The Lord says,
“At the end of you is Me,”

O my Beloved OBSESSION
Ravished by love I sought you
But I can not find you.
Pierced with distress I stumble upon you
But is this truly you or is it me.
Is this my Beloved Lord?
Shattered and blood stained.
I can not recognize you
Help me to see you in
The messiness of the slaughter
I see you now you gaze at me
And I dissolve.

Ferocious, Relentless, Jealous God
You spent yourself for me.
I am the handmaiden
Of the Lord,
Be unto me
according to your Passions.

By Kathy Behm
Lenten Retreat with Tom Neal 3/8/14

 

A Theology of Yosemite

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whenever I take time to pray out in nature, I often will remember that this world’s astonishing design reflects the “dream” God had before creation when he wondered in Trinitarian council, “What sort of world shall We create?” To gaze on the “cosmic art” is to see something of the Artist’s mind and character, to grasp something of his eternal dream; vast, mysterious, powerful beyond imagination. But it’s only in prayer that we can see it in that way. As St. Maximus the Confessor said, “In noetic prayer we can see the divine thoughts that lay behind each element of creation.”

In that vein, I encourage you to take 5 minutes of your time to watch this visual feast called “Project Yosemite.” It’s an opportunity to gaze on Emerson’s “envoys of beauty” in a way you have never before (an thank you, Ellen, for this video link!):

Healthy avoidance behaviors

The term for an external set of circumstances—whether of things or persons—which, either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.

What is a near occasion of sin.

– Catholic Jeopardy

Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum…

When we say the Act of Contrition at the end of our confession in Sacramental Reconciliation, it contains a phrase that, I think, we don’t often think deeply enough about:

…I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.

Avoiding the near occasions of sin. It is absolutely crucial to reflect daily on how people, places, things, circumstances tend to pave the way for bad choices, destructive behaviors, or simply general mediocrity, as well as on those that tend to open the way for good choices, healthy behaviors and a life of greatness. In other words, we must discern our limits, our weaknesses and our strengths, especially in the light of various influences that prey, for ill, on our limits, weaknesses or even our strengths.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Essential to a healthy spiritual life is our nightly examen (see here for a superb overview of this practice), which is a prayerful review of our day that discerns the manner in which we did or did not do God’s will, examining both the interior and exterior influences that helped shape our choices throughout the day. No man is an island, and we swim in a sea of influences — bodily, spiritual, physical, relational, etc. — that inform our thinking, our desiring, our feeling and our choosing.  In order to grow in self-mastery, in genuine freedom, we must become aware of those influences, discern their origin and impact, and respond in accord with a faith-inspired mindset. But most of all, we must turn to God for aid and not imagine we are Promethean giants who can navigate this sea alone.

Discerning heart

I have a powerful example of this kind of discerning approach, and this time it isn’t related to St. Ignatius! This is an excerpt from a transcript of a talk given by the ever-provocative Orthodox theologian, Fr. Tom Hopko, on the role of thoughts, feelings, memories and external circumstances in the spiritual life. You can hear the whole (55 minute) talk in audio form here. It’s a long excerpt, but it’s so excellent and gritty (which makes it interesting reading!) that I think it’s worth the excess text (which I assiduously try to avoid in this Blog). Because of the length of this post, I will not post tomorrow to give you time, if you wish, to digest this more thoroughly. Now, Fr. Tom:

I knew two young women in my pastoral life over the years who could not go to an Orthodox church and look at the icons. They could not go to communion without having a headache and throwing up and [getting] sick to their stomach and everything. Because when they were little, church was so unpleasant to them. Their mother would pinch them, beat them, drag them to church. The father didn’t want to go. There would be a fight in the family. The mother would throw them into the car. The [kids] didn’t want to go. They got them in church. They made them stand there. And in one of the particular churches, the icons were incredibly ugly. They weren’t nice, beautiful icons. They were… The apostles looked like dwarves, and they were holding the images of their martyrdom: axes and saws and spears and so on. They had big heads and they were very ugly. And Christ on the icon and God the Father was like an old man with a stern look, and his eyes were crossed. And the Holy Spirit was like a big, huge bird with claws. Well, it traumatized and terrified these girls. And they just didn’t even want to go to church. One of them told me—she became a doctor in her old age—she said she could go to a Catholic or a Protestant church where there were no icons or maybe just a few or something, and she could basically hold it together, but the minute she walked into an Orthodox church which was covered with frescoes and icons and the icon screen, she would get sick and want to run away.

Well, those are the kind of memories, thoughts, and feelings we’re talking about, and they have a physical reaction on a person, and a mental reaction, and a spiritual reaction. They do. And we’ve got to deal with them. You can’t avoid them. You can’t repress them. But the method is to flee to God and to bring light, and then the light is stronger than the darkness. The beauty is stronger than the ugliness. The mercy is stronger than the judgment. The comfort is stronger than the pain. That’s what the spiritual life is all about.

We’re going to have prosvoloi, provocations. We’re going to have apyrasmon, trials and temptations. We’re going to have all kinds of attacks of the Evil One and of memories and feelings. We cannot hope for the day when they won’t be there, but we certainly can hope for the day when they no longer touch us. So the exercise, the asceticism, the discipline is all about not engaging them. Not coupling with them. Not giving assent to them. Not joining with them.

One more thing can be said—well, millions more things, but, at least for now just a few things more could be said. One is that usually the thoughts, the memories, the feelings, and the temptations, they have a kind of a routine; they have a kind of a pattern. You might even call it a ritual. I know people, for example, that, if they just go into a room and turn on a television set, sooner or later, or a computer, they will be caught by pornography. So they can’t even turn it on, because if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. Other people, of course, can’t take a drink. If they take one first drink, they’re shot.

I know a guy who is same-sex attracted, and he struggles with sexual passions of the homosexual nature. But this guy told me that every time when he would not do his spiritual reading and say his prayers, but would go across the street to the drugstore and buy a pack of cigarettes and start smoking them, it was guaranteed that he would act out within 24 hours. The first step toward acting out was not saying the prayer and buying the cigarettes.

I know people who would say if they would walk home from work and take a certain street, go left instead of right to get around the block, they will be in trouble. They can’t go left; they’ve got to go right, because if they go left, they’re going to pass a certain store. They’re going to pass a certain place, a certain bar or something. And then, they’ve had it.

So the spiritual warfare also consists in re-patterning. It’s like a person who’s had a stroke: you’ve got to learn how to walk again. And you’ve got to be courageous about it, and you’re going to fall down. And you have to learn how to fall and get up again. When you fall down, it ain’t the end of the world. It says in Proverbs, “A righteous person falls, a wise person falls seven times a day, but they get up again.” That’s why they’re wise and righteous, because they get up again. They don’t stay down.

St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.

And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.

What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.

But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.

But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.

St. Silouan said you know the Holy Spirit is in you if you’re a brave fighter. If you hate your sin and struggle against it. And when you do that, it’s a long battle and you’re not going to be victorious in two days.

I heard once a bishop tell some young people that if they had firm resolve, they could come to dispassion and quiet and peace in one month. I frankly don’t believe that. I think the bishop was wrong. Sometimes it’s a lifetime. But you should never say or put a timetable on it. Even [in] the 12-step program, you learn that you can’t do that. You’ve got to say, “Just for this minute. Just for this day. Just for this time.” Just with this breath, I’m not going to engage that memory. I’m not going to engage that feeling. I’m not going to engage that thought. I’m not going to surrender to it. I’m not going to act out on it.

But I can’t do it by myself, so I’m going to flee to the grace of God. I’m going to read the Scripture. I’m going to read the saints. I’m going to read an Akathistos. I’m going to say a prayer. I’m going to walk around. I’m going to get occupied in work. I’m going to care for some sick person. I’m going to do those things that keep the thoughts, the feelings, and the memories from crushing me. And then I’m going to beg God, “Please don’t let me choose them. Please don’t let me actually will to engage them, affirm them, and to go where they are thriving and where they are destroying people.”

And of course, that means we’ve got to cut off relations with certain people. We just can’t be—and St. Paul said this: “If you go into bad company, you’re going to end up with bad morality and bad behavior, and you’re going to be crushed.” And it’s no sin simply to say, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just can’t hang out with you, because if I do, I’m going to be poisoned by your own darkness and your own sin.”

So it’s violent. And the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent person takes it by force.” He said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off. Better to enter the kingdom with one hand than to perish with two. If your eyes offend you, pluck them out.” Now, of course, this was not meant to be literally taken. You don’t take a knife, and—people who are very troubled, they sometimes cut themselves and so on. This is not—this is of the devil. But spiritually, with the sword of the Lord, to cut off all that is evil, all this gangrenous, all this poison, to take the medicine, the pharmakon that is the antidote to the evil poison in our system. We have to do that.

But we have to do that firmly, gently, not hysterically, not with panic. We do it one step at a time. We do it by [being] faithful in the little things. And the most important point for today’s meditation: There’s only one way we can do it, and that is by cutting it off when it first comes. And that’s how the Fathers, like Nilus of Sinai and Evagoras and others, interpreted that line in the psalm, “On the Waters of Babylon”: “Blessed are they who smash your little ones on the rocks. Alleluia.” Because they say if we don’t smash the passions and temptations and thoughts and memories when they’re still little, when they first come, then they will grow up and they will kill us.

You might even say, following the Fathers, like Porphyrios, don’t even try to smash them. Just run away from them. Flee to God. Don’t engage them at all. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about not letting the poison in. It’s all about not engaging the vision, the image, the fantasy, the memory, the imagination, the thought. The cause of it all are logismoi: thoughts, feelings, fantasies, imaginations, provocations. But we can only be victorious when, by the grace of God and by faith in God and by the Holy Spirit, we do not engage them at all. The minute we engage them at all, we’re lost. Sooner or later, we can fight, we can battle, we can struggle, but they’ve got us. So the key is: know that they’re there. Let them babble and buzz all they want, but don’t engage them. Don’t engage them.

Unite the mind and the heart and call upon the Lord and flee to him. And beg for grace. It’s not going to be magic. It’s not always going to work, but this is the only way it does work when it does work. And as they say in the 12-step program when they—you know, sex addiction and food addiction and drug addiction and alcohol addiction—“It works if you work it, so work it. You’re worth it.” But what is the working? The working is to know that there is a power greater than ourselves. There is God Almighty; there is grace.

We can’t do it, but what is impossible with human beings is possible with God. And it’s impossible even not to engage and to join and to assent to all those evil thoughts, memories, and feelings that assail us day and night. With God, all things are possible. And so, it is possible not to live without these thoughts, memories, and feelings, but it is possible not to allow them, by God’s grace, to destroy and to crush us and, ultimately, even to kill us. There is a victory. It belongs to Christ. It’s given to us. We have to plug into it. And we do that by faith and grace in God, and by an unseen warfare, to take every thought captive for the sake of Christ and by Christ.

And not to engage any thought, memory, or feeling that is destructive. In fact, some of the Fathers say that we shouldn’t even engage the good ones, because we can be deceived. It’s better simply to be calling upon the name of the Lord and seeking the light without actually getting into many of these things.

Let me just end by reading something from St. Peter of Damascus in The Philokalia, a treasury of spiritual knowledge. He says:

We should not be distracted by anything: neither by dreams, whether evil or seemingly good, nor by thoughts of anything, whether good or bad, nor by distress or deceitful joy, not by self-conceit or despair, nor by depression or elation, nor by a sense of abandonment or by illusory health and strength. Nor by negligence or progress, nor by laziness or by seeming zeal, nor by apparent dispassion or by passionate attachment. Rather, with humility, we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, quiet, calm, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves harm ourselves.

St. John Chrysostom has a homily: “No one can harm him who does not harm himself.” And then he [St. Peter of Damascus] goes on to say:

Because of our conceit and our failure constantly to have recourse to God, we should cast ourselves down before him, asking that his will should be done in all things, and saying to every thought that comes to us: “I do not know what you are. I do not know who you are. God knows if you are good or bad, but I have thrown myself, and I shall continue to throw myself into God’s hands, and he will take care of me. He will take care of me.”

And if we do not have anyone to advise us—St. Peter continues—we should take Christ as our counselor, asking him with humility and through pure, heartfelt prayer, about every thought, every memory, every feeling, every undertaking.

And if our sole purpose is to do God’s will, God himself will teach us what it is, assuring us of it either directly, through the mind or by means of some person or in the holy Scripture, and if, for God’s sake, we cut off our own will, God will enable us to reach, with inexpressible joy, a perfection we have not known. And when we experience this, we will be filled with wonder at seeing how joy and spiritual knowledge begin to pour forth from everywhere. We will derive profit from everything—even our thoughts and feelings and memories—and God will reign in us, since we have no will of our own, but have submitted ourselves to the holy will of God, we become like kings, so that whatever we desire, we receive effortlessly and speedily, from God by his grace, who has us in his care.