Contrasting views of the body

I am usually loathe to just put into my Blog linked articles, but it’s busy these days and this pair of articles that my wife passed on to me the other day was just too amazingly insightful to not pass on to you.

The first is an inspiring and intimate look, via a photo-journal, at the journey of a married couple through terminal illness. Then right after that article-link, as a sort of ironic foil, I include a “youtube summary” of one conception of bodily perfection that dismally fails to identify what is truly worthy of the greatness of real embodied human dignity.

1. When I saw these incredible photos Angelo Merendino took of his wife, Jennifer, as she battled breast cancer, I felt that I shouldn’t be seeing this snapshot of their intimate, private lives. The photos humanize the face of cancer and capture the difficulty, fear, and pain that they experienced during the difficult time. But as Angelo commented: “These photographs do not define us, but they are us.” See photos here.

2. There is the reason that even when I was in really great shape, wore a size 4, and was healthy, it was never good enough for me. All of my logic and intelligence have trouble combatting what I’ve seen as “perfect” day after day for my entire life. Well, I want to see more of this. I want to show my daughter, over and over, why the images of so many women she sees aren’t realistic. And what I really want is for us to stop turning beautiful women into drawings and passing them off as real. See video here.

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The Pregnant Virgin, c. 1410 A.D.

In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day. –General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373

In an annual recognition of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, our U.S. Bishops have made January 22 to be a penitential “Ash Wednesday” of sorts in which we are required as Catholics to wrap our prayer in penance as we beg for God’s mercy to pardon the slayers of the pre-born, to awaken the consciences of all to the inviolable dignity given by God to each human being at the moment of conception and, as the quote above says, to restore legal protection that guarantees the right to life.

We pray for the hastening of the day when a prominent civil rights activist will write in an article marking the anniversary of this court decision,

As we recall that there once was a time when we, under the pretext of civil liberties and human rights, defended the chemical burning, dismembering, evacuating and poisoning of pre-born human beings, let us reaffirm this day our unrelenting commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the defenseless. Let us reassert our resolve to labor and give birth to a world wherein every child conceived is welcomed by their mother, their father and — even if such is not the case — by the human family united by the bonds of love, compassion and justice. May we never again fail to see in each pre-born human life a living witness to the fragile web of our interdependence and the primordial sign that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper…

Two vantages, one reality

I will leave you with two quotes — one that reflects on the need for truth and the second on the need for compassion. The first quote is by a pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolfe, written in the October 16,1995 edition of The New Republic, in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-choice Rhetoric.” The second quote is by Bl. John Paul II, and is taken from his March 25, 1995 Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae #99.

“So what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism.”
- Naomi Wolfe

“I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.” — Bl. John Paul II

MLK & St. Basil the Great

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion in the U.S., Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a portion of one of his essays and maybe whet your appetite for seeking out more of his work.

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Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.’”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”

Read other essays at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/albert-raboteau

Pause

Someone sent me this photo and it’s now the new image held in my mind as I pray one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 19:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands. — Psalm 19:1

I will be briefly pausing this weekend from writing as I am involved in leading a retreat. I ask your kind prayers for its fruits to be abundant for the participants.

I will resume on January 20 or 21.

Let me leave you with some bite-sized food for the soul in the form of some of my favorite quotes. Yes, I collect quotes all the time and, as I do with gum, chew on them until all the flavor is gone. I hope you also derive some good from them. And while I’m at it, in the spirit of yesterday’s post, and with paternal pride, let me share my daughter’s newest sketch from last night as well. Thanks for indulging me…

“…we can never attain a maximum love of God with only a minimum knowledge of God” ― Frank J. Sheed

“When the labors of virtue leave you weary and tempt you to return to your life of ease, seek for divine aid to persevere…Let yourself die while striving, rather than living in laziness. For those who die while trying to keep the commandments are just as much martyrs as those who died for Christ’s sake.” – St. Maximos the Confessor

“Examine yourself to see whether you have within you a strong sense of your own self importance, or negatively, whether you have failed to realize that you are nothing. This feeling of self-importance is deeply hidden, but it controls the whole of our life. Its first demand is that everything should be as we wish it, and as soon as this is not so we complain to God and are annoyed with people.” – Saint Theophan the Recluse

“In this Kingdom which is to come and has already begun, ‘being oneself’ is to understand oneself as ‘the other’; and in the ultimate transcendence, it means to tilt the entire material plane toward the Divine Other. The Virgin and St John the Baptist witness to this. They effect such transcendence, the one through the other, and together they integrate the human fullness in Christ. The Office of St John the Baptist makes this explicit: ‘Through the bonds of the communion of prayer you are one; O Mother of the King of all and divine Forerunner, pray together!’” — Paul Evdokimov

“The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.” -Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P

“It takes three to make love, not two: you, your spouse, and God. Without God people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another. Lovers who have nothing else to do but love each other soon find there is nothing else. Without a central loyalty life is unfinished.” ― Fulton J. Sheen

“Evil is conquered by prayer, not by complaining and ranting.” ― Fulton J. Sheen

“Protestants believe that the sacraments are like ladders that God gave to us by which we can climb up to Him. Catholics believe that they are like ladders that God gave to Himself by which He climbs down to us.” ― Peter Kreeft

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” ― G.K. Chesterton

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.” — Pope Francis

“The Holy Father told me at the beginning: ‘You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor,’” — Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the Vatican Almoner whose job is handing out alms to needy.

“The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of ‘artistic talent.’ Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” — Bl. John Paul II

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Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s absolutely extraordinary and left me re-filled with rekindled my sense of bewilderment over the mystery of human consciousness, amazement at the complex depths of the human quest for bliss, and wonder before the sheer, unexplained existence of the universe.

In particular, I fell in love with a quote near the end of the last chapter (327-28) in which Hart lays out a path for the serious skeptic to travel if s/he is to explore the problem of God:

In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of infinite being, consciousness and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not merely in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace…no one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can be safely ignored.

That quote then reminded me of a post I had written a year and a half ago, which, for what it’s worth, I include below.

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I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a plethora of fascinating insights into the “spirituality over religion” (SOR) craze in the West.

Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this. The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) extracting and abstracting the spiritual life from the messiness of particularity that attends the real-time human quest to love God in a dysfunctional human community; (2) seeking out primarily individual, autonomous, self-legislating fulfillment in a cosmos devoid of inconvenient, hard ethical truths, given by a divine Legislator, that give ascetically honed shape to the life of a religious practitioner. In regard to the second point, he argued that the spirituality without religion movement prescribes thin, vague and soft ethical principles that are easily adapted to individual preference and radically relativize truth, while spirituality within religion prescribes thick, specific and hard precepts, counseling clearly defined virtues and forbidding clearly defined vices that challenge the individual to be shaped and informed by the given-ness of truth.

It was far more sophisticated than that, but that’s the gist.

Do Faith, then we’ll talk

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he gives to the market-place agnostic spiritual-but-not-religious “seekers” who come to him to inspect Orthodox Christianity — who are attracted to Orthodoxy initially, he said, because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “misty” to offer ample room for their quest for an autonomous faith. He said that he happily entertains their interest, but will not engage in substantive “heady” conversations about the faith until they first agree to do what he asks. Listen to his spiel:

For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who — or if — he is, and simply say in the space of 5 minutes of quiet silence, ‘O God, guide me.’ And then listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there, pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. Then after those six months we can talk about what you experienced, and I will try to answer all your questions.

Otherwise, you’re not really serious in your quest and it’s all a game of the mind.

He said in his experience over 50+ years of priesthood he has never once seen the successful completion of this experiment fail to effect a radical change in opening the skeptical seeker to Christ and his Church.

But, he added, the majority of those whom he confronts with this challenge “walk away sad” as they are unwilling to invest the effort. Like Herod, they want to be titillated by a quick fix, not converted.

“I dare you,” he once said to a young woman, “give Christ a try.” “She did, and,” he said, “she met Him.”

Orthodox priest hearing confession

Scribes of Sanctity

Warning: here I will rethink past thoughts, rehash points I’ve already made on old posts and allow my thoughts to sail about without an obvious place to land. But hopefully my thoughts will shed some light on an important question for those who find it interesting. It’s become, along with my work on St. John of the Cross, the new passion of my theological work.

I had a very fruitful conversation the other day with a theologian friend of mine about my recent musings on “the spirituality of the laity.” We were talking about a really interesting book I happened on this Fall, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher, that spurred me on to new thoughts regarding lay holiness. Our conversation centered around the question, “From whence will come the spiritual literature that captures the uniquely secular character of the journey to lay holiness that the Second Vatican Council proposed?”

The Church in the World

We were talking specifically about the need for a spiritual literature for people who don’t work for church-affiliated institutions (like me), who don’t intentionally separate themselves from broader secular culture into church-affiliated, but rather who live in the midst of the mixed-bag world of work and community and culture as fully engaged faithful citizens. These people find their Catholic connection in local parishes and its various sub-communities, and have to discover their unique path to holiness sunk deep within religiously diverse, un-religious or irreligious contexts. They’re fully immersed in the secular, temporal realities of marriage and family life, are invested in their local cultures and communities, are hard at work in their diverse secular careers, finding themselves very much at home in the secular world even as they willingly suffer the dissonance that comes with being salt, light and leaven in the world. In the world is where they are called by God to be, and as they experience a profound deepening of their faith they must have ready at hand a spirituality and a faith community that inspires and supports their vocation to remain where they are, planted deep in the messy and complex secular world, in the midst of temporalities, there to grow to the heights of holiness.

They must not, we argued, have offered to them a lay spirituality that tempts them think they must to quit, loathe or be indifferent to the spiritual value of their secular jobs, withdraw from all non-Catholic community involvement, get involved only in church activities, and so on. Though some of the laity are certainly called by God to do such things, most are not, and to make “flight from the world” or “church mouse” approaches to the spiritual life look more attractive, more holy or more ideal is to give laity who are called to secularity the clear impression that a life of faith lived robustly deep in the midst of the world is necessarily a lesser, compromised path to holiness than the clericalized/monasticized/ecclesiasticalized path. These laity who are called by God to saintly secularity, who are the majority of Catholics, should, rather, be described as Pope Pius XII described them: the Church on the front lines. They are the ones who “take it on the chin” for Christ as He labors in, with and through them to consecrate the world to the Father. They are the Church that Pope Francis desires to see alive and well:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).

It’s spiritual vision proposed in a number of lay-oriented Catholic movements that have long inspired the secular lay apostolate, e.g. Saint Josemaría Escrivá’s Opus Dei, Chiara Lubich’s Focolare Movement, Legatus, the Knights of Columbus.

Who Will Write for Us?

My friend and I, after wading through these thickets of thought, sketched a proposal for creating fresh iterations of such a “secular saint” spiritual literature. We agreed that since very few of these “fully immersed in the world” saints will actually write a “way of perfection” autobiography or develop a unique spiritual doctrine that emerges from within their lived experience, they need informed biographers and scribes who are sufficiently fascinated with lay holiness, and who are able to theologically reflect on its unique genius, to set out its particular patterns of perfection, its distinct modes of prayer, vocational discernment and Christian virtue. We need what Roger Scruton called “voyeurs of holiness” who can share what they have seen and heard of these saints who are mostly hidden away in the world, and offer literature that empowers/inspires others who have been called along the same path.

I must say that as I thought later of the many types of theologically-minded biographers and scribes who could describe and analyze their holy sightings, I thought first of parish priests who are offered the privileged opportunity to catch an intimate, up-close-and-personal glimpse of God’s people at work consecrating the world. But it’s only those shepherd priests who love their sheep enough to share their smell, and who love the lay vocation as much as they love their own priestly vocation, who can offer to the Church a vivid view of how Christ’s faithful men and women in every walk of life, fully immersed in the world’s joys and sorrows, can and do become holy, scaling the heights of holiness. Men like a priest I know who never tires of sharing with me the stories of remarkable everyday people in and around his parish who “wow” him with their ability to find and bring Christ into the nooks and crannies of their corner of the world. When he sees them at Mass, he says, it fills him with joy to know that all of those unsung lives are brought to him that he might then bring to Christ who in turns sings of them before the Face of the Father. I’ve told this priest he must write of what he’s seen!

Four Lived Witnesses

Let me conclude with four offbeat, real-life examples that at least touch on this points I’ve tried to make here. Then I will leave you at the end with a Steven Curtis Chapman song.

First, I heard a homily this past Fall by a retired missionary priest who was reflecting on the life of prayer. He quoted the Catechism #2672, “there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray” and made an interesting point. He said,

Although it’s true that there are basic elements of prayer that all Catholics share, we should not think that there’s only one good way to pray. While contemplative nuns are asked to pray for hours and hours every day, busy moms have to work hard just to find time when they can and where they can — maybe in the bathroom or locked in a closet for 10 minutes! And while nuns might pray about deep spiritual thoughts, moms will probably pray mostly about their children or husband or someone else who falls under their watchful eye. Dads might offer to God throughout the day their problems at work. I had an Aunt who was the holiest person I ever knew, and she became holy by constantly praying novenas for other people. The key is that you pray, that you let God in on your world and that prayer seeps into the shape and rhythm of your day to day life.

Second, there was a gentleman I knew in Florida whom most would label an “angry old man.” And he was. But when you got to know him well, you saw something different. He worked in a machine shop, was a man of deep faith, active in the Knights of Columbus, and he was keenly aware of his own shortcomings and his problems with anger. And if you knew his life story, you’d totally get the roots of that anger. He confided to me one time after I had given a lecture back in 1998 on St. Teresa’s Interior Castles,

That’s inspiring stuff, but way beyond me. Tom, for me to hold my tongue even once from a sarcastic bite is probably equal to the fortitude needed by a saintly priest facing martyrdom. Life’s made a storm in me, and only God’s mercy, my saintly wife and my brother Knights make me able to live with myself. I always say to men who struggle with their weaknesses, “All God asks is that you take the next best step.” And since that’s all I’ve got to offer God, I can only hope he’s pleased.

Third is a story I’ve already posted on — about a mother of three older children who shared with me her amazing witness from her days as a young mother (as ever, in Neal-paraphrase):

When my children were young I used to long for the days before I had children, when I was heavily involved in charismatic renewal, with lots of time for me-prayer, supportive community and feel-like-a-hero service outreach activities; these gave me energy, life and a sense of purpose. After my second child was born, I felt deep down — though I would never have admitted it — that having children was somehow leading me away from God, as they seemed to present a distraction from what I spiritually enjoyed and thrived on. I also knew intellectually that this couldn’t be. But there I was! I fought it constantly by trying to edge in as many church-related activities as I could, sometimes overburdening my husband with my absences or overspending $ on babysitters.

Then one night when I was awakened by a hungry baby, I sat in my rocking chair nursing and I cried. I prayed, “How do I find you like I used to, God? I need more than this.” Then I suddenly heard God whisper deep into the depths of my broken heart, “Thank you for feeding me.”

It was like a spiritual explosion in my heart, a revolution, a whole upturning of my distorted worldview. God was there, appearing in the dark of night, in my house, in my nursing child, in my domestic vocation, in the present moment. And my longing for intimacy with Jesus suddenly seemed wrapped in dirty diapers and dishes and rare dates out with my husband. After that night, I saw that church life and my me-prayer — still very important to me! — were to be servants of my life outside of church. That my home was my first church. Now I always say, and my charismatic friends laugh, that saying prayers before meals or bedtime with my children has become my new mysticism, and shopping for groceries at Walmart, my new mission trip.

The final example includes some deep questions and struggles that undoubtedly arise for “ordinary” lay faithful who really do wish to take a next-best-step. This woman’s questions beg for a literature that speaks to her unique place in God’s manifold economy of grace. She wrote an email to an Orthodox priest in which she lays out with great honesty and power some complex conundrums that many who want to be faithful will, no doubt, identify with. And her email begs not only for a suitable spiritual literature that informs the lay vocation, but also asks for a new hagiography that equals in volume and passion the vast and rich hagiography of clerical, religious and third order lay saints that constitute most of our spiritual tradition. The next thousand years will, please God, give rise to that literature!

Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths, and, yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they’re also holy from their childhoods. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they have been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice and never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged.

If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain, while others go sailing up. Even in his human life, Jesus had his favorites: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, James, and John, who were the only ones of the apostles allowed to witness the Transfiguration, while the rest of the apostles were left out with the rest of the schmucks.

Our churches are full of ordinary people who chatter in the communion line and quibble over petty parish issues as if their lives depend on them. Why aren’t they being showered with the kind of grace that made St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Sergius of Radonezh? Serial killers have no conscience. In most cases because their parents abused it out of them. What chance did they have?

St. Lucy was protected in the brothel, but unaccounted little girls are trained by their own fathers to be sexual accessories. A life of virginity was never a choice that they could make, as their chastity is torn from them by the very one whose job it is to protect it. I grew up in an alcoholic family. I never learned how to trust the people I can see and do talk to me, much less a God I can’t see and doesn’t talk to me. I’m not asking why evil things happen. Evil things happen because there are evil people doing them. What I’m asking is: why does God make people who don’t have a snowball’s chance on a hot plate of having a kind of relationship with God that the Church teaches we’re all supposed to have?

We’re all supposed to be saints, but there aren’t any examples for ordinary people who don’t have the option of abandoning their spouses and children and running off to a monastery or into the desert. We’re lucky if God answers a prayer for something ordinary, like “Help one of our young adult children find a job,” much less something extraordinary like a prayer for physical, mental, or emotional healing for a friend or a family member. We stumble along doing our best, and then we’re told, it’s dangerous to want a closer relationship with God. The devil can use that to lead us into delusion. For Pete’s sake, can we win for losing?

Where’s the totally ordinary lay woman, married to a lay man, who gets to have anything like a relationship with God? I keep trying, but I haven’t even had a moment of sweetness, just ordinary sweetness, in prayer, for 15 years. Heaven is silent, and I certainly don’t have anything I could even call a relationship with God. And people like me are the majority, stumbling along in the rocks at the foot of the mountain, no hope of ever ascending. Is God too busy with the few he really likes to bother with the rest of us? I know you’re a very busy man, but I’d really appreciate it if you would answer this, if it even can be answered. Thank you, if you have read this so far.

So much more to say here, but I must stop as I have run out of time and I’ve way over-passed my usual word limit. But when has word limit ever limited me?

Do Everything

Now, listen here (you must be on my blog to view!):

Lay saint Gianna Beretta Molla (October 4, 1922 – April 28, 1962), an Italian pediatrician, wife and mother, with her husband, Pietro Molla. See article on her husband here: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/st-gianna-s-husband-dead-at-97

“… share your food with the hungry” Isaiah 58:7

In line with our Pope’s passion for calling the Church to face poverty with the ferocity of the self-emptying God of mercy, in preparation for tomorrow’s feast of that lover of the poor St. Nicholas, and in concert with Advent’s special focus on joy-bearing alms, I thought I would share a collage of relevant quotes from our sacred Tradition.

PIC

When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not — should he not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry: the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.

– St. Basil

It is not with your own wealth that you give alms to the poor, but with a fraction of their own which you give back; for you are usurping for yourself something meant for the common good of all. The earth is for everyone, not only for the rich.

– St. Ambrose

Do you think that kindness toward your neighbor is not something essential but voluntary; not law but a recommendation? I would wish and think that it were so, were I not frightened by the possibility of being numbered among the goats on the left hand of the Sovereign Judge who will hurl his condemnations; and this not because they have robbed or committed sacrileges or adulteries, nor because they have done something forbidden. Nothing of the sort attracts condemnation on them except their having failed to care for Christ himself in the person of the poor.

– St. Gregory Nazianzen

Do not make your longing for prayer a pretext for turning away from anyone who asks for your help, for love is greater than prayer.

– St. Symeon the New Theologian

Human beings have accumulated in their coffers gold and silver, clothes more sumptuous than useful, diamonds and other objects that are evidence of war and tyranny; then a foolish arrogance hardens their hearts; for their brothers in distress, no pity. What utter blindness!… Attend not to the law of the strong but to the law of the Creator. Help nature to the best of your ability, honor the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonor, come to its aids in sickness, rescue it from poverty… Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.

– St. Gregory Nazianzen

Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.

– St. John Chrysostom

You just need to look at what the gospel asks and what war does. The Gospel asks that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, visit the prisoner, and perform acts of mercy. War does all the opposite. It makes my neighbor hungry, thirsty, homeless, a prisoner and sick. The Gospel asks us to take up our cross. War asks us to lay the cross on others.

– Servant of God Dorothy Day

While fasting physically, brethren, let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity. Let us tear up every unrighteous bond. Let us distribute bread to the hungry and welcome into our homes those who have no roof over their heads so that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God!

– First week of Lent, Wednesday Vespers

The Joyful Pope

Today I thought I would share 9 of my favorite quotes from Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel”:

The Eucharist . . .  is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. (#47)

This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity. (#94)

Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Such is the power of the resurrection, and all who evangelize are instruments of that power. (#276)

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). (#49)

One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”. Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil. The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centred lack of trust. (#85)

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ. (#2)

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. (#53)

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”. Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations? (#213-14)

We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel. Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be, yet we know that the Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, the struggle for justice, or the defence of human dignity. Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness, to say nothing of the concupiscence which preys upon us all. These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day. So I propose that we pause to rediscover some of the reasons which can help us to imitate them today. (263)

Break, again

Dear NealObstat readers:

I am tired and am taking a break for a few days. And as this Blog is such a joy for me, you know when I say tired, I mean tired.

I will resume by November 20th.

I leave you with a fun video I’ve posted before, a re-do of the 1990s crass song, Baby Got Back. Enjoy:

St. Paul against Food Stamps?

A colleague of mine at Notre Dame Seminary, Dr. Nathan Eubank, wrote a compelling and fascinating post on a verse found in this coming Sunday’s second reading at Mass from Second Thessalonians:

…if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.

Dr. Eubank, who recently published a book on the language of “debt” in St. Matthew’s Gospel, is a Catholic biblical scholar to keep an eye on. I am convinced that his remarkable ability to fuse solid scholarship with a genuine novelty of approach to old or neglected biblical-exegetical questions will, in the words of St. Albert the Great said in reference to the up-and-coming “Dumb Ox” St. Thomas Aquinas,

…give such a bellow that his voice shall fill the whole world!

+++++++

A student in my 1-2 Thessalonians class just pointed out that Congressman Stephen Fincher recently used 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” NRSV) as a justification for cutting food stamps. This text does seem to be a favorite of those who argue that the hungry should simply feed themselves.

Here are a few reasons why I think this is a misguided use of 2 Thess 3:10. The list begins with general observations and gradually works down to specific arguments from 2 Thessalonians.

1. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that the Christian Bible has something to say about how to live. If this is the case, one wonders why this particular verse should be given so much weight when there are so many other passages enjoining liberality. For example,

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:42) [Note: give to everyone, not simply those who seem sufficiently industrious to us]

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. (Luke 6:30)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to…share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

There are many, many more similar examples. Why should 2 Thessalonians 3:10 do away with all this?

2. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that Paul in particular has something to say about how they should live their lives. If this is the case, then it might be helpful to check one’s interpretation by what Paul says about the poor on other occasions. To take one particularly vivid example, see 2 Corinthians 9:13:

Through the testing of this ministry [i.e. the collection to aid Christians in Jerusalem] you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others

For Paul, generosity to all people brings glory to God (more anon on this. It is the topic of my current book project).

3. If I refuse to give to someone who asks of me because of 2 Thess 3:10, I am acting on the supposition that the person asking for help is in need because he or she is lazy. Most of the time, however, we don’t have the slightest idea what led a person to the point of asking others for help.

The late fourth-century bishop John Chrysostom unmasks the lack of charity in the assumption that a beggar isn’t really in need (apologies for the old translation – I don’t have time to make a fresh one):

But what say they? He is an impostor. What sayest thou, O man? Callest thou him an impostor, for the sake of a single loaf or of a garment? But (you say) he will sell it immediately. And dost thou manage all thy affairs well? But what? Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties? If however we hear any one bewailing such evils, and crying out aloud, and looking up naked toward heaven, and with long hair, and clad in rags, at once we call him, The impostor! The deceiver! The swindler! Art thou not ashamed? Whom dost thou call impostor? (In epistulam ad Hebraeos, Schaff)

The point is this: chances are you don’t know why the person is in need, and it is cruel to assume the worst. Moreover, we waste money on ourselves all the time. Why not waste it on someone else for a change?

Chrysostom frequently speaks against those who are over-curious about the goodness of those to whom they give. This is to “take away the greater part of almsgiving, and will in time destroy the thing itself. And yet that is almsgiving: it is for the sinners, it is for the guilty. For this is almsgiving, not to have mercy on the successful, but on those who have done wrong!” (In epistulam ad Hebraeos 63.88). Dorothy Day is reputed to have said something similar: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor” (can anyone verify this quotation?)

4. When μηδὲ ἐσθιέτω is translated “let him not eat” (ESV) it almost sounds as if Paul is saying that the Thessalonians should block the lazy from getting food: “Don’t let him eat!” The sense of the third person imperative is rendered more adequately by the NRSV: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” The agent that will keep such a person from eating is not specified, which leads to point #5:

5. Paul’s command (assuming he is the author) to work in 2 Thess 3:10 is directed primarily toward Christians in Thessalonica who are refusing to work, not to hardworking people who need to stop giving to beggars.

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (3:6-12)

These are able-bodied Christians who appear to be living off the generosity of others. Paul wants them to get to work. He is not saying that aid should be withheld from beggars or any other anonymous have-nots. This point bears repeating: Paul is not saying what most people today seem to think he is saying. The best interpretation of verse 10 is Paul’s restatement of the point in verse 12: hey lazy people, start working!

It is interesting to note that ancient readers of Paul frequently applied these words to themselves as a reminder to work hard so as to not burden others (e.g., Athanasius, Vit. Ant. 3; Chrysostom, De stat. 12.5; Jerome, Epist. 17.2, 24.4; Augustine Op. Mon. 1.1; John Cassian, De Instit. Ceonob. 1.5). Those who pass judgment on the industriousness of people they don’t know miss the point.

6. There are a number of competing theories attempting to explain why certain people weren’t working. Without going in to all the details here (time permitting, I’ll update the post with the specifics of the argument later), it should be noted that there is some reason to believe that the laziness in Thessalonica was due to the mutual support of the Christians there. Paradoxically, then, the favorite verse of those who oppose charity actually attests to the early Christian habit of sharing possessions.

7. Chrysostom notes that after Paul tells the lazy to work, he adds that everyone should continue to “do good”: “Hearest thou not what Paul saith? For after saying, “He that worketh not, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), he says, “But ye be not weary in well doing.” (2 Thess. 3:13.)” Chrysostom returns to 2 Thessalonians 3:13 repeatedly in his homilies and commentaries because he understands it to be a command to continue to give charity:

Let us not therefore fall away into cruelty, but let us listen to Paul, saying, “Be not weary in well doing;” (2 Thess 3:13) let us listen to the Lord, who saith, “Give to every man that asketh of thee,” and, “Be ye merciful as your Father.” And though He hath spoken of many things, He hath nowhere used this expression, but with regard to our deeds of mercy only. For nothing so equals us with God, as doing good (On Matthew, Schaff)

I was skeptical when I first encountered this interpretation, but I have since become persuaded. The language of “doing good” carried the connotations of generosity. For instance, In 1 Timothy widows are to be known for their good works (ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς) and to devote themselves to good works (εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ), specifically, nourishing children, hospitality, washing feet, and helping the afflicted (5:10). The rich are to “do good and be rich in good works (ἀγαθοεργεῖν, πλουτεῖν ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς), generous and sharing” (6:18). The phrase “he does whatever good he can” (ποιεῖν ὅτι δύναται ἀγαθόν) appears frequently in inscriptions honoring benefactors, who are called the “noble and good man” (ἄνδρα καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν), one who “does the good.” See also Galatians 6:9.

It appears that Chrysostom, a native Greek speaker, was on to something. I think we can agree with him that Paul was hoping that the lazy person “will soon be rid of his idleness, and you of your cruelty” (ibid.).