Defusing the F-Bomb

Re-post 2013 [edited edition]

In September of 2012 I posted this piece on vulgarity and its relationship to a distinctively Christian vantage. Thanks to newadvent.org, my daily readership shot up from ~60 to nearly 9000 in a 3 days. I wrote it as a reflection on the f-word, which I believe is especially disgusting as it specifically degrades the beauty of the marital act.

After writing the post, I picked up a (non-religious) book on the topic — Swearing: The Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, Profanity in English, by Geoffrey Hughes. Hughes’ book makes clear that swearing has, of course, always been around. What I found most intriguing was the remarkable creativity in the universal human search for shock-value language that irreveres reverence, speaks the unspeakable, publicizes the private, ridicules the serious, profanes the sacred and the undresses modesty. What has changed in the last 50 or so years, Hughes argues, is that there has been an explosive growth of sexual profanity, while blasphemy (waning under secularism’s waxing) is on the decline. In addition, the social boundaries that contain profanity have progressively dissolved, ever more democratizing vulgar culture. I will not explore blasphemy much here, but see the Catechism’s discussion.

If you’re interested, here are my wandering thoughts for your own reflective consideration.

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The Vulgate on vulgarity

Today I want to try thinking about the f-bomb with the mind of Christ. Let me reflect on a few relevant biblical texts.

James 3 is a mini Gospel of the Tongue, decrying the use of language unbecoming creatures created to sound forth blessing. For example:

If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies…
In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.

The tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.

Matthew 12:34-37 offers Jesus’ approach to language:

…from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

In Colossians 3:8, St. Paul reminds the Colossians of their prior pagan manner of life:

…in this way you too once conducted yourselves, when you lived in that way. But now you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths.

The Scottish Biblical scholar William Barclay (who was Venerable Fulton Sheen’s favorite biblical scholar) made this comment on the above Colossians text:

There can never have been a time in history when so much filthy language is used as it is today. And the tragedy is that today there are many people who have become so habituated to unclean talk that they are unaware that they are using it.

Revealing Language

The Jewish view of language expressed in the first two chapters of Genesis sees human language as a premier sign of God’s image. For Christians, human language is also seen as an icon of God’s eternal Word who became flesh and spoke among us (cf. John 1:1-14) to reveal the true majesty of Godlike language. The vocation of the Christian united to the Word in Baptism is to, as St. Paul says so succinctly in Romans 12:14, “bless and do not curse.”

After reading Fr. Brendan Purcell’s book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, I was left breathless by the thought of the billions of years of cosmic history preceded the sudden appearance of human language (especially pp. 225-39). The immensity of the time-space backdrop to the emergence of human beings, and of language, for me lends serious gravitas to the meaning and purpose of our existence. It made me think of my grandmother’s scolding words to me when I would, as a child, scarf down her homemade meals: “Tommy, slow down and appreciate your food! Do you know how many hours of work and how much love went into making that?”

Humanity, as the crown of God’s vast creation, lends creation words to bless the Father of the life-creating Word. Humanity thus conceived can best be described by the word eucharistēsas, as one “having given thanks” (Luke 22:19). Which is why the Eucharist is the most natural habitat for human language. As “priests of nature” (per St. Maximus), our vocation is to speak to the Creator in the name of every creature, and as prophets to speak to every creature in the name of the Creator. This is why I have always found such beauty in The Canticle of the Three Youth in Daniel 3:57-88, or the line in the preface of Eucharistic Prayer IV which reminds us, as we sing the Sanctus, that in the Mass we are “giving voice to every creature under heaven.”

A person of faith here must ask: is the f-bomb consonant with my vocation?

“You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20)

In Baptism, our bodies become Temples of the holy Trinity.

Temples, as in naos, the word for the inner sanctuary of the Jewish Temple, the Holy of holies (1 Corinthians 6:19).

A friend of mine, who works in construction, expressed this very vividly to me once. After undergoing a dramatic conversion back to the Catholic faith, he said to me one day, “I can’t even cuss any more, cuz now I know the Holy Spirit’s inside me listening!”

You might say that the antithesis of divine indwelling is demonic possession. I recall a number of years ago speaking with a priest who was a seasoned exorcist, who said:

One universal characteristic of exorcisms is that the inhabiting demons know how to curse and blaspheme in all languages; blasphemy, vulgarity and profanity are their native tongue. Jesus said when the Devil lies, he’s being true to himself [John 8:44]. The same is true for their abuse of language against the design of the Creator.

Why? Because they’re in the business of concealing, not revealing God.

One last thought

I remember in July of 1987, about 5 months after my “conversion experience” to a living faith, I was working in a factory in the machine shop. The men there were good and hard working men, many of them had been there for decades. And they cussed all the time.

After coming to faith, I made the decision to never swear again. Prior to that I was very foul mouthed.

One day during our lunch break we were talking shop, which I always enjoyed. Profanities were flying. I thought to myself, “I can’t take this holier-than-thou facade any more.” So I jubilantly threw into the conversation the f-bomb. They all stopped dead in the middle of the conversation. It was supremely awkward. The bearded elder of the group said, “Nope. That ain’t who you are, Neal. Don’t lower yourself.” As they continued on with their vulgar chorus, I made an inner resolution to be myself.

Taken from brandonacox.com

“Let them praise his name with dancing” (Psalm 149:3)

Re-post from 2011

Interlude

Seemingly unrelated to theology is my recent obsession with the song Interlude by Attack Attack. Somebody keyed me into the awesome University of Northern Iowa dance setting to the song, and my kids and I jam to it when no one is looking.

I love to dance though I am, as my kids would say, a “fail” when it comes to dancing that should be seen in public. I ask you to imagine me cranking this song up early in the morning at home, my feet meeting the floor in graceless thuds. But mine is the joy of the fool.

And it’s good aerobics.

One of the reasons I love dance is its uselessness. Yes, I realize it has psycho-somatic benefits and can be good for marriage. But, just like liturgy, it courts the spontaneity and “just because-ness” of unproductive play. So I think, what is play? It is a rehearsal of real life in the spirit of near-limitless freedom and creativity; a purposeless celebration of existence; an imaginative shrine for unfettered, choreographed creativity and exploration within the vast expanses of the true, the good and the beautiful. In play the dramatic nature of existence is performed with playful abandon. Play, and dance, affirm that our dignity need not be justified by anything other than itself.

Play is also recreation (meaning re-creation), as it participates in the creative act of the God who made all things spring into being as καλὰ, kala,“good/beautiful” (cf. Genesis 1:31).

The barely dressed King David celebrated the liturgical aspect of dance as he whirled around the Ark of the Covenant.

David danced before the Lord with all his might (2 Samuel 6:14).

Jesus, the Son of David, who stripped himself of glory as he entered the womb of Mary, the Virgin Ark, was greeted by the dance of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb.

Why don’t we dance at Mass? Well we do, but the dance is not free and spontaneous but ritualized and unified to accord with the greatness of the celebrated Mysteries around which the Mystical Body of Jesus dances. Liturgy evokes the gravity of play, as Romano Guardini reminds us:

Liturgy is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight — such is the essence of the liturgy. From this is derived its sublime mingling of profound earnestness and divine joyfulness. The fact that the liturgy gives a thousand strict and careful directions on the quality of the language, gestures, colors, garments and instruments which it employs, can only be understood by those who are able to take art and play seriously. Have you ever noticed how gravely children draw up the rules of their games, on the form of the melody, the position of the hands, the meaning of this stick and that tree? It is for the sake of the silly people who may not grasp their meaning and who will persist in seeing the justification of an action or object only in its obvious purpose. Have you ever read of or even experienced the deadly earnestness with which the artist-vassal labors for art, his lord? Of his sufferings on the score of language? Or of what an overweening mistress form is? And all this for something that has no aim or purpose! No, art does not bother about aims. Does anyone honestly believe that the artist would take upon himself the thousand anxieties and feverish perplexities incident to creation if he intended to do nothing with his work but to teach the spectator a lesson, which he could just as well express in a couple of facile phrases, or one or two historical examples, or a few well-taken photographs? The only answer to this can be an emphatic negative. Being an artist means wrestling with the expression of the hidden life of man, in order that that inner life may be given existence. Nothing more. It is the image of the Divine creation, of which it is said that it has made things “to be.”

The liturgy does the same thing. It too, with endless care, with all the seriousness of the child and the strict conscientiousness of the great artist, has toiled to express in a thousand forms the sacred, God-given life of the soul to no other purpose than that the soul may therein have its existence and live its life. The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline “who has knowledge of the world”– the Holy Spirit — who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, God’s kingdom on earth. And “Wisdom’s delight is to be with the children of men” (cf. Proverbs 8:31).

The Eritrean Orthodox in Africa really understand this. They have gravely-playful and graceful rubrics that make clerics poetry-in-motion. See here:

The Eastern liturgical Dance of Isaiah, done at weddings and baptisms, is also beautiful:

Can you believe it took all that to simply introduce you to the dance-music video of the Interlude? Watch and dance:

…Talkin’ ’bout my Girls…

Pope Francis kissing hand of Holocaust Survivor. Taken from euronews.com

Repost from January 2014

I came across this quote from Pope Francis again yesterday, and it caused me to reflect on the gift of women in my own life,

We talk about whether they can do this or that: Can they be altar boys? Can they be lectors? About a woman as president of Caritas. But we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church.

Thanks especially to the witness and influence of my wife and my daughters, I have discovered over the years in a much more profound manner the “splendor of truth” contained in what Bl. John Paul II in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, called ingenii muliebris, the “feminine genius.” That genius, the Pope argues, manifests itself in a great diversity of ways, and it’s hard cross-culturally to name this or that personal characteristic as a uniquely feminine one. But, he says, there are some universally recognizable and God-given dispositions marked deep in the soul and body of each woman. At the very core of that “mark,” the Pope argues, is the woman’s tender solicitude and loving concern for the personal dimensions of each human life. From the womb to the grave, women are uniquely gifted to cradle life, to look with tenderness especially on the face of life in its most weak and fragile state. He says, “the human being has been entrusted by God to women in a particular way.”

The World Press Photo of the Year shows a woman holding a wounded relative during protests against president Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, in October 2012. Taken from nydailynews.com

Feminine Geniuses

Let me offer four examples — two very simple examples of the soul-shaping epiphanies of the feminine genius in my own life, and then two examples from two acquaintances of mine.

1. Whenever we have a guest come to our home, my wife’s all-consuming passion is to make our home beautiful and welcoming. Flowers in the guest bedroom, fresh towels and scented candles in the guest bathroom, candles and flowers on the dining room table, and libations and hors d’oeuvres in plenteous supply. In St. Edith Stein’s essay,“The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace,” she argues that the “natural feminine concern for the right development of the beings surrounding her involves the creation of an ambiance of order and beauty conducive to their development.” That’s my wife.

2. Every weekday morning, my youngest daughter, as I drive off with my sons to drop them off at school, is relentlessly committed, whether it’s raining or cold, to standing at the end of our driveway to wave goodbye to us. Why? “Because I don’t want you to feel sad that you’re leaving home.” The boys are always puzzled, while I feel each time a deeper heartache as her tender love draws out from me something better. I am ever-more redeemed as a man, as a dad, each time I watch her wave to me in my rear view mirror.

3. A man I know who serves in the military was telling me with great pride about his eleven year old daughter’s many academic and sport achievements. In particular, he shared with me a story that, he said, illustrated a fundamental difference between his daughter and his sons.

For two years, she was the only girl to receive the highest academic achievement award in her grade. But this year she had to share the award with another girl. When I asked her if it was hard for her to not be top dog this year, she said, “No, but I’m excited that we get to get out of first period tomorrow and have donuts together!” She was more excited to share donuts with her friend! My boys? They’d be ticked and mope, just like their dad.

4. A priest I know ministers to the faithful who live on economically depressed rural farms, and he shared with me a powerful story I will paraphrase here.

I was called on one day to give last rites to a man who was dying of mouth cancer. His wife called me. He was a younger man, in his late 40s, and he and his wife had two children — a son in his late teens and a daughter in her mid teens. When I arrived at the farm house, the son was outside tinkering with a truck engine. I asked him, “Is your dad inside?” He said, “Yup.” I continued, “Don’t you want to come in while I anoint your father and pray with him?” He wouldn’t look at me, and said without emotion or hesitation, “Nope,” and continued tinkering with the truck. So I went inside. The man was in bed, in real pain, and his daughter was quietly weeping in the corner of the room. His wife stood over him with a strong and quiet look on her face. She said, “Thanks for coming, Father.” She turned to her husband, held his hand, and said with remarkable strength, “Father’s here to bless you, honey.” Then she disappeared from the room.

I took my oils out, knelt next to his bed and began to pray. He was groaning in pain. Suddenly the door opened and the wife walked in with her son, dragging him by the arm. She pulled him next to his father and said, “Now you say goodbye to your father! Tell him you love him!” The boy began to sob and, on his knees next to his dad, threw his arms and face on his dad’s chest and told his dad he loved him and said, through sobs, “Goodbye, Dad.” The room was filled with an air of solemnity. I think even the angels stopped singing in heaven. The boy then got up and his mom walked him out of the room and closed the door.

I could never have done that. Only she could have. A mother’s love is fierce. Only she could break through his hardness, his fear and break open his heart toward his father. As I anointed the man, I felt that I was offering a Sacrament after witnessing a sacrament — the sacrament of married love, of a child’s love, of a mother’s love that can soften the hardness of even the hardest man.

John Paul II expressed this mother’s genius well,

Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty – not merely physical, but above all spiritual – which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women. — Mulieris Dignitatem #12

Benedicta tu in mulieribus

So, men, today renew your gratitude for the women in your life who humanize you, who break your stony hearts; who call forth from you a certain noble greatness; who remind you of the primacy of love; who proclaim by their very being that, before we are human-doings, we are human-beings created to be loved and to love. Revere the women in your life, daughters of the King and missionaries of compassion sent from the heart of the Father.

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.. — Bl. John Paul II, Letter to Women #2

Here are the three feminine geniuses who brighten our domestic church…

mom

IMG_5778 IMG_5817

Tragedy embraced, redeemed, Part I

The Cross left behind after the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. Taken from werismyki.com

Re-post from 2012 [with new video added at the end]

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

…The priest told St. Bernadette to offer pen and ink to the Lady with a request that she write down what she wished of the people, or at lest tell what was her motive in coming. It happened that Our Lady appeared to Bernadette that day, the third apparition of Lourdes. Bernadette obediently offered the pen, ink and paper to the Lady. Later Bernadette offered this oral report: “The Lady laughed. Then she said, ‘There is no need for me to write what I have to say. Will you do me the kindness to come here every day for fifteen days?’ I promised, and then she said, ‘I promise you happiness not in this world, but only in the next.'”

Our culture continues to grow increasingly averse to the inexorably tragic dimensions of life. By tragic I mean that in this life not all evils, disorders and disabilities can be overcome, nor can all sufferings be taken away. Unresolvable tensions always remain a part of life, and the art of being fully human in a tragic world requires of us the capacity to discover hope when facing an insolubly tragic state of affairs. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, coined the phrase “tragic optimism,” which for him is an attitude that empowers us to say “yes” to life in spite of everything. But for Christians, as Pope Benedict reminds us, hope is not simply optimism, which is, he says, “merely the ability to look at things with good cheer and move on.” Rather, hope is the ability to see in this present darkness the coming dawn, to be at peace in your storm-tossed boat with the knowledge that Jesus sleeps serenely in the bow. Hope is to rest in confidence that our provident “God works all things for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Yet increasingly we Westerners wish to keep open all options for eliminating the tensions of tragedy by any and all means available, including the deconstruction of moral prohibitions that sustain certain tragic tensions (e.g. advocating for the moral status of same-sex sex and the legal status of same-sex marriage) or the elimination of tragic lives (e.g. in the U.S., following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, 92 percent of Down syndrome children are aborted). Someone recently captured this logic when, as we were debating the logic of aborting disabled children, she said: “Better to be dead than to suffer.”

Jesus does tragedy otherwise. The Christian Gospel proclaims that Christ came not to redefine or overlook evil, or to sanction the doing of evil to achieve good. Rather, Jesus freely chose to suffer a tragic death in obedience to the Father, trusting him to draw from it a greater good — the Resurrection! Christ invests tragedy with hope, confronts failure with mercy, suffuses pain with an infinitely redemptive power. The Paschal Mystery opens a new space for St. Siloan the Athonite to say, “place your mind and hell and despair not … for Christ descended into hell to break the chains of despair.” Pope Benedict, in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, says:

It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.

“Christ is Risen!” is our exultant song of triumph, our secure claim to invincible meaning. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Only in the Paradise Jesus has prepared for us beyond the grave is every tear wiped away. Only in the Resurrection is every unresolved tension shattered, and the the Age to Come there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Only in Paradise will there be unadulterated happiness, though in this life we can know unadulterated joy, as joy is the fruit of our hope in love (cf. John 15:11).

Many years ago, a 80+ year old Trappist monk in Spencer, Massachusetts once said to me: “When you suffer long for God, you begin to learn what distinguishes joy from contentment. Contentment passes when its immediate object is removed. Most of our young spiritual life’s about contentment; like a child darting from toy to toy, bleeding out of each all its pleasures. But joy, joy increases the more distant and inaccessible God seems. Joy comes with waiting and watching.” I said, “How’s that?” He answered, “Because God’s absence is his presence in the form of yearning, and yearning in us makes us desire him. And joy is the really the delight of yearning, of aching, of longing for a certain love that we have and don’t yet possess. We pray in our doxology that we love the ‘One who is to come.’ I am the stretching of Psalm 63. Even in heaven I believe we will infinitely long, though there every longing will be satisfied, only to awaken a new longing. ad æternum.” I looked Psalm 63 up:

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for your have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.

 

Taken from nd.edu

Wonder Rush

Another stupendous edition from “Letters to the Exiles” — Wonder Rush: Go to the Limits of Your Longing.

“Just keep going.” This meditation on early 20th century German author René Maria Rilke’s poem in the Book of Hours celebrates the irreducibly rich complexity of human life — both tragic and comedic elements — that constitutes the full human experience of being both created and redeemed by God. To say more would ruin its art, so just watch and listen to the whole 4:24 minutes:

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 an extraordinary exploration of the mystery of human consciousness and of the human quest for happiness, as well as an inquest into the problem of “existence,” i.e. why there is something rather than nothing

Today, I want to share an insight from the book that really helped me see Christian apologetics in a new light. In the last chapter (pp. 327-28), Hart offers a challenge to the serious atheist or agnostic who is willing to confront the evidence for God’s existence utilizing a methodology prescribed by theists: prayer.

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 treasure trove of fascinating insights into the “spiritual not religious” (SNR) 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) SNRs usually abstract a sanitized and idealized “spiritual core” out of the messiness and specificity of a particular religious tradition. Religion, which includes all of the elements of faith embedded in an organized human community, is always an admixture of pure and impure, ideal and real, mystical and managerial, charismatic and institutional. As such it’s always subject to critique and reform. Like the Gnostics of old, SNRs seek refuge from the hardships of organized social groups that contain wildly diverse practitioners at various stages of “buy in.” (2) SNRs often seek out the primarily individual, autonomous and self-legislating modes of fulfillment. They also often construct universes emptied of hard ethical truths, commanded by a divine Legislator, that demand from the religious practitioner an asectical life of obedience, repentance and personal/social reform.

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he said he gives to SNR “seekers” who come to him to investigate Orthodox Christianity. He said they are often attracted to Orthodoxy initially because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “mystical” to offer ample room in their quest for personal fulfillment. He went on to say that he is always willing to talk. But after years of noticing that most of those he spoke with never experienced any change of heart, he decided to make a change. He said, “One day I was speaking to a Russian starets [a venerable old monk] about this, and he said to me: ‘You cannot get someone to think themselves into God. They need to learn prayer, then He will reveal Himself to them.’ So I changed my tactic that day.” He went on to say:

When they come to me inquiring, I say: For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who God is, or if he exists. Simply say every day, in the space of five minutes of quiet, ‘O God, guide me.’ Then just listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there. Pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Just attend to what’s happening. 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. After six months, we can explore your questions. But they will no longer be the same ones you have now.

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.

However, he said 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

The Beauty of the Time-worn Eternal Gospel

Re-post from 2013, with the addition of a 1 minute video a friend sent that relates to this post. But first, let me share with you a recording of my wife singing during yesterday’s Annunciation feast at our daughter’s all-school Mass. She is mortified when I do this, but that’s too bad. You see, I teach about God, but she sings to Him. She has the greater calling. Click here if you want to listen, and here are the words of the text:

Here am I, O God,
I come to do Your will
Here am I,
I come to do Your will

I’ve waited for you and you heard me, O God.
You have put a new song in my mouth.
A hymn of praise to the God of my salvation.

You opened my ear to your word, O God.
You take no delight in empty sacrifice.
To do your will, is my life and my delight, O God.

I sing of your justice, I sing of your peace.
I sing of your faithfulness and love.
I chant your praise in the midst of all your people.

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I have spent the last 3 years trying to complete David Bentley Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions. What great pleasure I take in reading his celebration of the English language that requires me to have my dictionary always at hand! I wish the book had no final chapter.

In any event, there was one quote (pp. 215-16) on the contribution of Christianity to ethical thought that I felt compelled to share here in its entirety. Brace and pace yourself for its density, but let me beg you to believe me when I say it’s worth the effort…

…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us (to one degree or another) in the deepest reaches of consciousness.

All of the glories and failures of the civilizations that were born of this revolution, however, everything for which Christendom as a historical, material reality might be praised or blamed, fades in significance before the still more singular moral triumph of Christian tradition. The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.

The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.

In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.

To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection — resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence — is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.

And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.

Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?

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