Salt of the earth

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Recently I spoke with two people, not connected with each other in any way, who — funny enough — used the same phrase to describe their plight: “No good deed goes unpunished.” I found them both inspiring and asked each to give me permission to share their stories and thoughts.

The first person I spoke with was a dad who shared with me the difficulty he has faced over the years with imposing discipline on his youngest son — who is now an adult — who always had a mind of his own. The greatest challenge he faced, though, was not from his son but from the parents of his sons’ friends who, he said, don’t share his commitment to imposing consequences for unacceptable behavior. He told me that one time when his son’s grades in two classes had dropped to failures, he told the boy’s baseball coach to sit his son out from the next game. It was an important game, and the boy was a key player. The coach wholeheartedly agreed. But during the game the parents attending the game, after discovering the reason for the boy’s being benched, reamed the father out and told him his priorities were “all screwed up.” One of the parents yelled into his face, “I don’t give a shit what he does in geometry or biology! What’s that got to do with this game?” He said, “I calmly said back, ‘It means I’m teaching him about real life priorities.'” He went on to tell me,

I try not to get angry and judge these folks, but it seems so many parents these days give their kids seriously screwed up messages about life’s priorities and make their kids believe life owes them something. I say, if you teach your kids now that you have to do your part in life, work hard and accept the consequences for your poor decisions, later they will be ready to contribute as good citizens and good Christians. I wanted my son to think real hard about the effect his bad decisions had on his team before he’d go and blow off his schoolwork again. … These parents become slaves to their kids’ whims, and are afraid to say “no” to them. I’m glad my mom and dad were tough on me, but I couldn’t see it when I was young. Now I can see the dark alleys I would have gone down without their iron resolve. The hardest thing to do as a parent, I think, is to make tough decisions to save your kids from bad influences or steer them away from bad choices. It’s hard to have your kid say they hate you. Rather have them hate me now than hate me later. Like with me, I hope my son will see I was helping him learn now the hard lessons life will throw at him one day. Sometimes love means your kids hate you for a while, but that’s okay because it’s not about me. I’m a dad for my son’s benefit, not mine. We reap what we sow, and one day we’re gonna find ourselves with a country full of outta control takers, not givers and sacrificers who put family, country and others first. Look, these kids know exactly what’s going on, that their parents’ll take their side on almost anything and let ’em get away with anything. They eat it up. They’ll play it up to the nth degree. Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. I’ve had a lot of hard jobs over the years, but being a parent’s the toughest job there is. But the best.

The pain in his eyes burned into me.

The second person I spoke with was a young lady — in her late 20’s — who shared with me her commitment to chastity in dating. In particular, she shared how that commitment had led, over the last several years, to her losing several relationships with guys who had shown serious long-term interest in her (and she in them). But all of them, when they finally realized that she is not willing to have sex before marriage, excused themselves in one way or another from the relationship. “Even with the churchgoing guys,” she said, “it seems next to impossible to find a man who thinks waiting is the way to go.” She added, “I tell these guys: ‘Seriously? That’s all you’re in this for?’ I told one of them, if you can’t give that up for me now, what won’t you be able to give up later? … It’d be totally nice to have some chivalry make a comeback. Yeah, I know, dream on. But I haven’t given up.”

For both of them, faith played a large role in giving them strength to carry on. The father mentioned his parish priest’s powerful preaching that helped him get through every week. “He preaches from the heart. I can relate to him. It’s like God’s talking directly to me. Gives me hope to keep going. He totally gets what we go through. He knows we got it tough. And he’s not phony. Not like some other priests — no offence intended — who seem to preach only into the clouds. I think the difference is he gets to know us and listens to us. So he gets us.”  The young woman said “clinging to prayer” was what kept her strong and hopeful. She said (as she shed tears), “I talk to Jesus all the time about this. I’m very honest. And He’s honest back. I don’t always like His answers, and I don’t think He always likes to hear what I have to say, either. But I always know He’s got my back. I always tell Him I’ve got a long list of questions for Him that I’ll ask when I see Him one day. I’m sure He’s got one for me, too.”

I want to kiss their feet. These people are the ones Jesus in Matthew 5:13 called the “salt of the earth.” Salt, in the ancient world, was not used principally for flavoring food but to keep it from rotting. So salty people keep culture from going rotten. That’s what Christians, clinging to Christ the Rock, are called to be.

It is often said nowadays that the present century thirsts for authenticity. Especially in regard to young people it is said that they have a horror of the artificial or false and that they are searching above all for truth and honesty. These “signs of the times” should find us vigilant. Either tacitly or aloud — but always forcefully — we are being asked: Do you really believe what you are proclaiming? Do you live what you believe? Do you really preach what you live? Our evangelizing zeal must spring from true holiness of life. — Blessed Paul VI

Religion-free Zone

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Repost from 2012. Seemed timely. I did not have time to edit it down, so sorry for the untidiness I am sure it contains.

The following reflection came as a result of a question my wife asked me the other day about the Democrats’ debate over the words “God-given.” I had taken a few moments to email her my response, but since then I have been thinking more and more about what’s at stake in this debate. My thoughts are a bit tangled and dense and partial, but it seems worthwhile to toss in my 2 cents as it becomes increasingly important to shed more light than heat in these pre-election days.

DNC and Secularism

The vigorous debate during the Democratic National Convention over whether or not to remove “God” from its platform is related to the Party’s more general adoption of a certain conception of what role religion should/should not play in a secular State. Their position, regardless of one’s  judgment of its truth claims, is an attempt to intelligently respond to an unavoidable and complex question: How does a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy negotiate among seemingly irreconcilable differences while preserving social and political unity?

In highly simplified form, the liberal democratic view argues that creating a political context for religious pluralism to flourish requires faith-based reasoning (i.e. arguments drawn from the sacred texts or the worldview of a religious tradition) to be considered as a non-public form of reason which, therefore, cannot serve as the basis for the laws that govern public life. In this view, faith-based arguments are disqualified from possessing any publicly binding force by the very fact that they arise from a distinctive theological tradition. Within in a pluralistic society, they argue, this would allow the part to determine the whole.

This premise, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to a progressive excision within the socio-political order of all explicit forms of “religious reasoning” in defining rights and duties. What replaces such religious reasoning?  A secular form of reason that is considered to be truly rational, critical and objective, freed from the irrational/supra-rational biases religion is said to bring. Here “secular” means a God-sanitized worldview devoid of any transcendent or theological meaning. Such a God-sanitized view of justice and human fulfillment is to be based, the argument goes, on a “reasonable consensus” funneled through a legislative or judicial process. Such prevailing consensuses are understood to be invested with the binding force of “public reason,”arrived at by a thoroughly secularized, and therefore reasonable people.

It is this last claim to a truly rationally grounded justice that really becomes for secularists the sticky wicket, as it begs the question (as Alasdair McIntyre phrased it), whose justice and which rationality gets to be considered the enforceable one, as there are many competing claimants to these titles. Do majority groups claiming reason on their side determine truth claims?

Naked Zone

This version of the secular State attempts to solve the challenges found in a religiously pluralistic democracy by cleansing the temple of public life from all vestiges of religious reasoning and rhetoric and putting in religion’s place an alternative ideology that — it is argued — is capable of bearing a sufficient neutrality to allow for a peaceful and fair coexistence. Religion is privatized and hemmed in by the truth claims of “public reason,” punished when it transgresses its carefully traced out ghetto walls. Such secularists argue that their approach alone is capable of negotiating the seemingly irreconcilable differences among religious traditions by leaving, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called it, a Naked Public Square where all are welcome to engage in non-religious reasoning without distinction or judgment (sic).  In the religion-free zone, tolerance, the Queen of the Virtues, allows religious people to be themselves in the privacy of their own heart and personal opinion.

Imposing Faith?

In a culture dominated by this form of secularism, the social-psychological effects tend, as I said, toward the radical privatization of religion, cultivating a mindset among religious practitioners that religiously-based language and worldviews are to be seen as a strictly personal and private affair. Such a culture levies stiff social sanctions on anyone who attempts to proclaim or argue for truth-claims that arise from reason informed by faith. Evangelization becomes proselytizing, and faith-inspired arguments are deemed intrusive, aggressive and intolerant impositions of private and non-binding reasoning on the naked public square. Religious truth is seen as a threat to the inviolable integrity of pluralistic worldviews that are, by their very diversity, the soul of a truly democratic society. Truth, it is argued, transgresses the neutral safe-zone that buffers a rival Church and State. Because it makes universal and binding claims on reason, truth makes those who’ve rejected it feel unfairly “judged” by its purveyors. Only the contemporary incarnations of secular reason, garnered by a democratic consensus, can claim authority to judge.

I’d argue that this nearly invisible cultural air we breathe is far more important in effecting the progressive elimination of religion from public life than is the highly visible political/legal battle. Cultural revolutions precede and empower political and legal revolutions.

It’s About Morality

In addition, it is the moral dimension of religious traditions’ reasoning that comes to the fore in the struggle for dominance in the public square, especially in regard to the Big Three moral battlegrounds: life-issues, marriage, sexuality. Moral questions serve as the prime subjects of the naked public square’s ravenous appetite for total control. That’s an important point to make, as the moral assertion of the inviolable dignity of all human life or of marriage as heterosexual, indissoluble and monogamous historically originates in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief in a God who created humanity in the divine image and established a determinate moral order that is known both by divine revelation and right reason. So anyone who wishes to deconstruct these moral arguments in favor of, for example, abortion or same-sex marriage knows they must contend with their theological associations.

Now, these arguments can, a Catholic would say, be persuasively made apart from theological sources because faith and reason are harmonious. But because our culture usually abhors such fine distinctions it’s usually quite easy for critics of faith-associated moral arguments to make a slam dunk, guilt-by-association argument, bringing a swift end to the hegemony of Judeo-Christian morality in America. Throw a “fanatic” epithet here, “fundamentalist” there and “bigot” over there, and the case is closed. Genuine dialogue is over.

This point reminds me of an interesting perspective a seasoned priest once shared with me. It went something like this:

A Catholic parent recently pleaded with me to speak to her son who had returned from his first year of college claiming to be an atheist. My first question to him was, “What’s the name of the girl you’re sleeping with?” In my experience, the rejection of organized religion or the idea of God is often arrived at through the back door of a morally dissonant life. My chosen lifestyle is incompatible with my faith, so I can either give up my immoral behavior, live in guilt or reject the faith. Not a tough choice for many. I say that many atheists or agnostics begin not as atheists but as amoralists who need atheism to sustain their desire to be unhindered.

Final Vatican Thoughts

I will end my considerations with a quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that weighs in on this debate with some keen insights:

In democratic societies, all proposals are freely discussed and examined. Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism. The oppression of the weak by the strong would be the obvious consequence. The marginalization of Christianity, moreover, would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization.

In Summary…

wikimedia.org

This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”

Healed by Audacious Faith

Below is a homily for today’s Sunday Mass written by my dear friend, Deacon Dustin Feddon, PhD, of the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. It is published here with his permission. Those who are being, and who will be served by his ordained ministry are singularly blessed. Deacon Feddon, whose doctoral dissertation tells the story of the political reception of Søren Kierkegaard in Weimar Europe, has a servant’s heart, a brilliant mind, and (to me) incarnates both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis’ spirit. In particular, the time he spent serving death row inmates in Florida’s “Starke” State Prison, and the many remarkable stories he shared with me, revealed to me the true depth of his priestly heart. I feel I can say of our friendship what St. Gregory said in his Funeral Oration of his friendship with St. Basil the Great:

When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

How blessed am I! Here is his pithy and profound homily:

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Christ Healing a bleeding woman, as depicted in the Catacombs of Rome. wikipedia.org

Tom: Thought I’d share with you all a brief homily that I just wrote for this weekend. It was inspired by yesterday’s reading in Matthew where immediately after Jesus finishes his sermon on the mount–his exposition, interpretation of the law, and confessing that he’s come to fulfill the law–he goes to one whom the law excluded–a leper. I’ll never read that passage quite the same way.

In Mark we witness the wide range of Jesus’ ministry. He attends to a prominent Jewish leader in the synagogue, Jairus, and to a nameless, marginalized woman. This woman’s blood disease rendered her impure, ritually unclean and thus vanquished from the community. Some might call her a reject.

We know from Leviticus 15 that a woman experiencing menstrual bleeding causes ritual impurity. To have diseased blood was counter to the natural order of things. And to be considered ritually impure was a humiliating, shamed position of defilement in the Jewish community. One gentile writer at this time describes such diseases as a ‘grievous calamity’ since it not only was a physical disease but also made one childless—one of the more sever stigmas in the ancient world.

Perhaps we can consider some of the harsh realities facing the disgraced and ostracized. Often those marginalized from society feel as though they are a nonperson, worthless and unwanted. These are the low-downs in society. In our “health crazed and happy-centric culture” we view the mentally distressed or other deviants as untouchable. Rather than being seen as a human person created in the image of our Father, they are seen as ‘crazies’, ‘loons’, or ‘psychos.’ In other words they are seen as nonpersons—we only see their disease. They are harmful to look at—we turn or move away from them as though they might infect us as the hemorrhaging woman might infect Jesus with her blood-soaked impurity. These ones, well they move about us ghost-like as though without substance.

But let us not relegate such phenomena only to the extremes—how many of us carry in our souls a darkness of shame and humiliation. How many of us want to disappear ghost-like? Perhaps we often think others are always looking on us disapprovingly. This too can be a form of illness that alienates us from others.

Our marginalized woman is courageous and audacious. So radically so that she reaches out of her twelve-year despair-infested cocoon of sadness to touch Jesus. Audacious because such contact would likely convey the impression that she desired to infect Jesus with her impurity. As she touches Jesus a shock goes throughout her diseased body. Jesus’ curative power now pulsates throughout her infected vessels—she will now become evidential proof of God’s curative, restorative love that emanates from His Son Jesus.

Jesus tells her ‘your faith has saved/cured you.’ How sublime. Her willingness to break through the social, political and religious boundaries and stigmas associated with her kind to now touch Jesus is what saves her! Her illness is transformed into her cure as she opens her disease to Christ.

So what might we gain from this nameless marginalized woman? Her desperation and bold decision to touch Jesus saves her. May we be so bold as her to allow our desperation to inspire us to seek out and touch Jesus knowing that his love never shames nor humiliates. And may we as a Church never erect boundaries and barriers to those willing to be healed, especially those whom the law may exclude and reject. Allow this brave woman to be our model this day as we open our afflictions and infirmities to Jesus who alone can heal us.

Dustin

Deacon Feddon and I just before his Ordination.

Spiritual Virtuosos

“Wisdom and her three daughters: Faith, Hope, Charity” Icon by Karp Zolotaryov, c. 1685. wikimedia.org

As I’ve read and re-read the Pope’s new encyclical, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the role played by the virtuous life in developing an authentic vision for the right stewardship of creation. No matter how convincing are the arguments for moral principles, without virtuous people to incarnate them no lasting difference can be made in the world. Only when we possess the virtues — which are really various facets of charity, the “soul of the virtues” — are we able to rightly relate rightly to neighbor, self, all of creation and God. Hence virtues, which are habitual and firm dispositions to do the good, are a big deal in Christianity.

The pope notes throughout Chapter Six that at the heart of an authentic spirituality stands the life of virtue. So often in (post)modernity, spirituality is equated with subjective states of consciousness or self-centered notions of personal fulfillment. Such a spirituality gives rise to a god who is really the self, writ-large as an all-affirming deity blessing my preferences and canonizing my worldview. The God of Israel, on the other hand, judges all such gods to be idols and calls idolaters to repentance and reform, i.e. to the life of virtue based on the Law. For Christianity, what especially distinguishes authentic spirituality are the “hard” virtues that Christ evinces in their perfect form; virtues such as prudence, justice, charity, temperance, mercy, chastity, obedience and fortitude in the face of suffering. The truly “spiritual” are the truly virtuous, and the surest measure of spiritual growth is not the heightened experience of a refined or ecstatic consciousness, but the increased ability to freely forgive harm done to you or cheerfully give alms to the undeserving.

St. Teresa of Avila, in describing the different states of active and passive prayer in The Way of Perfection as different means of gathering water, argues that the real purpose of prayer is to grow the virtues: “The water [the graces of prayer] is for the flowers [the virtues].” Union with God, she contends, is not some ethereal union or rarefied state, but rather natural and theological virtues in sync with God’s will and attributes. We are in union with God when our justice harmonizes with His Justice, our charity with His Charity, our patience with His Patience, our mercy with His Mercy, our purity with His Purity, our generosity with His Generosity, et cetera ad infinitum.

So, the Pope says, if you want to be spiritual, be virtuous. And if you want to be virtuous, work with and pray for grace. Let me let the Pope speak for himself…

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers. (#222-224, 226)

Soft, hard violence

“The Slaying of Abel” by Pietro Novelli, c. 1640. Taken from canvaz.com

Repost 2012

Today’s Gospel [March 9, 2012] about the vineyard leased to murderous tenants led me to reflect on the mysterious role that violence plays in the coming of God’s Kingdom to humanity. From the time of Cain, man, created in the image of God, has sought to banish the divine image from the world and put in its place idols of our own making. The grotesque logic of the crucifixion of Jesus plays out to its full the logic of sin, as on the Cross humanity is finally given the opportunity to slay the rejected Image; and so reject the Archetypal Father. I’ve always thought that was the meaning of the enigmatic saying in Revelation 13:8, that describes Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Man, and the seducer of man, sinned “from the beginning.” All sin is an attempt to slay the rejected divine Image, the Son of God (cf. Colossians 1:15). Jesus came into the world to “reveal man to himself,” and by so doing to illumine our disfigurement that he might reconfigure and transfigure us into his own glorious Image: self-giving love.

“The Image of God,” by Eugène Delacroix, c. 1850. Taken from lib-art.com

But alas, “every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20). Man is a great mystery, a tortured blend of beauty and filth. As Blaise Pascal memorably said it is his Pensées:

What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
Who will unravel this tangle? What, then, will you become, O men? Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.

It’s all so utterly astonishing to reflect on, and provides not only a window into our truest selves, but a dazzling portal through which we peer into the deepest character of a God who loves our mess. As St. Catherine would put it, God in Christ appears as pazzo d’amore; ebbro d’amore, “crazed with love; drunk with love.” And as it is with Christ, so it is to be with us.

We live in a world drenched in violence, even though it is often disguised by soft sounding virtues or lawless liberties that conceal bloodshed beneath clever and deceptive euphemisms. I need not name them, they are so obvious. If we can believe the redemptive crucifixion means anything, it seems to mean that God’s redeeming love prefers to encounter naked violence, violence that shows its true nature, rather than hiding itself beneath softly smiling apathy or murderous indifference. These are, in the words of Hannah Arendt, epiphanies of evil’s pathetic apogee: banality. George Studdert Kennedy’s poem, When Jesus came to Birmingham, captures this wonderfully:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds—and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.

And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.

Taken from stuff.co.nz

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