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.


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.


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

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

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.


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?

Watch here: