Bridging the Gap between Morality and Spirituality

The Problem of Legalism and Lawlessness               

   Two of the biggest problems in the spiritual life actually often have the same root-cause.  These particular problems have various names, and they are as follows:  moralism/legalism/rigidity, and lawlessness/relativism/liberalism.  Both of them develop from a false understanding of the moral law itself – a type of spiritual disease pertaining to God’s own commandments.  Christ says that if we would like to be His friends, we must keep his commandments.  This is a statement that  perhaps requires a deeper more penetrating glance by legalists who think that merely doing God’s will de-facto makes them friends with Christ – as if some mere adherence to external behaviour, white-knuckling our own sinful inclinations makes us His friends.  The lawless will of course be jarred at this statement as if obedience and friendship are somehow in opposition, and commandments have no place in such a relationship.  The idea of objective criteria existing for friendships to exist seems sterile and off-putting.  Why do these two positions exist in the first place?  I might perhaps offer a suggestion in regard to how we enter into ethics and morality with a few presuppositions that affect our perception of them in the first place.

                There are different types of laws – and St. Thomas Aquinas offers us some distinctions that help purify our mind, so that we can have the proper attitude towards the law itself.  It is my belief that many people view God’s moral law (natural and divine law) as nothing more than a list of precepts that are positive laws.  The contemporary view of positive laws, differ from God’s law.  Positive laws are arbitrarily imposed upon nature.  Early-Modern philosophy suggested that nature was in a “state of war” whereby human reason cultivated laws (social-contracts) to impose order upon something that was intrinsically disordered.  In this case, man creates and defines order around his own will and reasoning.  Therefore, civilization was a way of bringing order to chaos, and that nature should be viewed as something altogether disordered if left to itself.  In some ways this approach assumed a Calvinist approach to grace and nature, whereby in a fallen world, nature was deprived of the good-absolutely.  However, to Catholics, nature itself always contains within itself a purpose, even if for some reason it cannot achieve this purpose.  That intrinsic-purpose in nature, sin cannot change, and thus to some degree, even in a fallen world, nature remains good, but sick.  The philosophy was developed because disorder was observed in nature – but went too far when believing that the disorder was the state of nature itself, rather than nature being unable to actualize its intrinsic order already within the world itself.  Laws therefore, if made in a positive manner should be there to “restore order” to nature, or to help nature flourish.  The positive laws (human-law) is therefore at the service of what the nature of things are, rather than the view that nature itself is evil, and needs to be suppressed.Samara

                Digging a bit deeper, we might realize that if people view God’s law as equivalent to the positive law in relation to an evil world, we would see God’s laws as opposing our own version of the “good.”  But what the Catholic Church wants to teach us is that our objective “good” is the same as God’s version of good in our life – the two are not in competition.  Our perceptions might be in competition, but not the actual reality.  God does not want us to repress our nature, but rather to restore it to full health.  Unfortunately, because many people walk into moral discussions and dialogues, it is often the case that morality is viewed as nothing more than a set of rules imposed upon us.  The natural-law therefore will help to offer a different and more integrated perspective that will thereby exclude both legalism and lawlessness while accepting the half-truth in both reactions.  This leads to an integrated spirituality. 

The Solution

The natural law argues that our nature is not a social-convention, but is something objective.  The technical term would be “ontological” which implies that “who we are” is not something we define or decide for ourselves, but rather discover, and hopefully (through choices) embrace.  Our moral character is something we do choose, according to our decisions, but that defines our behaviour, not our essence.  We notice this attitude is pervasive sometimes in our own language when we describe certain behaviour as “inhumane.”  In other words, when a person is cruel they are not acting as the human-being they are.  Their “action” does not match who they are.  They are not fulfilling their potential as a human being but falling short of it. 

The Natural Law suggests that the moral law is not imposed upon us, but is simply us ascribing to what we truly are – who we truly are.  Aristotle said it like this:  “action flows from being.”  His point was that “what” a thing is helps determine what it should do.  In this regard, a monkey flings its poop at its enemies, while human beings worship God.  What we are helps define what we can do and what we cannot or should not do.  When we discover that the natural law is simply us fulfilling our own potential, by being authentic to who we are, we can begin to understand why morality is actually a great thing that encourages us to accept who and what we are, by allowing our behaviour to coincide with that nature.  God’s law is not in competition with who we are, and the moral law is there to heal us, not repress.

                Unfortunately because of original sin, things begin to get confusing.  If only life were simple, eh?  If we were to use our desires to define who we are, we know from the doctrine on original sin that this is not an infallible method of discernment.  As a result of the fall from grace, every human being is inflicted with desires and inclinations, perceptions of “self” that are unreasonable.  For instance, men at times might be raised in a family where abuse is normal in relationship to a husband and his wife.  This can teach the man the “wrong” thing about what it means to be a man – to which he emulates later in life.  Or perhaps a person is born with a nature inclined to be addicted to alcohol – that isn’t a chosen state of life, but he must learn to not act on this inclination.  Furthermore, he or she must not be defined by the addiction:  we should not say that “John” is an alcoholic.  Rather that John has a problem with alcohol.  An addiction to alcohol is not “who John is.”  Finding freedom from such substance abuse is allowing John to fulfill his potential that in a fallen world is difficult to achieve.  Adam-and-Eve

                Our desires do spring from a good place, but at times come out twisted.  For instance, sexual desire is meant to be conveyed through “giving and receiving.”  To give one’s body to another as a gift is a physical action that is meant to communicate not just the gift of the body, but the gift of the whole self – my entire life, my commitment, my love of everything you are, with everything I am and will be.   And when that gift is “received” love is returned to the other, because he has been accepted, and thereby loved through such acceptance.  What is foreign to this exchange is “taking” love or the fantasy to “take.”  Lust is essentially when a person interrupts the cycle of giving and receiving by interjecting an action of “taking” – and this can happen in rape, but it can also occur in a mutually consenting manner.  A person can agree to have sex with another as a form of entertainment, treating the other person as a means to fulfill their own desires.  People are not means – they are always ends; people are not objects, they are always subjects.  And this is why we consider lust to be a type of objectification. 

                Morality is therefore, when healthy, grounded in a spirituality – but if it is understood as a cold list of laws and regulations there are generally two positions one will take in reaction.  The lawless will see these rules as repressive towards his/her desires and therefore the false-self (false-identity defined by disordered desires/inclinations).  As a result, the impulse to “be myself” will exert itself, but be applied to a false-subjective-self.  This is because the law is perceived to be imposed upon “me” without having a relatable context with how I perceive myself.  The law is therefore arbitrary.  In a more subtle thread, sometimes we see theologians habitually look for “exceptions” to the rule (even when that moral law claims the act is intrinsically evil).  Seeking such exceptiosn which do not by definition exist, they claim this way of thinking respects the complexity of the human condition and is free of “legalism.”  This, at best is termed “nominalism.”  Essentially the person is still looking at the law, not as a revelation to the person, but as a hoop to jump through.  For instance, if contraception in all acts intrinsically violate the dignity of both women and men in “who” they are, and this truth is internalized, one cannot conceive of an exception where it would be okay to “hate” their spouse or themselves.  There is no exception to that rule:  hating your neighbour’s dignity or yourself is always wrong, and amounts to self-hatred – though perhaps a love of a false-self.

False-Coping Mechanisms

Legalism however seeks the over-simplistic route, whereby there is often a great deal of interior shame within the individual.  Knowing that his or her desires do not line up with God’s moral law, man or woman begins to hate himself explicitly (confusing his desires with his nature), whereas with the lawless its often more implicit.  The lawless simply creates a new-identity to love – even if it’s a subjective fantasy.  The legalist however is in denial of his own true nature, and thus represses the desires he experiences, thinking them to make him unlovable.  As a result he places all his hopes in external behaviour, as if that will somehow change his fallen nature into something that God is impressed by.  Jesus refers to such individuals as “white washed tombs.”  They look beautiful, but interiorly is the stench of death. 

                The legalist seems to be the one “picked on” most of all.  Perhaps it’s because at least with the lawless you know where you stand on moral issues.  But with the legalist, he manages to speak a half-truth, while also passing on something very poisonous, which turns other people off from the moral law itself.  He conveys (falsely) through cynicism and bitterness that the moral law brings despair and wrath, rather than peace and harmony in nature.  Nonetheless, in a liberal culture, the legalist is always the biggest enemy, even if both the legalist and lawless are equally culpable for the existence of the opposite extreme.  The issue is “inordinate shame” with both the lawless and the legalist who view their nature to be at odds with God’s moral law.  For the lawless, he reinvents his own definition of his essence/nature to cope with that shame.  To the legalist he works very hard to violently change his desires through an emphasis on external behaviour that never truly changes anything and merely masks the deep need for conversion and healing that both require.sheep-and-goats

                One of the vast challenges we have today is realizing that God’s moral law is actually offering us insight into who we are, and who God is.  For instance, if you were to take the 10 commandments – you could begin to say, “What does this law teach about who I am, in relationship to others?”  I’m told I should not kill – I suppose that means I should respect the life of others and cherish not just my own life.  I am made to protect life and not to take it for some selfish reason.  I’m also told I’m not to steal – I suppose that is because I am meant to share where I can, and to respect a person’s own property or stewardship over their property.  I’m not meant to be selfish and entitled but generous.  I’m told that I should honour God above all, I suppose that means God deserves the credit for everything.  He is ultimately who will make me happy; he should be my first priority because that is where I will find fulfillment and peace. 

                If we can learn to habitually think of morality as drawing us back to the questions about who I am, who my neighbour is, and who God is, then we have begun to embrace the moral law in its right context.  But without this we will naturally fall into legalism and lawlessness.  IF we are lawless, we will only encourage people to hate themselves and create an illusion to cope with that self-hatred.  Today that is promoted because self-concepts are often conceived to be something existential and not based upon reality.  Why else would we see gender-confusion as something liberating, and a binary view of sexual identity as negative?  The former liberates us to decide our own meaning and purpose according to our desires, conforming truth violently to our preference.  Whereas the legalists would coldly insist that people who experience their own body not lining up to their affect should just “do what is right” and deal with it.  That legalism would be the result of their own self-imposed violence on themselves being equally or resentfully shared with those who do not follow the supposed sacrifices they have made for themselves.  But underneath that legalism is a shame towards themselves, and a tireless battle to overcome temptation by white-knuckling their way through temptation.  Jesus teaches us on the Sermon on the Mount that it isn’t good enough to merely not commit adultery, but that we should not harbour lust/adultery in our heart.  The man needs to change his desires, but not through anything but cooperating with grace, rather than self-righteous effort.

The devil is at play in all of this by the way.  He is called the “accuser” because while he inspires sin, his goal is to get us to be ashamed of who we are:  an image of God.  When Jesus enters the desert, Satan asks Christ twice, “IF you are the son of God.”  That statement alone should remind us that at the peek of a spiritual battle is an attack on our nature, our identity – and therefore, once we doubt this, our actions can easily be swept up in sin, since our actions are no longer united to our true-self.   Satan wants us to resent who we are, because Satan resents the one we image.  We should experience guilt for our sins, but not inordinate shame.  What “I’ve done” is wrong, but it is wrong because of “who God made me” and “what God made me.”  Therefore, even in guilt, we pay ourselves a compliment – by suggesting “I’m better than my behaviour.”  Guilt therefore becomes not something crushing, but something encouraging – and an act of love towards ourselves and God.  Shame on the other hand is simply an attack on ourselves, and we either cope by violent repression or by changing the definition of truth.  Both are counterfeit solutions and in the end, deep down, we know neither will give us the peace we are looking for. 

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Silence & Martyrdom

Generally I give Bishop Barron’s commentaries on movies the benefit of the doubt, and after watching the movie “Silence” I found myself entirely agreeing with his assessment of the movie itself.  I would like to offer an additional reflection on a theme in the movie which I found troublesome.  Bishop Barron focused on the particular aspect of the film where there was a great amount of ambiguity between the tensions of the secular and the “missionary.”  In other words, this movie portrays a value that belongs to the secular-humanism of our day, whereby survival and human flourishing under the utilitarian model of morality thrives and triumphs in the face of a seemingly stuck-up insistence on Orthodoxy and avoiding heresy.  This of course is represented by the façade of practicality, where the mere adherence to lofty doctrines becomes a divisive and meaningless hill to die upon.  If we are to pick our battles, will we really die on a hill in regard to who God is – is that what God would want us to do, or would God prefer us to get along, and put His identity in the unimportant reality of indifference or anonymity?  One can see how the secular becomes the over-arching and authoritative principle here, whereby religion no longer transcends the goals of man, but the goals of man transcend the mission given by God to the world.  The two are in direct competition, and as a way of reconciling one to the other, religion or the state must place itself above the other.  God however doesn’t want the two to be in competition, he wants them to be in harmony with one another – seeing the natural law and the divine law as fitting together, enabling the world to flourish as it was designed to.  God’s will, will always be supreme, but it is not in competition with what man truly needs to flourish and survive, eternally.  Without faith, however, the secular mindset will always seek to dominate the religious, and so in this movie what we see is a priest who denies the faith, living in “peace” in a country that continues to persecute and murder his own brothers and sisters.  Of course after he abandons the faith, it does not show the continued persecution of those he was charged to encourage and feed, all it shows is his own inner-struggle to maintain the faith, and yet survive in his temporal life.  What we have here is a “domesticated Christian.”  If the world has domesticated Christ’s message, it is likely because they hope that such a vision will be imitated by this version of “Christ,” and thus weed out the seemingly dumb, unsophisticated followers of Christ who blindly suffer unnecessarily in order to obtain the prize:  heaven.eucharist-silence

 

The so-called “swamp” of Japan, explained in the movie forgets that we have a God who changes landscapes, turning deserts into flourishing springs of water, while reducing productive places into wastelands.  Christ is not subject to a culture or other religious and secular values, He is rather the very ground of being, with which all things move, breathe and have being – the message of Christ will not only survive the swamp, it will transform it anew, provided the Christians tap into such faith, and move such mountains.

I cannot say the entire movie was bad, because it frankly wasn’t.  The people’s love for the priests was touching, and their fellowship and charity towards one another and most importantly Christ was altogether beautiful.  But this, while demonstrated wasn’t meditated upon enough.  It was not some dialectical version of doctrine that these people died for, nor was it merely to enter into paradise, as if some sort of utilitarian agenda enabled them to endure their suffering.  The saints die out of Love for the very Persons of God.  Transcending mere affection for God, the soul of a saint is entirely united to the Son where they themselves echo the very death of Christ in the world by their own example, and in fact take part in redeeming the world by forgiving their captors and persecutors, while also demonstrating by their behaviour that they must obey God and not men.  This motion is anything but dying for a philosophy “about God” but rather dying “in God” and for Love of Him.  To miss this, is to miss all of Christianity.  To realize in the depths of our heart that martyrdom is actually a gift that can give joy to the soul, the soul that suffers torments but by them are liberated from an addiction to honour, pleasure, wealth, and power.  The spiritual freedom that comes from such torment, the cross which transforms our nature so as to become fully human:  that is what this priest deprived his people of – and had He remembered that he did not feed them bread-alone, but on the very bread of life, the very love of the Father – He would have seen his own actions as depriving His children of that faith by his own witness.

Does any of this mean that a pastor should not fight to protect his own children from martyrdom?  The question must be brought to serious prayer.  We know that when St. Peter demanded that Jesus not die at the hands of the Roman Soldiers, he was reproved by Christ in a most stern manner.  That is all to say, that if it is God’s will that the Son of man, and His followers are to lay down their life for love of God, that a Pastor should not step in their way.  However, we also know that sometimes this death-to-self takes place in other ways, other than martyrdom, and thus we must be discerning of where and when God wants his people to die.  But the matter is already resolved – all of us are called to pick up our cross and follow Christ.  Christ therefore is the antithesis of this pastor – because not only did Christ realize His own suffering, but he also knew of the suffering of those He selected and called to follow Him.  He knew that they, but one, would die a horrible and terrible death – and commanded them to nonetheless follow Him.  Christ did not make peace with the state, and did not use His power to overcome the Roman Empire, though He could have.  Rather he sought to take the fight to a deeper and more secret place:  the soul.  The soul is where the battle is really fought, and without suffering man remains forever in His chains.

 

                The last thing I would like to reflect upon is simple, but challenging to understand.  I call it the “blame-game.”  One of the things that irritated me to no-end in the movie was the smiling faces of some of the Japanese leaders who acted so caviller about their own behaviour.  It was as if, in their own mind they had shifted the entire tragedy and the killing of so many Christians on the very backs of the Christians themselves.  That is to say, it wasn’t the state’s fault that these Christians suffered, it was their own fault, and ultimately the priest’s fault.   Where do we see this “shifting” of the blame in scripture?  Right after the first sin – Adam and Eve cannot take responsibility for their own actions, and somehow find a way to shift the blame.  Adam shifts the blame to Eve, who then in turn shifts the blame to the devil.  But no one takes responsibility – and as a result:  no one changes.  In this movie, as we see in the history of mankind, those who actively use power create the illusion that they are merely acting in a determined fashion, and place the shame and guilt on their victims in order to manipulate them into believing that they actually have control over the situation.  This priest was manipulated in such a way – he was not to blame for the suffering of these Christians.  Those who were to blame were those crucifying and drowning and torturing them to death.  20120605-203703.jpg

As Christians we have to hold up a mirror to others, and to reflect back to them their own behaviour.  Like water that is still, we reflect in peace and mercy the cruelty of others by turning the cheek.  Here we must see clearly that His responsibility was to not play the game at all – but rather to preach to the guards, to forgive them for their sins against the Christians, and to preach to them about how God could forgive even these Japanese persecutors for their crimes – but in no way to take responsibility or even begin to take responsibility for their suffering and death.  The moment the priest allowed himself to be convinced of this lie, his conscience was then malformed to cooperate with them and deny Christ.

One final word, it must be said in all humility that while I have a clear mind on this matter, even St. Peter believed himself to be able to stay true to God in the face of persecution.  Yet he nonetheless failed – because it requires supernatural grace – and not man’s mere will-power.  The strength of a dying Christian in the face of persecution is the strength of God himself – and to the world this seems like a weakness, but that is because one cannot conceive of how tolerating such pain and suffering for love of God is an actual strength, especially when God is only understood as a thought, an idea, as a fantasy or a fairy tale.  But for those who have been given faith, whereby it has weight, and is more real than our own very existence, to suffer is to be freed and liberated from the crippling effects of original-sin – and to be liberated in this world to express true love and devotion to our God.  So to quote St. Lawrence, the martyred deacon of our faith to the secular world and all those who would persecute Christians inside and outside of the Catholic faith:  “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”

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The New Evangelization: Spirituality behind “Accompaniment”

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Road to Emmaus

Terminology:  Accompaniment, Assent, and Relationship

Of late there has been an intense reflection in the Church on “accompaniment.”  I haven’t noticed a triggered reaction by many to the word, but rather I see people wanting clarification as to what that accompaniment actually involves.  For those unaware, this term “accompaniment” is applied to people who find themselves outside of communion with the Church for various reasons.  The idea is that people within the Church do not merely say:  “Go clean yourself and then come back to me, then I’ll be ready to love you.”  Rather, people are willing to build and foster relationships wherever the person currently is in their relationship to Christ and the Church.

I believe “accompaniment”  is a good term that the Church has been using to discuss what might be referred at times to as pre-evangelization.  The Church does have a mission to evangelize, and such a call involves facilitating an environment whereby the Church can come to encounter the living Jesus, the mystery of His life, death, and Resurrection, and experience His intense love in a way that generates rootedness (discipleship) in the faith.  Pre-evangelization and accompaniment are not exclusively related to each other, however much of the work of pre-evangelization involves a willingness on the part of evangelists to walk with a person who has not yet encountered Christ with the fullness of their being.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains that faith is not merely assent from one particular faculty of the human person (mind, heart, or will), but involves the complete integration of the three.  After all, faith is a virtue, which we know if we’ve studied means that simply doing the right thing doesn’t mean we have won virtue, but rather when our affect is aligned to a mind that is aligned to the truth through the will, we have reached spiritual health in virtue.  Many people might have degrees of integration, but it doesn’t become a healthy and rooted virtue until the mind, heart, and will all assent to faith in Jesus.  This “assent” seems like a cold and sterile manner of describing faith, and the prieststerm “relationship” can be ambiguous.  Everyone has a relationship with God – it just might not be a good-relationship.  But “relationship” is a better or more preferred word (in my opinion) than a reduction to assent which generally applies to the mental cognitive response to doctrine.  Although I do believe assent of the heart and assent of the mind both imply a relationship through the will, I do believe that people might be more comfortable with understanding faith in the context of a relationship, rather than with terminology that is often associated with a mere dialectic reduction.

Evangelists are therefore called not merely to inform (catechize) people of doctrine but to allow the content of the faith to be integrated in the mind and heart and acted on through the will.  As a result, catechesis must take on a more dynamic approach – and so while it is necessary it must be understood that without the context of a relationship with Jesus, catechesis amounts to nothing more than water sliding off the back of a duck.  Catechesis needs to be interiorized, and rarely can this happen, if at all, if a person has not encountered God as a personal, loving being.  It can often be the fact that either a purely sentimental relationship (just emotion) or a purely theoretical relationship (just intellectual) is facilitated, and when this is the case, a full integration hasn’t taken place in the person because God is either a consoling-fiction of the heart or a hobby of the catechism697bmind.  The will permits us to take the leap, whereby such truths begin to sink into a context of relationality  (integration/internalized). Without an encounter (with Christ), we might mistakenly go after a relationship in all the wrong ways, whereby a person willfully (rather than willingly) seeks to develop faith, and thus becoming self-referential in his or her quest for integration. This distinction was mentioned by St. Theresa of Lisieux, who wanted to emphasize the importance of a will that was not considering itself the “first-mover” in one’s quest for a good relationship with God.  It is crucial therefore to understand the paramount importance of a God who “loved us first.”  While this is true ontologically, it must also be true in the phenomena or experience of our own life.  That is to say we must have experienced or encountered God initiating a relationship with us, so that we can interiorize the foundation of such a relationship as unmerited, zealous love.    If it is the case that we seek to be loved by God through our will, such a self-referential disposition univocally means self-righteousness – and this does violence to our own life as well as the lives of others.

Self-referential spirituality typically fosters legalism or moral laxity as both arrive from a non-integrated vision of who God is as a loving and ever present Father and Brother in Jesus.  The Holy Spirit remains abstract in the mind and heart of the person – a type of “energy” that we tap into – rather than a Divine person.   Without a very down-to-earth awareness of God as a personal being – the simplicity of the Gospel – the heart and mind will never have the proper context in which to discuss God, His law, His liturgy, or even our own identity.  Without such a context, we end up with disjointed ideas and no emotional equilibrium when discussing our various value-systems that become relativized (disordered) in regard to their priority and gravity.

The loss of integration – if it was there previously – can occur too when a person “forgets” to “do this in memory of Me.”  Meaning, when we fail to pray and act as if God is truly alive, present, loving us infinitely and indwelling in our very soul more so than we could ever truly be aware of, we naturally begin to have a relationship with an idea of God rather than God, or a sentiment of God or emotional desire rather than an actual recollected heart, mind, and will that experiences or knows of his penetrating gaze as the Lover of our soul.

Superficiality as a Symptom of Familiarity

Forgetfulness or being malformed by a non-integrated approach involves what the Church now calls the “new-evangelization” whereby the same Gospel is re-presented in a new way – in a manner that people are not familiar with.  As Aquinas suggests, “familiarity breeds contempt.”  When we do not have reverence and simplicity towards God, but rather familiarity, we automatically place ourselves into a disposition where we are unwillingly to open ourselves to a new and deeper experience and understanding of God.  Therefore, Thomas Aquinasmuch of the work of evangelization involves working against this lack of awareness of mystery before a deep, relevant, and infinitely good God.  Familiarity is not only a problem in regard to our relationship with Christ, but also is a problem in our relationship with each other.  If we cannot honour God with the depth he deserves, we will certainly become inconsistent with our neighbour.  This is the case because God deserves such reverence as a result of justice, and if we are willingly neglecting justice where it primarily belongs, our motivation is not out of justice in all our relationships, but rather disordered and built out of convenience.  As we stand before our neighbours created in the image and likeness of an infinitely interesting and loving God, do we recognize that they display in some measure the depth of God?

When we become too familiar with our neighbour, our spouse, or our friends, we have placed them into a box and can quickly summarize who they are to us.  Therefore we lose any sense of surprise and if we do experience surprise we are often alienated by it because it shatters our overly simplistic judgments of one another.  Generally we are more apt to do this toward one another if our relationship is remote – if we live at a distance, and don’t take a genuine interest in the lives of others.  Without accompaniment we are more likely to look at those hungering for the gospel with an overly irreverent glance, not taking heed of the deep yearning currently taking place in their soul.  Likewise, if our relationship with God is perceived as remote or distant, we end up with a more theoretical understanding of God that again leads back to a disintegrated faith.

Familiarity therefore is, in my opinion, the sinful disposition that in fact becomes a stumbling block to the little ones that come seeking Christ.  If we feel entitled like the Apostles to keep at bay those craving for a relationship and encounter with Christ (objectively), it is us who have become far too familiar with Christ to make such a terrible decision. This may manifest itself if we perceive non-believers to have no interior longing for Christ – if this is the case – then we have redefined humanity’s ontological disposition before God.  It becomes a scandal when a non-believer’s views are validated by an indifferent spirit towards what a Christian truly hunger for – but such is often the case when we become overly pluralistic or elitist.  A pluralist suggests a type of satisfaction in knowing God anonymously (which is contrary to a revealing God, and the anthropology of the human person who wants to know Love has a name).  The elitist uses the faith in order to exclude others as if by this act he himself becomes superior by his own merit.  Both dispositions univocally are stumbling blocks before the children of God who are a desert land starving for the Spring of refreshment in Christ.

A Remedy to Familiarity (and the Eucharist)

For a moment, however, I’d like to approach the subject of familiarity in our neighbour and why “accompaniment” offers us a remedy to such tendency today.  Accompaniment again is often used abstractly – people wonder if this “accompaniment” turns into a condoning of morally scandalous behaviour, or the reception of the Eucharist prior to a person’s proper disposition toward the sacrament.  The reason for this tension is that today, people generally want to feel like they belong prior to adhering to a doctrine.  This perhaps is why cults are often successful when they prey on the lonely, because doctrine no longer represents the truth content behind the nature of a relationship with God, but rather a mere hoop to jump through in order to maintain one’s status with the said community.  A desire to belong is good – but the person must be formed well enough to understand that we should belong first to reality – so that whatever love we experience, will be genuine.

In regard to the Eucharist being used as a means to make other people feel as if they belong I’d prefer to bracket that discussion in this blog-post and rather offer the anthropological and spiritual reasons why accompaniment is important.  If we can understand why accompaniment is important from the spiritual point of view, we can then examine the latter question more critically and in the proper context.  I would only like to make the comment that we as a church need to extend our vision of the Church beyond the liturgy – and to see opportunities for belonging and community, in the family, in the marketplaces, and in the world in general.  When we compartmentalize the total work of evangelization to the liturgy, we begin to act contrary to the very nature and identity of the liturgy, which has a part to play, but if not integrated into the life of the Church becomes another form of clericalism.  That is to say, we depend on the cleric for Empty Pewsthe liturgy, by which the whole context of evangelization supposes to takes place.  The world is secular and the Church becomes the only place where the gospel is practiced and preached.   Such an attitude demeans the very dignity and role of the laity which is to extend the presence of Christ to all nations.  This would only contradict the teachings of Vatican II which justly teaches that the laity are called to something great in their respective vocation that is not reduced to “being a lector” at mass.  Rather they are to preach the Gospel in areas where the clergy cannot go, and perhaps do not have the gifts to go.  The clergy need to step out of their way, by not using the Eucharist in a context it was never meant to have.    The Eucharist is the summit of the Christian life – and climbing that summit requires formation and discipleship.  Therefore the Eucharist cannot be used as a method of pre-relationship or pre-evangelization, but it can be seen as something to journey towards as the integration of such a relationship.  When this takes place, the role of the laity is respected and the reception of the Eucharist is received in the right disposition and therefore in a fruitful manner.  So the Church must stop framing the Eucharist as a marketing-tool for pre-evangelization, so that a longing for such communion can begin to well up in those Christians who are in a spiritual state of sacred-waiting.  Elitists likewise must not present the Eucharist as a sort of “prize” for those who are already perfect.  Rather it must be presented as for those who are humbled and open to God’s mercy through repentance, yet still nonetheless limping, because of the effects of original sin.

If we can understand the spiritual meaning behind accompaniment, I believe it will lead to a better integration of what accompaniment really is all about.  Obviously we cannot condone unfaithful behaviour, but we must keep in mind that Christ was seemingly accused of doing this when He ate with sinners.  His eating with sinners who may have not repented does not imply offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist to those in mortal sin, but rather His willingness to initiate a relationship with others wherever they were spiritually.  This act of Christ takes place in their respective homes – and thus offers us something broader than the liturgy as an example.  And it is important for people to note that Christ ate with sinners:  both tax collectors and Pharisees.  Christ had a particular love and paid a particular attention to the Pharisees, at times eating with them.  So often today, you get the impression that Christ hated Pharisees – which is impossible for a God of love.  Rather, perhaps a cleric’s own wrath is projected into the scriptures, not seeing that Christ was at times harsh with the Pharisees, but that such harshness was out of genuine love as a father reproves his sons and daughters.  Christ didn’t avoid those who were likely elitist – he engaged them in discussion and was willing to challenge their view of the faith.  The one thing Christ seemed to do was to break down the cliques or “clubs” that existed by making Himself universally present to all the various groups.

Census of the Faithful?  Lets go deeper!

Accompaniment is where a Christian lays the foundation to a relationship with another person so they can become aware that they are not being reduced to an anonymous number in a pew to fulfill our desire for greater statistics as a sign of success in ministry.  People do not want to be treated like numbers or a “personal project” to satisfy an egotistical aim.  Accompaniment rather is based upon a genuine love for a

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particular human-person who is created beautifully by God, has a name, has depth, to whom God Himself purchased at the Cross by His own blood – a soul worth dying for, at least according to God.  And when we love the hungry and poor, how much more should we love the chance to serve those who are hungry for Christ, and poor in spirit?  Man does not live on bread alone, but hungers for something “deeper.”  Are we aware of that deeper ache in ourselves, so as to be aware of it in others?  Or like King David, do we rely, inordinately on a census to depict how we are doing spiritually?  The picture here by the way depicts the plague that occurred as a punishment for King David’s census.

 

Now, this accompaniment, as I mentioned recognizes that the person we are speaking to is not merely convinced by emotional statements or intellectual syllogisms, but something that is an integration of the two and the deeper healing that needs to take place in their life.  In Jeremiah 6, this superficial or “familiar” approach to conversion was described as:  “They dress the wound of my people  as though it were not serious.  Peace, peace,’ they say,   when there is no peace.” (Jer 6: 14).  If we have a deeper vision of people we can begin to also understand that wounds are deep, and require more than a Band-Aid solution or a “good argument” or a hug.  If we can comprehend our own depth of character we can again be more aware of the depth in others.  Here this wound is not so much addressing mere emotional distress or a physical injury, but more so it speaks about a type of interior peace that is not experienced – something to do with the conscience.  When we lack spiritual-peace it can mean that we are deeply wounded by sin – and this wound of sin is what wasn’t taken seriously enough.  Sometimes our preoccupation is on the emotional wounds of “not feeling happy,” or the error that leads others into very problematic situations.  But there is a deeper wound than both, and it is the wound of sin, from the will, and also the wound of original sin (being born into a world alienated from God and neighbour).  This wound of alienation that Christ experienced on the Cross caused Him to cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  Although Christ was not truly forsaken, in becoming Sin for us without sinning He experienced existentially the deep wound and punishment of alienation from God that we inflict upon ourselves through sin.  This is the truly deep wound that requires our own attention – and if we haven’t attended to it within ourselves, we will not even begin to be conscious of it in others and therefore treat it lightly.

The point is that the wound we are addressing has no easy solution; and that wound is an absence of faith.  Diving deeply into the wound inspires great fear, anxiety, and distress.  pleadingEntering into such a depth takes a great deal of courage, not unlike what we see in Dante’s Inferno.  Some scholars have suggested that Dante’s Divine Comedy is an existential journey through the geography of the soul, whereby we confront within ourselves the evil impulses, and wounds caused by our sinfully inclined nature.  Sometimes when we encounter such horrific things within ourselves we “faint.”  It is a journey that Dante stressed was something we shouldn’t do alone – and so God sent a companion to be with him– that he might not have to walk through hell, alone.

This wound or hell that we need to confront is not for the sake of self-shaming as many might quickly accuse it of becoming.  Rather it is the process of healing.  If we recall in Exodus, Moses sets up a bronze staff with a bronze serpent to become the means by which the Israelites were healed.  The snake of course represented the very wound of their sin, which brought forth distress and death to the Israelites.  It was in their naming and confronting or renouncing of their sin (repentance) that they were actually healed.  Likewise, when we see the Cross which was raised up as “sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21), we are looking upon His wounded side and thereby able to comprehend the very nature of our sin against an all loving and infinitely innocent God.  And it would be by the Cross; by His crossstripes that we would be healed (Is 53: 5).  But who wouldn’t fear this process, especially with an enemy scripture calls the “accuser.”  The devil reminds us of that wound, but not to heal it, but rather to tear it open and infect it with more vice.  It is no wonder that modern psychology associates shame with an ongoing addiction.  Guilt here differs because guilt is born of love, whereas shame is still a type of narcissism where one regrets sin but out of self-preoccupation.  Love or charity therefore does not pull someone out of sin, but selfishness keeps him or her enslaved to it through shame.  Shame is an incredible counterfeit to guilt, and it is inspired by the accuser.  We might turn to sin in order to numb the pain by a superficial awareness of what is really going on underneath the surface. Therefore through addiction or vice we become forgetful of our wounds and again treat them lightly.

When a person comes across as the “accuser” which is a temptation for anyone in ministry, the soul of that person will automatically turn back to sin, because the pain is simply too much bear alone.  Shaming isolates the person in themselves – but love can argument2bear the fruit of guilt – whereby a person weeps for their sin out of love for their neighbour and God, and such tears represent that the healing has begun.   As Jesus says about such individuals who shame:  “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:  4).

Healing the Wound of Shame and Isolation

Accompaniment offers a person who is willing to walk with another, as fellow-sinners.  But in that fellowship the evangelist has also experienced healing in which they hope to share with the other who perhaps is spiritually crippled by fear and may be “acting-out” as a result.  That is to say that often our sin or immoral behaviour is a symptom of a deeper wound which requires healing.  Thus, if we become moralizers, what happens is we begin to attack the “bad-fruit” rather than the root of the problem.  If we become morally lax we simply act as if there isn’t a very profound and deep problem, offering the false consolation that God accommodates for one’s disordered passions and sinful inclinations.

Bishop Robert 20120629-134348.jpgBarron stresses that at the root of all pride is a fundamental fear that God is not actually good.  It was the case that Eve “listened” to an alternative view of God, and in that listening entertained it as a possibility.  Through that entertainment of the serpent, she developed fear that led her to take charge of her own vocation and mission through pride.  It was fear and the wounds inflicted upon the soul of Eve that led to the fall of the entire human race.  Sometimes we do not really understand how significant or serious that wound is.  Even with the communal blame washed away through baptism, the lie planted in each human being that God is not a good Father, nonetheless remains in concupiscence.  Eve was convinced that God was a moralizing tyrant (did God really tell you not to eat of any of the trees?), that God was a liar, (surely you will not die), and that God was in violent competition with mankind (you will become like God).    Therefore God’s authority as a Father is given a false context – it isn’t love, its tyranny;  God’s trustworthiness is cast into doubt because He is a liar; and God isn’t happy unless He is oppressing us.  With that sown in our hearts, it becomes very difficult to obey or listen to God when He asks us to do what seems to possibly cause us grief. And if a person has such a disposition, yet obeys God, they begin to emulate in the god whom the devil has conjured in their own hearts and minds, in how they treat others – and these are the legalists.

Furthermore, when a person has been making decisions out of that fear and pride for years, the fear becomes fortified.  Think of the roots of a tree wrapped around the ground with which the soil of fear abides.  When you tug on those roots in an attempt to uproot the sin, the fear is felt, and comes to a head.  The illusion of sin is beginning to pop, and all that is left is that lie-based-fear!

What does scripture suggest to us, in order to remedy such fear?  “Perfect charity casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  And that charity casts out fear because it reassures the person that no matter what fear or truths they find as they begin to explore that interior geography, that they are unconditionally loved.  Ultimately when the Christian witnesses to such love they are not communicating themselves as the source of such love, but the infinitely wise and all knowing God as one who loves the sinner without conditions.  When this begins to be the case, the Christian becomes open to looking honestly at that rooted sin, with less and less fear.

Think for a moment of a divorced and remarried person.  Without an annulment – say if it wasn’t reasonably possible – the person has rooted themselves into a relationship that likely involves genuine goodness, but is founded and sustained by a constant abandonment of their only spouse.  We cannot compartmentalize the latter or the former, but we must also admit that the wound of betrayal (even if it was mutual) has not been healed in that soul and becomes a play-ground for the “accuser” to perpetually shame the individual or harden them against what genuine committed love looks like.  That remarried individual might have established the new relationship for any number of reasons, had children in that relationship.  The idea of “leaving all things behind to follow Christ” is an incredibly scary concept when applied to such a situation.  To prefer God over our human relationships is a tense and difficult cross to ask someone to do, and it cannot be treated with flippancy, as if to suggest it was easy.  It may be simple to understand, but incredibly difficult to surrender to – especially when a person has been emotionally invested into such a relationship, compartmentalizing the spirit of adultery that is foundation to such a relationship.  Like the roots of a tree, they have rooted themselves into the ground deeply, and been nourished and sustained on the fear that one’s happiness and peace depends upon such a relationship.  But peace comes from a good conscience, and a healed conscience – one that has surrendered to God’s teaching – not because it de-facto is right, but because it springs forth genuine love in the soul.  Genuine love does not compartmentalize sin, as if such compartmentalization was an alternative to purifying ourselves of sin through confession.  Jesus said with a great deal of compassion about the Rich-man who walked away that it was difficult for the rich to leave all things behind.  We must understand that richness is not merely a monetary reality, but can also pertain to emotional attachments to things and persons.  It is a disordered form of idolatry, that is mixed with some very real good things – as a virus can at times infiltrate a healthy cell.

What of people who are practicing homosexuality and have been for years?  Perhaps their belief is that without such a partner they cannot possibly be happy.  They are tapping into what scripture says:  “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18).  All lies have some measure of truth or goodness to them, otherwise we wouldn’t begin to believe in them.  But the failure here is in realizing that the ultimate longing we all have is actually associated to a marriage with God in heaven.  One cannot have such a peace and joy-filled life with God if deep down they realize their conscience is at war with God’s own will.  Furthermore, a person must love their neighbour for who they objectively are, and not merely where their affect is ordered, otherwise it becomes another form of compartmentalization, whereby one hates a part of themselves (what makes us male or female) and only embraces what maximizes pleasure and a sense of belonging.  A full integration of themselves to “belong” is required, but in order for that to happen, no part of the person can be compartmentalized, but rather a total integration of what it means to be male or female.

The interior longing therefore becomes idolized again by creatures, and one has rooted themselves around this idol because of a fear of unhappiness and an absence of fulfillment – what a terrible lie for a person to believe.  Our happiness is no longer grounded in God, but in the same control Eve exerted to define her vocation according to her own appropriation of truth (eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil).  And so a measure of happiness is found in the good that is mixed in with the lie, and this acts again as a false-consolation, and a numbness to a deeper longing for God.

One can see after assessing the dynamics of both situations how a mere syllogism or emotional appeal to know Jesus “loves you” has to actually sink-in through an encounter with God.  If God is hypothetical in His love, people will not leave all things behind for a “hypothetical” loving God.  Furthermore, to attempt to evangelize a person with a flippant “I’m just speaking the truth out of love” becomes inauthentic if the person isn’t willing to eat with them, to talk about deep things, to take an interest in their own good-nature, and to be willing to help them know they are loved unconditionally as God loves them.  That is accompaniment.  A person, with compassion (suffering-with) helps to carry the other cross, by walking with them.  Without that as a foundation, the conversion that might take place could actually be superficial and damaging for the Church.  If a person pakistan-christian experiences a conversion merely for emotional reasons – it may be that they belong to the Church merely to “feel belonging.”  But there needs to be something deeper than seeking a mere feeling which can be false.  Such a habit of seeking feelings, can cause a person to flip-flop constantly between the Church and the world.  Likewise if the conversion is only intellectual it could lead to a sterile, stoic vision of God that later leads to a harmful and cold, tyrannical way of describing faith.  Both add dysfunction to the Church that places a stumbling block in encountering Christ.  And while such conversions may happen, and that those conversions be good to some degree, they must always be founded from charity, otherwise fear is still the driving force behind what they choose to believe or experience as “faith.”  Pride remains deeply rooted, and only the façade of faith is visible.

In summation, I’d like to suggest that those genuinely interested in evangelization first examine the depth of your own relationship with Christ.  If you aren’t praying – please start that up again – because it will help you in becoming aware of your own depth before God, and therefore help you become compassionate to others who also have such depth.  Get into touch with the longings of your own heart, as well as the direction and integrity you can receive from sound doctrine.  In doing so you will develop a more integrated relationship with Christ and therefore have what you need to help others.  St. Thomas Aquinas taught that when serving our neighbour in spiritual matters we must first take a greater focus on our own spiritual life – because we cannot give what we do not have.  With the motivation of being enriched by Christ for His glory and the service of neighbour, you will have the right disposition in seeking your own spiritual good first, not out of narcissism, but out of a desire to serve others well.

Furthermore, I would suggest learning how to listen to other’s suffering.  Interpret the listening as an opportunity to isolate the fear-motivated concepts and attitudes or behaviours.   Their own discussion about such difficulties is really a journey through the hell that is actually tormenting them in their soul.  If you have already walked through this hell, you will probably be able to identify with the essence of what such persons are saying, regardless of the species of their vice.  Listening to them is a way of demonstrating that whatever they say, whatever they express, you are not abandoning them, but are right beside them, in love.  This is hard to do with people who do not recognize their own interior poverty – such people are “rich in spirit” and it is at times impossible to break through that, without them coming to a deeper awareness that the fear that exists within them is actually numbed by the counterfeit of sin. This is why Jesus said:  “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  But those who don’t consider themselves lost haven’t opened themselves up to the very deep reality of alienation.   Be patient therefore, and avoid allowing the accuser to speak through you.  None of this means you cannot speak to the person directly.  There are times when a friend can speak towards one in a direct manner that cuts to the heart like a sword – but not a blunted base-ball bat barbed with wire.  The point I’m making is that direct confrontation can be an experience of love – but if love isn’t there, people can generally sniff this out, even if they constantly speak in a nice tone or with words of love.  Therefore be discerning of when to speak and when to defer a conversation for another time.

Finally be careful to distinguish between condoning behaviour and accompaniment.  Laughing at jokes or comments that involve a sort of assent to a false anthropology or theology can in fact reinforce fear (enabling).  Find a way to shift the conversation without shaming.  If they invite you to events that are clearly in contradiction with what is good and healthy for this person, do not attend them, but carefully explain this, and perhaps discuss meeting with them for coffee or dinner after the event – so that they can understand clearly that a door is shut towards a decision they are making but not to them as a person.   Sometimes you might have to step back and allow them some time on their own – do this with prudence, but check-in so that they know you aren’t avoiding them as if they were some sort of leper.  Give them space to breath and listen to what is going on under the surface.  If all you do is dictate to them what is going on – they may become immune to an awareness of themselves in that regard, tuning it out as a possibility.  Respect the fact that the Spirit casts light on a very complex soul in a creative fashion that we ourselves cannot know or even plan to do on our own.  And most of all, pray for them to facilitate within your own soul a person you hope to experience the joy of the Gospel, but add yourself into that prayer as an act of humility, recognizing that you might be where they are had you walked in their shoes.  Be humble and recognize that it is by God’s grace that we are saved, not by our own pelagian merit.

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Healing Young Men of Nostalgia

 

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I was invited by the Director of  Seminarians/Vocations Director of my diocese to participate in a conference directed towards vocation directors.  The workshops covered the four-pillars of priestly formation, involved the celebration of mass and the liturgy of the hours, as well as a good opportunity to connect with each other as brother priests from around the world.  The USCCB is very motivated to promote vocations in an intentional, organized fashion, and it was evident in the speakers they had, as well as the various venues offered to support the clergy.  Although it was run by the USCCB, the focus was largely on the universal standards within the Church in regard to the formation of priests in seminaries and prior to their formation in seminaries.  The emphasis was not on getting “more” vocations, but being faithful to God in the right spirit as vocation directors, as well as seeking a good quality of priest – one who has reached affective maturity, and has allowed Christ to enter into the depths of each candidate’s soul, so as to map the interior geography of the spiritual life in order to lead others through such a difficult place to explore.

We had the privilege of listening to bishops and cardinals from both Canada and the United States – and I’d like to spend in this blog-post some time reflecting particularly on His Excellency, Chaput’s address to the vocations directors on one of the four qualities he is looking for in priests.

Avoiding Nostalgia

The good Bishop said many things, and this was certainly not the centre-piece of his presentation, however there was some good time spent reflecting on a growing tendency within candidates to cling to various “forms of the past” in an inordinate fashion.  The inordinate or “unreasonable” clinging to the past was demonstrated in a seminarian who approached the Bishop, crying, because the Traditional Latin Mass was not offered at his seminary.  The Bishop was clear, he did not stand in opposition to the Extraordinary Form, nor did he bar his seminarians from attending this mass when outside of the seminary, however the ordinary formation of the seminarians was to be in the Ordinary Form. nostalgia

Already, I know for some, this post is likely generating frustration amongst some readers.  Probably those who are somehow hoping that one day the Novus Ordo mass will be canned and replaced with the Traditional Latin Mass.  I know that there is already a defensive spirit rising up in some, while in others a sort of glee and experience of some sort of vindication.  What I’d suggest at this point is to both take a breath and settle down.

The Bishop was truly accommodating the Traditional Latin Mass devotion, and was in no way attempting to treat such individuals as lepers.  It wasn’t so much the “form” he was speaking about, but rather a tendency in some (the spirit behind it): nostalgia.  This does not mean all people have this spirit behind it, but rather that he noted in some candidates for the seminary, nostalgia was actually what was there.  While the Bishop did not see the Traditional Latin Mass to be the direction of where the Church is going, his primary focus was on the affective maturity behind the seminarian who cried because he could not attend such a mass in his seminary formation.  Let’s examine the disproportionate reaction of that individual seminarian.

First, I don’t have much affection for the Traditional Mass, but I also do not have a spirit of antagonism towards it.  I just simply look at it as another way to encounter our God that a minority within the Church finds helpful.  I do not think that this minority should be marginalized.   It should be supplied to common folks while recognizing that it offers the same substance of what is celebrated in the Novus Ordo mass.  Second, I do believe that there are things we can do to fulfill a legitimate desire for increased reverence in the Novus Ordo – and that this topic needs to be explored more thoroughly amongst the various polemics that Cardinal Sarah recently spoke about.  Third, none of the aforementioned points are meant to be addressed in a comprehensive manner in this blog – rather I would like to narrow in on the spirit of nostalgia that was spoken of by the good Bishop.

It must be said that any spiritual disease is by its nature not wedded by definition to some external.  This means that people can be nostalgic about things both new and old – in the sense that there is an attachment that is unreasonable to some external, without a proper level of integration or internalization of that external in relation to God and the Church.  Second, the nostalgia in regard to the past is a reality, observable and it should be corrected.  It is not my concern to dive into the arguments in support of various externals that are being resurrected from the past – as legitimate or illegitimate as they may be.  Rather, I would like to focus on the question:  “why are people holding onto the past forms of worship or church-structure as if they are ends in themselves?”

 

Spiritual Diagnosis of Historical Nostalgia

There is perhaps a laundry list of reasons of why this might be the case.  People generally, when meeting a crisis, immediately run back to what they are comfortable with and know.  In this regard, when we are consumed by the numerical desolation of Churches with more than 70 or 80 percent of Catholics not practicing their faith – we might think that the solution is to return to the past because clearly what they were doing before the 60s was working.  In logic this might be considered the fallacy of false-cause, where one connects an effect to a cause artificially – simply because the effect occurs after an event- and that is why the SSPX have such a following.  It feels convincing, but fails to look deeply at the question at hand – a very complicated question that involves a fair assessment of the fluidity in our own culture.

The Church needs to adapt to the times without compromising its substance – and this applies to everyone on the spectrum, including those who think the “Glory and Praise” is still a “new hymnal.”  Formation prior to entry into the seminary is undermined by the deformation that the secular culture has borne as a result of radical individualism, consumerism, and a growing agnosticism of indifference.  Addictions to pornography are common, and finally now being recognized as an actual mental-health issue.  Empathy is limited in some people as a result of a pattern of behaviour clinging too heavily on social media – which has also prevented people from reflecting on matters deeply – looking for quick information and sound-bites. spiritual-diagnosis

I would therefore like to suggest a direct correlation between the nostalgia for the past with the culture that has naturally led itself into this unhealthy disposition in many candidates for the priesthood.   And by the way, I do not mean to suggest that such candidates should not approach such a vocation, but rather there needs to be a course-correction in their formation prior to and during formation.  The connection between the culture and the nostalgia has to do with two main errors in the culture:

  1. Relativism
  2. Radical Individualism

 

Relativism is undoubtably something that exists both within the Church and within the culture.  We need to be humble enough as a Church to be able to recognize that in attempting to extend a bridge to the culture, the Church at times saw this as a bridge out of the Church rather than inviting others into the Gospel.  The irreconcilable dimensions of the culture were sought to be reconciled with the Church and a mixture of confusion and relativism entered as a result – in both subtle ways and sometimes very explicit ways.  This leads to what we might call a “broader-scope” to moral truth, an accommodation of people’s fallen inclinations and ultimately a superficial spirituality.  Instead of going deeper, we went broader.  Let me stress that distinction:  instead of plunging into the simplicity of the gospel, we sought to make things more complex through sin.  That complexity and lack of depth has one spiritual impact on the soul:  exhaustion.  Many of the youth are tired.  Why?  Because they have to make personal decisions about every moral doctrine under the sun, and it is very difficult to find anyone who agrees.  Furthermore, the heart yearns for simplicity, not complexity – and the heart wants to ultimately rest in a simple God.

So the heart of many millennials generally wants things to be simpler – and the wound on the soul of such persons is a wound of complexity and confusion.  Complexity is not something to be embraced in the spiritual life, it is something to validate as a reality, but also to remedy through the simplicity and depth of the gospel.  If a person is experiencing great complexity and confusion, the unhealthy way to seek to find freedom from such a plight might be to over-simplify things – especially on the external level.  Or alternatively look at complexity as “reality” when in fact it’s an illusion that traps the soul.  If one is so complexitywounded by complexity, simplifying the interior life usually is what a person wants to do, but it is the hardest thing to do – and so we do what is easiest, and focus on simplifying the external world.  What is simpler than rubrics that are followed, order restored to the liturgy, and a Church where everyone is simply on the same page about everything dogmatic.  And while that type of simplicity certainly is a sign of unity with a simply United Triune God, accomplishing it through an external imposition of rubrics without the interior life – in tandem – will lead to nothing more than a type of rigidity that actually creates and supports all the unfortunate stereotypes of the so-called “traditional-Catholic.”  Being naive and defensive against this as a possibility is just a sign of pride; the devil seeks to corrupt every movement- so that even if people do what is right, they will do it for the wrong reasons.

Is a desire for simplicity a good thing within the Church and in the priesthood? – absolutely.  But we must go about it for the right reasons and in the right spirit.

Radical-Individualism is both the cause and the result of relativism – it keeps the unhealthy cycle spinning.  It is the radical individual who thinks he can define truth around his own fallible, fallen mind.  And in that he supports a culture which normalizes the pride of appropriating truth to himself, so that the person actually begins to think of it as a virtue, when in reality it is the deadliest vice.  And in the midst of a world of complexity, man begins to think that because things are confusing he now has the conscientious right to define the truth according to His own judgment – exploiting confusion, rationalizing reality – especially in matters that have already been made clear by the Church and Gospel.

But the most basic problem that comes from all of this is the isolation it wounds the millennials with – and this should make us sad.  It is common to experience youth who are growing up in divided homes, divorced and remarried families, with classmates who they can’t find any agreement and friendship is best maintained by avoiding any deep conversation.  And so in both the domestic Church and the universal Church, along with depththe schools and cultures a lack of depth in communion with one another is felt, and we become isolated.  This can actually breed within others a failure to even go deeply into prayer with God, and to share with him the very tender wounds that boil up in our own blood as a result of original sin, past sins, and the isolation of the culture we live in.

Perhaps this isolation is one of the reasons why addictions towards social media, and pornography have escalated.  As a result of not having many people to connect, it becomes easier to express our emotive needs in a manner that doesn’t require the accountability of a face-to-face interaction.  Things can be done with the veil or illusion of anonymity, and as a result young men are being immersed into an affective-illusion of communion, and given a temporary fix to simply “get by.”

Thus in such candidates you might see again a clinging to tradition, not primarily out of a desire to glorify the name of God (though that may be how the argument is presented), but rather out of a desire to heal one’s own isolation, through tangible experiences of solidarity with the past and in the present.  That is perhaps why some men are crying when the simplicity and conformity (material sign of communion) perceived in the past are rejected without a lick of compassion or understanding.  That doesn’t have to be the case, and in many good priests, often is not how it is approached.  The rejection of these external practices is interpreted as a continuation of that isolation and complexity – and furthermore a rejection of their own person.  That is not the right reaction – and it is certainly not the right reason for clinging to such external practices, especially from future priests.  The motivation for the mass and priesthood should not be founded upon some narcissistic need to “heal my wounds” but rather first and foremost give glory to God and say the words that are truly helpful to one another.  If we seek healing while being blinded to the true nature of our wounds we do a lot of damage.  If we do seek healing, it should be out of a love for God and our neighbours.

Possible Healing Remedies

Perhaps for parents I would suggest building up the virtue of speaking about deep-matters with your children, so they are capable of having a deeper type of unity with one another.  It is not enough to simply speak about the faith on a conceptual level, but also to delve more deeply into the very encounters and experiences of God in our life.  This type of communication should be normalized so that it can build the virtue of a strong affective maturity both in relation to God and with others.

Men’s groups should be formed outside of the seminary and prior to seminary formation where men can discuss their love for God as a Father, Brother, and as Love itself in the Spirit.  One does not need to venture into the broad waters of the world to find depth – it is already made known to us in the Creed – we simply need to explore it with depth rather than familiarity.

Chastity groups need to be formed so that the illusions that prolong the inner-healing and capacity for deep interpersonal relationships can be developed.  Furthermore, to overcome interior shame for past sins, it might be helpful for such individuals to experience fraternity and encouragement and challenge in the external forum so that the shame doesn’t keep such men locked into the sin, resulting in a mediocre image of self that always leads to a return to the self-shaming behaviour.  If I don’t measure up to much, I’ll act as if that is the case:  sin.

Discipline and understanding in regard to the use of social media.  The impact of social media can be a good one, especially if it is used in the way it ought to be.  But when people use it to replace the legitimate need for interpersonal relationships – then it becomes unhealthy and builds a habitual way of relating that stunts the affective maturity and capacity for empathy.  We do not want “de-facto” priests – we want priests who speak the truth with love – not with a repressed robotic demeanour – this will only wound the people in their distress.  Furthermore, pulling men away from social media by actually inviting them into a deeper relationship, whereby they feel perused and wanted.  It doesn’t help to merely criticize others, it may only drive them into the addiction further, reaffirming their isolation.

Lastly, and with special emphasis I would say the validation of their wounds from the culture is very much needed.  This is unfortunately hard for the Church, because in doing so, there is some level of recognition that the past generation within the Church has made decisions that have negatively affected the present Church.  And if there is no humility to admit that it is even remotely possible that decisions have been made that have hurt the Church – then there is no real spiritual foundation for a future Church.  Every generation will sin in a unique way – lets not be embarrassed about it, let’s just own it so we can move on.  Now in that regard, it might be helpful not to focus inordinately on blame, because that could actually reinforce a preoccupation with the wound rather than its healing.  So the blame could remain a passive dimension or in the periphery of the vocation-directorvalidation.  That is to say that in validating the candidate’s isolation as a reality that has been imposed upon him unfairly by the world we live in and perhaps his own personal choices, we prevent one major thing from happening:  exaggeration.  When a wound is not validated, the man will typically begin to exaggerate it – and by exaggerating it will only tear it open in a wider fashion.  The exaggeration comes because he wants to be heard and listened to – and so he shouts about it, blowing it out of proportion.  Then in order to prevent feeling like a silly radical in his thoughts he might find support in those who are head of him in this project to “be heard.”  Overtime the exaggeration becomes a falsehood believed as true.   Therefore it becomes a crystallized movement with communal support and validation in all the wrong ways.

If sincere validation is offered for the man, he will have the capacity to “move-on” to other topics.  In being able to cease obsessing and looking upon his woundedness, not through a magnifying glass, he will be then able to see the trees and the forest.  And in seeing things in a deeper context, he will not spend an inordinate amount of time looking at one truth isolated from others.  The problem with only looking at one truth opposed to how all other truths hang together is that it will naturally foster a disjointed relationship between one doctrine and another – and this as we know fosters many of the sects that we encounter in our culture today.

Last of all, what is not needed, as already alluded to, is a reaction against such men – instead of looking at them as a threat, it might be better to see the legitimate wounds that cry out to the Church for healing.  While such wounds can naturally enslave the soul to sin – if they are healed, they can lead to a great character in the priest who will be able to know the healing touch of Christ who does not want to encounter Him broadly but deeply, both through the Church, and in our prayer life.

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Speaking about God Analogically

This blog is for the philosophically minded.  One of the common experiences I have had in discussing “arguments for God’s existence” with non-believers is a common-misunderstanding projected into the arguments themselves.  So I would like to offer an attitude that might help atheists assess scholastic arguments in a different way than perhaps they are familiar.  I don’t mean to imply that they have not understood the position properly, rather I might suggest that things have been explained to them incorrectly, and therefore their disagreement with such arguments might have been reasonable.Thomas Aquinas

When we use the term “God” there is often, within our own mind, some assumed definition that we are working with.  I’d like to, in the name of Socrates begin this blog by stripping away some of those assumed definitions in order to fairly assess scholastic arguments.  First, it is important to consider the language we use, which frames perhaps even the unconscious assumptions we project into the arguments.

 

“Define God”

If we consider the etymology of “definition” we realize that anything which can be defined, must necessarily be finite.  To put-limits (de-finite) on something is a very reasonable thing to do, because it tells us what something is, and it can help us establish the specific difference between that and something else.  Concepts themselves are not infinite – because they have definitions.  Therefore if anyone has a “concept” of God it will always be incorrect.  It is irrational to ask for a definition of that which is not finite; that is a non-definite definition.

 

“If you cannot speak of God conceptually, what is the point of even addressing His existence?”

To speak of something which cannot be conceptualized is to speak of nothing.  As a result, philosophical agnostics/atheists will argue that further conversation is as meaningless as discussing a circle-square (something impossible or intrinsically irrational).  This is an absolutely fair point, but again misunderstands the scholastic tradition itself.  Often in my experience we sometimes assess the possibility of things according to two categories:  it either is conceptual or it is non-cognitive.  However, what is required in order to at least understand the scholastic tradition, one has to be willing to see the discussion in a less of a narrow way, by adding a third way of discussing God.

 

St. Thomas Aquinas, having been influenced by writings of Aristotle and the Islamic understanding of Aristotle explains that there are really three basic ways to address any subject:  univocal, analogical, and negatively.

 

Negative Language

 

Plato and Socrates certainly were able to speak about Justice and Piety in this manner of speech.  They were good at stripping away what was “false” of Justice.  None of this implied to Socrates that Justice itself didn’t exist.  Rather if one could authentically say what Justice-was-not, it did not mean that Justice itself did not exist.  To be able to declare that something was not justice meant that there was some principle at work in Justice-itself, that made it possible to deny what was false of it.  Nonetheless, one might argue that to say something is not justice, does not of itself prove that justice exists.  So to many, while this point can certainly be argued, negative proof isn’t sufficient for belief.socrates

However what can be done in this regard is to speak of the temporal (created or finite or contingent) universe and say what it is not capable of according to reasoning.  So for instance, we might say that a billiard ball will not move itself, but that some external cause will move it.  In saying, “some external cause” we have not finally named some-thing specific, but we have said what cannot happen to that particular billiard ball, in-itself.  Therefore, when speaking of the universe in general, excluding itself as a cause for its own existence, we can conclude that some subject, which is not itself the universe, must be responsible for the universe- itself.  In other words we are saying that all-things-themselves cannot themselves be responsible for their own existence.  One can suggest that something extrinsic is necessary, without submitting a definition for that which is extrinsic.  We in fact do it all the time.

This could be explained in more depth, but it is not really what I’d prefer to zero in on.

 

Univocal Language

Normally the confusion begins with assuming this type of talk about God.  It is the number one reason why false-similes are often used to demonstrate an apparent irrational belief in God.  We hear of flying spaghetti monsters or unicorns and the like, for which there is no epistemological evidence.  These similes hide within themselves a presupposed definition to God where He can be spoken of as if he is definable like such fictional characters.  Pagan gods were often associated with elements in nature or in human relationships, and thus distinguishable from other things.  But the “burning-bush”, suggests Aquinas, offers us a totally new notion of God that is not equal or univocal to the other pagan gods, or any creature or thing.  Aquinas explains that there is a difference between a “thing” and God which is not-a-thing.  What might someone antagonistically argue in response?  sp monster.jpgThey might say, “so God is nothing…case closed.”  But again this reveals a very black-and-white approach that assumes its own conclusion.  We must not be content with such an objection that on the surface seems witty, but in reality demonstrates an inability to understand the scholastic tradition.  I am not suggesting that one must agree with the scholastic tradition, but rather that one must be willing to see its position properly.

When God said to Moses, “I am who I am,” Aquinas explained that God revealed very little about who He was, and yet at the same-time a great deal.  He revealed that His essence was His existence – that will be explained below.  The Jews, earlier-on were considered to adhere to Monolatry, which is to ascribe to the worship of one god among many.  But when God spoke to Moses in the burning Bush he revealed Monotheism instead, whereby God was not definable (he had no name).  Of course, the paradox then began to form where God’s name was that He had no name/definition.  Why would the Jews find this to be something to brag about?  It demonstrated that God was utterly transcendent of definition/genus.  It was not to suggest that God did not have a name because He didn’t exist, but rather He didn’t have a definition because He was in/non-finite.  And therefore we can establish that two realities can be spoken of in a manner that they have no definition:  that which is not, and that which is, yet different than that which is-and-is-finite.

We must then consider how we speak of “things,” things that don’t exists, and that which is not a thing (if we can assume thing here means a definable reality), yet is real.  Things are spoken of within a temporal framework, that is “here, there, where, when” etc..  The castle is over there, my mother is at home, my brother is tall, and I am sitting down.  But what we cannot do is say that God is over-there, and He is 6 feet tall, in my mother’s house.  All of a sudden we have collapsed God into quantitative realities that are finite and limited, and thus begun to treat God as if He has finite dimensions.

So how can we discuss God at all, if not through finite concepts used univocally?  I suppose in one sense we cannot, because all language is made up of words that are connected to concepts which have definitions.  And yet philosophers, theologians, and believers have written any number of books, most especially sacred texts.  Isn’t that hypocritical?  It is as if the language is meant to be interpreted as absolute, final, and definite.  But if it is non-exhaustive or analogical, then it is acceptable.

Analogical Language

Any word used and attributed to God, will automatically be insufficient and incapable of finally explaining/summarizing God.  But that does not mean it isn’t speaking a truth about God, it just means that whatever we are saying is always going to be incomplete.  This is challenging to the human person, because we are seemingly wired to have a definition of whatever subject we are discussing.  However, if we can accept that God is infinite, we must understand that it is unreasonable to expect our finite-mind to contain something infinite.  It would be like trying to fit an ocean into a wine-glass, except the ocean is infinitely larger than Earth’s.

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Therefore, there is some rational basis in accepting the fact that our mind cannot contain God through what logicians would call deduction.  But if we can get past our need to submit all knowledge to our own finite-mind, then we can begin to appreciate analogical language which offers us insight that is non-exhaustive but nonetheless true.  This is the middle-position between univocal language and negative language, whereby we can apply a concept to God, but only sacramentally or analogically.  Like saying:  food is good, health is good, and God is good, but infinitely.

 

Where do we go wrong?

After the protestant reformation a new way of looking at God developed which had been developing prior to the reformation.  It is what some might call deism, whereby God created the universe, wound it up, and watched it, remotely, unfold.  This, I would say has shaped many minds in both theology and atheism in terms of how we conceptualize discussions about God.

On the one hand, the validation of God as being extrinsic to the universe seems to be similar to the scholastic tradition.  But I would argue that deism doesn’t argue for a true extrinsic God, but in fact a temporal type of extrinsic (remote) relation.  For instance, one might say that I am extrinsic to my house, since I am at the store.  Yet both my house and I are temporal.  But when you say that God is extrinsic to the universe-itself (or all-things), you are saying something quite different.  You are suggesting that God is extrinsic to extension and temporal realities in general.  In other words, deism treats God as if he is extrinsic to the universe is a temporal way, which ends up containing within itself an inherent bible-thumpercontradiction or perhaps equivocation with the term “universe.”  Treating God as if he were an object or thing, greater than the universe, is still nonetheless to treat Him as if He has a definition.  Some reformers understood this contradiction, but walked around it by suggesting that faith did not need to be tested by reason, and therefore God was capable of contradicting reason.  This is when fundamentalism became all the more popular within the Christian communities, and what we might call fideism and rationalism were born as a result.

St. John Paul II, who follows Aquinas (scholasticism) and a phenomenological approach to the question of faith in relation to reason.  He explained that both need to be in dialogue with one another, whereby reason can prevent faith from degenerating into superstition and faith can help prevent reason from degenerating into idolatry of the human-mind (treating the mind as if it is infinite).  Filling-in-the-gaps is often associated with the fideistic tradition because one decides to make reason justify one’s faith at whatever cost, which can amount to nothing more than an internal system with few epistemic foundations that ground the belief fairly.  Aquinas taught that if anything interpreted in scripture was ever disproven by science that would imply that our interpretation of that passage had been misunderstood, and was meant to be understood in an allegorical manner instead.  The view that the Church had long held onto a fundamentalist view of scripture has heavily influenced non-believer’s view of the relation between faith and reason, an unfortunate result of both fundamentalism and an a-historical account of the Galileo episode.  In the Galileo episode, the Church did not so much contend with the conclusions of Galileo but rather his methodology which scientists have admitted was very problematic.  His approach was imperfect, as he ascribed to the tide of the ocean as justification for the heliocentric model.  Furthermore, he began to publicly decry scripture as infallible at a time after the protestant reformation when the Church was trying to explain its view of scripture to fundamentalists.

 

The view which suggests infallibility without adhering to a literalistic model.  The infallibility of scripture was communicated both through poetry (Psalms), through stories (with a mixture of historical truth and fictive), and historical accounts.  This had been long understood by the Church Fathers in the onset of the Church’s existence, and the writers of scripture who took pagan stories (such as Creation, the great flood, and so on) and noahtweaked, during enslavement in Babylon was an attempt communicate their own theology through redeeming their own stories.  Think of remade movies that offer a different twist to convey a new ideology that either contradicts one in the previous film or makes the issue more relevant to what is currently taking place in the world.  This type of authorship of scripture respects the very human-dimensions of authorship and does not apply a dictatorial approach to scripture which is both unrealistic and problematic.  The point of the story is to convey a message, a truth, whether it is historical, poetic or fictive or a mix of both.  It’s that message that is infallible.  This is why when atheists or liberal theologians who seek to deny infallibility, take passages and oppose them to each other superficially, it doesn’t even begin to touch Catholic theology.  The reason is that moral truths also involve taking into consideration context, where in one case killing is wrong, but in another case might not be.  The absoluteness of morality is not relativized but the complexity of moral situations and the application of immutable principles is respected and demonstrated in scripture.

 

Ipsum Esse

Understanding God’s revelation to Moses about His holy name is key because it is a great example of how reason and faith intersect on this particular subject.  As I stated earlier, God reveals that He doesn’t have a name; of course the Jews take an ironic step by making God’s namelessness His name.  They begin to boast of a God who, unlike all other gods, cannot be summarized, explained, defined or controlled by our own conceptualizations.  This is true and genuine transcendence that the Jews uphold, and it might seem to make God more distant, but in fact it does the exact opposite if understood properly.

Consider the burning bush an illustration from God of both his transcendence and presence.  God’s transcendence is not to be understood like that of the deistic model; that would just place God far out in outer space.  Rather, God’s transcendence means his mode-of-existence differs from our own.  When the Bush is burning, without itself being consumed this becomes an illustration of who God is.  God, as Bishop Robert Barron mosesbush-gifsuggests, exists in non-competitive relationship with His creation.  All things are generally in competition with each other, since two objects cannot occupy the same space.  Generally fire consumes what it burns, but in the case of God, he can both be present to something, and not destroy it in the process.

How can we understand this notion?  Aquinas uses Aristotelian language to explain it.  He explains that “God’s essence is His existence.”  Or that God is the shear act-to-exist.  To many this sounds either entirely absurd or panentheistic.  It is neither to the scholastic.  God is not the “sum-total of beings” which would be properly considered panentheism.  It is not absurd either, because the explanation is not self-contradictory.

Generally when speaking of things we differentiate between their essence and their existence.  A thing is its essence, and its essence has existence.  That is to say that a pen has a definition (essence), and that essence either exists at a certain time or place or doesn’t.  This implies that all things that exist do not explain themselves.  If a thing has the potential to not exist, then when it does exist, it must be explainable.  In other words, if it could-not-be, why is it?

This brings us to Aquinas argument from contingency which many have interpreted to be reducible to a question of mere local-motion.  However, the question pertains to a different type of motion that we might call essential-motion or necessary motion of that which is contingent (that which isn’t self-explanatory).

What we realize from all of this is that all things which are their essence but not their existence (the entire universe) they cannot explain themselves.  God on the other hand, as we have stated previously is not a contingent being, and as explained to Moses “He is who He is.”  But furthermore, God’s essence-is-his existence.  That is to say that God is suggested to not merely be something that has existence (that would only prolong the problem of contingency), but rather is the shear-act-to exist.

To many this would be confusing because we cannot conceptualize what that “looks-like.”  What does “existence-itself” look like?  Again the human mind, out of habit, is trying to conceptualize something that cannot be conceptualized.  The mind is trying to hard-thinkingthink of something parallel to that which has no parallel or synonym.  But it might help to consider the relationship between those things which “have-existence” to that which “is-existence.”  That is to say that those things which “have-existence” are in fact “participating in God’s own essence.”  Just like the burning bush was not consumed by the fire, so a human person’s existence is compatible with God, who is existence-itself.

This presents an entirely different notion of creation than the deistic model.  Instead of God standing outside of existence in a temporal manner, God’s creation becomes intimately present to all things via concomitance and dependence.  This means that to a God that is a-temporal creation is not something that happened, but is something that continues to happen in the moment.  And while things have a nature of their own and a linear projection, that whole process is held up by God.  In my experience this is where most people check out because they are emotionally invested in only understanding the deistic model.

I suppose the hope of this blog was not really to convince anyone – but rather to merely inform others of a genuine understanding of an alternative view in regard to the rational basis for belief in God.  If that was accomplished, at least dialogue that isn’t slowed down by equivocation or misinterpretation.  Perhaps we could speak to more fundamental questions in regard to essence or the form of things, contingency in light of quantum mechanics and string-theory.

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Vanity and a Sacrifice Acceptable: Honour, Pleasure, Wealth and Power

In the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time we visited the book of Ecclesiastes, exposing ourselves to a challenging teaching from our Lord.  We are reminded that the entire world, and all its endeavours are “vanity.”  This seems strange to state, because we know that God created the world, and that the world was good (Gen 1:31).  So how can we understand scripture calling all things “vanity” if they are also good?

BMWBishopIt might help to understand what the term “vanity” actually meant in the language it was written.  The word could more properly be termed “bubble.”  You know, those empty things that come into existence and out of existence in the twinkle of an eye!  Yes, the world, as good and as beautiful as it is, is passing into existence and abruptly out of existence:  it doesn’t last.  Therefore, it would be like building a sandcastle and placing all your hope into that castle – until the tide comes to wipe it away (Matt 7: 24-27).  No matter how many times it is rebuilt, the tide will always come in to wipe it away – and so in this sense, such efforts are in vain – they are bubbles to burst.

What does this teach us about ourselves as human beings?  It teaches us that within our own nature, within mankind’s vocation, there is a place where we ought to channel all of our energy towards that which is transcendent of bubbles, or that which is going out of existence.  What is it that transcends the world?  It would be that which “does not pass into and out of being” but rather that which is Eternal – God.

We are all built for happiness, as Aristotle suggested.  It is the ultimate desire for which every human being lives and breathes.  But it isn’t a vain happiness that bursts and passes out of existence.  How much grief does one go through when they place all their hopes in such bubbles – and yet they all come to nothing.  There are many sentiments which repress the very grief that has been experience – some might say, “it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved before.”  And as true as this might sound, and popular to quote, saying it doesn’t change the fact that such a person whishes that loss never happened.  That intuitive response is not unreasonable, it is rather a revelation into our very nature, and what it longs for:  eternal love – and this comes from God alone.

We sometimes cling to such bubbles because deep down we believe that is all there is.  We want to forget or put aside for the moment, the reality that such good things will come to an end, and thereby turn such created bubbles into our own Idol.  This is a lack of faith in God, who has prepared for us a heavenly homeland.  Heaven is the reason we were created – it is our destination, configured and programed into each soul.

According to Aristotle, when we come into contact with something good and beautiful, our soul is impressed with what he called the “intentional form” of the object of our sensation.  All that means is that our soul is impressed with the beauty and goodness of that created thing in such a way that we become one with it.  When you see a beautiful sunset, and leave that sunset, that beauty continues to live on in your own soul, although its beauty is finite.  Therefore, we want to see more, and that impression it leaves on us, leaves us with an incredible thirst for a never-ending show of beauty.  It gives us a foretaste of something we long for even more.  This reveals, once again, that we are longing for more than just earthly water, as the woman at the well did (John 4).  She continued to go back for more, but as always thirsty for more until Christ offered her water that would leave her finally satisfied.  judgment

Likewise, Christ reveals that the water that will satisfy us is Himself, and nothing else.  Therefore, when we enter into heaven we are told that we will see God face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12).  In that vision of God, He will impress His own divine Substance (infinite beauty, Love, and goodness) upon our own soul, and we will become One-with-Him.  This is a type of marriage (Revelation 19:6-9), where the true spouse of our soul will be known intimately, and we will be better for it – and become Him, insofar as we are impressed, within our soul with Him.

St John Damascene writes,

‘Since the Creator bestowed on us His own image and Spirit, and we did not keep them secure, He Himself took a share of our poor and weak nature so that He might cleanse us, and make us incorruptible, while reinstating us as participants in His Divinity.’

St Maximos the Confessor says,

‘A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to the Deification of human nature is provided by the Incarnation of God, which makes man God, to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became without sin will make human nature divine, and will raise it up for His own sake, and to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake.’”

Imagine, therefore, for a moment that we are infused with the infinite beauty and goodness of a God who never dies, never “pops,” like the vain things within our world.  Is this not worthy of leaving all things behind?

Therefore let us critically examine what St. Thomas Aquinas referred to as the four idols that we could possibly worship above God:  Honour, Power, Pleasure, and Wealth.

At the end of the day, these are the four idols that we can be ensnared and enslaved in.  There are people who are spiritually unaware that they are motivated by these four idols, and while they might condemn them visibly they are entirely blind to how they bring incredible misery to themselves and others.

What is required is to be “awoken” by divine light to these four weeds that grow strong in every human heart?  We must learn to identify them concretely, not generally and with the safety of ambiguity and vagueness.  Awaken soul!

What is the remedy to these four idols, with which we must learn detachment.  First we must realize that they are not of themselves evil, but become evil when they are placed at the centre of our lives.  We mustn’t have a repressed view of these four things, but rather place them where they belong:  second to God.  The ultimate remedy however is the Crucified Christ who by His crucifixion was willing to be concretely detached from all four in order to conform Himself to God’s will.

The Crucifixion reveals the ultimate detachment of worldly goods, when He is dishonoured, abandoned, dejected and accused of blasphemy.  Christ is tortured both Nun Crossphysically and emotionally to the point where in his affect and intellect He can no longer sense or understand how the Father remains present to Him (Matt 27:46).  Although Christ “felt” such abandonment, He did not cooperate with such darkness of mind and heart, but rather abided in His Father by virtue of His human will.  Apart from this unpleasant experience, He too forsake all worldly possessions as even His garments were taken away and He was humiliated in His nakedness upon the Cross.  He came into the world, and He leaves the world poor.  Finally, as His hands and feet are nailed to the cross, in His human nature he becomes subject to the futility of suffering, powerless and entirely passive to such cruelty.  It isn’t the type of passivity where Christ becomes agreeable to the wicked insults and demands of His persecutors, but rather he simply allows such evil and malice to come crashing down upon Him.  Why?  Because happiness is not found in Power, Pleasure, Honour or Wealth – Christ reveals it is found in doing God’s will, and being willingly to leave all things to enter Heaven.  Therefore, Christ teaches us that if we long and love God, we can be happy or joyful even on the Cross.  Perhaps not the type of happiness that is felt in an emotional manner, but the peace that transcends understanding (Phillipians 4:7).

Applying these Teachings

Jesus gives us the image that the Road to Heaven is narrow (Matt 7:14).  Thinking critically this means that we enter heaven with literally nothing.  You cannot fit through a narrow door when you are carrying a great deal of baggage.  This is why St. John of the Cross teaches that the true path into heaven is “Nada” (nothing).

The object of our desire is God Himself – He is the prize we are zealously looking for.  God wants to give us the best, and it just so happens that God is the best. And so in order for us to receive Him, we need to be willing to leave all things behind, so that in transition between this life and the next we can pass through that narrow gate.Eucharist

Whenever we celebrate mass, we note that the procession of gifts takes place prior to the consecration.  Our gifts should be looked at as giving away these four idols – the honour, pleasure, wealth and power that we cling to.  We are saying to God, I’m willing to put all of these aside out of love for you and in searching for you.  What God does through the priest is He takes these four things which we offer, symbolized by Bread and Wine, and he changes them into Himself.  Therefore, what we have longed for, and been working towards through detachment becomes available to us at every mass.  Therefore, look at all the work you do throughout the week as a sacrifice “acceptable” to God, a sacrifice that Christ will take, carried spiritually by your guardian angel to the foot of the Altar.  It is amazing how our sacrifice of all the world actually is changed into that which we desire most:  the Body, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

In this year of mercy, I might suggest you examine those Spiritual and Corporeal acts of mercy that involve detachment from your comfort zone in these four areas.  What will bring you dishonour, what might cause you to spend some money, what might detach you from pleasure and personal comfort, and finally what power do you need to give up in order to be merciful to others.  Do these things and God will bless you with a fruitful reception of Holy Communion, where your heart and soul are truly open to and longing for God.

 

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Ipsum Esse’s Clash with Atheism and Protestantism: How Protestant Reformers Secularized the West (unintentionally)

One of the theological controversies that has existed for awhile between Catholics and Protestants is the notion of God’s authority being handed down to the Church in a concrete manner, both through sacrament and through spiritual authority in the activity of evangelization.   As the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the Gospel (John 20: 17) gives us a chance to reexamine this controversy by what might confound or confuse many people.  The Catholic Church’s position claims that Christ and the Church are one, and that the Church has been given such authority which hinges upon a teaching sometimes coined as “Ipsum Esse.”  We will examine this doctrine, whereby we can understand how Christ and His Church forgives sins.

 

Scriptural Analysis of the Church’s Authority:

 

John 20: 17

“Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Ascension

Why might this passage confuse people?  The common assumption is that when Jesus ascends into heaven He becomes more remote or distant from those in the world.  Therefore, how could a person “hold onto” Christ if it was impossible to hold onto Him as he becomes separated from our earthly, tangible, experience?

Let’s reexamine John 14:18-19

“‘I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.  Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also.'”

Jesus reveals to us that the “world” will be incapable of seeing Christ, but that those who have faith will be able to perceive and experience Christ.

Here is a note from Scott Hahn on the previous passage:

“When Jesus withdraws his visible presence from the world, he does not withdraw his spiritual presence.  Christ is always present in His Church, especially in the liturgy, where he ministers through his priests, speaks through the Scriptures, and sanctifies us through the sacraments (CCC 788, 1380).”

Faith, a supernatural gift infused in the soul enables us to be able to encounter the Divine Substance (God) communicated through sign and sacrament.  This involves all of creation, as well as the sacraments Christ Himself instituted through the Catholic Church.  Consider the following passage:

Luke 24:30-32

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.  They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?'”

 

Scott Hahn says in regard to this passage:

“…Here the disciples encounter Christ in a spiritual way, discerning his presence in the meal….The Structure of the Emmaus episode reflects the structure of the Eucharistic Liturgy, where Jesus gives himself to the Church in word and sacrament, in the proclamation of scripture and in the Eucharistic Bread of life.”

 

In other words, Jesus enables the soul to encounter Him in a different way than when He was localized by flesh-and-bone, and now becomes more accessible in His presence by the Power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to encounter Christ in such a manner, and this again is why Jesus states that He must ascend to His Father: John 16:7

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.”

Scott Hahn remarks on this passage by saying:

“Greater Blessings will come when the Spirit dwells within them at Pentecost (14:17; Acts 2:1-4).  Chief among these benefits will be the power (1) to proclaim the gospel with boldness (Acts 1:8, 4:31), (2) to preserve and understand the truth in its fullness (16:13), (3) to give witness to Jesus in times of persecution (Lk 12:11-12), and (4) to fulfill the just requirements of God’s Law (Rom 8:4).”

What we can also take away from this passage is that Christ necessarily needs to Ascend into Heaven in order for the Holy Spirit to take on a greater activity within the Church.  This is why in the Acts of the Apostles it becomes difficult in some cases to distinguish between the words, behaviour and miracles performed by the Apostles and Christ’s own ministry prior to His Ascension.  It becomes apparent that Christ now is present in His Church through those who “follow” Him.  Therefore, Christ manifests His presence in a much more Universal (catholic) manner, not locked into the disadvantage of one temporal body, but locked into the Church which has become the “hands and feet” of Christ, His Mystical Body, that extends itself to the four corners of the earth – to every nation.  And with that organized body and its various charisms, comes also the Sacramental power of the Priesthood to “forgive sins.”

PenecostThis is often argued against by various protestants who reject the ecclesial authority to forgive sins, re-echoing what was stated earlier in scripture, who can forgive sins but God alone? (Mark 2:7).  It might be argued by them that we are to merely proclaim the forgiveness of sins(Luke 24:  46-47), however this does not represent the fullest biblical truth, whereby Christ commissions the Apostles: “but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), “and He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” (John 20: 22-23),  “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21), “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18), “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” [i.e. the power of the Apostles did not die with them]  (Matt. 28:19–20).    Yet it if Christ’s Spirit is truly within the Church, is it not the Divine Life that mankind now shares with God that forgives sins?  There is no doubt that the proper context to the commission is united to the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives power and authority to operate as the very body of Christ.  It is that unity whereby Christ can forgive through the Apostles who share in his ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).  Therefore, it is both the Apostle (Priesthood) in his humanity who has been infused with the “person of Christ” that forgives sins – there is no need to create a dichotomy – that certainly wasn’t the case with St. Paul.

“Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive.  What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.”  (2 Cor 2:10)

confessionSt. Paul understood well, from Christ’s own words that the Church and Christ were one in regard to the Authority the Church wielded.  It was Christ who taught St. Paul this lesson when Christ asked Him the question:  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).  In Saul’s mind, he wasn’t persecuting God, he was persecuting the Church, but in the mind of God, both had become One, and this is why St. Paul often refers to the Church as the Body of Christ.  Would it make sense to suggest that the Body of Christ, infused with the Spirit of Christ had no authority,  and God was somehow separate from it?  Would we not be contradicting both scripture and reason in such a process?  Perhaps the same uncomfortable theological problem that existed within the minds of the Pharisees still exists within the Christian community today:  that God and Man can actually be reconciled both in nature (the Incarnation) and through Grace (the Church).  Therefore, to reject the notion that the Church actually has the same authority of Christ in its faithful living out of the Gospel is to spiritually recapitulate both the persecution of God Himself (Acts 9:4), and to deny the possibility of the Incarnation of God (Mark 2:7).  And although this argument is full proof, it still nonetheless requires the gift of faith to see.  Jesus who spoke in a number of parables was often not understood well, and as a result his teachings revealed vividly those who were not open in Spirit to what He had to teach.

You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted
and I heal them. 

(Matt 13: 14b-15; c.f. Is 6:9-10)

 

Philosophical + Theological Analysis:

 

While we cannot broadly brand each protestant with the same theology because of the massive splintering of sects that exist today, we can look to some trends within the theological discourses of the reformers that have affected how we perceive this matter.  During the so-called “Enlightenment” when scholasticism was put at odds with the scientific method (not in reality, but in the minds of many) a common-dichotomy arose that was actually embraced by some of the protestant sects.  These categories may be expressed as “fideism and rationalism” whereby faith and reason were no longer considered to be unified by a reasoned-coherent “fittingness” between the anthropology of man on an ontological level and the revelation of Christ as the solution to all of man’s problems.   Fundamentalism was born in Christianity.  Faith and Reason were now in some cases two totally different arenas of thought that needed to be divorced or separated from each other in order to purify both of each other.  Fundamentalists began to read scripture out of context (which naturally happens when you exclude reason), by suggesting that human philosophies (critiquing Aquinas, Augustine, the Councils) were contrary to the importance of faith “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Col 2:8)  Of course the failure in appealing to this passage was in being reluctant to admit that the particular type of philosophy that was arising at this time amongst the Early Christians was Gnosticism, a particular type of philosophy that ran contrary to what had already been revealed to the early Christians by Christ Himself.

Here is what Scott Hahn says about this passage:

“Although this term can refer to speculative theories about God, man, and the universe, it was also used by Hellenistic Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo to refer to the Jewish way of life.  This is probably Paul’s meaning here.  It is true, nevertheless, that every philosophy is vain that disregards or denounces what God has revealed as good, true, and beautiful through Jesus Christ.”  The “elements or rudiments…is used seven times in the New Testament and is common in Greek literature.  It can refer to the material elements of the cosmos, like earth, air, water, and fire or to heavenly bodies, like the sun, moon, and stars (Wis 7:17).  It can also refer to angels or demons that regulate the course and movement of these elements.  These ideas are closely connected with ancient forms of worship.  For idolatrous Gentiles, the elements were deified and worshiped as gods’ (Wis 12:1-2; Gal 4:8).  For ancient Israel, the liturgical calendar was determined by the rhythm of the elements, especially by the cycles of the sun and moon (Gen 1:14; Sir 43:1-8).  Paul groups the worship of Israel and the nations together, since both are subservient to these visible and invisible elements of the natural order (Gal 4:9).  In contrast to this old order, Paul stresses that Christ is seated far above all things seen and unseen (Col 3:1-3).  United with him, believers no longer worship within the confines of the created world, but through the sacraments they enter a new order of worship that is supernatural and heavenly, where Christ lifts them far above the created elements of the cosmos (John 4:21-24; Gal 4:3; Heb 12:22-24; Rev 4-5).”

It seems readily apparent that St. Paul is not condemning the usage of philosophy in a broad manner, but the type of philosophy that deceives us away from God and points us towards the worldly.  In fact, scripture itself teaches us that simple human reasoning should actually lead us to a belief in God.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds, or animals or reptiles.”   (Romans 1: 19-23)

From this passage it becomes remarkably evident that reasoning (good-philosophy) is implied to have been available to the people leading them to a knowledge of God.  This type of knowledge was given to them in the context of creation which was “made.”  This implies that just by their own experience of creation there is a reasonable connection between observing the world and coming to know God through what He has created.  This is probably one of the simplest summaries of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy when he baptized Aristotle’s natural law. Aquinas Mary and Aristotle

One author by the name of Brad S. Gregory suggests (here) that the protestant reformation is actually linked (albeit unintentionally) to the secularization of the west.  By the mere fact, he argues, that faith and reasoning have been divorced in our universities and schools we see very clearly how the state and the Church have been not only distinguished in their vocation, but divorced.  It was the case that the relationship between both were meant to be complimentary, but the human law which is founded upon human reason was now polluted by the idolatry that St. Paul warned against, and thus reasoning is no longer purified by the grace of faith.  Likewise we also see a great rise in superstitious belief systems which appeal to “magic” and place a hyperbolic focus on man’s capacity to change and bend reality existentially (New-Age-Gnosticism).  All of these problems arise simply because there is a failure to see how faith and reason can be integrated into one another.

St. John Paul II wisely stated in his document “Fides et Ratio” (Faith and Reason):

“Saint Paul has in mind when he puts the Colossians on their guard: “See to it that no-one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ” (2:8). The Apostle’s words seem all too pertinent now if we apply them to the various kinds of esoteric superstition widespread today, even among some believers who lack a proper critical sense. Following Saint Paul, other writers of the early centuries, especially Saint Irenaeus and Tertullian, sound the alarm when confronted with a cultural perspective which sought to subordinate the truth of Revelation to the interpretation of the philosophers.

Christianity’s engagement with philosophy was therefore neither straight-forward nor immediate. The practice of philosophy and attendance at philosophical schools seemed to the first Christians more of a disturbance than an opportunity. For them, the first and most urgent task was the proclamation of the Risen Christ by way of a personal encounter which would bring the listener to conversion of heart and the request for Baptism. But that does not mean that they ignored the task of deepening the understanding of faith and its motivations. Quite the contrary. That is why the criticism of Celsus—that Christians were “illiterate and uncouth”31—is unfounded and untrue. Their initial disinterest is to be explained on other grounds. The encounter with the Gospel offered such a satisfying answer to the hitherto unresolved question of life’s meaning that delving into the philosophers seemed to them something remote and in some ways outmoded….

It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition. By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being….

If the Magisterium has spoken out more frequently since the middle of the last century, it is because in that period not a few Catholics felt it their duty to counter various streams of modern thought with a philosophy of their own. At this point, the Magisterium of the Church was obliged to be vigilant lest these philosophies developed in ways which were themselves erroneous and negative. The censures were delivered even-handedly: on the one hand, fideism 59 and radical traditionalism,60 for their distrust of reason’s natural capacities, and, on the other, rationalism 61 and ontologism 62 because they attributed to natural reason a knowledge which only the light of faith could confer. The positive elements of this debate were assembled in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, in which for the first time an Ecumenical Council—in this case, the First Vatican Council—pronounced solemnly on the relationship between reason and faith. The teaching contained in this document strongly and positively marked the philosophical research of many believers and remains today a standard reference-point for correct and coherent Christian thinking in this regard.”  (Fides et Ratio, 37-38, 48 ,52)

If we are to summarize one main point within St. John Paul II’s reflection here, it is that faith without reason leads to superstition, and reason without faith leads to idolatry.  But let us take it a step further – to suggest that faith and reason cannot be united in both the classroom and university, and parliament and our world is to ultimately deny the possibility of the Incarnation of Christ.

For many this is a hard connection to make, but allow me to illustrate why it is necessarily the case.  If faith and reason cannot be reconciled to each other in a dialogue and unity of harmony, than it must be synonymously stated that God – to whom faith speaks about – cannot be reconciled to man – who is a rational creature.   Yet we know it was in Christ taking on our rational, intellectual and yet limited nature that he “reconciled all things in Himself” (Col 1:20).  To suggest that there is still an infinite gap between God and Man is to suggest that the incarnation never took place.  None of this turns philosophy into some sort of infinite potential to come to the conclusion all by itself of a Triune God – that is what God had to reveal.  But the relationship nonetheless understands after it has been revealed what the implications of such a God have on our own life in the context that it is meant to be understood.

Let’s examine therefore why it is possible for faith and reason, nay, God and Man to be united as we see both in Christ’s through Nature, and in the Church through His grace.  If it was the case that God could not be reconciled to human-reasoning, than it would be the case that sacraments along with God’s incarnation would be impossible.  This is why it is relevant to examine critically.

Ipsum Esse

One of the best illustrations of the strange type of unity between God and His Creation was demonstrated in Exodus in the burning bush.

“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt….God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’”  (Exodus 3:2-3, 14)burning bush

In this scene, Moses encounters something revealing about the nature of God in relationship to creation.  Normally when a fire (which represents the presence of God) is blazing it contradicts the nature of what it burns.  In that contrariety or competition the bush does not survive the lick of the flames and is burned up, but here God’s presence is not a contrary force to the Bush, and is therefore not in competition with it.  From this we can deduce that God does not occupy a space or a time like other objects within the universe, and yet can still be united to creation, but in a mode we are not familiar with.  This leads us to understand that if God were similar in nature to created things he would be in competition like fire consuming a bush, but because He is so vastly different than creation he is able to find a compatibility with it; to be united to it on a deep and mystical level.  This is why God then continues by revealing His own name by saying, “I am who I am.”  In that invocation God reveals that He is not like the pagan gods who were often associated with elemental forces like a river or sun.  Rather God has no “category” or concept that He fits into.  In logical terminology this would mean that God doesn’t have a definition or a “genus.”  It might help to understand the etymology of the term “definition” which literally means to “put limits” on something.  When we define something in reality we are saying what it is, and what it is not.  A dog is not the moon, and a nacho is not an ocean.  Definitions are only given to created things because they are limited, but God is without limits.  Therefore, Moses has no grasp or control over God intellectually or by way of a name, because He cannot put Him into a box, he cannot limit God’s out-reach over creation, God arises (transcends) above it all.

Later development in theology led to St. Thomas Aquinas examining more carefully the implications of God’s own words by saying, “I am who I am.”  In that statement, Aquinas began to analyze the difference between an essence and that which exists.  An essence of a thing is generally what makes it what it is – its defining principle that exists within itself – its nature.  Existence is different than an essence because a thing cannot have an essence without also existing, but not all things that exist share the same essence.  This might be where I am losing you – all this philosophical language, Fr. Chris is too much!  But bare with me, because its important.  If you don’t get it at first, be assured that is quite normal.  It takes some wrestling.

Lets examine something like a river – it has a definition that makes it different than a lake or an ocean.  But both a lake and a river exist.  What we cannot say about both the river and the lake is that their essence is to exist, but rather their essence is to be a river or a lake.   Rather we would say that their essence is to be a lake or a river, and that they happen to exist here or there.

But because God is not like anything else, the distinction between essence and existence becomes somewhat lost.  While it applies to all things that are definite, and limited, in God when He says, “I am who I am” God is actually saying, “My essence is my existence.”   This is sometimes referred to as “Ipsum Esse.”  All of a sudden we are not treating God as if He is another object with a particular type of essence.  This is what makes the “New Atheist’s” arguments entirelydawkins irrelevant to the Catholic – we cannot even begin to take them seriously when they cleverly suggest that faith in God is as rational as a faith in a “flying spaghetti monster.”  Such a dreamt up “monster” already has a definition according to the language using to describe it as such, and therefore fails to be an adequate parallel.  As a result of treating God as if He has an essence like other things that exist and have essences we again place God into a box by implying He has a definition.  It would be a contradiction to defend this theory by suggesting that God doesn’t have a definition but does have an essence alike other things, because anything that is infinite is to synonymously say it is non-finite – or non-definitive.

So what is God?  What a great question, and that is exactly what Moses was asking.  Unfortunately the mind of Moses along with every human being is far too small to comprehend it – for our brain is only capable of comprehending concepts that are finite.  To ask God to somehow reveal himself absolutely to us would be an impossible task, given our own limitations which prevent our mind from comprehending that which is unlimited.  But what we can grasp to some extent is the idea that God’s essence is existence.  While all of creation has existence, we cannot say that all of creation “is” existence.  Thereby we conclude that to say something “is” existence is not to suggest that whatever that “is” is the total sum of creation.  Sometimes this statement, that God’s essence is His existence is thought to be pantheism.  But if that were the case, it would be more accurate to say that God is not existence per se (itself), but that God is the sum total collection of things that are not existence but have existence.  And honestly, who can make rational sense out of that?

Rather, God’s essence is the very reality of existence which means, consequently, that all of creation “participates” in God’s divine-substance by the mere fact that we have existence.  This therefore means that every single thing that exists is sustained by God’s will, including every hair on our head (Luke 12:7).  Or as Acts 17:28 suggests:  “For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.” 

This confronts the very problematic doctrine of Deism which is the typical genre of Christianity or theism criticized by contemporary atheists.  Catholicism and Scholasticism does not attribute a belief to a God who operates as a “watchmaker,” winding up the universe and letting it go as He stands outside of it, watching in His own “remote” or distant manner.  Rather to exist is to be immersed in the very substance of God.

What does the burning bush than reveal to us?  If we exist, God’s flame (presence, essence) is already united to us.  If God is existence, and we have existence, we therefore “have” God.

With this doctrine we can therefore understand why God choose to be incarnate in the human body and soul of Jesus.  All that existed already was united to God in its nature,annunciation but in terms of our relationship through sin, death, a type of destruction of our being (though not of our soul, which was created to be eternal) was the result of departing from God.  That is to say, in a loose sense, to reject God was to reject our own existence, and that is why death was the punishment, naturally following from our decision to hide from God, who is existence.  Therefore the one aspect of our being that is corruptible by nature, ceased-to-be; our body became separated from our soul.

It might also be helpful to realize, especially for the protestant to reflect on Christ’s statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  (John 14:6).  Truth is defined as, “that which is.”  So there really is no difference between God saying He is existence per se (itself) and saying He is the Truth (per se).  Likewise, can a “way” be accessible if it doesn’t somehow exist?  Likewise, what about life?  What we begin to realize is that to have life, to know the way, all means we are participating in God’s own Trinitarian inner-being.  We are not participating in it by our own nature, but by the gift of grace, particularly adoption, in being called sons and daughter of God.

It is not so much that our existence is somehow disjointed from God’s, as we see in the deistic model formulated during the enlightenment, but rather we begin to encounter the realization that to exist and to be fulfilled is to merely participate in God’s own life and being.

If however there was a dichotomy between faith and reason, God and man, it would be the case that such a unity would be impossible.  In the minds of many Christians, we encounter this deistic model – which has rabid spiritual implications that are deadly to the soul.  First it places God into a remote relationship with us, whereby He is merely another defined being who exists external to our senses.  That external God becomes aloof and incapable of being united to us in a meaningful way.

Secondly, it makes a mockery out of Christ’s own words in scripture already alluded to in regard to Him sending His Holy Spirit.  Therefore, we can say with great confidence that when God was incarnate, both God and Man, fully both, we begin to understand why such a union was not a violent or contradictory action that debases reason and sensibility; but rather it was an incredibly fitting way for God who is always united to us on such a profoundly intimate level to become united to us by way of the Second Person in His own human flesh.

Likewise, if it is the pattern of our God to make Himself present through physical interactions in the created universe, one cannot thereby accuse Sacramentality of being somehow superstitious as we often hear from some of the anti-catholic rhetoric of our fundamentalist brothers and sister in regard to the Eucharist.  To make such a suggestion not only blasphemes Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and re-echoes God’s question to such persons:  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? “(Acts 9:4), but by extension also accuses the very doctrine of the Incarnation of being superstitious, since both are possible by the same logic.  And finally it brings to life the abandonment of Christ we see in John 6, with those who found this teaching difficult.

Faith, a gift from God is safeguarded, therefore by the Church’s preserving good-philosophy, but that reasoning is preserved by the gift of grace whereby our mind is healed of pride which places logs into our eyes preventing us from seeing beyond our prejudice.  It therefore becomes apparent that faith and reason are like two wings on a bird that allow us to depart from our double ignorance.  This thereby enables us to see how our God is both incredibly transcendent yet intimately involved in our lives.

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