Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Spiritual Reading, cont’d (again)

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” G.K. Chesterton.

I have been dialoguing a bit with Steven Riddle at Flos Carmeli about reading the saints and about the role of the gifts God gives us to use for his glory in our lives, especially that of the intellect. In thinking about this, it seems to me that there is one way in which our intellect can lead us away from faith – when we either refuse to or simply fail to use it. It is possible to be so completely sure of ourselves, so sure that we have all the answers that we stop asking the questions. This amply demonstrated in the attitude of the media and the “intelligentsia” toward anyone who professes faith in Christian doctrine. Today, religious faith is popularly seen in one of two ways, either as a crutch used by someone who is otherwise unable to face the real world, or as some sort of psychotic delusion that is suffered by someone who is abysmally ignorant of the way the world is. Seldom do we see it portrayed as a valid response to the reality of the world around us.

Yet the very people who hold these views have never taken Christianity seriously enough to investigate for themselves whether it’s claims are true, or whether those claims are even worth investigating. They are so sure they are right that they don’t stop to think about the validity of their own position either.

Most of these folks hold to the idea that the universe and everything in it is the product of some highly fortuitous accident, an idea that seems to spring from Darwin and his theory of evolution. From modern “scientific” theory they hold that there can be no God because there is absolutely no purpose to anything in the universe. They never seem to stop to think that, if that is true, then there is no basis for human reason and thus no basis to assume that their ideas are any more valid than those of the Christian. They don’t seem to see the logical dead end their worldview leads them to. On the other hand, having never investigated the claims of Christianity, they don’t understand that there is a high probability that the Christian worldview would provide them with a very profitable framework within which to pursue research into how our universe really does work. They are too closed minded to consider that there might be a different way of looking at reality.

This situation not only prevents them from following a potentially profitable avenue of scientific research, it also has the unfortunate consequence of keeping them from faith. But modern intellectuals are not the only ones to suffer from this difficulty; many Catholics today don’t see the full beauty of the teaching of the Church because they don’t think there is anything there worth their interest. They are sadly ignorant of the fullness of their faith because they’ve been fed nothing but theological baby food all their lives. Even many folks who regularly attend Mass and are active in their parish are unable to cogently explain even the most elementary doctrines of their faith and don’t know that there is anything more to learn. The sad part about this is that so many are led away from the faith into such sects as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons because they are presented with something that on the surface appears richer and fuller than anything they’ve been exposed to in the Church. This is sad, but it is a consequence of people not using a gift given to them by God, that of their intellect, and not being challenged by the Church to do so.

When we come to Church we are not asked to check our brains at the door. We are presented, at Mass especially but I think in all of the Sacraments of the Church, with something that is intended to engage us totally as human persons, we are given the opportunity to love God with “all of our mind, all of our strength, and all of our hearts.” I wish this would become a greater reality for more Catholics today.

Monday, December 30, 2002

The Necktie– One of the reasons I am doing a blog is that I would like to develop some skill as a writer and I hope to impose upon myself some discipline in terms of writing about things I might not otherwise write about. For example, consider the necktie. Being an older guy I grew up in a world in which the necktie was commonplace, if there was any kind of a special occasion the gentlemen wore a jacket, actually a suit in most cases, a white shirt, and a tie. I can’t say as a boy that I enjoyed wearing a tie but I simply took it for granted that this was expected behavior in polite company. I did have one relative, my mother’s cousin, who, when we were all gathered wearing our neckties, was prone to ask the question, “Who invented this useless piece of cloth that men are forced to wear?” I never could answer that question, and it seemed to me a good one.
Life went on and after serving my country in the military, in which a necktie was part of the uniform, I graduated from college, became a CPA and entered the business world. For many years at the start of my career it was considered de riguer to wear a tie to the office every day, and again, while I never actually enjoyed the practice, I complied in the interests of fashion and keeping my job. Then I went to work for Joe Nowell who owned a construction company.
Joe had two rules in life. One, don’t shave. He considered shaving a barbaric practice engaged in by people who did not have to work for a living. Two, never wear a tie. The reason for rule number two is that one time, in a meeting with a real estate developer and an architect on a new project and the client, one of the developer’s employees piped up with a remark that was not going to have the effect of pushing the project toward fruition, in fact may actually have killed the project on the spot. The developer, apparently acting on the spur of the moment, reached across the table and grabbed the guy by the necktie and proceeded to punch him repeated in the nose. Stretched across the table as he was, the victim was virtually powerless to do anything but accept the chastisement. Thus, Joe’s rule number two, no neckties. In the four or five years I worked for Joe I don’t think I ever saw him violate the rule, no matter how important the occasion.
I have to say that ever after hearing this story I always felt a bit insecure wearing a necktie, even though I have never had a similar experience. However, while I think this is a good rule, it is not necessarily one of life’s vital requirements. And I think the habit of “dressing down” can be carried, perhaps, a bit too far. For example, living in Colorado I see any number of folks, some of whom should be old enough to know better, dressed in an extremely casual fashion while attending Mass. Some of these folks even wear sweats and other types of exercise clothes to church, even though it is very evident that, while they may be wearing this type of attire to church they have never worn it to exercise, and would likely suffer a fatal heart attack were they to do so.
It seems to me that this is more evidence that we have lost our sense of the supernatural. I think if I were going to a meeting with, say, the President of the United States, I might be more than willing to endure the inconvenience of putting on a suit and tie for the occasion. Should I not be willing to do the same to go to meet the Lord in his House? I think we have lost the idea that in going to Mass we are going to meet God. I wonder if this hasn’t just become another weekly activity to be gotten through in the most painless manner possible?
I realize that I may be getting a bit cranky in my old age, but it seems that there are some things in our lives that deserve our attention and respect.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Steven Riddle at Flos Carmeli has put up several posts at his blog that have really attracted my attention. I am a regular at his place as of today. He has posted another reading list that is very good and contains a number of books that I hope to get to soon (although not John of the Cross). The first one I'm going to try to pick up is Chesterton's Heretics but almost all are worth reading (or re-reading) for sure.

One of the authors he cites is Ron Hansen, whom I was fortunate enough to meet at a writers conference at Steuby U in September. He read one of his short stories which was on the death of a dog that is one of the funniest stories I have ever heard. I laughed so hard it hurt and I wouldn't have suspected he would write something so funny. And he couldn't get anyone to publish it!!

One point he takes issue with in my first post on Spiritual Reading is as follows:

"One other point of mild demurral--I do not think St. Thomas is necessarily the best place to seek the truth about humankind. While he did dissect and lay open much--there are other sources (most notably the Bible itself) that tells us much, if not all, that we really need to know of humankind. St. Thomas did not so much discover much new in the truth, as lay open for us what was already clearly present. In a sense St. Thomas's work is a demonstration and proof of the concept of "development of doctrine." And St. Thomas himself with his final words on writing makes clear the recognition that his contribution was not in the realm of innovation so much as it was in the realm of explication."

Here he is right here in that St. Thomas showed the use of reason to arrive at a fuller understanding of truth already known, or at least intuitively understood by the Church. Thomas is a prime example of the development of doctrine, and actually, no one should come up with anything new, at least since the time of the Apostles. But he is also right that Thomas is not the only source of truth or understanding about the faith or about ourselves as human creatures. I guess one thing that has attracted me to Thomas is the work being done by the Dominican theologians, Frs. Servais Pinkaers and Romanus Cesario, who draw on the writings of St. Thomas, in the area of natural law and the virtues. This is so because of my interest in, and difficulty with, making my faith a part of my every day life and having it influence how I approach my responsibilites in life. When I get into the pressures of the day I am tempted to focus solely on the task and hand and lose sight of the reality of my faith and trust in God. I fail to see that everything is in his hands. I have found the idea especially of the virtues as habits that I can, at least to some extent work on to develop to help me grow in my relationship to God.

Spiritual Reading cont’d – As a convert to Catholicism one of the things that I have come to be deeply grateful to the Church for is her acceptance of a great variety of different spiritualities, or different ways to respond to God’s call in our lives. God’s call to each of us is unique, he calls no two of us in quite the same way, yet the Church recognizes that there are enough similarities in the way we are called that we can share our experience with others. For example, the Franciscans share Francis’ call to “build the Church”; to be Franciscan is to be Catholic and support the Church in all she does. Franciscan spirituality also involves the deep desire to follow Christ and live the Gospel live as St. Francis did, seeing everything in creation as evidence of God’s providence and seeing its destiny to return to eternal union with God. There is also an aspect of it that calls us to evangelization, to spreading the Good News of the Gospel. The Dominican spirituality is closely related to Franciscan spirituality but emphasizes the study of theology and preaching the Word. Carmelite spirituality (which I admit I am not too familiar with) emphasizes the deep prayer life taught by Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
When I began investigating the various Third Orders I thought I might be drawn to the Carmelite Third Order. However as I tried to look into it I was told that in view of my interest they were considering disbanding the Order on a worldwide basis so that there would never be any possibility of such a thing occurring. (Well, perhaps they didn’t put it quite that way, but there did seem to be several difficulties that I could not overcome.) In any case, I sort of fell into the SFO and it seems a pretty good fit, (despite what the fellow members of my fraternity here in Colorado Springs may think).
In any case, at various times, I have tried to read both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, without much success. I have to admit I can’t make heads or tails out of St. John and reading St. Teresa brings it’s own problems for me. First, there is the guilt that I feel for being such a spiritual slug in the face of such holiness. Then, there is the heightened tendency to selfish introspection (“Let’s see, am I in the first mansion or can I claim to have progressed to the second mansion?” And “Will I ever be able to make it to the third mansion?”) that is not at all healthy. I view this inability to read these two great saints as a grave personal shortcoming, but there it is.
So there are saints that we might have great difficulty reading or might never be able to read and appreciate, depending on our spirituality. But you see, we don’t have to read St. Teresa, we don’t have to read St. Thomas, and we don’t have to read St. Francis to be good and faithful Catholics and Christians. We can understand that they all have something to teach us about the truth of our faith, and they have given the Church the great legacy of their individual wisdom, but not all of us will be able to read all of them with the same benefit. Each of us is different and drawn to God in a certain way and it is important for each of us to try to discover that way and do our best to grow within it.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Spiritual Reading – Steven Riddle over at Flos Carmeli has done several posts on his recommendations for spiritual reading and has received, apparently, some feed back on not including St. Thomas’ Summa in the list. One comment he made initially caught my attention and deserves at least some follow up.
Steven’s comment is “For myself, I stay away from the Summa, the temptation to pride is far too great--the ability to lord it over one of the great minds of all times due to the limits of his times is overwhelming. I approach St. Thomas in his wonderful commentaries on the Scriptures, in his profound hymns, poems, and meditations which are often overlooked in the rush for the Summa. But St. Thomas has something for every believer, and much of what he offers is profound food for thought, for faith, and perhaps even for contemplation (for those with a mind so suited.)"
First, I too, do not consider St. Thomas “spiritual” reading, at least in the sense that I would look, say, to the Summa Theologica as a source of inspiration for prayer or meditation. I would be much more likely to look to Scripture or something from another saint, for example, St. Francis or St. Francis de Sales or St. Augustine, or any number of other saints or spiritual writers. St. Thomas is not what I would call “spiritual” reading. But, St. Thomas, even with his 13th century knowledge of science and technology, has a great deal to say to us today concerning the nature of man and his relationship to God. These things do not change over time; truth is not a function of time. This is why I would, and do try to read St. Thomas at least from time to time.
And while I do not feel that I will soon be able to “lord it over” St. Thomas, there are times that the temptation to pride in the very fact that I am concerned with such things as concerned St. Thomas writes about does come over me. It is easy to feel intellectually proud, especially in today’s society which, on the one hand is so insistent on reducing everything to reason and science and on the other hand is really so anti-intellectual.
But there are two points to be made. First, if a person is gifted in any way it is not a sin to exercise that gift, not for self-gratification, but for the further glory of God. In the case of intellect, as far as we are able, I think God intends us to use this gift in an honest search for truth. As I have said in other posts, to seek the truth is to seek Christ, to deny truth is to deny Christ. To the extent that there is truth in St. Thomas, and to the extent that we are able and so inclined, we should read St. Thomas. There may be things about him that, in light of the progress of our knowledge of science, we can either ignore or take with a grain of salt, at the same time looking for what he has to teach us. But St. Thomas wrote a great deal concerning the meaning of man as a creature, created in the image and likeness of God, and this is still valid. Much of what he wrote has been lost sight of in today’s relativistic, materialistic society and that is a shame.
A second point is that studying theology can become a “head trip.” We can come to know a lot about God but not know God in the personal way he wants us to. The Catechism states that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Our faith grows through our understanding of God just as any personal relationship grows as we come to know the other person better, but the understanding is not the point, the relationship is the point. This is a trap that, I too, am very prone to fall into.
It should, I hope, be apparent, that none of this is meant to be critical of what Steven has written. I think there is at least a chance that I am picking up a very minor point he was trying to make and that we really are talking about two different things. I also hope it is apparent that this is a first pass at dealing with the idea of how we are to use our intellectual gifts and that it is likely there is more to come.
A final comment, I hope Steven doesn't mind me calling him Steven and I hope he will return the favor and call me Ron. Also, I have tried to add his blog as a favorite here but I am gravely technologically challenged and am not sure I have succeeded. I will keep trying.

Friday, December 27, 2002

The Supernatural Life/Part II—When we talk about gaining a greater sense of the supernatural in our lives we can look to the saints for an example of what this means. We tend to look at the saints as caricatures of holiness. We see St. Francis as the first environmentalist, St. Nicholas as Santa Claus, and St. Patrick as an Irishman who loved to go around picking shamrocks. There is some basis for looking at certain outstanding aspects of the lives of each of these saints but yet it prevents us from seeing them as they really were, people who were complete human beings who had one focus in life, their love of Jesus Christ.
For each of these saints, and indeed, all saints, religion for them was not some comforting aspect of their lives that gave them the strength to get through their otherwise busy days. Religion for them was not a thought pattern; it was, simply, love for a person, the person of Jesus Christ. For them, Jesus was not some mythical character of lore, he was a vital force in their lives, not just someone whom they spent an hour each Sunday worshipping at Mass, but the focus of everything they thought and did. St. Francis, for example, saw everything in the universe as a manifesting of Gods eternal love and presence in the world. He saw that everything came from God and would return to God and he saw it as his duty, in response to this infinite love, to conform his life completely to Gods purpose for his life. There was nothing that he would not do, including suffering the stigmata, to accomplish this goal. Everything else was secondary. I think for too many of us, myself included, our priorities are just the opposite, there is nothing we will not do for career, family, recreation, what have you, and we will fit God’s plan for our lives around these priorities.
Frank Sheed, the Catholic theologian and author of the book Theology and Sanity makes this point when he writes that, in the case of most Christians our lives don’t look very different from those of our non-Christian neighbors. We do the same things, read the same books, and go to the same movies. In other words, Christian or not we all live in pretty much the same way. He says our faith is “like a badge on the lapel of the same kind of suit that everyone else is wearing.” The reason for this is that we share the same “worldview” as that of our neighbors, we don’t see the supernatural reality under the surface of everything that exists. Sheed says that we may think this is too broad an indictment of our Christian lives, but he explains it this way:
“If that seems to you too sweeping, consider what the Church does see when she looks at the Universe. For one thing, she sees all things whatsoever held in existence from moment to moment by nothing but the continuing will of God that they should not cease to be. When she sees anything at all, in the same act she sees God holding it in existence. Do we? It is not merely a matter of knowing that this is so. Do we actually see it so? If we do not, then we are not living mentally in the same world as the Church. What is more, we are not seeing things as they are, for that is how they are.”
If we looked at our world in this way, I think that, as Christians, our lives would look very different from those of our neighbors. The saints saw things in this way and their lives certainly looked different to those around them. Think of St. Francis standing naked in front of the Church, renouncing everything, even the clothes off his back for the sake of Christ. Think of him going to the Crusades and not stopping at the front line, not stopping until he had reached the enemy camp in the ultimate effort at evangelization and walking back to his own lines unharmed. Today, Francis would have taken a trip to Afghanistan and marched into Osama bin Laden’s camp in an effort to convert him. How many of us would be willing to make that trip?
As Mother Angelica is famous for saying, we are all called to be great saints; our ultimate destiny in God’s plan is that we live in union with him forever. God’s plan is the best plan possible for our lives. It may not be the easiest or the one that involves the least suffering, but it is the one that will lead us, in the end, to eternal joy. And this is what we have lost sight of in today’s modern, highly technological society, that there is a reality beyond that which we can see and touch and measure. This is what is means to have a sense of the supernatural.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Catching Up – In the article “The GOP’s Secret Weapon” in the Nov. 25th edition of The Weekly Standard, Rob Bennett takes an unusual view on the outcome of the November elections. I must admit that I am a sucker for any article that takes an obvious set of circumstances and describes them in a novel way and Rob Bennett, the author of this article, does this in spades. The obvious situation is the liberal bias of the media, which everyone except those in the liberal media, is perfectly aware of and which drives those of us who are right wing, Christian, religious fanatics, who think spotted owl tastes just like chicken, crazy. Yet, the author makes a good case that might help us religious extremists rest a little easier at night. He points out that the country is becoming increasingly more conservative and religiously orthodox, be it Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. This trend has been completely lost on the liberal media, most notably the New York Times. In turn, Democrat politicians continue to rely on the liberal media for guidance in taking positions on the issues of the day, and thus have tended to lose touch with the people they represent. The result is electoral “upsets” such as that which occurred on November 5th of this year. The author concludes that if this trend continues it promises to render the Democrat party into a permanent minority party for a very long time to come. Almost makes me want to subscribe to the New York Times.

The Supernatural Life - Part I -- If there is one thing that I wish all Catholics, and not just those participating in an RCIA program, could come to understand and appreciate, it is the Church’s sense of the supernatural. When the Church looks to understand the reality of things, it is not to the things of this world that she looks. It is to a greater reality, the reality that our true destiny as human beings which, far from being found in having a successful career and a nice home and lots of nice toys, rather is found in God’s intention that we enjoy life with him forever. The Baltimore Catechism affirms this when it states that mans true purpose is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
In our modern, highly technological and rationalistic society however, reason is prized above all other traits. It is rather difficult for us to face the fact that God does not submit himself to our reason. We think that if we can’t understand a thing it can’t possibly be real. We tend to almost automatically dismiss anything that is spiritual as being imaginary, something we can’t prove and, therefore, of no real practical value for our lives. We tend to think that we created ourselves and are responsible for everything that happens to us.
In addition, we tend to think that there is no such thing as objective truth. It is very a very common thing today to hear someone say, “Well, that may be your truth but it is not my truth.” The problem with this, of course, is that denying the reality of objective truth we are denying the only possible basis for our ability to reason. If our ideas have no basis in objective truth, who is to say that any one idea or value we hold to be true is any more valid than any other idea? To give you an idea of the practical consequences of denying objective truth, just imagine flying in an airliner designed by a team of engineers who denied the existence of absolute right and wrong. Would you trust your life in an airplane designed under those conditions?
Yet, if the Church is right about our human nature, that we were created to be adopted children of God and to live with him forever, then falling into the trap of holding these two very contradictory “worldviews” is a serious mistake. When we do this, our worldview is nonsensical, we are not living our lives in accordance with reality, we risk being wrong in the very foundation of our lives, and if we are starting from a position of error, it’s very likely that we will end up being wrong in almost everything we think and do.
It might help to turn to a couple of passages from Scripture to get an idea of what ordering our lives in accordance with reality might mean. In the Gospel of John, chapter 14, Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.(RSV, John 14:6) Here Jesus makes an astonishing statement. He doesn’t say seek the way, the truth, and the life, he says he is the way, the truth, and the life. To deny truth is, in fact, to deny Christ. Similarly, to deny life is to deny Christ. This is also made clear in Colossians, where Paul writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him (RSV, Col 1:15-17). All things were created through Christ and for Christ, all things. When we practice contraception and abortion we are circumventing Christ’s loving act of creation and denying him a certain aspect of his creation. We are placing ourselves in a position of enmity to God.
In this day of relativism and scientific materialism the message of the Church is certainly counter-cultural, even revolutionary. It is certainly not easy trying to live in accordance with this message, especially when we are told constantly by society that we should do what is most convenient, that we should do whatever impinges least on our “life-style.” This is not the message of the Church and it is only by trying to live by faith, not by sight or by our own reason, that we can even begin to live in conformity with God’s plan for our lives. We will, none of us, ever succeed completely, the Church knows this and offers us the sacrament of Reconciliation when we fail. The point is to try to understand what the Church has to say for our lives and why she has been saying it for over two thousand years. These are not easy things to do. But then, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, never looked to take the easy path through life, rather he chose the path that most closely followed his Father’s will. I wish for all of us the grace to say with Jesus Christ, “Not my will be done, but your will be done.”