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.”