Saturday, December 15, 2012

How should we view evil? Look to Christ


                When innocent people die, it hurts those who hear of such news.  It means something went wrong.  Those closest to the victims feel the worst of it, of course, but I’ll get to that.  When the victims are miles away and not known to us, it’s possible to disengage from the event, though one’s level of sensitivity often dictates how deeply one feels the sorrow.  Or other emotions, for I’ve seen an awful lot of anger expressed by some after Friday’s sad event. 

                After 9-11, the magnitude of the event almost required a certain disengagement, especially considering the nature of the attack, for the desire for vengeance was huge in the hearts of many.  Life had to go on for most people, so it was possible to put the sorrow and pain on hold and go about one’s daily duties.

                Following Friday’s events, the whole nation was moved by the news of innocent children and school officials being gunned down so insanely.  So many people were moved by the sorrow of this event. 

                What struck me personally was seeing the faces of the children and adults who were killed.  It was as if, seeing them alive and happy, I knew them.

                I’m philosophically disposed to look at these events from a certain point of view.  Yet, it’s impossible for anyone to be totally detached from human sufferings. 

                Of course, people have brought politics into the whole event.  Pro-gun control/anti-gun control are rampant on the internet.  I don’t understand why people cannot take a few days to grieve before getting into all that.  Who in the history of the world has made a rational decision after a tragedy? 

                But to move on to my point: How do we deal with such a horror?  I have to look to Jesus.

                When some people told Him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had shed, He responded, “Do you think they were any more guilty than others?”  He brought the discussion back to salvation and relationship to God.  He went on, “And what of those twenty-two on whom the tower of Siloam fell?”  And then He warned His listeners about being just and repentant. 

                When Jesus spoke of the destruction of the world, He seems to have done so without emotion.  He was rather matter-of-fact.  He spoke of hell a lot, but His emotions were never recorded. 

                Yet, He wept at the future destruction of Jerusalem.  He knew it would happen, and felt the sorrow of that day and what it meant, for He had a great love for that Holy City. 

                The other time He showed sorrow, and in a profound way, was when His friend Lazarus died.  The shortest line in Scripture is John 11:35: “And Jesus wept.”  It hurt for Him to know His friend had passed away. 

                I don’t know if this gives us a pattern to follow.  I’m just struck by the facts of the Lord weeping at the death of His friend, crying at the future destruction of Jerusalem, but not seemingly sad at what He knew was the loss of souls at the final judgment along with the salvation of the just. 

                What does this mean for us?  Maybe it all comes back to personal relationship: We weep for those we know who die; we grieve for those who will suffer; we are philosophical and reflective about the end-times.  Maybe that says more than I can figure out how to describe.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Catholics Love the Mass

             On mother’s day the year my father died, I had a picture of my father turned into one of those painting-like portraits.  I don’t even remember what company did it, but it was done very professionally and arrived about 4 days before mother’s day.  The picture was a profile of him, taken at a Christmas party a few years earlier.  It perfectly captured his personality: pensive and thoughtful, looking off into the distance.  The background shows that it was a Christmas setting, with lights on the tree somewhat blurred, but that only adds to the rather mysterious quality of the image.

                When the picture arrived, I was so blown away by it that I couldn’t wait to give it to my mother.  I surprised her with it, and she was overcome with emotion. It was as if he had taken a step out of eternity to join us again.  It now hangs above the piano in her living room, and journeys with her in the summer to her lake refuge. It’s not my father, but it sure reminds us of him, as he presides over family gatherings as if he were there with us still.  He is remembered and loved, and his love is mysteriously made present to those who knew him well.

                Memory is an amazing thing, for it shows our connection to the past and makes present what happened then.  Memory can be a curse, if our view of the past is negative, or we bring up painful things that we endured.  Those who have gone through trauma can feel just as bad by memories of past sufferings as they did when they endured them.  On the other hand, memory is a blessing when we recall past joyful events, gifts given and received, the love of friends and family who may have passed away. 

                When the Lord Jesus instituted the Eucharist, He commanded the apostles “do this in memory of me.”  Of all the things that were done and said at the Last Supper, the blessing of the bread and wine are significantly pointed out by three evangelists and Saint Paul.  From after the Resurrection until this very moment, the Church has obeyed the command of Christ.  While the apostles probably did not understand the significance of what Jesus was doing at the time, they certainly learned later on with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They also recalled His words in Capharnaum about eating His Body and drinking His Blood.  In the light of the Last Supper and by the gift of the Holy Spirit they came to know that what Jesus had given them was the means of receiving, eating and drinking His Body and Blood. 

                Those words of institution also led them to realize that what happened to Jesus on Good Friday was not a mere railroad job, but a deliberate act on His part.  He did not just acquiesce to the brutality of His enemies; He was literally giving His body and shedding His blood on purpose.  The Last Supper words and deeds of Jesus showed that His death was a true sacrifice, a giving over of His very self in obedience to the Father.

                Putting two and two together, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they realized that Jesus had designed a way to make Himself present to them in the here and now, even though He had ascended into heaven.  Jesus did not command what He would not make possible by grace. As He commanded that we must eat His body and drink His blood, and as He had told them to do with bread and wine what He did, so He had made possible the fulfillment of both. And that is the Mass.

                When the Mass is celebrated, the priest, ordained in the line of the apostles, does what Jesus said to do: Take and eat, This is my Body; take and drink, This is my Blood.  What Jesus did at the Last Supper is made present. And since the reality of the Real Body and Blood of Christ is made present, so Christ Himself, risen from the dead, is present, more than any picture or image.  Furthermore, the gift of His sacrifice, foreshadowed by His own words at the Last Supper, is also made present; not in a bloody manner, for “Christ, once raised from the dead can never die again”, but in the reality of His now Risen Body. 

                So what the Mass offers to us is the marvelous way that Jesus can be with us in the here and now, hidden behind the appearance of bread and wine, and bringing with Him the intimate celebration with His apostles in the Upper Room, the bloody and painful death of the Cross, and the glorious power of His risen Body.

                The memory of what Christ has done for us is supernaturalized by the Holy Spirit for us.  It does not just bring Him to mind; He really is there, and abides there afterwards in the Tabernacle, so that we can remember what He has done for us, and wants to do for us who believe in Him.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Take up your cross, the Savior said

“And He said to all, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”  Luke 9:23

Carrying one’s cross is a necessary component of being a Christian.  In the early Church, it was literal for many.  In fact, it took awhile for images of the Crucified to be accepted, since the reality of actual crucifixions was evident in the lives of real people nailed to crosses.  Nero, it is said, lined the highway with crucified Christians who were then lit on fire to light the way at night.  Strangely symbolic.

At any rate, we are so far from grasping the reality of what a crucifixion does to a person, and we are numbed to the image of Christ Himself on the cross, because this image is not just common, but also denigrated in many ways.

Nevertheless, bearing one’s cross is part of following Him. 

The key is to discover what the cross means for each of us individually.

For some, their cross is quite evident.  They have been wounded either physically or otherwise by the wickedness of someone else.  They bear the pain every day.  For some, the cross is a difficult family situation: a negligent spouse, a troubled child, an unsympathetic parent, an ogre of a boss.  Such crosses can be easily identified, and should be embraced not in the evil that exists in them, but in the attitude one has towards them, seeing them as means to virtue and union with Christ.

But what if we have no major sufferings, no dramatic or pressing difficulties, but just the ordinary stuff of life?  How does the cross appear?

It may appear in the form of dealing with illness, unknown to others; it could be in crushing financial difficulties; it could be in the form of our own conscience and the way we can be tempted to punish ourselves or others because we know our weaknesses and failures. 

I’ve always thought that each of us designs our own cross of ultimate suffering by the choices we make, and the consequences that occur because of those choices.  We take time to cut the wood, mold its shape, determine its size and shape, and then begin to mount that cross depending on how outside forces affect us. 

It occurs to me that Jesus always knew what form His own cross would take, and He “set His face” towards that end on purpose.  While we do not know how our ultimate end will be, one thing that God gives us is the choice to take up the cross that our choices and circumstances determine.  If we take the time to consider how life is going for us, we can find shadows and splinters of the cross every day: the frustrations with goals unmet, the struggles we have with our weaknesses and failures, the opposition we encounter from others from day to day, or on an ongoing basis. 

Faith is the ability to see God’s truth in the midst of every circumstance.  Sometimes, it requires that we give thanks for His blessings that we acknowledge; other times it requires that we release the angst we can feel in the face of suffering and difficulties, not in a some esoteric or mindless way, but into the hands of the Lord, hands that are pierced with nails.  It is not a passive acceptance of the uncontrollable, but a deliberate choice to say, “This is part of my cross, and I willingly embrace what is odious for the love of Jesus, Who willingly took up His cross for me!” 

This is not an easy task.  Our minds come up with reasons why we should flee; our bodies can feel repugnance to the pain involved; our emotions can go any which way.  But our will can focus, and say, “yes”, and be united with Jesus.  One reason He endured His suffering was that we would have a model, and a source of strength, to deal with what we hate, because of what, and Whom, we love.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Dark Night of the Soul


The Dark Night of the soul has several stages.  The first is the detachment from sin willfully committed, especially mortal sin.  This requires a “darkening” of the intellect on our part: that we cease to view sinful things as good, and recognize them for what they are: evil.  This requires effort and oftentimes disgust with the consequences of sin.  It also requires, before any of that, the light of God’s grace to penetrate our conception of reality.  This is why He oftentimes allows those consequences when we go down the wrong path and suffer for our own mistakes.  It can take many attempts on His part to break us free, since we tend to be stubborn and prideful, the root of all sin.

The next stage is seeking to practice virtue, which is the beginning of our ascent.  We encounter opposition: from our sinful nature, from the world, and, sadly, from those who are around us and want us to be “the way we used to be”.  At this point, our hearts are being broken up between the high aspiration to be good and the concupiscence that is the result of original sin and our own past choices.  Yet, God is even more active in us now, as each victory elevates us a little bit more, and each fall, if seen in the light of faith, provides us with new information about what “not” to do.

Spiritual lights can begin to shine and enlighten us in this stage, but often in brief glimpses.  Yet, they remain at the level of the imagination and the senses: good in themselves, but not the end of the journey.  They are like little missives from heaven about what awaits us, pale in comparison to the reality, but good.  The danger on this level is thinking that we’ve somehow already “made it” because we no longer commit big sins, even if we are blind to the little faults that can precipitate a later, larger fall.  Caution must be taken that we are not safe until heaven, and humility must be the basic virtue to keep us on the path.  Humility, with a mix of a developing trust that God certainly does want us to be saints with Him in heaven.  That trust begins to require more and more effort on our part, because we can see more and more faults as we get closer to the light, and feel as if we are backsliding.  That’s a good thing in so far as it keeps us humble; it’s a danger if we get discouraged, which is the principal tactic of the devil at this point.  His voice is often very clear: it’s not worth it; just give up; why are trying so hard?, life could be easier if you just go along with the world.  The clear voice of the devil is allowed by God in certain moments so that we will see that he, the devil, is always trying to lure us off the path, and not just when we “hear” the voice of discouragement.

As we progress in the spiritual life, care is needed that we rely more directly on God for growth (even though He is responsible for all progress), because the sensual awareness of God is not really directly from God.  Since He is beyond our senses, we cannot really sense Him. This sense of His presence is a result of a spiritual grace that has already touched our innermost soul and spirit.  His presence is always there in the soul filled with sanctifying grace, but He does not always show Himself to our intellect, much less to our senses.

If we get caught in the sensual perception of God, we remain stunted, for God is far greater than our ability to feel Him.  We have to take steps to withdraw from those sense feelings of Him, and this is done by fidelity to prayer for set times and methods.  It can happen that when the sense feelings of God’s presence cease, we will be tempted to stop praying or trying.  The rhythm of the Church’s liturgy understands this, which is why the Liturgy of the Hours is so regular, and that we are called to formal prayer at least once a week at Sunday Mass, and even daily if our schedule permits.

At a certain point, God withdraws from our senses, and begins to draw us more spiritually.  He takes over, as it were, and grants us graces that are not sensible.  We may not even realize that He is doing this, but prayer can become routine; meditation can be dry; thoughts of heaven seen unreal and unrealistic. 

The true “dark night” is when our minds themselves cannot clearly focus on a thought about God.  The apparent absence of God is like the darkness that Abraham felt when He offered the sacrifice and was overtaken by a dark fear.  The exterior sacrifice was necessary, for God commanded it, but it was only a prelude to a deeper communion with Him. 

So, our senses no longer feel God’s presence; our minds no longer focus on Him.  That’s a good thing, even though it can cause tremendous suffering interiorly.  We are still like little children, and our souls cry out and we “believe” we are not being heard.  Faith in its purest form begins to actuate our souls and spirits.  Since God is not just beyond our senses, He is beyond our imagination and our intellectual capacity.  Even the angels are struck by His Glory and can only cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”  There is nothing more to be said. 

This process can take years to develop, or in some few chosen souls, a matter of an instant.  Saint Paul received such a “blast” of divine inspiration, as a reminder in his person of the absolute Gift that is knowledge of Christ.  But even Saint Paul had to go through the rest of his life in faith, and still underwent sufferings of soul and body before he was to accomplish his mission. 

God is present everywhere and in everything.  Logic and faith know this, but the ultimate knowledge of God is what He gives us when He wills and when He has prepared us for that moment. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Go in Peace

                I’ve never seen the Jerry Springer show.  Or Montel Williams. Or Oprah, when she was on. Well, except for an occasional clip that may have popped on a youtube video or the news.  From what I understand, oftentimes there are folks on those types of shows that bear all before the audience and the public at large.  Being rather a private person myself, I don’t quite understand the desire to spill one’s guts in front of even a few people, let alone millions of television viewers. 

                Some people like it, though.  Perhaps it is a moment of catharsis for them.  I can understand that.  The thought of writing an autobiographical story sounds like something everyone should do, even if it is not read by anyone or published.  Saint Augustine is credited with writing the first autobiography of any length or depth.  His Confessions is a unique piece of literature, philosophy and theology.  Of course, the term “confessions” that he uses is not first and foremost a listing of his faults, though he describes many of his own in almost shocking detail.  He was confessing the Glories of the Lord who had saved him from his life of error and debauchery, so the primary purpose of that great work was to extol the goodness and love and mercy of God, the “Beauty ever ancient, ever new”. 

                There is though something of the cathartic in speaking one’s failures and faults, of owning up to them in a verbal way; close friends and especially spouses understand this, especially when facing trying times in a relationship where words are in fact necessary.  And oftentimes, the sooner the words admitting of one’s failures are spoken, the faster any damage done to the relationship can begin to heal.  “I was wrong and I’m sorry” are powerful words when spoken in sincerity and humility.  The hardest heart can often be swayed to mercy by such an honest admission.

                Now the first reason Catholics go to the Sacrament of Penance is because Jesus gave the Sacrament, and the power behind it, to the apostles on the night of the resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:23.  As with the command to baptize and celebrate the Eucharist, so with the command to forgive sins, the Church does what Jesus told her to do.  Why two sacraments for the forgiveness of sins?  Baptism washes away whatever sins a person has on their conscience and especially original sin, and that person is renewed in Christ.  But what of sins committed after baptism? History and common sense, and personal experience, show that the baptized are not immune to falling again into sins of one kind or another.  Does the sacrament of baptism work forward, that is, does it effect forgiveness into the future, so there is no need for future mercy?  That’s an interesting idea, but post-baptismal sins carry with them their own damage that is distinct from the damage of original sin, which is washed away only through baptism.

                Thus it was in the early Church that confession of sins and the penances ascribed to them were for sins of graver consequence; sins that kept one from participating in the Eucharistic life of the Church.  Heck, there were times in Church history where one was forbidden even to enter the celebration of the Liturgy for years because of seriously grave offenses that indubitably harmed not only the individual but the community at large.  Murder and adultery come to mind.  Nevertheless, confession of such serious sins was deemed necessary not only to the spiritual healing of the sinners, but for the overall health of the Church community.  A breach of justice and charity occurs with every sin, but some are worse than others.  These mortal sins require a more serious response on the part of the Church.  The public penances that used to be imposed (and still are in the rare occurrences of excommunication or interdict) were designed as deterrents to others who might be likewise tempted.  Other lesser penances for less grave sins grew up in the practice of the Church even to the point of rule books being used by confessors to assign different penances for the different types of sins committed.  The goal was always the restoration of justice through some form of restitution, where required, and the conversion of the sinner back to a shared communion with the Church community.

                And speaking to that last point, here we see how what the Church has been doing for centuries is being discovered in a different way by the television shows mentioned above as well as in the growth of the use of counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists.  Human beings have a need to speak what is within them, especially when their consciences have made the determination that a thought, word of deed was so bad that something harmful now dwells within the soul and must be expunged.  There has been a rift in relationship that must be restored somehow.  How does the saying go?  A burden shared is half as heavy? 

                And this is precisely what grave sin is: it is of such a nature that the loving relationship that God initiated through bestowing the grace of adoption via baptism is scorned by a deliberate, willful act of sin on the part of a Christian.  Sanctifying grace, given by baptism, is lost, even though the Christian continues to have the everlasting character of being sealed as a child of God in Christ.  In simpler terms, a grave sin is like choosing to leave the castle of the King and live in the swamp outside the moat.   All sin weakens one’s connection with God; grave, mortal sin disrupts that connection.  Since it is of its nature an offense directly against God’s love, only God can restore the relationship.  He has given the authority to restore that relationship to His Church in the ministry of priests: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  As Jesus gave the authority to teach in His name to the apostles, so they could carry on His mission of preaching the Gospel, so also He gave them the authority to forgive sins, thus continuing His mission of bring mercy to sinners.  Incidentally, those who objected to a man forgiving sins were the enemies of Jesus.  Those who received His pardon didn’t object.  They knew and felt that mercy.

                Now, some sins are obvious to the world; most are not.  Indeed, there are sins which are known only to the sinner himself, and to God.  Sadly these can be the most damaging for it is possible to keep up a front of piety while on the inside one is filled with the consequences of chosen evil.  Why not just confess them to God, and be done with it?  Not a bad idea and Scripture is filled with prayers composed precisely as ways of appealing to God for mercy.  Yet sin does more than damage the individual.  If I commit a sin that only God and I know about, there is still damage to the community of the Church, for I have become less of a man and have voluntarily deprived myself of the grace I need to be a faithful member of the Church.  It has to come out of me, and the Sacrament of penance is the way to get it off my conscience and into the open, so to speak, without at the same time causing further harm through scandal, such as happens when people flagrantly confess their sins to the world on television or facebook.  As a representative of the Church, the priest has received the authority from Christ to forgive sins and to welcome the sinner back to the communion of the Church.  Since confessions take place in the privacy of the confessional, only the priest hears those sins, so the person can feel at ease in being honest and open about his faults and failures of virtue.  He is morally bound to keep what he hears secret, even to the point of never revealing that a particular person went to confession.  Sweeter words have rarely been heard than “I absolve you from your sins.  Go in peace!”  Grace is restored; the chance to begin anew is received. 

                Having been on both sides of the confessional, I can speak to the power of the sacrament in restoring hope.  When one comes to the point where God is real in the existential situations of life, sin shows itself for what it is: a turning away from the Love of a Merciful God.  Hearing the words of absolution is a relief that knows no equal.  For priests, granting that absolution is beyond description especially when the penitent has been putting him or herself through the ringer over sins that were real, but never so big that God cannot pardon them.  I have met great saints and terrible sinners in the confessional, and everything in between.  One of my favorite confessions ever heard was. . . . 

                Of course I’m not going there.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

That's true; however. . .

               The other night, it was 2:00 a.m. or so, and I was unable to fall asleep.  I considered my options.  Get up and crash in the guest bedroom, which often puts me right out, or sleep on the couch, which is not very comfortable, so it forces me to go back to bed.  I decided to read for a bit, and grabbed my iphone, which was charging on my night stand.  It has an app that contains the Bible, and I use it for my Scripture reading.  The last passage I had read the day before was from Saint Luke’s Gospel, chapter 5, verses 30-32:  “And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’  And Jesus answered them, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

When I read the Bible, I go through the Gospels again and again, a little each day, and one other book bit by bit.  Lately, I have been moving through the book of Sirach.  There is a lot of good, practical advice in there, and not a few warnings about sinful and stupid behavior.  The struggle with reading the advice and counsel of the Scriptures is knowing how far I am below the standards that are enunciated.  It can be a reminder of the frailty of my own humanity.  Taken the wrong way, what God commands, and threatens, can cause one the wrong kind of sorrow, the feeling of not being good enough.  Such was the problem with the Pharisees.

They knew the law and the commandments, and had strict interpretations about how one became righteous in the sight of the Lord.  It is obvious from the Gospels that they did not always agree among themselves, and we know there were different schools of thought on Jewish religious practice.  Nevertheless, Jesus often had confrontations with them and He scandalized them on many occasions with what He said and did.  The above passage from the Gospel of Luke is one of those times, since the Pharisees were offended by the presence of Jesus at table with tax collectors and other sinners.  This event took place in the home of Levi, also called Matthew, the tax collector. 

What struck me in reading this passage in the middle of the night was that Jesus does not deny that the people He was with were sinners.  Nor does He disagree, on most occasions, with what the Pharisees considered to be sinful.  In fact, they were morally upstanding people, and outwardly pious.  What they lacked, however, was the insight that Jesus brought to the world by His Gospel and His life: the mercy of God for all sinners.  Sick [read: sinful] people need the Divine Physician who actually desires to heal us and forgive us.  He does not ignore sin; He’s the One who set up the whole system in the first place (creation), and sin is the deliberate violation of how things are supposed to work.  In other words, when it comes to our sinfulness, whether we see it in ourselves or in others, God says, “That’s true, it is sinful; however, I am here to heal that sin.” 

Truth is one of the attributes of God.  Jesus calls Himself “the Truth” which sets us free.  The problem we can have with regards to the truth is that we only see a part of it at any given time.   We think we can fit it into our heads and categorize it logically and completely.  In reality, the truth is larger than our minds, and there is always something more to learn and take in; or rather, we should be seeking to immerse ourselves in the infinite ocean of Truth that is God Himself rather than try to fit what is incomprehensible into our puny minds.

When it comes to pointing out or acknowledging what is sinful, we are obligated to assess what is good, true and appropriate, and what is not.  The highest function of the human intellect is to be able determine what is right, and what is wrong.  It is an act of judgment.  What God forbids us to do is to judge that this or that person is sinful, even though it may be patently obvious that he or she has done something wrong or sinful.  We cannot pierce the veil of another’s heart; Saint Paul goes so far as to say that he wouldn’t even judge himself, leaving that to God. 

What the Lord desires is that we turn to Him and allow the truth of His mercy to work on our behalf, whether we may be the worst of sinners or the greatest of saints.  Though I may be encumbered with the most horrific sins, even if that be true, there is a “however” from Jesus.  We can’t fool Him into not seeing our sins; He knows them better than we do, for He bore them all on the cross.  When we bring them to Him, acknowledge them and confess them: Lord, I have done this, this and this, then He adds His however, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”  His mercy is what separates Christianity (and authentic Judaism) from all other religions:  We do not go looking to uncover God via meditation and truth seeking, or idol worship or interior enlightenment; He finds us, for He has come in search of us.  Yes, we may be riddled with faults and failures, sins and imperfections, either seen by the world or hidden in our own conscience; however, Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance, and fill them with His mercy.  That’s a powerful “however”.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Most Fundamental Right

     There has been a lot of talk about religious freedom lately, especially in the light of the recent HHS decision to force Catholic institutions, hospitals, colleges, etc., to pay for (or have their insurance companies pay for) contraception, sterilizations and abortifacients.  The Catholic bishops of the United States called for the recently completed Fortnight for Freedom to pray for religious liberty in our nation.  We can have faith that God was listening, and that He has something planned for the Catholic Church in this country, and for other believers who are affected by this government intrusion on fundamental beliefs. 
     It's important to remember that the right to religious liberty is actually a more fundamental right than the right to life.  This seems to have it backwards, since without life there is no religious liberty.  From a temporal point of view, this is correct.  If someone is killed, he or she does not have the ability to make any choice for or against religion.  Yet the human being is not strictly temporal, and therefore, focusing on this view upsets the metaphysical underpinnings of the human person.
     So from this metaphysical viewpoint, that is, going deeper into the nature of the human person, we see that his orientation towards the divine is more primary than the natural life that of ITS nature has an end.  The spiritual nature of man is directly oriented towards God (or, in freedom, away from Him!), whereas natural human life is indirectly related to Him.  Bodily, we come from God and move towards Him via other created realities: we are born from our parents; we can discover Him after gazing upon nature; we audibly hear the Word of God and physically receive he Sacraments; we interact with others in society.  Our souls, however, since they are spiritual, have a direct connection to Him, directly created by Him.  While on earth, we rely on our bodies to come to the knowledge of the truth that is God, and can know Him from the created things He has made.  Yet in our spiritual souls we remain on the  metaphysical plane above all other created, visible realities.
    From a moral point of view, the right to religious liberty includes the positive right to pursue religious belief, and the negative right not to be forced into any particular belief. There is no occasion under which someone can be legitimately forced to act against his fundamental religious belief or forced to accept what in his conscience he does not accept as true.  As a corollary, no one has the right NOT to respond to the inherent drive to seek religious meaning.  That is, it is a fundamental duty of the human person to seek religious truth. 
    As important as the right to life is, life is relative in a few ways.  For one, a person may forfeit the right to life by engaging in activity that threatens others.  Capital punishment has a place in a society, even if it is frowned upon except under strict circumstances.  One may indeed take the life of another in battle during a just war, not to mention the legitimate right to self-defense for individuals.  None of these exceptions apply in the application of religious liberty, even if a government may proscribe certain actions by those who would use religious liberty as an excuse for those actions that endanger or harm society.  Such would be laws against polygamy or the use of human sacrifice, among others.
    Under the current crisis between the Catholic Church (and other religious groups) and the U.S. administration, there is no over-riding public need that would warrant forcing such religious groups to pay for something considered immoral by those groups.  The only leg on which the draconian mandate claims to stand is the supposed right to contraception and other sexual health services.  But the Catholic Church is not advocating to do away with these things; She is only insisting on her right not to have to pay for them for religious reasons.  And such services are readily available from other avenues.  That federal taxes pay for them is bad enough, from a Catholic point of view.
     The odd thing is, where religious liberty is abused or attacked, the right to life often falls afterwards.  We shall see how things pan out in the coming months and years. . .

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Three-fold Love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

                In his encyclical on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Pius XII points out that within the Heart of Christ are three types or levels of love:  the divine, eternal love that flows from the Divine Nature of the Second Person of the Trinity; the spiritual love of the humanity of Christ by which He chose to enter into His Passion for us; and the emotional, affectionate love of the human heart of Christ that, essentially, likes us.

                I often wonder at the way in which my mind tries to focus on these types of love, especially when it comes to the Divine love of the Holy Trinity for the world, and for me in particular.  The infinite nature of this love literally expands my mind, for the mind cannot focus upon eternity or infinity as it does upon a basic truth like 2+2=4; or the qualities of an apple.  Epistemologically, when we think about some thing, a created object like an apple, we literally lift that object up to a greater level than it has in itself.  We see beyond the particular object into the realm of the idea of apples or oranges or even mathematics.  Our minds, as part of our spirit, so to speak, are greater than other created realities, and therefore we actually “make” them better than they are by pondering them.   We can even manipulate them in a way with the creative faculty of the mind.  An apple becomes a symbol of love, or temptation, or a reminder of mom’s apple pie.  We apply mathematics to objects and create a wheel, a wagon, or an ipod (I say we generically; I’ve never created anything like that).

                Yet, when we ponder God, it is our minds that get lifted up and beyond themselves.  It is as if our heads are open on top and then raised above the focused place of our crania.  The danger of idols is that they are tangible, moveable, and makeable.   God cannot be touched in Himself, or moved, or made in our image or any other image.  His infinite nature is so far beyond our ability to quantify or qualify.  Even His attributes (mercy, goodness, omnipotence, etc.) are infinite and really are attempts made by the mind to grasp the ungraspable in the forms of words and ideas.  We will literally spend eternity contemplating the eternal and infinite attributes of the Eternal and Infinite One.  There is no end to how far our minds can go in pondering Him in His essence.

                As with His other qualities, so with His love, His infinite Love.  It is an endless expanse of infinite Being, and we will never be able to deconstruct It or make it compact enough to fit into our heads. 

                Yet this infinite love is present in the Heart of Christ, for His Heart is really HIS Heart, the Heart of His Divine Person as Son.  We cannot focus or grasp or localize this Love; but God can, and does.  This is the nature of His infinitude.  Think of God’s infinity as beyond measure.  That means there is nothing capable of encompassing that love; no created being can fully put his arms around it.  Yet, neither is there anything so small that it can keep that love out.  Even light photons are too large to detect the center of an atom.  That’s why we need electron microscopes at the subatomic level.  Yet God is there in His infinite(read: without bound) Love.  No problem is so vast and of such a magnitude that God does not surround that problem with His love.  No problem is so small that it escapes His notice or divine concern.  So God makes His love graspable in the Heart of Christ.  Man cannot lift his mind to see God, so God made Himself man so that He could be seen, and touched, and known.  

                Christ as a real man, a human being like us in all things but sin, has a human mind and a human will.  While on earth, He made choices that were deliberate and thoughtful and direct, all with an eye towards the reason for His coming here in the first place:  to show God’s love to those around Him;  to make choices that were acts of love for His Father in heaven, and for us, generally and individually.  The greatest choice was His decision to enter into the Passion.  “Not my will, but Thine be done!”  It was a deliberate choice, an act of love to put His life on the line in place of us.  And what it cost Him was the essence of His act as sacrifice.  He gave Himself over to that awful suffering and death in a conscious act to substitute His death for mine, and yours.  It hurt.  A lot; which makes it an act of heroic love, for the easy path is often a mere matter of sloth or gravity.  Every step towards the cross was an act of manly love for His bride, the Church.  His Sacred Heart beat harder and harder as His body endured the agony and passion of His final hours, and each beat was like a reminder in His own ears of the “why” of His sacrifice.  “For THEM…for THEM….for THEM!”

                These are matters that theologians and psychologists and story tellers can describe, and it makes for a good study.  Even the demons know all of this.  An atheist could describe the Passion of Christ as a piece of good literature, and possibly the actions of a good man railroaded by others and his own self-delusion into a tragic scene of heroics in the midst of violence.

                But no demon, and no unbeliever, will ever grasp that third element of the Heart of Christ that is truly essential to living a Christian life: He has affection for us.  He feels for us as a brother, a friend, a companion; even as a mother (“like a hen gathering her brood beneath her wings”).  He is empathetic towards us, even now while enjoying the bliss of heaven.  His heart still beats for us.  He likes us, even unbelievers and sinners and the wayward.  I don’t think He likes the demons, though, and that’s what drives them madder than anything else.  They know He loves them still for He made them, but He doesn’t like them.   The affection of Christ is not affectation.  He doesn’t pretend to like us so that we will like or love Him back.  It is an entirely free gift of care and delight in us.  It is a human affection that drew the work hardened apostles to leave everything and follow Him.  It is the compassion that inspired so many to reach for Him even just to touch the tassel of His cloak, to ask for healing, to seek deliverance and peace and calm. 

                The powerful impact of the life and mission of Jesus Christ is obviously part of the Divine Plan for the human race, and God’s choice to send His Son to redeem the world, but an element that must not be lost is that He lived a real human life among other human beings, and He liked them and cared for them.  They were attracted to Him because they learned to feel that love from His Person.  Preaching and proclaiming the fundamental truths of the Gospel are essential to the success of the Church from day one, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.  It was the radiant and radiating affectionate love of Jesus the Man felt by the apostles, and then expressed and channeled by them, that brought them in and kept them there.  His words and actions had power because He is God.  They had their opening into the souls of men and women because He cared for them and got them to feel it.

                We can philosophize about divine love, and we can explain how God can exist in logical proof.  We can describe the events of the life of Christ and make Him a study of serious scholarship.  We cannot always sense the love He has for us, but that makes it no less real or present.  It takes an act of faith, especially in dark and painful moments, but it is worth the effort to ponder and focus on that affection.  We may not feel better afterwards, but often do.  Gazing upon His open, pierced Heart should be a moment of intimacy with Him, our Savior, our Redeemer, our best Friend.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Politics of the Crucifixion

                As we race towards Good Friday, and the marvelous liturgy of the Church to commemorate the Passion and Death of the Lord, I find it necessary to make note of the political circumstances that led to the death of Jesus. 
                While Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor, the leaders of the Jewish people were the Sanhedrin and the Priests.  They were constantly at odds with Pilate, whose task was to keep the peace and keep the taxes flowing to Rome. Not too long before the days of the Passion, there was a slaughter by Pilate of some Galileans who had been causing civil unrest.  Pilate was a brutal governor, no doubt, yet he had the obligations I mentioned.

                The priests and the rest of the Sanhedrin, which consisted of Pharisees as well (Pharisees were not of the priestly class, but laymen who were considered experts of the Law of Moses), needed the support of the people, even if they may not have held their hearts.  For someone else to arise and captivate the people was a threat to the authority of the Sanhedrin.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem amidst pomp and excitement, though meek and humble, riding on the foal of an ass.  For his part, obviously Jesus was deliberately fulfilling the prophecy repeated in the Gospels.  As a preacher from Galilee, he was particularly scorned by the leaders in Judea.     

                It is important to remember that the term “Jews”, used quite often in the Gospel of Saint John, is often misunderstood.  Jesus is never called a “Jew” in that Gospel, until his crucifixion.  In fact, John takes pains to contrast Jesus with the Jews, some of whom believed in him; many others did not.  Why?

                As a Brit might call all Americans “Yankees”, to the consternation of a guy from Mississippi, so all Israelis are called Jews by many non-Gentiles.  Yet the term in the Gospel of John refers to those who lived and were from the province of Judea, the remnant of the Kingdom of Judah which had been exiled to Babylon around 586 B.C.  Galilee was not in that Judea.  Judeans (read: Jews in John) were the city people, the cultured ones who lived around the Temple and the environs of Jerusalem.  They would view Galileans as unlearned and “sinners outside the law”.  Not knowing the ancestry of Jesus, they considered him an upstart from Galilee who was upsetting the tense but business-as-usual situation in Jerusalem between the Sanhedrin and Pilate.  He was also more popular than the Pharisees and Priests, often criticizing them openly in his teachings.  They viewed him as a threat to their own power.  “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. These words were spoken by Caiaphas, the high priest that year, as he and his cohorts decided that Jesus had to die.

                When Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem, they became even more afraid.  Having wanted to arrest him on various occasions, they were unable to do so, because he had the support of the people.  Then Jesus came into Jerusalem amidst the praise of the people, leading the Pharisees to remark, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the whole world has gone after him.”  Somehow they had to get rid of him, but were afraid of what the people would do.  Somehow they had to get to him in secret, condemn him, and hand him over to Pilate. 

                Since the people were awaiting the Messiah, they found Jesus the likely candidate, but the general sense was that the Messiah would be a powerful political leader as David had been, laying low the enemies of Israel.  Jesus had the charisma and the powerful words and deeds, surely it must be he.  But how could the enemies of Jesus break this hold Jesus had on the minds and hearts of the people?  Get him condemned to the most shameful death of crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. 

                Here Judas steps in, and gives them the opportunity.  During the day, Jesus was teaching in the Temple, surrounded by crowds of people.  By evening, he would slip out of the city and remain at Bethany, a short distance from the city walls.  The leaders of the Judeans could not find him.  Jesus was careful to keep his whereabouts secret, even to the point of surreptitiously arranging the Last Supper, telling only how to find the house; not the actual address.  Jesus knew of Judas’ betrayal, and would not let his schemes disrupt the plans of the Eucharistic banquet.  Once Judas had agreed to hand Jesus over, he had to find the right time and place. 

                Once the Eucharistic banquet was complete, and Judas had gone out into the night to fulfill his plans, Jesus completed his final words and left for the Garden of Olives, a place of prayer known to Judas.  I can only imagine Judas bringing the soldiers to the house of the Last Supper and being surprised that he was not there.  The owner of that house is a hero in my mind, since he was obviously a friend of Jesus, though his name remains unknown to this day, apart from some pious traditions.  That place being vacant, Judas had to think of where to go.  That it took him a few hours to figure it out tells me he was not a fan of praying along with Jesus, but that’s my opinion. 

                The nighttime arrest and trial of Jesus was contrary to the law, but his enemies continued on nonetheless.  Having “gotten” Jesus to admit to his claim to being the Messiah, they held him for the rest of the night in a cell underneath the high priest’s house.  I’ve been in it. It’s a pit dug into a rock, with a small hole through which they would lower the prisoners.  Once morning came, and most people were still unaware of the arrest of Jesus, they rushed him to Pilate after a hasty “legal” trial. 

                Pilate knew of Jesus, but does not seem to have been too bothered about him.  He is struck by the anger of the high priests, and discerns that they were envious of him.  He was correct.  Their charges against him during their own trial were religious.  When they bring him to Pilate they level political charges against him; that he was making himself out to be a king, and thus opposed to Caesar.  They make the charge that Jesus was opposed to paying taxes to Caesar, a false charge.  Pilate gives Jesus every opportunity to defend himself, but is struck by the otherworldly words of Jesus.  Pilate is a bureaucrat, whose only goal, as noted above, was to maintain the peace and keep taxes flowing to Rome.  But he was not stupid.  Though brutal, he had a sense of justice, and found no reason to condemn Jesus.  That he is not concerned about “truth” means he wants a quick, painless resolution to the situation, especially since the high priests were riling up the crowd.  Knowing also that Jesus was popular Pilate figures he can give the people a choice.

                Before doing that, he decides to scourge Jesus as a punishment, and hopes that this will quell the bloodlust of his enemies.  The soldiers take it further, using Jesus as a prop in a Roman game called “king”, during which they take a prisoner and mockingly dress him up as a king to show their superiority as Romans.  On the pavements stones in Jerusalem there are carved markings of the symbols they would use for this game.  I’ve seen those, too.  The crowning of thorns was part of this game.  Pilate figures that bringing Jesus out so brutalized will make the people feel sorry for him and demand his release.  Yet the high priests know differently.  They were hoping for some form of brutalization, and got what they wanted.  When Jesus is brought out scourged and crowned with thorns, their desire for his death only increases.  In addition, the crowds who had been for Jesus when they thought he might be the Messiah are turned off by this, and go along with the request for his death.  The plan of the enemies of Jesus is almost complete.  The choice between the violent revolutionary Barabbas and the brutalized Jesus dramatizes the plan. 

Pilate is nonplussed by their vehemence.  “What crime has he done?”  The final political element is near completion.  “Shall I crucify your king?”  The high priests lose it completely:  We have no king but Caesar.  One wonders if Pilate was trying to force them to this point.  He was a cynic, after all.  When he washes his hands, it was a mockery of the justice he had formerly espoused.

Once Jesus is crucified, the plans of his enemies reach their fulfillment.  The supposed Messiah has been mocked and put to death by the enemies of Israel.  The people are disillusioned by all of this.  To whom can they turn now?  To the leaders who had “exposed” the false Messiah.

Yet Pilate would have the last word.  To rub it in to the leaders of the Judeans, he has the familiar tile placed above the head of Jesus:  Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.  The priests object, saying, “This man said, I am the King of the Judeans.”   Quod scripsi, scripsi.  This is a final insult.   Remember, Nazareth was not just in Galilee; it was a Podunk village, almost unknown, and certainly not in Judea.  For the Judeans, the idea of being preached to by a Galilean was bad enough; to think of one becoming their king was far worse.  Pilate knew what he was doing.  The mockery, in other words, goes beyond the plans of the high priests.  Jesus has exposed not just the hypocrisy of the high priests and Pharisees.  By the hands of Pilate, he has exposed their political expediency. 

Such were the conditions of Passion and Death of the Lord.  Human beings have their plans.  God Who knows all has His own plans. What the world considers success, God abhors.  The tragedy of the Crucifixion of Jesus was so only for those who do not see in faith.  The Blessed Mother was told by the angel that the kingdom of her Son would have no end.  Standing at the foot of the cross, and seeing the title above the head of Jesus, I’m sure she remembered these words.  As she conceived in faith, she gazed upon the dying Jesus with the same, and even stronger, faith.  The world changes its mind from truth to error, from support to hatred.  Only those who have eyes to see will remain strong, and stand with the Virgin Mary in faith through to the resurrection.