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.