The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for July, 2006

Have Your Marriage and Make It Two

There has been a lot of talk in recent decades about the issue of divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church—since there are so many—and the possibility of their being allowed to receive Holy Communion. The Church has always held to the essential indissolubility of marriage, and hence a civil divorce and remarriage means that the second “marriage” is no marriage at all, but an adulterous relationship. Jesus’ teaching on the matter confirms this (Mt. 5:31-32 and 19:9; Mk. 10:11-12; Lk. 16:18). Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching admits an exception to the absolute ban on divorce and remarriage, but it is one whose meaning is obscure. The exception is “for porneia,” which literally means “fornication,” but is sometimes interpreted to mean marriage with someone too closely blood-related, which would render it invalid. No one knows if that is the original intention, but the Church has held to the teaching: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mk. 10:9 and parallels). The issue of annulments is a sticky one, and the Church grants too many, though the Pope is trying to stop abuses, but I don’t intend to deal with that here.

I read recently that some Italian moral theologians are trying to come up with a way for divorced and remarried Catholics to be admitted to Holy Communion. I assume their pastoral concerns are genuine, but their solution accords neither with Catholic teaching nor even simple logic. They try to explain it all in great detail, with various qualifications and caveats, but what it comes down to is the following. A married couple divorces. One of the spouses remarries and perhaps has children with the new spouse. The remarried spouse rethinks his past, realizes it was wrong to divorce, but has since bonded with his new wife and loves her, and has emotional, financial, and family responsibilities that he feels unable or unwilling to renounce. To be re-admitted to Holy Communion (say these theologians), he must acknowledge that his first marriage was the only sacramental one, repent of his divorce and do some appropriate penance, perhaps on an ongoing basis, yet even though realizing that his new marriage is not the “real” one, he can continue the relationship and he can still go on having sexual relations with his new “wife” and in good conscience present himself for Holy Communion! Oh yes, he must also be available to help raise the kids from his first marriage. They neglect to mention whether or not it is permissible on occasion to have sex with the original spouse, since that is the only valid marriage, and the sacramental bond still exists (see how messy it can easily become?).

Does something seem wrong with this picture? Aside from not being in accord with Catholic teaching, and the general confusion, there’s a fundamental dishonesty that is being advanced here. The simple fact that the first marriage was sacramental, i.e., blessed and approved and graced by God, and the second is not, should make it clear about eligibility for the further blessing of sacramental Communion. But what do they mean by “repenting” of the divorce? To repent means to change—not spouses, but behavior! It is disingenuous (to say the least) simply to say: “Hey, I’m really sorry about that divorce. Now can I get married again?” And what kind of “penance” can he or she do that will have any meaning at all, since penance is supposed to help you live the life to which your repentance has returned you? If you fully intend to continue living and having sexual relations with one who is not, in the eyes of God, your spouse, the terms repentance and penance become meaningless.

It is a shame that there are so many divorces today, but perhaps the Church has been complicit in that as well. There should be a long and careful preparation for marriage, for it is meant to last a lifetime, and everyone had better know just what a lifetime commitment entails. Maybe there should be a kind of “novitiate,” a mandatory 3-year courtship and preparation period, like monks have a novitiate before they profess their vows. Marriage vows are no less binding. If the Church insists on upholding her teaching, as she should, then she should not admit anyone to marriage who does not manifest the psychological and spiritual maturity by which they can understand and live their commitment.

It is impossible here to cover all the issues of canon law that apply to various types of situations for which the solution is not always the same—though the Church’s teaching must always be upheld and practiced. It’s not my intention in this reflection to engage in canonical or theological casuistry, but to point out an underlying problem. To make such a change in the Church’s consistent and millennial teaching is not only a serious break with Tradition (which would inevitably lead to demands for even more changes until there’s little content left to her teaching)—it also indicates a weakening in her essential mission of the sanctification of souls.

Vatican II, for all its opening of windows a little too wide to the spirit of the world, in this case paradoxically closes them by its universal call to holiness. Sanctity is not the province only of priests and monks and mystics, but it is the life’s work of everyone. That means that heroic virtue is not only someone else’s calling but yours and mine. This may in some cases translate into working long and hard to save a difficult marriage or, having failed after noble efforts and choosing to separate for the protection of one’s life or integrity, remaining single and carrying that particular cross with the Lord. “No temptation [the word also means “test” or “trial”] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor. 10:13).

The Church does not fulfill her mission if she accommodates herself to the increasing degeneration of the morals of her members. She must, of course, meet them where they are, but not for the sake of adapting her teachings to their inability (or unwillingness) to live the Gospel. The mission of the Church is to call them out of sin and lukewarmess into fervor and holiness. Jesus didn’t associate with prostitutes and publicans as an approval of their behavior, or to get some ideas as to how He might modify his teachings to make life easier for them. No, He went down to them to call them to repentance, and to save them from their sins! The Church likewise does no service to her people by adapting her teachings to the changing mores of a secular and often morally heedless society. She is to show them “a still more excellent way” (1Cor. 12:31), that is, the unchanging and holy commandments of Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The suggestions of those theologians are not surprising. They’re going for the jackpot now, because they have seen the Church back down on other things. Is it too hard to fast? OK, no fasting anymore (except for a negligible minimum). Too many holy days of obligation, on which you have to make the supreme effort to go to church? OK, we’ll get rid of most of them. And the few that are left we’ll try to transfer to the nearest Sunday, so as to increase your convenience still more. Want to sleep late on Sunday or go to the beach or the games? OK, we’ll have Mass on Saturday evening so the Lord’s day can just be for your recreation. Now they’re trying to get the Church to say: Unhappy as a divorcee? OK, you can get married again, and make sure you come to Communion on Saturday evening. Other moral (immoral?) theologians are pushing for Church acceptance of pre-marital sex (only in certain cases, of course, until that’s approved; then they’ll add more), Church acceptance of homosexual activity (try to be faithful to one partner, though; but if you can’t, well, we understand), etc. The Church cannot keep accommodating and still remain the Church of Jesus Christ.

An unexpected and disappointing fruit of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness is that along with the call came (in practice) a rejection of the very mentality and means that are supposed to lead to holiness. All are called to holiness, but what we’ve seen is a falling away from penance, from zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, a weakened spirit of endurance and fidelity, lack of eagerness for prayer, sacramental confession, living the Gospel, and of reverence for the Holy Eucharist and all the things of God. It won’t work. That call to holiness has to have its practical applications. In the context of unfortunate marital situations, the answer isn’t one more ecclesiastical accommodation, but fidelity to the truth, even unto the Cross. For that is what Christianity is about. We’re not supposed to have paradise on earth; this is a time of testing, of proving our love for the Lord in good times or bad, when it’s easy or hard to put his word into practice. Sacrifice is an essential and inescapable part of Christian life. The saints and martyrs knew this, and they didn’t seek exceptions, loopholes, or changes in Church teaching. They only wanted to spend their lives serving the Lord, come what may—for they knew what He promised, and they believed it!

This life is only a short prelude to our true and eternal life. As Christians we should accept the Cross and let it bear fruit in our lives. If we live only with temporal and earthly hopes, desires, and perspectives, then the hardships of life will seem overwhelming and we will rage against them. But if we set our hearts on things of Heaven, as Scripture says, we will live life on a different level, acquiring a taste for spiritual blessings—and realizing that the best is yet to come.

Bread, Cross, Christ

St. Paul says in First Corinthians (1:18) that the Cross is the power of God for those who are being saved. The mystery of the Cross is present in the Gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves, though it will seem hidden, if one looks only superficially. The event, as described by the evangelists, is the miraculous feeding of five thousand men in the wilderness. Jesus took a small amount of bread and fish, looked to Heaven, blessed and broke them, and gave them to the apostles, who then gave them to the crowd. There were even 12 baskets of leftover pieces.

God fed the Israelites in the desert many centuries before that, also in a miraculous way. Paul says in First Corinthians (10:4) that it was Christ, the Son of God, who was with them invisibly in the desert. Now that the Son had become visible as man, he again manifested the gift of God to his people. But He took it a step further, an indispensable and extremely significant step. St. John tells us that the people themselves made the connection between Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the desert and Moses giving them bread from heaven, the miraculous manna. That gave Jesus the opportunity to speak to them of the true Bread from Heaven, which is his own flesh, which He would give for the life of the world.

Here is where we first see the mystery of the Cross. The gift of the flesh of Christ, the divine and life-giving Bread, can be communicated only insofar as it is a fruit of the Cross—of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. The multiplication of ordinary bread to feed multitudes is but a symbol or prefiguration of the universal availability of the Holy Eucharist after the Resurrection of Christ and the establishment of his Church in the Holy Spirit. But the Eucharist is itself much more than a miraculous change from ordinary bread to the flesh of Christ—as astounding as that is in itself. The Holy Eucharist is the fruit of the Cross, and hence is a mystery of forgiveness and love, of the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also in itself a proclamation of the Gospel, for the essence of the Gospel is manifested and communicated through the Eucharist. Jesus gave Himself up to death for the forgiveness of our sins, as he explicitly said at the Last Supper: “Take, eat, this is my body… Drink of it, all of you; for this is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

Jesus must have looked with some satisfaction upon the crowds He had fed by multiplying the loaves and fish. For He knew that the Bread He would soon give would be able to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the whole world. Jesus made sure that the disciples gathered up all the fragments of the miraculous meal He had provided, “so that nothing may be lost.” If even this symbol of his divine gift was to be treated with such care, how much more, then, ought we reverence the Holy Eucharist, and approach with deep adoration! Yet how little reverence is paid to his presence during the Liturgy or in the Tabernacle! A friend of mine often grieved over finding consecrated Hosts in the pews and even on the floor of a church in San Francisco. And I remember when I was visiting someone in the hospital (I was out of town, so I was not able to bring the Eucharist myself), I went to receive a Host from the hospital chaplain so as to give Communion to my friend. I went to the office and his assistant was there, who nonchalantly pulled out a pyx and removed a Host, which she then somehow dropped on the floor. At hearing my little gasp, she just said, “Don’t worry; it’s OK.” I thought, and probably should have said: “No, it’s not OK. If you drop the Body of the Lord on the floor you reverently bow down to recover it, and then repent of your carelessness and irreverence!” And so it goes on. When the communion rails or other separations between sanctuary and nave come down; when anyone—man, woman, child—can walk into the Holy of Holies at will; when laypeople, inadequately formed and inappropriately dressed, can saunter up to the tabernacle and open and close it as if it were their fridge at home, then of course the message is given to everyone that no reverence is required for the Holy Eucharist.

But let us hope and pray for better things. And let us, who do recognize the greatness of his inexpressible gift, give thanks that He who once multiplied bread in the wilderness, multiplies the gift of his saving and sanctifying Body and Blood for us in this wilderness of our earthly exile. Let us give thanks to Him who, as the Psalmist says, “gives food to those who fear Him.” We are invited at every Byzantine Liturgy, immediately before Communion, to “approach with the fear of God and with faith.” This approach with holy fear—which is the deep reverence and awe that we owe to the Bread from Heaven—and with faith in his mercy and love, will enable us to bear fruit and to live continually in the grace of the Holy Eucharist, which is the grace of the Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, and eternal life.

My Words Will Not Pass

Jesus has said many things that indicate his divinity. Some things would be the height of hubris if He were not in fact the Son of God. But since He is, let us listen with reverence and faith to one such saying: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass” (Matthew 24:35). Those of us who maintain blogs know that our words pass every day! But how shall we understand what Jesus has said?

First of all, I think ought to reflect on how seriously we take Jesus’ words and put them into practice. If his words outlast even the heavens and the earth—for “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1Peter 1:25)—then they speak to you and me, for they are valid for all times and all places. Some people try to relativize his words by saying that He was a man of his time and culture and as such his words (at least some of them) aren’t binding upon us. Hmm. “In the beginning was the Word.” The Son of God always was and always will be, so his appearance as a man in first-century Palestine did not put such severe blinders on him. Of course, he spoke in a way readily understandable to the people of that time, but since He transcends all times and cultures, He was also able to do so in a way that disallows any dismissal of his words as some long-ago and far-away phenomenon.

On the other hand, to believe in his words and yet use them as mere proof-texts for debates or polemics is also to miss the point of his ever-enduring words. Jesus’ words are spirit and life, not semantic hammers for leveling the opposition. Then again, some try to pit Paul’s words against Jesus’ words—and even, in practice, accord them greater authority!—as if the Gospels were somehow only an incomplete prelude to the Apostles’ teachings. Yet Jesus is the Word of God in person. I guess certain theological positions seem to them better defended by Paul. Then others more or less simply abandon Jesus’ words and debate about theological or philosophical issues that have only a tenuous relationship to the living word of God.

I think we may need a fresh listening to the words of Jesus, a return to the Gospels in all their vigor and spirit. To say that Jesus’ words will not pass does not merely mean that they’ll always be enshrined in some archeological museum for the interest of future generations. It means they have ever-active wisdom and power to make or break kingdoms, nations, and hearts. It means they can enlighten, strengthen, motivate, and guide us to salvation. It means they will stand as our judge on the Last Day (see John 12:48).

We ought to avoid a fundamentalist literalism but also a too-allegorical or esoteric reading. Putting on the mind of Christ, of his Spirit and his Church, we ought simply to sit at the feet of the Master and try to hear his voice in our hearts as we read the Gospels, to see his words reflected in the lives of the saints, and to let them reverberate in our own actions. Some of his words are clear and direct and admit no misinterpretation. Others seem obscure or shrouded in mystery, and require much pondering and prayer. But all of them are our food and our life-support.

It’s easy to see how our lives pass, the days and years, our health, our energy, even all the creation around us. He who made all things does not pass away, and if we embrace his enduring word with love and fidelity, He will take us to Himself, that we too may abide in Him forever.

Hold On a Little Longer

There are many things we don’t know, probably many more than we do know. We may learn a little and then think we know everything (just ask any teenager), but everything we learn just opens doors to new fields of knowledge of which we are still ignorant. It is a sign of the wise that they not only know their own limitations, but they also know that the more they know, the more they realize how little they know.

It’s a similar situation with faith. After we’ve learned our catechism and read a few dozen books, we may think we’ve got a pretty fair knowledge of the things of God. But the more we enter into the mysteries of God, the more we get a glimpse of the boundless vistas of the knowledge of God. And after many years of study and prayer, we come to realize that we are still neophytes, that we’ve barely scratched the surface of divine truths and of the meaning and depth of life with the Lord.

From a “negative” perspective, this realization ought to keep us humble enough to avoid all haughty or narrow denigration of those who don’t see things as we do, and all misplaced rejoicing at the misfortunes of others, by which in some strange way we consider ourselves vindicated. It may be that on some points we are right and others are not (though we might think so for the wrong reasons), and it may be that some suffer trials because of their erroneous beliefs or misbehaviors, but how all that fits into the divine plan we shouldn’t venture to guess, but rather pray for greater insight and a vision that expands more and more towards the dimensions of God’s own.

But I’d rather look at our limited knowledge and awareness from a more positive perspective. We are called to believe in things we cannot see, to accept things we cannot (fully) understand, to experience divine encounters (often subtle) that are far beyond our ability to comprehend or articulate. Yet we’re called to remain and to bear fruit in this twilight of knowing/unknowing, of touching but not possessing, believing but not seeing, entering but not comprehending.

We’re also called not to give up or become discouraged with our limitations, our inability to see what we believe, and with the hints and traces of the divine presence that don’t quite “materialize” to our satisfaction, or that mysteriously disappear like the Lover in the Songs who knocks but playfully flees when we arise to open (Song of Songs 5:2-6). Hold on a little longer, says the Lord, wait in faith and patience; eventually all will be revealed, and you will know as you are known.

I think the Lord waits even more impatiently than we do for the final fulfillment, the full manifestation of his glory and his kingdom, the ultimate and unending embrace. I can almost see Him watching our astonished delight as we finally see what we have long struggled to believe, when the mysteries we thought we knew something about open up undreamed-of panoramas. And the Lord will delight in our delight; He will rejoice in our joy at having at last found Him whom our hearts love, as we discover within us more love than we ever thought possible.

Hold on a little longer. It’s all true. It will all be revealed. A time is coming when we will no longer “see in a glass darkly,” but will see face to face. Now we must struggle, we must live by faith, we must reach out through the darkness to the Light of the world. But if you do hold on, when that day comes you will rejoice with a glorious and grateful joy, and you will see all mysteries revealed, will drink deeply from the Living Water, will forget all your trials and sufferings, and will see that God was right all along, that it was the right thing, the only right thing, to believe, follow, and obey Him. The Lord has promised it, and He will do it.

Martyrs of America

I wrote a week or so ago about some English martyrs, but I’ve been reading lately about the martyrs of North America, and there’s something more to say. All of those I’ve read about recently have been Jesuits. Now they certainly don’t have a monopoly on martyrdom, but they have undeniably produced a number of holy, fearless, and heroic servants of God and the Church. I’m not sure why I’ve been reading the lives of martyrs lately. Maybe the Lord is trying to show me that I’m still a marshmallow—or that neither my love nor my sufferings even approach that of many of his faithful servants.

The book I’m reading is Saints of the American Wilderness, by John A. O’Brien. The subtitle tells you what it is about: The Brave Lives and Holy Deaths of the Eight North American Martyrs. I’ve only read about three so far: SS. Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, and Jean de Lalande. I must admit that I wept, rather unexpectedly, over the sufferings of St. Isaac Jogues. It is incredible, not only what he suffered—and his super-human endurance—but his love for the Lord that kindled all his heroic efforts to evangelize and baptize the often savage and superstitious tribes in what is now New England and Eastern Canada. I will share a bit of it here.

“The Iroquois…leaped on the priest [Jogues] and beat him with fists, clubs and sticks until he fell unconscious. When he came to, they bit out his fingernails and chewed his two forefingers… A few of the Hurons [who, with Jogues, were captured by the Iroquois] had not been baptized, and some now wished to receive the sacrament. Jogues completed their instruction, with his mangled fingers squeezed water from his wet clothing, and baptized them. ‘Put your trust in God,’ he admonished them. ‘He will give you the courage to endure this ordeal… Blessed be His Holy Name forever.’

“The wounds of Jogues and the two Frenchmen were putrefying by then, and their condition was intensified by the swarming mosquitoes… Some of the braves approached them in their exhausted condition and proceeded to pluck out their hair and beards and to drive their long fingernails into the most sensitive parts of their bodies… On the eighth day of their journey…Jogues was placed last in line and was beaten with such fury that, drenched in blood, he fell stunned. They dragged him to the top of the hill… Jogues was led to a platform where they again beat and stabbed him, mangled his fingers and thrust burning sticks against his arms and thighs…

“The crowd surged up on the platform and beat and stabbed the prisoners. A sorcerer approached [Jogues] and cried, ‘I hate this one most of all.’ With that, he commenced to gnaw his fingers. Next, he ordered…a prisoner of the Mohawks to saw off Jogues’ left thumb with a jagged shell… The prisoners then were placed in one of the houses, each of them stretched on his back, his limbs extended, his wrists and ankles bound fast to stakes driven into the earthen floor… They placed live coals on their naked bodies…

“While Jogues was still there, four fresh Huron captives were brought to the platform for the customary treatment. In spite of his pain and exhaustion, Jogues took the opportunity to convert them. An ear of green corn had been thrown to him for food, and he found a few raindrops clinging to the husk. With these he baptized two of the Hurons… He was made a beast of burden; heavy loads were place on his bruised shoulders, and he was compelled to tramp fifty, seventy, a hundred miles after the Indians… His wounds were gangrened, his bare feet left tracks of blood on snow and ice, the deerskin he wore was alive with vermin…”

Those are just a few snippets of his sufferings. But his sheer endurance is not the most amazing thing. You read how in the midst of all that he was still evangelizing and baptizing. In all this, he could only think of God and of his unworthiness to serve Him. After his thumb had been cut off, “Isaac picked it up and, as he later wrote, ‘I presented it to Thee, O my God, in remembrances of the sacrifices which for the last seven years I had offered on the altars of Thy Church, and as an atonement for the want of love and reverence of which I have been guilty in touching Thy Sacred Body.’” In his agony, instead of crying out for deliverance, he offered his suffering in reparation for not being wholly reverent and loving at certain moments when offering the Mass! How many people today touch his Sacred Body in the Eucharist while in a state of sin, and think nothing of it! These are the kinds of things that make me weep. What about my own “want of love and reverence” over the past 15 years at the altar? If I were being tortured, would I humbly offer my sufferings in reparation for this?

For Isaac Jogues, Christ was everything. He lived his whole life with burning love for his Lord and Savior, and he labored tirelessly, heroically, to bring as many to Him as possible. Another incredible thing. Through a complicated series of circumstances and more sufferings, he managed to get on a boat and go back to France. Did he spend the rest of his life there healing his wounds and his nightmarish memories? No, within a few months he was on a boat back to the very place he had left! Like Elijah, he was full of jealous zeal for the Lord of Hosts, that is, if there was a single soul left in the most desolate wilderness, he would go there to preach the Gospel, baptize, and teach the true faith.

It was not too long after having arrived again, that one of the tribes broke a peace treaty, captured Jogues, beat and tortured him again, and finally buried a tomahawk in his brain and beheaded him, thus ending the earthly life of a great soldier of Christ. With what joy he must have been received into the Kingdom of Heaven! When I think of Isaac Jogues and other martyrs like him, I think of what the Letter to the Hebrews says about the saints of the Old Testament: “The world was not worthy of them” (11:38).

We may be intimidated by the specter of his horrifying sufferings, yet it is not our threshold of pain that is the issue, but rather our love for the Lord. I’ve been grumbling about the intense heat wave we’ve been enduring here for a couple weeks (went up to 115), but St. Isaac would have cheerfully continued his work, happy only to be a servant of such a blessed and loving Master. There’s so much we can do for the Lord and offer to Him, just in the context of daily life. We are called to a daily martyrdom of patience, forgiveness, labor, and faithfulness to the word of God.

How much do we recognize and value the gifts God has given us, primarily in his Son who suffered unspeakable tortures as well as bearing the infinitely greater burden of our sins? With what reverence (or lack of it) do we approach the Holy Eucharist? What price are we willing to pay to ensure our fidelity to the commandments of the Lord? How weak and selfish and petty do we look in the face of those who gave their all for Jesus? What are our priorities in life? “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ…” (Phil. 3:8-9). St. Paul must have been proud of Isaac Jogues. What would he think of you and me? Holy Martyrs, pray to God for us!

Adult Books

There are many strange and misleading euphemisms in our society. For example, “reproductive health” often entails the murder of the very one who is the living manifestation of human reproduction. Not very healthy, death. Another one, which I’d like to look at today, is “adult books,” which can be bought at “adult bookstores” or on “adult websites.”

There’s really not much that is adult about “adult” books. They mostly cater to adolescent fantasies (at least I guess they do, or so I’ve been told, or, like, I wouldn’t know!). And if people read them long enough, they become so twisted and perverse that there’s little that is adult, i.e., mature, about them. “Mature” is another misused word. Books or films that cater to those same adolescent fantasies are for “mature audiences.” Perhaps there should be a rating system that indicates certain books or films as designed for “immature, sick, perverse, weird, satanic, degenerate audiences.” That would at least give pause to some mature adults.

Our society in general is quite immature, or at least it takes people much longer to mature than in past generations. It may be that they get street-wise and have their “eyes opened” by eating forbidden fruit much earlier (in some places lobbyists are advocating STD vaccines for 11-year-olds). But about the meaning of human life they have no clue. I was just told of a young pregnant woman who wants to have an abortion because she doesn’t want to get fat. Perfectly good reason for killing a baby! I know a young husband and father who left his wife and son, because after the birth of their child his wife actually grew up and became a mother, and hence was “no fun” anymore, but he wanted to have fun. I suppose he reads “adult” books, too. He’s a real man!

Perhaps our high-tech society has something to do with the lack of ordinary human growth and formation. Kids can use a calculator, but they don’t know their multiplication tables (quick, what is 9 x 7?). They can operate a computer, but they can barely read and write. They can manipulate figures in video games, but they don’t know how to hold a baseball bat. They know nothing of literature, but they read “adult” books and magazines. They go to school to learn cutting-edge technology, but they rarely receive an education.

But it’s more than that. They also don’t receive adequate moral and spiritual formation, and I think that is the major impediment to human maturity. If they are not grounded in eternal truths and in profoundly God-centered vision of life, the way is paved for the media, the pornographers, Planned Parenthood, and every hawker of hedonism to insure that they will never become real adults, never mature. They will remain forever in an emotional adolescence that thrives on fun, gratification, and selfish disregard for others, while eschewing sacrifice, courage, nobility, faith, and all that truly builds human maturity and character.

My recommendation to you is to read some adult books: the Bible, the lives of the saints, the fathers of the Church, and other noteworthy spiritual writers, novelists, etc. These are the true adult books. They may be for mature audiences, but even if you’re not quite mature yet, they will actually help you get there. And make sure you recommend them to others. Our society must eventually tire of its degrading surfeit of immorality, its unhealthy diet of illicit pleasure and moral indifference. Their “adult” freedom is nothing more than enslavement to perpetual adolescence. We need to show them the path to recovery, so that they will not forever remain at the present arrested level of emotional and spiritual growth. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1Cor. 13:11). They need to hear that word and grow up to “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Lewis on Forgiveness

There’s a short address called “On Forgiveness” in a collection entitled, The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis. With his usual penetrating insight, he illuminates this difficult but indispensable element of Christian life. So, without further ado:

“…If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No part of His teaching is clearer, and there are no exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own…

“I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often…asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive… what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses… We are so very anxious to point these [‘extenuating circumstances’] out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses…

“A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in [the forgiveness of sins], from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that would not be forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

“When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people…here also, forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people…think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, ‘But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.’ Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)… In our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough… To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

“This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions, and God means what He says.”

We have a short prayer in our tradition: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us. Since we have no excuse for our sinfulness, we can only offer You this prayer, O Master: Have mercy on us!” We don’t make excuses; we even assert that we have none, which means we really are asking for forgiveness. I think the key passage in Lewis’ address is: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” We all have our work cut out for us…

Gospel, Repentance, Eucharist

I’ve recently been reading an insightful book entitled, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, by John Behr, an Orthodox priest and theologian. He makes a point about the original proclamation of the Gospel that we would do well to ponder. He says, first of all, that it is not enough, using tools such as the historical-critical method, to discover what the Scriptures meant in their original context (though there is some value to this). We need to know what the Scriptures mean. By this he does not reduce them to modern subjective interpretations, but he wants us to see the meaning of the words of Scripture not merely as the meaning of the text. Rather, we must meet the Word of God Himself therein—He who is with us always, and who is also the Coming One, for whom the Church must constantly watch and wait.

The original preaching of the Gospel, expressed in St. Peter’s post-Pentecost discourses, was not a mere imparting of information, about which scientific research might satisfy our curiosity. Nor was his audience neutral or even innocent. For this preaching was about “Jesus, whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Now here’s an important reason why we should not just want to know what the Scriptures meant, but what they mean. This preaching is directed to us, too, here and now. “‘We are, insistently and relentlessly, in Jerusalem, confronted therefore with a victim who is our victim.’ What is embodied and enacted in Christ, though occurring at a specific historical moment and in a particular context, is nevertheless God’s own work and, as such, eternal or timeless. The preaching of his crucifixion and resurrection is not restricted to the first century… Rather, now that Christ is with God, and all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him, there is no place or time where he cannot be or cannot work: he is present, even now, to those who turn to him, as the victim of their own sins and, as such, the one who is able to forgive and bring them into the life of God.” [emphasis added]

The preaching of the Gospel tells us that we have crucified and killed the Son of God, by our own sins. To Him we must turn for forgiveness, for He is the one we have offended and hurt (and don’t forget, whatever we do to his brethren, we do to Him). The first hearers of that news were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them: ‘Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38). The same Gospel message is for us: repentance and baptism, unto forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We may already be baptized, but repentance and growth in the grace of the Holy Spirit must be ongoing. To encounter Christ in the proclamation of his Gospel is first to repent of what we did to Him (and, from our perspective, still do, as it is played out in time). We have crucified Christ and must now make a decision to enter into his forgiveness and fellowship.

St. Peter had to learn his own lesson before he preached the Gospel to others. He knew that he had also crucified Christ by his betrayal. He denied Him three times, and so a three-fold profession of love was required from him after Jesus’ resurrection. The evangelist John carefully sets the scene. When Peter betrayed Jesus, he was standing by a charcoal fire (John 18:18, 25-27). When Peter and the other disciples came in from the sea to meet the risen Lord, “they saw a charcoal fire there” (21:9), and momentarily Jesus asked Peter to renounce, through love, what he had done at the previous charcoal fire.

This immersion in the Gospel proclamation through the encounter with Christ in repentance is richer still. The charcoal fire was there at the seashore to prepare a meal that they would share, fish and bread. That meal of reconciliation and communion was prepared over the fire of betrayal-transformed-by-repentance-into-love. Their story is our story. For Christians today, “as with the disciples after the Resurrection, the primary locus for this encounter is a meal. The Eucharistic celebration is not simply a fellowship meal or a commemoration of a past meal, but one which begins ‘in the same night in which he was given up’: ‘We do not eucharistically remember a distant meal in Jerusalem, nor even a distant death: we are…people complicit in the betrayal and death of Jesus and yet still called and accepted, still companions of Christ in the strict sense—those who break bread with him’” (a “com-panion” is literally one who shares bread with another).

As the heart of the Gospel message, repentance and Eucharist are symbolically brought together by another burning charcoal: the one that the angel brought with a pair of tongs to purify the lips of Isaiah as he confessed his unworthiness of his vision of God and of standing in his presence (Is. 6:1-8). He came to God first in repentance and was purified by a flaming coal from angelic hands. It is no coincidence, then, that in the Byzantine tradition, the Holy Eucharist, the “live coal of divinity” (Matthew the Poor, Communion of Love) is given with a spoon, as though with tongs, and after Communion the priest says to all the people, just like Isaiah’s angel: “Behold, this has touched your lips; it has taken away your iniquities and cleansed you of your sins.”

Gospel, repentance, Eucharist: this is what the Scripture means; this is the word of God alive and active today. We have to hear it afresh and to meet the Lord Jesus in Spirit and in truth. After receiving the proclamation of the Gospel, and forgiveness through repentance and Holy Communion, we are to become preachers of the Gospel ourselves. As soon as Isaiah was purified, the Lord said: “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah cried out: “Here am I. Send me!”

What Will Set You Free?

I read a little book recently (Freedom From Fear, by Marci Alborghetti) that was quite well-intentioned, if a bit eclectic, though it seemed to miss the mark—from a spiritual perspective, anyway. It’s a kind of self-help book, for which the intended audience seems mainly to be neurotic housewives or working women. (Why, then, was I reading it, you ask? Well, I look for insights in many different places, and sometimes all I learn is where not to look anymore!) The book is about overcoming fear through faith, which is certainly a worthwhile goal. But there were two major drawbacks to the author’s approach, as I see it.

Before I examine those, however, I’d like to mention that some people will probably find the book valuable for its practical tips and exercises for taming one’s fears and anxieties. The author admits to being a fellow-sufferer, and she is sharing what she has learned along the way, which is not without its usefulness.

The first flaw is that faith in God seems to be used simply as one means among others. You can try this exercise, create this reminder, believe in God, use this relaxation technique, etc. The book is not really about overcoming fear through faith, but through a host of methods or means, faith being just one of them. This is typical of modern pragmatic America, where things are valued and utilized for their practical effectiveness. You have a goal: freedom from fear. If faith works, then by all means, have faith! If something else works better, use that. Seems to me like that’s putting the cart before the horse. Faith in God is of inestimable value even if it doesn’t cure your neuroses! Freedom from fears may be a happy consequence or fruit of faith, but God is the goal, not healing of anxieties.

The other flaw is more fundamental. The author suggests that we “re-image” God in such a way that our fears are calmed. We should put out of our minds any thought that God might punish us for our sins, for that makes us afraid. Rather, we should only speak and think of God with warm, soft, tender, loving images. But this approach borders on idolatry, that is, making an image of God that is not the true God. It is not a non-threatening or gentle image of God that will set you free from fear. As Jesus said, it is the truth that will set you free (John 8:31-32), and nothing else! The truth is, God has revealed Himself in many ways in the Holy Scriptures, and since it is God who is revealing and being revealed, they are all true. Even the stern ones. Even those that the “re-imaging” censors would discard. God certainly is loving, tender, merciful, etc., but He is also the eschatological Judge and the Vindicator of his own righteousness. He is demanding and uncompromising as well as forgiving and healing. He receives harlots and drives out money-changers. He is who He is, and we’ve no right to “re-image” Him to meet our emotional needs.

Now let me hasten to add that it may be necessary for someone suffering from an extreme trauma or emotional disorder to focus (temporarily, anyway) solely on the mercy, the peace, the loving-kindness of God. This may be necessary to begin the path to recovery. But these are exceptions, and even in these cases one may hope that they regain their strength and balance sufficiently to accept God in the fullness of his truth.

The point is simply this: our goal is God, and eternal life with Him. Faith, prayer, sacraments, etc., may perhaps be considered “means” to this ultimate end, but that’s not quite correct, either. They are part of the whole condition or spiritual “environment” within which we enter communion with God, not merely practical stepping stones. But it is inappropriate (to say the least) in the case of a lesser goal, like freedom from neurotic fears, to utilize faith—and that in a one-sided image of God—in order to attain it. That’s a kind of psychological sleight-of-hand that can only attain a “freedom” that is short-lived or superficial. Only the truth will set us free—and not just the parts of the truth that seem sweet. Our willingness to embrace the whole truth opens us up to the profound mystery of God, in whom are all the riches of wisdom, love, goodness, and life. But we must accept God as He has revealed Himself, and we put our trust in Him who invites us to the leap of faith—and faith not as a technique for balancing our emotional life, but as the key to “the life which is life indeed” (1Timothy 6:19).

Not Our Ways

It is perhaps cause for both consolation and consternation that God’s ways are not our ways, as He said through the prophet Isaiah (55:8-9). We may initially have more consternation than consolation, so let’s look at that first.

Sometimes it may be looked upon as a kind of Christian cop-out: whatever tragic or absurd thing happens, we say it’s because God’s ways are not our ways. And the unbeliever’s answer is: “Yeah, right. That’s a convenient excuse, but it doesn’t fly in the real world.” It’s OK for unbelievers to question (as long as they don’t get all mean-spirited about it), but then they have to listen for an answer. Mostly, though, they don’t want to hear the answer. They don’t want to accept that God’s ways are not ours because of his infinitely greater wisdom and far-seeing understanding. They don’t want to hear God’s answer to Job, who, unlike God, was not there at the creation of the cosmos and does not know how to set the orbits of the planets or regulate the tides or make the eagles soar. Those who can’t discern and accept God’s ways have their spiritual blinders on too tight.

But even believers don’t always like it that God’s ways are not our ways, and not because they are wrestling with complex theodicies. We don’t like God’s ways being different because we simply prefer our ways. We have certain plans, desires, or aspirations, and (let’s be honest) we don’t want God’s will messing everything up! “Thy will be done” spells doom for our myopic or selfish designs. We don’t want God to have a different take on things than we do, because then we’ll either have to change our plans or else do them anyway, but with the disadvantage of a bad conscience. So we’re a little uneasy with God coming right out and saying that his ways and thoughts are not ours.

Yet we might take some consolation when things aren’t going well for us, or when we’re in some serious jam because of circumstances beyond (or because of) our control, that God has a better vantage point than we do, and we hope that a rescue is imminent. When we can’t figure our way out of a problem, then God’s having different thoughts and ways is a rather welcome revelation.

We shouldn’t, however, let self-interest guide our approach to the mysteries of God, whether from a positive or negative perspective. We should simply rest in the truth of what He has revealed, and then try to get our own ways as far as possible in line with his. Also, if we’re tempted to grumble about God’s ways, we ought to look at the context in which He said this, for it is full of mercy. Our ways are generally to judge and condemn the sinner, and perhaps if we recognize our own sins and failures, our way is to fear judgment or condemnation from God or others. But this is what He says about it: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Notice two things here. God’s ways are ways of mercy, of patience and compassion—which is why they are, more often than not, unlike ours. The “for” (meaning “because”) is an explanatory link in the text: the Lord will pardon because his ways are not ours. And his ways are not merely different than ours, they are higher, that is, more noble, wise, holy, and good.

Therefore we shouldn’t regard God’s ways as favorable or not depending on their perceived benefit to us. Rather, the fact that they are not our ways, and are actually better, higher ways, should be cause for standing in awe of Him, in joy and gratitude and adoration, like St. Paul: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen!” (Romans 11:33-36).

Rejoice, then, for God’s ways are not yours. If you had your way in all things, your life would end up a disaster and you would probably lose your soul in the process, for you simply can’t know what’s best for you and what the future holds. That’s why there’s something called faith, something called trust, by which we embrace Him in whom are all the unsearchable riches of wisdom, grace, mercy, and love. He patiently endures our short-sighted critiques of his governance of the universe, for He knows that we’ll see clearly in the end, if we’ll only persevere. It is good to give thanks to the Lord, even though—or rather, precisely because—his ways are not ours!

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