It has been 74 days since the last entry regarding Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s “Transformation in Christ.” It is evident that this 500 page thesis is a lived experience that cannot be adequately read, digested, and reported on with any modicum of brevity. In this post I will highlight thoughts on the following chapters ten through twelve. Appropriately they followed Striving for Perfection (Post Part V) as they continue to raise the ceiling and the complexity of truly living a holy and transformed life.
Ah, Bloody Hell. Try this clothe on for size today:
“My conduct will be decided by Christ and His holy word, and not determined, for instance by an inordinate zeal which, spurning virtue of discretion, gives vent indiscriminately to one’s natural enthusiasm rather than translating into action a true and unreserved surrender to Christ.”
I do not know how to begin to unpack and dissect this sentence. However, a few pages later, simpler in simpler language he states:
“The true Christian will abhor this complex independence in all its varieties. To him it must be clear, not only that he owes everything to God – that he is, and shall be, a beggar before God – but that he is dependent on the help of other men.”
In every topic that Dietrich addresses he painstakingly walks us through the complexity of our human situation and the perils of free will within the context of confrontation with God. In living a holy life we must have confrontation with God, or at least our limited understanding of God’s expectations, in all our actions, not just at the end of time. On the face of it we may perceive a miserable existence living this way but in reality when truly living in proximity to God’s plan and providence for us great peace and joy envelop us regardless of the immensity of human misery and tears of suffering that we share compassionately with our brothers.
The same holds true for our own weeping when we have to face our own crosses, whether of our own making, or descended upon us from forces outside of our locus of control. The lens becomes making choices based on divine commandments as the higher value always versus human statues. The latter has many positive fundamentals encoded in our laws, our religious institutions, and family traditions, and our culture – but at that end of the day we must hold our actions up to a higher authority. We know our human institutions can sometimes fail us and lead us astray.
For brevity sake I will throw out two hindrances’ mentioned: “familiarity of a thing is not by itself a legitimate reason for cultivating it” and “the case with people who are eager for sensations.” The first speaks to things we do by habit that we become accustomed to and hold high and the second to our drive for the highs and lows of human experience. How many people today are ruled by human desires for alcohol, substance use, money, power, or social status?
Both of these common human yearnings are littered in the fabric of our lives in many forms. I myself can be very cruddy without coffee, can fall into the comfort of religious security based on superficial church teachings without a deep dive in application every day, and love the high and lows of competition, chess, horse racing, and roller coasters. While none of these things in and of themselves are evil, if put in front of God’s will they come become unnecessary distractions to true peace. This is only the first step – to acknowledge one’s freedom of choice and decisions at every cross road. But what do we do with this freedom?
Blessed are They Who Hunger for Justice:
Oh how we go astray in this arena. How indifferent we are to the homeless beggar, the expectant mother considering in our eyes murder of her unborn, to the immigrant seeking asylum, to the migrant working our fields, and to the invisible suffering that is just outside our peripheral vision. From our arm chairs of belief we throw out condemnation of societal ills, blaming other nations and other political parties, and the victims of horrendous struggles themselves – and then we pray for them without action. Or rather we do take action to legitimize their suffering as their very own, unrelated to our very own social contract with society, and we pass laws to minimize their visibility and presence in our communities for as long as it benefits our self-conception of our high moral standing and our relative praise worthiness in the eyes of our neighbors. We are at once immune to beggars and ignorant that we too are beggars before God.
Perhaps I am not giving myself or you my reader enough credit. We may lend our voice to the injustices carried out in our society and our world. We may pray for all the suffering. We may even have written an Op Ed, donated to countless charities, and performed many other wonderful deeds. Did we do these things out of direct response to God’s calling and guidance? Would we have done all of these deeds if they were truly invisible to our peers, never to produce a single platitude from the receiver of our help or from our peers?
Did we act with “unconditional supernatural zeal for the kingdom of God and his justice” without taking any personal pride or credit ourselves in the process. I have dedicated my life to working with oppressed populations (homeless and people living with severe and persistent mental illness) and despite a strong faith I am too reliant on professional recognition, personal compensation, and concern for my own well-being! I cannot say God’s will and God’s justice has always been in my conscious thoughts and actions as the primary driver of all my actions. I cannot say I have not forgotten that there is very little “I” in my successes and a very big “I” in my failures!
Dietrich describes the needed passion this way: “No personal success of happiness can dull the edge of their interest in the victory of justice or soften pain at the triumph of evil.” He describes our passion needs to be day and night “must be swayed by the burning desire that God be glorified in all things.” Would my God accept but “I gave at the office today – it is my field to help the oppressed every moment, I can’t do this work all the time!?” Many a helping professional becomes burnt out from their profession and numb to suffering and pain if they are not mindful of their own personal care. The error above though is me proclaiming “I” do this work all the time. If we in the helping professions live with the fallacy that we are the primary the healer of all societal ills we will surely be wrong and suffer greatly and ultimately be of use to very few.
Today I have listened to a stranger for 30 minutes grieve her departed brother that she cared for in the very hotel I am at for the last 8 months. I witnessed a homeless person attempt to engage a friend by yelling his name across a conduit, and with that failing, attempted a loud whistle with his hands and mouth, only to find he had lost that skill as well. Helpless to even alter the path of a fellow sufferer to engage in company, he shrugged and moved on. Another homeless woman observed me with indifference as I visited a statue outside one of several churches I biked past today in New Hampshire and had stopped to take a passing photo. A teenager, ran down the steps away from her family, and in defiance announced I am going to see a friend to borrow some money. The family’s gaze seemed to offer no hope for the destiny and troubles that lay ahead – poverty seemed to announce itself from every fragment of architecture on this old house. I may have lent an ear to one grieving person today – but what about the countless others I passed without a word or a hand?
I am in pursuit of perfection – but I have not been able to live the life of the Saints where they have demonstrated all things are secondary the one thing necessary – God’s will and justice.
At the start this chapter and others I entered with an assumption that I am in good standing with the virtue or principle at hand. By the end of the chapter I am humbled by the depth of thought and action required to truly delve into a holy life.
It reminds me of a men’s retreat I took many years ago. I arrived with my self-appraisal being relatively high amongst fellow men. It was a laymen’s retreat of everyday people. An anonymous man from an unremarkable background became the joke of the retreat. It was said his corporal body would reach heaven before his soul! How could this be? As part of his action list he has been a donor for over thirty years of blood, bone marrow, a kidney, and other sacrifices. He gave in the immediate and over a life time. His quiet demeanor and peace was truly evident. The moral of this story is when I think I have done enough I may want to think again.
Dietrich defines holy patience above and beyond our laymen understanding. He also defines what it is not. A current western trend, for example, is secularized Mindfulness to provide calm and peace to individuals in our very busy lives and teach truly being aware and living in the moment. The meditative practice at its roots is built on Buddhist practices. In an on-line forum I visit the group is almost fanatical about Mindfulness being opposed to living a holy life. The group is focused on contemplative prayer. Dietrich in one paragraph, while not attacking Buddhist tradition or mindfulness clearly and with precision separates out Buddhist placidity versus Christian patience. When one thinks of patient people we often think of Buddhist monks immersed in deep meditation. In a rare break from his consistently serious and theological writing Dietrich describes Buddhist detachment as being reduced to a position of pure spectator and being akin to just as “a lunatic can no longer commit any sin but can no longer display any virtue either.” This section is high level theological paradigms, but no less important is the daily importance of fighting impatience as it is often a form of self-indulgence.
At the root of most impatience is our sense of time and what we expect to happen when we want it to happen. When we are disappointed we may act out passively or not so passively with ill-humor, anger, or outright aggression!
Dietrich than takes on my significant faults as he hammers away at my false reliance on my life being a normal situation (safe from unexpected tragedies, health scares, financial woes, job disruptions, unfair and unjust affronts to my personage), my sovereignty of self (my desire to not need assistance and/or not have my independence or wants jeopardized by others or external forces), and ultimately my pride (that allows me to deny my creaturely existence and lowly nature relative to the absolute).
These are tall orders especially given we are presumably remaining active in our special calling to perform our works (whatever they maybe) with passion and zeal. If we are “all in” it is to see how impatience with results could bubble up to the surface.
This chapter finishes with the “how to” aim to live with holy patience.
“In the attitude of patience we emphatically let God act, thus allowing all things to unfold from above – as proceeding from their Origin – and by so experiencing their operation again render to God what is God’s.”
Our tools of faith, charity and hope can sustain us in every endeavor. Achieving a balance of fervent action and an attitude of patience is no simple task for most of us.
Until next post – have a truly free, action oriented, contemplative and patient holy day!