Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ (Chapter 9)
On “Striving for Perfection”
Who am I? What am I? Where am I today?
Can you answer this question today? I believe most of us can. Give it a try. Briefly, write one or two sentences down now or just hold them aside for later reflection. Here is mine:
“I am a clinical social worker, married, father of three, chess enthusiast, and avid reader.”
There are about 682,000 social workers, 70.1 million fathers, and 25 million chess players in the United States. The typical American by self-report reads about five books a year, not quite avid readers, but not shabby either. I can safely say I have not reached perfection in any of these pursuits. World poverty, hunger, homelessness, addictions, and serious mental health conditions continue to plague society and individuals despite “my” efforts. Fatherhood by definition is imperfection. Chess I was only towards the bottom end of the top twenty-percent of US chess players. I certainly read more than the typical American but have no claim to exceptionalism relative to other avid readers. Crushing mediocrity! Defined solely by my “I” you can see how if left to my own devices I could fall into the abyss of insignificant singularity.
The reader may expect a pivot point here. Singularity insignificance of being attacks not only my core but yours as well. I could muster up admirable accomplishments, adversities contended with and other moments in my life to counter this proposition but honestly and paradoxically the more I counter this truth the greater my insignificance will be. And this is only relative to vast accomplishments of my current peers or perhaps even to just your accomplishments. You may be an inventor, a published author, a great orator, possessor of great wealth or prestige, any variation or adaptation of other things that we collectively validate as valued and worthy of praise.
There is a higher plane, a higher standard. Compare your statement not to the Olympiad of mortal men but to the divinity standard of perfection. Have you harnessed your God given talents and potential every minute of every day into this present moment and are now, even as you are reading this, aligned with a higher calling in all your thoughts, in all your words, and in all your actions today? Does your being supersede you and transcend to the end of a greater good, not only in your actions, but in a synergistic explosion of energy that transforms and draws out the good of others around you, sending anyone who comes into your orbit and presence, into a mind bending transformative process of their very own? Can you do that today?
I myself come up short, very short. This however does not permit me to descend into an abyss of nihilistic thought. Dietrich has other ideas. Friedrich Nietzsche once provided me a philosophical ride of descent into nihilistic thought with gripping philosophical text and a grand pronouncement of God is dead many years ago! The amateur philosopher can easily fall victim to the philosophy of total negation, to the apparent meaninglessness and absence of objective truths in everyday life. My early readings of Nietzsche came out the other side into a world of ontological existentialism. Nihilism was the threat to humanity – not the answer. I divert here to merely point out how easily we can succumb to a rabbit hole of philosophical ideas (or other worldly distractions) and lose sight of our ultimate compass and being in life.
Dietrich in much simpler terms, though not at the slightest light on theologically grounded insights, walks the reader through steps towards “Striving for Perfection.” One very quickly is introduced to the gift of our “free will” and what we choose to do in response to God’s calling. If you are reading this you have some desire already for sanctification and holiness. You have a hunger in some shape or form driving you towards fulfillment of something more.
The previous chapters of his book will have introduced you to self-examination, humility, simplicity, and a readiness and overall confidence to take the great leap of faith to truly trust in God’s omniscience and omnipresence. Now he challenges you to let go of self – not in the nihilistic fashion, though on a superficial level you could misjudge this reading, but in a revoking of the singularity of self for unity with God. Dietrich presents another high dive into the pool of humanity. While I am reading his work to find God, he is reminding me that finding God is nearly impossible if I am not aiming, striving for perfection by fine tuning all the time my affections (desires), my actions (deeds), in a manner which freely assents to and cooperates with God’s will. Dietrich goes to great lengths here to teach us to avoid building a resume for ourselves or for others to view of holy deeds and virtues – but simply to just be virtuous:
“Man is not the author even of his natural life; he is not able, as the Lord says, to increase his stature by so much as an inch.”
It sounds like double talk but is not at all once explained. Through numerous examples he paints good deeds being accomplished by the “hero” of any situation as the person simply acting on what they through prayer, meditation, and self-discipline are practicing God’s will all of the time no matter the circumstance, and if it allows them to be a hero or provider of good deeds, that is not in and of itself their deeds, but simply a consequence of living a virtuous life. The “I” disappears and is absorbed in a greater unity with God, sometimes evidenced by spiritual consolation (moments of grace) from God, but more often performed in periods of spiritual dryness and aridity.
For most of us we are only on a path of striving for perfection both in our worldly responsibilities and our spiritual ascension. Let me recommend that we only need to do the latter and the former will take care of itself. Our worldly responsibilities are our calling to do as best we can infuse with the presence and guidance of God. Complete confidence and trust will provide us a foundation to face all suffering; successes, momentary confusions and fears with the trust that the mystery and mercy of God is present and we must only cooperate with God. There is another caveat here. We are not in charge of calling God. At the same time we are called to act to be prepared and open to being guided by his presence.
The usual tools one might hear about are presented by Dietrich. Find time for prayer and contemplation. Be prepared for various experiences and challenges. Shun the trivial and unimportant. Empty oneself of worldly desires through ascetic practices (without becoming a nihilist) while also learning how to recognize the inherent beauty and majesty of worldly things that celebrate, highlight, or reveal scents of spiritual perfection or of God.
Our daily lives will present us with multiple moments where we can freely choose to move closer to or farther away for God. Our calling may not be, and most are not called to live the monastic life, to be a recluse or a great martyr for God. Sometimes the heroes are the invisible ones who, day in and day out, perform the mundane daily task of their calling sustained and driven by the mystery and mercy of God.
The greatest tool, I have not mentioned. We cannot and will not be transformed in God Christ by our own self-determination or multiple acts. The liturgical gifts, the sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and reception of Holy Communion have been passed down for over two thousand years: these are important for sustaining and nurturing your faith.
Still the striving for perfection is an uphill battle and I will most assuredly stumble and flail my arms at many junctures, and if particularly distraught perhaps even vocalize my displeasure at apparent abandonment by God and outright injustice of my particular situation on any given day.
No fear. The Mercy and Majesty of God who is all-knowing will wait patiently for me to choose another path. We may not measure up to Ghandi – but we have a path nevertheless. At the end of the day the mystery of God remains to be revealed to us in hopefully glimpses today and eternity at the end of time. However, we are here today with our sentence. It is what we have today to work with in our spiritual transformation. Is our sentence that we wrote above (or thought) who are divinely meant to be and if not let’s slowly get busy on changing it. In the view of hindsight, through the many blessings and graces I have received, I could greatly expound on my sentence above. In this writing it would be trivial and non-important!
For most of us it is to continue refining and aligning our daily activities in closer alignment and proximity to what we believe God would require rather than a radical exterior transformation. Yesterday and tomorrow are not our concerns. However, we are called to radically be transformed in Christ: Saint or Sinner, Pauper or King, Priest or Lay person. No matter our station in life or our past transgressions we are called continually to transform ourselves in Christ. It is a life time journey and timeless. In our singular insignificance each of us plays a great role in the most significant event ever recorded in history, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
An unfathomable leap I have made in that last sentence. Instead, imagine a ballet dancer’s smooth continuous rise towards the heavens, effortlessly extending upwards gracefully with every muscle and sinew seeking perfect expression in concert with the entire ensemble, choreographed and orchestrated to a live orchestra:
Prayer and life is meant to be this way: Trans-formative and majestic. Below are some references for people seeking resources on prayer and a link on the author (that is sparking this series post). Feel free to respond with comments any resources you find valuable in your search and pursuit of living a sanctified life.
Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ (Chapter 8)
On “Confidence in God”
Many Christians have been waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. It has been over two thousand years since he walked, preached, died and was resurrected. Our Jewish cousins have been waiting perhaps as much a four thousand years for the first coming. Jesus did not pass their mustard test of divinity. Christians utilize prophesies in the Old Testament as predictions that Jesus fulfilled the first prediction.[i] Regardless of this seismic division we still share a Messianic faith:
The term “Messianic prophecy” refers to a compilation of over one hundred predictions (conservative estimate) in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah. They have undeniable accuracy even though these prophecies were recorded by numerous writers into various books over 1000 years. We are assured that these prophecies were not conspired after the fact due to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint. These items are existed prior to Jesus’ time on earth.[ii]
The idea of “Confidence in God” given our shared four thousand year period of “waiting for God” and our collective confusion and divergent interpretations of historical events, scripture, prophets, and the understanding of the historical life of Jesus Christ is intellectually mind-boggling. It is in this context I am hesitant to write about “Confidence in God.”
With genuine humility and intellectual honesty I can assuredly say I cannot define a personal path for anyone to come to believe and share my faith and confidence in God. My own faith I judge to be far too fragile and temperamental.
I can however provide testament to having common concerns and doubts about God with my fellow man that have run deep in my life and come out of the darkness with a greater faith after many trials and divergent paths. Challenges afforded to me have included philosophical existentialism, unexpected losses of family members, experience with personal failures and traumatic situations, a deep seated wrestling with the meaning and nature of suffering, criticisms of our religious institutions practices and beliefs (past and present), alternative explanations for spiritual experiences, psychological principles of individual development and sociological explanations for religiosity, and personal “isms” of a less lofty nature.
How can we ask anyone to have faith in God when facing a four thousand year waiting period for a messianic coming that we cannot define with any certainty while living in a secular world driven by temporal and material goals (ranging from basic survival to unimaginable wealth)? I cannot ask you to have faith. I can share mine. I cannot even give faith away. It is not mine to give. My journey is not even my own.
I have an oar. It is a very small oar. All I can do is row and aim for the greater good. I do not know what rivers I will face, what rapids lay ahead, or when my boat will rest on calm waters. Sometimes I will have other rowers by my side and sometimes I will be utterly alone. God is always there but sometimes in my fear or in my self-possession I will not see him or be aware of his presence. In the poem below it is easy to forget the line “I thank whatever God’s maybe for my unconquerable soul.” [iii]
And yet I am writing about “Confidence in God” for myself and I hope for you the reader. Faith, like sports, is a full contact activity. It requires participation, determination, and perseverance. It also requires transcendence past human abilities. That is where “Confidence in God” comes into play.
I am still daunted by this release of myself into his hands without trembling. The willingness to accept the consequences and responsibilities of a true and on-going transformation in Christ and Confidence is beyond my spiritual imagination. Like my middle name, I still have bouts of doubt that arise at the most unfortunate times. I do not have the luxury presented to doubting Thomas:
The apostles who lived with and followed Jesus Christ struggled to believe in the entirety of Christ message. How can we be expected to claim that faith any better than those who lived by his side?
I believe there is an answer here to part of the mystery of Jesus Christ death and resurrection. We are called to be active and open to a spiritual life, open to living a spiritual life guided by the Holy Spirit and his teachings, and to do so without his physical presence and performance of miracles in our presence.
I cannot define the messianic second coming. I cannot defend if Jesus Christ should or ought to be accepted by the Jews as the first Messiah. I cannot debate if we are living in the Messianic period or are still waiting for the Messianic period. These are theological concepts beyond my pay grade! However through my Catholic faith I am taught the following:
“In him human history and indeed all creation are “set forth” and transcendentally fulfilled.551”[iv]
I am not to wait for the second coming. I am to live a spiritual life now, every day, every moment and to strive, within the limits of my humanity, for “spiritual perfection.”
Dietrich presupposes you have bludgeoned these obstacles and are reading his work and searching and deepening your faith. He delves right into God being omnipotent, omniscient, truly merciful, and a personal loving God. Perhaps your head is nodding and you are saying “Ah yes, Dietrich I readily agree that God is all powerful, ever present, and that through our prayer the Eucharist, and our church that we have a personal relationship with God. Dietrich you are the master of the obvious!” Dietrich answers your thoughts with a warning about some of us who may fall into never being “roused into a full awareness of man’s metaphysical situation” and being truly cognizant of being in God’s hands (which can evoke appropriate awe, fear and trepidation):
“This pitfall of a comfortable smugness masquerading as religiosity we must studiously avoid; in full awareness of the gravity of our metaphysical situation, in penitent humility we must lift our eyes to God, and in constant effort work for our sanctification. At the same time, we must bear in mind that it is not on the basis of our nature but through Christ and in Christ alone that a real victory over our sinfulness can be obtained.”
Dietrich after throwing the above punch, recognizing our human limitations, jumps into God’s infinite love and mercy for each of us and then takes on the intrinsically sad things and intrinsically bad things (evil) and how we are to understand them and come to terms with feelings of being abandoned by God.
It is dizzying to recognize that in a moment of prayer I am connected to the sins of humanity past and present and to the healing and saving grace of God. It is overpowering to consider my part or lack thereof in righting the wrongs of today (poverty, injustice, violence, abuse, murder). My prayers for the many suffering and for cessation of the countless evils being perpetrated are somehow seemingly irrelevant in the vast tide of human misery.
Dietrich acknowledges the “impenetrable mystery of why God permits such a passing trial of evil at all.” How many times have we heard or asked ourselves – God, how can you let this happen? Or as it is said in the bible:
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, KJV).
Jesus was not accepted by the Jews as the true Messiah as they expected the Messiah to be a new King to restore the Jews as a nation (among other reasons). There was an expectation of immediacy. Jesus Christ was not the Messiah the Jews expected. Not even the apostles were prepared for his death or resurrection. Jesus Christ perhaps modeled a response for on accepting suffering:
“My father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me, Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39)
There is a teaching here for our prayer. We can pray out loud to the father and call him by name. We can ask for what we want in our hearts (even though we know he knows our intentions and desires already). And we can reaffirm our desire is to do or accept God’s will, not our own will.
Dietrich presents a compelling case for accepting suffering while maintaining confidence in God’s design no matter how incomprehensible the situation is or how reprehensible our actions have been in the past. Our confidence must also be free of false expectations for repairing harms we have done to ourselves, providing us what we ask for when we want it, or even providing us an “enlivening touch of his grace.” On this point I am spiritually impoverished. I pray that I am not tested by long periods of spiritual dryness. I beg for on-going support and revelation. I announce my weakness and frailty at every opportunity in this regard.
Like Thomas, I fear the loss of grace. I fear the dark night of loss of faith. I cannot imagine the trials and tribulations of the martyrs and saints that have went days, weeks, months, and even years without spiritual consolation.
There is an absurdity here. Who am I to demand spiritual consolation at all? Who am I to take myself so seriously?
I am a doubting Thomas – a man who believes in God but who is struck by fear and doubt. In a moment of agony or pain I can easily forget the many graces I have received, demonstrate a lack gratitude for all that I have been given, and have a penchant (or petulance) for anger when disillusioned by a negative outcome that I perceived as not aligned with my manifest destiny. In essence when life is going my way God is great – but let the boat rock a little and desperation can evaporate my sense of grounding and confidence. This is not confidence in God. Confidence in God is constant no matter what our circumstances are – no matter how dire our situation.
When Jesus was resurrected he left us with a calling card:
“What Jesus longs for in this post-resurrection encounter with Thomas is that we all might believe in him by handing over our hearts and our hopes that he might bring them to the fullness of joy.”[v]
Poor Thomas today still takes a chiding for what was only a natural skepticism. If not for his skepticism how could we be taught to manage our own? Sometimes it is simply better to just move on and take formative action or if I may say – trans-formative radical action. Be confident in God and active in your journey no matter what your circumstance today.
Transformation in Christ by Dietrich Von Hildebrand:
On Humility (Chapter 3: 149 – 188):
Take a few minutes and consider your personal reaction to the word Humility or Humble. In American culture it can be seen as a great asset or great weakness. It is context dependent. The American Psychological Association[i] and Forbes[ii] business magazine see great utility in the trait of humility. It is perhaps the antithetical to seek to be humble for personal gain – gain which is often aimed at material wealth or increased social status – but nonetheless even if starting out with an end goal that is perhaps not so humble – there is intrinsic value in being humble. If you are interested in personal growth for personal gain stop reading here and visit the web links at the end of the article.
If you are interested in Humility as an aspect of your spiritual journey or development Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s chapter on Humility can humble your self-assessment of your possession of humility. On a 9 by 5 inch canvas each page is a round of jabs, hooks, and revelation. At least in sixteen feet by twenty feet canvas you have a referee to stop the fight, a corner crew to tend to your wounds, and an end in sight – win or lose. Humility on a theological plane has no end – it is a way of being that continues to deepen and expand.
Round 1: Dietrich opens up with a series of body blows aimed at Pride. The early round body blows are aimed at all efforts for at the “glorification of self” by seeking superiority, power, and wealth as an end in and of themselves to promote our own ego.
Round 2: Mixing it up with taunts and occasional jabs he describes “Satanic Pride’s” ability to isolate and divide us from each other and from our God. In our perverted sense of our own free will we are given license to use our God-given talents for an “orgy of self-glorification and nourishment.”
Round 3: Now isolated from each other and our God, we dig in and fight on acquiring vestiges of success wherever we can. They become the measure of our worth and of the worth of others.
Round 4: Wounding our sense of identity in worldly possessions and achievements he deftly seizes on refusal to truly have a sense of obedience to God, to accept help from others, and to be open to the sovereignty of God.
Round 5: We are feeling creaturely now, human. Revelation, if it has not come by this point, will not come at all by this book. My awareness of my creaturely being relative to the divine is all too apparent.
Round 6: Off the pages. Where is pride negative in my life? Without getting too much into the weeds of the “I” let me propose practicing humility is a form of spiritual healing. If we truly believe in a personal God, in a higher power and ultimate creator, than any sense of pride is misplaced. All belongs to our creator. But let’s step it down a few planes to the depths of everyday human life. How many anxieties and fears do we hold every day? What are they connected to and are they manifested? It is 4:45 a.m. I am fearful of certain work pressures. I am fearful for the health, safety, and well-being of my family. I am at times overly self-conscious of my presentation. If I allow myself too much worry, I can fall into worrying about the abyss of missed opportunities of the past and potential challenges of the future (of which I can have no influence on today). In a sense I can fall into a trap of having “false pride” that I alone can control my destiny and should have controlled my past in all things (controllable and uncontrollable) within the realm of my God given ability and limits. Portraying a sense of confidence of mastery (false pride) over things that I aptly cannot control or worse yet have falsely presented as something I possess – will leave me in a state of fear and angst of discovery of my true ineptitude. I am unworthy of what I have today. Have you ever felt that way? If I am afraid and fearful (without an unusual event being present like say an armed thief, as opposed to an unarmed thief where my insane pride thinks I can handle myself just fine) why is that so if I am truly humble, trusting in God, and not overly attached to any sense of material wealth, social status, or sense of my own importance?
Round 7: Each of us has different situations and deficits when it comes to Pride and other barriers to true humility. Dietrich explores these dimensions of barriers to humility, both grand and miniscule hindrances’ that creep into our lives. The barrage of punches, revelations, and humorous depictions of the human condition blur into one elongated round of timeless confrontation with God. Right hook to the jaw and down to the canvas for an 8 count:
“Against the background of what he has received from God, in the light of the gratuitous gifts of God and the high call addressed to him, he comes to understand that he is nothing by his own force, that he has made inadequate use of the natural endowments as well as of the supernatural gifts of grace he owes to God, that he is an unprofitable servant.”
Round 8: Many of us have been on a conscious spiritual journey on and off our entire lives. We may have perfected certain aspects of humility along the way and may not be so inclined to take a left hook to the jaw by an author questioning our humility. There are many pitfalls even for the devout religious:
“The reason is, first, that humility implies our consciousness of our own frailty and of the constant danger of sin. No one is truly humble unless he is imbued with the sense of the permanent menace which pride represents to fallen man.”
Round 9-11: The application of humility and how we treat others versus how we treat ourselves is delved into here with equal cleverness as the preceding rounds. You cannot read this without reconsidering the folly of self-appraisal. Seeking humility is not yet another personal gain or spiritual accomplishment. Reflecting on your own spiritual wealth is to diminish your wealth simultaneously. We reflect on our faults and sins to seek being closer to God. For others we seek the face and glory of God as evidenced in their positive attributes. We do not judge and assume we are worse off than most, except for perhaps by the grace and mercy of God.
Round 12: Why bother? I am content the way I am. On the canvas looking up at the majestic sky:
“For it is only the humble soul, the soul that has emptied itself, which can be fully penetrated by the divine Life it has received in holy Baptism: and it is upon such a soul that there falls a reflection of the greatness and infinitude of God.”
To be honest, I did not know Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s pedigree[iii] before I embarked on reading this book. Accidentally he has joined the ranks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one of my favorite writers and I am only a third of the way through this book. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Hildebrand was Catholic though I do not hold that against Bonhoeffer. Both were German and heavily influenced by the evil era of Hitler’s Germany. One fled and lived. One returned to Germany and died a martyr’s death. He was a convert to Christianity. Sometimes converts make better Catholics! There are many famous theologians who were converts.[iv]
It is interesting to keep in mind the riches of the natural world and the literary world as resources for re-affirming our faith. At the end of the day though we must be careful to ensure our mind and soul remains grounded and in concert with our held beliefs.
For Catholics it is the written word of the bible, the mass, the Eucharist and the rich tradition of the Catholic Church. It is also recognizing the errors of the Catholic Church and avoiding false pride, grandiosity, judging others, and risk associated with organized religion being corrupted by man’s errors.
Whether you are Catholic or not, take time now:
I have come to believe that heaven is here on earth when we choose to be envoys of God, to live in Christ image, to the best of our ability. In essence God was roused two thousand years ago and sent his only son. We only need to be still awhile and be open to the word and presence of God.
Even Jesus went into the desert for forty-days before his formal ministry (today’s Gospel: Mark 1. 12-15)[v]. Where is your desert for sacred reflection and prayer? Where is your dark night for confrontation with God? With Satan? These are lofty ideas defying the simplicity of humility and prayer. Take care of these and you will be prepared for any dark nights.
Please share with family or friends during this Lenten season. Now is a perfect time for spiritual renewal!
Transformation In Christ, by Dietrich Von Hildebrand (Chapters 2 through 6):
After chapter one on Readiness to Change Dietrich dives into house cleaning: Contrition, Self-knowledge, True Consciousness, True Simplicity, and Recollection and Contemplation! It has been about a month for me to traverse this material and attempt to reapply principles and practices revealed within these pages. It is not an easy process as most of us have a fundamental belief that our spirituality and our intentions are generally aligned with being good. A familiarity with prayer rituals, an investment in other people, a general intention to behave well, and an absence of atrocious behavior relative to others can leave one comfortable in blissful self-adoration, or at least not fully alive and receptive to the potentiality of God having greater or at least different expectations for us today.
If God were our employer, would it be good enough to ride the wave on what we have accomplished yesterday, to have good intentions, to lazily commit errors that we have identified in the past as requiring immediate and sustained improvement?
Thankfully God is not our employer. I would have been terminated and Godless long ago if not for God’s infinite mercy and the saving grace of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The first action involved a trip to my spiritual director and a rehashing of prior sins, both recent and long ago. A compelling need to place my imperfections before God and my spiritual director provided a base from which to seek and renew a process of seeking sanctification. This step was taken pursue fluidity and continuity of my continued journey to seek proximity to God. Dietrich describes our tendency to resist change this way:
“This tendency to self-affirmation and petrification, as opposed to the readiness for being transformed in all these points and for receiving the imprint of the face of Christ instead of the old features, is the antithesis to what we have meant here in speaking of fluidity.”
Contrition is an act that counteracts this tendency. A conscious effort to clean house through informed and guided true penance:
“Turn away Thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities,
Create a clean heart in me O God:
And renew a right spirit within my bowels,
Restore unto me the joy of Thy Salvation,
And strengthen me with a perfect spirit.”
The second action is to truly examine acquire the following:
- Knowledge of any actions or behaviors that would offend God and
- Knowledge of the “discrepancy between what we ought to be and what we are” including our metaphysical situation, our destiny, and our vocation(s)!
This is not a sociological, psychological, or philosophical knowledge – but an earnest examination of ourselves through the eyes of God, or at least as close as we can come to approximating his will and desires for us.
This is daunting. It can be utilized to merely validate how good we have been or dive into the martyrdom of our long list of omissions, negative actions, missed opportunities, and regrets. That is not the intention. There is nothing that we may discover that God does not already know. It is starting point or a re-engagement of our spiritual path. It may require minor or drastic course altering’s in the now (temporary actions) or down the road.
On True Consciousness:
The pillar continues as Dietrich lies down foundational steps one on top of the other. Achieving a mode of living in “true consciousness” where through the “conscious center of his soul a person comes of age morally and acquires the ability to utter the “yes” in the face of God which He demands of us.”
This is a steep hill as it is mode of living where everything is taken out of the mundane, out of the temporal, out of autopilot, and placed in the divine sphere – every thought, action and deed. We all have different gradients spirituality. I enjoy strategy games of chess and Texas hold’em poker. How does my enjoyment and time given to these activities pair with God’s intentions? I am at the moment unwilling to give up either entirely as the first has been a life time hobby and the second a monthly social gathering. For argument sake, let us say that through divine revelation or merely a recommendation by my spiritual advisor, that both these activities were deemed unworthy of any of my time.
Would I be able to disavow both entirely? Would I be able to further develop my discipline to have such an “act of disavowal render the impulse in question nonexistent or to eradicate it; yet that the impulse is invalidated, as it were, and in a sense decapitated and deprived of its malignant potency?” I presume I would struggle with this request from my human spiritual advisor but if I was so blessed with a vision of divine revelation they would not be hard to give up!
Our position in life, our strengths and weaknesses, our vocational calling will provide us guidance on how we direct out attentions. What we attend to we become. How much do we attend to God’s presence and what if anything takes precedence over God? That is not to say we are all meant to be cloistered Monks. However, within our metaphysical position in life we do have to carefully discern our God-given minutes here on earth and how best to deploy their use in a conscious manner.
On True Simplicity:
Seventy-four pages in Dietrich bring us back to put it all together and decipher how to live on the “sacral sphere” as opposed to the “motley variegation of life.” He states the goal this way:
“One supreme point of view governs our entire life and in subordination to that point of view all else is judged and settled. It is the principle of conduct enjoined in the words of the lord” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all things shall be added unto you.” (Matt6.33)”
Or we can live on the flip side:
“The protean vastness of untruth, the maze of arbitrary and extravagant but witty errors and sophistries are considered with great interest – if only they divert the intellect from platitude and simplicity.”
Our intellects, important to guide our discernment of spiritual things and worldly matters, can easily be used to avoid the immense responsibility and obligations that come with living a spiritual life and seeking proximity to God. Any number of human frailties can have us running towards the “cult of the abstruse.” We see this every day in entrenched partisan politics. People run into their comfortable bubbles of ideological beliefs and utilize maelstrom intellectually dishonest strategies to defend their self-interest and position regardless of concrete evidence of the contrary.
Dietrich explores man traps and nuances of leading the simply life, more than I can enunciate here. Suffice it to say “Metaphysically speaking, the higher an entity is, the greater its simplicity. The soul is so simple as no longer to admit of a disjunction of form and matter.”
On Recollection and Contemplation:
What is the difference? Recollection in my words, is freeze framing a situation and point in time. We take control of our thoughts and our mind by slowing down the rapid-firing of neurological signals excited and engaged in current worldly concerns and pressures. We become mindful of their presence but through recollection create the distance from our entrenched connection to and enmeshing of feelings and attitudes associated with human events. From afar we can deconstruct and place complex situations on a table for deferment or right sizing against the backdrop of our spiritual orientation. When we are able to “empty our soul of all current concerns and are no longer possessed by the things which fill our life” we can turn to contemplation.
Here is the rub: “In order to recollect ourselves, we must shun everything that appeals to our craving for sensation.” This seems rather unfair to me. Has not my creator provided me five senses and a robust pleasure reception network to enjoy all that he has created? Perhaps not all, but certainly more than my eye can see? Dietrich takes us through the value of contemplation as when we are in true contemplation, with a focus on something greater than ourselves, something truly worthy of our adoration; we can come as close as we can to rest in the divine while still alive in our mortal skins. The author in each of these chapters takes hard shots at my comfortable sense of Christianity, at my fragile practice of prayer, and at the lack of mental and physical discipline present in my life contrasted with seeking living a truly sanctified life.
There are roadblocks and always will be roadblocks. The mystery here is God’s grace and mercy we seek to open our hearts to what is always within us, around us, and in proximity to our action and thought. My journey is never-ending and is not a future place but being, truly being where I am right now.
Academically, philosophically, and theologically speaking this is an apparent truth of reality. I cannot live in yesterday or tomorrow. Recollection and Contemplation in concert will and can inform our actions today and every day. Action without either is highly vulnerable to answering to artificial hierarchies established by other men or by ourselves, unguided by a central and eternal uniting principle of diving guidance.
Talk about not creating obfuscation? How is this simple? He answers this from many vantage points. For example, he says “First, we should consecrate every day space of time to inward prayer.” Simple enough. Leaving our worldly concerns behind he provides the following:
“I will forget everything that was, and is to come; nor think of what lies ahead of me. Whatever I am wont to carry and to hold in my arms I will let fall before Jesus. It will not fall into the void: standing before Jesus. I deliver it all up to him. Everything belongs to him: all burdening worries and all great concerns, both mine and those of the souls I love. I am not abandoning them as I would abandon them in seeking diversion: I know that in Jesus they are truly in a safe harbor. When at his call I relinquish and abandon all things. I am not casting them away; on the contrary, I am assigning everything to its proper place.”
There are many jewels in this chapter including the value of silence, solitude, appropriate rest. At the end of the day these activities are primary to action, but nonetheless action is than required in all our activities. The prose and elegance of his writings address the roller coaster of life and prayer.
So it is Ash Wednesday today. A forty day pilgrimage begins. Some devout Christians will sacrifice some element of themselves (actions, time, and commitments) and practice the prescribed attendance at Mass and perform various acts of fasting on specified days.
My spiritual director and I briefly discussed this Lenten period. Without getting into the weeds of our discussions, here are some of his ideas and mine for lent that one can consider:
- Prayer space and time: Establish a prayer space that provides you solitude and time without interruption.
- A.M. prayer: Add a few extra minutes to your established prayer
- Guided content: Consider reading daily scripture at the start of the day including commentary on the contest and meaning of the literary form.
- Weekday mass: When possible add in weekday masses (Noon?) where the daily scripture can be revisited and of course the gift the Eucharist present.
- 3 P.M. Pause: Set a bell or reminder for reflection at 3 P.M.
- P.M Prayer: Consider the Ignatius Examen as a peaceful close to your day:
- Become aware of God’s presence.
- Review the day with gratitude.
- Pay attention to your emotions.
- Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
- Look toward tomorrow.[i]
Where to start? Today’s reading is as true today as it was when it was written, now is the time:
20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.2 For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”[c]
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor: 5:11 to 6:2)
May you have an enriching Lenten journey with fruitful recollection and contemplation!
Addendum: Check out Pope Francis message:
It is only January 16th today. Anthony Shore has been convicted of 5 heinous crimes (rape and murder) of young girls between the ages of 9 and 21. His conviction was November 15, 2004 some nine years after his last known victim. He is scheduled to be executed in Texas on Thursday, January 18, 2018 at 6 P.M.[i] He himself has asked for the death penalty and has a history of abusing his second wife’s children as well.[ii] Although he has a family and children – no one is going to his execution.
The Catholic Church’s teaching as of today does not absolutely rule out the death penalty – though Pope Francis has stated that “It is necessary therefore to restate that, however grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”[iii]
Now imagine the great state of Texas has a conflict of interest and the court appoints you to fly in and fill one of the following roles:
- Confessor and consoler: you are provided the authority by your church and by the legal system to spend several hours with Anthony to console, to listen to his evil deeds, and if he is genuinely penitent provide confession so God may show him mercy.
- Executioner: Without guidance or counsel you alone will be the hand that pushes the needle or pulls the lever that brings death to Anthony. At 6 P.M. you alone can perform the execution or you can dictate life in prison. Your decision will be final either way.
What role would you choose? What would you do?
And if not the executioner, how do you answer the question from Anthony – what do you want the executioner to choose on Thursday? And if you avoided the executioner role on spiritual grounds are you guilty nonetheless in that you had the power to take that role and dictate life in prison? Or responsible to the victims and their families for not taking on the task of executioner and leaving it to chance of another person – perhaps not as inclined to take a life?
As consoler, can you genuinely find it in yourself to practice the mercy and love of Jesus Christ towards this vile human being who himself as requested the death penalty?
This is a very straight forward case of the highest degree. There is no legal ambiguity by man’s laws or standards. Race or IQ is not an issue. No claim of insanity has been made.
Whatever role you chose you would have to, if you are a person of faith, consider the victims and their families as well. Perhaps on your knees you may pray:
“O God, we pray for those who have been murdered on the streets of our city. We commit to your loving care those who have died, beseeching you to receive their souls into the mercy of your love. Comfort their loved ones who mourn. Enable them to meet the lonely and painful days ahead in the strength of your love. Let the love that you have made known to us lead us to create safer streets for all to walk upon. Amen.”[iv]
If you are a heroic prayer, you may even find the strength and inspiration to pray for Anthony, for the Anthony underneath the layers of evil and sin, for the innocent Anthony before his heart and actions became corrupted and gave way to horrible actions.
If you are a saint, you would be able to pray to God and provide consolation and healing to all involved, to find meaning in suffering, and to shoulder the immensity of pain, anger and rage that these crimes evoke from our most primal instincts. You would act decisively and perhaps unexpectedly in a manner that leaves everyone speechless and changed forever.
Anthony will be executed in three days. I am against the death penalty based on moral and political grounds given the frailty of our legal system to get it right.[v] 1032 people were executed on 2016 excluding China where it is believed thousands are executed every year.[vi] Many of these executions are not for the serious crimes committed by Anthony or possess the legal due process and certainty of this case. Egypt was recently in the news for a growing rate of systematic use of the death penalty and achieving the dubious claim in the New York Times of having “Execution Tuesdays.”
My opposition is not as high as that of Pope Francis that is opposed regardless of the crime. I have human affections that weigh heavily on wanting justice in Anthony’s case while recognizing I am seeing this situation through the eyes of being a man and not through the lens of God. I am not that confident that anger and emotion, if put in the eye of the storm, would not have me throwing the proverbial switch? Much less has driven me over the edge of sanity and beyond God’s intentions.
In today’s world we are all witnesses and participants to death penalty executions. Some would argue that every execution is an execution of Jesus, of God, of faith? There is no “blame free zone.” We support the death penalty or we do not support the death penalty. As much as I may want to have “a la cart” options – sometimes it just boils down to a straight forward decision: I am willing to pull the switch or I am not:
Where do you stand?
Consoler or executioner?
Anthony has stood trial and been convicted. Now, we are on trial as people of God on how we choose to handle the problem of evil. How will we be judged collectively and individually? What is the right thing to do with Anthony Shore and the Two thousand, eight hundred and sixteen others on Death row today in the United States alone?
Transformation In Christ by Dietrich Von Hildebrand (Chapter One: Readiness to Change)
“Put off the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.” (Eph. 4: 22-24)
Dam. I am stumped by Dietrich Hildebrand’s first line of Chapter one, Readiness to Change. How many times have I been through a spirit of renewal? At this age, can I really expect any more significant change? What affections and desire for error that I still possess can I not just keep these rather normal human affections!
What is wrong with a little self-righteous anger, a little self-centered pride and ego, employing sarcasm from time to time given how hard I have worked and how much I have done for people! It is only human, it is me. Am I not justified?
If it were only that simple. Behind every thought and action phrase lies deeper motivations that can bring us closer or farther away from spiritual peace. Dietrich immediately validates our human condition with a generalization of the old testament theme that man is flawed by original sin and his own sins, we are in need of redemption from the Redeemer, and only the Redeemer can “bridge the gulf that separates the human race” from the true face of God. If we are redeemed by God, in the Old Testament, if we are purified, we will be able to appear before the unspeakable Holy One whose name we are not even fit to utter!
What a simple definition of the Old Testament: man’s pursuit to bridge the gulf between God and the Human Race. That pursuit led to many religious rituals and attempts at purification through sacrifices and religious laws and practices as the Jewish people sought and still seek to live a holy life and seek God.
For us Christians we are introduced to being active players by being called by Jesus Christ to actively be conscious of our need for redemption and a readiness to surrender ourselves to the power of Jesus Christ to not only redeem our sins (as he died on the cross) but to live and “modify our nature” to live a holy life now. Jesus Christ bought spirituality to present moment. It is not nearly the end of times that we are preparing for, it is living the sanctified life in the moment.
Oh hell. We are not saints! We cannot abandon our human lives and live up to the superiority of God’s virtues. Heck, relative to our understanding of the Ten Commandments and our agreed consensus on what is morally right we are all doing probably pretty well. Only a very small percentage of us fall into the category of heavy hitter sinners (mass murderers, rapist, and other high profile evil doers).
Let me define what I can and cannot do as I aim for “self-perfection” within what I define as the limits or lack of limits of my capacity! To do otherwise would put me in constant despair (as I will never reach God’s measure of sainthood). By man’s measure I am doing pretty damn well relatively if I don’t say so myself. Look at all my activity and all that I do and have done. Sure I could have done better – but look at the cards I was dealt. There you have it. I have escaped radical change by defining my life by “exclusively human standards” and probably choosing points of reference that by contrast make me feel pretty good about myself (or if I am into being a martyr) choosing reference points that make me the worst of the human lot.
Dietrich offers you an out here. He writes not all are called or possess the radical readiness to change. In fact he hints at many believe they have no need for radical change – which they have arrived at what they are and have reached the apex of their spiritual lives. The dye is set and they hope they have lived a good enough life to pass the litmus test at the heavenly gates with a mixture of their own good deeds, a confession or two, and ultimately God’s grace. A pervasive inertia has settled into their hearts. Recollection and Contemplation[i] recede and are replaced by the mundane activities of human life, which are necessary in and of themselves, but deflated and alienated from divine inspiration.
At the heart of this first chapter is a message that our spiritual reformation is continual and always fluid and changing while God’s immutability is always constant. Your skin regenerates itself every 27 days! Why would we not expect our spirituality to keep pace! In essence life is a series of dying and being reborn again with each waking day:
“Unless thou follow the call of dying and becoming, thou are but a sad guest on this dark earth.” (Goethe)
Dietrich spends the next fifteen pages providing theological and spiritual guidance on the arduous task of navigating spiritual transformation versus our own limited version of packaged self-directed transformation that may have the very same errors and omissions that sparked our journey for spiritual attainment in the beginning:
“This tendency to self-affirmation and petrification, as contrasted to the readiness for being transformed in all these points and for receiving the imprint of the face of Christ instead of the old features, is the antithesis to what we have meant here in speaking of fluidity.”
Self-affirmation and petrification! What a slap in the face!
Have you ever read an article seeking information to reaffirm your existing belief rather than to openly read the article with intent to truly and objectively see if your existing belief can withstand the test of external validation or at least contrast? Too often in politics and religion we read and accept what validates our sense of identity and truth and disregard the rest (by omission or outright hostility!).
The first chapter also addresses concepts of continuity and that “supernatural readiness to change” should grow with age! The idea of our spiritual arcs having continuity and revelations of the past connecting to our moments today and our future challenges is refreshing. Transformation in Christ is not a negation of self – but a celebration and renewal of self with a daunting freedom that is tirelessly expansive. Dietrich concludes the first chapter with this verse:
“Lord, what will thou have me do?” (Acts 9:6)
Next up: Contrition and Self-Knowledge?
Disclaimer: The impossibility of sharing my journey of sanctification has hit an impasse. I often have motivation drawn from at least three sources (I hope) before my fingers hit the key board. In this entry I credit the first chapter of Dietrich Von Hilderbrand’s “Transformation in Christ,”[ii] other recently read literature on faith and confession, scriptures, and the guiding hand of God.
I am not proclaiming here that God is directing my writing and that “I am” a messenger of God! On the contrary my writings attest to my desire to seek God and my immense shortcomings and fragility with living a sanctified life. That being said, anything I write is heavily shaped and influenced not only by the inspiration provided by readings and prayer but by a life long journey of seeking God punctuated by periods of alienation from God. The use of the term “I” just seems terribly inadequate. If I have any modicum of success in spiritual ascension my journey is not driven by me!
Anything you read here that has higher spiritual reverence credit to God. Anything you read here that rings of human folly credit to me. Everything in between give credit to the all the mentors and people in my life that serve as constant guides by which I can draw wisdom and relative contrast by which we can jointly measure ourselves against a truly divine life.
Anecdotal Co-incidence: I asked “Alexa” to call God for me this morning at 8:36 and she was sorry to inform me that I had no number listed for God. Returning to music the very next song was “Oh come to the Alter” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYQ5yXCc_CA) by Elevation.
Are you hurting and broken within?
Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin?
Jesus is calling
Have you come to the end of yourself
Do you thirst for a drink from the well?
Jesus is calling
O come to the altar
The Father’s arms are open wide
Forgiveness was bought with
The precious blood of Jesus Christ
Leave behind your regrets and mistakes
Come today there’s no reason to wait
Jesus is calling
Bring your sorrows and trade them for joy
From the ashes a new life is born
Jesus is calling
O come to the altar
The Father’s arms are open wide
Forgiveness was bought with
The precious blood of Jesus Christ
O come to the altar
The Father’s arms are open wide
Forgiveness was bought with
The precious blood of Jesus Christ
Oh what a savior
Isn’t He wonderful?
[ii] Transformation in Christ, Chapter One, by Dietrich Von Hildebrand
An opinion article in the NYT times entitled “Can We Learn to Believe in God?” by Agnes Collard takes a surface dive into the infamous Pascal Wager.[i]”
Childhood morality and imagery of heaven and hell underlie this equation. The means and the ends of faith do not fall neatly into this theoretical trap. To seek God (or seek to learn to believe in God) is to accept an invitation to explore faith. The article takes a look at “aspirational faith” and draws a parallel to other areas of aspirational goals. It hints at if you aspire to believe you will come to believe. In essence we often take leaps of faith pursuing the selves we want to become. Aspiring followed by action often is a model for success.
The path to becoming a lawyer, for example, requires many steps and skills be acquired prior to being an actual lawyer. Hopefully apprenticeship and the means of becoming a lawyer give one a sense of good measure that actually being a lawyer and what “type” of lawyer at the end of the pursuit. Pursuing a law degree is a huge gamble of faith. Investment of several years of study, expensive tuition, and a highly competitive and political post-bar market, assuming you are able to pass the bar, is certainly a concrete gamble. If you are not enjoying the “means” of the journey your predisposition for being a lawyer should be questioned, or at least the education you are being provided. The means are as important, if not more important than the end. If you get your law degree by mail order, evade detection, achieve practice and wealth, at the end of the day despite the shingle and the outward vestments of success you are still only a pretender. Inside your victory is hollow.
Faith follows a similar and more abstract path. Like law schools, there are countless religious institutions that can provide you their unique understanding of divine laws and provide various religious dictates and customs that may or may not bring you any closer to true faith. Like law school you can studiously study these texts, laws, and institutions and weigh them with prudence against natural laws, history, internal consistency within the religious system, rationale human experience, and ultimately how well does any set of beliefs guide people to act and live in a manner that stands up to a divinely imagined (or interpreted) litmus test? This is perhaps a bit of a challenge as well and probably best explored with a spiritual adviser. Choose wisely.
Whatever your faith, humility and openness to questioning and testing your beliefs and actions is vital. Despite the humorous depiction above, within each religion of the three monotheistic religions are clearly people acting contrary to God’s law under the banner of faith creating much suffering and damage in God’s name. There are many “false prophets” claiming ownership of “the way” for purely human motives and perhaps even more than a few genuinely passionate religous believers who simply may have got it wrong – with firm belief that they are divinely inspired. At the end of the day you are responsible for what you do in this world in real time and, if God exist, in God’s time! Responsibility cannot be laid off on blindly following a charismatic leader (religiously or politically!). Pascals wager does not factor in false prophets and evil committed in God’s name.
There is perhaps another disturbing caveat. Similar to being accepted to a law school, obtaining faith is not something you can achieve on your own. God alone through grace can give you faith regardless of your efforts or in spite of your lack of effort! Without God’s grace and gift of faith your efforts are reduced to being a philosophical journey – not necessarily a bad journey, but not imbued with the divinely inspired grace of God.
To further aggravate our human grasp of faith, we may face a seemingly insurmountable obstacle of profound disbelief accentuated by personal suffering and lack of any intuitive or direct consolation from God. Other’s in our sphere maybe alive with faith and prayer, beaming with an internal light, while our spirituality is akin to the metaphysical “dark night.” No formal letter of acceptance comes in the mail. This can easily create an existential spiritual crisis (perhaps even several times over).
My opinion is a genuine desire to seek God and pursuing opportunities to understand and find personal evidence of God will not go unanswered. However, answering the call to find God based on what is “good” for you as opposed to what is spiritually and divinely designed is perhaps not the best starting point. What’s in it for me is probably contrary to a desire to transcend the human experience. There are many paths for exploration. (It is time for me, for example, to find a retreat to retrench soon. Spiritual retreats can be very moving and helpful).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a rich description of man’s calling to faith (Profession of Faith) and the historical barriers believers and non-believers must face.[ii] The profession of faith encapsulates what believer’s hold to be true – but must be a dizzying document for the non-Catholic. I have included a reference to Catholic Church doctrine on theological constructs as I am only a wayfayer on my own journey without the authority to define faith as crystallized by 2000 years of Christine traditions.
Faith is a life long journey. It is a never-ending study of the written word, examination of the living word (how do our actions or the actions of our religion hold up to a spiritual litmus test), and what does belief mean to me for everyday living and decisions.
When I encounter an entrenched atheist how can I explain the unexplainable? I do not and cannot explain or prove the existence of God the same as the atheist cannot disprove the same. I can share my journey and experiences in belief, in periods of non-belief, in struggles, and in times of consolation. I can validate the mystical nature of my Judaism roots and the radical transformation of the living word provided by Jesus Christ. I can acknowledge the failures of men and the failures of men of the cloth and grieve human suffering. I can seek out common ground on shared moral beliefs. I can offer the journey of seeking God and is never-ending and always being refined both intellectually and within my heart. I can even share trivial coincidences that I take as divinely inspired guidance despite knowing others will see them as mere con-incidence. I can write and express my readings. Share my thoughts. Most importantly I must strive to live according to my faith without dictating my faith to others.
Their path is their own! At the end of the day, whether our spiritual pursuits leads to experiencing divine inspiration or not, it may bring us a little closer to being able to answer the following question:
When I am grounded in my spiritual beliefs I am closer to knowing the answer to this question. When I am adrift, which has been sadly often in my life, I am easily consumed by activities and distractions that take away from living a truly “Holy Life.” Glad there already is a St. Joseph – this Joseph has too many earthly affections to rise to the calling of the priestly or saintly cast!
If you have unquestioning faith and never have experienced the dark night – I am envious of your strength and gift of faith. If you have no faith and/or cannot even fathom how or why to aspire for faith – I have no judgement or condemnation of your circumstance. I pray for the mystery of God’s grace to unify us all, professed believers and atheist, to support us to act now in concert with divine his grace for the good of all humanity. The problem of evil is still present and need be combated by believers and atheist alike. Let us start with our own hearts and attentions. Aspire to transcend oneself today! It is a worthwhile journey.
It is January 1, 2018. I am comfortably seated in my recliner. Mozart is playing in the background thanks to my new music companion Alexa. God willing I will be 54 years old later this year. There is not much I need or want for myself today. I am neither rich nor abjectly poor. It is difficult to put to paper what I most want to see in this world before I go without telling you briefly about my journey.
I was born and raised as the youngest of seven in an enclave of working class families in Bronx, NY. Catholic Irish, Germans, and Italians pre-dominated my community. Racism and hatred were present but through the grace of God and being the youngest I was never indoctrinated into this evil – and was from a very early age against all that it stood for from my child’s eyes.
My childhood home would be ravished by alcoholism, domestic violence, and premature deaths. The dreams and hopes of my parents dissolved as both parents sank into alcoholism and poverty. All seven children were impacted in profoundly different ways influenced by our developmental ages as the family fabric of normality unraveled with the progression of the disease of alcoholism. None was spared abnormal and terribly sad events. To capture each sibling ruptured youth would require many pages and perhaps we would be none the wiser together with the intent of this letter.
Suffice it to say that we experienced great shame, tragedy, and loss together as a family. My father would pass while I was in middle school. My Mom when I was finishing graduate school. My two closest brothers in age would suffer early deaths.
Amidst our family troubles, like soldiers in a fox hole, great love, compassion, and understanding were always present. The expression of these wonderful loyalties was not always apparent amidst damaged self-esteem, developing addictions of our own, and the normal sibling rivalries that are present in any large family. One thing was certain. Getting out was a goal for everyone despite the contradictory yearning for love and kinship. And one by one siblings left as the family continued to dissolve.
Amidst this destruction love and caring was still provided in ample reserve. Both parents made efforts, grandparents provided a shared home, and aging siblings (young adults) helped at every turn. Thirteen years of Catholic schooling (many of the earlier years not paid and the high school years paid for by eldest brother and sister) helped ferment both my character and a modicum of educational ability.
Alcoholic drinking was not foreign to me in youth and into sophomore year of college and later in life. This too, is another chapter that would take too many pages and tertiary to the intent of this letter. However, it introduces the first request for God’s help. In high school on a cold winter evening I wandered away from my friends in Pelham Bay Park and leaned against a fence and pleaded with God to help me find a way out of this life in the Bronx. Alcohol was my thing at that time and my friends were into that and heavier drugs of different varieties. In God’s time I was accepted into Stony Brook University and had the ability to attend due to a combination of loans, grants, student work-study and some family help. This was an answered prayer.
There were many situations than and afterwards where I could have had a very different path in life and not be where I am today. I reflect on an unnamed boy who lent me one of his gloves when we were sleigh riding in the Bronx. He was older and gave me kindness this one winter day. The following day he was murdered by strangulation behind a local bowling alley for money. I think of Chucky, a childhood friend whose father used to beat him. I helped him run away once before he did for good. His father strangled me on the side of my house until I finally pointed in the direction Chucky had gone. I had given Chucky my bike and he should have been gone – but he wasn’t gone, he had nowhere to go. He did eventually run away and visited a year or two later, dirty and beat up some, telling me a Tom Sawyer like story of throwing rail road ties onto the third rail. My story is not as seeped in tragedy as others.
College gave me an avenue out of the Bronx and philosophy and psychology gave me the tools to examine life from a different perspective. Before long, armed with Nietzsche and alcohol God was dead. I was not necessarily any happier a person. However, I was an armed and an angry man with a little enough wisdom to espouse my hold on reality. There could not be a God with all the suffering in this world, in my life. And if there was a God, he would not accept me.
Reality progressively got worse quickly. I will pass over the personal failures here. Existential meaninglessness was taking hold as drinking increased. Behaviors and grades deteriorated. This period was short-lived. One morning about 4 a.m. a born again African-American women cleaning lady came onto my college hall and saw me sitting quietly in my literally trashed college room. She helped me clean it up without any judgement or lecture and peacefully went on with her arduous day. I wanted what she possessed. Several other factors including threatened with eviction from campus life and mandated counseling led me to turn away from alcohol and dive into true study.
I met my wife to be not long after this transformation and she would be my strength in the years to come. My career was steady and fulfilling. I was provided great mentors at different points in life and my family grew. My wife’s family was also blessed with deep faith and their faith seeped into my hardened heart.
I am however a dense man. Let me throw out a few co-incidences and let you decide if God seeped into my life or crashed the door down.
- Chess piece: While driving my caprice classic upstate New York on Taconic parkway at top speed (100 miles per hour) as I was truly testing how fast I could get it to go, my dashboard ornament, a glued on chess piece, loosened from its felt base, and fell to the floor as I was cresting a mountain top. I bent over and in so doing came of the gas pedal as I reached for the piece, grabbed it, and came back up. Just over the hill, a car in my land (left hand lane) was standing still, hazards on. I missed it by inches swerving right. If not for the chess piece falling to the floor the caprice would have been my coffin.
- Blind men: I took ill for several weeks and could not work. The doctors and disease specialist could not find the cause of my weakness. At the end of it all it was discovered I had mononucleosis that the original test failed to capture! That is not miraculous. I had taken to force myself to walk to the deli and get a coffee and egg sandwich. On this day, on my return trip, a blind man was waiting to cross Lefferts Boulevard in Queens. I offered assistance and he accepted. The elder gentleman interviewed me as we traversed crossing two streets and at the end of the cross walk told me it was time to go back to work and that I did. I returned to work and within two to three days I had the Manhattan work pace going in full force. As I left from one meeting to the next I ran into a man’s Seeing Eye dog, almost fell, and dropped papers. The dog did not budge nor did the blind man. He simply and calmly advised me to take things easy and not be so rushed. I had another encounter with a third blind person within that two-week period who gave me less memorable guidance. Three blind people in my path in a two week period where I was feeling physically and psychologically at my lowest – due to misdiagnosed mononucleosis!
- GPS: I was planning to attend a Buddhist meeting. It started at 7 P.M. I typed in address. The GPS went squirrely and then took me north, than west, and then south and bought me right past my catholic church. Why the hell did it take me this way around for in the totally wrong direction? I am going to be late. I speed up a bit and am heading down State Street. The road is closed off. A telephone pole is down. Does that awaken me to maybe I should not go? I divert and force myself to still get to the location. No offense to the people searching for the God of their understanding, but this particular group of three Buddhist did not offer “meditation” techniques guidance or balanced Buddhist teachings that warranted my presence. Only afterwards did I recognize my obtuse lack of insight that I was never meant to go to that meeting.
- Car Skid: One winter storm day my closest brother called me telling me about how he lost control of his car and had a close call. I asked the time. 5:27 P.M. I had skidded in my car some 90 miles away on a highway off-ramp at just about the same time!
- Drinking: I resumed casual drinking after September 11, 2001. November 10, 2001 in Chicago I had my first drink since 1986. In the 15 years that followed I cannot detail here the mistakes I have made and the risky situations I have put myself in while drinking. Not a single bone broken or person hurt physically by my poor judgement over the years. No jobs lost. However, a general decline in the peace in my life followed each successive year. My drinking also had a negative impact on my elder siblings drinking – whom I professed to try to help stop drinking. Giving up drinking is not as easy a decision for me as it maybe for some who have suffered heavier consequences with legal involvement, medical crisis, and losses (families or jobs). Even without these I have suffered soulful injuries that bruise deep and have hurt others in the same manner. It is a spiritual miracle for a guy like me with my family history and personal sense of mastery to be able to not be drinking today. This too is another chapter but nevertheless for many recovering alcoholics being sober is a miracle.
- Career: For a youngster with a significant stutter that still emerges from time to time, having a career on social work, a master’s degree, and 27 years serving people with words in homeless services, disaster services, and mental health services defies logic. I had aimed to be a city employee (Sanitation or bus driver). I had taken the civil service test. I was accepted and a letter sent to my house with an appointment for bus driver in NYC. I was away in college. I called home and asked Jimmy if there was any mail for me. He answered no. I discovered the letter two weeks after the appointment date and my bus career was over before it started. I would not have had my career, my wife, or my kids if Jimmy had told me of the letter and the job. I would have had a city job and a bar stool along with other Bronx kids.
These little mysteries do not in and of themselves prove a God. They do for me as I have felt the grace of God in little and small things. When it comes to purpose in life and the million different directions and decisions that transpire and intended and unintended consequences that follow it is difficult to define divine purpose.
None of the above accurately defines and answers the mystery of God and the challenge of the question of suffering. In the life of Jesus Christ much can be explained if one looks hard enough.
I have investigated the atheistic perspective, the agnostic perspective, and the religious tenets of the three great monotheist religions. I have looked at other faiths as well as well as those basing life purely on scientific mathematical concepts. At the end of the day each has kernels of wisdom that can benefit mankind as well as potential for treacherous acts of evil including my own religious faith.
Putting aside the humble attempts by man to define God, the utter inadequacy of our words, the terrible application of our well-intentioned religions distorted by man, there is a higher purpose than our sense of self.
I cannot define the impact I may have had in my social work career, in my family life, and in the lives I have had the opportunity to influence directly or indirectly. I know I have mentored many that went on in social work with genuine passion and commitment to help people. I know that there are many people out there with greater talents than I that are natural leaders that seemingly effortlessly live selfless and holy lives. The vicious game of relativity to thy neighbor’s accomplishments has no end.
So Son, I am almost there with being ready to tell you what I most want to see in this life before I go. First, what must it have been like to be John the Baptist? Imagine ostracizing oneself into the hills to preach and baptize people under threat of execution knowing one who is to come is greater than thou? In essence John knew he was limited and could not be the Messiah. He was able however to witness the Messiah. What was the purpose of John the Baptist? Did he prepare the way? Sometimes in life we are meant to be preparers or people behind the scenes that perform the unseen acts of kindness or assistance that helps others is the saints or leaders of tomorrow.
I am “no John the Baptist.” I have done okay by myself and my family and by those I serve. Sometimes I want to have done more or have been more influential. Sometimes I have been aggrieved of my limitations and challenges in life that may have limited by personal and professional ambitions.
Today that is not the case. I can recognize others carrying out work and life in a manner that demonstrates their natural calling, ability and purpose. There is the Mother Theresa of Kent General Hospital who works in Palliative care. The work she is doing daily with the dying and people living with chronic disease processes is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It is clearly God’s work. The more I can help her or help others who help people the greater I am fulfilled and aligned with God’s purpose today. In my own work today my major role is to help people who do the work be able to do the work and problems solve when barriers prevent that work. It is unseen drudgery!
There is a theme here. There were countless decisions that happened prior before “Mother Theresa” of Kent General came to Delaware, studied nursing, got her RN degree, got her Nurse Practitioner degree, and started this role. No one knew. I gave up a significant career in NYC at the time without the knowledge of what was to come. Now it is purely a work of spiritual inspiration in action.
What do I want to see before I go? I have a desire for my son to know God. Not in a zealous manner loaded with religiosity and ambiguity, tied to theological text, and preaching on the corner. In a humble way where my Son knows his purpose in life and when it is in question can sit and reflect and find the answers. When confronted with suffering can withstand the pain and do what he has to do with God as a partner. If my son has that the many pitfalls of this world he will be able to withstand and some maybe even avoid some (think Alcoholism).
Who is my Son? He bares my name. But I have daughters as well, and nephews and nieces. I desire for everyone I know to have a spiritual grounding with the God of their understanding. In that vein this letter is not just for my Son, it is for anyone who reads this letter, for all my brothers and sisters here on earth.
So Son, there you have it. I am sending you two books with this letter. Understanding the Scriptures, A Complete Course on Bible Study by Scott Hahn, Phd and Jesus A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ. The first explains every book in the bible and time-lines in an easy to read fashion. The second is written by a Jesuit priest that I find to be amazingly intuitive on Jesus Christ and on finding faith and belief in your life if you look for it. This book has him reflecting on the life of Jesus as he visits the historical sites were Jesus Christ and the apostles lived and preached. The combination gives both archeological and spiritual insights that truly bring together why so many people can believe in a guy that dies on a cross over two thousand years ago.
I have only touched briefly on highlights of my spiritual struggles and graces. Life is messy and I am far from a theologian or ambassador for the word of God. I have read several books of James Martin, SJ including The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He is of the same ilk as Pope Francis. I have found him to be quite controversial to some staunch Catholics as his views are similar to Pope Francis. He has been attacked by some very conservative religious groups. He is no Martin Luther. This is how James Martin finishes the book and is an apt way to finish this letter:
“What I want most for you is to meet Jesus. You have met my Jesus. Now meet your own.”
I am in my mind’s eye an amateur, a novice, a man sentenced to be an apprentice for life. It is the epitome of grandiosity to believe anything else. There are just too many barriers for me to join the ranks of those considered by men to be held as examples of a devout man, much less than to even consider judgement by God’s expectations to respond to living a life aligned with his desires.
Theological, sociological, psychological, and genetic realities have reinforced my understanding of my imperfections and inability to obtain or much less so maintain sanctification – to be set apart for God’s work, to be truly live a spiritual life in everything I am. I can expound on original sin, on my socio-economic status, my troublesome youth, and my genetic disposition ad infinitum for “causation” of my falling short, for my mediocre, for my deepest failings. At the end of the day excuses, rationalization, or deflection is not mine to give. My apprenticeship does not absolve me from full responsibility for “my thoughts, my words, for what I have done or what I have failed to do this day.”[i]
My greatest accomplishments and must evil acts do not afford me special status in the ledgers of holy acts or Hades hall of fame. I have not been called by God or by Satan to champion the ideological battle of Good versus Evil. I am humbled by many. Everywhere I turn there are people with greater faith than I when I choose to truly look for the warriors of God. I can see and feel the vibrancy of interior peace in many faithful, the unquestioning tranquility of those who have truly surrendered, and the energy of those who perform many acts of service with seemingly tireless commitment. It exhausts me and replenishes me simultaneously.
I have been blessed with a vocation of helping people oppressed by circumstances, homelessness, by poverty, by addiction, or by severe and persistent mental health disorders for 29 years (including two years of graduate school). I have equally been blessed with the vocation of the sacrament of marriage and three beautiful and healthy children. I have also been blessed with personal struggle and immense suffering from an age that included the devastating impact of addictions, family violence, premature deaths, and utter chaos in a very confusing youth. The blessing of suffering has humbled me to be sensitive and compassionate with every human being I encounter.
Without a portrait of my background it is difficult to give weight to the jewel of confession. In essence, what does it matter if I bring my sins to a confessor given my sins and my accomplishments relative to others would not move the Richter scale of human morality in any meaningful measurable direction? I am no St. Augustine or Stalin. I am neither rich nor poor. I am neither exceptionally intellectual, exceedingly dim, or an idiot savant. In an existential sense, I am “being and nothingness” exemplified as is most of humanity.
There is nothing I can bring a priest that he has not heard. There is nothing I have bought to a priest that my God does not already know. And to make matters worse, in my belief, although my actions are important, I cannot achieve any holiness on my own merit without God’s justification or saving grace.[ii]
Furthermore, I dare to say that I have had many a confession that was ill-conceived or perhaps even ill-received! The confessor and the penitent cannot enter into the confessional without grounded intent and inspired purpose. How many confessions of my youth was coerced ritual? How many confessors were limited by systemic rituals from practicing true teaching in the confines of the confessional time and space allotted?
Does any of it matter? Yes.
In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino my life story could be transformed onto the big screen into something unrecognizable to me by mere condensing of timelines, sharpening of dramatic events, and adept usage of poetic license to create an inspiring story of coming into one’s own or a depressing comedy of errors and sadness or both. In other words, we do not truly know the impact we have on others during the arc of our short tenure of life. Our stories cannot accurately be portrayed without capturing the offshoots and trajectories of other people’s lives that have been influenced by intersections with our own – for better or for worse. Scorsese, Tarantino, and our very own self-defined sense of our own lives cannot accurately capture and define the individual lives we have led with any degree of certainty.
I remember an old man living in an “SRO” (single occupancy unit) on 28th street in NYC. I saw him daily for a certain number of years before he passed. His name was Eli. Our conversations were never long or deep. There was eye contact and a smile with each conversation that transcended words. I was called one day when he had a coronary heart attack in the hall way. I went and held his hand and looked into his eyes until the paramedics came. I will never know what I meant to that man. I know I knew him and he knew me as if we had a secret club, an unsaid bond. He passed and I never fully knew his life story or how he came to be alone in New York City.
Meaningfulness: The first principle of confession is that we have meaning beyond ourselves and our sense of self-importance or lack thereof. What did I do for Eli or not do for Eli in those years preceding his death? Were my actions aligned with God’s will? How would I know it then or now? When we accept we have a purpose and a meaning beyond our own definition we also must accept a challenge as to how we use our body, our minds, and our soul to fulfill our mission(s) in life.
There are many definitions of sin. Most of them can be simply be defined as taking us away from our purpose in life – from what we are meant to do. And each micro-aggressions (examples of seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, pride, despair, wrath, glory, or sloth) against our purpose in life wears us down, deflate our strength, and weakens our resolve. For some of us, the depletion is so complete that we are left with seeking refuge in synthetic intoxications of the worldly life as an end to themselves.
Acceptance: The second principle is that in our fallibility we can easily be consumed and distracted from our source of purpose in this life by both external challenges and internal decay. Where our attentions are our hearts will follow. How many minutes, hours, days, months, or even years of our lives are spent attending to inconsequential or damaging activity that takes us away from our purpose or mission in life? When is our pleasure or joy turned into selfishness or sin by direct action or omission of action?
Right now 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter, 795 million people are suffering from hunger, 208 million people are using illegal drugs, and 450 million affected by Mental Illness. Let’s estimate I have directly or indirectly helped 1300 families achieve permanent housing, 14000 people with access to or support of treating mental illness or addictions, and gave occasionally to various charities and causes. In this context, how much of my life’s activity should be directed at my own pleasure? How much charity should I give? What change opportunities have I shied away from during my life? To put it simply, my work is never done if my true calling was homelessness, world poverty, and serving people with mental health issues. The second principle is accepting my fallibility and even if I was to practice total self-denial I would not be able to end the misery associated with these conditions. Balance and humility is called for at all times.
Informed confession (ACTION): Accepting I cannot live a life of total self-denial, that our collective “sin” currently and historically is beyond my ability to reconcile, and that I still desire to pursue a holy life I have found that self-reflection and informed confession can help alleviate the wounds of our individual and collective failures so that we may continue on to do what we can within our sphere of influence.
An informed confession can lead to “a radical re-orientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away of evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. It entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life.”[iii]
Confession is an opportunity for education and healing. It is a time out to meet with another human being who is skilled in spiritual discernment (Priest) and bring your troubles (thoughts, words, deeds) to God for examination in a manner that allows you to seriously “repent, revoke, and replace” unwanted behavior, actions, or thoughts.
It is different from spiritual direction. It is bringing to God a request to forgive your transgressions, heal your wounded self (as each transgression weakens your purpose), educate and enlighten your actions, and strengthens your resolve and commitment to continue along the road toward sanctification. It can get down to the nitty and gritty of what is in your circle of influence to change. A confessor help ensure you are not deceiving yourself or misguided in your application of theological applications – often to your benefit.
Scorsese and Taratino can take an inconsequential action and transform a characters destiny – imagine what God can do with a sincere and committed confession, however minute the conviction to change.
The third principle is with informed consent going to confession and partnering with a priest and God to make true amends and genuinely commit to ACTION to change as needed with the humble understanding that penance will probably be required sooner than later for similar offenses or new revelations of further refinement is required!
Spiritual Direction: The Jewel of Confession is it informs one’s spiritual direction. What endeavor in life does not require correction, improvement, refinement, and adaptation? Ideally we would all have a spiritual director.
Confession and spiritual direction are not in vogue today. Not every confessor or spiritual director is equal. The Catholic Church holds this sacrament to be vital: “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.”[iv]
The theological and Catholic doctrine on Penance is quite in-depth. As a lay person I have always had mixed feelings about the sacrament of Penance. Today I do not have the same reservations – my reservations today is on what I can bring to the confessional box or room and what the confessor can help with as we are both in dialogue with the Trinity. Alas, it is not confidential. The weight of my faults, the collective weight of our societies failings, and all the messiness of pursuing a holy life can be supported and guided by a thoughtfully and genuinely prepared confession that is meant for sincere dialogue with God.
Done with reverence both the confessor and penitent can benefit and be guided by the mystery of the sacrament and better serve God’s plan on leaving the ancient confessional booth.
We are meaningful in God’s eye and plan despite the existential threats that surround us in the world today. Accepting that each human being is special including ourselves and accepting our fragility as individuals and as a collective we are dependent on both our own actions and God’s saving grace. Knowing this we seek informed correction through confession and pursue sanctification through ongoing spiritual direction despite the immense suffering in the world, in fact, because of the immense suffering in the world!
7 Secrets of Confession by Vinny Flynn
What would it be like to hear the voice of God or his emissaries? Not an intuitive prayerful dialogue and raised spiritual consciousness but an actual thundering voice or even an apparition. What lengths would you go to experience this grace if you could? What lengths would you go to deny ever having had such an experience? The Hollywood portrait above is inspiring. But how about this version:
Hearing the voice of God or seeing an apparition is perhaps the highest form of Mysticism. Catholics practice mysticism every day. An interesting Blog (the Main Event) describes our mystical beliefs in a review of the “war” between reason and mysticism.[i] The blog interest me as its intent is to provide a forum for the proponents of each camp and sets up a dialectic that is very real in today’s world. It presumes you cannot be both a person of reason and mysticism. There is a cultural war to deny the existence of a “God” and all forms of mysticism on one side and to assert the existence of a God on the other. The more extreme the mystical experience – the more extreme the attacks become by non-believers – and in some cases rightly so. Authentic spiritual revelation is claimed by many in the course of history under many different names for many different purposes.
The story of Joan of Arc (Jehanne of Arc) exemplifies the difficulties in receiving a “Personal charism to witness god”[ii] and follow the message you have received. The Catechism of the Catholic Church accepts people are chosen for such revelations. They are chosen to share God’s word and vision – often at great expense to their own worldly status.
Pope Benedict the XVI excellently depicted her persecution by the Church itself as he stated on January 26, 2011 that the trial of Joan of Arc as a “is a distressing page in the history of holiness and also an illuminating page on the mystery of the Church which, according to the words of the Second Vatican Council, is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).” [iii]
This is interesting given a current controversy in the Church. Certain Bishops have taken umbrage with the Pope on statements like “The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations.” Pope Francis went on to say priests must inform Catholic consciences “but not replace them.”[iv] What does he mean?
My opinion is that he recognizes the church has a rich tradition and is the defacto representative of authentic scripture and revelation but it is still up to the individual to follow their consciences and free will accepting the consequences according to their own spiritual discernment and God’s grace. The Church is a guide but you remain an apostle and responsible for your own actions whether you live within or external to church doctrine. In essence, if you seek God and truly use spiritual discernment including using the gifts of sacred tradition and revelation, prayer and consult, you are yourself a mystic – perhaps not on the level of Joan of Arc – but a mystic nonetheless called to pray, act, and yes, sometimes suffer.
Joan of Arc canonization process started in 1855 and culminated in Sainthood in 1920. A peasant who opposed the Church teachings and doctrines, defied papal authority, is made a saint 489 years after her death. Saint Joan did not receive consolation from this world but from God. Declaring her a Saint is our consolation for our miserable attempts with wielding “Scriptural Authority” and power over the centuries and a need for continual purification with our application of Holy Scripture. The Church has that challenge. However, what is your challenge to be a mystic? Do you have a charism?
As for the book, the author has successfully provided a fictional account that includes a high degree of historical accuracy combined with spiritual imagination to see the events from the eyes of a fifteenth century peasant girl called by God to perform unthinkable heroic acts.
St. Joan has a rich prayer life. If you are interested in seeking God I find Ignatian Spiritual exercises helpful at times when prayer is difficult.[v] One contemplative method is to take any Gospel scene of interest and place yourself in the crowd or in the shoes of one of the characters and really explore your visceral response to the scene, to the words, and how you would respond if you were actually there than or how you would respond now is similar circumstance. Now more than ever women are called to stand strong. Men should help when they can as they would help anyone of either gender fight for what is right and just.
Today a growing number of Jews are returning to Israel.[i] In 1948 Israel became a nation in one day and had 800,000 citizens. Now there are over 6 million Jews in Israel. Many Jews across the world feel like it is 1939 all over again. Anti-semetism is on the rise in the United States and across the world and Israel itself lives in threat of annihilation. Returning from where? The Jewish diaspora is the dispersion of Jews dating back to 8th century and 6th century BCE and countless migrations after that as a people without a land. The actual end of the Jewish state some might say was around 70 A.D.[ii] Prominent Influential Jews[iii] are ensuring that the Jewish state and Jewish people living outside Israel are supported and their ancestry and persecution are not forgotten.
Without a fundamental understanding of the Old Testament dating from roughly before 10,000 B.C. from Genesis through Abraham, Jacob, The Exodus, the re-establishment of Israel under David, Babylonian Captivity, the Greek period (Hellenism), and the Roman period (37 B.C to 324 AD) and all the prophets, kings, and various sects within in Judaism it is hard to give current day “Jewishness,” or for that matter Christianity, meaning and context.
The average American Catholic today lacks heart-felt knowledge of the Jewish tradition and experience beyond didactic learning from a pre-adolescent era of learning that relied on historical teaching and painful memorization. Many would criticize the average Catholic today lacking “infused knowledge” of Christianity itself – that is knowledge that includes teaching of the known facts of Christian tenets but guided by connection to God within us, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit. That is knowledge greater than our intellect or individual efforts can provide. If we had this infused knowledge the prevalence of hypocrisy today would greatly be diminished. The hypocrisy of white nationalism today and xenophobia globally would not be able to represent mainstream thought.[iv]
What does it mean to reconcile with my Jewish heritage? The Old Testament stories in various literary forms repeats a common theme of the Jewish nation turning away from God: adopting pagan ways of neighbors, directly performing unholy and sinful acts, using priestly status for personal power and wealth, and placing worldly goods above God. These moral and theological principles did not disappear with the arrival of Jesus Christ, if anything; they were stripped of formulaic ritual and laid bare in stark truths with “The great commandment is not to judge one’s neighbor but rather to love one’s neighbor, for judgment is God’s alone.”[v]
We have also through time developed many ritualistic additions as well that have a tint of man-made institutions rather than divinely inspired gifts.
I cannot miss the modern-day peril of Christianity and America with the history of Judaism and Israel. As Christians we live on a pluralistic society among atheist, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and within these large religious systems countless denominations or sects. Additionally the idols of modernity of money, prestige, power, worldly possessions, and pursuing excess human comforts leave little room for living a holy and spiritually infused live style. To reconcile with our Jewish ancestry we must first reconcile what it means to be Christian in a pluralistic society. Our Jewish brethren struggled with this issue than and now as well.
Our Christian leaders today are too easily manipulated into being pawns of political machines under the cover of trying to advance our religious beliefs. We try to mobilize our votes to support a party to legislate values rather than our values legislating behavior based on attraction, love, and living a holy life by example. Losing sight of our own calling to live spiritual lives we turn to others to enforce spirituality. We look outward rather than inward at what is wrong with society today. Sometimes we find reasons to not look at how to think about excess wealth.
We give power to charlatans who are all too willing to find villains for us – at a price that is often opposed to the greatest commandment. They capitalize on our fears of alienation and loss of identity. Some are petrified of diaspora from within – a displacement of our white Christian dominance within the United States and globally. This fear has us resorting to tribalism under the name brand of patriotism or nationalism. As recently demonstrated in Charlottesville Jewish hatred was on display.
How can we Christians actively hate our own brothers by Old Testament biblical definition? The entire Old Testament in our religion foreshadows Jesus Christ coming for all Jews and all people.
When our Jewish brothers are threatened we are threatened as well. Our morality has already condemned us once before in history when we as a nation and as a religion were passive as the Holocaust was underway. Our morality is condemning us daily today as we passively accept a war on immigrants, on minorities, on Jews, on Muslims, on Women, and on the poor of all nations through our narrow sited policies that are aimed at enriching the wealthy and powerful at the expense of, at a minimum, 4/5ths of the world’s population.
When nations and religions start running for bunkers of isolation and extreme humanely defined purity of what it means to be on the right side of holiness and humanity – we have fallen prey to a dialogue with the Devil – not God.
Within all of our nations, our religious groups, our socio-economic classes, our gender identity groups, our racial and ethnic groups lay some very evil people. They must be contained and made visible without resorting to the must villainous instincts of our predatory natures, of our human nature. For as evil as our enemies are, we have the capacity within us to fall prey to being evil ourselves.
Ask yourself when listening to dinner conversation, lunchroom banter, newspaper by-lines, social media memes, and our political class – is the aim aligned with the greatest commandment?
Very few Christians are called to live in isolation and prayer (Monastic life). We are called to live with and next to people of all cultures and beliefs. We are called to love our neighbors and not to judge our neighbors. We are called to evangelize in a prescribed fashion – not by sword, not by law, not by coercion, not by manipulation – but by living examples of mercy, compassion and love.
As a nation America will have its challenges and will continued to be attacked for its beacon of light and freedom. We will have to defend ourselves for our world is still ruled by men’s laws and not God’s law. Our defense of country and our freedoms should always be carried out in a manner that reflects sober and rationale actions that respect our appropriate use of nation’s power, wealth, and principles.
Just as we are called to exercise appropriate evangelism without judgment – we are called as a nation to use our wealth, our democracy, and our military in a manner that is good for all nations and people. Without the moral imperative applied both domestically and internationally we are bound to suffer the fate of the Israelites.
Our enemies, specifically Russia, recognize that if they can spurn division and hate within our society and between our partners globally they can diminish our freedoms and strength without firing a shot. We have other enemies as well, many of which are reactionary to our economic and political dominance that they feel is abused to the detriment of the world’s poor and oppressed.
Until recently America understood the principle of “Much is given, Much is expected.” Our stewardship of global priorities aligns with our nation’s interest.
Unless our nation continues to use its wealth, power and status to improve global interest we will continue to be a top target of aggrieved toxic terrorist groups from within and outside our invisible walls.
The plight of the Jewish people should enlighten nations today on the dangers of being oppressed, of oppressing people, and putting wealth and power above human interest. The Jewish problem is our problem – and it extends way beyond what it means to be Jewish. It is about humanity itself.
To write about this is in and of itself an insult to all the veterans of WW II and all the victims of the Holocaust. If the Holocaust and WW II could not provide a lasting lesson for humanity we are a purely pathetic species. Is it no wonder we needed a messiah and a paraclete[vi] after he departed? If only we would listen to the image and imprint of the divine that lives sometimes too deeply within our clouded souls.
Unlike the Jews returning to Israel we can return to true Christianity within our own homes, our own communities, within our own hearts. Pope Francis is doing his part to effect the arc of spiritual progression and revelation of the Catholic Church. Now we have to continue to do our part.
[iv] “Anti-Semitic and xenophobic movements did not disappear from Europe after the liberation of Auschwitz, just as white supremacist groups have lurked beneath the surface of American politics ever since the Emancipation Proclamation. What has changed is that these groups have now been stirred from their slumber by savvy politicians seeking to stoke anger toward immigrants, refugees and racial minorities for their own benefit. Leaders from Donald Trump to France’s Marine Le Pen have validated the worldview of these groups, implicitly or explicitly encouraging them to promote their hateful opinions openly. As a result, ideas that were once marginal have now gone mainstream.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/opinion/sunday/white-nationalism-threat-islam-america.html?_r=0
[vi] Holy spirit or counselor
A tight rope walk with Thomas Merton on one side of the chasm and King David (and several lesser known authors) on the other still leaves me struggling with the wisdom of the Psalms. Our busy lives present many valleys to ponder. Thomas Merton short book explores how the Psalms can be used in prayer to traverse chasms in life.
The barriers for me I believe is the context of King David’s time and the Old Testament language and experience being applied to modern times in modern vernacular. More than that the Psalms are not meant to be read – they are meant to be sung in praise and celebration. Experience any psalm played by talented musicians at the Psalm Project.[iii] Surely this how King David envisioned the Psalms to be used to praise God.
You can really feel the power of the psalms when attending charismatic churches that embrace full musical choirs. It can be a powerful experiential spiritual journey. Yet, even alongside hundreds or perhaps thousands of believers (mega churches), you can be left with only fleeting grace, fading before you exit the parking lot. What is missing is substance. Your substance:
The problem is therefore not to learn from the Psalms a totally new experience, but rather to recognize, in the Psalms, our own experience lived out and perfected, orientated to God and made fruitful, by the action of loving faith. Ultimately we do this by uniting our joys with the joys of Christ in the Psalms, our sorrows with the sorrows of Christ, and thus allowing ourselves to be carried to heaven on the tide of His victory.[iv]
Merton knows just how to state things so plainly, so intuitively that you may miss the depth of what such a simple statement implies. The substance of the Psalms applied to our own life with sincere contemplation (meditation), shared devotion (songs of praise at church or temple), and action (a continual awareness of God’s presence and ability to have all of our actions and decisions be guided by humble discernment).
This is not as hard as it sounds. Merton describes it as merely only listening and acting to what we already know:
“I delight to do Thy will, O my God, and Thy law is in the depths of my heart.” [vi]
But there are real human barriers for us all to content with every day:
Obedience: It is interesting how people struggle with the idea of obeying an omniscient God. I ask where people think their sense of right and wrong is derived from as individuals and as a collective. When we are at our best are we not intuitively listening to “something” instilled on our nature, something profound, something universal that we have all come to recognize that all humans share across nations? Call it the human spirit. We know when the human spirit is distorted. We recognize it immediately in our guts whether wrong actions are committed by the individual (Charles Manson), by extreme religiosity (ISIS today, The Crusades, and other religious wars), or by nation states (Hitler’s Germany).
Politics: Nation states are particularly frightening today recognizing that charismatic leaders can bring their nations down the road of evil through fear, intimidation, and false patriotism with massive arsenals at their disposal. We live in and have a responsibility to be engaged in society. You can be deceived into believing you are fighting for goodness. In America we believe we stand for righteousness. One TV interviewer had a Trump supporter saying whatever Donald Trump says is what God wills. This is a distortion of epic proportions. Some other nations believe we have it deadly wrong. Our current President has shaken the world’s confidence that we can stand for moral principles in times of turbulence. Internally our nation is divided and torn by both politics and race. We have put our faith in men and parties rather than our minds on truth and God.
Discernment: It is not political. It is not a party. It is not a nation. It is an individual responsibility. It is to be actively lived and to be actively engaged with the world.
Selfishness: How often our own self-interest is put ahead of the world’s poor. How often are we challenged by our own desires or simply to avoid boredom?
Estrangement: As a nation gone astray we can especially feel estranged from discernment, feeling isolated and definitively alone with our struggles where we may exclaim something akin to Psalm 12:
“How long, O Lord, wilt thou utterly forget me? How long wilt thou hide Thy face from me?”[vii]
It can be grueling when as believers we have a “feeling” of spiritual dryness, a struggling moment or many moments piled high days on days on days on end? Some refer to this as the dark night. I cannot say I have experienced the “Dark Night.” I have had many dark nights and times of misery — though I fear experiencing the depth that some saints have experienced before me or even the dark nights that others are experiencing tonight as I sit hear contemplating God and writing about psalms.
All of the above challenges and many more can take us away from truly knowing God or having a proximity to conscious awareness of God’s way from which to draw on for support and guidance. It is a terrible lonesomeness.
“As the hind pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God: when shall I come and see the face of God? My tears have become my bread day and night, whilst they say to me daily: Where is thy God?”[viii]
Many great mystics and believers feel this same way often. Many priest. It is not something we can demand – it is a gift to have even a passing fragrance of God’s presence.
It is easier to fight man’s wars with man’s tools. We can easily join the noise and fight fire with fire, anger with anger, violence with more violence — especially when we cannot “feel” God’s presence. How weak are we that we need or year for that presence on demand when we are suffering? If we always felt God’s presence discernment and living God’s will certainly be a great deal easier.
Why turn to God’s way when revenge or counter attack seems called for and perhaps even on its surface, morally the right thing to do?
The reason why we submit entirely to His will is because He is good. We do not obey merely for the sake of obedience, but as a testimony to the supreme goodness of God Himself.[ix]
Again, Merton nails it with simplicity above. Not with the nails of the cross, but with the reality of the majesty and unknowable goodness of God himself. Meditating on why we should surrender to God’s way and continue to seek God’s way can be guided by spending serious time with different Psalms. Doing so can prepare you for any circumstance every day, including the final circumstance, when our physical body surrenders to mortality.
The Lord is my shepherd: I want for nothing; he makes me to lie in green pastures. He leads me to waters where I may rest; he restores my soul. —Psalm 22: 1-2.[x]
We cannot by mere human ingenuity or talent exhaust all that is contained in the Psalms. Indeed, if we seek only to “get something out of them” we will perhaps get less than we expect, and generous efforts may be frustrated because they are turned in the wrong direction: toward ourselves rather than toward God.
God knows you – Psalm 139[xi]
[i] Citation (APA): Merton, T. (2015). Praying the Psalms [Kindle iOS version].
[iv] Page 25 · Location 161
[vi] Page 31 · Location 208
[vii] Page 32 · Location 224
[viii] Page 36 · Location 253
[ix] Page 39 · Location 277
[x] Page 41 · Location 287
[xi] Psalm 139New Living Translation (NLT)
1 O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!
7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
8 If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
9 If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.
13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.
17 How precious are your thoughts about me,[b] O God.
They cannot be numbered!
18 I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
you are still with me!
19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
for your enemies are my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.