Final Chapter: True Surrender of Self (Chapter 18)
The final chapter of Transformation in Christ by Dietrich Von Hildebrand begins by informing us “at the beginning and at the end of the road we travel in the process of our transformation in Christ.”
Dietrich starts off with defining this act as an “eminently personal act.” While this personal act may be within the vessel of a larger community and shared with over 1 billion people wide, it is still an individual decision to take this leap. There is surrender with consent. That consent is always ours to give or not give ensuring an element of freedom and responsibility that surpasses many people’s sense of a direct and true self-surrender to Christ:
“We must really push our skiff from off the shore; burn the boats behind us.”
Dietrich goes on to quote Plato: “….all great things are somehow done in a state of madness.” The dual tension of desiring to soar with the calling of God while wanting security and safety within our comfort zone by maintaining a sense of human security. The latter we have “established for ourselves and on which we have built an ordinary life.”
Who among us cannot identify with seeking order in our profession, financial safety and security, good health, longevity, good social standing and reputation, and a web of family and social supports that we desire to maintain? These things or values are inherently good things. It is often how we define our lives and each other.
Transformation in Christ re-orders these values with love of God and love of others transcending all of our prized possessions. We become truly in the possession of God.
This possession by God, however, has a hand brake. Remember consent above? We can at anytime reject God with our free will. In these cases we have as individuals caved in for some other good that pleases us now or perhaps removes pain we see as unnecessary. We will own our individual responsibility at the “end of times” and perhaps count on God’s mercy and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. In these instances we are perhaps aware of our shortcomings.
A greater danger lies in giving ourselves over to passion of religious belief (or other causes) without a hand brake. The dangers of being “swept off our feet” by a charismatic person, caught up in a river of religious rapture that creates a certain mass psychosis, or unchecked nationalism that allows us to demonize other nations and their people and justify the ends above the means.
Many an individual gives up their sense of personal responsibility when cloaked in the dress of a higher cause and comforted by the charismatic leader, the masses of fellow believers, or both. This is not an active Surrender of Self to God – but the opposite. It is a negation of self-will, self-responsibility, and your God-given freedom to sanction or not sanction both your actions and the actions of entities that represent you by decree.
Seeking transformation in Christ by total True Surrender of Self is to impose on ourselves that every action and thought has an additional mirror of scrutiny. We will be able to look at our actions and thoughts through the eyes of Christ – requiring each thought to be “imprinted with the Christ Stamped” as worthy of actualizing our thoughts into action. The accuracy of our perceptions will always be suspect. We are merely seeking, searching, and striving to live a holy life in God’s possession:
“We can never bring about of our own volition this state of being possessed by and lost in what is greater than ourselves.”
The complexity of seeking transformation in Christ is as stated in earlier chapters dialectically complex and simple at the same time. One must start somewhere:
“The index to our transformation in Christ consists in the measure of our participation in his love for God and for men.”
Do you have a spiritual index of your personal standing with God and with your fellow-man? That question will probably stump most of us. We will probably have some vague notions of our general state of being but fall way shy of the detailed self-assessment that we may have akin to our financial indexes or retirement accounts!
Before you start creating a spiritual index of all your virtues and good deeds, perhaps a word on intention will suffice. Transformation in Christ calls us to “help the divine life unfold within us.” If we truly surrender to Christ and pursue christian values and attitudes (think Sermon on the Mount), God will loosen “the fetters of our trivial system of petty self-protection and invite us to an act of ultimate audacity and freedom.”
If days were miles, my humble journey of 19,778 days traveling this earth represents the latest leg of our spiritual journey after Jesus Christ’s death. It is quantifiable. The journey represents about 3% of the total journey of time since Christ’s Death (723,711 days).
Imagine a finite relay of Christian migrants traveling in a secular world. We are but the latest leg carrying what is essentially an apostolic message. The journey for our spiritual brothers of Judaism is quite longer as they reject Jesus Christ being the promised messiah. The length of our journey infinitely expands if we include our B.C. years and the rich of the old testament. In Catholicism we call this apostolic succession.
Apocalyptic and Apostolic Faith:
Judaism and Christianity share a belief in the “end of times” culminating in a final end to Humanity as we know it. It can get theologically confusing as the Jewish tradition is waiting for the first messiah and Catholics have accepted Jesus Christ as fullfilling the prophecies of the old testament as being the messiah and we are already in the end of times awaiting the second coming or “final judgement.”[i] Read Revelation and the Epistles of John for biblical references. Muslim tradition as well have an apocalyptic vision of an end of times and some are trying to hasten his coming.[ii] I raise this as a key barrier to living a life truly “transformed” in Jesus Christ.
Christians can become lost in the eschatological existential nature of the end of times:
- romanticizing the rich writing of revelation,
- postponing taking care of the immediacy of living a spiritual life today,
- falling into prophesying the immediate and pending end of times to others,
- and battling with other religions on their version of prophecy.
Spiritually having a road map of our Apocalyptic biblical liturgy informs our journey and if heeded, prepares us for the end of the journey. However, an extreme focus on an event that is beyond our horizon is probably not our best use of our apostolic faith if we have not thoroughly grounded ourselves in what it is to be an apostle.
There is no better way to share the faith than to live our lives transformed in Christ. Living in the now as apostles of Christ by living the faith and being conscious of spiritual virtues competing with everyday secular life. Utilizing a threatening end all prophecy of an event we are theologically unprepared to interpret and have been in a state of perpetual waiting for centuries has been proven ineffective. There is an immediacy of need now for apostolic living. The evidence is all around us. Our faith is in constant conflict with accepted secular norms and human desires. We will not conquer either by threatening apocalyptic visions or by legislating our will on others. We can neither be quiet nor assume the authority to be God.
An audacious and bold life filled with great joy and great suffering is at our fingertips that rises above a life dictated by autonomous habits and passive acceptance of secular and other norms that have evolved and that are beneath our understanding of being divinely acceptable.
The easiest steps of transformation lay within our hearts to ensure our personal indexes are clean. Our actions and motives are pure. The difficult chaos is untangling the weeds of insincere religiosity, institutionalized injustice, extreme nationalism, and other misaligned values that drive our country.
I share 3% of the journey with over 1 billion Catholics worldwide. We share this journey with the Holy Trinity. A proper Christian Attitude and informed conscious can prepare us to be ready to receive God’s graces and presence. The elements of a deep-seated Christian Attitude were covered in this 500 page book by a Catholic convert who denounced Hitler and Nazi Germany at the risk of his own life.
“We have envisioned the countenance of “the new man who is renewed unto the knowledge, according to the image of him that created him.”
Dietrich advises that if we pursue this course we will succeed on the great ascent towards God. Reading this book took 153 days of reading, deconstructing, validating, and reconstructing the content. The reading has expanded the depth of my understanding of suffering, redemption, and surrender. It has also raised the alarm bells of many pitfalls of humanity (and me) that are present as we strive for spiritual perfection.
These pitfalls will trip us up along our journey. We will face great evils as well. Chaos will reign and life and death will continue to present us with incomprehensible human misery. Only in God will we find refuge.
The beach yesterday, pictured in the background of the book below, has cold June tides. The summer months have not yet warmed the waters for casual swimming. In my middle age I generally ease my way in to cold waters. Yesterday, after finishing this book, I threw myself in to the ocean’s grasp in one fluid motion.
It felt audacious and bold!
Holy Sobriety (Chapter 17):
Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch, and be sober. (1 Thess. 5:6)
Thessalonians, a letter perhaps authored by Paul the Apostle, specifically invites us to be sober.[i] Dietrich Von Hildebrand uses this letter of Paul to start his chapter on Holy Sobriety.
Sobriety & Holy Sobriety:
Sobriety for most people immediately conjures up that alcoholic seeking recovery and attempting to achieve sobriety. In the scripture above Dietrich is speaking about not only sobriety for the alcoholic, but sobriety of the “heart, the mind, and the soul”[ii] of all men. He takes the comprehensive definition of a higher level of spiritual sobriety that men not become ensnared with worldly excesses in anything. To partake in excesses is to devalue the inherent good of things by assigning them more value that what they are inherently worth, placing these things before other higher level values such as friends, family, self, or perhaps even God.
We can become equally inebriated with pursuing many substitutes for fulfillment that we are missing from the absence of a deep spirituality (connection to God) and love of things (animate and inanimate) with proper context and care. In our material world this is evident in addictions (gambling, substance use, and alcohol, food, sex, and risk takers), wealth and status (cars, homes, watches, gold chains, money), power, competitions, sports, work, and just about any human endeavor (hobbies) that can be abused to satiate our human hunger or help us escape pain.
To review this chapter I cannot separate the two concepts though many readers would like a greater distance between their attachments to worldly things and the down and out alcoholic or drug addict or sometimes even super heroes:
The above depiction has super heroes (like Tony Stark) in an A.A. meeting. We tend to exaggerate, romanticized, glamorize or vilify addictions. It keeps it safe and distant from the every day man. America now knows it is in every community – addictions by various names are reaping misery, spiritual devastation and death.
For this post we are all one and the same with a spiritual malady that has manifested itself in symptoms and sickness in various forms of human misery that separate us from God or from our fellow human beings. To simplify I will use the term alcoholic to stand in for all addictions or excessive attachments we may gravitate to in life.
It is Noble to Abstain:
Premise One: It is noble to abstain (ascetic self-denial) of alcohol for both the non-alcoholic and the alcoholic. For the non-alcoholic it is a luxury to be weighed along with all other life’s pleasures and assigned a proper context and value in their life. For the Alcoholic there is no choice. They do not have the luxury to imbibe under any circumstances to truly live a holy life. The risk is simply too high. To borrow from Alcoholics Anonymous – this is my suggestion!
Premise Two: This post may attract non-Catholic readership that are interested in sobriety and attend self-help groups. The concepts discussed by Dietrich on Holy Sobriety are wholly compatible with recovery 12 self-help groups sense of living a sober life and having a “spiritual awakening” or “spiritual experience.” These groups primary purpose is to not drink (or not use, not gamble, etc). However, through a slow process of working a step program and fellowship the groups are a spiritual program. They stay away from the “religious” affiliations but hit on many of the core values that one might find in the Sermon on the Mount and many other biblical references. Countless writers have over-laid the spiritual principles of 12 step groups with the bible. This post of course is written by as a review of “Transformation in Christ” so the author would love to have every reader has what he has – belief in Jesus Christ as your higher power. If you are in the early throes of recovery – and are religious adverse, work your steps with a more liberal definition of your higher power. Things can have a funny way of working out later if you stay sober.
Premise Three: All addictions are not equal. Addictions do not discriminate. Addiction recovery may require medical intervention. Addiction recovery may require self-help 12 step groups. Addiction recovery may require surrendering to a “higher power of your understanding.” Addictions are complex and often have physical, emotional, situational, spiritual, psychological, genetic, and other causal influences or drivers that are beyond our ability to address or judge here. Get professional help if you have an active addiction and if you have a religious affiliation consider pastoral counseling as well.
Premise Four: Holy sobriety is all-inclusive and if practiced conquers physical sobriety as well. Despite seemingly giving up some “isms” in the form of addictions, limiting dependence on human attachments, and practicing a sobriety in all things Holy sobriety is “compatible with a life inspired and sustained by faith.” It can and will be joyous even in the face of adversity and suffering.
What does Dietrich say about Holy Sobriety? It is marked by a life style that embraces genuineness, simplicity, blunt truthfulness, humility, meekness, patience, mercy, love of God and our fellow-man. One sentence and we are good to go! No, of course it is not that simple. There are barriers and of course our inherent weaknesses as a species and our own individual failings and limitations. We are as a collective and as individuals maturing spiritually and we alone cannot rush this process:
“There are certain successive stages which must be traversed; certain stages which must be actually covered. If we ignore this rhythm which is the law of being; if we attempt to skip over the proper course of things and to secure the final result in one blow, if we even try to force some great plan – we fatally deprive that great thing of its depth and its inward weight, and substitute for it a mere counterfeit, bearing the stigma of flat artificiality. It is only the paths that God has marked out for us that we can reach the high peaks of spiritual being.”
I have to soberly strive for ascetic practices that do involve certain self-denial practices or even combat with excessive habits, attachments, or outright addictions. These actions will require me to have a pretty good sense and awareness of my values and where they may be distorted or out of alignment with a higher order of values. The removal of these barriers or at least intention to limit their choke hold on me doesn’t even address living a holy sober life – it only addresses eliminating a behavior.
The successive stages above speak to a slow process of spiritual awakening and elevated sense of our true metaphysical situation (size of gulf that separates us from God) including our blind spots, misaligned aspirations, real limitations, strengths and other graces that we may have been granted. Living soberly is more than not just eliminating a negative aspect of our behaviors.
It is living a positive, meaningful, zealous and energetic life that strives for holiness while remaining grounded in the reality that our two feed are grounded here on this earth. We are limited by our mortality, our own dispositions, and the random accidental nature of life and its problems. The latter presupposes that our emotional response is always centered in the duality of our human limitations and spiritual aspirations. There is an acceptance of evil while we still do what we can to fight evil. We are still called to hunger for justice and to be peacemakers in this world.
Okay, I am sober physically and emotionally. I have turned my will and my desire over to the God of my understanding. I am joyously celebrating life’s graces and the world’s natural beauty. I am loving my God (meditation, prayer, liturgy and mass). And yet this is still not enough.
Holy Sobriety has an element of total surrender to God, an element of acceptance of our status in our lives today and crosses we have to bear, a profound awareness of our separation from God, a deep belief in God’s redemptive powers, and yet living life on an even keel despite our humanly traits to perhaps exaggerate our own personal experiences (our great crosses, heroism, humility or other grandiosity). We will delve neither into great pessimism or optimism and yet not become a slave to rigid rules or totally be divorced from our personality and unique gifts!
There is a dynamic of Holy Sobriety that both contains immense energy and yet sublime peace and containment. It is deceptively simple and complex.
Dietrich gives many examples of what Holy Sobriety is not as a measure of guiding the reader’s awareness of the many pitfalls of human aspirations and awareness. Here is an example of his description of one such danger.
The Natural Idealist:
“Thus, his lofty mood involves a certain divorce from reality; his bold perspectives are never free from a trait of anemic thinness and of reckless illusion-ism. He would storm the skies by flight, like Icarus – instead of humbly ascending step by step the narrow, steep, and laborious path that leads to eternity. His attitude has something forced and high strung about it. His enterprise is doomed to failure, for it rest on a gigantic illusion concerning human nature, whose dismal abysses he hardly suspects. He fails, in a word, owing to his ignorance of man’s need of redemption.”
Perhaps even a greater danger is falling into the abyss religious illusionism. In our zeal to attain and live a holy life we fall into a trap of believing certain private illuminations is definitively the voice of God. Without thorough contemplation and due diligence of testing our “illuminations” against other possible explanations (like natural phenomena, our very own spiritual imagination, or co-incidental events) we act on our belief without even running it past a spiritual director for external validation.
Pursuing a spiritual life whether for genuine desire to be closer to God or because your life may depend on it (Alcoholics, Heroin/Opiate addictions, etc) remains an honorable path that requires patience and persistence. Most importantly it requires increasing humility with each step up the ladder. In my view the higher you climb the smaller you become relative to where you are going.
“The root of all ‘mystical illusionism lies in pride.”
“Holy Sobriety, on the contrary, implies a humble admission of the fact that we, too, must pay our tribute to universal human weakness.”
If we were to apply the standards of “alcoholism” to man’s reliance and hunger for earthly things above mature spiritual living we would have an explosion of adults confronting countless dependencies that distract us from living truly spiritually driven lives.
A powerful chapter on living in Holy Sobriety that has universal value beyond people in recovery from an “ism.” If none of this grabs you, perhaps this can enliven your spiritual imagination:
For me, seeking to live an holy life is not driven by fear of a vengeful God or the gates of hell. I cannot begin to know nor trust in my ability to discern evil or holy doers in my midst. I can barely keep my own motivations and intentions aligned with the virtues I hold to be proper and good for mankind. If you believe in God however, you probably also believe in the opposite, an existence without God or worse yet an eternity with the devil.
The only true glimpse we have of this however, is our daily actions and faith today to provide us a scent of the future’s potential, both here on this earth and after we depart. For most of to spend an inordinate amount of time on the eschatological matters is as abstract as the word eschatological itself. The latter is important – but what we do while in seemingly eternal perpetuity of the end of times is more important. We only have a limited time to contribute our being to human kinds spiritual development and ascension while hopefully working for the betterment of fellowman in real time, here on earth, today.
Our eschatological destiny (death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind) is something we gamble with everyday. Our destiny will probably not be revealed to us within our mortal lives. In the meantime we have the pursuit of Holy Sobriety!
I have a pair of spectacles from my deceased brother that remain powerful to me long after his death. His death and the premature death of others close to me have challenged my faith in God as a pre-adolescent well into adulthood. Unexpected, unfair, violent, and premature deaths jolt our very core of an all-powerful God. I have been at times defenseless to cope with senseless loss and tragedy. I certainly did not accept these adversities with a Christian attitude of God’s will be done – much less embrace my pain and suffering with the courage and dignity of carrying my Cross.
Dietrich Von Hildebrand He knew Sorrow by the millions and evil by its first name (Adolf). There were millions of glasses on the ground.
There is no doubt that his theology and philosophy was influenced and perhaps formed his deep-seated faith and Catholic writings. Dietrich is our author of Transformation in Christ and he fought Hitler with his pen and his mind. Here is a quote on one of his books:
“In My Battle Against Hitler, covering the years from 1921 to 1938, von Hildebrand tells of the scorn and ridicule he endured for sounding the alarm when many still viewed Hitler as a positive and inevitable force. He expresses the sorrow of having to leave behind his home, friends, and family in Germany to conduct his fight against the Nazis from Austria. He recounts how he defiantly challenged Nazism in the public square, prompting the German ambassador in Vienna to describe him to Hitler as “the architect of the intellectual resistance in Austria.” And in the midst of all the danger he faced, he conveys his unwavering trust in God, even during his harrowing escape from escape from Vienna and his desperate flight across Europe, with the Nazis always just one step behind.[i]
This is a man who knew suffering, injustice, and sorrow. It is not surprising that he is able to deftly handle its mystery of Holy Sorrow in Chapter 17 of Transformation in Christ. It is also not surprising that this chapter is near the end of this work leaving only two remaining chapters. Human suffering and sorrow is as real today as it was in Nazi Germany. It is not orderly, it is not fair, and it exceeds the ability of the written language to capture horrors past and present:
You don’t need to go back to the Holocaust to see grief, starvation, and genocide. We are confronted with 3 billion people today living on less than $2.50 cents a day, 15 countries war-torn countries have United Nations inspectors and others ranking and tallying fatalities,[ii] and the refugee crisis created by these conditions is wreaking havoc on the rest of the world. Nations are turning back the clock on humanitarian aid and intervention. Walls are being built. Refugees are being depicted as animals and monsters unsafe for any nation to help.
And this does not even address our personal suffering from losses of those we love, material devastation, declining health, serious physical, psychological, and soulful injury at the hands of another, and perceived or real alienation from God.
Dietrich takes on the issue of suffering in 23 brief pages. Here are some highlights for consideration:
Irreconcilable Opposites: Our human metaphysical situation calls on us to be able to hold irreconcilable opposite forces at the same time like having patience combined with zeal for social justice.
Tension of becoming: We are at once actualized and still developing holiness, continually hopefully being drawn closer to Holiness through joy and suffering.
Act and potency (or potential): This tension is always present between what we are today and what our potential is to become until we humanly no more.
Valley of Tears: Despite the gift of redemption given to us by Jesus Christ we are still “Wanders in the valley of tears” with all its suffering, diseases, and calamities.
Running: Deniers of evil, escapism in materialist gains, hopeless optimist or hopeless pessimist, addictions are forms of evading the reality of our metaphysical situation, the reality of suffering, and the answer to handling sorrows with dignity and strength and celebrating life joyfully.
Duality: The duality joy evil and good, sorrow and joy, and all the deviations of life’s situations we continue to challenge us as long as we remain mortal.
Redemption: Despite redemption these dualities still exist. And Jesus’s sacrifice for us redeems our sins today and tomorrow as it did two thousand years ago.
Overlook hope: We can overlook hope in God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and mercy in the midst of our greatest suffering. We know only our human pain and loss, not the greater picture of a spiritual design beyond our capacity to grasp any good that can come from our misfortunes.
React inadequately: When confronted with duality of life we are often ill-prepared to confront evil, bear loss and mourning, or on the positive side appropriately use graces given to us (wealth, intellect, power, artistic talents, etc.) for the advancement of God’s will. We collapse into our ego-centric vision, detached from our spiritual core, and are set adrift on a raft of misery or self-inflated sense of being the master of our own destiny. If we were spiritually grounded and truly living in proximity to our God, neither great success nor great tragedy would take us away from our faith.
Mourning: The greatest thief of our internal harmony. We are a death-defying culture despite it being rampant around us from heroin use, drunk driving, cancer, heart disease, natural disasters, war, and countless other means. As of 2014 the actuaries have my life expectancy as 2040. Anything short of 2040 upset me greatly. But life and death is not an actuary table. I have only this moment. My two brothers died way before their life expectancy charts as did my Mom and Dad. And yet others that I thought would surely have died a thousand deaths continue to live on. I am unable to comfort the parent who has lost a child with any degree of true compassion. As I read this section on mourning I felt the echoes of many people who have lost loved ones before their time. Only a few were able to truly carry their cross, at least initially, with God as their guide with utmost confidence and security in an eternal life for their departed and a sense of harmony for their own loss. The faith that we carry our whole lives can sometimes be lost of found with the death of a loved one.
Blessed are they who mourn: Aside from developing a deeper relationship with God during times of great mourning and loss we are in a state of mourning continually as long as we are living as we have not achieved the beatific vision of being one with God. The more we become aware of God, the greater our thirst becomes. I cannot have enough grace and consolation. The Sermon on the Mount beatitudes in their simplicity are impregnated with a greater wisdom that escapes the eye.
Spiritual awareness and scripture: In a leisurely fiction book I am reading the author mentioned there are two types of Christians: the first reads the bible to check off superficially they are meeting the required standards of a holy life while the second reads between the lines diving in and looking for their personal failings. This is not from Dietrich’s book, but the moral applies as to how one line from the bible can consume hours of contemplation and soul-searching.
Love so little loved: The greatest gift we have is to love and receive Christ love and we as people, regardless of denomination and faith, do not cherish this capacity to love and be loved with the respect it deserves.
Mourn the suffering Jesus: As followers of Christ we are called to mourn his life and suffering, to understand his sacrifice for us.
Mourn suffering humanity: We cannot ignore the suffering of humanity even if we ourselves are relatively left unscathed.
To evade our cross is to evade Christ: Take up the cross without being a martyr, Take up the cross properly and with God-given strength and perseverance.
Rejoice in Gods redemption: Rejoice in redemption, in God’s grace, and in all the gifts and natural beauty you experience in this life. Rejoice more than you suffer.
These are tall task that Dietrich presents on Holy Sorrow. They can defy human logic and are perhaps unexplainable to the non-believer. I equate Dietrich’s statement that “All suffering when we pick up the cross rightly is transformed to a ray of light” with the mysterious transubstantiation (turning of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ). They are linked these two ideas through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christians must interweave life with true sorrow and even greater joy.
May you find God in your times of sorrow and times of great joy. May you confront evil and show mercy whenever you are afforded the opportunity to do so. May you have the strength and fortitude to persevere when it seems as if God is absent and no one is there for you.
Never forget those in need and our calling to fight injustice:
Two men in suits rang my bell today. There was no chime as the battery is dead. In a moment of weakness I ducked my head under a blanket and considered if they were politicians, Jehovah’ Witnesses, or unusual door to door sales men? I peered back out and the two were conversing casually patiently. Now the lead unwanted intruder into my Saturday a.m. peace knocked at the door.
Reluctantly my Christian attitude kicked in and my juvenile inclination to avoid this encounter subsided. Baptist preachers they turned out to be inviting me to their 53rd Anniversary tomorrow. Several steps below my anathema for Jehovah Witnesses these two would be simple to dispatch.
The main doctrinal differences with the Catholic Church are significant but not opposed to the central tenets of our mutual belief in Jesus Christ. Baptist believe in baptism for adults (people ready to fully accept God) versus Catholics that perform infant baptisms. Baptist has a strong message of salvation through faith in God alone whereas Catholics have the same and the rich traditions of the Holy Sacraments. Many Baptist are Catholics who have been re-baptized as adults. There is a further theological split in history between Baptist and Anabaptist. There is no end to the divisions and splinters of Christianity from the great schism in 1054, to the Protestant Reformation, and the very history of the formation of the Roman Catholic Church itself.[i] Our shared history beyond the historical life of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection is often muddied and convoluted by century’s old theological and religious interpretation – not to mention political influences and outright co-opted churches and religious leaders.
Sometimes people do not want to hear your version of Christianity!
Warm greeting, gratitude for their visit and evangelism to the community, acceptance of pamphlets and wish you a good day was not enough to dispatch these two gentlemen.
The opener debate was do you believe your eternal life (going to heaven) is certain? No, I answered. He answered it is certain if I believe and quoted John 3:17. I knew enough of the bible both old and new to advise him it would be foolish of me to assume with certainty my belief that I had a spot in heaven with certainty and I would deem anyone proclaiming this with certainty foolish as well.
He returned to his certitude for which I am sincerely joyful for him and for his neophyte, if not outright jealous of their confidence. He did acknowledge he could not know but the bible tells him it is so and again quoted John 3:17. On his way the two left I presume feeling somewhat purposeful on having educated and delivered a nugget of salvation to this misinformed Catholic.
Perhaps it is a good thing Catholics generally do not go door to door.[ii] The greatest blemishes of the Catholic Church, aside from pedophile, includes the dark history of persecuting heretics, the holy crusades, inquisitions, anti-semanticist positions, and other grave errors as an institution. Lest we forget we must never error to assume that we possess alone the self-righteous authority to impose our will on others under the name of our God. We remain with at least one solid foot grounded in this earthly existence and with that equal opportunity to perform evil actions contrary to what is divinely defined as living a holy life.
These two were lucky I did not invite them in to my home with my faith’s religious history of addressing non-conformist! Now that they have left safely, I can’t but help take a look at John 3:17:
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
Not to compelling with that little word “might” at the end of the sentence. Maybe I should see if they still are on the block? Let me not blot their day and impinge on others receiving a nugget of confrontation with the Baptist and bible scripture.
Holy Mercy: (Chapter 15)
I was not inspired this morning to write on “Holy Mercy,” continuation of my review of “Transformation in Christ” by Dietrich Von Hildebrand (DVH). However, this morning interlude with the door knockers awoke me to the distinction between showing Mercy and Receiving Divine Mercy.
Human Compassion and Mercy:
Dietrich defines for us, to keep things clear, the distinction between mercy and compassion. Compassion presupposes we are equal with the person we are giving comfort and aid to and we are demonstrating we too are like them, we understand and could very well be in their shoes.
Mercy by its nature says I am greater than you! It implies a power differential that simply cannot be ignored. It is the elephant in the room. The fate of one is at the mercy of the other. It can be an uncomfortable situation for both parties.
How do you know if you are even in the position to perform Acts of Mercy? Mercy is to give only if we have the power to effect change in the subject we give our Mercy to and we do so humbly without benefit to ourselves.
It is a unique situation where we do something we are not obligated to do like forgive a debt (unconditionally), feed the poor (without a tax break, social status credit, or other self-interest motive), or forgive a personal injury at the hands of another (like not to prosecute a thief).
It is in its nature pretentious and condescending as we are the sole driver of the action and we in essence take pity on the recipient by showing mercy.
Through these actions, if we demonstrate Mercy towards others, we can get a glimpse of divine mercy.
Active Acts of Mercy and Charity:
“Whenever we have to deal with a person laboring under any kind of inferiority, whether it is moral depravity or intellectual debility, vital deficiency or lack of culture, a misshapen body or grievous poverty, or any sort of social disability – we must not only not enjoy our advantage but painstakingly avoid letting our partner feel his inferiority in any fashion. In charity we must draw him to ourselves so as to extinguish in him all sense of oppression and inferiority.” (DVH)
What is your true instinctual response when confronted with abject poverty, disease, moral depravity, or physical deformities that are neither your responsibility or within your personal or professional calling in life? Do you consider acts of Mercy as often as you can? The Catholic Church in its year of mercy provides 14 examples of works of Mercy:
Now back to the question of the door knockers: Can we be certain of our own eternal life? Without witnessing acts of mercy, receiving mercy, or performing acts of Mercy the path to certainty of eternal life by divine mercy through faith alone is a steep climb.
The Baptist Pastor and I are saying the same thing – without a grounded faith (which if true and genuine beyond throwing coins into the offering plate) we are apt to have no reference to truly believe in eternal life.
The pastor appears on the surface to have greater certainty than me in his redemption and in all likelihood will be judged more favorably than I with regards to his unwavering faith. His evangelical work no doubt re-enforces his faith. He has the knowledge that faith includes deeds and action. For him it is one and the same. Still I believe his certainty is taking for granted the limited nature of human understanding of how God may interpret our worthiness.
I have to turn to James to expand on the “may” term above and put caution to relying on faith alone:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[a] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James 2:14-17
It seems to me faith alone not only short changes one’s long term eternal prospects but also ones immediate sense of purpose as well. What are we without actions and deeds? Our actions and deeds are perhaps the only capital we have to give. Everything else is given to us including our corporeal bodies, the air we breathe and the water we drink.
This is not such a tall task. What if we were to feed many tomorrow? Are we in good standing? The act of feeding the masses can be a noble act, but if done with wrong intention is perhaps worse than doing nothing at all.
Feeding the masses with the purpose to demonstrate to all who could see how good we are while also putting those we have fed in a position of indebtedness to us at the same time? Would this act be showing Mercy?
A criminal can be set free through no action of his own by a presidential pardon. Does President Trump’s string of pardons ring of genuine Mercy?
As it turns out dispatching Human Mercy turns it can be both extremely simple to carry out and equally simple to distort it’s holy purpose. “Mercy is an unmerited act of kindness to someone in need.”[iii]
In some cases to demonstrate Mercy may not benefit the one shown mercy or the one giving it and perhaps even harm others in the process. Mercy by definition contradicts our human measures of justice.
And yet we know it is called for and is honorable to perform acts of mercy when we find ourselves in the position to be able to effect a positive change. Dietrich retells the parable of the prodigal son returning home as an act of Mercy. How much more powerful is mercy when we show it to complete strangers?
Selig sind die Barmherzigen, denn sie werden die Barmherzigheit erlangen by Ernst Barloch, 1916 Lithograph
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”[v]
You have signed on and accepted faith and acts are necessary for living a peaceful and holy life. On deeper examination our actions are still hollow if not linked to our understanding of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of our souls, who wiped away original sin and made possible, if we accept through faith his redemption, forgiveness of our multiple sins committed today, yesterday and tomorrow. In essence, if are so fortunate to be able to perform an act of mercy, we are doing so imitating Jesus Christ and the Holy Father, who gave his only son to redeem our souls. And if we were able to imitate Christ in this fashion we would surely perform such acts by “painstakingly avoiding letting our partner feel his inferiority in any fashion.” We ourselves, acting as we think Jesus Christ would want us to act, would by that very framework recognize humbly that our work is not ours, but the divinely inspired plan of God. We would be actualized in holy transformation. And by demonstrating mercy ourselves we open up ourselves to God’s mercy as well.
Our act of mercy would carry with it the power of the holy trinity infusing the act with a ray of love and purity of intent that would be truly transcendent.
If I have learned anything from seeking God, from reading transformation in Christ, from prayer and contemplation it is that I am imperfect and so comprehensively not saintly material. Without Divine Mercy I am hopelessly condemned by original sin (theologically) and by own folly in things trivial and serious. With God’s mercy and forgiveness and my faith and actions in earnest, Mercy is not guaranteed but highly likely if you share my view of God being a loving and personal god.
Dietrich spares only a little ink on God’s mercy. His intent is on how we transform our actions, not presuming to detail God’s infinite omnipresence and mercy in this chapter. However, we are not without guidance from the bible:
With God All Things Are Possible
23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”[vi]
It would seem that this passage is similar to the message of the door knockers. Despite my actions all things are possible if it is God’s will.
The door knockers, Dietrich’s chapter on Holy Mercy, Sacred scripture, and the various footnoted references have emboldened me to say we can as imperfect people live our lives close to holiness today. Guided by the Sermon on the Mount, open to the Holy Spirit, practicing our faith through prayer and action, and refining ourselves through experiencing both joy and suffering we may be at peace when we lay our heads down in prayer, at day’s end, or life’s end, and have a confrontation with God. We can ask for Mercy tonight and every night before that final day. Hopefully we are not asking for Mercy for the same missteps night after night!
Still there is the nuisance of what it means to receive Mercy. It reminds us that Mercy is totally up to the entity that has the power to give us Mercy. For some of us the act of surrendering to God totally for what is his will (after having done our part to the best of our ability) is not easily done – especially when the outcome involves pain, suffering, loss, or even just minor inconveniences. The book of Job may have a lesson for us or even Jesus’s words on the cross: “Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt 27:46.
At that the end of the day God may treat us as we have treated others. Perhaps now is the time more than ever to know where to put your trust? And than you will not have to ask me or the Baptist Pastor if we think eternal life is a certainty for the faithful.
Update: 1 John 5:13-15 New International Version (NIV). The Pastor also quoted this to me again the next day…..which is more direct!
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Better yet, where in your life do you have the opportunity to practice Mercy?
It is mildly infuriating that we act and believe we are a merciful people and then as a nation we support politicians, policies, and social agenda’s that are contrary to any vestige of allowing for merciful treatment of arriving refugees or illegal immigrants here in the United States. Our current healthcare and safety net programs are also under vicious attack. We will have our confrontation with God if we seek him in prayer and in our final days. Even if we do not seek him confrontation awaits us at every turn in the immediacy of our every day life and at the end of times. We can choose to move closer to or farther away from God.
In the interim we are called to confront evil and fight for justice wherever we are given a platform and the tools to do so in a manner aligned with our beleifs. The latter baffles many. Too many are rendered silent or misguided in their actions – despite heart felt good intentions. God, have Mercy on us all.
Thank you for visiting my blog. Have a blessed day.
Addendum: I would be remiss to not mention Sister Faustina and her journal in which she records receiving divine revelations: “The message of The Divine Mercy is simple. It is that God loves us – all of us. And, he wants us to recognize that His mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Thus, all will come to share His joy.[vii] Sister Faustina is modern day for us (1930s) relative to other respected Saints and mystics. You could pray for Divine Mercy with the Divine Mercy prayer written by Sister Faustina Kowalkska.[viii]
There is a national shrine of Devine Mercy in Massachusetts carrying her message today. However you need not join the Marians of the Immaculate conception who are seeking to make Sister Faustina a doctor of the church. It is probably safer to stick with the words of Jesus Christ and as close to bible as one can for interpretation and discernment of God’s will. That being said it is difficult to ignore mystics and saints that have had special callings and lived lives that far exceed our imagination as sources of spiritual affirmation and growth.
[v] Matt: 5:7
[vi] Matthew 19:23-30 New King James Version (NKJV)
Dietrich Von Hildebrand (DVH): Chapter 14
Mansuetude or Holy Meekness is carefully defined, expounded on, and repackaged into a spiritual bullet of wisdom in this writing by Dietrich. He then fires it into my soul and into my heart before letting it rebound on an outward trajectory into my aspirations for worldly and spiritual acquisitions. The grand journey of Transformation in Christ is shattered with a call for fierce self-appraisal and seated contemplation. How many of us have refined our attitudes and disposition to be able practice the following aesthetic daily:
“To disavow within ourselves any inchoate impulse of anger, to be intensely aware of its ugly disharmony, to have it shattered by the contact of Christ before the need could even arise to curb it – this is what constitutes true meekness.” DVH
This sentence needs deconstruction to unveil the expansive nature of its import on our daily attitudes and actions.
- To disavow I swear off and commit to allowing any remnant of anger to be present.
- I do this before anger even takes form, while it is just beginning (inchoate) to develop.
- I am so well-practiced in patience and inward peace that such disharmony is not provided entry into my heart.
- I do not have to even restrain anger as my conscious contact with Christ eviscerated my impulse to respond with anger (or hatred) to things not of my liking.
Is the latter not the cause of most of our anger – simply stated? Rational anger for misfortune of being a victim of gossip, slander, robbery, or other insults to one’s personage does not stir your fury? How about irrational anger like experiencing unrequited love, job loss, or promotion denied? Do these not stir an anger cord or a taste for revenge? Some of us may be able to clain our expressed anger is purely righteous anger, fueled soley by God’s intentions for us, devoid of any selfish motivation. Most of us are ill-advised to be that confident that we have mastered this virtue.
Who among us has achieved this near state of perfection with this singular aesthetic of Holy Meekness? And yet the most infamous preaching of Christ comes from the Sermon on the Mount call us to Holy Meekness: BLESSED are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5[i]
Any serious Christian must examine this virtue in its depth. There are countless interpretations and teachings on living meekly![ii] Dietrich’s work places this pursuit well towards the end of his book cited above and rightly so.
I mentioned to a colleague, sort of under my breath, okay let’s practice holy meekness. He burst out laughing at the idea of me living meekly. I can be rather assertive (some may say overly demanding or aggressive) when it comes to work demands and expectations of project outcomes – often with unrealistic timelines. My intentions are generally very noble and aimed at the greater good. However, when they are demonized, sabotaged, overruled, corrected, or otherwise sent into a tailspin I can become mildly disenchanted and dam it, angry.
Where is the line between appropriate disappointment and anger? Is it not human to experience anger, to harness its primal call to action as the neural architecture of our frontal cortex recognizes the dismal failure of our desired ends being propelled by incompetency or worse yet just outright indifference? The Hulk personafied righteous anger for a generation. Some of us, just like the Hulk, cannot afford the luxury of being angry – even our percieved justified anger at a situation or a person. Anger and resentment are toxins for the soul.
It is human, all too human. Sadly our society continues to promote anger and aggression even in the absence of direct physiological danger. There is no place for it in my heart if I am to aim for perfecting our living meekly. If Dietrich was here I might challenge him with how can we portray Jesus Christ as living meekly?
The cleansing of the temple and its apparent contradiction with humility and non-violence[iii] is an example of a culminating breaking point where Jesus’s anger is seen in striking disharmony to many of his teachings. This scene however is a striking forshadowing of things to come. Some might relate the above to an example of righteous anger (See The Deeper Meaning of Jesus and the Money Changers[iv]).
You can see by his actions to be meek is not to be without action. However, ultimately Jesus chose to lead a meek life and accept his place at Golgotha and painful crucifixion for our redemption. Yet his life was a life of action (teaching, healing, and dying on the Cross). Even as he was being tortured and preparing for death he said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
“In him who has attained to true meekness, there no longer remains any field of sensitivity to his treatment or appraisal by others except one: a heart warmed and made happy by the enlivening ray of pure love.” DVH
Achieving living a meek life requires nothing short of self-abandonment, shedding our sense of self-importance and pride, a total surrender to God’s will. The latter will provide us with the wisdom to act when facing adversity, transform suffering into mystery of experiencing human tragedies and carrying our crosses without complaint, and to embrace the beauty and majesty of life’s every treasure (human, animal, and even inanimate objects). Everything in our domain is deserving of our utmost respect and care.
Living this way presents a contradiction of ideas. We are acknowledging a certain disillusionment of our personal sovereignty while simultaneously becoming infinitely free to live a truly holy and harmonious life – without retreating from life and all its grandeur.
Today our expressions of human arrogance are exercised in social media, snapchats, and lunch and dinner gatherings of like-minded groups of people sustaining a narrative that promotes their own perceived identity at the expense of vilified others. Many of these gatherings are like-minded Christians co-opted away from the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and subsumed by artificial Christianity.
Where is my Christian attitude today?
Higher Power versus God
Relapse versus Sobriety
Misery versus Happiness
The characters behind the scenes of the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous are numerous both at its inception as well as built on the pain, suffering, and deaths of alcoholics preceding them and to follow them. That being said Dr. Bob, Bill W., Anne Smith (Dr. Bob’s wife), Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker[i], Frank Buchman and Dr. Silkworth are names people must research and know if they are to understand the foundations of AA today. I am particularly interested and have not read yet the diaries of Anne Smith[ii], wife of Dr. Bob.
The General Service organization maintains a list of “approved literature” that includes 14 books and other resources (pamphlets, workbooks, conference materials, etc) for general use and carrying the message forward. This is a good practice. For the newly recovering Alcoholic the field of recovery books is awash from the excellent to an outright harmful menu of options. If you are early in your recovery or considering recovery this post is probably not for you right now. I would direct you to professional help, a self-help group that is well established and related to your addiction, and if you have one, your faith support system. The evolution of AA and internal and external politics of the organization is simply not helpful to early recovery.
The essence of this post is on the definition of a “higher power of my understanding.” Dick B’s book “The James Club and The Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials” makes a strong case for AA’s early success being routed in Christianity and specifically the Gospel of James, the 13th chapter of first Corinthians, and the Sermon on the Mount. It is not an approved history of AA.
Current coinage in “the room” allows for “higher power” to be defined by almost anything from a monotheistic absolute god to an inanimate object like a chair. Despite this metaphysical abstraction AA maintains it is a “spiritual program.” And it is a spiritual program.
The primary aim of course is to abstain from alcohol. That being said, for long-term sobriety and happiness, the spiritual program takes hold and focuses on principles and a way of life that embraces a higher purpose be instilled, developed, and maintained. It does so by presenting incrementally principles to live by and testimonies to support pursuing such an endeavor without wedding the model to any religious institution, deity (by name), or formal recovery treatment program. Its independence and separation allows access to all people regardless of religious affiliation or absence of any belief at all.
The white washing and scrubbing of its Christian roots has allowed AA to have a vast casting net to worldwide potential members that are suffering from the disease of alcoholism. The risk (or downside) is new members may benefit from the recovery tools of meetings, abstinence, fellowship, service and other tangible supports but never quite receive the “spiritual awakening” that so often provides recovering alcoholic’s purpose, happiness, and sustained sobriety.
The conundrum for the addicted is a phrase “half measures will avail you nothing.” In all likelihood many suffering from addictions only know one speed – all or nothing. Many will enter the AA room and size up rather quickly the immensity of the change being proposed, and if throwing in a God they have cast aside decades ago as well, may leave and never get the chance to return.
The caveat of using the term “Higher Power of your understanding” allows agnostics, atheist, and non-Christians a chance at using the principles of AA[iii] without the religious affiliation. The Oxford Group that preceded AA had similar principles like the four absolutes.[iv] Dick B maps out extensively the comparisons of these principles to the New Testament as well as the life experiences of the early founders of AA.
It is not surprising that the bible is not credited with attributions on A.A. literature despite evident overlay and outright plagiarism. It is perhaps the most plagiarized book in history. While the bible is recognized by most as public domain it is still intellectually dishonest to not credit sources if the ideas presented are not your own. Most authors will credit both the bible and its version when quoting or paraphrasing from the Holy Book. That being said I am not accusing Dr. Bob or others of any theft of intellectual property. They have lived experiences that have included quite heavy influences from the holy bible and Christian institutions and leaders.
It is no accident most AA groups find their homes in church basements for a nominal fee. The evidence of AA history overwhelming points to the original “higher power” used by the early fathers of AA is being Yahweh and the Son of God, Jesus Christ. However, AA is not a Christian institution. You do not need to believe in God to benefit from AA.
If you are Christian is it blasphemy to promote “a higher power of your understanding” as potentially being anything as abstract as an empty chair? Is it disingenuous to do so if you secretly aspire that an unbeliever will find true conversion through the program as spirituality reveals itself overtime? Probably yes.
However, AA is not an evangelical program even though its Big Book, Steps, Traditions and Fellowship may lead people to a stronger relationship with God. What is a Christian in Recovery to do? The answer is so relatively simple. Both Christian evangelization and Alcoholics Anonymous are programs that work by attraction – not by coercion.
The Recovering Christian Alcoholic need only be transparent and brutally honest. The newcomer will be attracted to the recovering alcoholic that he/she can identify with in the rooms. The atheist or agnostic alcoholic will probably not identify with the Holy Roller Jesus Christ preaching enthusiast anyhow – at least not initially. However they might be attracted to the success of the Promises of AA and is fulfilled and demonstrated by the Recovering Christian Alcoholic’s story and want what they have.
If the Recovering Christian Alcoholic can give away what they have for free from AA and help someone get sober – great weather who they help shares their faith is a believer, agnostic or atheist. That is the primary purpose of AA. If the fellowship blossoms over time and that someone express an interest in your “higher power” as you understand him that is something that can be shared but not put on the fellow alcoholic. AA is not a “sell up” program where you come in wanting a car and they sell you an RV.
AA managed to collect the work of several hundred great people in its early days and create a reference that would provide replicating aspects of what they did for others to do and carry forward the message. The melding of ideas was truly conflictual and dynamic and the end result looks very different from the truly early days.
However, you cannot replicate the truly early days that were dependent on unique characters, small numbers, shared visions (and in many cases shared religious views), shared homes and meals and much more. It is a wonder how the program ever managed to survive.
And its survival is a question today. Is AA effective? AA self-reports indicate participation improves recovery and sobriety.[v] American Addiction Center[vi] seems to support AA assertions. However, it is not as successful (ratio wise) as the original group of founders.
I propose the fragility of the “higher power verbiage,” a less spiritual society, and struggling Christian and Catholic institutions (from self-inflicted wounds and moral decay by leadership and believers) have an impact on alcoholics being able to enter and engage A.A.
On a more positive note improved treatment options (medication and cognitive behavioral treatments) may also draw away some who may have been prime candidates for successful engagement and partnership with AA in supporting people in need of help for alcoholism always have a place to go.
Whatever your view alcoholism and other “isms” have not been defeated in our society. The self-help community, professional treatment community, religious and governmental planners at all levels (researchers, policy makers, economist, legislators, and the president) would be remiss to not continue to fight and refine our efforts in prevention and treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse disorders.
In the meantime, if you or a loved one has an “ism,” don’t go it alone. Get professional help. Call a self-health hotline. Seek a spiritual transformation. It can be the difference between relapse and recovery, between misery and happiness, between purposefulness and alienation.
To answer the question, AA is not blasphemous, imperfect yes, blasphemous no. AA clearly refutes itself from being religious and thus sidesteps the thicket of thorns of defining the absolute, the creator of the universe, or whatever the alcoholic deems to be his/her higher power. Religion is left for the churches and the theologians. Sobriety and Spirituality are its calling card for those with the desire to not drink.
[iii] Honesty, Hope, Faith, Courage, Integrity, Willingness, Humility, Brotherly Love, Discipline, Perseverance, Spirituality and Service
[iv] Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love
Blessed Are the Peacemakers:
(Chapter 13: Transformation in Christ by Dietrich Van Hildebrand)
“It is a specific stigma of abysmal separation from God to maintain a quarrelsome and cantankerous attitude, a morbid delight in conflicts and bickering, a perverse pleasure derived from disharmony.”
This is certainly a danger for every devout Christian who aspires to live a holy life and actively acts on their “hunger for thirst” for justice through advocacy, testimony, and other good deeds. At once by simply being in proximity to others who do not hold these values you are an anathema to their comfort level and perhaps even seen as a hostile threat to their well-deserved position in life. Pope Francis today, for example, has tread on secular ground of immigration, environment, capitalism, healthcare, and dignity of life issues that have threatened the Catholic Churches coziness with western democracies.
At the same time he has threatened the comfort sanctuaries of many conservative Catholics with his embracing theology of love and mercy. Truly Christian living has a higher cost than many lay Catholics are willing to expand both personally and politically with policies that protect and value all human life. Should he have remained quiet on more controversial issues? Resoundingly no! However, I cannot detect in his words and deeds any sense of a quarrelsome and cantankerous attitude. Nor do I see him embracing discord or disharmony. Despite his popular appeal he is ensnared in controversy from within and without.
It is hard to see how we can effectively be “Peacemakers” in a secular world that increasingly rejects our beliefs, persecutes our church, and commits countless acts of physical injury and soul-damaging indecencies, often in the name of nationalism or even God’s name himself. And yet we are called to do so.
Where do we begin? Dietrich again has a manual for life in this chapter that immediately slaps those living in comfortable denial in the face (gently) and those prone to individual error a road map of human obstacles that thwart our spiritual progression in this area. Take this maxim:
“Those that are content in this world are the farthest from God.”
How could we be content living in a world that perpetuates and celebrates sin and avarice in many variations? How could we be content when within a stone’s throw of where our feet are planted in all probability is a human being suffering from some form of spiritual or human driven alienation?
Dietrich pounds at us with the challenge to recognize our “true metaphysical situation” and the radical change owing to the Redemption. However, it is only possible if we have the right response to the life and ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross to live our lives as he would live his life if he were here today.
Peacemaking starts with one’s interior attitude and works its way out. You cannot give what you do not have. What you do have cannot sustain personal injury and suffering if it is not well nourished and defended.
How do we bolster inner peace? Issue by issue Dietrich explores the venom of “hatred, vindictiveness, envy, and jealousy.” He delves into personal challenges of depression, anxiety, agitation, great excitement, fear, sorrow, and intense personal injury suffered unfairly by the acts of others. Who among us has not tasted the “leaden tinge of disharmony” resulting from personal tragedy.
The great secret of human suffering is unveiled in this chapter. Living a holy life will not remove me from experiencing pain, misery, humiliation and may even increase my share of this bitter reality. However, living a holy life can increase my inner peace when confronted with unwanted maladies of any size and transform them into opportunities to carry my cross in quiet acceptance of my divine providence:
Here is, in a word, resignation to God’s will – a thing impossible except as a response to the concept of the universe that is conveyed by to us by Christian Revelation. It does not dissolve suffering, but it transfigured suffering and removes from it that sting which threatens to destroy our inward peace.”
Aspiring to partner with God through living a prayer filled and contemplative life provides us with the necessary basis to confront evil, suffering, and tragedy within our own lives and the lives of others. As Dietrich says it, “Inner peace engenders outward concord.” And on being mentally prepared:
“A true warrior of Christ is firmly established in the Absolute. He conducts his actions sovereignly from an irremovable point of vantage, against which all poisoned arrows sent by his adversaries prove powerless.”
We may not recognize the greater mystery of this wisdom when we feel arrows have pierced our heart. The other day I had set up everything to power wash my roof. Ladders, hose, cleaner, and time. The power button failed to elicit any response. I was highly dissatisfied, but gave up for the day. That same night my wife noticed that our roof had a leak. If not for the broken power washer I can assuredly say I would have made that leak worse and been blamed for destroying our roof with a power washer! Sometimes a denied desire (to wash the damn roof) is a good thing even though we may never know why.
Dietrich finishes with our calling to not only live with internal peace but to also be peacemakers. He provides an example of St. Francis of Assisi resolving a conflict between two clergy while on his death-bed with two new strophes of Canticle of the Son.
We are called to not be passive in being peacemakers. But we are also called to not be quarrelsome and cantankerous!
It has been 74 days since the last entry regarding Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s “Transformation in Christ.” It is evident that this 500 page thesis is a lived experience that cannot be adequately read, digested, and reported on with any modicum of brevity. In this post I will highlight thoughts on the following chapters ten through twelve. Appropriately they followed Striving for Perfection (Post Part V) as they continue to raise the ceiling and the complexity of truly living a holy and transformed life.
Ah, Bloody Hell. Try this clothe on for size today:
“My conduct will be decided by Christ and His holy word, and not determined, for instance by an inordinate zeal which, spurning virtue of discretion, gives vent indiscriminately to one’s natural enthusiasm rather than translating into action a true and unreserved surrender to Christ.”
I do not know how to begin to unpack and dissect this sentence. However, a few pages later, simpler in simpler language he states:
“The true Christian will abhor this complex independence in all its varieties. To him it must be clear, not only that he owes everything to God – that he is, and shall be, a beggar before God – but that he is dependent on the help of other men.”
In every topic that Dietrich addresses he painstakingly walks us through the complexity of our human situation and the perils of free will within the context of confrontation with God. In living a holy life we must have confrontation with God, or at least our limited understanding of God’s expectations, in all our actions, not just at the end of time. On the face of it we may perceive a miserable existence living this way but in reality when truly living in proximity to God’s plan and providence for us great peace and joy envelop us regardless of the immensity of human misery and tears of suffering that we share compassionately with our brothers.
The same holds true for our own weeping when we have to face our own crosses, whether of our own making, or descended upon us from forces outside of our locus of control. The lens becomes making choices based on divine commandments as the higher value always versus human statues. The latter has many positive fundamentals encoded in our laws, our religious institutions, and family traditions, and our culture – but at that end of the day we must hold our actions up to a higher authority. We know our human institutions can sometimes fail us and lead us astray.
For brevity sake I will throw out two hindrances’ mentioned: “familiarity of a thing is not by itself a legitimate reason for cultivating it” and “the case with people who are eager for sensations.” The first speaks to things we do by habit that we become accustomed to and hold high and the second to our drive for the highs and lows of human experience. How many people today are ruled by human desires for alcohol, substance use, money, power, or social status?
Both of these common human yearnings are littered in the fabric of our lives in many forms. I myself can be very cruddy without coffee, can fall into the comfort of religious security based on superficial church teachings without a deep dive in application every day, and love the high and lows of competition, chess, horse racing, and roller coasters. While none of these things in and of themselves are evil, if put in front of God’s will they come become unnecessary distractions to true peace. This is only the first step – to acknowledge one’s freedom of choice and decisions at every cross road. But what do we do with this freedom?
Blessed are They Who Hunger for Justice:
Oh how we go astray in this arena. How indifferent we are to the homeless beggar, the expectant mother considering in our eyes murder of her unborn, to the immigrant seeking asylum, to the migrant working our fields, and to the invisible suffering that is just outside our peripheral vision. From our arm chairs of belief we throw out condemnation of societal ills, blaming other nations and other political parties, and the victims of horrendous struggles themselves – and then we pray for them without action. Or rather we do take action to legitimize their suffering as their very own, unrelated to our very own social contract with society, and we pass laws to minimize their visibility and presence in our communities for as long as it benefits our self-conception of our high moral standing and our relative praise worthiness in the eyes of our neighbors. We are at once immune to beggars and ignorant that we too are beggars before God.
Perhaps I am not giving myself or you my reader enough credit. We may lend our voice to the injustices carried out in our society and our world. We may pray for all the suffering. We may even have written an Op Ed, donated to countless charities, and performed many other wonderful deeds. Did we do these things out of direct response to God’s calling and guidance? Would we have done all of these deeds if they were truly invisible to our peers, never to produce a single platitude from the receiver of our help or from our peers?
Did we act with “unconditional supernatural zeal for the kingdom of God and his justice” without taking any personal pride or credit ourselves in the process. I have dedicated my life to working with oppressed populations (homeless and people living with severe and persistent mental illness) and despite a strong faith I am too reliant on professional recognition, personal compensation, and concern for my own well-being! I cannot say God’s will and God’s justice has always been in my conscious thoughts and actions as the primary driver of all my actions. I cannot say I have not forgotten that there is very little “I” in my successes and a very big “I” in my failures!
Dietrich describes the needed passion this way: “No personal success of happiness can dull the edge of their interest in the victory of justice or soften pain at the triumph of evil.” He describes our passion needs to be day and night “must be swayed by the burning desire that God be glorified in all things.” Would my God accept but “I gave at the office today – it is my field to help the oppressed every moment, I can’t do this work all the time!?” Many a helping professional becomes burnt out from their profession and numb to suffering and pain if they are not mindful of their own personal care. The error above though is me proclaiming “I” do this work all the time. If we in the helping professions live with the fallacy that we are the primary the healer of all societal ills we will surely be wrong and suffer greatly and ultimately be of use to very few.
Today I have listened to a stranger for 30 minutes grieve her departed brother that she cared for in the very hotel I am at for the last 8 months. I witnessed a homeless person attempt to engage a friend by yelling his name across a conduit, and with that failing, attempted a loud whistle with his hands and mouth, only to find he had lost that skill as well. Helpless to even alter the path of a fellow sufferer to engage in company, he shrugged and moved on. Another homeless woman observed me with indifference as I visited a statue outside one of several churches I biked past today in New Hampshire and had stopped to take a passing photo. A teenager, ran down the steps away from her family, and in defiance announced I am going to see a friend to borrow some money. The family’s gaze seemed to offer no hope for the destiny and troubles that lay ahead – poverty seemed to announce itself from every fragment of architecture on this old house. I may have lent an ear to one grieving person today – but what about the countless others I passed without a word or a hand?
I am in pursuit of perfection – but I have not been able to live the life of the Saints where they have demonstrated all things are secondary the one thing necessary – God’s will and justice.
At the start this chapter and others I entered with an assumption that I am in good standing with the virtue or principle at hand. By the end of the chapter I am humbled by the depth of thought and action required to truly delve into a holy life.
It reminds me of a men’s retreat I took many years ago. I arrived with my self-appraisal being relatively high amongst fellow men. It was a laymen’s retreat of everyday people. An anonymous man from an unremarkable background became the joke of the retreat. It was said his corporal body would reach heaven before his soul! How could this be? As part of his action list he has been a donor for over thirty years of blood, bone marrow, a kidney, and other sacrifices. He gave in the immediate and over a life time. His quiet demeanor and peace was truly evident. The moral of this story is when I think I have done enough I may want to think again.
Dietrich defines holy patience above and beyond our laymen understanding. He also defines what it is not. A current western trend, for example, is secularized Mindfulness to provide calm and peace to individuals in our very busy lives and teach truly being aware and living in the moment. The meditative practice at its roots is built on Buddhist practices. In an on-line forum I visit the group is almost fanatical about Mindfulness being opposed to living a holy life. The group is focused on contemplative prayer. Dietrich in one paragraph, while not attacking Buddhist tradition or mindfulness clearly and with precision separates out Buddhist placidity versus Christian patience. When one thinks of patient people we often think of Buddhist monks immersed in deep meditation. In a rare break from his consistently serious and theological writing Dietrich describes Buddhist detachment as being reduced to a position of pure spectator and being akin to just as “a lunatic can no longer commit any sin but can no longer display any virtue either.” This section is high level theological paradigms, but no less important is the daily importance of fighting impatience as it is often a form of self-indulgence.
At the root of most impatience is our sense of time and what we expect to happen when we want it to happen. When we are disappointed we may act out passively or not so passively with ill-humor, anger, or outright aggression!
Dietrich than takes on my significant faults as he hammers away at my false reliance on my life being a normal situation (safe from unexpected tragedies, health scares, financial woes, job disruptions, unfair and unjust affronts to my personage), my sovereignty of self (my desire to not need assistance and/or not have my independence or wants jeopardized by others or external forces), and ultimately my pride (that allows me to deny my creaturely existence and lowly nature relative to the absolute).
These are tall orders especially given we are presumably remaining active in our special calling to perform our works (whatever they maybe) with passion and zeal. If we are “all in” it is to see how impatience with results could bubble up to the surface.
This chapter finishes with the “how to” aim to live with holy patience.
“In the attitude of patience we emphatically let God act, thus allowing all things to unfold from above – as proceeding from their Origin – and by so experiencing their operation again render to God what is God’s.”
Our tools of faith, charity and hope can sustain us in every endeavor. Achieving a balance of fervent action and an attitude of patience is no simple task for most of us.
Until next post – have a truly free, action oriented, contemplative and patient holy day!
Imagine you are responsible for leading a community in both its daily civic life and in its spiritual commitment and dedication. You are held with great esteem by the community in and outside the church. You serve as an adviser for the politicians, a confessor for sinners, and a counselor and spiritual director for many. Your days run into each other with rapidity and threats to the practice and purity of belief among Christians seem to outnumber birds in the sky.
Just another day in your calling. A papal package arrives marked urgent and demanding your signature alone. It is a fiat from Saint John the Divine delivered to you secretly years after his death. You are aware by oral tradition that John was plunged into boiling oil by the Romans, but did not die. He was then sent to prison on Patmos Island. And now your receive this letter containing the vision of the Son of Man;
“I, John, both your brother and your companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev. 9)
You continue reading and become immersed in a style of writing that is unlike any previous early Christian writings. It is an apocalyptic manuscript filled with dire warnings, spiritual guidance, and a description of the final battles between good and evil. The author makes use of extensive figurative and symbolic literary devices that defy the writings intent – to unveil or disclose (Apocalypse) things only known to God. Is this John of Patmos writing? Is it the John the evangelist or John the elder? Is it authentic an unblemished all these years later?
Jesus Christ already left us as the final messiah with plenty of parables and teachings to guide us until his triumph return. Why would he appear before this John of all places in Patmos prison? It is troublesome to receive this letter. Beyond inconvenient.
It does have terrible details on the current failings of members of our community and some of our churches that we cannot deny:
- placing higher value on things other than God,
- abandoning sharing our faith in fear of persecution,
- compromising the faith by blending our teachings with that of other false Gods, corruption among our own clergy,
- fallen into praise and belief without actions (dead churches),
- and questioning the very existence of God himself.
These things are certainly true today. But what can we do with this talk of Seals, Trumpets, Beast, Lambs, Angels, Bowls, Horses, and Satan himself? Perhaps I can send this letter onto someone else to consider? If we try to preach these things and teach their meaning we will lose many that sit in our pews. Many are seeking consolation and hope for relief from such terrible suffering today from wars, poverty, disease, and countless preventable and unjust deaths of our brothers and sister’s today. And yet this book speaks of just that, four horsemen released by Lucifer himself to plague the earth with war, famine, pestilence, and death?
I have immense difficulty now explaining suffering and injustices today to the mourning and suffering. Opiate addiction is ravaging our nation. Racism and hatred is returning with a vengeance. Extreme nationalism is on the rise. Greed and sloth have not disappeared.
Not a day goes by that I am asked How can God stand by (and do nothing) in the midst of this suffering? And this book tells us to prepare for more! And how will we actually present its meaning and defend its authentic holy nature so many years later? Why did we have to get this letter today?
I have a mind to throw it in the fire. Alas I cannot. It is a call to armor ourselves in the Glory of the Lord. It is a call to live our daily lives as if heaven was indeed on earth. It is a call to prepare for what we do not and cannot understand – the eternity of time and our existence after our mortal selves crumple into ash.
I do not have the strength to share its despairing misery and reign of temporal terror and tragedy. Sure it ends nice with ultimate victory – but I can give no assurances that members of my community will ever see this victory in their day or possess the moral character and discipline to be on the right side of history when the final judgement comes. Surely we will need more Mercy than is humanely possible to imagine from God. Just look at us and what we are doing to each other every passing second. Why me God? Surely this book will not be accepted alongside the Gospels, Acts, and the Letters to the Apostles. I must none the less bring it to the council.
If you are reading this post, consider it me placing before you as my council this calling to God from “I, John” in the book of Revelation:
It is a mysterious read unlike any other reading in the bible. You have been chosen to lead your family, your neighbors, and your community! Do not fret or fear.
After you have read it I recommend “The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn.”[i] This may help your initial apprehension! He proposes that we are in Heaven when we are properly prepared for and participating in the gift of the Mass and the Holy Eucharist. He draws out the symbolism and figurative language into modern day representation in the Mass that we celebrate today 2000 years later. In an elegant and simplistic manner he educates on the multiple interpretations, political implications, and controversies without drawing one into the unnecessary theological debate on what I would say, has yet to be revealed to us!
I would argue if each of us attended weekly Mass with the proper preparation, understanding, reverence, and intent to live our lives as authentically and humbly as we could our society would have a have a spiritual transformation of biblical proportions. At the end of the day though, most of us are not saints and are simply called to be as good an apostle as we can be within our human limitations and count on God’s mercy for the rest.
The Holy Mass and the presentation of the Eucharist is filled with symbolism, figurative, and literal actions that bring to you the mystery of Christianity here in the present, on earth, in the midst of our every day chaos. It is both God’s presence here and now and a calling for what we cannot understand that lies ahead of us in eternity and behind the immense veil of father time and our mortality.
The book of revelation speaks to the immensity of suffering and misery that we see and experience in a prolific narrative style that can bewilder and confuse the reader. Even more frightful is an outright presentation of confrontation with Satan and evil. As modern day Christians we have an aversion to acknowledging spiritual warfare.
We in general are as inept at describing Satan as we are God. The invisible becomes visible by the hands of man – we just do not know at any given moment which entity is influencing our actions or directly pulling the strings. Angels or demon, who art thou pulling at my emotions, beckoning me forward with a whisper or a push?
We recognize evil and good today in their extreme forms and to a lesser extent in our actions and faults. We prefer to think we are completely self-reliant and able to choose or not choose our destiny. We deny any direction or influence from “spirits” or forces we cannot see or define. Or if we have a glimmer of grace we find it hard to accurately decipher these influences with a high degree of confidence. God’s ways remain a mystery to us and Satan’s ways even more so. Yet they are revealed to us if we look for them.
Apocalyptic interpretations, theological proofs, or becoming a profound mystic is not available to most of us. Simply being open to the immense gift of the word of God and to applying it to our every day lives in concert with the church teachings provides us with external reference points to guide our belief and practices. Still it is not that simple. At the end of the day there is no simpler form of grounding belief than the Holy Mass, the Eucharist, and daily scripture.
I say to you, believer or non-believer, that we have heaven and hell on earth now, here, today. I say to you each of us plays a part in the scales of justice and that you can weigh our collective evil acts versus divinely inspired acts of loving kindness and genuine goodness. You can weigh your own actions or better yet bring them to a priest for confrontation with God’s ideals. Perhaps a daily Ignatian Examen?
We may not live to see the final encounter, but we are soldiers nonetheless of one side or the other.
The book of revelation is a reality today as it was when it was first written and remains a timeless message for believer’s that follow us in the faith after we have gone to ground. Serious scholars and apocalyptic watchmen are routinely attempting to define John’s revelation and chain it to an epoch of time and worldly events in the past, present, or future despite the Gospel of Mark informing us “concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It’s elusive nature today is as intriguing as Jesus Christ parables were in his day. God is not elusive if you look for him.
You cannot give away what you do not have. Giving with true divinely inspired love is the greatest gift of all. It is worth the journey to search for God if you have not met him, to double back on your journey if you have lost him, and stay close to him if you are graced with awareness of his presence. He is always there for us – it is more a question if we are truly ready for his presence.
If you received a profound vision today from God, shattering your world, and dictating the a message and vision similar to the Book of Revelation would you trust your own sanity 15 minutes after God’s departure? Would you dare write it down and share it with the world knowing you will face ridicule and speculation from every sphere and ultimately maybe rejected or perhaps even killed? In fact you have probably already been given countless opportunities to have a personal relationship with God but may have been too distracted to hear and take to heart the soul crying call for your attention?
I believe in mercy and love before I do in fear and pain being an instigator of true holiness. However, if I ever see the four horsemen I pray I have the Holy Trinity, all the angels and saints, and you my brother and sister, by my side.
In the face of human tragedy and senseless violence in our world today I seek consolation in the mercy of God and pray for strength when I have none. And even in this I am amiss as my troubles are not worthy of God’s attention relative to other’s that are in the grips of disease, addiction, homelessness, violence, starvation, imprisonment, and soul deprivation. But I ask and seek nonetheless.
Seek life eternal but remain grounded in everyday activities and actions here and now,. The end will come soon enough for each of us.
[i] The Lamb’s Supper The Mass As Heaven on Earth
Rejoice and be Glad.[i]
The Vatican has just released “APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION GAUDETE ET EXSULTATE
OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON THE CALL TO HOLINESSIN TODAY’S WORLD.” (End note 1). I recommend any serious Catholic read it now before reading any further here!
What could I possible write that would be better stated or more informed than the Holy Father? Yes, that is a rhetorical question. No answer needed please. If you are not a serious Catholic I would advise the same direction if you are interested in living a holy life. I would also advise the same for the curious or the atheist – 1.2 billion people, many of them your neighbors, are Catholic.
I have read the document hot of the press this evening as an alternative to the latest Donald Trump news cycle. It is short and to the point. It covers many of the themes covered in my ongoing review of Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ 300 plus page thesis in simple layman’s language. I had to break from this review to provide this timely piece from our Holy Father. His work speaks to our foundational spiritual formation and may intuit spiritual direction and reflection along the way.
It celebrates the anonymous spiritual warriors, the saint’s next door, and their invisible acts of love, kindness and mercy that may never be validated or honored in our worldly view. It calls you to live and pursue a sanctified life while acknowledging the impossibility of achieving in the smallest act of holiness without God’s grace.
Unfortunately the vast majority of Catholics will not read the original and practically no non-believers. Yet all will see the “document” described through a secular lens of our newspapers and media. The Washington Post today sensationalized it with excerpts of the value scale of abortion relative to other Catholic Social values and places the piece squarely in the political scene of both American politics and internal church divides:
“The document, titled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Latin for “Rejoice and Be Glad”), is Francis’s latest major publication in his five-year papacy, following works on the environment and the family that each made waves in the church. This apostolic exhortation takes up a broader theme, holiness, but some church scholars quickly read the new work as an implied response to the pope’s conservative critics.”[ii]
The surface review, however accurate about the human side of our religious institution and political landscape, misses the mark on the authenticity and call to Holiness detailed in this remarkable document. I am happy that the Pope’s publication receives front page press attention and coverage. It is up to the readers to take the next step and dive into the source document!
The signs of Holiness in today’s world are especially insightful. One of my many takeaways is sharing “Joy and a Sense of Humor.” Radiating a positive and hopeful spirit is sometimes an area where I can do more to reflect my faith accurately and the blessings I have received! The second take away as it may challenge your beliefs and comfort level – our faith is not a closed system but a living and growing faith.
The beatitudes are not easy to apply in today’s world all the time. Sometimes the pain and sacrifice called for will challenge us to the core. Other times the mystery and unfairness of life will strain our faith.
Thanks for visiting my blog. Pope Francis exhortation below. Feel free to leave comments and have a peaceful and insightful read of the exhortation!
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.