On May 31st of this year, four Western Dominican Province brothers were ordained to sacred orders by his Excellency, Bishop Michael Barber. Two, Fathers Peter Junípero Hannah and Justin Gable, were raised to the order of the priesthood; two more, Brs. Corwin Low and Gabriel Thomas Mosher, to the order of the deaconate. These men have spent seven years plus in formation as Western Dominicans, receiving rigorous training in philosophy and theology, along with the essential formation that goes into Dominican life—preaching training, adapting to the disciplines of common observance, developing lives of prayer. And now they will be sent into the wider ministries of the Western Province and Church.
Please pray that they will be faithful and gentle servants of the Lord and His Church—that they will be zealous for the salvation of souls, devoted to the reverent celebration of the Eucharist, and ministers of God's mercy to the whole people of God!
We live in a workaholic culture. Production. Efficiency. Success. Go. And Keep Going. These are the watchwords of our busy society. Jewish and Christian tradition, however, places a high value--as in, it's a commandment--on the centrality of rest, leisure, and worship, for human life. For an observant Jew, to work on the Sabbath Day is equivalent to choosing to go back to slavery in Egypt! The Lord calls Christians too (indeed, he calls all) to rest in Him every Lord's Day. It is a commandment, yes, but one essential for offering worship to God and renewing the vital energies of our soul, mind, and body. I've given this talk on many occasions--this one was recorded at a Theology on Tap event in Monterey, CA, in February of this year. Enjoy. And REST!
During a recent conversation, a fellow Dominican who has spent many years as a preacher and teacher, revealed that he had just learned within the last few days what a “selfie” was. The result? He was horrified! That it was the “Word of the Year” for 2013 only makes it worse.
Being a younger Dominican who has a Facebook account, I, too, have slowly become repulsed by the use of selfies, especially among Christians. With increasing frequency, I see Christians from all walks and states of life (even priests and religious!) use their cameras or smartphones to take and post pictures of themselves. Often these can be taken in good fun simply with the intent of sharing something of their lives with others. However, as the world moves deeper into the information age, we should be ready to ask critical questions about our behavior on the internet. Is this a good thing? How does this affect me? What impact will this have on others?
Part of the normal, ascetic life of a Christian is to be aware of, and reflect upon, the thoughts and motives that prompt our actions. Saint Catherine of Siena writes that we must dwell “in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better know God’s goodness” (Dialogue, Prologue). Am I angry today because my pride was hurt? Am I praying out loud in order to be noticed by others? Did I say those words out of true charity? Am I friends with these persons merely for pleasure or impure motives?
The Christian begins to live the life of grace when he becomes aware of the inclinations and attachments that lead him to sin and vice, or, at least hinder him in the practice of virtue. The Christian advances in the life of grace when he applies the remedy of spiritual warfare (prayer, fasting, abstinence, almsgiving, the practice of the virtues) and the Sacraments to counter those inclinations and attachments. The Christian perfects the life of grace when he is then free to love God. But when he clings to earthly attachments, such as status, wealth, pleasure, or comfort, the Christian prevents himself from running the race of faith, like a runner whose legs are tied together by a thick and heavy rope, or like a swimmer carrying 50 lb. dumbbells. If we don’t cast off our earthly attachments, then we have not taken the first step of trusting in God, and making him the sole object of all our actions: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
The Christian who does not scrutinize his thoughts and actions, and fails to purify them in the light of God’s commands, gradually becomes more and more insensitive (unfeeling) towards the life of the soul. Saint John Climacus aptly describes such a Christian in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:
“The insensitive man is a foolish philosopher, an exegete condemned by his own words, a scholar who contradicts himself, a blind man teaching sight to others.
He talks about healing a wound and does not stop making it worse.
He complains about what has happened and does not stop eating what is harmful.
He prays against it but carries on as before, doing it and being angry with himself.
And the wretched man is in no way shamed by his own words. 'I am doing wrong,' he cries, and zealously continues to do so.
His lips pray against it and his body struggles for it.
He talks profoundly about death and acts as if he will never die.
He groans over the separation of soul and body, and yet lives in a state of somnolence as if he were eternal.
He has plenty to say about self-control and fights for a gourmet life.
He reads about the judgment and begins to smile, about vainglory and is vainglorious while he is reading.
He recites what he has learnt about keeping vigil, and at once drops off to sleep.
Prayer he extols, and runs from it as if from a plague.
Blessings he showers on obedience, and is the first to disobey” (XVIII)
So what about selfies? If we consider the action of taking a picture of oneself, and posting it online for others to see, we can recognize rather quickly that serious spiritual risks are involved. The first and greatest risk is vanity or vainglory. Vainglory seeks pleasure in considering what others think about us, or in our own self-estimation. This pernicious vice has been long considered one of the most difficult to combat. Cassian writes, "The other vices and disturbances are known to be uniform and simple, but this one [vainglory] is multifarious, multiform, and varied, and it engages the one fighting it on all sides and its conqueror from every angle. It seeks to wound the solider of Christ in dress and in appearance, in bearing, in speech, in work, in vigils, in fasts, in prayer, in reclusion, in reading, in knowledge, in silences, in obedience, in humility and in long-suffering. Like a very dangerous rock submerged under swelling waves, it threatens with unforeseen and miserable shipwreck those who sail with a favorable wind, so long as no care is taken and no foresight is exercised” (Institutes, XI).
But what is the danger in having a good self-image, or self-esteem? What is wrong with receiving affirmation? The spiritual danger is that vainglory leads, inevitably, to pride. By trusting in ourselves, in our appearances, talents, gifts, or opinions, we push God aside and, like Lucifer, we learn to say “I will not serve”, since we are sufficient of ourselves for happiness: “Though, while he lives, he counts himself happy, and though a man gets praise when he does well for himself, he will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never more see the light. Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:18-20). If our trust and delight is in our selfies, then it is not in the God who has the power to ransom our life from death (cf. Psalm 49:7-9). As Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov notes in the classic Arena, “the desire to convey to the bystanders one’s own feelings is a sign of vanity and pride” (Rule 20).
Another spiritual danger that can be both a cause and a result of selfies is despair. Despair is the lack of hope in God’s justice and mercy, his power and love. If we have fallen into vanity or pride, then ultimately our hope rests in our self. If our hope is in our self, then ultimately we are without hope. If we define ourselves by how we look, what others think of us, or what our abilities are, then we are standing on the thin, rapidly melting, ice of despair; for appearances fade, opinions change, talents diminish. Like gasping fish out of water, those with vanity-turned-to-despair gasp for any affirmation of their existence, any glimmer of recognition that reassures them of their existence, no matter how futile it has become. Selfies can be such a gasp, such a futile reaching out. However, with the way that despair works, such acts of despair only allow despair to grow all the more, in a circle of self-defeating misery.
So where does the Christian stand on selfies? We must look at our intentions, we must enter the cell of self-knowledge and purify our hearts of worldly attachments. If they are taken out of vanity, pride, or despair, then they are obviously evil, and can only hinder our progress in the spiritual life. A quick sign to see whether or not we are taking selfies for good motives is the freedom to stop. If we feel that it would be difficult to stop taking such photos, then it is a sign that we have grown attached to them, and have fallen under the sway of vanity. Again, Climacus notes that, “if a man thinks himself immune to the allurement of something and yet grieves over its loss, he is only fooling himself” (Ladder, II). The Christian making progress as a son of God is marked by increasing freedom to do good, to pray, to be in the presence of God, and to reject temptations. If we are not free, if we are attached to selfies and would find it difficult to stop posting them, then it is a sign that we are still in spiritual infancy. And if we do not recognize the harm in vanity, pride, or despair, then, even worse, our spiritual birth has become stillborn.
Pilgrims on Earth
The beatific vision of God is the goal of life and the perfection of our quest for holiness. The complete and final satisfaction of all our desires and pursuits is to rest in the divine embrace of the Most Holy Trinity. How can we grow closer to this goal and receive a foretaste of heaven while we are pilgrims on this earth? The central way is through the reception of the Blessed Sacrament at Mass. But Our Lord has also provided us a variety of means to sanctify and enrich our lives. Below you will find a short reflection on five ways to grow in holiness and seek God, all granted through His grace.
Making the Sign of the Cross
God, knowing the needs of our human condition as an embodied soul, has provided us physical signs that express and harmonize our interior state. The most prominent and recognizable is the making of the Sign of the Cross with our hand, crossing ourselves with thesignum crucis. The act itself is a prayer. When we combine the intention to worship God with the gesture it becomes a powerful aid to holiness and a defense against evil. It is a public witness to our status as children of God in His new covenant through the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His Crucifixion and Resurrection from the dead. It is a sign of the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. It is worthy of our careful attention and devotion, and can sanctify any place or moment. Saint Dominic was known to fortify himself repeatedly with the sign of the cross whenever he travelled. As we travel through this life we too fortify ourselves by making the sign with reverence and devotion.
Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is a chance to spend time with the Lord in preparation for the reception of Eucharist at Mass. Discussion and directions on ways of ‘doing’ adoration abound, but they all rely on one simple fact: you must be there and spend time with the Lord. Imagine a man who tells his wife, “Honey, I love you so much that I’m going to go read a book about you in the other room instead of embracing you.” Absurd! How lamentable! Reading and studying about God is also essential but it doesn’t replace the actual act of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The positive testimony of those who make adoration a consistent part of their Catholic faith is overwhelming. Put simply, it transforms lives and converts hearts. It strengthens the will to do good; it obliterates vices; it calms the troubled mind and prepares our mind to receive deeper insights when we do sit down to study. Only God knows completely what graces and gifts He has prepared for those who devote themselves to the Eucharist in adoration. It is rest, medicine and light for the pilgrims of earth.
Bowing and prostrations
When someone is out walking in the open fields it is natural to stop and gaze into the vast sky above. In the same way, when devotion grows in our hearts we naturally bow before the source of all that is good, the Holy One who offers eternal salvation. Saint Dominic would bow deeply whenever he passed by an image of Christ or a crucifix. He also had the private practice of fully prostrating himself on the ground in prayer, or of falling repeatedly to his knees before God. He also prayed by lifting his hands up above his head or spreading his arms wide in imitation of the cross as he stood at great or short lengths in prayer. This robust, manly saint prayed with his whole body and intellect yoked together in seeking God above all things. He was an ascetic who did not shy away from complete devotion, yet he did not become overly severe and intolerant to those weaker than him. On the contrary, he was known to be full of love, compassion and good humor. Olympic athletes, soldiers and even some musicians go through much more severe and exhausting training; shouldn’t we too express our devotion with appropriate ascetic practices?1
Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity
Here we have a mainly internal act, but you can lightly tap your hand on the wood of the pew, your desk or bed if it will help you concentrate on making an act of Faith, Hope and Love. An intentional act is an act. Whenever we choose, or will, to do something it is an act of some kind. The most obvious are physical acts, like picking up a book, pouring milk or throwing a ball. But speech and thoughts are also acts. We will and choose what to say and we can choose what to think, although random thoughts will always appear that are of little concern. What we are concerned with is what we actively, intentionally think. The acts of Faith, Hope and Love are thoughts that must be repeated, repeated, repeated. Habits of the will are formed through repetition; whatever you do, say or think again and again, will become habitual to you. You become disposed to a certain way of doing, saying and thinking until it stabilizes as a virtue or vice. Our minds are shaped, colored and molded by the objects we concentrate on or encounter frequently. By choosing to repeatedly give our thoughts over to God through acts of Faith, Hope and Love we dispose ourselves to listen to God and receive the gifts He wants to give us. In the end it is God who gives through grace: but he does not despise our efforts to grow in holiness. You will find numerous ways to formulate these acts of Faith, Hope and Love in any good Catholic prayer book. Here are three simple versions:
Act of Faith: Most Holy Trinity, I believe the truth you have revealed. Increase my faith. Amen.
Act of Hope: Father in Heaven, I hope in your great mercy. Grant me the gifts of the Holy Spirit as I look forward to eternal life through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Act of Charity: O God, I love you above all things. Through your Love I love myself and my neighbor. Amen.
May the daily repetition of the Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity bring you much joy and consolation as you progress in holiness.
The Most Holy Name of Jesus
Finally, the word that has sustained men and women, monks and nuns, saints and sinners-who-are-becoming-saints, in every place, through all ages: the Name above every other name. The Most Holy Name of Jesus, be praised! Love the Name of Jesus. Let it be in your minds, on your lips and in your heart. The Most Holy Name of Jesus is the sure defense; it is light, joy and truth. At the Name of Jesus every knee should bend. May the Name of Jesus guide us. Whatever names or words we bend our minds and our wills to becomes our focus, to which our soul is continually drawn. All other names lead to false ways, despair and are man-made idols: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened" (Romans 1:21). With God’s help we can scrutinize our life and be free of what is false, what holds us back from more consistent and dedicated worship; we can become more free to express the charity that is building in our lives through God’s free gift.
But rejoice you who honor the Most Holy Name! For by freely accepting Christ, it is the Good Shepherd who becomes our Lord and Master. We are drawn ever more into the loving depths of the Most Holy Trinity when we proclaim Jesus Christ is LORD. All the goods of the earth and of our earthly life are allowable when properly ordered to God. For the pilgrim on this earth the Most Holy Name of Jesus is found most fully in the reception of the Eucharist at Mass, a foretaste of the eternal Feast and beatific vision in heaven. Acts, signs and devotions assist us in leading a sacramental life. We have received from the Church established by Our Lord Jesus Christ the sacraments and a host of sacramentals, blessings and practices that flow from and must return to the Eucharist. Sanctification comes through grace, and the Blessed Body and Precious Blood consecrated on the altar by a priest is the central mystery and privilege of the Christian.
Finally, as social beings directed to God in community, it is an act of justice for the faithful to witness to the Gospel for the salvation of souls in public as well as at home. This is done whenever we make the sign of the cross or pray before a meal in a restaurant; when we truly say a blessing out loud when speaking to others; or when a religious friar, monk or sister wears the habit of their Order in daily life so that the non-converted may wonder about the holy calling, and the faithful be encouraged by those who seek God in the consecrated life. None of the above is done to draw attention to ourselves but solely to give to society what is due through justice. This justice must come from the heart, not simply legislation. But it is ultimately a matter of giving God what is due through proper worship, through acts of what is rightly called the "virtue of religion," a sure means to holiness.
The Peace of the Risen Lord be with you!
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1 Prostrations are good for your back, blood circulation, reduce headaches, clear the mind for studies and relieve insomnia, but that’s just a bonus. Or is it? Maybe God created us so that physical and mental devotion would lead to some degree of physical and mental health. Perhaps what’s good for the soul redounds to the body in this life even as it will in the beatific vision to the glorified body.
A conversation ends with a sudden: “You’re selfish. I can’t stand you anymore!”
A phone is slammed down in rage: “AHHH! I’ll never speak to you again!”
Or the icy approach, “Oh, I see. Well, have a nice day.” Then the hurried shuffle away with hunched shoulders, red hands wringing, and plotting revenge. The grudge is on.
How exhausting. How useless. Is it really worth it?
We all get angry and there doesn’t seem to be an easy antidote. We seek calm to alleviate anger, but how can it be achieved when we must confront people at work, at home or at school who get on our nerves?
You may have tried everything with your opponent: reasoning, pleading, threatening. Nothing seems to change your encounters and you feel you just have to avoid them from now on. But have you tried prayer? Seriously, have you prayed for that person, the thorn in your side? Spiritual advisors sometimes ask us to place our enemies under the protection of Our Lord by devoting a period of time to praying for them.
How can this be done? By simply asking God to grant them all the graces He wants them to have so that our enemy or opponent will more deeply know the call to holiness and their hearts will be converted. You might start with a simple short prayer for them, once a day for two weeks.
We find this promise in Scripture for those who pray for others: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and this will cure you: the heartfelt prayer of a good man works very powerfully. My brothers, if one of you strays away from the truth, and another brings him back to it, he may be sure that anyone who can bring back a sinner from the wrong way that he has taken will be saving a soul from death and covering up a great number of sins" (James 5:16, 19-20).
Notice that to be in the best disposition to pray for others we must have first confessed our own sins to one another. When we regularly attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation our lives begin to receive the tranquility that comes from order. Our hearts are freed to love God and to pray for our enemies; free to ask God to bless those who persecute us, or at least bother us. We are then able to give others the same consolation we have received from the sacraments.
It is, however, important to point out that anger itself is not a sin. In fact anger can be a good thing if it is directed at removing an evil. That’s why we have anger: to remove an obstacle that is perceived as threatening our own good. Every week during compline, the night office of the Church, we hear: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you” (Ephesians 4:26).
So if you’re angry at your cluttered desktop, use some of that anger to remove the obstacles. Clean it! But if you are angry at a person, then “let it be without sin,” pray for their holiness, for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to come upon them, for forgiveness of sins and for life eternal. May the Most Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ bring us holiness and peace.
Why do we pray? We can answer this question in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas if we keep in mind that prayer is an act of the virtue of religion. Understanding this virtue, and how it orders us to God, points to the salvific power of prayer to obtain what God has willed for our benefit. But how does it work? The third video in this series addresses this question.
The Virtue of Religion, as we saw in the first video, is the virtue whereby we order our life to God and to giving Him fitting worship. St. Thomas Aquinas carefully explains that this virtue has distinctive interior and exterior actions whereby we journey to God. In this video I explain briefly Devotion and Prayer, which are the two interior actions. Devotion and Prayer are what give life to the virtue of religion and are key ingredients to the Christian spiritual life.
Many times when I mention St. Thomas' "virtue of religion" in conversations, I get winced stares of utter confusion. On the one hand, this makes me excited because I am most fain to share what I have learned from my studies of St. Thomas (my brothers are probably getting pretty bored with my rants on religion); but on the other hand, it makes me a little sad because the virtue of religion is such an important and integral part of living the Christian life. With the help and inspiration of Br. Brad, our videographer, several videos will be put out explaining Aquinas' teaching on the virtue of religion.