Pascal famously remarked that “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” There is much in this, and it is difficult to think of a simpler, more practical and pertinent recommendation for our contemporary world.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents were firm that I and my sister would not have televisions (or, by extension, video game apparati) in our rooms—too much distraction and too many other worthy things to occupy time, like, say, organizing a baseball card collection. My parents—I thank them now!—went so far as to regulate the amount of television we did watch by a “marble system” invented by none other than my mom. A double-sided tupperware container was assigned to each of us, and six marbles were placed in one side of the container at the beginning of the week, each marble standing for half an hour. When I or my sister watched television for half an hour (or, for myself, when I played those very primitive video games like Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, and R.C. Pro-Am!), we would transfer one marble over to the other side. Three hours a week of television or video games, and my sister and I had to apportion the time according to our tastes and prudential judgment.
By this simple system, my parents effectively trained me and my sister to acquire the habits of mental and emotional self-discipline in the area of media use. How times have changed! The internet and the multitudinous clever devices that can activate it, any time, any place, has introduced a kind of Copernican Revolution in such media availability. The conditions my parents’ system worked in have multiplied, mutated, and expanded outward (inward? upward? where is the Internet?!) in an almost impossible-to-contain complexity. One generally must have an e-mail account to get along in the contemporary world. Cell phones—save for very select groups like Dominican students in formation—are generally expected for normal participants in human society. The entire gaping abyss of the world-wide-web, filled with infinite amounts of useful and edifying material, alongside much foolish and even dangerous content, lies at most people’s finger-tips 24-7.
Much has been and continues to be said on how this new media milieu has radically altered the way our society is structured and how human interaction and relationships are conducted. Here I point to one simple way it challenges our spiritual—and with it our psychological and emotional—health. Put simply, “sitting quietly in our room” is the foundation for knowing God and thus for being happy. Insofar as our media use engenders in us a restless and agitated spirit that is incapable of this, it is compromising our spiritual life, as well as our psychological and emotional health.
Reginald Garrigou LaGrange masterfully formulates the basic human need for quiet in his magisterial Three Ages of the Spiritual Life. Contemplation and an “interior life” begins, LaGrange says, when a person is alone and begins to talk to himself. If amidst this inward self-reflectiveness, which opens itself only in silence, one begins to seek truth and goodness, “this intimate conversation with himself tends to become conversation with God.” An interior depth opens up in the person where important matters rise to the surface, unimportant matters fade, and we begin to gaze on the “whole” pattern of life, its meaning, origin, and end. The “one necessary thing”—knowing God and sitting at the Lord’s feet—becomes for us a salve for our personal wounds, a strength for our weakness, and the life-breath and due nourishment of our soul (see Luke 10.39-42). We begin to see more clearly the contours of our lives and their ultimate foundation in God, thus welling up with an inward thankfulness to the Almighty for His blessings and ever-present help.
The challenge is not to let our media use snuff out this inner-reflective depth. A noted psychologist once actually connected the way modern technology affects us with a tendency to produce schizoid-like mental habits. In the 1960s, Rollo May identified the constant barrage of television, media, and other modern technological forms as inducing a kind of social fragmentation where the individual becomes easily disconnected from others, losing the capacity to empathize and preserve inwardly a vital center of self-awareness (the excellent book is Love and Will). The phenomena is counter-intuitive: though technology has connected human society in myriad ways previously unthinkable, it can simultaneously disconnect individuals and uproot the interior life precisely because external stimuli are so relentless. Such overstimulation indulged in for long periods actually begins to scramble our brains, acting virtually as a narcotic drug in its attraction and potentially addictive qualities.
I am accused by my Dominican brethren of being “Luddite”—one who spurns the use of technology on principle. There is truth in the accusation (insert me smiling), but when it comes down to it I realize that social media, like all technology, is a tool that can be used well or ill. Perpetually available internet access is in some ways the culmination of an increasingly dominant place technology has come to play in modern life since the Industrial Revolution began in the 19th century. Amidst this milieu, the Christian today must develop a discipline respecting the internet and media use. If the “marble system” is not effective anymore, since the internet is a repository not only for entertainment but many necessary things, we can still establish set times within our daily and weekly routine to devote to the Lord, to “contemplation,” to reflection on the good and important things of life.
I myself have taken to “internet fasts” on Friday—“abstaining,” as it were from all internet use save in instances where charity demands it (like, say, a lunch meeting I had e-mailed someone on and must check again that day). The rest of the week I try to limit myself to one morning check and one evening check of no more than half an hour; and “sign off” by 9pm every evening from even non-business use. The classic virtue that applies here is studiositas (“studiousness”), a disposition of healthy and vigorous intellectual inquiry, versus curiositas (“curiosity”), an unmitigated and arbitrary seeking after anything that stimulates. The latter is the beginning of a soul-sapping road to psychological agitation and spiritual death, the former a healthy and ordered summoning of our natural human desire to know to worthy ends. (See here for a short and insightful account of studiositas and curiositas by one of my Eastern Province confreres.)
Beyond the healthy ways to use media, nothing can take the place of the portion of our lives that each of us needs to carve out for the deeper contemplation in which God comes to us as a friend, “makes his dwelling within us,” whereby we become more aware of his Presence in our souls and the exceeding mercy and grace by which he would lead us to eternal life. To sit quietly in one’s room is the beginning, an idea Pascal probably learned from one far greater: “Go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father in heaven...” This is a different task and graver obligation, I daresay, than seeing what one of my 500 friends on Facebook has happened to have thought worthy to post within the last five minutes.
In this spirit, see here for a quick and informational video on how internet use affects our intellectual capability. For a longer but thought-provoking recent interview of a Stanford psychologist on similar issues and the "myth of multi-tasking," see here.
As a 2011 graduate from Gonzaga University, I was quite dismayed to hear the news that Dr. Sue Weitz, the Vice President for Student Life at Gonzaga, ruled that the student Knights of Columbus council would no longer be recognized as an official student organization. This was done, as Weitz writes because, “The Knights of Columbus, by their very nature, is a men’s organization in which only Catholics may participate via membership... These criteria are inconsistent with the policy and practice of student organization recognition at Gonzaga University, as well as the University’s commitment to non-discrimination based on certain characteristics, one of which is religion.” Effectively this move bans the Knights of Columbus at Gonzaga. This ban has ben adamantly opposed by Dr. Eric Cunningham of the history department, who points out (see here and here) that the Jesuits, who founded and reside at the school, likewise should be banned since they are also a Catholic men’s organization.
What this recent event exemplifies, for me, is the growing secularization of Catholics and Catholic academic institutions in the United States. Secularism, fundamentally, is a confusion of what is important in life. Instead of having Christ and His Body, the Church, as the heart, meaning, and guide of life, political, economic, and social ideologies take precedence. The Word of God becomes secondary to the word of opinion. The revelation and teaching of God in human history becomes subordinate to human machinations and desires. This is not only antithetical to Christ’s Gospel (cf. Mt 10:33), but also to the vision of Vatican II. Part of the vision of the Council was that Christians would change the world from within in order to configure it more perfectly to Christ (Cf. Lumen Gentium 5; Gaudium et Spes, 10, 21, 22, 40; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2, 5-8) Rather than Christians configuring the world to Christ, secularism configures Christians to the world and to the forces of evil (cf. Rom. 12:2).
In few other places is this Christian mission to configure the world as important as it is in Catholic universities. As Pope John Paul II writes in his document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Catholic universities are “born from the heart of the Church.” (Intro.) Besides merely imparting intellectual knowledge, Catholic universities are meant to help form men and women specifically for this mission of evangelization and transformation. In order to authentically help young men and women live up to their Christian vocations, John Paul II definitively lists four “essential characteristics” of a Catholic University:
1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such
2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;
3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;
4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life. (Ex Corde, 13)
When a Catholic university openly broadcasts or foments dissent, suppresses organizations meant to foster Christian living, or endorses practices contrary to the Church’s moral teaching, it is not only not living up to its sacred vocation, but it is working in league with the forces of secularization. This is seen not only at Gonzaga University, my beloved alma mater, but also at many universities and colleges throughout the country. Until administrators and professors regain an appreciation of their Christian vocation, it will be up to devoted individuals such as Dr. Cunningham and faithful Catholic students to challenge the structures of secularism in their universities. Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)
I think all of us are familiar with the story of Snow White. Towards the beginning of this classic fairytale, we discover that every day, Snow White’s stepmother, the queen, looks into her magic mirror and asks a question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
“You, my queen, are the fairest of all” is the mirror’s typical response. One day, however, when the queen asks her question, the mirror changes its answer: “Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.”
From that point on jealousy consumes the queen and her sole purpose in life is to kill Snow White. When the queen learns that her huntsman has failed to do her bidding -- to bring her the still-beating heart of the young princess -- she disguises herself as an old woman and tries to kill Snow White on her own, first with a corset to crush her ribs, then with a poisoned comb for her hair, and finally with a red-delicious-poisoned apple.
Of course, we all know how the story ends. At first it seems as if the queen comes out on top. Snow White dies and is laid to rest in a glass coffin. But then a prince comes along, and we learn that Snow White isn’t really dead; she wakes up and lives happily ever after.
So in the end, all the queen’s work was for nothing. Her jealousy was a waste of time. All it did was create disorder and chaos for everyone involved: Snow White, the huntsman, the dwarves, the prince, even the queen herself. So why did she do it? Why did the queen spend so much time obsessing over Snow White? Because she was jealous, and one of the effects of jealousy is that it eats away at us from the inside out. As we read in the Book of Proverbs, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (14:30).
In other words, adding jealousy to your life is like adding lemon juice to milk – it sours it, curdles it, and ruins it.
So what is the antidote when we are poisoned by jealousy? First off, we need to ask ourselves a very important question: “Why can’t I be happy when something good happens to someone else?” When my best friend from high school gets an expensive new car, when my brother gets straight A’s, or when my cousin is voted the most popular guy in school?
In the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Jeannie is jealous of her brother, Ferris, because he can get away with anything, including ditching school. One day Jeannie finds herself at the police station talking to someone she would rather not: a stoner with a leather jacket, ripped jeans, and wild hair. Their discussion goes something like this:
“What do you care if your brother ditches school,” he asks.
“Why should he get to ditch when everyone else has to go,” she responds.
“You could ditch.”
“Yeah, I’d get caught” she says sarcastically.
“I see. So you’re mad that he ditches and doesn’t get caught. Is that it?”
“Then your problem is you…You ought to spend a little more time dealing with yourself, and a little less time worrying about what your brother does.”
Now I’m not saying that ditching school is a good thing. But I think this conversation answers our question, “Why can’t I be happy when something good happens to someone else?” Because I spend too much time worrying about other people.
Instead of reflecting on the person God created me to be, I compare myself to others. Until we realize that each of us is unique in God’s eyes, as important to him as our friend with the fancy car, or our brother with the great report card, or our cousin -- Mr. Popularity, everything will be chaos. But when I realize that God loves me, and that I’m special, then order will be restored and God will grant me peace.
A couple of weeks before Fr. John Flannery passed away on Palm Sunday, I had the privilege of hearing him pronounce the formula of absolution for me in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. While this would be the first and only time Fr. John would hear my confession, I know many brothers here sought him out for Confession and spiritual direction. In the very short time I’ve spent at St. Albert’s Priory, I knew Fr. John as a wonderful person to consult on many things, whether he had on his “O.P.” or even “M.D.” hat. He is greatly missed by the community.
Now many of us, whether religious or lay, have our regular confessors. Those of us who have the luxury of choosing one for regular confession may take different things, perhaps familiarity or personality, into account for choosing one. No one with a healthy spirituality would choose to eschew the sacrament because he didn’t have his regular confessor available, but I don’t think that anyone would argue that there isn’t a routine that you develop with certain priests that might help the process bear more fruit. Now, never having been to Confession with him before, I had none of these routines in place with Fr. John. We got off to a bit of a rocky start. I have a low voice, and though I was sitting very close to him, he simply could not hear me. Near the end, I think the entire Priory had a pretty good idea of my sins. Now, despite this long-winded introduction, this blog entry isn’t about Confession, nor is it really about Fr. John. But as we concluded the Sacrament, he gave me some advice that has remained with me throughout Holy Week and the Easter Season: “Let God love you.”
What does this mean? Don’t I know God loves me? But as we celebrated the Holy Triduum, I continued to ponder these words, and something within me resonated as we listened to St. John’s account of the Last Supper. I was particularly struck by the St. John’s description of the scene at table as Jesus announced the betrayal that was to come.
“One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining at Jesus’ side. So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant. He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?” (John 13:21-25)
It’s easy for us to gloss over the words of Scripture, but upon closer reading of the text, doesn’t this seem a bit strange to you? Imagine if you and I were hanging out after dinner, and to show my affection, I leaned my head against your chest. No matter how close we were, I suspect we would probably end up having a really awkward conversation. Not to mention that I’ve never really understood St. John referring to himself in the third person as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Does this imply that Jesus loved St. John more than the other disciples? Or did Jesus not really love the other disciples?
Now, if I understand this correctly, Jesus is God Himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of the Eternal Father. And if I understand the nature of infinity correctly, infinity cannot be measured like we measure other quantities. Now if God loves all people infinitely, then He must love all people equally… only infinitely. Because I’m a Dominican friar doesn’t make me special. God doesn’t love me any more or any less than the drug-addict on the street.
So what gives St. John the right to be called “the disciple whom Jesus loved?” Well, if Jesus didn’t love him any more than he loved Peter, Andrew, or Judas Iscariot, then perhaps Fr. John Flannery was onto something. Perhaps St. John had simply allowed God to love him. It’s amazing, but even with all that power, God cannot force us to love Him back. This is the humility of God, the same humility that “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) He did the work of a slave while washing the disciples’ feet, and died a slave’s death. God’s love doesn’t invade against our will. Rather, God lowers Himself to await our reciprocity.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
The Beloved Disciple didn’t lean against Jesus’ chest because they were buddies. Rather, I would say that it was an act of the Disciple’s pure trust in his Master. And this heart of the Beloved Disciple, completely undivided in love of God through Christ, followed Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross on Calvary. How is it that the Beloved Disciple can have such a love? It's only “because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
Could I too lean my head against the Master’s chest? Do I trust God that He has provided for my life? Do I love God above all other things? Do I place limitations on how much I love Him? Everyday I’m challenged by Fr. John Flannery’s words to allow the love of God to enter my life. As we pray for the repose of his soul, let us keep his words in mind as we bask in the infinite love of God, both in this life and in the next.
Sola fide was our first and loudest battle cry. This was the core of our Lutheran Christian faith. It is truly impossible to understand the protestant movement and any Protestant communion springing from the Reformation, without understanding the importance of sola fide as the fulcrum of the theology. Indeed, it was Martin Luther’s main objection to the established doctrine of his time that the grace of Christ was open to all who place faith in Him, and faith alone, not because of any merit of their own, but solely due to the free gift of Christ. Salvation (freedom from the debt that I owe due to the burden of my sin) is given, more specifically imputed, to me as a sheer gift.
The story line would have run something like this. Humanity after the fall (and that means each and every individual) is in a state of separation from God irreparable by human effort. God is infinite; He is infinite in Glory, infinite in majesty and honor, and infinite in goodness. When our first parents sinned and violated the balance of justice by failing to give that infinite goodness the obedience it demanded, they incurred a punishment that was equal to the one offended; they owed a debt that was equal to the grandeur of the offended goodness. In other words, by sinning against the infinite God they incurred an infinite punishment. There is now an infinite debt owed to the infinite God.
But finite creatures could never pay an infinite debt: only an infinite being, equal to the dignity of the one offended, could offer a payment worthy of sin. This is precisely why the suffering and death of Christ was necessary to atone for sin. Because Christ was fully God and consubstantial with the Father in every way, He could satisfy the infinite anger of the Father by His death. And, due to Christ’s nature as man, the payment offered for sin can be offered to each and every man or woman who accepts it. 
But here is the crux of the matter (no pun intended). Accepting this payment for sin (what salvation consisted of for me as a Lutheran) is accomplished on the part of each individual through an act of faith and this act alone. Once I place faith in Jesus Christ and his saving death for me, my debt of sin is erased and the punishment owed to God by me because of my sin is wiped clean; in other words, I am saved! This is what salvation consists of; this is the meaning of receiving salvation; not that I have done anything for God, anything for which He now owes to me salvation, but only that He has done this for me. I was barred from Heaven due to my sin and, now that my sin is gone, this access has once again been granted.
It does not take a reader with deep insight to perceive the profoundly legalistic tone that this understanding of salvation presupposes. The entire narrative of creation, sin, fall, incarnation, redemption, and salvation, is seen through the purely legalistic lens where the primary, if not the only, analogate to sin is that of the breaking of a law, not one of a disease of the soul, nor one of a rupture of relationship. The entire cosmic drama of sin and salvation is read through the lens of law, debt, and legal punishment. Through this lens, the reality that bars me from union with God is not so much an intrinsic quality welling up from the depths of my soul (or lack of such a quality), but an external statute that has been imputed to me, declaring me unsuitable for union with God. For Luther, sin provokes not so much the rupture of a relationship with God that I was born to enjoy (the fulfillment of which is heaven itself), but the external legal declaration that I am guilty of sin and am not owed such a relationship.
From such a perspective salvation does not consist in the transformation of my soul, but in a legal imputation. From such a perspective, once this legal banishment from heaven has been lifted, there remains nothing more for me to do. There is now nothing in my power that can add to or subtract from my legal standing before God. This was my understanding of freedom in Christ. This was my understanding of what being a Christian meant.
One might ask, “I thought this was an essay regarding the Catholic belief in the Eucharist: what does this system of salvation have to do with a belief in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament?” The answer to such a question is, nothing! Absolutely nothing at all! And this is the whole point. There is no connection between the 16th century invention of a legalistic salvation in Christ and the belief in His real presence in the Sacrament. If I accept the system of sin and redemption posed by the 16th century reformers, a redemption that is played out entirely on the field of legal statutes and transposed punishment, where salvation occurs as a legal declaration external to me--if all this is the case, from where will I find a suitable meaning and purpose for Christ to come to me, flesh and blood? If the whole drama of my salvation occurs by a juridic fiat from God declaring me righteous, after which point He will only look upon me as possessing the legal requirements for heaven, what more could be effected in my soul by receiving the real presence of His Son?
Let me try to explain my point in another way, from the perspective of my personal experience of this dilemma. There was one point in my life, when I was about 19 years old, when the massive implications of belief in the real presence dawned on me. It was during a Lutheran church service where communion was being celebrated. I looked on the altar where the pastor was saying the words of institution and I realized that, if it is really true that Jesus is present here on the altar, if it is really true that He is here with the same intensity of presence by which He was present to the apostles, if this is really true, then what is happening on the altar in front of me is the most important thing in the world. If it is true that God has performed such a gesture of condescension that He comes down to me in His body and blood, no other point of the Christian faith could trump the meaning and significance of this event. What in the Christian life could be more important than being in this presence and receiving this presence? If it is true, what was happening there on the altar could never be a mere after thought to the Christian life or a mere supplement to the real heart of the faith. This event of Christ coming to us must be the true drama of the Christian life; this must be the source and summit of what it means to be a Christian.
Yet I still held that the entirety of my salvation was settled and done. I was saved. I had faith in Jesus as my Lord and nothing more could be added. Yet, if this were true, what could be the meaning of this profound and earth-shattering gesture of God to come to me in His body and blood? If this event on the altar was a mere remembrance, as many Protestants claim, why the real presence? Could we not remember Christ’s passion without such condescension of God? And if the appearance of bread and wine remain the same to our senses, what greater value would they have as mere stimulants to memory if Jesus were to become their invisible substance? There must be something more going on here. There must be some greater meaning to the real presence of Christ in the elements, beyond a mere memorial. This event must be loaded with profound meaning and significance for the state of my soul, right now, as I receive the sacrament.
The only answer to the shocking reality of the real presence was that Jesus Christ is coming into my soul to transform me from the inside out. He is, in His very flesh and blood, conforming me into a little Christ (a Christian in the true sense of the word), by feeding my body and soul with His very life. Jesus Christ has not, at one single time in the past, declared me righteous before His Father in one transaction of justice. He is instead making me righteous by transforming me into Him. He is making me just by transforming me into a Saint. Justification and salvation are not two separate events with two separate causes, they are merely two aspects of the same reality; the very transformation of my soul into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Christian life: transformation in Christ.
What I was holding to as a Lutheran were two beliefs that were not synchronized with one another. In my struggle to sustain identity as a Protestant Christian I was pushing against two fronts, on opposite sides, with two very different arguments; arguments that, if one of them were true, would render the other difficult to explain, if not obsolete. Once I realized the profound meaning of Christ’s words when he said, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” I could never go back to believing the teaching that faith alone saved my soul. Christ’s true presence in the sacrament must be the source and summit of my Christian life. Christ’s life and presence in me is the salvation of my soul.
 This might sound similar to the reasoning of St. Anselm in his work “Cur Deus Homo” but there are subtle differences, the main one being the confusion and conflation of the terms “sacrifice” and “punishment”. It is our Catholic faith that Christ offered a “sacrifice” for sin, He was not “punished” for sin. But this is not an item for this present essay.
 This misunderstanding of salvation presupposes many errors regarding the notion of sin, the nature of heaven, the confusing of the terms “justification”, “atonement”, and “sanctification”, and the very nature of salvation itself. But it is beyond the scope of this essay to explain these matters.
“...and will be no, so long as you’re a heretic,” says Sir Thomas More in the great film A Man for All Seasons, when young William Roper asks to marry his daughter. Instantly indignant, Roper thunders back “I don’t like that word Sir Thomas!” More—never at a loss—rejoins “It’s not a likeable word, it’s not a likeable thing.” (See here for the entertaining exchange.) The presumption (Saint) Sir Thomas More makes here—namely that what we believe about God and the universe, even down to the minutest and gritty details, matters—is radically alien to contemporary Christians. And it is we, not More’s generation, I fear, who have gone astray.
One often hears today the cry “I am spiritual but not religious.” In the mouths of those who say it, it seems to have behind it something like this: “I feel within me spiritual forces and principles. I also have a sense of the mystery of the universe, its beauty and splendor, and the heart-breaking contradictions of a world with so much good and so much evil side by side. There does seem to be ‘something’ or ‘Something’ out there. But I also don’t want to be a part of any organized group that talks about these things or imposes on me ideas of what they are. I do have a vague sense that these larger forces deserve 'reverence,' even 'worship,' but I don’t want to offer this reverence like anyone else, or with anyone else, or according to any set format, or in any way that smacks of tradition or human institution or set rules for behavior. I sense something like ‘God,’ however we call it, but I will have no part in traditional religion.” So is the intention.
Now the first part about the universe’s mysterious character is truly a noble, human and healthy instinct. It is not wrong to call it, from the side of human nature, the basis for all contemplation, prayer, and worship. It is the second half that is problematic. I will re-phrase our contemporary man’s creed into plainer language, with a slightly cheeky elucidation and commentary on its real meaning: “I,” says this man actually, “have a deep, though obscure sense that ‘God’—whatever that might mean—exists [good so far]. But since these things can’t be known for sure [well...] and people have killed over them [true but not determinative] and religion in general is very dangerous [yes and no, but even if yes, not necessarily a bad thing], I will invent my own, the religion that belongs to me, the religion of me [insert Family Feud buzzer].”
There are countless things to say in response to this “personalized” sort of creed. I will state just a few. Vast segments of the Christian West would rise as a phoenix from the ashes if Christians understood one truth and the implications following from it: namely, that faith is an act of the intellect (see Summa Theologica II.II.4.2). Faith, Christian Faith that is, does not arise from our feelings about what might be nice or not, or from what we are “comfortable” believing about God or not, or from what our family or friends or The New York Times thinks about priests, or from behavior we want to justify in our own lives. Faith believes in realities that are more solid and sure and sharply contoured than anything on earth, precisely because they were crafted in heaven. We cannot change them because we want them to be different any more than we can remove the Pacific Ocean at will, or obliterate half the stars in the sky on a wish. It can be truly said that we have absolutely nothing to do with determining the essential content of the faith, any more than Jesus could metamorphose into different shapes, alter his nature as God, or shrivel the moral demands of the Gospel according to whether people agreed with them or not. God is infinitely beyond us, and He is as He is, regardless of what we think about Him. The Nicene Creed can be affirmed (as Christians affirm it) or denied (as non-Christians deny it, or confused Christians deny parts of it), but there is no middle ground.
This is an important point, because for some time Christianity has been yielding to the temptation of presenting the faith as something bland, undemanding, and ultimately uninteresting (which is why it has been shrinking since the 1960s). Christianity itself has contributed to the "religion of me" creed. God is presented as a non-judgmental moral therapist, there when you need Him (or Her—whichever way you like!), goes away when you do not, and affirms in gentle lullaby voice whatever you already believe or do. But this is not Christianity! This is not faith! Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say, “Come follow me, when you want, and how you want,” or “Affirm yourself, take up your personal creed, and visit me when you feel like it.” Rather, Jesus’ preaching perpetually insists on very sharply defined principles. It often has the character of holding out two radical extremes without diluting either side. Exceeding mercy and severe demands are wedded in a beautiful and entrancing unity. In one moment Our Lord will say, “Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest,” then in the next, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” His promise, “I am with you always” reaches the heart with comfort and security, after which neck-hairs stand erect at the rebuke, “Brood of vipers! How do you expect to escape the damnation of hell!” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” pierces the heart with profound joy, while “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” sounds, out of context, like a sick and cruel practice in some barbarous land. Translation: Jesus is infinite love because he is God, but milquetoast moral therapist he is not.
How does this character of our Lord relate to the virtue of faith? If we are to be Christian, if we are to be Catholic, it is imperative that we believe in God and not--well--not in ourselves. Faith involves accepting, in a posture of humility, all that God has revealed to be true through his Holy Church; since the Church’s commission from Christ is precisely to guard and pass on the fullness of the truth which liberates. There is certainly a subjective side of the faith involving our own particular circumstance and personality and experiences, which may make it more or less easy to assent to all the Church has revealed. No one can come to faith apart from the grace of God, meeting and imbuing our hearts and minds, and healing the deepest recesses of our souls. This is where the will and choice and conscience and love come in—but this more subjective side would require another article.1
For now, it is simply my burden to highlight a truth that has been all but lost in contemporary Christianity (Catholic and non-Catholic): it really matters what things we objectively believe about God. It really matters whether or not we can believe with our minds what the Church has revealed to be true about God. Eternal things hang in the balance. Orthodoxy and Heresy hang in the balance. Heaven and Hell hang in the balance. If it were not the case, honoring martyr-saints like Sir Thomas More makes no sense. Aquinas, to put an even finer point on it, goes so far to say that if someone rejects even one article of faith from Scripture or proposed by the authority of the Church, he cannot have real faith in any of the articles (ST II.II.5.3). Translation: when we pick and choose what we want to believe, when we are “Cafeteria” Catholics, we are not exercising faith but “only a kind of opinion in accordance with [our] own will.”
I do not mean to harp excessively on the point, and it is neither my desire nor personality to enjoy upsetting people. I emphasize faith’s objectivity, though, since one of the fundamental spiritual ills of our time is, to put it bluntly, self-worship. Modern man is inclined to trust no authorities outside his own personal subjectivized world: which is fatal to faith. Realizing, on the other hand, the positive place our minds have in establishing a relationship with God goes a very long way towards getting us on the right track. Such an affirmation of the mind in relating to God implies necessarily that we study about Him, contemplate Him, ask questions about Him, seek Him always, and address Him daily in prayer. Only when we have believed rightly can we fully and authentically love Him. This, above all, implies a humble posture towards all that He reveals, including the institutions and authorities He has established to govern, lead, and clarify Church teaching. Every saint took such a posture. If we do so with our whole hearts, souls, and minds, God can make us into one as well.
1 For example, I could go into the distinctions between, in Aquinas' language, "formed faith" (faith with charity, which alone can save) and "unformed faith" (faith without charity, which even the demons can have); or between "material heresy" (non-culpable error about God which stems from ignorance, rather than bad will) and "formal heresy" (knowledgeable and obstinate denial of revelation). (see Summa Theologica II.II.4, Questions 3 & 4)
These are important distinctions, but would require another article. I here focus simply on the objectivity of the Christian faith and the importance of believing it.
The history of the church is filled with examples of great heretics turned orthodox faithful, and great intellectuals who, after pouring over the profoundest questions, discover the timeless truths of the Catholic faith. I wish that mine were one more of those stories. However, my journey to the Catholic Church is much less heroic than my hubris would like to flaunt and, although my imagination and memory can weave back into my own story a theological depth and insight that I have only subsequently acquired, my story lacked the sophistication that my current pride would like to boast. Far from proceeding through these lofty heights, my journey to embracing the Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist is no more than one of a sincere believing Christian: trying to come to terms with his own beliefs, trying to take the tradition of Christianity that was handed on to him and distill out of its many tenants and beliefs the core of God’s message to him, trying to struggle with the God who he loves so much in order to grow closer to this God. Indeed (if there even is one) this is my only boast. All I wanted or desired, from the beginning of my path until the present day, was to understand God more deeply, to understand Him more so that I could love Him more, to love Him more in order to grow in union with Him.
I was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran in suburban Ohio and, like most Lutheran children, was very well educated in the faith. Perhaps it is a hangover from their Prussian and Teutonic roots that Lutherans take so seriously the catechizing of their young in the faith, but I did receive this blessing and, now as an adult, I am very grateful for it. I enjoyed a very thorough and systematic education in the scriptures and the propositions of Luther’s Small Catechism (the primary text that was studied second to scripture). When I was growing up, we had a strong identity as Lutherans. We were proud of being Lutheran. We were convinced that we knew precisely why we were Lutheran and why we were not anything else. Due to these strong convictions, the Missouri Synod Lutheranism within which I was raised was truly “Protestant” in the real sense of the word; that is, they had a strong sense of what they were NOT, of what they were pushing against and protesting. First, I learned that we were absolutely NOT Catholic; the Roman Church was the first enemy that needed avoiding. Second, I learned that we were not like the other non-sacramental reformed churches. We differed fundamentally from both of these groups and held a sort of golden mean between two radically different and erroneous extremes.
With regards to the first protest, that we were not Catholics, there were two pillars of our faith that identified us: sola fide, that salvation is by “faith alone” and not by righteous works; and sola scriptura, that all divine revelation is contained in the 66 books of sacred scripture (opposed to the Catholic 73 books) without deference to any magisterial hierarchical authority and only partial deference to church tradition which we saw as functioning merely as an interpretive aid for understanding scripture. For me, the more important of these two pillars, by far, was the belief in faith alone as the means of justification. Although Sola Scriptura was essential, sola fide was the core of my Christianity, as I will explain below.
With regards to the second protest, that we were not like the other non-sacramental churches springing from the protestant reformation, we rooted our identity in a great Lutheran teaching drilled into my head like the great “hear, O Israel” of the old testament, a truth that Martin Luther himself fought long and hard to preserve, the truth of the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. It might come as a surprise to many Catholics, but orthodox Lutherans place great stress on this point; there is emphasis placed upon Christ’s literal words at the last supper, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” I was taught that, when I receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion (for this is what we called it; the word Eucharist was unknown to me until adulthood), I was truly receiving the “real” body and “real” blood of the Lord, Jesus Christ. This is what I was taught. This is what I understood.
As a child and as a teenager I did not question the word “real” in the phrase “real presence”; I just accepted it. I did not demand theological nuances like I later would; I did not demand an ontological explanation for how Christ’s presence could be “real” and yet the taste, smell, sight, and texture of bread and wine remain, as if they also endured as “real” as well. Luther’s Small Catechism expresses this reality by saying that Christ’s presence is “with, in, and under the bread.”
Such a statement might seem simplistically metaphorical now, but at that time, it seemed good enough for me. I questioned no further. It is indeed true, as I would subsequently learn, that there are profound differences between the Catholic understanding of what takes place at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass designated by the word “transubstantiation” and what Lutheran and Anglican theologians understand as “consubstantiation,” but this is beyond the scope of this short essay. The point is this… I believed it. As a Lutheran, I believed that, in Holy Communion, the true body and blood of Jesus Christ came to me.
This was the Lutheran position, as I knew it; we were engaged in a two front battle for self-identity, perched, as the sole bearers of true Christianity, between two errors. On one side, we maintained a belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, in opposition to the bulk of reformed Protestantism, and on the other we maintained that our salvation was by “faith alone” and not works in opposition to the ancient Church of Rome. As I mentioned above, it was on this latter front, the protest against the Catholic Church’s understanding of salvation as being a matter of faith and works, that our first and primary identity as Protestants rested. To understand this, let me focus on what the sola fide aspect of my faith truly meant.
To be continued in "My Journey from Lutheranism to the Eucharist (part two)"
"For the reason why, in addition to the expressions of Christ and St. Paul (the bread in the Supper is the body of Christ or the communion of the body of Christ), also the forms: under the bread, with the bread, in the bread [the body of Christ is present and offered], are employed, is that by means of them the papistical transubstantiation may be rejected and the sacramental union of the unchanged essence of the bread and of the body of Christ indicated." The Book of Concord: The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, (VII:35). http://bookofconcord.org/index.php, (referenced January 27th 2013).
Holy Week is upon us once again. We are summoned urgently to prayer and spiritual focus, to experiencing with Our Lord his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. My reflection on Palm Sunday gives a picture from the Mount of Olives of the drama to come, the drama of divine redemption in which we are called to participate with Jesus.
The parable of the Prodigal Son features a character I can identify with. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, “Again, he told of how that Father, who is goodness itself, was moved with pity for his profligate son who returned and made amends by repentance; how he embraced him, dressed him once more in the fine garments that befitted his own dignity, and did not reproach him for any of his sins.”
In Luke 15, Christ reminds us of the life-changing love the Father has for us. Reflecting upon my own life, I realize how easy it is to lose sight of this love, especially when we don’t keep vigilant on Christ’s desert path. At times this path appears lined with enormous billboards of temptation. Whereas my journey forward seems lonely and narrow, these temptations can practically seem lit up with the neon of the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, I can lose track of how far I’ve already walked – how much progress I’ve already made. Like Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, I feel like turning around to catch a glimpse of the life I’ve left behind.
Indeed, Christ’s words in the Gospel are confirmed by the wealth of my personal experience with sin. First, we learn that disobedience to the will of God inevitably leads to sin and death. This is precisely what the Prodigal Son encounters in the Parable. Departing his true home for the world’s deceptive promises of happiness, and seemingly emboldened by his father’s mercy, the disobedient son enjoys the “good life” for probably quite some time. But where does that lead him? He has to face the consequences sooner or later, and he finds his soul just as sullied as his body is by mud. Confronted by his own misery, he starts the long “walk of shame” all the way home.
But what is the Father’s response? Since his son’s departure, he has not slept well. He has sent emissaries to search for him. He has scoured the horizon daily, waiting for the shadow of his son to appear. “ The shame of the son is covered by the overwhelming love of the Father.
In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis says that “if God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is 'nothing better' now to be had.” Jesus did not give us this parable to tell us about those sinners over there, yonder. This is a story about you and me — that Our Heavenly Father will accept us even when we’ve hit rock bottom. He waits for us in the confessional. All we can do is repent; meanwhile, God supplies the grace to cover our sins and inject life into the soul.
Now, having come face to face with the Father’s mercy, we surely feel that deep desire to return something to the Lord. What could possibly suffice? In Psalm 101, the Psalmist finds himself in a similar position of inadequacy.
“We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”
What could I possibly offer to the Lord to repay Him? After going through the possibilities among my material possessions, I am struck once again by the realization that I must daily offer Him my life, inadequate as it might be. It’s not a fair trade for Him, but it’s an exchange that Christ makes perfect.
I pray for the Lord’s mercy as we approach the final days of Lent. Through the intercession of our Holy Father Dominic, may the Lord continue to mold us into holy preachers, intent only on the salvation of souls.
This was a reflection given during Vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is a meditation on the love of God.
As Christians we are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. But what does it mean to love God? Can we ever love God the way we ought, the way He deserves to be loved? How can we, as finite human beings ever love the infinite and invisible God who the ancient israelites dared never even look upon lest they die?
Following our Lord's words in the Gospel that "whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me," should we not conclude that the heart inflamed with true love of God will desire nothing more than to express that love through service and kindness towards neighbor?