Topic: Spirituality

Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P.'s picture

Christian Selfies

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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.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Do Not Delay

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Christmas is right around the corner, and I’m not ready. I still have a number of papers to write, cards to address and mail, cookies to bake, and music to prepare for Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. While Advent is supposed to be a season of anticipation and expectation, what I’m feeling right now is overwhelmed. There’s just so much to do in order to get ready for the celebration of our Savior’s birth. It seems like every time I cross one task off my list, two more pop up in its place. 

So I can respond in one of two ways: I can procrastinate and put everything off until the last minute, or I can heed the advice of one of my brothers, who once told me, “Do work, son.” While tempted by the first option, I am sure that the second is best. I need to get organized, develop a plan of action, and get to work, now. That’s the only way that I’m going to get everything done. Besides, if I wait until the last minute, I’ll probably end up making myself sick.

The same principle holds when it comes to the spiritual life. So often we sit back and wait, wanting to be told what to do. Sometimes it’s because we’re afraid to make a mistake. At other times, we are simply unwilling to make a commitment. So we avoid doing what it is God wants us to do. Instead of practicing virtue, we become slothful. We put off going to confession, and end up staying away for months, or years at a time. But this is not what God desires.

God wants us to be happy. He wants us to experience everlasting joy as we gaze upon his face. If that is to happen, then we must follow the example of our Blessed Mother. In the Gospel of Luke, we read that after the Annunciation, Mary “went into the hill country with haste” (Luke 1:39). Inspired by the angel’s news that her cousin was pregnant, Mary didn’t wait around. She packed her bags and quickly made her way to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Once there, Mary’s greeting caused John the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth to cry out, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42).

Despite what some theologians have said, the story of the Visitation is not about acting impulsively. Mary was responding to God’s revelation, and we are called to do the same, in the same manner. We should not delay when it comes to the movements of the Holy Spirit. If a young man feels called to the priesthood or religious life, then he should call his diocesan vocation director and ask for more information. If a young woman feels God is calling her to do missionary work, then she should contact one of the many organizations that can help make it happen. 

And if it has been awhile since your last confession, now is the time to come back. So many parishes offer communal penance services during this holy season, so that we can get our hearts, and not just our homes, ready for Christmas. Make haste, do not delay, and enjoy the mercy God is ready to bless you with during this sacred time.  

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Not by "Faith Alone"

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Council of Trent

Over the last week of ordinary time before the season of Lent, we have been reading from the epistle of St. James during the weekday mass. As a former Lutheran, this epistle has played a special role in my life, due to the wrestling match forced upon me as I tried to reconcile my inherited belief in salvation by “faith alone” with the clear words of the second chapter of this letter, that salvation is not by faith alone. Needless to say, I lost the wrestling match, a loss which is not uncommon when fighting against sacred scripture, and have now embraced the full teachings of the Catholic Church. However this week has provided yet another occasion for me to reflect once again on how my own thinking developed during the years leading up to my entrance into the Catholic Church.

            When I was a Lutheran, I believed that, within the doctrine of salvation by faith alone the unpolluted, and pure core of Christianity was expressed with simple clarity. I believed that within this doctrine existed a key to that “Mere Christianity” that all Christians had been searching for. The very essence of the Christian faith was here contained and summarized, that man cannot save himself but is entirely dependent on the Grace won for him in Jesus Christ.

            But what about the epistle of James?

            “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” James 2:14-16

            What could James be talking about here by saying that faith without works is dead? What about all of those times in the writing of St. Paul where faith is continually contrasted with works and the two are apparently opposed?  How was I to understand this?

            The best explanation that I came across from the protestant camp, and the one that I held for some time, was this, that what James was talking about when he used the word “faith” was a mere intellectual assent, not true faith that saves. He is referring to the mere assent to certain propositions as true, like facts that are checked-off as on a list. There was no contradiction at all. What the reformed doctrine of Luther is referring to as opposed to St. James is (and this is the important phrase) a “Saving Faith”.

            I reasoned along with many Protestants that what is required for Salvation is a “Saving Faith”. Faith cannot be mere intellectual assent; it must be that faith which St. Paul speaks of, the faith that will unite us mind and heart to God. This is the answer; a clarifying and nuancing of the word “faith”. What is required for salvation is a “saving faith”. This is the faith that “alone” can save. This is at least how I would have reasoned ten years ago.

            But by saying this, what did I just do in my reasoning? By clinging to the doctrine of faith alone I was forced, in order to be faithful to scripture and to make sense of St. James, to clarify what I meant by faith. I was forced to make a distinction. I was forced to distinguish between faith in one sense and faith in another sense. The idea of faith must be qualified if it is to be a faith that saves. There is something about saving faith that makes it different from that mere faith that doesn’t; something about the faith of the saints that renders it wholly other than the faith of those who St. James is condemning for having “faith alone”. If there is truly a distinction between the faith of mere intellectual assent that James is referring to and the faith that saves, and there has to be if we are to understand James at all, then there must be something by which saving faith is different than mere faith. This something by which faith becomes saving must be something real; it must have real being. If it did not have real being there would be no reason to speak of the distinction at all and we must go back to the unacceptable contradiction. Also, this something by which faith becomes saving must be different than faith itself, it cannot just be “more faith”; otherwise St. James’s warning against “faith alone” would still stand as a contradiction. So there is something that must be added to the notion of faith to render it saving; and even if I were to recoil from the phrase ‘add to faith’ I still had to admit that there is something real to distinguish mere faith from saving faith. What is that? If there is something truly real by which the faith spoken of by St. James is distinguished from the saving faith of St. Paul, than that something must also be saving and essential.

            The next question: what is it that distinguishes faith to render it salvific? The faith that I had in my mind when I spoke of salvation through faith was a faith that opens the heart to the grace of God. It was a whole disposition of the soul, intellect and will, towards God. When I asked myself, “what is it about faith that is saving?” I had to conclude this. That faith in and of itself is an entire re-orientation of my life in the direction of God. And this is by no meansonly intellectual assent. It is indeed an intellectual assent at first, but that assent is immediately accompanied by ahope in God, a hope which surpasses human reason, and alove of God which is not of ourselves, not a love that arises from our own natural ability to Love, but a love that is infused from above, true Charity. This is the answer; what is added to faith that distinguishes it as saving is CHARITY! It is Charity that saves.

            This is the faith that St. Paul was talking about, a faith that, as soon as it was born in the heart, rebounded to acts of hope and love, and, as soon as the opportunity arose, overflowed into acts of obedience to God and acts of Charity to ones neighbor. This is what is truly saving, true Charity.

            I concluded thus: there is no such thing as the gift of the theological virtue of Faith alone. It is always accompanied by an infusion of all of the theological virtues and those virtues immediately begin the perfection of my natural powers to flourish as a human being and to know God. God Never gives the gift of faith alone but the gift of all the virtues. The faith can remain after the virtue of Charity has been lost, but once charity is lost through sin the faith that remains is “dead”.


It is Charity that saves. Just as what St. Paul said in the thirteenth Chapter of 1st Corinthians, it is Charity that is the supreme virtue.

            I came to realize that these two concepts, faith and works of Charity, were not separated at all but were two aspects of the same reality that was given to me at my Baptism, sanctifying grace. The gift of faith that, far from destroying my natural abilities to know, perfects them by granting them the power to rise and assent to divinely revealed truths that reason alone could not know, and the gift of charity, perfecting my nature by giving me the ability to love God for His own sake, are both aspects of the same gift of grace. This sanctifying grace was given to me as a free gift when I was reborn through baptism, but this grace did not remain dormant. This grace, then in seed form, began to sprout shoots, not only of acts of faith, but act of charity as well. This grace was not merely nourished by acts of faith but also by acts of love of God and love of neighbor. If this sanctifying grace given to me as a free gift at my baptism did not grow into free acts of charity towards my neighbor, the only thing that could be said about my faith is thatit is dead. As St. James so plainly puts it,“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”.

            This is by no means an exhaustive account of the debate that has raged for almost five hundred years over the nature of salvation. It is, as I said earlier, my own personal reflection, in summary form, of how I struggled to come to terms with discrepancies between the teachings that I inherited from my Lutheran training and the truth as revealed through Sacred Scripture. I wrestled with scripture for many years. But to fight against scripture is to lose. For me, it was a glorious defeat. When the fighting was over I found myself staring at the true Gospel of Grace as articulated by the Catholic Church for the last two thousand years; and how beautiful a teaching it is.



Trent (session VI, Decree on Justification) canon 28


See the November talks (esp Nov 19) from 2008. Pope Benedict shows that it is Charity that saves, not faith.


Br. Richard Maher, O.P.'s picture

Charismatic Congress

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This past weekend I attended the “Evangelization and Healing” congress held at the parish of St. Raphael. The conference was sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Briefly stated, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) refers to the movement within the Church that has sought a renewal of the gifts bestowed on the Apostles by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (namely healing and speaking in tongues) that were practiced widely in the early Church. CCR prayer groups are characterized by a focus on the Holy Spirit through the channeling of these gifts as well as by ecstatic prayer, faith sharing, and singing.

My first encounter with the CCR occurred about six years ago during my grandmother’s long battle with cancer. I would often accompany her to Sunday Mass and, after Mass one week, we were invited to a “Mass of Healing.” Although unfamiliar with the manifestations of these charismatic gifts, I was most moved and humbled by the piety of those seeking physical and spiritual healing in their lives. The excitement of the prayer and the dedication of those participating in the service were rousing, even for one who was not prepared to submit entirely to the experience. In the following years, I regularly attended a charismatic prayer group as I incorporated myself into the faith sharing, the vibrant worship, and the rousing testimonies offered by the lay men and women who spoke at the weekly meetings. I attribute my vocation in part to the spiritual awakening that I experienced as a result of participating in these prayer groups.

Saturday’s experience was certainly one of energy, excitement, and deep prayer. Speakers included lay men and women who testified to the healing effect God has had on their lives. Among the featured speakers was Fr. Jose Corral, coordinator for the CCR in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Different music groups were present to aid in the worship, and the day was closed by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour. During this time, the faithful in attendance were specifically asked to pray for the sick and infirm people in their community.