Friday, November 22, 2013

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

The beatitude "Blessed are the poor in Spirit," St. Augustine takes to refer to those who realize the depths of their sin and their inability to fix it.  He writes, "the poor in Spirit are rightly understood here as meaning the humble and God-fearing...  Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom; but fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; for on the other hand also, pride is entitled the beginning of all sin."  The humble realize that God alone is Holy and stand in awe and reverential fear of their divine King.  They realize that they are nothing and that the world is nothing in comparison to the God who is everything.

It is the gift of fear that inspires the true fruit of poverty of Spirit.  It clears out any desire to sin in our lives.  It breaks any and all dealings with the devil.  This requires a power greater than our own: the Spirit of Love.  Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we are given a divine instinct to live at a divine mean of virtue.  What would be foolishness in the eyes of the world becomes infused with the power of God and thus fruitful.  The gift of fear often inspires us to live the evangelical counsel of poverty by causing us to despise the goods of this world (even lawful ones!) and to prefer the goodness of God.

Until we value the love of God above all else, we will always remain a tepid soul, always in danger of Hell and never enjoying the life of the kingdom which is available to us even now.  Fear of the Lord and poverty of Spirit sets us free to love with restraint.  Fear of the Lord liberates us from our stupid-selfish desires and orientates us to the Other who fulfills all our desires.  One cleaves to Him and sells everything else.  How could it be any other way?  When we possess God, we possess everything we could ever desire.  All things are good only in as much as they resemble God in whom there is not even the shadow of undesirable being.  He is pure loveliness and beauty.  No one could see Him face to face and not cling to Him with their whole undivided will.  When, therefore, we exalt the things of this world above God (pleasure, money, power, or honor), we lie about the goodness of God.  It is a statement that He is not fully satisfactory.

Do you not believe that God is pure loveliness and beauty?  Then look to the life of Jesus from whose heart blood and water poured for the salvation of the world, whose love snapped the chains of death, and whose life radiates in the heart of every saint who confesses Him as Lord, sitting at the right hand of the Father.  Jesus is the refulgence of the Father's glory.

Growth in the Spiritual life begins with fear of the King.  St. Thomas Aquinas writes, "Since beatitude is an act of perfect virtue, all the beatitudes belong to the perfection of the Spiritual life.  And this perfection seems to require that whoever would strive to obtain a perfect share of spiritual goods, needs to begin by despising earthly goods, wherefore fear holds the first place among the gifts."  If we cling to the world, we won't cling to God, the sight of whom is our Heavenly inheritance.  Like so many chains, our distort desires attach us to the world.  These chains crank our head down so that our vision is only of this fallen world.  Blessed be God who cuts these chains by the sword of the Spirit!  Once liberated, we can turn our heads to see the kingdom of God.

Therefore, its not without reason that St. Thomas treats his discussion about the gift of fear and poverty of Spirit in his treatise on Hope.  The theological virtue of Hope does not seek salvation in this world or from this world.  It seeks it in the Father who has promised in His Son salvation if only we put our trust in Him and remain in Him.  When we approach God devoid of any worldly goods, in poverty of Spirit, our Hope can only be in the Lord.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Prepared to Make a Defense

An atheist’s favorite weapon is science.  They gleefully shout that science disproves religion and belief in God is irrational.  But is this true?  Some of the world’s greatest scientists were devout Catholics.  Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics, was a religious priest, and Georges LemaĆ®tre, a Jesuit priest, was the first to theorize the big bang.  Neither of these brilliant men thought that science disproved religion.  Many atheists have fallen victim to an error called scientism.  Scientism is the belief that we only know truth through science.  They would say that if it’s not scientific knowledge, it is not knowledge.  Operating out of this perspective, they conclude that God does not exist.  Science studies changes in material things, but God isn’t material and doesn’t change.  He can’t be investigated by science.  Therefore, they conclude, God doesn’t exist.  However, scientism is a false perspective.  If we only know truth through science, how do we know that scientism is true?  We certainly couldn’t prove it by doing scientific experiments.  What kind of experiment would we conduct?

Instead, our culture needs to rediscover an appreciation for philosophy.  Philosophy is not merely one’s opinion about life or the world, but it is the rational investigation of our basic beliefs about reality.  It requires logic and critical thinking.  It asks questions about what does it mean to know, the existence of the soul, morality, and the existence of God.  The Catholic Church is convinced that the human person can reason to the existence of God.  Bl. John Paul II wrote an encyclical to this effect entitled Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), but it has even more ancient roots in St. Paul who wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Rom 1:20).

In order to understand how we might prove God’s existence, we need to refine our understanding of causation.  Suppose you drove towards some train tracks, and to your dismay, there was a single train car blocking the whole road.  You would be frustrated because you that the train car is not going to move on its own, it does not have the power to move itself.  It requires a train engine.  In philosophy we call this a “first cause.”  First, here, does not mean first in time but first in priority.  Without a first cause which has within itself the power to change, nothing else in a chain of causes can happen.  It doesn’t matter if there is one train car or an infinite number of train cars.  When there is no train engine, not a single train car can move.

The whole universe is like this in regards to being.  Things come to be and then cease to be, yet nothing is the cause of its own being.  My existence is not something I chose; it is caused by something outside of me.  Even fundamental particles undergo change; otherwise, we couldn’t observe them scientifically.  The question then arises, what is the underlying cause of all this change and of existence itself?  There must be something which is at their origin.  The creator of all change and existence is what Christians and other religious peoples have called God.

If God is the origin of all that happens in the world, the world is not a place of chance and uncontrollable forces, but we can trust that God is at work even in the midst of our suffering.  The reason for suffering might not be perceptible to us, yet God is in control.    This is the beginning an answer to the problem of evil.  God allows evils so that we might gain some other good by them just as a good author allows some evils to befall his or her characters so that they might grow, develop, demonstrate bravery, and other virtues.  If we only look at one scene in a story, it might seem cruel and tragic.  However, if we look at the entire narrative, something beautiful emerges.  This doesn’t mean that God has created evil, because evil doesn’t have its own existence.  Evil is more like a hole in a sock and darkness.  It is the absence of a good whether it be love, self-control, or justice.  Death is the absence of life.  Disease is the absence of health.  Evils are little holes in the world that God permits creatures like us to make for the sake of the beauty of His story.

The full answer to the problem of evil is found in Jesus the Christ who enters into the human story, shoulders our suffering, and makes the cross the cause of salvation.  His death becomes the occasion of life for the human race.  As Christians, we don’t need to be afraid of objections from unbelievers.  Objections need to become opportunities to deepen our understanding of the faith.  Only then will we “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

In the Pursuit of Wisdom

I love to study.  Any given week I might read Hans Urs Von Balthasar, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas or Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  Each theologian diligently studied the Scriptures and the Tradition seeking a divine wisdom, rich in treasure.  Because of human weakness, our own perspectives of the world are limited.  Only after heroic efforts, do we come to a partial understanding of the truth.  However, by faith in Jesus, we have access to the Divine perspective.  Jesus offers us a wisdom which surpasses human understanding.

Wisdom is the basis for love.  Those who clearly perceive reality both see how good it is and know how to be a steward of that goodness.  The people we love most are those whom we know most intimately.  Knowledge of our friends brings us joy when we think about them and experience them.  It’s when a person shares their inner most concerns that friendships are formed.  This self-communication is a self-gift at the most intimate level.  By giving knowledge of yourself to another, you entrust yourself into the other’s care, and as the other receives that knowledge, a friend takes you into his or her self.  When this exchange happens, we begin to see the value and goodness of the other and wish to build him or her up in love.

Self-communication is the basis of our relationship with God.  Jesus is the Word of God; He is the Father’s final and definitive self-communication.  Our faith mediates to us a real experience of the love of Jesus, crucified and risen.  The Bible and the Sacred Tradition of the Church give us trustworthy testimony to who Jesus is and who God is at the most intimate level—God is love.  The complex mysteries of the faith are elaborations on this one central mystery.  When we speak of the Trinity, we speak of a God in three persons who are bound in an eternal procession of love.  The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and this love between the Father and the Son is so real that it is the Holy Spirit.  When we speak about the Incarnation, we are speaking about the God who so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son.  Out of love for us, Jesus assumed humanity and all the consequences of sin so that He could exchange our death for His life.  When we know these truths about God, we realize who He is and can discern how best to pursue Him.  God’s self-revelation becomes a source of wisdom.

The fullest expression of wisdom is knowledge of God.  If we know God, we see reality in its fullness because the whole world is a pale reflection of the beauty of God. All creation finds its source, pattern, and purpose in God.  If we pursue this wisdom, we see the world as it is and as it is meant to be.  God’s wisdom is without failure; He is not bound to the narrowness and errors of human persons.  In wisdom we can find joy and delight because knowledge of another person inspires love.  The Bible says, “Wisdom exalts her sons and gives help to those who seek her.  Whoever loves her loves life, and those who seek her early will be filled with joy.  Whoever holds her fast will obtain glory, and the Lord will bless the place she enters” (Sir 4:11-13).  No one has more glory or blessings than the one who loves as a result of knowing Love Himself.  That person has been made a partaker in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4).

In this life, the pursuit of wisdom is difficult, but every step forward is worthwhile.  It begins with the fear of the Lord (cf Sir 1:13).  Those who fear the Lord wish to always remain at His side because they love Him and do not want to separate themselves from Him.  We abide in the Lord through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (Jn 6:56) and through keeping Jesus’s commandments (Jn 15:10).  Pursuing wisdom requires reading the Scriptures in light of the Tradition of the Church.  Scripture and Tradition together give us access to Jesus who reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature (cf. Heb 1:3).  Studying the faith is a necessary constituent of a mature spiritual life.  It is like stepping out into the sun and letting God’s light warm the skin because the truths studied in theology are the countless ways in which God expresses His love for us.  Most importantly pursuing wisdom requires us to bind up everything we do in a relationship of prayer with God.  In our prayers, we speak to God and God speaks to us.  This is the most intimate self-revelation by which we entrust ourselves to God and God entrusts Himself to us.  It is in the depths of prayer that we begin to speak to God face to face and experience Him as He is: a communion of love.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

This weekend I've been busy singing with the Twin Cities Catholic Choral.  This morning for Mass we sang the Paukenmesse by Hayden.  Enjoy!

We also sang Mozart's Vesperae at a concert tonight.  It's a beautiful piece!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why Do You Let Me See Ruin?

Finding the connection between the Sunday readings can be difficult.  I was struggling to find a semblance of
unity until I heard the offertory chant (yes there’s a proper offertory chant for each Sunday of the year!  My parish is one of the few that uses it.)  It was sung in Latin, but here’s a translation from my missal “There was a man in the Land of Hus who name was Job, a blameless, upright and God-fearing man; Satan asked to be allowed to tempt him, and the Lord gave him power over his possessions and his body; and so, he destroyed his possessions and his children, and he ravaged his flesh with horrible sores.”  Each of the Scripture readings from the Liturgy offer insight into how to handle the feeling of being abandoned by God.

The first reading assures us of God’s faithfulness to his word.  “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”  Habakkuk assures us that God’s promises will be fulfilled.  God’s plan will not be thwarted.  However, we need to keep in mind that our prayers are not meant to conform God to us, but to conform us to God.  That is why we’re called to be patient and realize that while we will experience the beginnings of the joy of God’s kingdom in this life, it won’t reach completion until eternal life.

When the voice of the Lord brings us suffering and hardship, we must not harden our hearts, but open them in love to the Father.  We are called to imitate Jesus through the Cross, which is the path to the resurrection.  It is through our weakness that God demonstrates His power and that we become witnesses to Christ in the world.  Rather than harden our hearts, we must “bow down in worship… For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.”  Like sheep who trust the shepherd, we must trust that God is shepherding us towards green pastures.

That’s not easy, so St. Paul reminds us “to stir into flame the gift of God.”  This gift is the power to live as God’s children.  The second reading continues, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”  If God is calling you to suffer, he won’t withhold from you the means to endure.  Guard the gift of the Spirit that dwells within you by seeking God’s help in prayer.  If you are seeking relief from temptation or strength to endure, beg the Lord until help arrives.  Knock at all hours of the night.

Because even if you show the faith the size of a mustard seed, God will listen to your prayer.  St. Luke writes, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  God is waiting for you to ask for the gift of grace.  He knows that the life of purity and holiness is impossible without His help.  It is like uprooting and planting a mulberry tree simply by the command of one’s voice.  It’s impossible!  But not for God through whom all things are possible.

Therefore, we faced with trials like Job, take heart.  Jesus has ascended into heaven and reigns as King of the Universe.  The devil lays vanquished at his feet.  His promise to help will be fulfilled; he will guide you like a good shepherd if you do not harden your heart, but stir up the gift of God.  The Spirit will be given to you to accomplish the impossible even if you have the smallest faith.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Neither Will They be Persuaded

“If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”  This statement is striking for two reasons.  First, the problem with our relationship with God is not a lack of evidence, but a lack of faith or love.  Second, Jesus is speaking in reference to His own resurrection.

This statement from Abraham comes after the rich man’s plea to go and warn his brothers about hell, “this place of torment.”  Abraham says that such a plea would be pointless.  They have already been warned by Abraham and the prophets.  But surely, says the rich man, seeing a man raised from the dead would convince them!  However, the problem with men is not evidence but faith.  We trust in our own knowledge above the knowledge of another.  We refuse to submit our intellects to Moses, the prophets, Jesus, the Apostles, and their successors, the bishops, the Magisterium.

By choosing to put our faith in God’s words, which has been mediated to us through human persons (most pre-eminently in Jesus) we are not doing violence to our intellect, but bringing it to fulfillment.  By trust in God who is faithful, we open ourselves to a deeper, more fulfilling truth beyond the reach of the human intellect.  We grasp reality more fully when we believe in revelation.

Seeing a man rise from the dead doesn’t directly prove that what has been revealed has been true.  However, it does confirm that God is at work.  We are left free to choose whether or not we believe what God has revealed.  We can still refuse to believe in God’s mercy and in his promise of eternal beatitude.  Even if we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, we can disbelieve his teachings about the permanence of marriage between one man and woman.

Jesus’ resurrection proves His divine authority, but it remains up to us whether or not we believe what is revealed by that authority.  Are we going to trust God or will we turn away in unbelief?  Will we be like the rich man and his brothers or like Lazarus, who despite his destitution hoped in God for relief?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

How You Swore To Them By Your Own Self

God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a person speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:11).  They had a relationship of
intimate trust and love.  They knew one another.  That’s why, when faced with God’s wrath, Moses doesn’t shrink away but he boldly places all this faith in God.  He tells God to remember His servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel and how He swore to them by His own self.  Moses goes right to God’s revelation to the patriarchs and holds God accountable to His promises.  He knows that God is trustworthy.  The power of Moses’ prayer does not come from Moses, but from God’s faithfulness to His promises.

The Latin etymology of sacrament is to swear an oath.  In the sacraments God is swearing an oath to us.  By dying with Christ in His baptism, we can lay claim to Christ’s resurrection (Rom 6:4).  By eating Christ’s body and drinking His blood, we have Jesus’ own pledge that we will have eternal life (Jn 6:51).  God has promised us in these oaths something greater than the holy land in Israel.  He has promised us Heaven.  He has promised us salvation from our sins and divine son-ship.  He has promised us the power to enjoy the freedom being children of God.

Like Moses, we need to approach God with confidence in His oaths to save us.  Because of God’s free offering to us, we can demand from God our inheritance.  He has pledged his divine life to us, and we can claim it.  But claim it for good.  Don’t use your freedom by squandering it on prostitutes like the prodigal son.  As St. Paul says, “Do not present the parts of your bodies to sin as weapons for wickedness, but present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and the parts of your bodies to God as weapons for righteousness (Rom 6:13).  Use grace to abound in faith and love.

Do not be concerned that you have fallen too far away from God’s mercy to pray like Moses.  St. Paul, in the second reading points to himself as an example of God’s mercy.  He says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I am the foremost.  But for that reason I was mercifully treated so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.”  If Jesus can transform Paul who was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and arrogant, why can’t Jesus change your life?  Jesus is like the father welcoming home the prodigal son.  At the first sign of repentance, he will run out to His lost son and welcome him back.

When faced with temptation, do not despair.  Have hope.  Cry out to God for the help that He has promised and don’t stop praying for it until He has put the temptation to death.  Whether it takes 5 minutes or an hour, God will come to save you.  And if you fall, you haven’t lost the war.  God has sworn an oath that He will save you in the sacrament of confession.  All that can keep you from receiving God’s mercy is despair.  When faced with death and the wrath of God, remind God of the oaths He has sworn to you.