Links

A sampling of the stuff I’ve written over the past few months

Into the Halfway House – Called to Communion. My conversion story. Posted today on the 7 year anniversary of my reception into the Church

The Purpose of Education – Dappled Things. Thoughts on homeschooling and what we can learn from them

Let St. Margaret Mary Alacoque help you develop self-confidence – Aleteia

What Bert and Ernie can teach us about friendship – Aleteia

Saturn is still eating his children – Dappled Things. Continuing thoughts about the clergy abuse scandal

Why making (and changing) birth plans is important – Aleteia. The gripping tale of our crazy pregnancies

 

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Prudence is the most important virtue we don’t think about

ParadisoAragona-1200x700If God offered to answer a prayer you want, any prayer, what would you pray for? If you could have any one thing, would it be wealth, long life, beauty, world peace?

In the book of Wisdom, the author says, “I prayed for prudence.”

That gives me pause. When is the last time I ever prayed for prudence? Or wisdom? To know God’s will? Prudence, the scriptures tell us, is better than scepter and throne. Without prudence – power, intelligence, beauty – we won’t be able to use them in a healthy way, they will use us, they will destroy us. We see it all the time – pop stars, actors, people who inherit great wealth at a young age – it seems like they have it all, and yet if they have the world but lack of prudence they aren’t happy, they become captive to their success and come to a bad end. Prudence is the most important.

So, what is it?

Prudence is often misunderstood, which is why St. Teresa of Avila says that, in a soul seeking perfection, people may consider that something in them, “is a fault which perhaps is a virtue.” The saints may be mocked for being weak, or too modest, or lacking in ambition, but actually, out of prudence, they have identified spiritual gifts as most important. Their lives are arranged by a different standard of success and that choice is misunderstood.

The virtues and the spiritual gifts are interior treasures, they adorn the soul, and thus they are more permanent and more valuable. One simple definition of a virtue is that it is a constant and firm habit for the good. A virtue is part of our character, it shapes who we are.

There are many virtues, but the Church has identified for us 7 that are particularly important. You may have memorized these. Here they are: temperance, justice, courage, prudence, faith, hope, love. The first four are called the Cardinal Virtues, from the Latin word cardo, meaning “hinge.” These virtues are the hinge upon which the other virtues depend. Temperance means moderation in all things. Justice means to give to others what they deserve, courage means remaining firm to your conscience in all situations, and prudence is a form of practical wisdom. The Greek word for prudence is phronesis, meaning, “to think.” The three other virtues – faith, hope, and love – are called the theological virtues. They are the natural completion and companion of all of the natural virtues. The greatest of these, we know, is love.

Prudence is the most important of the natural virtues, and the medieval writers often called it the Queen of the virtues, because it connects abstract knowledge to a concrete situation. It helps us to apply the other virtues in our everyday lives. It helps us to see more clearly, which is why Dante compares it to the sun. It is the light by which we see clearly. A prudent person not only has book knowledge but also a lot of wisdom and good instincts in applying that knowledge. It isn’t just knowing the correct result we want to achieve, it is know the correct way to get there.

To give you an example, this is why a priest should never tell you who to vote for or what political party to align with. When it comes to governance, Christians have certain moral goals. We want social justice, and freedom, and to promote the common good. Those are abstract ideals that we all agree about, but practically speaking how to achieve those is a matter of prudence, and here we have differing ideas. A priest can confidently tell you that we must promote social justice. That’s a firm teaching of the Church. What I might not have is more prudence than you.

To connect this with our Gospel reading, the rich young man had a certain decision to make about his wealth. He needed prudence. We all have decisions to make. Will I volunteer for this? Should we have another child? Public school or private school? Do I need to apologize or reach out to a friend who I seem to have hurt?

Every day we require prudence. We don’t acquire it by magic, but through actively working for it. So how do we become more prudent?

First, practice! Experience is practical and even when we make mistakes if we are willing to learn from them that is the biggest factor in becoming prudent. This is why our parents and grandparents are the best source of wisdom. It’s like when you’re a kid and your mom tells you to take a jacket because it’s going to get cold later, but you don’t listen to her and then later you get really cold and wish you had a jacket (I played out that exact scenario a few weeks ago. I got really cold). She has prudence, kids are still figuring it out (I hope you’re listening, kids). But you learn. Over time you learn how to examine a situation and make smart, good decisions.

This relates to the second thing, be willing to take counsel. It takes some humility to admit that mother knows best, but it is true. As a priest, I constantly bug other priests for advice. What do you do when this happens? Have you ever tried this, how did it go? What’s working for you in your parish? I’m sure I’m super annoying but I don’t care.

Third, because prudence is a practical virtue it involves real-life situations. It helps to have the knowledge, too, because we need it as the basis for decisions. If you don’t know Church teachings about social justice, how are you going to apply those teachings and choose the best political candidate? We don’t want to be acting on impulse or uninformed opinions, we want some solid basis for our choices. Get rid of prejudice. Be humble. Listen. Learn. Seek the truth even if it’s uncomfortable.

Fourth, be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to rush into decisions and we shouldn’t only rely on human sources of knowledge. Pray and God will help you.

Pray for prudence. Ask God to guide you to sure answers, to desire the right things, to see the correct path. This is what the rich young ruler lacked. He had followed every law, he had all the money, but he had no practical wisdom, and so he turned down the greatest deal of his life. He chose wealth over Jesus.

If you could have anything you want, seek prudence. Seek virtue, and most all seek the one who is all goodness and all virtue, to know him better, to love him better, to value him alone as your greatest treasure.

Why doesn’t the Church allow divorce?

wedding-feast-of-cana-icon-jesus-turns-water-into-wine-full

Last week we talked about hell, so this week…marriage?

The Pharisees are so full of opposition to Our Lord that they find themselves attempting to trick him into supporting marriage, as if being pro-marriage is problematic. You see, Moses had allowed divorce under certain circumstances like adultery, so in order for Our Lord to defend the permanent bond of marriage, he would have to contradict Moses, which for the Jews at that time would have been a big deal. From the very beginning, Satan has attacked marriage because marriage is one the great, original blessings God gave to us in the Garden of Eden, and the Church is always in a battle to defend and support marriage. We know the pressure that we’re under today, but think back to the time of St. Thomas More in the 16th century. He was a martyr basically in defense of marriage. At the very beginning of time, Satan came between Adam and Eve and caused them to blame each other, introducing discord into their relationship. And in the 1st and 2nd centuries, it was the Christians who were odd because they cared for each other and committed to their marriages.

For the Romans and the Greeks, divorce and remarriage was common, and the vast majority of marriages were not adhered to faithfully; men in particular took their liberties. Often, slaves were involved, and lasciviousness and abuse were rampant. The arrangement that we call marriage was often separated from physical intimacy and was more concerned with maintaining bloodlines and family wealth. This is the context in which St. Paul insists that enough is enough and this state of affairs is not God’s plan for us, to use each other as objects. The Romans were addicted to their lifestyle, but the addiction was not one that made their lives any better. For instance, centuries earlier the playwright Sophocles was already writing about how, “Best of all is not to be born. But if you’re born,/by far the best thing is to take a walk/Back to where you came from as soon as you can.”

Many of the Romans, and certainly the peoples they oppressed, were sick of the violent, repressive, sexist, racist atmosphere all around them, but they felt helpless to escape. In fact, the Romans lashed out at anyone who challenged their system, because even though it was terrible, at least they knew they had power.

The Church is often mocked over having hangups with marriage, with being strict and old fashioned and repressive. Why? Because we insist that marriage vows are meant to be taken seriously, and that the bond is sacred and unbreakable. We believe that the two become one flesh, that a man and a woman are bound by a mutual wounding of the heart with love, and that a marriage is situated in the very bone marrow of existence. In other words, the body reveals man, and the bodies of a husband and wife reveal fidelity and faithfulness and the way in which love grows and encompasses ever more of creation. This is one of the greatest mysteries of the universe; how a man and a woman can not only survive to their 60th anniversary together but thrive, how their souls mingle and they become the two lungs of a single, joyous breath. Marriage reflects God’s love for us, and it reflects the nuptial bliss of a God who has wed his people, who has in the Eucharist offered his own body as a bridegroom to be unified with ours. God never abandons us. He never stops loving us. He is faithful to us. For a marriage to fail to reflect this fact would introduce great sadness into our lives.

So, no, the Church is not repressive when she insists that our bodies are a sort of theological statement, a communication of God’s love. There is a hidden assumption under the critique that multiple marriages is normal and physicality in all sorts of contexts outside of marriage is fine. The assumption is that our bodies don’t matter. What we do with them doesn’t affect our soul, so there is a disconnection between the spiritual and the physical.

Now, do you see what we’ve lost in that separation? Everything! It is a total loss of the beauty and value of the physical world, because anything that is physical is irrelevant. It is a denial of God’s satisfaction as he gazed over creation and declared that it is good. In the separation we end up right back where the Romans were, a condition from which they were desperate to escape. We end up with superficiality, consumerism, a throwaway culture, people who are feeling disconnected, hopeless, and lonely, the destruction of marriage and family, and in the absence of strong families government administrators step in and try to fix it. There is a reason that the Church created the greatest culture in the world, why we invented hospitals and charities and universities, why we have so many diverse saints from all over the world and why the greatest of the saints is a woman, why the Church liberated people from oppression to the powerful and elevated human dignity to the point that men and women could marry and stay together and have babies together and love their lives, and it all goes back to our insistence on God’s original plan for marriage and the human body.

What Christianity offers is not puritanism, but freedom, a great Yes to life. The Church offers anyone, no matter how poor and powerless, an escape from the denigration of a culture that objectifies the human body, that produces ugly things, and makes everything about power. Jesus, in that one bold statement that the two shall become one, offers a far better inheritance. The Church, in those early centuries, fought to give women equality, to elevate slaves, to break the source of oppression. This is why the faith spread like wildfire.

And remember this, if the body is the temple of God, and if it is intimately connected with the human soul, then the gift of the human body is the most valuable gift we can give. Our Lord took on a body with all its inherent goodness and sacredness and he made it into an altar of sacrifice. He became gall. He became heartburn. And he did it all for people who were so incredibly alienated from their own selves so that, one day, perhaps, they might be redeemed and united with his own sacred body. Bone of his bone. Flesh of his flesh.

Should we be afraid of hell?

7d07120d3e38dce709ec8b5496702570It’s a beautiful fall morning, so I thought it might be fun to talk about hell. The priest who mentored me when I lived in Connecticut once preached a really good homily about it and, as he was greeting people after Church, a woman said to him, “Thank you, father, I didn’t know what hell was until I heard your preaching.”

Our Lord isn’t obsessed with talking about hell, which is why constant homilies on hellfire and brimstone doesn’t seem to be appropriate, but he does mention it from time to time, such as in our Gospel in which he talks about the fire of Gehenna. The word Gehenna refers to a trash pit outside the city of Jerusalem where garbage was taken to be burned, and it was often used as a synonym for hell along with the Greek word Hades. Those three words are basically interchangeable in the New Testament. Our Lord makes clear that whatever we call it, this is a place to be avoided at all costs.

In the course of life, we tend to make compromises with our sins and even to consider that they are a part of who we are – Yes, I’m blunt to the point of rudeness, but I just tell it like it is! It’s actually honesty, you see, that made me tell you that everything about you is wrong. Sure, I lost my temper and said some horrible things, but that’s just who I am – To be asked to eliminate those imperfections in our character feels like losing a part of ourselves, and in fact Jesus acknowledges that, yes, but you know what? If you need to chop off your hand to avoid hell, then chop off your hand.

So, here are the facts about hell. Let’s just put it out there. Hell exists. Although we don’t know who and we take no delight in it, there are, unfortunately, souls there right now. Those souls will never leave. This is the perennial teaching of the Church.

It sounds harsh, and as Christians we face a lot of pressure to deny the reality of hell. This we cannot deny, because to do so has far reaching consequences. In fact, the existence of hell is God’s sign of respect for us. It is how he stays true to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice. In other words, people who are in hell have chosen to be there. God doesn’t want them there. We don’t want them there. These are souls who desire an existence without God; he respects their choice and gives them what they want. If, to chase a false type of mercy, we were to eliminate the doctrine of hell and teach that everyone goes to heaven, that would mean that our decisions mean nothing. In fact the very miracle of our existence and the value of the human soul would mean nothing. We make our choices and God does not force us against our will to be different than what we desire to be.

So, hell exists, should we be afraid of ending up there? Yes and no. In the abstract, yes of course. Fear of eternal damnation is a great motivating force for us to shape up. But in your particular circumstances, be assured that no one who desires to remain in the hands of God will slip away. If you accept his grace, follow the precepts of the Church, and make frequent use of the sacrament of confession, nothing will tear you away from him. No effort of Satan can pry you out of the Church, and in fact, as a baptized child of God with the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, Satan is quite afraid of you. He can’t drag you away or trick you. We each have a guardian angel cheering us on, we have saints praying for us, we have the sacramental graces of the Church to strengthen us. In the end, our relationship with Jesus is not based on fear of what we want to avoid, but grows into a positive desire to be near him.

That desire motivates us to seek heaven simply for it’s own sake. We may worry that our motives in this life are not yet entirely pure, or that we do still slip up and sin. Well, for us God has granted a particular mercy that we call purgatory.

I say it is a mercy because, even though purgatory is a process of refinement and purification, it is ultimately not about what is taken away from us so much as it is a loosening of the chains that hold us back. In purgatory, as Dante pictures it, we climb a great mountain, we ascend the path to heaven, and our hearts are lifted up as our eyes gaze to the great celestial spires. Pray for the souls in purgatory as they make this great journey, and when they finally find themselves at the end of the journey, and all of their imperfect loves are subsumed into God’s perfect reality, they will pray for us.

Do you see the difference? Hell isolates us. The souls there selfishly follow their own stubborn path as they try to create their own definition and meaning of life. Those efforts are like castles in the sand and as they struggle their efforts lose intellectual coherence – the castle won’t last. The souls in purgatory, on the other hand, are knit together in a mutual creative effort. They no longer fight loneliness and loss of purpose and self-doubt. They have what Dante calls an “intelligence of love,” and so they are lifted beyond their isolation into the great communion of saints.

Dante begins his story wandering alone in a dark wood and he ends it in the highest of the heavens. No matter our starting place, if you’re hear today and worry that you aren’t praying enough, or holy enough, or that you have accidentally led others into sin through bad example or gossip. If you feel very far from God, or like you’re just a beginner who doesn’t quite understand Catholicism yet, or your imperfections are overwhelmingly large…it doesn’t matter where we start from, it matters where we end up. Hell isn’t a place to be avoided, it is a life without the presence of God. Ruthlessly cut out those sins in your life that are holding you back. Keep Jesus in your heart, and you have everything you need.

The Lord bestows his Spirit upon us, and so shall we all be lifted up.

Are strong emotions unhealthy?

sistine-chapel-the-creation-of-adamWhen I was about ten years old I was incredibly into basketball. I had jerseys of my favorite teams and I would wear them with no undershirt and you’d see my pale, skinny boy arms but I thought it looked so cool, and I’d put that jersey on and watch my favorite teams on television and I would get so into it that if they lost the game it would ruin my day. I had a friend I used to watch games with and he loved Michigan basketball. One year, they lost during March Madness and when that happened he threw the remote control as hard as he could into the ceiling and it exploded. His mom came in with this certain look on her face that we were all to familiar with and I had to go home before the yelling started.

Have you ever had an uncontrollable urge like that? The irresistible urge to say something cutting to someone, or look at that attractive woman, or even eat ice cream. Well, that just means that you have emotions like all the rest of us.

In Catholic theology the emotions are called “Passions.” The Passions are neither good nor bad on their own, but what they can be is ordered to a good purpose or disordered to a bad purpose. When, as in the examples I just gave, they’re disordered, it causes major problems. This is what St. James is referring to when he writes about, “your passions that make war within your members.” He is warning them that their disordered passions such as jealousy and selfishness are causing conflict and making them unhappy. This selfishness happens, notice in our Gospel reading, even to the Apostles.

The problem of disordered passions is every bit as intense today as it was in the time of the early Church. In fact, we suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the human soul, which is why so many of us are not at peace with ourselves. We feel lonely, or unfulfilled, restless. Our feelings pull us this way or that and we wonder what’s wrong with us. We do what we feel, allowing the Passions to control us, and then wonder why lives are broken apart.

The Latin word “passio” is really interesting. It comes from an earlier Latin word “pati,” which has the English cognate “patience.” In other words, the passions are states of emotion that happen to us against our will. Another derivation of the word is “pathos,” meaning “pathological,” referring to a habitual disease that works against us. One of the definitions of passion is “suffering.” Think of, “The Passion of Christ.” This is because disordered emotions cause pain. Exploring the meaning of the word reveals why emotions should never, ever be in charge of our decision-making.

When it’s in good order, the human soul is hierarchical: The Intellect is in charge, the Will or the faculty by which we make a free choice follows the intellect, and finally the Passions follow both the Intellect and the Will.

What this means is that God intends for us first of all to be rational, to use our minds to collect data and make good plans and goals based on reality. The Christian faith is the most rational, realistic way of approaching life that exists. We always follow the evidence, then we use it to act in accordance to what is right and true. Only after we have acted do our we then consult our emotions, which if we living in a habitual state of grace, will respond to a good decision with feelings of happiness.

Sometimes, though, that order gets mixed up, and we decide to do something simply because we feel like we want to and to hell with the consequences, and so feelings become more important than facts. It feels good to be selfish, to rebel. It is cathartic to yell at someone. Devouring an entire tub of ice-cream is comforting. When feelings get to be in charge, though, we act in accord with all sorts of temporary, harmful desires. Feelings don’t understand truth, or long-term happiness. So if someone feels that they’re not in love anymore, they get a divorce, or if they feel that school is boring they drop out. If they feel they’ve been wronged, they’ll lash out and destroy friendships or cause a feud in the family. Feelings are fickle and they are fleeting. Chasing them is a dead end.

[Just a quick aside, if you’ve ever wondered why musical styles that are predominantly about creating feelings, like with drum kits and overly emotional lyrics, are not appropriate for mass, it’s because the music we sing for Mass is rightly ordered and it appeals to the intellect first and the emotions second. It seems like an insignificant detail but it’s really important. That’s a digression, though.]

The real question is: How do we control our passions?

First we should not that, even though the passions are dangerous when disordered, they are a part of who we are. We wouldn’t be human without our emotions, so it is not our goal to destroy our ability to feel. God doesn’t want to set us free from emotions, he wants us to be passionately attracted to the right things so that we will flourish. He wants us to fall madly in love and get married, to come to Mass and have a feeling of being close to him, to go to a sad movie or see a beautiful work of art and cry a little bit, to hike to the top of a mountain and feel your heart expand for the sheer joy of being alive.

What we must do is train our emotions to love the right things. This is possible! Your emotions do not have to be in charge and as your intellect informs your decision-making and you begin to do the right things with a clear purpose in your mind, you will grow to love it. I know it seems crazy, but we can teach ourselves to love coming to Mass, and to love our spouses even when we’ve been married twenty years and the early, emotionally-charged courtship is long gone. We can teach ourselves to find sin distasteful and unappealing.

When put in good order, the passions lead us to seek and love virtue. Doing good actually becomes appealing to us. We get hooked on good deeds. One natural example for me is exercise. I’m a runner – I don’t know if you heard but I have to race and humiliate this Dominican in the Rosary Run in a few weeks – but the thing about running is that it is pure torture. It’s hard to breathe, your legs hurt, your knees feel like they’re going to fall off, every bit of moisture pours out of your body. It just feels bad. Until, that is, you keep going. It takes two or three months, but one day, your body just kind of adapts and suddenly running is pure joy. It is freeing, and you suck the oxygen into your lungs, the whole world goes quiet and it becomes a sort of physical method of contemplation. People who are runners, in fact, will get very anxious on the days they don’t run, because their bodies and emotions desire it.

It’s the same spiritually. Through practice, we can learn to love and desire good things. That’s why St. Therese says that for her prayer is a surge of the heart, and why St. Ignatius says “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God.” The saints, the people who have properly ordered passions, they are the happiest of all people.

Our Lord was a human being just like us. He had passions, and he was in perfect control of each one. The creative force behind the Sistine Chapel, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the men and women who cleared forests and cultivated fields, who built cities and raise families, that sets explorers off into vast unknown wilderness, that gets us up each morning excited simply to taste that first cup of coffee and wanting to do something with our lives – that’s passion. That is the love that compelled Our Lord to the Cross, and a man into the priesthood or a woman into a convent, and men and women into marriage. Passionately love God with your whole heart. Don’t be lukewarm. Know the good, do the good, and deeply feel the happiness that bubbles up and overflows from the depths of your soul when heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.