Category Archives: Spiritual Life

The Power of Confession

In recent months the world has had numerous opportunities to be left in awe at the destructive force of nature.  But earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and wild fires are nothing compared to the most powerful force at work in the world—the Sacraments.  These seemingly benign ceremonial rituals have the power to render Almighty God Himself captive in what looks like bread and wine, infect the omniscient Deity with amnesia of evil committed, and make mere mortal men into something akin to gods.   And it is the Catholic Church that has been given the ability to harness this power, unleashing it upon her faithful children whenever they desire it.

Yet, if we the Faithful are honest, we mostly go through the motions when it comes to the Sacraments.  Surely something so powerful does something to us we reason.  Sure, we would like it to do more, but truth be told, our hearts are not in it.  We all want to approach Our Lord in the Eucharist with our hearts hurting because we love so deeply, but we easily succumb to distraction and our desire deflates.  We all want to enter the confessional with the tears of sorrow, but no matter how hard we try, they never come.  It is not that we don’t care, it’s just that we have not a clue as to how to engage our hearts.  How can we form hearts ready to be overpowered by Christ in His Sacraments?

What is Love?

Many well-meaning apologists have said something like “love is not a feeling.  Love is an act of the will.”  Many of us have swallowed this whole and are very suspicious of our feelings.  Subsequently, our hearts atrophy.  Even if there is a certain primacy of the will, any love that lacks feeling is somehow incomplete and its coldness can, quite frankly, be pretty scary.  What our friends really should say is “love is not only a feeling.”   For a person to fully love, they must love fully, that is, with a love that flows from both soul and body.

When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and revealed His burning heart to her, He complained of receiving only “coldness…in this Sacrament of Love.”  In other words, what love He did receive in the Eucharist was love that was heartless.  This was not a concern of just the 17th Century, but one that was on Our Lord radar all along.  In fact when Our Lord was asked what the greatest commandment was He replied that it was to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Mt 22:37).  It is the heart that is primary.

You might object and say that I am misinterpreting what He said.  God does not command a feeling of us that we are incapable of producing.  First we must clarify what we mean when we speak of the heart.  It is not just our physical heart nor is it just a collection of bodily emotions.  When Sacred Scripture refers to the heart it locates it as the seat of joy and deep love.  That is, it is viewed as the “place” where our emotions are elevated or spiritualized by our intellect and will.  The Fall crushed our hearts.  Christ came to restore them to their rightful place under the dominion of intellect and will enabling us to do everything with a bodily intensity.

Second, and most relevant to the discussion at hand, Christ never commands something of us without in turn also empowering us to do it.  In other words, Christ is commanding us to have a feeling we are incapable of producing because He is determined to give us the power to produce those feelings.  The biggest obstacle to pure love is, according to Scripture, a hardened heart and Christ wants to make them come alive again.  It should not surprise us then that if He is going to heal that hidden place in us where body and soul meet that He would create material things that have a hidden spiritual power in them.  In other words the Sacraments, especially Confession, not only heal our souls but our hearts as well.

While the Sacraments contain grace ex opere operato, the amount of grace we receive depends upon our readiness.  One Confession contains enough grace to heal us completely.  All that stands in the way is our own subjective disposition.  Therefore, if we are to maximize our yield, it is instructive to look at the Sacrament itself.

The Sacrament of Confession

For the Sacrament of Confession to be valid three things are required of the penitent—sorrow, confession and amendment.  All three being necessary it is hard to rank them in importance, but for most of us there is an over-emphasis on the confession aspect.  The other two are equally important, especially because they directly involve our hearts.  Having sorrow, or to use the classic term contrition, is first and foremost an act of understanding and will.  We understand that what we did was wrong either because we have offended Our Beloved (perfect contrition) or because we fear punishment (imperfect contrition).  To feel sorry is not necessary.  But truth be told even though we may not feel sorry, we should.  In other words true sorrow of soul should be accompanied by tears of sorrow, especially if we are conscious that we have offended One Who is worthy of all my love.

Likewise with our amendment or penance.  The priest assigns a penance to us to provide suitable satisfaction for the sins we have confessed and through our the grace of the Sacrament there is a certain remission of the temporal punishment of sin and the curing of evil inclinations.  The actual amount is proportional to both the measure of the penance imposed (an argument for asking for giving/asking for harder penance) and the disposition of the person making satisfaction.  That disposition of course has to do with having a firm intention to repair the harm done by the sin, but again it would be more complete if we did so accompanied by sorrow and determination exhibited through our bodies.

There seems to be a Catch-22 of sorts in that for the Sacrament to have a greater effect on our hearts, we have to awaken our hearts, which we already said we can’t do.  That is why we also believe that the Sacrament itself entitles the penitent to all the actual graces needed to deepen our sorrow, increase self-knowledge, and make firmer our purpose of amendment (c.f. Pius XII, Mystici Coroporis Christi, 88).  Obviously the more deeply you experience sorrow, the more intensely you will make satisfaction for your sins.  In short, our hearts come into the orbit of the Sacred Heart and we begin to experience an acceleration due to gravity with each Confession made from the heart.  Confession absolutely forgives our sins and removes the eternal punishment for them, but it is only through frequent reception of the Sacrament that we can hope to win healing for our hearts.  Through frequent Confession, our will becomes stronger not only in resisting sin but also in stirring up our bodily passions to more fully participate in our sorrow and penance.

When Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins he literally dazzled the crowds because of His Supreme Power.  Matthew says that the “crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such power to men” (Mt 9:8).  We too should marvel at this tremendous power and make Confession a regular habit.

The Great Sin

There is an unwritten rule in the Catholic blogosphere that if you want people to read your stuff, don’t include the word sin in the first twenty-two words.  There is also a written rule that you should not lie, so I will admit that I made that up in order to avoid jumping right into the topic of which few of us like to speak: sin.  More specifically, it has to do with what the Book of Sirach calls “the beginning of all sin” (Sir 10:13) or, what CS Lewis called the “one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.  The more we have of it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others” (Mere Christianity).  He, of course, is referring to the most destructive of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride.

The fact that we can easily perceive pride in others and not in ourselves is because we only, as Lewis says, “imagine” we are guilty of it ourselves.  We usually only have a vague sense we are plagued by it, but cannot see it clearly because we only know what it looks like exteriorly.  So we shun compliments and avoid things like bragging, but make little headway in actually overcoming it.  What we really need is a sketch of what it looks like interiorly; how it animates much of what we do.  For help on this we can turn to one of the oldest Doctors of the Church, St. Gregory the Great.  In his long book called The Morals of Job, he provides the blueprints of pride by separating it into four specific kinds.

The Four Species of Pride

Because of its clandestine character, it is first necessary to understand what pride is.  Pride is, according to St. Thomas, a disordered desire for excellence.  Notice that he doesn’t say it is the disorder of desiring excellence, but a disordered desire for excellence.  That means that there is an ordered desire for excellence meaning that in the human constitution there is a natural desire for excellence (c.f. 2Cor 10:13-17).  We are made with a desire for goodness, both material and spiritual, and therefore excellence is simply a measure of the amount of goods one possesses.  This awareness that we have a natural desire for excellence helps us to better understand why denying compliments or boasting is little more than a doggy paddle amidst the torrent of pride in our hearts.

This also helps to elucidate why it is so difficult to escape pride’s clutches.  Pride is a constitutive element of man’s fallen nature because it is the first sin.  In the case of both Lucifer and then Adam and Eve, their fall was because they sought an excellence that was disordered.  Both the fallen angels and fallen men sought to “be like God” even if their manner of approach was different.  “Pride goes before the fall” (Prov 16:18) is not just a psychological fact but also a historical one.  In trying to become “self-made” men raising ourselves from the pit in which we fell, pride is always looming.

What is Pride?

Returning to the teachings of Pope St. Gregory, we find that he assigns the four species of pride accordingly, “…either when they judge that they have their goodness from themselves, or when if they believe that their goodness has been given to them from above, they think that they have received it because of their merits, or surely when they boast that they have what they do not have, or when, despising others, they desire to appear to have in a singular way what they have” (Morals of Job XXIII, 13).

The first species has to do with the source of our personal excellence, that is, we can judge that it comes from ourselves.  It is always true that excellence achieved without outside help is better than that which is received with help.  Thus the myth of the self-made man.  As Christians we acknowledge that “every good thing comes from above,” (James 1:17) and yet this species of pride has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our heart through what I would call “Christian pride.” So common is this Christian pride that it bears some unpacking to make it clearer.  I am not saying that being a Christian is not an excellence in which we should derive a form of healthy pride.  The snare comes when we see ourselves as better than others, rather than simply better off.

Can we honestly think that when so many of our contemporaries are blind to the truth that we somehow figured it because of our own sagacity?  The conflict with the culture can lead us to look down upon others seeing them as non-Christians rather than Christians to be.  It is hubris of this sort that turns many people away from Christianity.  “But for the grace of God go I” is more than a cute saying.  It is a foundational truth upon which humility is built.  Faith is a completely unmerited gift.  The teachings of the Church, especially in a time of moral turmoil are a gift.  The wisdom that enables us to see them as true is a gift.  The perseverance to remain steadfast too is a gift.

Closely related to this is the second species of pride by which we acknowledge the excellence as coming from above, but somehow see ourselves as meriting it.  In examining our hearts we can find this form in our attitude towards other people, especially in their sins.  All too often we demand justice for others and mercy for ourselves.  We look for ways to accuse others while excusing ourselves.  This is the competitive nature of pride, thinking excellence comes by knocking other people down a rung or two.  How often when someone suffers, even if it is self-imposed, do we think “they got what they deserved”?  But when we suffer, that thought never crosses our minds.

Pride also causes us to play a game of pretend by “boasting of what he has not.”  This is where we have developed a persona and thus do everything we can to keep that image up, usually causing great suffering while doing so.  This is a favorite one of Social Media users but also a particular problem in certain Catholic circles.  In attempting to present to the world an image of what they think a perfect Catholic should be like, they are ascribing to themselves an excellence they have not.  Truth be told, it is usually not even a true excellence.  The “perfect” Catholic family looks like a small army that is at war, each one conformed to Christ crucified.  That is usually not a pretty picture according to the standards of the world.

The competitive nature of pride also is the genesis of the fourth species of pride —“when a man despises others and wishes to be singularly conspicuous.”  This is the pride of the “most interesting man in the world,” or if you prefer a more biblical example, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the rest of humanity (Lk 18:9-14).  He had true excellences, fasting and tithing, but he was riddled by pride because he thought this made him “singularly conspicuous.”  This is the worst form of pride and is actually the sin of Lucifer himself.  This form of pride causes us to constantly need to put others down in order to make ourselves look better.  As the worst of the four types, it also results in the most serious myopathy.  The only barometer for how bad we have it is to ask how much we hate it when people snub us, don’t “respect” us, show off or patronize us.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Cardinal Merry del Val composed what is now called the The Litany of Humility.  Praying this regularly helps us not only to obtain the grace to overcome pride, but helps motivate us by enabling us to see how deeply entrenched pride is in our hearts.  There is an inverse proportionality of sorts in the zeal in which we make this prayer and the amount of pride we have.  It is also great material for our personal examen.  “Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it…”

 

On Absolution without Confession

At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).    So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin.  We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality.  It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.

The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin.  That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss.  They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent.  In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part.  With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession.  If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.

The Pastoral Approach?

What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right.  For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave.  They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom.  That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves.  Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent.  When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter.  It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.

Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin.  It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners.  If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.

This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin.  The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad.  He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer.  So too with mortal sin.  When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession.  Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional.  It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst.  The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional.  Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?

Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs

There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church.  But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably.  I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?”  He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral.  When in doubt Confession was the remedy.

For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd.  The Church exists to forgive sins.  To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).

Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin.  It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness.  It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem.  It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin.   First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest.  It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin.  Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion.  Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.

Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this.  Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin .  If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he.  His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment.  He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role.  If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out.  Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day.  While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.

Catholic Culture and the Filet-o-Fish Sandwich

The Bishops of England and Wales recently made a change to their liturgical calendar, effective the first Sunday of Advent, that added back to the calendar two Holy Days of Obligation—Epiphany and Ascension Thursday.  While this decision obviously only effects those Catholics in England and Wales, their decision is remarkable because it is counter to a trend that has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council that has seen the reduction of Liturgical Feasts of Obligation.  One can hope that this will spur other Episcopal Conferences to follow suit.

The Code of Canon Law (1246) has this to say about Holy Days of Obligation:

  • Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  • However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

In Advent of 1991, the NCCB of the United States (now known as the USCCB) issued a general decree defining the Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to all Sundays throughout the year) for Latin rite Catholics in the US as follows:

  • January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
  • August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Whenever (1), (3) or (4) fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.  The Feast of the Ascension, in most dioceses in the US, has been moved to the following Sunday, effectively reducing the number of feasts of obligation from ten to five.

Plummeting Mass Attendance

When faith is in decline, the power of binding and loosing enables the shepherds of the Church to make the practice of the Faith “easier.”  Although this is often abused (I will avoid that rabbit hole here), the shepherds may alter Church disciplines in order to keep the sheep from falling to grave sin.  Seeing regular Mass attendance drop precipitously from 55% to 41% in the years from 1965 to 1990, the Bishops thought that by reducing the obligation, it might keep at least some from committing the serious sin of missing Mass.

That this approach proved ineffective seems obvious, especially since regular Mass attendance dropped to 22% in 2016.  Likely, it had the opposite effect by contributing to it.  Removing some obligations is always a danger because it challenges all obligations, especially when their removal goes unexplained.  Perhaps, the thinking goes, if those days really weren’t obligatory, then the ones they say are obligatory now aren’t either.  After all, one can still be “spiritual” without religious obligation.

The crisis in Mass attendance was not really the problem, but merely a symptom of a larger disease that the Doctors of the Church failed to properly diagnose.  While the reasons are legion, the issue was the death of Catholic culture.  There may have been some compromises with the surrounding culture, but Catholics always stood out because of their religious practices. Think of the Catholic practice of no meat on Fridays throughout the year (another one that has been done away with) and how restaurants made special accommodations to win Catholic patronage.  Once that practice was no longer obligatory even the meat fasts of Fridays in Lent went ignored.  The point is that these practices, even when done with less than pure intentions, bind Catholics together.

The point is that there can be no culture without cult so that if you take away from the liturgical life of the Catholics, you will most assuredly do harm to the sheepfold.  It is not only, or even primarily, for the natural reason that it creates, for lack of a better term, Catholic “identity.”  It is also for the supernatural reason of Communion.  The more often the believers come together and receive life from the Altar of Sacrifice, the closer they will be to Jesus.  The closer they are to Jesus, the closer they will be to one another.  The closer they are to one another, the greater their witness to the world.  The Eucharist is like the nucleus of a primordial atom drawing each negatively charged man to Itself.

When faith is in decline you should increase the obligations, not reduce them.  Fear of hell, while imperfect motivation, can still keep you from hell.  Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity giving actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely.  There are always those who will go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.

Catholic culture has to be built from the ground up and is something that needs to be instilled in the young.  I find it very strange that Catholic schools all treat the few Holy Days of Obligation as “regular” days, instead of true holydays.  Should they really celebrate Labor Day while simultaneously demanding work from students on the day when we celebrate all those “who from their Labor rest?”  Going to Catholic school in the 1980s was certainly a confusing time, but one thing they always did right was give us off from school on all the Holy Days of Obligation.  That has always stuck with me and left me with the awareness that these days were no ordinary days.

The Fullness of Time

This leads to one further point that could come under the heading of unintended consequences.  One of the great heresies of modern times is compartmentalization, that is creating a “wall of separation” between Church and the rest of life.  God can have Sunday (even if only for an hour) but the rest is mine.  The Incarnation made it glaringly obvious that God is with us, not just on Sundays, but all days.  The Son came in the “fullness of time” not just because everything was Providentially ready for His arrival, but also because when time and eternity meets in His Person time is filled.  This is part of the reason the Church celebrates Mass not just on Sundays, but every day.

If you really believe that God is actively participating in every moment at every time, you will reject compartmentalization.  The great Christian feasts mark those moments in history when God stepped into the ordinary.  They not only mark them, but make them present.  It brings God into the humdrum, or rather, shows that there really is no humdrum.  It shows them to be real, as in really,really real and not just something relegated to the past.  Take away these celebrations and you move God to the periphery.  Move Ascension Thursday to Sunday and you make it nearly impossible to fully prepare for your share in Pentecost.  Pentecost was not a single event, but one that unfolds throughout time and also at specific times on each Pentecost Sunday.  The Apostles and Our Lady taught us how to prepare for it by nine days of prayer.  Seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how it’s supposed to be done.  It makes it all seem manufactured (work of man) and just ceremonial rather than truly liturgical (work of God).

Likewise with Epiphany—we complain about keeping Christ in Christmas, but meanwhile we don’t keep Christmas in Christmas.  Want to win back Christmas from the clutches of commercialization, restore Epiphany to its rightful place in the calendar.

Please God that all the Bishops will follow those of England and Wales and reinstate all the Holy Days of Obligation!

The Hidden Vice

Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that envy was hidden and unconscious for most men.  This might explain why we find the seeds of it scattered throughout our culture.  There is the advertising industry for example which is built entirely on the goal to stir envy for things that we don’t really want except for the fact that other people have them.  So deeply embedded is envy that it is even institutionalized in the pitting of the poor against the rich (or women against men or nearly every other class conflict) in a quasi-communistic class struggle that our liberal democracy has adopted.  Therefore, it is instructive to shine a light on the havoc this vicious habit can create in our lives.

Envy has long been considered to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, or, more aptly named Seven Capital Sins.  These “sins” are called Capital sins not because they are sins per se, but because they act as motivating forces for the actual sins we commit.  In short, one does not commit envy, but instead commit a sin because you are envious.  Envy is like a tree that produces rotten fruit.  Until we expose the roots of the tree, we will never be rid of its fruit.  The tree of envy is known by its tendency to, as St. Thomas says, experience “sorrow in the face of another’s good.”

The Sorrow of Envy

While this definition is correct, it needs to be nuanced a bit so that we do not chop down the wrong tree.  There is a holy envy that St. Thomas calls zeal in which we experience sorrow not because another person has something, but because we don’t.  We look at some good that another person has that we know we do not have and our sorrow moves us to work zealously to obtain that good thing.  In other words we grieve not because the other person has the good, but because we don’t.

Envy, on the other hand, grieves simply because the other person has that good.  It has a competitive quality about it in that the other’s greatness seems to subtract from my own.  This is why envy follows on the heels of pride and is the “second sin.”  Lucifer committed the sin of pride and then begrudged mankind for the good that he had lost.  It is by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wisdom 2:24).  The first sin of man was pride, “to be like God.”  The second sin was “crouching at the door” (Gn 4:7) when sadness over God’s favor toward Abel, led Cain not to “do well” but to kill his brother.

It is ultimately envy that led directly to the death of Our Lord.  As Venerable Fulton Sheen articulates, “Annas was envious of His innocence; Caiaphas was envious of His popularity; Herod was envious of His moral superiority; the scribes and Pharisees were envious of His wisdom…And in order that He might no longer be person to be envied, they reputed Him with the wicked.”  Envy was the cause of the death of Peter and Paul and a cause of division in the early Church.  When the Corinthian community begins to form factions, Pope St. Clement sends them a letter reminding them just how deadly envy can be.

There are two reasons why envy is an especially strong temptation for us as 21st Century Americans.  The first is that we are a people that is obsessed with equality.  When everyone is equal in all ways, envy will seem justified and you will hardly recognize it for what it is.  If we are all equal, then we must do all that we can to level the playing field.

I alluded to the second reason earlier when I mentioned about the competitive nature of envy.  In a world that is mostly governed by a philosophical materialism, envy will seem like merely a recognition of the truth.  If life is a zero sum game then what you have actually takes away from what I have.  If I am poor it is because you are rich—you have taken more than your fair share and there is nothing left for me.  But most of life is not a zero sum game, especially when it comes to spiritual goods (which tend to be the things we envy most) related to personal character.

Because envy remains somewhat hidden to us, we may only recognize it by its effects.  When I see another person’s greatness somehow diminishing mine, there will always be the accompanying temptation to detract that person.  Somehow dragging another person down acts as a way of raising ourselves up.  If we step back and see truthfully however we will acknowledge that we can only envy those when we think better than ourselves in some way.  As Pope St. Gregory says, “We witness against ourselves that the other is better” (Moralia of Job, 84).  Knowing this, we should be very slow to make judgments about other people.  Envy causes us to find chinks in the armor of everyone we meet looking for ways in which we are superior to them.  It also explains why we often don’t like someone else, even though we cannot explain why.  “There is just something about them I don’t like” usually means “there is just something about them that makes me envious.”

This tendency to misjudge another person that accompanies envy is also a good reason why we should be very slow to believe things that we hear about other people (Fulton Sheen goes so far as to say we should not believe 99% of what we hear about other people).  Envy is the most common cause of gossiping and one of the reasons why we should avoid entangling ourselves in it.  It is also the reason why you can’t go wrong thinking the best of another person until you have hard evidence to the contrary.

The Antidote to Envy

While the Devil essentially says to mankind, “As I envied you, so now you must envy one another,” Our Lord offers the antidote to envy, “As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”  Vices can only be overcome by an opposing virtue so that envy is overwhelmed by charity.  When tempted to envy, we should perform some charitable act towards that person.  It can be as simple as saying a prayer for them or offering a kind word to or about them.  Fasting or making some other sacrifice for that person, especially that the gift we envy might flourish, can remove any traces of envy in our hearts.  Once we have skin in the game, that is invest in the person and their gifts by making a sacrifice, we cannot help but to root for them.

Dante, in the Purgatorio, offers us a second virtue to overcome envy.  As he meets the envious in the Second Terrace of Purgatory, he finds them scrambling about, deprived of the gift of sight by having their eyes sewn shut with iron wire.  They become like blind beggars depending upon each other to avoid falling off the Mountain.  In this way they learn to rejoice in other’s goods.  In being forced to depend upon each other they learn magnanimity.  The magnanimous person has a “large soul” in that they can rejoice in the good of another as if it were their own.  The magnanimous person is not offended by natural or even supernatural inequality, but simply rejoices in the good that is to be found.

In each of the terraces of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante also proposes a Marian example of the virtue.  For envy he offers Our Lady’s intercession at the Wedding of Cana as the example.  It is Our Lady’s magnanimity that causes her to see the threat to the joyful celebration and take the concern (“Woman how does your concern affect me?”) on as if it were her own.  This is why the 12th Century Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once counseled “If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary the star of the sea.”

Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for us.

The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

Believing in Jesus

Every televised sporting event includes two things that are guaranteed to happen.  First, there will be beer commercials.  Second, at some point during the game, when panning the crowd, we will see a sign that says John 3:16.  It is perhaps the most recognizable verse in Sacred Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  It is in many ways a perfect summary of the Gospel containing both the importance and simplicity of the message.  Despite its simplicity, it has also become a source of confusion and contention for many Christians that centers around what it means to “believe in Him.”

As with many questions like this, it helps to begin with what it is not saying.  First, it is not saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Paraphrasing St. James, “even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19).  Jesus’ true identity is something worthy of belief, but only in the sense that we believe other historical realities.  They either happened or they didn’t.  Jesus either really rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven or He didn’t.  This is not to believe in Him but to believe about Him.  This is not what Jesus had in mind in addressing Nicodemus.

This is also not a call to believe in Jesus the philosopher or ethics professor.  This is often the way the world views Jesus and we inadvertently adopt this view to defend Christianity.    This is simply to believe Him.  Our Lord is not asking Nicodemus to become one of His pupils or to follow His moral code.  The invitation is for something deeper and more personal.  Instead we must treat Christianity as, Pope Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

What Christianity Is

In this, the Pope Emeritus captures the true meaning of what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, and by extension, us, to.  We do not believe in ideas, principles or philosophies.  We believe in another person.  In short Jesus is inviting us not to follow a way of life, but to enter into a love affair.  It is an invitation to trust.  Until we accept that this is the invitation, we will remain fixed in viewing our Christian life as a moral or philosophical journey.  Until we love Christ and not just Christianity we will not have the encounter we so deeply desire.

The doors of trust are opened when we come to realize that the “Word became flesh” for no other reason than because “God so loved the world,” that is every person in it.  It is no encounter with a man who died long ago and left us some teachings, but a man who is alive and waiting for me.  It is not a generic love for me, but a deeply personal love for me.  It is the assurance that Christ did not die for mankind, but that “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Like all relationships founded on trust, once the trust is in place, we are willing to do whatever Christ tells us.  Notice how Nicodemus keeps returning to Jesus throughout John’s Gospel so that his trusts grows to the point that he even defends him before the Sanhedrin. Once I know that He has only my best interest at heart, once I know the lengths He has gone to prove this and the power He has over all that can harm me, I will do whatever He says, no matter how crazy it seems, I will do it.

Even the devil knows how foundational this trust is.  Deep down, all sin is a matter of not trusting God enough.  “Maybe he doesn’t really have my best interest at heart…”  As the Catechism says “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397).  Jesus, I trust in You!

Faith and Works

Call it “works flowing from faith” or whatever you like, but it is summarized in one word trust.  The whole faith vs works controversy that separates Christianity is simply semantics.  It is about trust.  “Trust,” Our Lord says, “that I can save you” and you will be saved.  Trust not, and you are already condemned.  There is no other way to be saved.

We can readily see that this confusion over the word believe is related much like the confusion over the word faith.  That is why the Church has always made the distinction between the act of faith and the content of faith.  The act of faith is the trust that we have in God.  The more we trust, the greater our trust becomes.  The content of faith is what we believe.  In both senses we will use the word faith.  We have faith in the Person and so the content of what He has revealed, i.e the Faith, is altogether reliable.

While the act of faith is primary (in the sense that it is first in time), the content of faith is indispensable.  The content of faith, that is things like the Creed, are the reasons why we believe.  They are motives of credibility.

In his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton seems to capture the spirit of John 3:16 perfectly.  He writes of the world’s fascination with God’s Troubadour because of his love of nature and mankind, but his religion was always a stumbling block (especially the Stigmata).  Chesterton says the interpretive key for Francis is that “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being.  He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.  He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse.  He will do these things when he is in love.”

On the Idolatry of Money

The strange thing about idols is that they usually travel in our blind spots.  We may very well be aware of their dangers, but fail to see that we have succumbed to them.  This is true especially when it comes to the idolatry of money.  We may agree, for example, with Pope Francis that “the worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money,” but think that it is the greedy rich people’s problem and not necessarily our own.  The plank is firmly implanted in our own eye and unless we submit ourselves to some self-examination we may remain permanently blinded to what has always been viewed as one of the Seven Capital Sins.

The Role of Money in Exchange

A word first on the reason many of us our blind to this particular vice.  St. Thomas Aquinas, building on the economic teachings of Aristotle, thought that the marketplace was governed by two different types of exchanges which he called natural and unnatural.  A natural exchange was one in which one good was traded for another.  This might be a barter system or a money as medium of exchange system.  A cobbler needs to feed his family and so he might trade a pair of shoes for a cow or he sells the shoes so that he could buy the cow.  In either case the end of the cobbler’s transaction was to obtain a cow.  It may be that he chooses to save the money so he can purchase the cow later, perhaps when business is slow, but his purpose is always clear—to obtain something he needs to feed his family.

An unnatural exchange, on the other hand, is one in which money ceases to be a medium of exchange but instead becomes the end.  The cobbler sells the shoes with the goal of making money and to get rich.  He does not have any particular end in mind, even if it is to save for some future hardship.

What also makes an exchange unnatural is when one or both participants has an irrational end in mind.  All exchange should be governed by needs and rational wants.  The needs are obvious but a rational want represents something that may not be strictly needed but is a reasonable thing to purchase.  A second pair of shoes may be a reasonable want, a tenth pair, not so much.

When a commodity is the end of an exchange there is a certain protection against greed.  One may desire only so many things.  There is only so much room to store them.  There are only so many loaves of bread we can eat.  There are only so many pairs of shoes we can wear.  Our desire may be unreasonable, but there is a natural limit to how much we will desire.

Money is completely different.  Our desire for money is infinite.  There is no natural limit on how much we can desire.  For the rich, their “net worth” becomes merely a game to see how high they can go.  This, of course, only happens when money becomes an end instead of a means.  When we see it merely as a means to purchase those things we need and rationally want, we will be satisfied with only a certain amount.

Love of Money as a Capital Sin

Scripture tells us that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10) and Tradition labels it as one of the Seven Capital Sins.  The latter are not sins in the classical sense, but more like motivations that gives rise to the actual sins in our lives.  Objectively speaking one may commit the sin of murder, but the personal motivation is always rooted in one of these seven capital sins.  We may murder because of wrath or we may murder to grow rich.  The act is the same, but the motivation differs.

Understanding this helps us to root out the actual sins in our lives.  When our motives change, our acts change.  Love of neighbor will only replace love of money when we see it for what it is.  Watch yourself over the next few weeks and see how often money motivates you; not by money as being able to purchase things that you need or rationally want, but just the idea of having more money.  Whenever I do this exercise I am always surprised by how easily I have fallen into the trap again.

Covetousness, that is a love of money, remains hidden to most of us because it is woven into the fabric of the culture.  Our economy is structured such that money is the end.  It is not about producing goods that people need and rationally want, but creating a desire for consumption.  Advertisers try to convince us we need something.  This is all motivated by a love of money.  Most people work, not because it provides for needs and rational wants and fulfills them as persons, but because they want to be rich.  When you are swimming in water, it is hard not to get wet.  The first step is to recognize that the water is what is making you wet and find ways to stay out of the pool.  Examining our motivations and ways that we personally contribute to the culture of consumption will help to purify us from this dangerous idol.

What also makes money a particularly deadly snare as an idol is the fact that it can rob us of our trust in God. Money is usually a sign of security for most of us. After all, money can buy all the things we need, or so the thinking goes. Money contributes to the lie that man lives on bread alone. It is not without accident that when religious fervor was stirred in the hearts of Americans during the Second Great Awakening that the motto In God We Trust first appeared on coins. It is a stark reminder that our security is in God and not in money. Our Lord called the poor in spirit, those who put their trust in God and not in money, as blessed.

Spiritual and Religious

“I am spiritual, but not religious.” It has become the fastest growing religious affiliation.  So popular is it, that it now has its own acronym—SBNR.  Its appeal is that it supposedly frees its adherents from the trappings of organized religion so that they may become more “spiritual.”  What it means to be more “spiritual” remains a mystery because any formal dogma or Creed would signal its death knell.  Usually it is about “connecting to God within.”  Although the popularity of SBNR has grown, it is not something new.  In fact one could say it is the second oldest religion in the world, beginning when Lucifer decided that he too would spend eternity as spiritual but not religious.

Ultimately the fall of Lucifer and his minions was a permanent refusal to have any obligations towards God.  The eternal cry of the demons is “non serviam”—“I will not serve.”  They desire to be like God, but shun religion.  Although their fall was instantaneous, many of the adherents to SBNR slide in the same direction—many not realizing what they are agreeing to when they recite the SBNR mantra.

What is Religion?

Without a doubt, some of the issue has to do with vagaries surrounding the word religious.  The English word religion is derived from the Latin religare, to tie, fasten, bind, or relegere, to gather up or treat.  First and foremost, religion is the moral virtue that consists in giving to God the worship and service He deserves.  It is part of the virtue of justice which consists in rendering to each his due.  Because He is the Creator of all things and has supreme dominion, God in a singular way has a special service due to Him.  This service is worship.

Herein lies a source of confusion, namely why God creates us and then commands that we worship Him.  This is worth investigating because it is often an obstacle for the SBNR congregants.  We offer worship to God, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, not for His sake but for ours.  We cannot give to God anything He doesn’t already have.  Instead He creates us as rational creatures not just because we manifest His goodness or glory, but because we, among all visible creation, have the capacity to appreciate it.  In other words, we worship to both show our appreciation and to grow in the pleasure that His goodness brings to us.

The SBNRer may willingly concede that they do owe something to God in terms of worship, but they prefer to connect to God privately “in their souls.”  This ultimately stems from a denial of what we are as human beings.  As body/spirit composites, we are capable of both internal and external acts of religion.  In a certain sense the internal take precedence, but these internal acts can never be wholly free from the external and must be guided by them.

As human beings, our bodies and our spirits act in unison with each other.  That which is in the mind, must first have been in the senses.  You cannot perform a wholly interior act without also affecting the exterior.  Just the very thought of God or Jesus, invokes an image in our material imaginations.  We worship both from the inside-out and the outside in.  Our external acts of devotion effect our internal acts of devotion.  One is more likely to have increased devotion in their heart to God kneeling (an external sign of supplication) in front of a Crucifix than if they are staring at a blank wall sitting on a bed.

The implications of this are obvious.  There are some external acts that are better than others at increasing devotion.  This is certainly true in the subjective sense—we all have our favorite environments in which to pray—but it is also true in the objective sense.  God is equally present in the bathroom as He is in the chapel, but it is the chapel that has been consecrated (i.e. set aside) as a place of prayer that is objectively better than the bathroom.  This is why praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament is called Adoration.  You can adore God anywhere in spirit, but in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament that Adoration occurs in “spirit and truth.”

SBNR and Organized Religion

As you probe more deeply into the motives of the typical SBNRer, you will find that really what SBNR means is that “I am spiritual, but I loathe organized religion.”  They view religion as something wholly personal and subjective.  But if it is really true that we owe God worship and that certain forms of worship are better than others, then a loving Father would teach us what those forms are.  The history of mankind outside of, first Judaism and then Christianity, has been man groping for these forms.  Some of the forms were innocuous like offering incense to the local god, while others commanded human sacrifice.  God commands definitive forms of worship to keep us from falling into two equally dangers traps—one of defect and one of excess.

There is the trap that once we realize that worship is really for us, we will worship in a way most pleasing to ourselves.  This has not only led to the Non-denominational denomination with their mega-churches and “praise and worship services” worthy of a pep-rally, but also the pop music masquerading as liturgical music in Catholic churches.  The second trap is that of excess.   The truth is that no form of worship will ever feel adequate because no merely human form of worship is.  So we keep upping the ante so to speak leading to some of the religious atrocities we still see in certain cults and Middle Eastern religions.  We need God to tell us what is acceptable and what is not.

God does not merely tell us, but He comes and shows us.  Through the sacrifice of His Son, He shows us the most pleasing form of worship—the one act that is enough.  He gives us the power to make that sacrifice our own—both through Faith (subjective) and through the perpetuation of that same Sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Mass (objective).  The One True Religion is the one that offers that Sacrifice because it is not just any organized religion but the Religion organized by the Holy Spirit Himself.

The Catholic Response to SBNR

SBNR is really a protest movement against religious tolerance. Properly understood, religious tolerance assumes that there is a true religion and that we are willing to tolerate some people who hold only part of that truth. Tolerance respects human freedom to discover the truth. But religious tolerance has come to mean that all religions are equal. If all religions really are the same, then why should I have anything to do with any of them? But, if one of them is different because it is true, then it does matter. As the One True Religion is only the Catholic religion that can lead the SBNR away from sliding down the Luciferian slope.

This claim to be the One True Faith may seem arrogant, but it is no more arrogant than the claim that 2+2=4.  It is a statement of truth and it is a truth that has been handed down to us.  I am not the inventor of my religion, but its grateful recipient.

The Inventor died to give this religion to me.  Before dying He deeded it to its caretakers.  As proof, notice the first time that Jesus mentions His suffering on the Cross—it is only after setting up the Church upon Peter the Rock that He tells of His redemptive death (c.f. Mt 16:18-21).  Those same caretakers wore martyrs’ crowns rather so that the Faith was passed on to me.  Thousands upon thousands of martyrs and confessors boldly preached that religion so that I would have it.  Now it is my turn and your turn to pass it on to the next generation.  We cannot hide our light under a bushel.  We should not apologize for being Catholic, but we should apologize for not being Catholic enough.  Only we can show SBNR what it means to truthfully and joyfully be spiritual AND religious.

Self-Help and the Spiritual Life

Is there anything more demonstrative of the true American spirit than the self-help industry?  From How to Win Friends and Influence People to Tools of the Titans, America has always been a ripe market for self-help.  It has grown into a $10 billion industry.  Part of the appeal is that they appear to fit a primal need—each of us is haunted by an awareness that we are not what we are supposed to be and need some outside help. Always pragmatic, Americans assume that there must be a technique to fix the problem and buy the latest “life-changing” self-help book.  Even after reading the best ones, we are still plagued by a nagging sense that all is not quite right inside.  Off we go to the next book.  But one has to wonder, with over 630,000+ self-help books  on Amazon offering different techniques, is the problem really a technical one at all?  What if the problem is in our constitution such that no amount of self-help will completely fix it?

Within the Christian tradition we have a name for this fundamental flaw and we call it Original Sin.  We used to all know this, but many of us have forgotten it.  As Chesterton said, Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.”  In an age where we abhor theory and demand practicality, all men agree on the doctrine of the Fall regardless of whether they profess it or not.  What they deny it in theory, they find in practice—each of us “do not do the good they want to do” (Romans 7:19).

Most of us are familiar with the term Original Sin but struggle to articulate exactly what it is.  Adam and Eve were created by God with supernatural gifts including the very life of God which we call sanctifying grace.  Adam and Eve had perfect integration of their faculties.  They could see the Good clearly in their intellect, they were able to will it and carry it out with a bodily intensity in the passions.  The passions followed the will which followed the intellect which followed God, the Supreme Good.

Falling from such a height, not only removed the supernatural gifts, but left the human nature they would hand on to their progeny damaged.  Their souls were no longer integrated.  The intellect was darkened, the will weakened and the passions ran amok, no longer obeying intellect and will.  In other words, Adam and Eve’s offspring were not just worse off because they lost sanctifying grace, but also because human nature itself was damaged.  Naturally, this leads to the question why God allowed man to Fall from grace, leaving him worse off than if He had never graced him to begin with?

The Self-Help Trap

God left man worse off to protect him from a bigger fall, that is, plunging into the self-help trap.  Without this inner brokenness we could actually help ourselves.  The only problem is that we would help ourselves to become something less than we were meant to be, namely “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4), “God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:2).  With the stain of Original Sin, we are always aware of a lack that cries out ultimately for God.

The self-help trap denies not only Original Sin, but the height from which we fell.  It is meant to help us “improve,” but what does this mean?  Progress is only progress if we know where we are going.  We must know our purpose or destination before we can say whether something has improved our chances of reaching it.  Each self-help program promises “success” but success is highly dependent upon the author’s definition.

One of the other post-Fall pitfalls is that we are prone to self-deception.  We begin to look at what is normal (what everyone else is like) and the norm (what we were made for) and think “I am mostly OK, just need to work on few things.” Self-help only feeds this.  We will always choose to improve in areas that either require the least amount of work or based on some idol we have set up.

In the minds of many well-meaning Christians, Christianity is the self-help program that actually works.  Pope Benedict XVI pointed out this trap Christians can fall into in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est  when he said “[B]eing Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE, 1).  There are a number of evangelists that present the Gospel as a self-help program that actually works.  The danger in doing this however is that it doesn’t work when it is lived as an ethical system.  Christianity morality is hard and all but impossible without first having an encounter with the living Christ.  To the world, Christian morality makes no sense. It only makes sense once we trust Christ completely.  With trust comes the willingness to do whatever He tells us.

Christianity and Self-Help

The opposite of Christianity is not atheism but radical self-help.  They both start at the same place—a willingness to change.  But it is there that they part ways.  Self-help says “you can do this, all you need to do is approach the problem differently,” Christ says “pick up your Cross and follow me.”  If I take it from the wounded hands of Christ, it will make me whole.  Every virtue I am lacking is found in the crosses God sends me.  All I need to do is allow them to do their work on me.  It has a proven track record winning friends and influencing people—the Saints always make more Saints.

All that being said, this does not mean that self-help books and techniques do not have value in the spiritual life.  Grace perfects and elevates nature so that the books which acknowledge the good of virtue over selfishness can be the raw material for change in our lives.  But their proper place is always after the invasion of grace has occurred in our lives.  A recent book written by Jeff Goins called The Art of Work is one worth commending to you.

The subtitle of the book reveals just how compatible it is—A Proven Path for Discovering What You Were Meant to Do.  Although he does not specifically mention Christianity, it assumes that God’s Providence is an active force in our lives.  He offers practical advice on how we are to respond to our call (without reference to Who it is that is calling), how service fulfills us, suffering is a friend dressed like an enemy because all things work for good for those who have a calling and nothing we do is wasted.  He also recognizes God’s law of gradualism in which we do not so much leap from one cliff to another but build a bridge gradually across the chasm.  Throughout the book he gives tells stories to demonstrate his point (even at one point referring to St. Theresa of Calcutta.  All in all it reads like an instruction manual for fulfilling all aspects of your Christian vocation, especially when he talks about living what he calls a “portfolio life.”

Psychological or Demonic?

As followers of Christ, true God and true man, it is hard to avoid the truth that we inhabit two worlds—the seen and the unseen.  This is so basic a tenet of Christianity that we easily forget it and gravitate towards one or the other, the natural or the supernatural.  We have all met people who supernaturalize everything, referring all that happens in our world to the angelic and demonic.  On the other hand there are also those who tend to only accept natural explanations for what happens.  Our Lord however taught us to keep one foot in each of those worlds.  There were the sick whom He healed and those whom He exorcised.  There is perhaps no arena where this dichotomy is more obvious than mental illness.

On the one hand there are those who think that the remedy is simply to pray the problem away.   Prayer must always be part of anyone’s therapy (more on this in a moment) so this is a difficult point to contend.  But for most people prayer isn’t enough.  Or, more accurately, the answer to their prayer is found through the help of therapists.  God rarely acts in a vacuum.  He always uses secondary causes when they are available to carry out works of His Providence.  We may pray and pray for healing, but only receive it when we go to the doctor.  Does this mean that God did not deliver?  Of course not.  He simply wanted to share His power of healing with one of His creatures.

Removing the Stigma

Within Christian circles, mental illness is stigmatized.  Mental health problems are not just problems because someone’s faith or trust in God is not strong enough.  That can always be the case, but it need not be the direct cause.  There are people of incredible faith that nobly carry the cross of mental illness.  If anything, those who think this way are the ones who do not understand the Faith.

An authentic Catholic understanding of the human person, as both body and soul, leads to the recognition that because of our fallen nature, defects in our bodies can spill over into the way we see reality.  Think about the person who is drunk—their judgment is impaired.  Did the alcohol somehow drip into the seat of judgment, the intellect?  No, but when our senses are impaired we cannot judge correctly.  That which is in the intellect, was first in the senses as the Scholastics were fond of saying.

So too with the person with mental illness.  They may have a bodily defect which causes them to judge reality incorrectly.  Or, their early experience or exposure to a trauma may have hindered their ability to judge reality properly.  Perhaps they need a medication to restore the body back to its proper function so that it can send clean data to the intellect.  They may additionally need counseling on how to judge reality correctly.

As an aside, many Catholics fear receiving counseling because the counselor may not be Catholic.  This is a reasonable fear, but just because they are Catholic doesn’t make them good therapists.  What one should look for is someone who has a correct definition of mental health.  Mental health consists in the ability to judge reality correctly.  This means they have an understanding of man as a body/soul composite with a purpose outside of himself.  Only once this is established would you assess their clinical capabilities.  In this regard, it is no different than choosing any other kind of health care provider.  If a cardiologist thinks that a healthy heart is one in which only one ventricle is functioning, you would not choose him, even if he was the most clinically gifted doctor in the world.  Simply asking the therapist what his or her definition of mental health is, can often protect you from wasted time and doing more harm.

Psychology and Catholicism have been in conflict since the advent of modern methods, but this need not be the case.  Anyone who reads St. Thomas’ Summa on human nature and the virtues realizes he would have made an excellent psychologist.  This is because of his correct anthropology.  There has been a rediscovery of sorts of St. Thomas’ works and many schools are teaching them to those training in psychology.

It used to be that anyone who was mentally ill was thought to be possessed.  In this regard the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme where everyone assumes that the problem is clinical.  However, just because there were cases in the past where a supernatural explanation was sought when there was a natural one, doesn’t mean that they weren’t right some of the time.  Supernatural explanations still remain valid.  While not everyone who is mentally ill is demonically tormented, this does not mean nobody is.  In short, sometimes when someone claims to be hearing voices, they actually are.

A Third Way?

This opens up a third possibility—one in which we acknowledge that we are standing in two different worlds.  This is the one that most people overlook because they fall into an either/or mentality, when in many cases it is both/and.   The person can be suffering from some natural mental illness which is only exacerbated by the presence of the demonic.  The devil is a bully and loves to kick people when they are down, especially when he can hide within some natural illness.

One of my boys suffers from Autism and this has made him a target of the diabolical bully.  It was his condition that attracted the evil one and made it easy for him to hide while he tormented my son.  The demonic oppression got so severe that we had to seek the prayers of an Exorcist.  Through the prayers of Exorcism, he was freed from the oppression.  But, and this is a very important but, he was not healed of his Autism.  His symptoms were greatly reduced and his response to therapy since then has been overwhelmingly positive.  But the clinical condition remained—for that God is using natural means.  For the supernatural problem, He used the supernatural solution of the Rites and Authority of the Church (as a side not, for those of you interested in hearing about my son’s story, I did an interview with my friend Pete for his podcast in which this among other topics related to Spiritual Warfare).

The point is that there are many cases where the problem is really both natural and supernatural.  For the good of the person we need to recognize this as real and likely option.  In the majority of cases it will not be necessary to seek out an Exorcist, but still spiritual remedies will need to be applied.

This is where the “just pray and it will go away” folks have a point.  There is almost always a mixture of the natural and supernatural causes involved and it is always good advice to apply spiritual medicine to all mental health problems.  Prayer alone may not be sufficient, but it is always necessary.  Psychotherapy should always be accompanied by an intense prayer life and an active Sacramental life, including regular Confession and Communion, along with a healthy dose of Eucharistic Adoration.  When someone has been in therapy for a long time, making minimal progress adds these practices to their regular therapy they usually begin running towards mental health.

God and Commitment Phobes

In an address on the New Evangelization to Catechists and Teachers in 2000, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the greatest obstacle modern man faced in accepting the Gospel was “an inability of joy.”   Although this aversion to joy is particularly acute in our time, it is certainly nothing new.  In fact it is something that is captured quite beautifully in Dante’s Purgatorio.  At the midpoint of his ascent of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante encounters those who are being purged of sloth and its effects.  The slothful race about the terrace shouting out famous examples of the vice and its opposing virtue, zeal.  The souls appear to be enjoying their punishment of the breathless race they are on.  This is not because they find joy in punishment so much as the joy is their punishment.  Dante believed that the slothful are marked by an inability to joy.

Because of his reliance on the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s Divine Comedy has often been called the “Summa in Verse.” By returning to the teachings of St. Thomas on the Capital Sin of sloth or acedia, we may be able to learn a great deal about not only the world’s aversion to joy, but why it remains so elusive for many of us.

To begin, there is an important point to be made regarding the Seven Capital Sins.  St. Thomas rarely referred to the Seven Capital Sins as sins but instead as vices.  His reason for this is because something like sloth is not usually the actual sin the person commits, but the disposition or habit that leads to other sins.  The term “capital” derives from the Latin word caput, meaning head.  The point is that these seven vices are usually the source or head of all of the sins we commit (see ST II-II, q.153, art.4).  The reason why this is important is that these vices remain hidden to us because they act as subconscious motivations for the sins we do commit.  Unless we are in the habit of examining our motivations along with our sins, they will almost always remain off our spiritual radar.  Understanding the vices and how they tend to manifest themselves allows us to work at the virtues directly opposing the vice of sloth.

Certainly one of the reasons why sloth is particularly hidden is because most people view it as simply laziness.  One of the fruits of the Protestant Reformation was that sloth became associated with laziness and neglect in doing one’s duty.  The opposing virtue was seen to be diligence or industriousness and “busyness” became a cardinal virtue.  But for St. Thomas and the Desert Fathers that went before him, sloth is a spiritual vice.  There is a link of sorts to effort, but not primarily to bodily effort.  It is not an aversion to physical effort but an aversion to the demands of love.  It causes us to see the burden of love to be too great.

In order to fully capture how this vice ensnares us, it is helpful to look at the two parts of the definition that Aquinas gives for acedia in the Summa.  He says that acedia is “sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good” (ST II-II q.35, a.3).

The second part of the definition describes what is the cause of our sorrow—namely the “spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good.”  For St. Thomas this “spiritual good” that is internal to the person and yet also a “Divine good” is friendship with God.  This friendship with God is the virtue of charity by which we participate in the love God has for Himself.

The sorrow itself need explanation as well.  Sorrow is analogous to sadness but it rests in our soul.  It is more like a pain of soul that makes joy impossible.  This sorrow is experienced because what should be experienced as a good (namely the love of God) is instead viewed as bad.  Not bad in itself, but too much work and too demanding.  The word acedia literally means “a lack of care” meaning that it simply is not worth the effort.  In this way then it is not so much a rejection of God Himself, but of friendship with Him.  This partial rejection of God is what makes sloth so deadly.

Dante seems to capture this lack of love by placing sloth in the middle of the Mount of Purgatory.  The first three terraces are meant to heal love that has been perverted by being directed towards an evil object or end (pride, envy, and wrath).  The three terraces above (greed, gluttony, and lust) are directed to healing love that is excessively directed towards a good object.  Sloth sits alone in the middle because it shows a lack of love that begins with loving God less than we should and spreads to everything else.

Dante

Without delving deeply into psychological motivations, why would we do this?  To understand sloth, the fact that love is demanding cannot be forgotten.  There is a sweetness that comes from love, but for the most part it makes demands upon us.  In fact sloth makes us “commitment phobes” with God because of the burden of commitment.

Of course any explanation must include the given of Original Sin.  St. Paul tells the Galatians that “the flesh lusts against the spirit” (Gal 5:17) which means that without virtue the flesh will be dominant in us and we will loathe spiritual goods as somehow bad for us.  It is sort of like how we crave junk food and have to force ourselves to eat wholesome foods.  Acedia as sorrow at the thought of being in relationship with God because of the “burden of commitment.”

An analogy might help to better understand it.  Think of a married couple who argues and rather than doing the work of apologizing and forgiving, they would rather take the “easier” route of going off to separate rooms and sulk.  They both know of the goodness that follows from reconciliation, but refuse to do the work of getting there.

In looking at the sins that are caused by sloth or “daughters of acedia” as St. Thomas divides them into two types.  The first are those sins which represent our attempts to escape from the sorrow.  The most common way in which it manifests itself is through curiosity.  Most people would say that curiosity is a good thing and it is insofar as it represents a desire for knowledge.  But St. Thomas says we cannot look at only the desire but also must consider the motive and the effects the knowledge has on the knower and others.  Curiosity is the desire for knowledge simply for the pleasure that it brings as opposed to knowing for the sake of knowledge itself (as in the truth) which is the virtue of studiousness.  From curiosity flows listening to gossip.  There is also a fear of missing out on something interesting that will help divert us from the sorrow.  This fear is what truly drives the almost obsessive nature in which many people are constantly checking social media.

St. Thomas also says it manifests itself through an aimless wandering after illicit things.  Drinking excessively, promiscuity, drugs often represent attempts to escape the sorrow of sloth.  But it is not just illicit things but an excess of busyness too.  This busyness blocks us from seeing the reason why we have no joy is because we are slothful.  After all, how could one be slothful when they are constantly involved in activity?  St. Thomas recognized this temptation and presented acedia as primarily a sin against the Third Commandment because it is an avoidance of doing the “work” of the Sabbath rest.

At a certain point the realization that the sorrow is inescapable sinks in and a new level of vices arise.  The most obvious would be despair, but I would like to focus on a second one that is not so obvious—boredom.

To prove that the overwhelming majority of Americans is at this point, what other explanation could there be that the average person watches 4 hours of TV (25% of their waking time) than that they are bored?  What about the obsession with celebrities?  Out of boredom the cult of celebrities arises because when one’s own life lacks meaning, you become obsessed with others’ lives.

In essence for those with despair and boredom life loses its pilgrim character.  For the bored they become tourists instead of pilgrims. What we do when we are bored really doesn’t matter only that it alleviates the boredom.  Everyone knows that there is no happiness in the endless diversions, parties, drinking and promiscuity.  But at least one is less empty for a while.

There is a great spiritual principle that comes into play when we are trying to root out vices like sloth.  We cannot simply stop doing it.  Certainly identifying the root cause is important, but the only way for us as fallen creatures to overcome evil in our hearts is by replacing it with good.  I already mentioned how sloth is truly opposed to charity but there are two other virtues that we should strive to cultivate.

First is the virtue of gratitude.  One desert father said that sloth is ultimately a hatred of being.  Everything seems hard and meaningless.  By viewing everything through what St. John Paul II called the “hermeneutic of the gift” we find everything charged with meaning through its bestowal upon us.  With gratitude comes to the desire to repay that gift by making a gift of ourselves.  To quote from JPII’s favorite line of Vatican II, “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS, 24).

The second is the virtue of magnanimity.  Literally magnanimity means “large-souledness.”  It is a generous acceptance of the missionary character of our lives.  It is a response to Blessed John Henry Newman’s a clarion call:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling”

As Dante enters the Fifth Circle of Hell, he encounters two groups confined to the River Styx—the wrathful and the slothful.  The wrathful fight each other above the surface, while the slothful simply stew beneath the swampy surface.  By Dante’s standards their punishment is rather light, but that is because they really didn’t do anything.  They simply slid into hell through a lack of effort.   Please God that we might overcome the “noonday devil” and avoid a similar fate.

 

Standing on Three Legs

Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI surveyed the pastoral landscape and found a number of “grave and urgent” problems that plagued the Church.  Among these problems was a laxity that had crept into the hearts and minds of the faithful with respect to the divine precept of fasting.  St. John Paul II echoed Paul VI’s concern and called for catechesis on fasting in his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation on Penance and Reconciliation.  Fasting is one of the three main pillars of the spiritual life along with prayer and almsgiving.  For many, this third leg of the spiritual life has atrophied greatly making balance difficult.  Therefore it is helpful to examine anew why the Church calls us to fast regularly.

Our Lord was once asked by the people why the Pharisees and the disciples of John fasted and His disciples did not.  He responded that “as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mk 2:18-22). Now that the Bridegroom has been taken away, Christians ought to be fasting and not just in Lent.  Rather than viewing themselves as a fasting people, most Christians instead identify fasting with the followers of Mohammed or Gandhi.

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas lists three reasons why fasting ought to be practiced: it bridles the lusts of the flesh, serves as satisfaction for sins and frees the mind for the contemplation of heavenly things.  Because these three things lead to the fulfillment of our human nature, the Angelic Doctor says that the practice of fasting belongs among the precepts of the natural law.  Despite the obligation to fast, its practice has diminished primarily because each of the goods attached to fasting has been threatened.

The first obstacle is related to the same reason that people have not fasted throughout the ages—the capital sin of gluttony.  According to the CDC 36% of all American adults are obese.  To combat this epidemic we have developed zero calorie drinks and food, gastric bypass surgery, diet pills, and diet plans that allow you to “eat as much as you want and still lose weight.”  After all, if I can get zero calories by eating, why should I feel hungry while I am fasting?

But these are mere band aids.  We fail to acknowledge the oversized elephant in today’s “super-size me” culture that prides itself on “all you can eat”.  We are a bunch of gluttons.  Back when gluttony was a sin the medicine was fasting.  The remedy remains the same today.

Dante_Purgatory_Gluttons

Because of our fallen nature we often find that our gods are our stomachs.  Through its medicinal effect fasting helps to break the chains to our senses.  In this way it combats the other capital sins of the flesh; sloth (more on this in a moment) and lust.  It serves as the foundation of the virtue of temperance.  This much needed virtue not only moderates our eating and drinking but also the particularly dangerous vice of lust.  Our Lord suggests that some demons only come out through prayer and fasting and the demon of porneia is one of them.  With the rise in pornography addiction, fasting offers both a remedy and a shield against it.  By fasting we gain greater control of our passions and emotions and by this increased in self-possession we are more able to give ourselves to God and others.  This is why St. Thomas listed calls fasting the “guardian of chastity.”

The second obstacle that the practice of fasting encounters is the loss of a sense of sin.  For many people using fasting to atone for sin is akin to using an extra blanket to protect you from the boogeyman.  Sin, like the boogeyman, does not exist and the Church simply uses the idea of sin to keep us in line.  In a 1946 radio address to members of the US National Catechetical Congress in Boston, Pope Pius XII declared that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.”  Recognizing this, John Paul II thought that restoring a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today.  This loss of a sense of sin has become a major evangelical obstacle.  If we do not accept the “bad news” of our sinfulness then we have no need for the “good news” of the Gospel.  The Gospel is reduced to just “news” which we already have plenty of.  Fasting helps to restore the lost sense of sin.  It serves as a reminder that our desires have gone astray.

This is why most people see fasting merely as a disciplinary regulation that is “suggested” by the Church rather than something that belongs to the natural law.  With the widespread disdain for ecclesiastical authority many simply choose to ignore what the Church has to say about fasting.

Finally, the practice of fasting has been threatened because man has lost the desire to raise his mind to the contemplation of heavenly things.  Classically understood, this is the vice of sloth or acedia.  St. Thomas defines acedia as “sadness in the face of a spiritual good.”    Oftentimes sloth is confused with laziness and then summarily dismissed because we are “busy.”  But sloth is not laziness.  Many of the busiest people are also the most slothful because they suffer from a “roaming unrest of spirit” as St. Thomas says.

Sloth seems to be ever-present in our culture and it most clearly manifests itself through its first-born daughter, curiosity.  Curiosity is the desire to know simply for the pleasure that it brings and not in order to understand the nature of things.  Our information hungry society is driven by curiosity.  The voyeurism of reality TV shows, the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and a growing addiction to smartphones all exist to feed our curiosity.  They simply serve as distractions from contemplating heavenly things.  Our minds are made to rise to heavenly things and when they do not the result is a pervasive boredom.

St. Thomas compares curiosity with the virtue of studiousness.  Studiousness serves as a check on our curiosity by studying first those things which are most important and relating what we discover to God.  It is a most necessary virtue in developing the habit of contemplation.  The studious person develops the habit of seeing all of creation through a sacramental paradigm.  Fasting helps to cultivate this virtue by reminding us  that man does not live on bread alone and excites his intellect to investigate those things that truly bring life to man.

Practically speaking, how do we fast and how often should we do it?  There are two kinds of fasts.  There is a total fast which means abstaining from all food and drink (this is linked to the Eucharist) and a partial fast which is penitential in nature.  While there is no one “right” way to observe a partial fast, the Church suggests that it consists in one normal sized meal and two small meals that are the equivalent of the first meal.  The idea is not to starve ourselves, but to stir just enough hunger so as to have to fight the temptation to break the fast.  One normally finds that they cannot stop thinking about eating when they first start this practice.  That is to be expected when we do not yet have the virtue of fasting and will diminish over time.  What also normally happens is that the bodily hunger awakens in us a certain amount of spiritual sensitivity so that we find great pleasure in both prayer and receiving the Eucharist.

As far as frequency, most spiritual masters would suggest once a week either on Friday (in union with Our Lord’s Passion) or on Saturday (with Our Lady on Holy Saturday).  One could easily however find ways to fast daily by not eating between meals, always leaving the table a little bit hungry or always eating what is placed in front of you.  Again it is not so much the how, but the spirit in which one fasts.  The intention ought to be as penance for sins and as an offering for favors from God.

While climbing Mount Purgatory, Dante encounters a group of emaciated penitents in the ring of gluttony.  Because the gluttonous abstain from the “gratification of the palate” as part of their penance, Dante sees that the “sockets of their eyes seemed rings without gems.  Whoso in the face of men reads OMO would surely there have recognized the M.”  For those who know Italian, they will recognize that OMO is a variant of the Italian word for “man”, uomo.  What the poet is suggesting is that the inner form of man is restored through fasting.  Following his lead, we too should include fasting as part of our regular spiritual diet and stand on all three spiritual legs.

On Gratitude

Each of the saints, in his or her own unique way, gives us a concrete model of what it means to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5).  What is not unique is that each one of them was utterly convinced that God loved them.  This conviction makes all the difference in the world.  To know that I am loved changes everything about my life.  Unfortunately for many of us, we are far from convinced of this foundational truth (including many people who consider themselves Christians).  To know, like St. Paul, that the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20) is one thing, to realize it and experience it is another.  It is the saint who perfects this movement from knowledge of God’s love, to conviction of His love and to love God in return.  And it is a particular saint, Thomas Aquinas, that gives us a formula for making this movement a reality in our lives.

In his treatise On the Two Commandments, St. Thomas says that in order to fulfill the commandment to love God perfectly four things are required.  The first and most important is:

“…the recollection of the divine benefits, because all that we have, whether our soul or body or exterior things, we have them all from God. Therefore we must serve him with all this and love him with a perfect heart. A man would be extremely ungrateful if, after thinking of all the benefits he received from someone, he did not love him. With this in mind, David said (1Chron 29:14): ‘All belongs to you. What we received from you we give to you.’ Therefore in his praise it is said (Sir 47:10): ‘With all his heart he praised the Lord, and loved the God who made him.”

What St. Thomas is proposing is that by fostering the virtue of gratitude, we will not only love God, but love Him because we are absolutely convinced of His love for us.  Therefore, one can easily see how important gratitude is in the spiritual life.  With this in mind, it is instructive for us to reflect on this virtue.

Fr. Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary defines gratitude as the “virtue by which a person acknowledges, interiorly and exteriorly, gifts received and seeks to make at least some return for the gift conferred.”  From this definition we can see that there are essentially three parts to gratitude—“thanks-reflecting”, “thanks-saying”, and “thanks-giving.”  Most of us only associate gratitude with “thanks-saying” and therefore miss out on its benefits.

“Thanks-reflecting” consists in the “recollection of (divine) benefits” that St. Thomas mentions.  This is the first part because in many ways it is the most important.  Without it we may never realize God’s love for us individually.  Some people will do things like writing down their blessings or keeping a blessing jar.  But I think the most effective way to recall divine benefits is through the use of the daily examen prayer.

Many people will treat the examination of conscience as merely a laundry list of all the ways that they messed up during the day.  Unfortunately when it is done with this attitude, we simply swing between discouragement and determination to try harder.  The problem is that it is entirely “me-centered.”  Instead the examen should be “God centered” by focusing entirely on our response to God’s graces throughout the day.  We thank Him for the graces and for those that we responded well to and ask forgiveness for those that we missed or responded poorly.  With this comes a growth in our awareness of all the graces God sends us to the point that we begin to see everything (including our crosses) as grace-filled.  We realize that our sins are essentially different forms of ingratitude and we strive to eliminate sin because it offends the Father who has given us so much.  But this growth can only happen when we resolve to perform the examen faithfully every night.

When St. Thomas discusses gratitude in the Summa (S.T. II-II, qq.106-107), he treats it as a sub-virtue of justice.  What St. Thomas is emphasizing is that when we speak of the “debt of gratitude,” it means that we owe something in return for the favors that are done for us.  We certainly owe the words of thanks, but we must also be prepared to repay our benefactor.  This is why we speak of “thanks-giving” and not just “thanks-saying.”  This notion of a “debt of gratitude” is often lost on us and we assume that merely saying thanks is enough.  We will see why this is not enough in a moment.

First it is necessary to speak of what it is that we owe exactly.  Gratitude is not just about quid pro quo, but is something much more than that.  When given a gift, there are two things that should be considered—the affection of the heart of the giver and the gift.  It is the affection that should be returned immediately (that is we should express our thanks) and then the gift itself in a timely manner.  This applies not only to our human relationships but especially when we begin speaking of God’s gifts to us.

God gives out of sheer gratuity.  He does not benefit at all from the gifts He bestows and He bestows them simply because He is love.  He gives to each of us as a Father who has loved each of us “with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3).  He has known each of us before we were in the womb (Jer 1:5).  It is this knowledge and love that has always existed that caused Him to create us.  It is from this love, this affection of heart that He gives to each of us.

How could we possibly return a gift with this affection of heart?  We cannot on our own.  But God has given us the power to do it by bestowing the virtue of charity in our hearts at baptism.  Charity is the habit of loving like God loves and like all habits it grows in strength each time we do it.  Each time we love God in an act of charity, that love of God grows and we are drawn closer to Him.  It is like a gravity that draws us into the orbit of love in the Trinity.

What about the gifts?  How can we return to God anything that is proportional to the gifts He has given us?  The psalmist gives us a clue when he asks the same question:

“How can I repay the LORD for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.  I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.” (Ps 116:12-14)

Anyone reading this will immediately recognize the Eucharistic connotation of the “cup of salvation”   and recall to mind that the word Eucharist (or Eucharistia) is Greek for “thanksgiving.”  What the Spirit is telling us through the voice of the Psalmist is that the person who wants to repay his debt of gratitude to God will faithfully, actively and regularly participate in the Mass.  The sacrifice of Calvary is the most pleasing sacrifice to God and our participation in it (where we offer and are offered) is the best gift we can offer to God.  Like a good Father who gives to his children money to buy him a gift, God gives to His children something they can give to Him.

We now see why gratitude is so important for growth in the spiritual life.  While justice is about equality of things, gratitude is about equality of wills.  In other words gratitude makes the hearts of the giver and the receiver the same.  This is why the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist are so closely bound.  It is from the human heart of Jesus that God gives us the Eucharist and it is this heart that is meant to be formed in all of us.  The formation of the Heart of Jesus in us begins with gratitude.