Category Archives: Virtue

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…”

 

Theology of the Body and Fat Shaming

Long before Freud and Jung, there was Moses.  The account of the Fall not only reveals theological truths, but anthropological truths as well.  If we are not careful, we can over-spiritualize it and miss the deep psychological truths that would otherwise be difficult for us to discover.  The velocity at which our first parents hit the ground from their lofty fall left them and all of their progeny with a form of altitude sickness we call Original Sin.  While shaking the proverbial cobwebs from their heads, Adam and Eve instantaneously became aware of the fact that they were naked and felt afraid (Gn 3:7-10).  In short, they experienced shame and no longer comfortable in their own skin.  Photoshop and makeup cannot cover over the fact that our flesh and our spirit are at war with each other and all of us experience this conflict to varying degrees.  There is a universality to our discomfort that we label generically as “shame.”  Only at the General Resurrection will the fa…, err, big boned lady sing her song of conquest.  Still, freedom in Christ can be found in what we do here and now.  It is in this spirit that I would like to examine our latest cultural crusade—the elimination of  fat-shaming.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, fat shaming is “the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size.”  Our crusaders have even given it a label—Sizeism.  As a partial diagnosis, eliminating cruelty towards those who are deemed overweight is a battle worth fighting.  While on the surface the obese person appears to be lacking in self-control, the reasons for an individual person being overweight are usually more physically and psychologically complicated than that.  Rash judgments and cruelty often serve only to pull the scabs off of an already wounded person.

Notice however that in the definition, “critical comments” are included in the list of offenses.  Even doctors, whose job it is to make critical comments about one’s physical health, are lumped in with the offenders.  What this reveals is that while the diagnosis may be accurate, the cure is not.  Our cultural crusaders always rely on their lone panacea—“embracing your brokenness”—critical comments even when done in the spirit of fraternal charity have no place in their medicine cabinet. The solution they propose is to affirm our coping mechanisms and rationalizations with the hopes that we will all become shameless.  As Catholics, especially those who have been schooled in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we can offer a  more effective antidote to shame.

The Experience of Shame

During his Catechesis that became the Theology of the Body, the saintly Pontiff offered an extended discussion on the experience of shame.  He starts, naturally enough, at the beginning with the first man and woman prior to the Fall.  They are described as being “naked without shame.”  In order to understand this primordial experience, we must first grasp that shame is a relational reality.  A person has no reason to be ashamed of his nakedness when he is alone in the shower.  Instead shame occurs in relation to another person.  Our first parents felt no shame, not because they had no flaws in their bodies (even though this is true), but because their bodies fully revealed who they were to one another.  Eve had no worry that Adam would see her as an object of pleasure, but instead as a subject to be loved.  In short she had no reason to cover up.  Likewise with Adam.

With the Fall came a change both within the man and woman and between them.  This led to two different experiences of shame.  No longer gifted with self-mastery, the body and spirit are at odds which JPII calls this immanent shame.  It is best described, as we said at the beginning, as a constant awareness of discomfort in our skin.  No matter how much we devote ourselves to beautifying our bodies, we never can quite be satisfied.  The second dimension of shame is what the Pope calls relative shame.  This sense of shame is essentially a fear that the other person will not recognize and affirm the truth of the person revealed in our bodies.

While shame is experienced as a negatively, it should not be viewed wholly as such.  Even though it was an effect of the Fall, God left it there for our benefit.  Immanent shame is a constant reminder that all is not yet right within us.  Likewise relative shame is a form of protection against being used as an object for enjoyment.  This is the most obvious in relation to sexual values, but it has bearing on the topic at hand.  A person who is overweight may, because of shame, be driven towards dressing modestly, so that they do not get made fun of (i.e become an object of another person’s self-entertainment).  Because of the negative experience of shame, they are driven towards a good thing which will in the long run help to restore them to genuine freedom.  The modest person is always more free than the immodest, regardless of whether they are thin or fat.

The Benefit of Shame

Fat-shaming is so psychologically damaging because it fails to recognize the person as a subject that craves love and sets them up merely as an object to be used.  This is why it must be seen for what it is—an attempt to exploit the universal experience of shame to somehow reduce its effects in the abuser.  But the shame that the person experiences, even if it is agitated, is not caused by the abuser but part of his fallen experience.  So even if it were eliminated completely within society, the shame would still be there.  There can be no return to Eden to a shame-free life.  The only remedy is found in mitigating the twofold effects of shame.  To grow more comfortable in our own skin, we must cultivate virtue, especially temperance and its daughter, modesty.  Self-mastery neutralizes many of the effects of shame.  Modesty, especially in an immodest culture, empowers many of those who are held in the grips of shame.  Plus-sized models who model immodest clothing like the petite ones only promote shamelessness and leave many women feeling trapped.  One cannot both say that the beauty is more than skin deep while simultaneously bearing more skin.

In his book Love and Responsibility, then Fr. Wojtyla said that “shame is swallowed up by love, dissolved in it…” Only genuine love can alleviate the effects of relative shame.  Genuine love sees the body as a person and thus has no desire to use that person.  But only the person who has cultivated the virtue of purity has the capacity to receive that love.  Purity not only protects us from experiencing lust, but also prepares us to receive true love.  This message of purity is drowned out in a culture dedicated to shamelessness only making it all the more vital to living a life marked by true freedom.  Fat-shaming is a real problem, but only by “looking through the veil of shame” can we hope to offer a real solution to those who are crippled by fear and shame.

American Barbarism

Perhaps it is the apocalyptic mood brought on by the impending visual collision of the sun and the moon, but after the events this weekend in Charlottesville, I can’t help but wonder whether we are witnessing the end of civilization.  That is, I am not looking up to the sky for the end of the world, but up north to Charlottesville as the definitive sign that Americans have made the final leap away from civility and into barbarism.  A protest that was met by a counter-protest (was there another protest in there somewhere?) turned deadly and no amount of outrage will stop the barbarian invasion that is already underway.  We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.  As Lincoln once prophetically uttered, “… Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.  At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

While many of those men and women who populated the White Supremacist “protesters” resemble the savage Germanic invaders that sacked Rome, barbarians were found in both camps.  It is not savage behavior that marks the barbarian per se, but the unwillingness to engage the other in a reasonable conversation according to reasonable principles.  In short, the barbarian is the one who kills civility by rejecting the role of human reason in human affairs

We Are All Barbarians Now

It is easy to see how the white supremacists fit the barbarian bill—there is no reasonable argument that can ever justify their position.  It is evil through and through.  But how can we say the other side, in protesting against this evil is also barbaric?

In his book, The American Cause, Russell Kirk says that for any people to remain civilized, they must have a defined body of principles upon which they all agree.  That is, there are always two ways to compel a man—by argument and by force.  Compelling by argument means that there are a set of foundational principles, those that brought the people together, that can be applied to compel another person as to why a thing should be a certain way.  This is why Fr. John Courtney Murray said that “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.”  That is, the disagreement is over the application of the principles.  Once the principles themselves are called into question then there is no way to argue and force must be used.  A nation without principles is one that is uncivilized.

Kirk says that these principles fall into three main bodies, two of which are moral and political.  The moral principles have to do with what they think of God and human nature.  The political have to do with their ideas of justice and injustice.  That is, American civilization has always been bound by “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  Take away this self-evident creed and you take away any basis for civilization.

The Roots of American Barbarism

And herein lies the root of American barbarism.  America is a Christian nation and we have rejected that.  The debate over whether the Founders themselves were Christian or not is inconsequential.  The point is that they were so informed by Christian morality, that even if they may have actively undermined it at times, they still framed with a Christian mentality.

“All men created equal.”  Where would such an idea come from except from Christianity?  At no time was this ever believed until Christianity took hold of the world.  Personal sovereignty?  Only because Christianity teaches that authority itself comes from God and man is free so that only with the consent of the governed can one rule over another.  Right to the “pursuit of happiness?”  Human nature is a fixed entity by God such that only certain activities lead to genuine thriving.

What Charlottesville represents is the civilizational suicide that Lincoln warned against.  The irony is not lost on me that his memorial statue is the latest to be defaced. We can reject our slaveholding past without rejecting the Founding altogether.  Instead we have rejected the great principles that this country was founded upon and now find ourselves unable to engage in an argument.  We forget that it was the proper application of the Founding principles that put an end to slavery.  As if this wasn’t destructive enough, we are all barbarians now because we have rejected God and made human nature whatever we want it to be.

The point is that the counter-protesters had no ground to stand upon to say that the White Supremacists were wrong.  If human nature is malleable then we aren’t created equal.  If this is the case, then who is to say that whites aren’t better than African Americans or Jews?  With no Big Daddy in the sky watching over us and judging us, we cry out when Big Brother Donald Trump sits on the fence pointing fingers at both sides. What we saw in Charlottesville is just a harbinger of things to come.  There will be more and more protests and with no other way to engage, more tragic endings like we saw.

Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

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.

On Social Justice

Over the last couple of years, the protest movement has gathered so much steam that there seems to be an organized protest over nearly everything.  One California company has even gone as far as to offer their employees paid time off to participate in protests as a form of social justice.  The fact that these “social justice” protests result in destruction of property, violence and any number of offenses against justice shows that these protest movements are actually counter-productive at best.  They are based on a cart before the horse principle in which the participants and organizers (assuming at least some good will on their part) assume that once “just” social structures are in place, then the people will act justly.  Until this happens, they may need to “make a mess,” to borrow a phrase from the liberal manifesto Rules for Radicals to grab people’s attention, but that should eventually settle down.  But the cart of social justice can only be pulled by the horses of just individuals.  That the protestors are unjust while screaming for justice shows just how convoluted our thinking about justice has become and how necessary it is to develop a more complete understanding of justice.

Justice is the firm and habitual disposition to give to each person his or her rightful due.  Or, put more succinctly, justice is the habit of giving to each what is owed to them.  In short, to “owe” another person means that we are giving, or more accurately restoring, to them something that they already own.  Those more classically schooled will recognize in the “firm and habitual disposition” the definition of a virtue.  Justice is one of the four virtues (along with prudence, temperance and fortitude) on which all the other virtues depend.

The Interiority of Justice

It merits a reminder as well that because justice is a virtue, this means that it is primarily something interior to the person and not exterior.  Just as the person who habitually lies is a liar, so too the person who habitually acts justly is just.  The “environment” helps us to be more or less just, but it is the individual man who is just.  When a critical mass of individuals are just, a social justice follows.  Men without the virtue of justice, no matter how just the social structure, will always tend to destroy that structure.  That is precisely what we see in the protest movement—injustice committed in the name of justice.  While this might be a glaring example, the same can happen when the leaders are not just men either.

As the definition suggests, justice is meant to govern relationships and so to speak of “social justice” is a bit of a tautology.  This is why it remains a fuzzy concept for many of us and often just ends up being a mask for a political movement.  The Church has always viewed it as the cooperation of just men who form, maintain, or re-form social institutions that serve the common good.  Justice rules (i.e. social justice) a community when three fundamental structures of communal life are in proper order—individuals one to another (commutative), society to individuals (distributive) and individual to society (legal justice).  In his book on Justice, Josef Pieper has a helpful diagram to keep these straight.

 

The first form of justice is called commutative justice.  Commutative justice is usually what we think of when we speak of justice.  It governs the relationship between two people and assumes a certain level of equality between the two.  Being equals, they must equally bear the burden of any social exchange.  A person needs a pair of shoes from a cobbler and exchanges a just price, say $10, for the shoes.  Anything less than that then the buyer would be guilty of an offense against commutative justice.  Anything more and it would be the cobbler who violates commutative justice (As an aside, I will post on the Church’s teaching on just price, so for now just assume that $10 is a just price). It is also commutative justice governs the duty of restitution.   If a person steals from another, then they violate commutative justice and the guilty party must make some restitution to restore to the victim that which is owed.

Because many people think only in terms of commutative justice, many injustices occur because groups of men have obligations towards individuals.  In truth, while commutative justice is based on a principle of equality, men are not equal in all ways.  This is why the Church also speaks of distributive justice.  Distributive justice is not based on equality, but based on proportion, according to need, merit, circumstance, etc.  What properly belongs to man through distributive justice is a proportionate share in what is common to everyone, that is, to each man must be given a proportionate (not equal) share of the common good.

A classic example helps us to see how these first two forms of justice work.  Suppose there are two brothers, ages 2 and 16, and they approach their parents because they want candy.  There is only a single bag of M&Ms left and so the parents must divide the bag between the two.  Rather than counting the M&Ms and splitting them evenly, the parents give the 16 year old  2/3 of the bag and the 2 year old, 1/3.  They give unequal distribution because of their ages and amount of candy they should eat.  This is distributive justice.

Just as in the example the parents, who govern the good of the family, chose the allotment of M&Ms, it is the custodian of the common good in society then that determines the proper proportion.  For society as a whole this would be the State, or more properly understood, an individual that has the power to determine the allotment.  So, it is not the State that is just or unjust, but individuals holding power within the State that act justly or unjustly.  This simply reiterates the point about when the emphasis is on just structures and not just men, justice is almost never achieved.

Social Justice

Social justice is often equated with distributive justice because it is viewed mainly as a problem of distribution and the focus mainly remains on this dimension.  However, those who desire social justice ought to focus more on the relationship between the individual and society that St. Thomas calls legal justice. In short it is the individual, not focusing so much on his rights, but on his duties to society that creates social justice.  It is, to borrow from JFK’s famous speech, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  If each man were to focus on contributing to the common good and not just his own private goods then social justice would reign.

What all of this brings to the forefront is that the protest movements as they are practiced now are truly protesting against social justice.  In attempting to raise the awareness of injustices, they do harm to the common good.  Anyone who reads Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, can’t help but be struck by his thoughtful reflection upon what is just.  It was only because he had spent time thinking about justice that he was able to envision what it would look like.  He and his fellow co-founders of the Civil Rights Movement refused to counter injustice with more injustice.  Instead they kept their eyes focused on the common good (the focal point of his I Have a Dream speech) and how a more just society could be formed.  Destroying property, trampling on the good of the free speech of others, and destroying public order all creates less social justice not more, no matter how many days of paid leave they are given to protest.

On Roasting and Empathy

For those of us who are parents, coaches or teachers of teens, we cannot help but be struck by what has become an unparalleled capacity for cruelty that this generation of teens seems to have tapped into.  To be clear from the outset, this is not an essay about bullying, although it is related to this capacity in its truest form.  Our focus on bullying has become merely another way in which we help to create more victims so much so that we have come to label even the smallest amount of confrontation as “bullying.”  This is about a much deeper issue and that is the depths of cruelty that seem to be part and parcel of the life of teens.  Witness the latest teen pastime, Roasting.

Roasting is different from making fun of someone.  A certain amount of that is healthy, and especially in young men it is a sign of affection.  That is mere ribbing.  Even when it is not entirely good-natured, it usually stops when someone gets salty or sensitive.  Roasting on the other hand is something much more than ribbing.  Roasting is, as the Urban Dictionary describes it, the “act of verbally assaulting someone until you hurt their feelings, sometimes to the point of making them cry.”  Victory doesn’t occur with the zinger or burning the other person, it is in roasting them, that is, submitting them to slow and painful abuse.  Its purpose is not simply to embarrass but to keep going until you actually hurt the person or you drive the person to hurt himself.    Roasting is, in essence a Luciferian monologue intended to push a person over the edge.

This phenomena of Roasting leaves Parents, Teachers and Coaches at a loss, especially because even those who we would label as “good kids” engage in it.  It will remain an enigma until we are willing to name it for what it is and confront its chief cause.  Children and teens of this generation have failed almost universally to develop empathy.

When I make fun of someone else, my ultimate reason is because it brings me some pleasure.  That pleasure is reduced to the degree that I realize that it came at the price of causing another person pain.  In short, empathy either stops me from doing it, or at least from taking it so far.  Empathy is a sub-virtue of the virtue of charity by which a person habitually enters into another’s feelings, needs and thoughts. It is the habit of seeing things through the eyes of another person.  Empathy, first and foremost, assumes that one has learned how to “read” another person.  Until that ability matures, the person can only know their own pleasure.

How do we learn to “read” another person?  In normally developing children it is through face to face contact with other people.  They watch the reactions of other people to events and begin to read what they are thinking and feeling through those reactions. They learn that not all communication is verbal and learn how to pick up on these non-verbal cues.  They learn what approval looks like and what disapproval looks like.  They even learn that a person who is crying may be overcome by joy and not sadness.

The seeds of empathy are planted where there is presence.  Remove the presence and the tree of empathy never grows.  It is presence that is in danger in our digital age.  Children spend an inordinate amount of their time looking at screens instead of real live faces.  Even if their parents are “present” their faces are mostly looking down at their screens.  Communication occurs, not through conversation, but through texting and instant messenger.  Emoji are a cheap counterfeit to the real life need for a smile or a frown (did you know there is even a roasting emoji?). Growing up digital may have many advantages, but until we are aware of the pitfalls, we put our humanity in danger.  The digital threat to empathy is perhaps one of the greatest dangers we face.  Empathy is one of the most important social virtues and a loss of empathy leads not just to Roasting but things that are much worse.  We are raising our children to be cold and will only continue to exacerbate the problem as long as we remain addicted to our screens.

This mass deficiency of empathy in the young is a major theme of a book that every parent should read called Reclaiming Conversation.  The author, Clinical Psychologist Sherry Turkle, discusses some of the unintended consequences of going so digital, so fast.  As the name suggests, one of those consequences is a loss in conversation. What makes her book particularly good is the healthy dose of realism.  For most of us, ditching digital is not an option.  But rather than give ourselves over to it completely, we need to be aware of the places where we are particularly vulnerable and do things to protect ourselves.  In practice this means finding ways to unplug for longer periods of time with the express intention of having healthy conversation.  She uses Thoreau as her conversational model; the same Thoreau retreated to Walden and set up three chairs in his house—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  It starts with unplugging long enough to have healthy conversation with God (solitude), with those who are important to (friendship) and then to those outside our inner circle.  Although inefficient, face to face conversation is something that makes us human and is good for us.

It isn’t just Roasting in the young that is a problem.  There are many signs that adults too are losing the ability to empathize.  We say many things over email and text that we would never say in person because we have failed to realize that there is a person on the receiving end.  Rather than using text and emails as a tool to facilitate conversation we have come to use it as a replacement.  It may be easier to “deal” with someone who, but Jesus never said we should “deal with your neighbor” but to “love your neighbor.”  Love requires face to face interaction.  Practically speaking we should never argue or apologize over text or email.  Instead we should make it a policy to have conversations, especially hard ones, face to face.  Our humanity might depend on these simple practices.  We need to put down our phones so that we can take up our conversations.

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.

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.

A New Asceticism

Living in an age of unprecedented material prosperity and comfort, the practice of asceticism is a relic of ages past.  The word itself invokes images of emaciated monks wearing hair shirts and living in the desert.  Asceticism is still a foundational element in a healthy Christian life however and something that is foundational to the Christian life.  With this in mind, it is instructive to examine this practice with twenty-first century eyes.

What Is Asceticism?

Crippled in practice by misconceptions, a definition of asceticism is in order.  It is derived from the Greek word askētikós which means subject to rigorous exercise and hard work in the pursuit of virtue.  Simply put, asceticism is the strenuous effort one makes to overcome the deep division within his nature.  Asceticism is never done for its own sake, but always as a means to an end.  Forget this and it becomes more an exercise of ego than a Christian practice.  Christian asceticism is a means to greater freedom.  It is always done so as to live with the freedom of the children of God.  The more control we have over ourselves, the more grace is able to penetrate and transform us.  Grace perfects nature.

Never forgetting that we are earthen vessels, there is a vast difference between what we might call a heathen asceticism and Christian asceticism.  The heathen attempts to simply beautify the body the body while Christians attempt to bring it under control and train it for the glory of Heaven.  The heathen attempts to avoid death, the Christian lives looking forward to the Resurrection of the Body.

Asceticism is fitness training for the glory of heaven.  This training is approached from two angles.

The first is the classic approach in which we refuse to the body all that can weaken our soul’s union with Our Lord.  We know that, as fallen men and women, we are uncomfortable in our own skin.  Our bodies seem to have a mind of their own and so we must consciously forgo things that are good for us.  This training is not so much meant to bully the body but to prepare it to serve the higher goods of the soul.  In our resurrected state, the body will be under the command of the higher faculties of intellect and will—asceticism of this sort looks forward to that day.  We do what we can and wait for grace to do the rest.

The New Asceticism

On his death bed, St. Francis of Assisi had one regret—that he had been more gentle with Brother Ass, the moniker he gave to his body.  It is in this spirit that we view the second approach of actually taking care of our bodies.  A “new” asceticism might consist in doing all of those things and only those things that are necessary for our union with Our Lord.  In the old asceticism, the practice often overshadowed the purpose.  Subduing the body is not the end.  We subdue the body so that we may live fully in the freedom of the children of God.

Why this is “new” is because it reflects the times we live in.  Some of the poorest among us are surrounded by material comforts that only nobility would have enjoyed in the past.  With access to so many comforts, abstinence remains an option, but the harder path (i.e the path of virtue) is to practice moderation.  It allows us to use the material gifts God has provided with a greater freedom—the freedom that only comes when we use things according to the use that God intended.

In a vicious man, the body is a danger to his spiritual health, but in the hands of a virtuous man, a healthy body becomes a great spiritual weapon.  Rather than dragging themselves around by severe fasts, they abound with energy for winning souls to the Kingdom of God.  The beauty of their soul is matched with a certain beauty of body.  Holiness has a beauty all its own, a beauty that ought to radiate to the body even if it will never be matched in this world.

I have seen numerous articles floating about with regards to New Year’s Resolutions for Christians.  Almost all of them poo-poo “bodily” resolutions like getting back in shape because they suffer from a dualistic view of man that somehow puts the body and the soul at enmity with each other.  We may not be trousered apes, but we also are not angels.  A Christian knows that she is both and soul—she does not have a body and soul, but instead is a body and soul.  Those things that are truly good for the body redound to the soul and vice versa.  In other words, things that are good are good for the whole person.  As form of the body, the soul has a certain precedence, but nevertheless exercising the body is something that holy people do.

I would like to suggest that many Christians fail in their New Year’s resolutions precisely because they fail to see the need to train the whole person.  They may make resolutions to pray more, read Scripture more, etc, but then lack the bodily discipline to get out of bed to do these things.  They may be too tired because of poor health.  On the other hand they may promise to work out X number of days, but fail because they do not have the necessary virtue to persevere.  They fail to grasp that for the Christian, working out can be a spiritual practice (c.f.   ), or more accurately a practice done by a perfectly integrated Christian.

Asceticism in Practice

What would this new form of asceticism look like?  For starters we should have some regular form of moderate to intense exercise—always with its proper end in mind so as to keep us moderated.  From an ex-competitive bodybuilder I can tell you that physical exercise can become addictive especially as you begin to see positive body changes and so we must always remember why we are doing it.

There are other, more common sense things we can do as well—especially when it comes to food.  In God’s goodness, eating, because it is necessary for life, brings with it some pleasure.  But pleasure is not its purpose.  Its purpose is to produce health and strength.  It is in this spirit that we should always approach food and avoid snacking between meals and overeating.

This approach also helps us to rediscover the difference between merely eating and a meal.  A meal is meant to be a sign of a shared life together as they share something that cannot be lived without.  There may be a lot of eating, but very few meals.  In writing about gluttony, St. Gregory the Great describes the dangers of falling into the deadly sin of gluttony not only by eating too much, but also too expensively, too daintily prepared, too quickly and too often.  When our meals are more focused on who we are with and then the food, we are protected against this vice that acts as a gateway to the more serious sins of the spirit.

One other way the new asceticism is lived out is regarding getting enough sleep.  Often this simply means avoiding mind-numbing activities that typically keep us from falling asleep at a good time.  But it can also be an act of humility recognizing our own limitation and the number of things we can reasonably get done on a given day.  Most people find that when they set a hard and fast bed time, they not only feel better but waste less time during the day.  This is not to rule out vigils which are an important ascetical practice, but to say that these are an exception to what is otherwise an ordering of our lives that is patterned after God’s design.

Before closing, a point of clarification regarding the two approaches.  They are equally applicable to all stages of our Christian life.  It is not as if you graduate from the first approach and adopt the second.  We will never fully conquer the effects of original sin and so we will need to first approach.  Likewise, we are redeemed and ever-growing in our freedom and so the second approach will also be necessary.

St. Paul tells Timothy that “while bodily training is of some value, Godliness is of value in every way” (1Tim 4:8).  Christians, especially in our day, tend to ignore the first part and wonder why they are not as Godly as they could be.  Embracing asceticism once again, will go a long way in accomplishing this.

Then or Now?

It is always the questions with the obvious answers that cause the most problems.  Case in point, what if I were to ask whether you would rather live now or 200 years ago?  Allowing for the exception of a troglodyte or two, every one of them would, without hesitation, say “now.”  The reason seems obvious—the quality of life today is far beyond anything that could have been imagined two centuries ago.  Not only do we live longer today, but we are healthier and more people have access to more wealth.  Even the poor enjoy access to luxuries that only the very richest had in the past (if at all).  Think for example of our access to entertainment, entertainment filled with enough depravity that only the likes of Nero could enjoy in his day.  With that we realize that we may have answered the question too quickly and perhaps even looked at it the wrong way.  Sure we are enjoying an unprecedented material prosperity, but man does not live on bread alone.  Can we say that we are also enjoying an unprecedented spiritual prosperity?  Before throwing away the key to our time machines, we should reframe the question and ask “in which time period would being virtuous easier?”  Suddenly the answer does not seem so cut and dry.

The Question of Technology

We might be tempted to put the question down completely at this point.  We are when we are and there is no going back.  That is certainly true and the answer is only valuable insofar as it helps us in the here and now.  But rather than killing investigation, it ought to motivate it.  Volumes could be written on the differences in the time periods, but they could be summarized neatly in one word—technology.  At least that is the main difference according to CS Lewis who wrote:

“[F]or the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.  For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both in the practice of this technique are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

Summarizing Lewis’ point we can say that there are two kinds of men—those who subdue themselves to reality and those who will have reality subdued to themselves.  We call those in the first group virtuous and the second vicious.  This is a “problem” that is at the heart of man’s fallen existence.  Adam’s reality was that he had a single limitation—not eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Rather than subjecting himself to this reality, Adam chose to subject reality to himself.  In this regard he is no different than any one of us—sin is, at its core, an unwillingness for each of us to submit himself to reality.  We are like God in many ways, but not in the way that we can define for ourselves what is good and what is evil.

This is not a new problem for sure, but what is new is that in the past the average person lacked access to the power necessary to subdue reality to his wishes.  Now with so many technological solutions (techniques to use Lewis’ term) that give us power over reality, the temptation to subdue reality is much greater.

Technology and Power

Technology and power go hand in hand.  This may not be as obvious as it seems when more people have access to instruments of power, but it is true nonetheless.  Power in the hands of a few tends to corrupt only a few, power in the hands of many corrupts many.  With technological power comes the capacity to destroy ourselves.

We may have fallen victim to the belief that an increase of power mean “progress” but that is only true when the strength of character for using that power has kept pace.  We are now all like the superhero who wakes up one morning discovering he has superpowers and is confronted with whether we will use our powers for good or evil.  With greater command over the world, we need greater command over the self.

Progress in technology then is only truly progress when it makes us more human.  And this ought to be how we evaluate any advances in technology or our use of existing technologies.  Technology may be morally neutral, but how we use it is not.  Our guide as to its use is whether it leads to a more virtuous life or less, whether I am more human because of its help or less because of its substitution.

Efficiency

What often blinds us to seeing our use of technology more clearly is an obsession with efficiency.  Modern technology, the argument goes, increases efficiency making work easier and freeing us up for higher things.  But it seems that in the majority of cases the exact opposite has happened.   Labor saving devices may have replaced the slave labor of the past, but these devices often have enslaved otherwise free men.

The men of 200 years ago were freer than we are today.  Of that, there is no question.  The average man was more capable of taking care of himself and his family without significant outside help.  They could farm and hunt, they could build their homes and repair them, they knew how to navigate when lost in the woods, etc.  We, on the other hand, have specialists (farmers and homebuilders) or special machines (GPS) to do that for us now.  The average man 200 years ago would be far from average today.

The point is not that efficiency is bad, only that we should not treat it as an absolute value.  There is value in work done with our hands and simple tools.  It helps us to grow in the virtues of prudence, patience and perseverance.  In other words, we are better men for having done the work, no matter how menial it seems.  Labor saving technologies are only good and should only be used insofar as they help make us better men.

Another example might help to illustrate the point further.  Take a simple technology that is near and dear to my heart, the calculator.  Having a calculator has freed me up from doing the time consuming work of crunching numbers and enabled me to do the higher and more theoretical work in statistics.  However, when doing simple mathematical calculations, I will never use a calculator because it will reduce my distinctly human ability to do this.  I am somehow less human when I cannot do percentages in my head and have to rely on a calculator for a tip.  The point is that when the technology actually frees us up for higher things then it is a good, but this can never be at the expense of the loss of the ability to do the lower things.

Paradigm shifts always come abruptly.  We may pine for simpler times.  Frankenstein is already out of the cage and is not going back in.  While we may prefer to have lived in a previous age of morally better men, the reality is that we live in a technological age and we must find ways to use that power to make us better men.  Virtue itself may be harder, but this also means they will be stronger.

Awaiting the Prince of Peace

Each day during Advent, the readings focus on the coming of the Messiah, a coming that promised to usher in among other things, peace.  It is a peace that is anticipated by the prophets (c.f. Is 11:8), proclaimed by the angels who announce His birth (Lk 2:14), part of His endowment to the Apostles at the Last Supper (Jn 14:27) and the first gift given the Apostles celebrating His Resurrection (Jn 20:19).  It is also a peace that, despite being part of our Christian inheritance, remains elusive for many of us.  As we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace, it is an opportune time to reflect on peace as the characteristic mark of Christians.

Definition of Peace

St. Augustine offers us the best definition of peace as “the tranquility of order.” It is an effect of having order in one’s life.  As an effect, it is end in itself. While we all desire peace, no one desires it as a means to something else.  It is simply part and parcel to a happy life.

Although we might struggle to come up with a definition as succinct as St. Augustine, we all intuitively know that peace has something to do with order.  One of the main ways that people cope with anxiety is by seeking to manufacture order.  For example, many people will clean when they are anxious in an attempt to create order in their environment.  The disorder that is actually causing the anxiety will not actually go away, but they will find some semblance of peace in creating order where there was previously disorder, even if it is short-lived like most coping mechanisms.

Where Peace is Found

This definition of peace also helps us to more deeply understand a famous quote from Thomas Merton in which he says that, “we arenot at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”  Any attempt at socially engineering peace has the problem backwards, literally outside in.  Peace cannot come from the outside but must come from within because the well-ordered society only comes about through the work of well-ordered men.  It only comes about through the work of well-ordered Christian men, because only Christians have the capacity for true peace.

sassoferato-madonna-and-child

The narratives of the Old Testament orbit around man’s futile attempts to create peace for himself.  It becomes obvious that it was a practical impossibility and that only a miraculous intervention by God could bring peace.  As fallen creatures we find that there is a war within our members (Romans 7:23).  In other words, we lack the internal order that creates tranquility.  We find that the “flesh lusts against the spirit” (Gal 5:17)—our passions and our wills are constantly battling for control.

The path to order is paved by the moral virtues, those habitual dispositions that enable us to bridle our passions and ride them to the Good with intensity.  But even that road is marked by sinkholes until we put on Christ and take our rightful share in His virtues.  The Prince of Peace exercised all the virtues so that we might finally be empowered to be delivered from this handicap once and for all.  In other words, by making peace with God, the Word Made Flesh also empowers us to make peace within ourselves.

First Obstacle: Sin

No amount of coping mechanisms can help us avoid the truth that we do not have peace because we have sin in our lives.  When I say this, it is not so much the actual sins that cause the disorder, but the reason we commit them.  In other words, the disorder is caused by our predominant fault, with our actual sins just being manifestations of this fault.  It is not enough to recognize that I get irrationally angry at my family, but I must get to the root cause of my anger.  Perhaps I do it because I crave comfort and do not want to be disturbed.  Or, perhaps I do it because I am vain and do not want to suffer the embarrassment of being opposed.  Or, perhaps in my pride I am attempting to control other people’s actions.  It is the same sin, blowing up at my family, but its root cause can be vastly different—pride, vanity or sensuality.  I may learn to control my anger, but until I attack the predominant fault of pride, vanity or sensuality, the disorder will remain.  This is why we always use the principle of overcoming evil with good—we are habitual creatures.  You can only overcome one habit (or vice) by replacing it with a new habit (virtue).

The Second Obstacle: Lack of Trust

Sin is not the only obstacle to peace.  In order to see this, we must avoid the pitfall of assuming that the solution to a lack of peace is to be more “spiritual” by looking upon the world with indifference.  Peace may not come from the outside, but the things that threaten our peace do.  This is why peace is only found in those who have a radical trust in God.  Life is full of difficulties and contradictions—in other words disorder.  That is a reality that cannot be merely overlooked.  But what is also real is that God uses those difficulties and contradictions to bring about what is good for us. God’s Providence is not merely universal, but personal.

Advent and peace go hand in hand.  Advent is a time to “stay awake” so that we can hurry up and wait.  It is a time to cultivate patience as we reflect on those things that threaten our peace and begin to see that God is at work in them.  This is not something we will see all at once, but only grow in this conviction with repeated experience.  He brought order out of chaos in creation and will do so in our re-creation in Christ.  Peace is distinctly Christian because it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Like all fruit, not only does it have a certain sweetness to it, but it also is a sign of a mature tree.  May this Advent be a time of maturity so that we may welcome the Prince of Peace into our hearts in a most profound way.

Thanksgiving and Gratitude

We might call it the “Black Friday creep”—for years the start time for Black Friday has crept closer and closer to Thanksgiving Day.  This year many retailers will be open for longer hours on Thanksgiving Day, threatening to make the holiday little more than a drive-thru meal.  The tug of war really is between two outlooks on life—one based on envy with the need to get the best deals on the latest things and gratitude at being satisfied with what you already have.   Thanksgiving Day is about gratitude and therefore is celebrated best when we have worked to cultivate this virtue.  Therefore it seems fitting to offer a reflection on this virtue.

black-friday-riot

 

To begin, a word about the celebrating of secular holidays like Thanksgiving.  As Christians who believe in a God who acts within human history (i.e. within the secular), we should not object to the celebration of these holidays.  What we should object to however is when they become infused with a secularized mentality.  Gratitude by its nature must have an object toward which one is grateful.  To say “I am thankful” is the same as going into a restaurant and simply saying “I order.”  Just as you need to identify the food you want to eat, you must also identify a person you are thankful to.  In the United States, the Person towards which we are thankful to is God.  Even Barack Obama, no friend of religion, echoes the sentiments of Washington and Lincoln in his own Thanksgiving Day proclamations calling for gratitude to “Almighty God.”  Without this acknowledgment, Thanksgiving becomes just another day to “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you will die.”  As GK Chesterton may once said (quoting another author), “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.”  No one ultimately can be grateful to “the processes of history.”

Just knowing who we are grateful to however is not enough.  To keep Thanksgiving from becoming “Thanks-taking” we need to make sure we are exercising the virtue of gratitude properly.

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.”  Gratitude is both affective and effective.  The affective element consists in both “thanks-reflecting” and “thanks-saying.”  The effective element consists in “thanks-giving.”  Most of us only associate gratitude with “thanks-saying” and therefore miss the virtue in its fullness.

“Thanks-reflecting” consists in, as St. Thomas says, the “recollection of (divine) benefits.” It is this first part that in many ways is the most important.  It is the time when we count and name our blessings.  If you read the first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of George Washington, he enumerates the things for which the country should be grateful— “the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”  In other words, it is not enough to say who we are thankful to, but we must also say what we are thankful for.  There is great benefit to doing this because it only strengthens our gratitude.  As we begin to enumerate all the ways in which God has blessed us we will grow to thank Him for everything, including our sufferings, able to “give thanks in every circumstance” (1 Thes 5:18).

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.

There is a danger of seeing gratitude as being about quid pro quo—like sending Thank You notes for Thank You notes.  But it 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.  And, most importantly He is a joyful giver.  While we may not be able to return the affection to God directly, it is with joy and sheer gratuity that we celebrate Thanksgiving with those God has placed in our lives.

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.  Thanksgiving Day will not be complete unless you start the day with Mass.  The Eucharist is man’s greatest gift back to God.

Gratitude is so important because it makes the hearts of the giver and the receiver the same.  This happens really and truly when we receive the Eucharist.  Our hearts become united to the Sacred Heart.  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.

As I have said any number of times, one of the ways that Catholics can recapture the culture is to celebrate holidays like only Catholics can.  We are not so other-worldly that we do not see the goods God has placed in this world for our enjoyment.  We do not merely thank God for His spiritual benefits, but also the freedom He has given us to use the material gifts in the way He intended when He bestowed them upon us.  This shatters the delusion about Christianity that many people operate under.  When we put the joy of being Catholic on display, holidays like Thanksgiving can be a powerful means of evangelization.  As Hillaire Belloc once said, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.  At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!

A Complaint Against Grumbling

Pope St. John Paul II often avoided the use of the term “free will” when he was describing man’s moral life.  Instead he preferred to speak of “self-determination.”  What he hoped to emphasize in doing this was that our actions have an effect on us.  What we do does not simply remain outside of us, but make up who and what we are.  In other words, our actions turn us into something.  Even our speech reveals this to be true:  we call a person who lies repeatedly a liar, a person who steals a thief, a person that repeatedly shows courage a hero and a person who repeatedly gives of himself a saint.  This theme is central to his encyclical on Moral Theology, Veritatis Splendor.  Rather than commending what many consider JPII’s most difficult encyclical, I would like to point out the smuggled moral theology contained in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce.  In this deep meditation on good and evil, Lewis’ pilgrim meets people somewhere between heaven and hell and finds that even if someone were given the option to choose between heaven or hell in the afterlife, they are already fixed as heavenly or hellish people.  Lewis himself cautions the reader not to read the book as a theological commentary on heaven, hell and purgatory.  Instead he calls it an “imaginative supposal” which offers insights into the moral life.

One of the more puzzling characters that the pilgrim meets along the way is a woman who seems to have a nearly endless list of complaints.  After listening to her “shrill monotonous whine,” the Pilgrim asks his guide how it is even possible that she is in danger of damnation.  She seems to have gotten into the habit of grumbling, but it is a mostly harmless thing that a little change in environment would remedy.  The Guide (George MacDonald) replies that:

“That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler…Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman-even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

Given the current level of discontent of most Christians with the direction the culture is taking, I think there is a grave danger than many of us may in fact become grumbles.  Grumbling and Christianity have become somewhat synonymous.  We may have grown so accustomed to it, that we fail to see its dangers.  What I would like to offer today then is a complaint against grumbling.

Sacred Scripture is consistent in its condemnation of grumbling (or murmuring).  In fact, it even goes so far as to say it is useless.  The Book of Wisdom tells us to “keep yourselves from grumbling, which profits nothing” (Wisdom 1:11).  St. Paul suggests that it is by doing things without grumbling that the Christian distinguishes himself when he tells the Philippians to “[D]o all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil 2:14-15).

If grumbling really profits nothing and we risk blame over it, how can we become grumble-free?  To answer that question, we must attempt to define it.  The Greek word for grumble is goggýzō which means “to express smoldering discontent.”  This is why Lewis expressed the lady’s situation in terms of ashes and flames.  Something that is smoldering, even if it never reaches a full blown flame, will eventually be consumed.  Grumble enough and we become grumbles.

At the heart of grumbling is a general discontent for life.  One who finds little joy in life grumbles.  This is why it is so antithetical to a truly Christian existence—Christians should be marked by their joy.  Left unchecked, this discontent becomes the seedbed of hell.  Lewis also says that, in the end, “the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’‘: and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”   We have all met people (we usually call them saints) who carry heaven with them.  We have also all been unfortunate enough to meet those who carry hell with them as well, and they are almost always if not other things, grumblers.  As Lewis says, “[H]ell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”

CS Lewis Writing

By saying that grumbling has no point, the author of the Book of Wisdom means that absolutely no good comes from it.  Christians are in the world because they are meant to redeem it.  With The Master as his model and his inspiration (in the truest sense of the word), the Christian transforms all things by drawing the goodness out of it and bringing into being good that otherwise would not have existed.  Evil is a parasite, it always feeds upon a good.  In the midst of personal suffering, social evils and secular culture, the Christian is called not simply to complain but to draw those goods that are present out.

Grumbling tends to make mountains out of molehills.  More accurately, we allow molehills to serve as stumbling blocks to True Mountain.  To overcome this tendency we must develop a radical trust in Divine Providence.  Note how Jesus responds to the grumbling of His disciples in the Bread of Life discourse.  He tells them to stop grumbling and then calls them to faith (Jn 6:41-43).

The faith that He invites us to is not one of resignation but one that is completely active.  When confronted with either a Mountain or a Molehill, we should ask how the situation can be redeemed.  Why is it that God allowed this to happen?  We are not attempting to write our own version of the story but to draw the good that God intends out.  Faith tells us there is good to be found, grumbling says there is none.

The reality is that we often do not have the power to eradicate a particular evil.  This is usually when grumbling sets in.  We must fight this temptation.  Instead we should seek to find the goods that are revealed and celebrate those.  When GK Chesterton suffered an ankle injury, he wrote an essay called The Advantages of Having One Leg.  It wasn’t that he was optimistic so much as the fact that losing the use of one of his legs became an occasion to praise God for the gift that up to that point he had taken for granted.  Evil has this strange quality in that it often allows us to see goods we would normally never have noticed.  If an evil persists, despite our best efforts to fight it, perhaps we need to look for those goods we were previously overlooking.  Summarizing, Chesterton wrote, “This world and all our powers in it are far more awful and beautiful than even we know until some accident reminds us. If you wish to perceive that limitless felicity, limit yourself if only for a moment. If you wish to realize how fearfully and wonderfully God’s image is made, stand on one leg. If you want to realize the splendid vision of all visible things–wink the other eye.”

Finally, grumbling blocks patience.  Of all the spiritual works of mercy, bearing wrongs patiently is the one that is most tied to the Cross.  We imitate Christ most perfectly when we silently bear wrongs.  This is not to suggest that Christians are doormats, only that there are times when confronted with evil that we must be silent.  Christ responded to the high priest servant’s blow by speaking, but there are also times when we must turn the other cheek.  Wisdom will help us know the difference.  But when by complaining I will bring about no good, no conversion of heart, perhaps the best approach is to bear it with patience.  The Cross always acts like a wrench in the gears of evil.

Anyone who has read The Great Divorce would immediately see the influence that Dante’s Divine Comedy had on Lewis.  As he climbs Mount Purgatory, Dante finds each of the remedies to the deadly sins has a Marian solution.  If he were to include the grumblers, then they would be purified by Our Lady’s habit of “keeping these things in her heart.”  She never grumbled because she always pondered.  May we too imitate her spirit.

 

Finding Joy

Prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger addressed a group of Catechists in Rome on the topic of the New Evangelization.  He commented that one of the greatest obstacles to the Gospel is poverty.  The greatest poverty, the future Pope commented, is the inability of joy.  All of us seek joy and yet it remains elusive for many of us because we are unable to receive it.  Why might this be?

Joy remains elusive for the simple reason that we do not know what it is and therefore fail to identify it when it comes.  Joy, according to Blessed Paul VI, is the satisfaction that occurs when we possess a known and desired good [Gaudete in Domino (GD), 1].  Because joy is related to a “known and desired good,” and specifically man’s highest faculties of knowing and willing, we can say it originates within man’s spirit and not from within the body.  It may spill over into the body and be experienced as bodily pleasure, but that is not always the case.  To help us separate joy from pleasure St. Thomas says “we take delight both in those things which we desire naturally, when we get them, and in those things which we desire as a result of reason. But we do not speak of joy except when delight follows reason.”  Identification of the good as truly good and a love of it then are key components of joy.

An ever-present danger is to think that joy can only be found in the possession of God.  What this leads to is compartmentalization and an “over-spiritualizing” of our lives.  Joy finds its fullness in the possession of God as Goodness itself, but there is such thing as natural joy.  In fact supernatural joy assumes that we are capable of natural joy.

At each stage of Creation, God took delight (“it was good”) and upon its completion He rested delighting in the whole as “very good” (Gn 1:31).   In other words, God found joy in Creation.  Mankind, made in His image, is given a share in that joy.  Certainly if God finds joy then we should too.

We might find joy in a beautiful sunset or an incredible landscape, but in truth joy mostly comes in “smaller” ways.  Natural joy comes when we do those things that fulfill our nature— our work, our duties, and our relationships.  All of these things are true goods that fulfill us and thus sources of joy.

Why was it that God chose shepherds tending their flock as the first recipients of the message of great joy (Lk 2:11-12)?  Was it because they were particularly pious?  There is nothing to indicate that.  Was it because they were breathlessly awaiting the Messiah?  Again, nothing indicates this.  Instead the angels appear to them because they were open to supernatural joy.  They had found natural joy in watching their sheep by night.  They saw the good of their work and the fruits that it provided them and they delighted in them.  Supernatural joy, in the Person of God Himself, found them and He came to find us too so that our “joy might be complete” (John 15:11).

This is why supernatural joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Just as fruit only comes to a tree when it is mature, once a man has a certain spiritual maturity he finds the fruit of joy from his possession of the Holy Spirit.

joy-and-sadness

St. Thomas says that “no man can live without joy” so the Devil is always lurking trying to steal our joy.  We must also then be aware of the obstacles to joy.

Recall that joy comes in the recognition of a good thing as truly good.  If we are loaded down by our “responsibilities” and do not allow silence to speak to us about these goods, we may not recognize them as good.  We can only love what we know, so until we truly see them as good we cannot delight in them.  By cultivating silence in our lives as a time of reflection of the good things in our lives, we can develop the capacity for joy.  Rather than gratitude, the culture attempts to instill envy in us.  You will never find joy in keeping up with the Joneses.  As Paul VI said, “in a fast-moving world, too often men are prevented from enjoying daily joys. Nevertheless such joys do exist. The Holy Spirit wants to help these people rediscover these joys, to purify them, to share them” (GD, 5).  No prophet of gloom, the Blessed Pontiff left us with an antidote—developing a Marian spirit who “mediates on the least signs of God, pondering them in her heart” (GD, 5).

Paul VI also mentioned that “technological society has succeeded in the multiplying of opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty generating joy” (GD, 1).  Technology (which literally means “the study of technique”) offers us efficiency, but there are no efficient ways to find joy.  In addition to silence, joy also takes work.  Technology is meant to reduce work.  This is a good as long as it doesn’t reduce man at the same time.  Even though it may create a temporary high, you can never derive joy from a thousand “likes” on Facebook.  But joy can come from a single smile from your child even after a trying day.  It might feel good to make one-handed catch in Madden ’17, but it will never bring the joy that comes from running a route until you have perfected it and then having the ball right on your hands when you turn around.

St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians says “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake because I make up for what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1:24).  At first glance it seems that only a sadist would find joy in his sufferings, but there is something more at play here that is worth investigating.  This is especially true because suffering appears to be the one insurmountable obstacle to joy.  How is it possible to find joy in the midst of suffering?

Joy is not the same thing as giddiness.  Those who find joy in suffering still feel the pain of it.  They still suffer.  That is because it is not the suffering that causes them joy but the thing that they possess because of the suffering.  When suffering comes upon us, we know that we have God’s personal attention.  He has handpicked our suffering because it is the gentlest way for us to be made perfect like Jesus, the Suffering Servant.  We can rejoice because we are being perfected, like gold tested in fire.  We can rejoice because someone else through our participation in the Cross is being perfected.  The point is that we rejoice like St. Paul because we find the meaning of our suffering.  For those of us who have suffered we find joy in the goods that the Almighty Father attached to the suffering (for my own testimony read here).  The Cross really is the Tree of Life.

Modesty and the Freedom to Be Loved

An assistant principal at a Texas High School recently came under fire for making comments that were “inappropriate and offensive to students.”  What did he say?  During an assembly he called out the young ladies in the school for wearing tight clothes and short shirts.  He went on to blame them for “the boys’ low grades” intimating that they are distracted by the clothes many of the girls wear.  While his comments may have been lacking in humor and mode of delivery, they were not lacking in truth.  He was challenging them to dress more modestly.  The problem is that many young people lack the necessary context to understand the value of modesty and therefore are “offended” when someone says something.

Before he was to become Bishop of Rome, Fr. Karol Wojtyla wrote what might ultimately become his most important work, Love and Responsibility.  In it, he examines the relationship between the sexes and lays out the foundations of what would become his Theology of the Body.  Perhaps if the Assistant Principal was familiar with the work, he would have been able to draw on Fr. Wojtyla’s lengthy discussion on the importance of modesty.

In the book he makes what many today would consider a radical assumption—that men and women are different.  This difference is not just skin deep but goes to the very depth of their being as man and woman.  In fact our bodies are simply expressions of these differences rather than the totality of these differences.  These differences even affect the ways in which men and women are attracted to each other.

When one speaks of being “attracted” to someone, it primarily means that there is a response to a perception of some value in that person.  But because the person is not just an object but also a subject, there is always the danger of treating the other as a “something” rather than a “somebody.”  To guard against this tendency, Fr. Wojtyla articulates what he calls the personalistic norm—“A person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”

The sexual attraction (Wojtyla calls it the “sexual urge”) between men and women is a recognition of the sexual value of the other person.  It is experienced in two forms; sensuality and sentimentality.  Sensuality is the attraction to the body of the person of the opposite sex.  Sensuality is stirred when we encounter a person of the opposite sex and find value in their body as an object of personal enjoyment. Sentimentality is the emotional attraction to the sexual value residing in the whole person in the form of their masculinity and femininity.  Since sensuality is oriented towards the body as an object of enjoyment, it is generally stronger in men while sentimentality because it is more relational is strongest in women.

Because the sexual urge is so strong, there is always the danger that men and women will look upon the other person merely for their sexual value.  They then become an object of pleasure rather than a person to be loved.  In order for love to develop the entire “value” of the person must be seen and not just their sexual value.  What this means is that men and women must keep some of their sexual value hidden so that true love can blossom.

This, Fr. Wojtyla says, is the value in the experience of shame.  Shame arises any time that something which by its very nature ought to be private somehow becomes public.  Sexual shame arises when the sexual value of the person obscures their personal value.  Shame then acts like a protectant against use.  Most of us have experienced this.  A man instinctively will look away when he is caught staring at a woman he finds attractive.  A girl who is dressed immodestly will be forever adjusting her clothes.   Although they may not articulate it as shame, it is experienced by all but those who are shameless.  Modesty on the other hand is the “constant capacity and readiness to feel shame.”

pride-and-prejudice

As I mentioned sensuality is generally stronger in men.  This means that modesty and shame must be more pronounced in women.  The problem is that women are not primarily inclined to sensuality and so they do not intuit the need to conceal the body.  Modesty comes about when they gain an insight into male psychology

Even if it fell flat in its delivery, the Assistant Principal was trying to offer a much-needed insight into the male psychology.  Perhaps rather than being offended, what the students experienced was shame.  It isn’t just the boys’ problem for not focusing and it is not just the girls’ problem for dressing immodestly.  It is the self-perpetuating problem of use.  The girls dress immodestly, deliberately flaunting their sexual value, the boys respond by seeing only that.  The boys treat them as objects to be used and the girls accept this use.

The problem, I said, was one of context.  When we hear the word modesty we are immediately drawn to a Victorian encounter between men and women.  We must free modesty from this image.  Remember the goal is to keep sexual values from obscuring the true value of the person.  This does not mean that the person should hide all of their sexual value, only to the extent that they can be seen as a part of the value of the person.  The accentuation of sexual value by dress is inevitable and is not necessarily incompatible with modesty.  It is when the attire is chosen specifically to provoke a reaction that it becomes immodest.  As Fr. Wojtyla says, “What is truly immodest in dress is that which frankly contributes to the deliberate displacement of the true value of the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person as to a ‘possible means of obtaining sexual enjoyment’ and not ‘a possible object love by reason of his or her personal value’.”

Most importantly, and this is what those young ladies needed to hear, modesty is more than keeping the boys from failing their classes and more than just protecting themselves from being gawked at.  “Sexual modesty is not a flight from love, but on the contrary the opening of a way towards it.”  Each of those young ladies desires to be loved and dressing immodestly, even if it garners attention, will never foster true love.  Only modesty frees love to blossom.

What Americans Hold

Anyone who has studied American history knows that keeping Americans united has been the greatest challenge.  The necessity of a “more perfect union” led to the abolishing of the Articles of Confederation and to the delaying of a remedy for slavery by the Constitutional Convention.  America is unique in the history of the world because it succeeded in bringing together men and women from different countries, cultures and even races.  Every other country is united insofar as they share a certain character.  Italy became a nation because all the smaller principalities were Italian, Greece because the city states were Greek, and France, French.  It is the reason why Scotland always fought becoming part of England and why, in modern times, the EU is ultimately doomed to fail.  But the United States is different because what actually unites its citizens is, as Chesterton observed, a creed.  It is the proposition that all men are “endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that unites us as Americans.  To use another Chestertonian image, America may be a melting pot, but the pot itself is what holds it altogether.

This “unity in diversity” is precarious and the danger of dissolution is always around the corner.  But the danger does not come not from any external enemy but from within.  Lincoln, the Great Restorer of the Union, said this, rather prophetically in an 1837 speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.  At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

As Lincoln entered office, the country was divided precisely because one of the fundamental elements of the American Creed, namely the equality of all men, was rejected by a large portion of the population.  Those who were trying to reform the melting pot were in danger of breaking it.

Lincoln--Carpenter

Without any danger of hyperbole, we could easily say that we are facing a similar danger today.  We are a country that is clearly divided and no longer merely along political lines.  This is obvious to all but the most myopic of our citizens (namely politicians), but no solution can be found until we treat the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence as more than quaint historical facts.  It is the self-evident truths, and only these, that has kept our country united for 240 years.  If it is to survive the next 20, we will need to return to these with greater clarity.

I have written in other places about the elements of the American Creed, but I would like to take this essay to a more foundational level.  No amount of clarity will help us if we continue to deny the roots of the tree from which the fruits of freedom and equality flow.  One can argue all day long whether or not the Founders were Christian or Deist or just children of the Enlightenment, but that ignores the fact that what they built was built on a Christian understanding of reality.  They were breathing Christian air.

Equality of mankind? 

Entirely unknown in the world until Christ came to save all mankind without distinction—“ There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  Rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile all came together as one body to receive the one bread (1 Cor  ).  We are so used to this idea that we forget how revolutionary this idea was at the time.

Self-government?

Self-government rests upon the Christian understanding of the uniqueness of each individual person created by God and he is “the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake” (GS 24).  This power of self-government that is received from God can be transmitted to the governing party and taken away in dire situations.  As an aside, this was a foundational argument of Jefferson’s in the Declaration of Independence—“ But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

The point is that we cannot continue to take of the fruit of the tree while simultaneously digging up the roots.  This is why John Adams in reflecting on the Constitution said that it is “made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  His point is that any attempt at self-government requires the ability for each person to govern himself.  It requires virtue (i.e. a moral people).  Only those who are virtuous can use their freedom well and in the manner it was intended, namely “the pursuit of happiness.”  But as history bears out (including the failed attempt of the French Revolution based on the similar founding principles), virtue is not enough.  Virtue requires religion.  While there may be individual exceptions in a given society, the beginning of virtue is the fear of the Lord.  Fear of judgment is not the end of virtue, but it is certainly the beginning.  One must believe that he will eventually have to answer for his deeds (i.e. a religious people).

While some of the Founders may have seen religion only from a utilitarian viewpoint, this will not do.  Our country needs not just “religion” but Christianity to survive.  It is instructive to reflect on Jefferson’s use of the term “Church” when he speaks about the “wall of separation between Church and State.”  Only Christianity has Churches.  Despite his own religious leanings he knew that America needed Christianity.  That means all of us need to be more Christian and not less.  The peace of our society and the salvation of souls depends upon it.

A society like ours that has become indifferent and even hostile in some ways to Christianity is cutting off its nose to spite its face.  The argument over which color lives matter presupposes the question as to why any lives matter at all—and only a Christian has an adequate response.  All lives matter because God has definitively said so in giving the life of His Son.  Why are we all dissatisfied with our choices for President?  Because we inherently know that character matters more than competence, another tenant Christianity has taught us.  In this great moment of division, who will lead?  It must be Christians willing to sacrifice themselves holding the pot together for a love a God and neighbor.

Watching without Seeing

“Curiosity killed the cat,” the proverb goes, “but satisfaction brought him back.”  Throughout Christian history, from Augustine and Jerome to Aquinas, curiosity has been viewed as a serious vice.  In contrast, today, it represents little more than an annoying habit.  The problem is all the more acute in an age where we have access to endless hours of entertainment, social media, and the internet filled with information.  Far from being just a minor fault, curiosity represents a serious problem that, if left unchecked, can put our souls in just as must danger as the cat.  But rather than satisfaction, it is the virtue of studiousness that will bring us back.

It must first be admitted that because of our rational nature, we each have a great desire for knowledge of the truth.  As Aristotle said, “all men have a desire to know.”   Just as the body is fueled by food, so the intellect is fueled by truth.    Because knowledge of the truth leads to our fulfillment as rational creatures, it is a fundamental good.  This is why curiosity is such a temptation and ultimately harms us.

But like the natural desire for food, the desire for knowledge must be moderated by our reason.  This is where the virtue of studiousness comes in.  By fostering studiousness, or the habit of study, we will refuse to feed the intellect with the junk food of mere facts, but the nutrition of truth.  Just as a steady diet of junk food will leave us sluggish, a steady diet of facts leads to the sluggishness of curiosity.  If we recall that acedia or sloth is a spiritual laziness by which we see a spiritual good as not really worth the effort it takes to get it, we can see why St. Thomas thought that curiosity was a daughter vice of acedia.

Curiosity is the desire for knowledge simply for the pleasure that it brings as opposed to knowing for the sake of knowledge itself (which is the virtue of studiousness).   Gossip, which brings the pleasure of knowing something bad about someone else is a prime example of curiosity.  On the other hand, study is the keen application of the mind to something.  The studious person has no desire to gossip.

Gossiping women

But how can we know the difference, especially when the desire for knowledge is a good thing?  St. Thomas says the learning of the truth can be inordinate in four ways.  First, “when a man is withdrawn by a less profitable study from a study that is an obligation incumbent upon him.”   Although he did not live in an era of social media and the internet, St. Thomas is particularly prophetic here.  It is curiosity that drives the social media phenomenon.  A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American spends almost an hour a day on Facebook.   To carry the food analogy further, this is about the same amount of time we spend eating each day.  While we are there, we are bombarded with facts—both news items and personal—but it is curiosity that drives us to scroll through the feeds.  That time could be better spent studying, especially given that the same study found that the average person spends less than 20 minutes a day reading.  Curiosity always leads to ignorance because we do not study those things we should be studying.  It is curiosity that has left us “educated” yet ignorant.

The second way in which curiosity manifests itself is through knowledge of things that are not licit.  St. Thomas gives the example of fortune telling.  Under the guise of harmless curiosity, many have been sucked unwittingly into the traps of the Evil One through fortune telling, Ouija boards and Tarot cards.  Many young men are sucked into pornography mainly out of curiosity—hearing about it from friends or wondering what the allure is for their dad and all the time he spends on it.

Aquinas also says that curiosity rears its head when we “study about creatures without reference to the due end namely God.”  By this he means that much of our modern scientific inquiry is rooted in curiosity.  All science has become mechanistic rather than teleological.  We collect facts through the scientific method, but do not study (or more accurately contemplate) the purpose.   Studiousness is needed for science because it requires the self-discipline to exclude frivolous pursuits and those that contradict the moral law.  Instead, we act without any reference to the moral law and equate the technically possible with the morally permissible.  Science when governed by studiousness allows us to see how all things are connected as part of a whole, a whole that is meant to reveal the Creator.

Finally Aquinas says curiosity seeks to know the truth above the capacity of our own intelligence.  All too often we fall into the Cliff Clavinesque habit of regurgitating facts merely to impress.  Curiosity is about replacing the desire for truth with empty shows.

What makes curiosity so soul-deadening is that it acts as a gateway vice, leading to worse things. Earlier we used the example of pornography, but it ultimately leads to an inability to love.  Recently, I witnessed a car accident when the driver hit the gas instead of the brake while pulling into a parking space and drove through a store front.  Rather than rushing to help the driver, nearly all of the bystanders stood there, phones in hand, taking pictures.  Deadened by curiosity, what else could they do but post photos of this poor woman’s misery to their social media accounts?  No compassion or even respect, just entertainment.

It is the stoking of curiosity too that drives the news media.  Each “major” event in the news cycle gets reported in painstaking details and then is quickly replaced with the next event.  Curiosity drives our consumption and it leads to a profound change in us.  It’s not just that we become desensitized to the suffering of others or that we waste time.  It is that we lose the ability to examine things deeply.  Life becomes episodic and we do not know how it all fits together because we watch rather than see.

“Curiosity killed the man and no amount of satisfaction can bring him back.”

Know Thy Temperament

In 2014, Americans spent over $10 billion on self-help books, CDs and seminars.  Although these techniques promise change, very often they fail to make any lasting impact on our lives.  The problem oftentimes is that the programs themselves have a different definition of happiness or perfection and so we end up dissatisfied even when we reach our goals.  More often however is that we lack the self-knowledge necessary to really affect change in our lives.  When we begin to confront our shortcomings, a certain amount of sadness arises in us.  In order to avoid this sadness, we develop blind spots to our true faults.  We then embark on some self-help program to fix faults we don’t really have or ones that are minor at best.  This is not to say these programs have no use in our lives, after all, only that they will be entirely ineffective unless we have self-knowledge.  Placing ourselves before God in prayer by which we come to know ourselves as He knows us is remains the most effective way to grow in self-knowledge and to heal those defects that we have.  But many people may not be aware that in the Catholic tradition there are other objective means to growing in self-knowledge, namely by relying on the knowledge of our temperament.

Fr. Jordan Aumann defines a temperament as, “as the pattern of inclinations and reactions that proceed from the physiological constitution of the individual. It is a dynamic factor that determines to a great extent the manner in which an individual will react to stimuli of various kinds.”  Within this definition we can see two factors, namely that our temperaments are based on our material makeup (physiological constitution) and represent a pattern or a natural way to reacting to a given situation.  These reactions can be quick or slow and short in duration or long lasting.  Each of these four combinations maps to a specific temperament.

What makes knowledge of one’s temperament extremely helpful when it comes to self-knowledge is that it enables us to see both are natural strengths and weaknesses.  It also makes some virtues easier while others are harder.

There are two caveats that are important for us to understand as well.  First we must never use our temperament as an excuse for our bad behavior or as a way to minimize our faults.  We use it to understand our tendencies and as a means to view our weaknesses—but this is always done so that we can open the windows of our souls and allow the transforming light of Christ to shine on them.  Second, just because it is a natural tendency does not mean that we are stuck with our temperament.  As Aumann’s definition suggests, temperaments are dispositions which means they can be molded and changed.  Our goal ought to be to for the perfection of all four temperaments rather than thinking we are stuck with our own.

In looking at each of the four temperaments, we begin with the choleric.  The choleric temperament is easily and strongly aroused, and the impression lasts for a long time.   Because of this, the choleric tends to show great zeal for whatever he sets his mind to.  He tends to be strong willed and highly emotional and a man of principles.  The virtues of perseverance and justice tend to come rather easily and this temperament naturally lends itself to leading others.

On the other hand, the choleric because he is highly emotional often acts quickly and is imprudent in his haste.  He must actively work to cultivate patience, prudence, and humility.  Because he is principle based he tends to put principles ahead of people and rarely does things just to be nice.  So, on a natural level they need to practice charity in dealing with others.

The passionate partner of the choleric is the melancholic.  The melancholic reacts slowly but once aroused the impression is strong and long lasting.  By nature the melancholic is inclined to reflection, piety, and the interior life. They are compassionate toward those who suffer, attracted to the corporal works of mercy, and able to endure suffering to the point of heroism in the performance of their duties. They have high ideals and a commitment to perfection.  They also tend to analyze their projects thoroughly.

The melancholic tends to be overly critical of themselves and others, dismissive and overly judgmental.  They lack self-confidence and often have difficulty starting tasks.

Those with a Sanguine temperament tend to react quickly and strongly to almost any stimulation or impression, but the reaction is usually of short duration.   The sanguine is optimistic, sometime overly so and are usually fairly outgoing. This means that compassion usually comes rather easily to them, but they have trouble being impartial because their feelings are so strong.  They tend to be impulsive as well.

Because the deep passion in their initial response quickly fades they tend to lack perseverance.   Vanity can be a great temptation for the sanguine as well as envy. One of the greatest challenges that a sanguine faces is making impulsive decision.  One way to overcome this is by striving to cultivate the virtue of prudence.  They also need to cultivate the virtue of perseverance since they can easily lose focus on tasks that require long commitments.

Finally, we have the phlegmatic temperament.  The phlegmatic is rarely aroused emotionally and, if so, only weakly. The impressions received usually last for only a short time and leave no trace. The fundamental disposition of the phlegmatic is that he is reserved, prudent, sensible, reflective, and dependable.  He is not easily provoked to anger or prone to exaggeration.  Phlegmatics are well known for their easy going nature.  They also tend to be clear and concise in their speech.  The phlegmatic however does not like conflict and will avoid it at all costs.  In fact they have a tendency to avoid not only conflict but anything that is physically or mentally demanding.

four_temperaments

Because they tend towards laziness and even sloth, the root sin of the phlegmatic is most often sensuality.  Other ways that sensuality manifests itself in the phlegmatic person include anger and impatience in the face of anything hard, disorganization because they seek whatever is immediate, and the consistent tendency to put off prayer.  The phlegmatic then needs to cultivate fortitude and temperance.

Hebrews 10:24 says, “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.”   If we reflect on this for a moment we realize that knowledge of our own temperament and of others can be used to help motivate others.

As we set out on the journey of self-knowledge, we quickly realize that, like St. Paul, we do not do the things we want to do but what we do not want to do.  There is an execution gap in our lives.  Not only that, but understanding the temperament of those around us helps to overcome a great deal of conflict in our lives, especially those we live with and work with.

In accomplishing any task, there are four key areas to consider.  They are

  • Setting the Right goals
  • Getting Started
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Persevering to the End

Each of the temperaments then has a characteristic weakness associated with one of these areas.  Understanding how to strengthen these weaknesses and the proper way to approach the person will help anyone’s motivation.

As I mentioned earlier, the choleric is a self-motivated leader who is driven to complete his objectives.  However because the choleric is quick to respond and slow to receive advice, he often sets imprudent goals or no real goals at all.  The choleric then needs to learn to take the time to choose goals properly.  The key then as a choleric is to be patient, and set the right goals.  In dealing with a choleric, motivation is normally not the key but we need to slow them down.  We can ask them if they have buy-in from others on their ideas or help brainstorm with them.  We must also help them to remain charitable because they often see others as stumbling blocks and will try to steamroll over them.

The melancholic, due to his naturally reflective nature, does not have trouble setting proper goals.  Instead, he will often struggle with actually getting started.  This manifests itself also by being overly focused on the small details because they want everything to be perfect.  The key for a melancholic is to prioritize goals.  In working with them they need a kick start—but this cannot be in the form of you doing it for them.  Instead ask what you can do to help them get started or ask them for a solution to specific problem you are having.  If you can keep them focused on the individuals steps they won’t get bogged down in the details.

Sanguines, like Cholerics, tend not to have any problems getting started.  They are usually eager to get going.  Instead they struggle with persevering to the end.  Their optimistic nature causes them to overlook true difficulties or minimize them.  The best thing for a Sanguine is to set and schedule.  They can be helped by regularly following up with them to see their progress.  Setting interim goals will keep them from getting bored.

The Phlegmatic is perhaps the most difficult to motivate because of their laid back nature.  They struggle with setting goals like the Choleric, but the main struggle for them is overcoming obstacles.  They need both encouragements throughout the process and to be held accountable at all stages of the process.  It also helps to remind them of past successes.

In conclusion, it bears repeating that the purpose in understanding temperament is to grow in understanding both of ourselves and others.  This is much more than mere self-improvement on the natural level—it should have as its goal to fulfill God’s will as a loving and joyful spouse, parent, and friend.  Understanding temperament not only helps us become more capable of controlling our emotions and moods, it helps us identify the most effective means to grow in virtue and obedience to God’s will.

***If you are interested in taking a temperament test for yourself, here is a link to one that is contained in the book The Temperament God Gave You***

Circumstantial Sainthood

There is a familiar spiritual maxim that goes something like this—“the saints all know they are sinners, but the sinners all think they’re saints.”  The lesson of the saying is one of humility and like all things related to this most necessary virtue we tend to like pithy sayings like this.  But if we are honest, we will admit that we don’t actually believe this to be true.  Perhaps compared to the great saints, our sins are great, but our sins are relatively small compared to most people.  Also, could it be true that all the saints knew they were sinners?  For example, Chesterton tells of St. Thomas Aquinas and how the priest “listening to the dying man’s confession, he fancied suddenly that he was listening to the first confession of a child of five.”  We could multiply the examples of saints with similar confessions, but the point is that if they were honest they could hardly label themselves as sinners.

The confusion comes in the use of the term “sinners.”  It is not so much in their actions that the saints see themselves as sinners, but in their capacity.  In other words, they are absolutely convinced that they are capable of committing any and all horrible acts.  Not only that, they are convinced that given different circumstances they would in fact do so.  It is only by the grace of God that they did not.  And therein we find their great humility.

This is why the most humble people are also the most merciful and slowest to judge.  When they meet someone who is in the depths of sin, they realize that the situation could very easily be reversed.  In fact they realize that given the concrete circumstances of the other person’s life, they probably would have done worse.  An honest person would see that it is by chance that it is the way it is.  A person who is striving for holiness will realize that it was God’s grace that kept them from being in those circumstances and it is He who has preserved them.  By repeatedly recognizing this, the saints come to be more and more dependent upon God’s grace and less and less “capable” of sinning.  This is Chesterton’s point about Aquinas’ confession—it was the confession of a five year old because the Dumb Ox was humble.

Aquinas--Chasing prostitute

In a world marked by the cult of celebrity, we are scandalized regularly by the actions of politicians, athletes and actors.  We like to read about their indiscretions and downfalls.  But I wonder how quick we would be to do so if we were truly humble.  These are real people who live in a vastly different world than the rest of us do with a set of temptations that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.  Are we absolutely sure that given the power politicians have, that we wouldn’t actually do worse things than them?  Are we absolutely sure that given the number of women who throw themselves at professional athletes that we could remain chaste?  Instead we often sit in judgment based upon our own situation.  It is easy to say you wouldn’t be corrupted by power when you have none.  It is easy to say you would be faithful to your spouse when the worst you deal with is a neighbor who is a little flirty.  It is only humility that will save us from the glamour of the world so much so that we will thank God for preserving us.  This is why all the saints also desired to be hidden—they saw how easy others were trapped and knew they would easily get pulled in as well.

The key then to humility is the recognition of this capacity for depravity.  But it is not just in moments of honesty about our situation that we realize this.  It can also be in moments when we are able to glimpse the depravity in our own hearts that usually comes about through suffering some humiliation.  For many years, I would sit in judgment of other people about the behavior of their kids.  Thanks be to God it mostly remained an interior attitude, but there were many times when I asked “why won’t they control their kid?”  It never even occurred to me that there were, in fact, times when you can’t control your kid.  It never occurred to me, until that is, I was on the receiving end of that and actually had a child of my own that at times simply could not be controlled.  Now there are a lot of people who are supportive and understanding, but for the most part I receive stares, direct judgments on my parenting, and parenting advice.  It is hard not to experience that as hatred and see them as an enemy.  I could even lash out at them, but I know they are merely expressing what was in my heart for many years.  It took being unfairly judged for me to stop condemning in my heart.  It took humiliations for me to grasp that without humility I would never be free from the trappings of my own heart.

The point is that until we learn humility and see it as truly good for us we will never experience true spiritual growth.  We will never become saints without it.  Humility is the habit of recognizing our total dependence upon God to save us from ourselves.  It is the only weapon we have with which to fight ourselves and our own pride.  For many of us, the daily cross that we must pick up and carry is our own weakness.  Humility is the fulcrum by which we raise this cross and carry it.

It doesn’t just take moments of humiliation to grow in this virtue.  St. Thomas says that humility is truth and what he means by this is that our growth in humility is proportional to our love of the truth.  This idea is captured perfectly in Adam Smith’s companion to The Wealth of Nations, called The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  He centers the treatise on what he calls the moral judgements of an “impartial spectator” which is really the virtue of humility.  According to Smith the key to happiness is to be loved for being truly lovely.  His point is that while we may seek the esteem of others, we should do so based only upon the truth of what we are.  We should not seek to be praised for those things that we are not, but only for the things that the impartial spectator of ourselves would say we are.

How easy it is then to grow in humility simply by ceasing to pretend to be what we are not; to accept praise graciously, but only for those things that are true.  We don’t need to blow trumpets for our faults, only cease to pretend they are not there.  To love the truth so much that you don’t want others to believe good things about you that are false.

Of course it is this relation to the truth that ultimately causes the devil to flee in the face of humility and thus it is a great spiritual weapon.  But in order to use this weapon we must first understand how it works.  To quote CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters in which Screwtape tells Wormwood that the key to destroying humility is to:

…make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible. To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims.

Holiness really is circumstantial, but humility is the only path we can take to set those circumstances in our favor.

Shattering the Delusion

One of the hardest things for people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder is coping with the speed at which the world comes at them.  Hyper-sensitive to stimuli most of us can ignore, they will try to control the world around them by inventing their own explanations of reality.  Our youngest son does this often.  Usually he starts off on the right track, but at a certain point he will go off the rails.  We might indulge him a little, but once he hits a certain point, we have an expression to help bring him back—“you are now orbiting Mars.”  Some may think us cruel for not sharing his delusions, but it is love that refuses to leave him in an alternate reality.  By steadily refusing to join him in his delusions he is better able to cope with the world and his Autism.

There is a similar point to be made regarding people who identify themselves as transgender that unfortunately has been lost amidst the long drawn out debate over which bathrooms they should use.  The Family Policy Institute of Washington state released a video  that quickly went viral.  In this video, they interview a number of University of Washington students about their stance on Transgenderism.  They then try to make a reductio ad absurdum argument when the 5’9 male interviewer asks them whether they would agree that he is a 6’5 Chinese woman.  One gets a sense from the video of the inner struggle of the young men and women because they felt trapped by their own logic to the point that they are willing to agree to the absurd.

Certainly it is entertaining to watch, but what is most disturbing is their reasoning for agreeing with the interviewer—“No, that wouldn’t bother me,” “Um sure, I don’t have a problem with that.”  Put more pointedly, “it doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?”  Herein lies the underlying problem to the whole debate—mass indifference.  If a man wants to say he is a woman, then who am I to judge?  When I detect no harm to myself or those I actually do care about, then why should I object?

Miriam Webster defines a delusion as “a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”  Now read the Human Rights Campaign definition of Transgender: “one whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.” In every other aspect of life, we would label someone delusional who says that their inner belief as “identifying” themselves as one sex when all of the objective biological evidence suggests otherwise.

When confronted with a person who is delusional, you can do one of two things.  You can either shatter the delusion in an effort to bring them back to reality or you can share the delusion with them.  As is the case with my son with Autism, it is much easier to share the delusion with the person than to actually step into their mess and help them sort it out, especially when I see their delusion as presenting no harm to me.

Bathroom Sign

But, can we even begin to imagine the inner turmoil of someone who looks like a boy, but feels like a girl?  Or is it simply easier to help their gender feelings visible?    There is a lot of data (see here and here for two studies) suggesting that something like gender reassignment surgery doesn’t actually make them feel any less conflicted.  The American College of Pediatricians has recently said that Gender Ideology does great harm to children.  In fact individuals who undergo gender reassignment surgery are 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.  When a person realizes that the surgery that everyone said would help doesn’t, they can only conclude one thing—that they are beyond help.

This argument from apathy spreads like wildfire.  We can mutually agree to your delusions provided they don’t cost me that much personally—“to each his own.”  First it was gay marriage.  Now it is transgenders in the bathroom they identify with.  What will be next and when will the insanity stop?  When people are actually willing to stand up and help others wrestle with their brokenness instead of agreeing to embrace it.  When your ideology conflicts with biology, it is your ideology that needs to change.  Anyone who tells you differently is really apathetic.

Christians are often met with contempt as “haters” by LGBT supporters.  Hate in many ways is better than indifference.  In fact, hate is not the opposite of love—indifference is.  To love or hate someone means that they matter in some way.  Even hate recognizes the other as a person.  Apathy says the person does not matter and that they are on the level of a mere thing.  We tolerate things only as long as they do not present a real obstacle to my well-being.  Certainly we should not hate them, but hate is much easier to convert to love and compassion than apathy is.

Often when I confront my son with reality, it is met with hostility and name-calling.  In pointing out an alternate view to his reality, I have become a threat.  I know this, and yet I am willing to help him to come to grips with reality as it is.  Is this easy?  Absolutely not, but it is necessary for his own well-being.  Similarly we need to let those people suffering from gender dysphoria know that we oppose these bathroom bills not just because it opens the door for sexual predators and not just because it can create a great deal of personal confusion and angst for our children when they have to use the bathroom or change in front of a stranger of the opposite sex (even if there is no malice on their part).  We need to let them know we oppose it because we want to help keep them rooted in reality.  The shame they feel in using the bathroom can be good—it can help them recognize their true identity, the one that God gave them and stamped into their very being.  On our part we have to be willing to take the hostility and name calling.  That is the only real way to fight apathy—through self-giving love, which is what they most desperately need anyway.  We are now orbiting Mars, who will bring us back to reality?

What’s so Funny?

In the days leading up to the eventual execution of his former chancellor, Henry VIII would daily send a courier to St. Thomas More asking him over and over to change his mind.  One evening the Saint finally said, “Yes, I have changed my mind.”   The King told the courier to return to find out the particulars of his change of heart, to which the eventual martyr replied “I have changed my mind in this sense: whereas yesterday I intended being shaved before execution, I have now changed my mind and intend that my beard shall go with my head.”  Because of his mirth, his friend Erasmus called him the “one of the happiest men I ever met” and he is by no means unique among the saints.  St. Francis (de Sales and of Assisi), St. Philip Neri, St. Theresa of Avila and the Little Flower are all known for a lively sense of humor.  To look around at Christians today, however, we would say that the virtue that St. Thomas (borrowing from Aristotle) called eutrapelia or “wittiness” has been forgotten.

As to why this might be, GK Chesterton offers an explanation in his book Heretics.  A master of paradox and witty one-liners, he was often accused of not being a “serious” writer.  He defended himself by reminding his critics that the opposite of funny is not serious, but instead “not funny.”  The opposite of serious is frivolous so that you can be both funny and serious in telling the truth.  A man can tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes just as he can choose to tell the truth in French or German.  Chesterton was serious in telling the truth, even if he chose to do it in a funny way.  There is nothing frivolous about using humor to tell the truth.  Point of fact this is often a powerful way to present something as serious as the Gospel because humor tends to gently disarm people.

Although we might have an “apostolate of the funny”, we should not look upon a sense of humor as merely an ad-on to an evangelical tool belt.  St. Thomas calls it a virtue and therefore something that every serious Christian ought to cultivate.  A Christian is naturally light-hearted, not taking things of this world too seriously and so it is fitting that he should have a sense of humor.  Humor  at its core consists in pointing out incongruities in reality.  Who better than a Christian, who knows reality as it is, can truly laugh in this vale of tears?  True laughter is a foretaste of eternal joy.

There is a philosophical maxim that applies here, namely that “the Good diffuses itself.”  When something is truly good, it tends to spread out.  The funny is part of the Good in that when we witness something funny, we look for someone to tell about it.  In fact in most social settings, it is the man who can look upon events with a sense of humor who draws the most people towards him.

JPII acting silly

If the funny is part of the Good, then this means that the devil is active in trying to pervert it.  In CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape cautions Wormwood about using humor to his advantage because it is so closely related to joy.  Nevertheless, Screwtape tells him that once he turns the patient to flippancy the battle will be won. Flippancy takes what is inherently good (like virtue) and makes it seem ridiculous.  Think of all the jokes we have around virtue today, like a “goody two-shoes” or calling a chaste person a “prude” and we see that virtue has now become a source of mockery.

In the Summa (ST II-II, q.168, a. 2-4), St. Thomas guides us in how this virtue is to be practiced.  Interestingly enough, St. Thomas says that playful conversation is absolutely necessary for relaxation of the soul.  It is the mean between the buffoon who cannot resist a joke and the stoic who is of no use in playful conversation and takes offense at everything.

The buffoon is one who “employs words or deeds that are injurious to his neighbor.”  This is the person who is funny at other people’s expense.  Because there is an inherent pleasure in humor, we must always be careful that those who share in the conversation also share in the pleasure.  Our playful conversation ought to not only bring us pleasure, but pleasure not at someone else’s expense.   We should laugh with and not at someone else.

St Thomas also cautions about using the indecent as a source of humor.  This is not because he is some high minded saint, but because there is also the danger of using humor to mask cynicism.  Because the cynic is not enchanted by reality, they will often resort to vulgar (or even blasphemous) language to invoke humor.  Again this is like Screwtape’s flippancy in that rather than pointing absurd things found in reality, they make reality itself absurd.  This only leads to further cynicism and discontent.  Just because you can laugh, doesn’t make it funny.

At the other extreme is the stoic.  This is particularly appropriate for our age where people take offense at everything.  The stoic doesn’t so much take reality too seriously, but themselves.  Again nearly all the saints (and therefore most happy people) laugh at themselves and don’t mind when others share in it.  St. Thomas says this type of stoicism is contrary to reason (i.e. sinful) because it is burdensome to others by not offering pleasure to others or hindering their enjoyment.

In the Gospel, we find Christ angry at the money changers and crying at the death of His friend Lazarus, but we never find Him laughing.  We should in no way take that to mean He never laughed.  I am sure that He was not accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” because of His stoicism.  The Redeemer of Mankind is also the Redeemer of Laughter.  As Christians we should share in His mirth.  Venerable Fulton Sheen summed it up well: “The only time laughter is wicked is when it is turned against Him who gave it.”  Let us learn how to laugh again.

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.