Category Archives: Spiritual Reflections

Eve, the Eternal Housewife

 

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By artist Edward Burne-Jones for William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball. Illustrating the couplet “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?” (Public Domain)

The translation of Ève continues.  To recap, I am translating Charles Péguy’s poem, Ève, from French to English. In the poem, Jesus delivers a long monologue to our ultimate mother, and humanity generally, about Paradise, the Fall and the Redemption.

Below is my first draft of the section of the poem where Jesus compares Eve to a housewife whose work is never done, partly because she can never be content with leaving anything alone.  This part led me to an insight about some of the people in my life, and might cause me to be more compassionate about the things they do that get on my nerves. The word Péguy uses in various forms in this section is “arrange” or “tidy up.” According to Péguy, we are plagued by an insatiable urge to bring order to chaos of the world, even though it is futile

Péguy humorously asks us to imagine Eve as the hard-charging homemaker who would ask God to wipe the mud of his shoes and then wash his hands if he ever popped in for a visit:

Woman, I tell you, you would arrange God himself

If he came to visit your house in the season.

You would arrange the shame, and the blasphemy,

If he came to visit and flatter your reason.

 

You would have tidied up the wrath of God divine.

You would have washed away the great iniquity.

The time has long since passed. You cannot take your leave,

When you are stuck in the bottom of the ravine.

 

Women, you would clean up after the explosion

If God threw a bolt down at your lowly dwelling.

You would arrange for grace, and the absolution

If God visited you in this lonely lodging.

 

You would have tidied up the first anathema,

When it came upon you in your bleak loneliness.

You would have soon placed it within your formula

Of benign government and deceptive meekness.

 

Women, you would arrange for a renewed baptism,

If John the Baptist came and entered the Jordan.

You would tidy up the host, oil, and the chrism

If the men of the world returned to the garden.

 

Women, you would sweep up like crumbs from your kitchen

The bread from My body, of the Resurrection.

Instead you have stored up from your false religion,

The dry crumbled leaves from the tree of rejection.

 

You would sweep up the leaves from the red Tree of Life

Even after I sprang into the deepest womb.

You would demand to be the attending midwife

Even after I stepped from the mouth of the tomb

I know one woman I will call the Narrator. The day’s schedule is narrated to everyone several times a day. “First we are doing this, and at 4 o’clock we have to go to dinner, and then … ” If we are at a restaurant, the menu selections are read aloud and recommendations given to the other members of the dining party.

Another one I will call the Arranger.  If you leave a half-empty glass of water, tea or coffee by itself for five minutes, it will magically disappear, and reappear, emptied, in a kitchen sink.  Half-read magazines will be put away if left unattended too long.

There is another I would call the Director.  As you can guess, she likes to give directions to everyone about just about everything, no matter how small.

There is a certain lack of self-awareness in these behaviors. And they persist despite objection. And I can see now that it’s not really their fault, as it’s a consequence of original sin. Eve was not content in the garden, she felt she had to arrange for man’s destiny through knowledge of good and evil. Her daughters are cursed, on an almost unconscious level,  to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together for the rest of human history, and it shows up at the micro level in the most mundane things.

I don’t intend to leave men off the hook. Men have tried to “arrange” the world and humanity throughout history, though our errors are more apparent on the macro level: the misuse of political power, the abuse and exploitation of natural resources, or unethical scientific research and discovery, to name a few.

If we are listening to Jesus and his Mother, the best attitude includes letting things be. Yes, we must fulfill our daily obligations and take care of what has been entrusted to us, but you will never achieve perfection.  Whatever leisure or “free time” you have been gifted by God can always be consumed by an inordinate desire for order, if you let it.

 

 

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What Follows Politics: De Lubac Responds to Charles Péguy

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(This is more a note to myself, connecting some dots as I work my way through Péguy.)

One of Charles Péguy’s famous quotes is: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”

This was something he learned from the Dreyfus Affair, a political controversy that tore France apart for about a decade.  While Péguy was on the right side of the conflict, he felt that the winners wasted their victory through an unjust and unworthy political power grab.

He made this observation years later in his book, Notre Jeunesse (translated as “Memories of Youth”).  Péguy reflected that great movements often spring from a mysterious, almost spiritual, yearning to set things right. However, because of original sin, whatever victories or progress we win harden into a rather ordinary political party, program or bureaucracy. Many idealistic young people who vote for a politician wind up being somewhat disappointed within a few years. The lesson is that it is beyond our ability to permanently “set things right”, and therefore we must be very fluid, very pliant to where the Holy Spirit wants to take us next. Don’t rest on any worldly laurels.

Cardinal Henri De Lubac responded to Péguy, I think, years later.  In the essay titled “A Christian Explanation for Our Times”, published in 1942 (and collected by Ignatius in  Theology in History), he described what follows the politics that had succeeded mysticism:

It is then that substitute faiths inevitably present themselves to fill this tragic void. Such is the fourth and final period of the process. Man is not satisfied by ideologies cut off from any source of real efficacy: the hour must come when he is disenchanted with them. He lives still less from criticism and negations. He does not live by laicism and neutrality. Inevitably something like a great call for air is produced in his inner void, which opens him to the invasion of new positive forces, whatever they might be. The latter conquer him all the more quickly, the more coarse and virulent they are. Cut off from a higher life, he gives in to the brutal pressures that, at least, give him the feeling of a life. Having abused criticism to make truth itself vanish, he now dislikes using it to protect his mirages.

A troubled credulity succeeds his faith. Rationalism has expelled mystery: myth takes its place. We know great examples of this.

(emphasis added)

Writing in 1942, De Lubac was referring to the mythology of Nazi Germany: its Aryan race doctrine, its occult pageantry, etc.  Mysticism had been expelled, but politics and reason were soon banished as well.

I find De Lubac’s observation to be an excellent lens through which to view subsequent history.  Reason and science were too dry for our taste buds, and we have embraced a host of myth “isms” as a substitute. They are not a religion in name, but are so in practice. Daedalus, Sisyphus and Tiresias stride the earth once more. And their progeny follow: a new Talos,  a new Chimera, etc.

And if you oppose them, you are an enemy of that myth.  You cannot beat these new mythologies purely with reason or politics. You must return to faith, and the tools of faith, to respond. The ancient world was laid to rest by Jesus, but the de-Christianization of the world has allowed it to return as a revenant.

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Sinner and Poet: The Diamond Tears of Charles Péguy

 

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Charles Peguy by Jean-Pierre Laurens

“I am a sinner, but there is no sin in my work.” – Charles Péguy

This guy. But since he was French, he might have been this “Guy.” But rather, his name is Charles Péguy.

Be careful with this guy, cause if you read him, you might actually start writing poetry. I know nothing about poetry, but after reading him, I was inspired to write some of my own. As I said, I know nothing about poetry, but some people who do think he might be the best Catholic poet of the last few hundred years. Those who like Gerard Manley Hopkins would probably disagree. Hopkins was a genius, and smart people who truly understand poetry can explain why he was. I am not a genius or a poet, so don’t ask me to explain Hopkins.

Péguy perhaps was a peasant genius. He wrote in free verse, with little to no rhyme or consistent meter. His poems were long, used simple vocabulary, and much repetition. If this were Seinfeld, he would be Charles Festivus, the “Poet for the Rest of Us”, the 99%. His work is accessible.

But he is largely unknown right now.

Why? He had too much integrity. He came from very modest beginnings, and when he grew older became a socialist and agnostic. He was a very much a defender of Dreyfus, a famous French Jew wrongly accused of treason. However, he fell out with most of his friends on the Left over time due to what he perceived as their pursuit of political advantage over the truth. “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics” is a famous quote of his.

He came to occupy a lonely place, neither trusted nor wanted by the Left or the Right. He was a patriot, and a French nationalist, and his basic politics was one of solidarity with the common man. Unfortunately for his reputation, and despite his defense of Dreyfus, the fascists of the 30s and 40s later tried to claim him as a patron for their twisted politics. And when you put God first, you eventually realize that there is no ideology or political party that can really express what you want. So you hang there, suspended between two thieves, one on the right and another on the left.

But he had integrity, and so when the Great War came, he enlisted, even though he was 41 years old, married and his wife pregnant with their fourth child. He was a little guy too. Because while he was a French nationalist and a patriot, he was not going to let some 18 and 19-year-old kids do the dying for him. And so he died for them, leading from the front, shot through the forehead in 1914.

But the politics are less interesting  than the faith. When he married he did not believe, but by 1908 he had come back to the Catholic faith of his baptism. But his wife was an atheist, and refused to allow their children to be baptized. And because he was not married in the Church, his conscience did not allow him to receive the Sacraments, ever. And out of solidarity with his family, he did not go to Mass.  But that did not stop him from making a forty mile pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of Chartres in thanks to Our Lady when his son recovered from an illness. Integrity.

A man in such a situation can get lonely. And you might find yourself falling in love with the young Jewish girl (and she with you) who works at your literary journal. But a man with integrity doesn’t have an affair. Instead, like Péguy , you play matchmaker and find her a husband.

All this pain and sadness generated great diamond tears of words, a series of poems and plays written during the five years before his death. Much of it is out of print, of course, because that’s the way things are right now. The real treasures of the past have to be unearthed.  I am going to copy a few excerpts of his poems in some future posts (My understanding of U.S law is that there is no copyright for the works of foreign authors who died before 1923).

Oh yes, his family … His wife converted after he died, and had their children baptized. As it will always be, a man and father will die for the sake of his people.

 

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God’s Calling Card

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I took a walk yesterday with two of my female friends during our lunch break. It was a beautiful day, but a front was moving through the area. The wind was playing havoc with their hoodies, and whipping that glorious hair of theirs all around. They were laughing at the sight of themselves, and a woman’s happy laughter is a special kind of music that I think only a man can fully enjoy.

I had been teasing them about showing up for work on Wednesday, in spite of it being “A Day Without Women”, and asked if they should turn in their “Woman Cards.” One half-jokingly wished that she did have a woman card to pull out from time to time. We laughed some more and finished our walk.

The wind was blowing, but I had not been listening closely enough. If I had, what I hoped I would have said was: “You don’t need one. You are God’s calling card.”

Genesis describes God as sending woman to be man’s, and by extension the world’s, helper, and that she was the last thing that was made. She was God’s calling card to the world and endowed with that special genius for love.

Sin forces us to live on our surface, and its often hard to see the true image of what we are meant to be beneath another’s face. Through the mystery of Charity women have the ability, on some level conscious or unconscious, to see underneath, much of the time. It’s a love I see whether they are taking care of a sick child home from school, or a dying relative in a nursing home. Love overcomes any repulsion for sickness and death. I certainly don’t have that natural inclination. Or it shows in the often very tedious and unglamorous work that happens behind the scenes at your church or a local charity. Their heart sees the image in people they may never actually lay eyes on.

And its a love that let’s a woman see the true image of a man beneath the broken shards on the surface. I’m sure many a man has thought, bewilderingly, what does she see in me? Especially, when one may not even be physically attractive.  How am I good enough for her?  I thought that way much of my life, and missed many opportunities for love. What I missed was that woman was a living symbol that love is greater than any flaw or sin. (It can also cause a little frustration, when a woman naturally wants to help a man “change” and fulfill the great potential she sees inside. Some progress is possible, but the final transformation will only happen after death. Patience is a virtue!)

Paul said that “Woman is the glory of man,”  in that sometimes controversial letter of his. I am not sure exactly what he meant, but I like Adam’s reaction to his first sight of Eve:

Adam is talking to himself … out loud. And he says more than one word, like a few sentences actually…

We don’t do that a lot. There are a lot of adjectives that probably exist only to describe the behavior of men: aloof, reticent, dour, taciturn, reserved, stoic, etc.

Adam was dazzled by this “glory” from God.

Women, thank you for being you.

 

 

 

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Donative Prayer: Speaking to God in the margins of the day

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Just sharing a prayer tip from one mediocre Christian to another, particularly those who regret they don’t pray enough.

We Catholics like organization, and our Catechism groups prayer into five categories: Blessing/Adoration, Petition (help for ourselves), Intercession (help for others), Thanksgiving and Praise. I have seen other types listed elsewhere, the two most common being prayers of Penitence and  prayers of Oblation (offering oneself to God).

I sometimes offer a prayer that does not seem to easily fit into one of these forms. This is the prayer of the busy, the distracted or the tired mind. It’s the spoken, rote prayer when you can’t form any mental purpose or dip into contemplation. You might call it donative prayer. It is perhaps the lowest form of prayer, but some days it’s the only kind I say. Arguably it may fit into the Oblation category. Oblation does apparently derive from a Latin word meaning “to offer.”

It’s the Our Father I might say while waiting for the red light to change, or a series of Hail Marys you pray while stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on a bridge. If you are me, you might discretely cover your mouth with your hand so that the person looking at you in their rear view mirror doesn’t think you are talking to yourself, or to them (I worry about such things). It’s the Glory Be you recite for no specific reason as you nod off to sleep.

I can’t say that this prayer meets the criteria of any of the listed categories. I speak them without a purpose in mind. I am not asking for anything, and am not consciously thanking or praising God in any way, or even offering something up to Him.  Sometimes I am just in a bad mood and would rather recite a prayer from memory than do anything else.

I would like to think that I am donating the prayer to God,  the prayer treasury of the Church, and the Communion of Saints to use as they will, for whatever pleases them. I am donating a speck of my time and will, if nothing else.  It beats listening to talk radio… right?

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Andrew Greeley: Prophet of the Body

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For we are members of His body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:30-32

Andrew Greeley, an American Catholic priest, scholar, and novelist, died four years ago this coming May. I was thinking about him last night, and decided to do a post. A far more erudite memorial can be found here. These comments are of course those of a layperson, and someone who had only the most fleeting encounter with him. So he is free to bonk me on the head for my misunderstandings and inaccuracies if we ever meet in Heaven.

Father Greeley drove up to my college campus outside Chicago one night in the early 1990s to give a talk. The subject was the portrayal of God in the movies. I had read a few of his novels, so I was excited by a rare opportunity to see a famous author. We gathered in the church at the campus Catholic center, and listened to him for about an hour. I can’t remember all the movies he discussed, but the one that stuck with me was Bob Fossie’s 1979 film, All That Jazz.  The movie was a thinly disguised self-portrayal of the famous dancer and director, and apparently inspired by Fossie’s own near death experience or dream when he had heart troubles a few years earlier.

At the end of the film, the protagonist dies. Greeley’s view was that the portrayal of the encounter of the soul with the character of Angelique, an angel of death, and a sign of God, was entirely in accord with Christianity. The Beatific Vision is the “wedding bed” he said, that great consummation of love we are all looking for, whether we know it or not.  I remember him saying that “God will be far sexier than Jessica Lange”, or words to that effect. A bit shocking to my relatively young ears, you might imagine. (Young man that I was, I watched it at first opportunity).

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Angelique, from All That Jazz

When we went to Q&A, I asked him about Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which had been released a few years earlier.  He advised watching it with the volume turned off. He loved the visuals, but hated the script. Scorsese (who dropped out of a Catholic seminary) was a disappointment to him, and overly influenced by “Neo-Platonism” if I am remembering Greeley’s words correctly. Don’t ask me to explain that one, I am no philosopher.

Over the next decade or so I dipped into and out of his fiction and non-fiction. He was an incredibly prolific writer, and I wonder if there is anyone who read everything he published. He had a Ph.D. in Sociology, and wrote many scholarly works about the Catholic Church and religion generally from the 1960s onwards.  They often involved broad surveys of American Catholic experience and opinions, and with a focus on current problems within the Church.

Among lay people, Greeley is far more famous for his works of fiction than his scholarly career or Church criticism. In the late 1970s, he decided to become a storyteller, and eventually wrote about sixty novels. His fiction can  be grouped into four broad categories:   There were about half a dozen stand alone science fiction and fantasy works.  The next group were the most controversial, probably twenty or so books set in contemporary America involving the lives of Catholics and their struggles. There was the long semi-humorous series about Father “Blackie” Ryan, a Father Brown like priest who solves mysteries. The last series, which all had the word “Irish” in their titles, and still ongoing at his death, followed the lives of an American Catholic couple from courtship through early middle age.

Father Greeley’s prose was very readable and he had a gift for characterization. I don’t believe he won any big awards, but he sold a lot of books that spoke to the hopes and fears of many Catholics, especially a certain subset who still went to Mass but otherwise felt alienated from the Church.

He was also a man of strong opinions and no small temper. He was a Democrat with a capital D, and not shy about his criticisms of those who had different points of view on political issues. He was also an unstinting critic of what he saw as the flaws of the leaders of the Church and how they led it. Many of his novels portrayed priests and high ranking members of the Church in a negative light. He likely paid a certain price for this professionally, and there were perhaps many who did not like him personally.

In many ways, I think his life encapsulates the stillborn “Catholic Moment” in America. If the last few centuries of the Church in France is like a long Indian summer that never ended (my next post I think), the experience of the Church in America is like a Spring that never ripened into Summer. The election of JFK was the high water mark of sorts, and things have kind of gone sideways since the 1960s. The reason for this, and the topic he had the most to say on, was human sexuality.

As the linked piece by Weigel discussed, the watershed moment for Greeley and the Church in America was Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical condemned artificial birth control as sinful, and it was perhaps the most negatively received encyclical in the modern period. Many Catholics, including theologians, disagreed with it, and later left the Church, in part, over this.  Greeley disagreed, but he stayed. He did let his fictional characters voice his opinion though, and I remember one of them referring to it as “that damned Encyclical” if memory serves.

This failure of many to trust the Pope, and it was a failure in my view, perhaps derived from an insecure Catholicism still looking to fit in with the modern world and America. A Catholic Church that couldn’t get with the times on sexuality would never be taken seriously by the news media, the universities, or the entertainment industry. Anti-Catholic prejudice was a stronger force back then, and we cannot completely dismiss that pressure to conform as a factor in this rupture.

But Greeley and other dissenter’s instincts were perhaps not completely off base.  Pope Benedict the XVI, in a recent book, Last Testament: In His Own Words, acknowledged that while he agreed with Pope Paul VI’s conclusions, he felt that the analysis in Humanae Vitae was lacking. Not enough of a theological foundation had been laid to support it.  This heavy lifting was later done by Pope John Paul II in what has come to be known as “The Theology of the Body.” This Pope expressly affirmed that the body was good, that human sexuality was good, and that human marriage was a great symbol of God’s love for the Church and its people. It affirmed traditional teaching but without any of the negative or suspicious treatment of sexuality that often clouded how Catholics were taught about sex.  Over time, many think that this will be Saint JPII’s most enduring legacy.

Greeley had great respect and admiration for Pope John Paul II, but for the rest of his life either disagreed with or was skeptical of traditional Church doctrine on subjects like artificial contraception, the ordination of married men, and a few related topics. It was unfortunate, because I don’t believe they were that far apart in many ways. He was otherwise very loyal to and protective of the Church, and was not shy about taking to task those he thought were unfairly critical of her.

The recurring theme in Greeley’s fiction was that human romantic love, or eros, was good, and a sign of God’s love for us. Usually the protagonists are a man and woman who find their way through various adventures and hardships to love each other. Love made the suffering of life bearable. Like an Old Testament prophet, he hammered away at this theme again and again in his fiction.  I think that Greeley had a genuine call from God to speak and write on this issue, and its unfortunate that (in my amateur opinion), his mission and that of many others in the Church was diverted, in part at least, by their disagreement with Humanae Vitae.

Greeley will probably never be promoted for Sainthood, but if he is, perhaps the Cubs finally winning the World Series a few years after his death can be chalked up as one of his miracles. Sláinte, Father Greeley!

P.S. One of the recurring irritations I have experienced in trying to learn more about my faith is that so much that has been written by famous and well respected Catholic writers and scholars is out of print.  Greeley is no exception, particularly when it comes to his non-fiction (another 50 books or so) and early fiction. If anyone from his estate were to ever read this, it would be great if more of his bibliography could be digitized and made available in ebook form. I recognize that the rights to his works may be held by many different interests, and perhaps it is much more expensive to do this than I realize. But it would be a shame to lose so much of it to time as all the university library copies eventually fall apart and are discarded.

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The Half-Life of Sin

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Radioactive Man and his origins, from The Simpsons

This post is for someone who is trying to wrap their head around concepts like the Fall of Man, Original Sin, or “What’s Wrong with the World?, or in other words, the poorly catechized young person I used to be and am still striving to overcome. If you are bored by or struggling with traditional methods of explanation, this alternative approach may be helpful. As Catholic writer Fabrice Hadjadj said in his recent book, it may be ok to be whimsical so long as we are not frivolous. Times have changed, and new methods are required.

In writing about our origin story, the Englishman G.K. Chesterton famously described humanity as “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.”  Like Robinson Crusoe, humanity looks around on the shore for the flotsam and jetsam of truth, beauty and goodness.

For purposes of this post, I am going to expand on Chesterton’s line of thought and ask you to visualize the shipwreck as being caused by a bomb, a spiritual atomic bomb of disobedience to God that is called “original sin.” The explosion and shockwave of our disobedience has made creation groan, and the harmful radiation of sin has mutated us. We are all eX-men (different than what God made) in a sense, and endowed with strange, new superpowers.

 

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“And then their eyes were opened …” Genesis 3:7.

 

The mutation has estranged us from the natural world. Animals shy away from us, we are plagued by disease and natural disasters. Why? It was too dangerous to leave the natural world subject to our full control since we went over to the dark side.  All our material security or progress would come through toil, by the “sweat of our brow.” If we had been left with the power of naming, or full dominion, like Adam, we would have destroyed the natural world long ago.

In some mysterious way, the effects do extend down to the physical level, and is thus passed from parents to their children. Ours is an embodied faith.

But hey, you might ask, continuing with the superhero theme, what about the compensations, all the cool gear and powers?  And you would be right to ask about this, as our new state comes with a utility belt of sort. For starters you do get a mask and costume of pride, which prevents you and others from knowing your true self. Are you truly transparent at all times to God and others? No, we all know that much is hidden inside and rarely shared.

Some tools are neutral: We do have our intellect, and the freedom to use it as we wish.

And then there are the powers, quite a few actually. The most dangerous superpower may be the ability to lie. Through lying you can create a dream world for yourself and others, where right is wrong and bad is good.  Or where there is no Truth at all. I am not responsible for my actions.

Some forms of lying are merely the result of poor reasoning, which we call fallacies, or take the form of mental disorders.

To take one example, psychological projection: Why is the Church so obsessed with sexual ethics? The world wonders in frustration. Many ask this.

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the priest molesting the altar boy

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the teacher sexting her student

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the adulterer who gives an STD to his spouse and abandons his children

Why is the Church so obsessed with sex? asks the physician who performed a few thousand abortions last year

Or the pimp who trafficked a minor, or the man viewing child pornography while his family sleeps, etc., etc.

But is it the Church that’s obsessed with sex, or us mutants? Well, perhaps the Church is obsessed to the same extent that a doctor is obsessed with preventing and curing disease, or a parent is obsessed with making sure their child is properly fed and clothed.

But is that obsession? Or is it Charity? Our power to lie creates a dream world where Charity has been slandered as Obsession. We should acknowledge that Our God is a jealous God, so it may be right to say that He is obsessively Charitable.

So these radioactive superpowers, as enticing as they are, come with a price: death. When talking about elements,  the term “half-life” is a term used to describe the amount of  time it will take for half the atoms in a given element to decay. It is important to know the half-life of substances that emit harmful, ionizing radiation, like plutonium.

I find the term useful in thinking about sin and our life span. For example, what is the half-life for the original sin you carry? Half your life. Even though you have been redeemed, and can be forgiven your sins, you will not be completely free of the effects of sin until your life ends. Your body is going to die because of that heavy plutonium apple our ancestors bit into a long time ago.

But for your soul, its a bit more complicated. Because of original sin you do not have “life to the fullest.” Rather you have a half-life from being stuck in the dream world of sin.

You can choose to march in place your whole life, and die just as poisoned as when you were young. Or you can sample a variety of uranium, polonium or other poisonous fruits and become even more radioactively sinful on the inside as you age.

Or you can accelerate the process of decay of sin. How? Its a simple formula, He must increase, I Must Decrease. The more you walk in the Lord’s path, the lighter the burden of original sin becomes. Prayer, fasting, receiving the Sacraments and various forms of self-denial all help. The more you cooperate, the more is given to you.

And to cooperate, you need to take off that mask and costume of pride and lower your defenses. For a Catholic, this unburdening means regular confession.

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It doesn’t work with the mask on

From long personal experience, I can tell you that you can pray and go to Mass all you want, but you won’t begin the process of healing until you avail yourself of this sacrament. In going to Confession, you get to step out of your Darth Vader outfit for a while, and breathe the pure air of truth from a personal encounter with the Lord. It works, and long ingrained habits of sin can begin to be broken.

To close the post on a fitting note, I will return to Chesterton. There is a story (it has never been definitely confirmed) that an English newspaper of his day had asked a group of authors for essays about “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton allegedly sent back a famous two-word response:

“I am.”

This may seem harsh, but things are much easier when we can acknowledge we are part of the problem. One is less inclined to judge (people that is, not actions) and more likely to forgive. You won’t give your heart to some ideology or party, which is merely the sum aspirations of a group of people no better than yourself. You won’t pin your hopes on some worldly utopia, for how could a mass of men under sin ever build such a thing?  Or even stake your soul on democracy and majority rule. Jesus may have been the Elect One, but he did not fare so well in elections. The only time he appeared on the ballot, he lost in a landslide to another, one with a pretty poor resume.

So in the end, you die, and in death God performs life saving surgery on you. The mask of pride falls away, and the real adventure begin. Because, as  Georges Bernanos wrote, sin has forced you to live on your surface all your life.  And as you dive into the limpid, pure water of your soul you discover the hidden depths you never knew existed:

We observe how much that is foreign falls away from us and how what belongs to us is set free. What we are being led into is again, not something foreign, but in the highest sense natural, although one cannot say we had expected it to be this way rather than some other way. When it arrives, it is simply the right thing, that which is far and away the best.

Whoever arrives in heaven has to introduce himself. This introduction, however, is not one-sided; those who introduce themselves are at the same times the ones introduced. God has been waiting for us, just as we waited for him. And now that we are those who have been received, there is no longer any talk of sin and unworthiness. Confession lies behind us. Now there is only the augmentation of grace…

The Book of All Saints

 

 

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Things Adults Say On Entering Heaven

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“Uh, where do I put all my stuff?”

“What time is it? I don’t see a clock anywhere.”

“I don’t have to talk to those people, right?”

“Is my brother around? He owes me some money.”

“I have some ideas for improving the place I’d like to share with you.”

“My wife’s not here, right? Just tell me she’s not here…”

“When is the next election?”

“I think I forgot my wedding ring, can I go back and get it?

“Hey, hey, stay in line!”

“Do you have wifi?”

“I have a very important appointment, and am running late. Can’t this wait?”

“Who died and made you boss?”

 

Children on the other hand, well words cannot describe.

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Dante and Little Therese at the Eunoe

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Illustration by Gustave Dore, Public Domain

Dante Alighieri is best known for writing the Divine Comedy, in which he tells a story of his soul’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is one of the greatest works of literature, and here I will be so reckless as to suggest he left something out.

At the end of the second part of the poem, Purgatory, Dante drinks from two rivers, the Lethe and then the Eunoe. The Lethe is a river from Greek mythology, one of five that flowed through Hades, the underworld. Drinking it washed away all the memories of your mortal life.  Dante uses the Lethe in this work, but alters its powers. Instead, bathing in the Lethe cleanses the memory of mortal sin from your mind. For Dante, the memory of sin tainted the joy of Heaven.

Dante wrote one final river into the path of the soul before it entered Heaven: the Eunoe. The Eunoe was his own creation, and not derived from Greek mythology. It roughly translates as “good memory.” The Eunoe restored or strengthened memories of good deeds performed in life, but that had been forgotten to some degree. Drinking from it prepared one for Heaven:

If, Reader, I possessed a longer space

For writing it, I yet would sing in part

Of the sweet draught that ne’er would satiate me;

But inasmuch as full are all the leaves

Made ready for this second canticle,

The curb of art no father lets me go

From the most holy water I returned

Regenerate, in the manner of new trees

That are renewed with a new foliage

Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars

Purgatorio, Canto XXXIII, Lines 136-145, Longfellow translation.

I was thinking about the Eunoe recently, and it helped me to resolve, in my own mind, some of St. Therese of Lisieux’s commentary on Purgatory, which I had always had trouble understanding.

Therese, a Doctor of the Church, offered views in various correspondence and conversations on the afterlife somewhat at odds with the settled expectation of most. Her view was that we all too willingly assumed that most people would experience a long Purgatory before entering Heaven. She viewed this as a lack of trust in the Lord, and that we should hope to enter Heaven without going through Purgatory if we adopted a childlike trust in God’s mercy.

She separately offered that it was those people who had led very meritorious lives who might have a surprisingly difficult time avoiding Purgatory. Why? Their temptation to self-justification, or spiritual pride. The following is from a conversation she had with one of her fellow nuns:

I had an immense dread of the judgments of God, and no argument of Soeur Therese could remove it. One day I put to her the following objection: “It is often said to us that in God’s sight the angels themselves are not pure. How, therefore, can you expect me to be otherwise than filled with fear?”

She replied: “There is but one means of compelling God not to judge us, and it is – to appear before Him empty-handed.” “And how can that be done?” “It is quite simple: lay nothing by, spend your treasures as you gain them. Were I to live to be eighty, I should always be poor, because I cannot economize. All my earnings are immediately spent on the ransom of souls.

“Were I to await the hour of death to offer my trifling coins for valuation, Our Lord would not fail to discover in them some base metal, and they would certainly have to be refined in Purgatory. Is it not recorded of certain great Saints that, on appearing before the Tribunal of God, their hands laden with merit, they have yet been sent to that place of expiation, because in God’s Eyes all our justice is unclean?”

(emphasis added)

So,  I think Dante missed an opportunity by not adding a third river at the beginning of his Purgatory.  One that lets us forget our good deeds (if we have any), at least for a while. For if you did good, was it not God’s grace that allowed you to do it? Your work was merely to cooperate with it.   Drinking from this river at the beginning of the Purgatory, and the Eunoe at the end, would have been a nice symmetry.

Perhaps Dante could have called it the Aletheia, which is the opposite of Lethe. Its apparent literal meaning in Greek is “the state of not being hidden”, or “disclosure” or “truth” in shorter form.

Oh Lord, let the Aletheia run through my soul so that I may drink from it daily, and die with empty hands. Do not let me hide behind any merits that I think I may have earned. For if I do, I know that this illusion must be burned away by the fire of your mercy. Amen.

 

 

 

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The Marriage You Save May be Your Neighbor’s

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Poster of the 1959 film version

 

I just read Georges Bernanos’ screen play,  Dialogues of the Carmelites, which was also his last work. It is a fictional account of the lives of the Martyrs of Compiegne in the years and months leading up to their execution during the Reign of Terror.  The characters are very loosely based on the actual nuns.  I found it to be well written and enjoyed it very much.  Francis Poulenc later adapted the screen play into the better known opera, and it has got me thinking about marriage and divorce, which may seem an odd connection to make.  Thus this post.

The protagonist is Blanche De La Force, the young daughter of a French nobleman whose wife died giving birth to her. Blanche seeks the Lord, but has a serious flaw in her temperament: she is afraid of the world and its dangers to a marked degree. She takes the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, a foreshadowing of the particular nature of her suffering. Blanche wishes that the cup of martyrdom pass her by, like Christ asked that his own cup pass him by during his Agony in the Garden.  It is Blanche’s mission in life to share in this agony of fear and doubt.

The theme of the story is that Blanche, on her own, is not strong enough to pass the test. It takes the sacrifice of three other of her fellow sisters to give her the strength to make the walk to the scaffold. First, the Prioress who accepts her entrance into the convent suffers an unexpectedly painful and emotionally turbulent death. Next, her best friend, Sister Constance, allows herself to be publicly humiliated to conceal Blanche’s cowardice from the other nuns. Finally, the subprioress, Marie de L’Incarnacion is separated from her sisters while searching for Blanche (who has fled the convent) and misses out on their martyrdom, which causes her great spiritual suffering.

Bernanos’ argument is that we are witnessing a mysterious performance of a communion of Saints in the making. These three sisters who had been gifted with greater strength of character have taken on a portion of Blanche’s fear, humiliation, and shame. By doing this, they allow Blanche to respond to the Lord’s call to martyrdom with courage and a song at the scaffold of the guillotine.

This particular operation of the Communion of Saints is described as “vicarious representation and substitution” by Cardinal Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his analysis of Bernanos’ life and works. Blanche is not solely a beneficiary however, as her own natural weakness and the corresponding suffering is a ransom paid for other members of the Body of Christ.

So it is that Blanche is carried over the threshold by the willingness of these three nuns to take her place… However, none of this should make us forget that all these works of willing, vicarious substitution have found their foundation in Blanche’s weakness and derive their efficacy and power precisely from the way Blanche herself represents the essential weakness of all men before the ultimate challenge: Blanche drinks the cup of fear to the dregs both for herself and in substitution for all others.

“Communion of saints” happens when every member of the Body surrenders his whole being and opens it to becoming but a part of the whole, when he allows his integrity to suffer wounds that make possible the passage through him of the Blood circulating throughout the whole.

Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1996).

The Carmelite nuns who were martyred had intentionally offered their lives to God in atonement for the Terror and for the restoration of peace to France.  The Reign of Terror did end ten days after their executions, and even secular historians have acknowledged that their great courage and docility made an impression on the public.

Turning to marriage, I once read a post by a religious describing how marriage is truly a martyrdom on its own.  It often is “for worse”, but we like to forget that. We all know of or have experienced (or are experiencing?) marriages that seem to be cursed by the world: poverty, health problems, infertility, difficult in-laws, etc. Some of these marriages fail, and we might ask, why did God allow it to be so hard for that couple? Some particularly good and strong couples endure hardship after hardship.  If we find ourselves in a difficult marriage, we might be inclined to give up. What does it matter anyway we might say.

And yet, the data suggests that divorce is contagious. If your friends and neighbors get divorced, its more likely you will too. In his Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos wrote that a communion of sinners exists side by side with a communion of saints.  Might our sins against marriage make it harder for others to persevere? By withdrawing, do we prevent the Blood of Christ from circulating to all members of his Body?  But if that is so, then our obedience might in some way help others endure, like Blanche’s sisters helped her to stay true to Christ to the very end.

If you are in a marriage that is hard, seems pointless, or is burdened by great hardships, one way to find meaning is to accept that you may be going through it for someone else in the Mystical Body of Christ. Like the Martyrs of Compiegne, you can offer up your suffering for other married couples, like Sister Blanche, who might not have a natural disposition towards strength and endurance of hardship. If you seem to gifted with great reservoirs of strength, like Blanche’s sisters, it may be to bear the burdens of others, even if you will never meet them in this life.

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