Category Archives: Spiritual Reflections

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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Field notes on the Jubilee Year of Mercy as Mediated by Han Solo

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The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy concluded on November 20, 2016.  I am certainly not qualified to give unsolicited advice, but if you wish to compare notes, or are seeking, what follows was my experience. This is longish.

The Han Solo theme is a reflection on what my older self could tell my younger self, or any young people looking for advice from someone who’s been on the journey a bit longer.  Though I have to admit I’ve been more a Kylo than Rey or Finn in my life. I had opportunities to break away from the path I was on at a younger age, as Finn did, but missed them. Fortunately God’s mercy is never-ending.

Why did I participate? What was this Extraordinary Jubilee Year anyway?

I was very excited when Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee last spring, as I had not participated, to my regret, in the Great Jubilee of 2000. There have only been 27 such years. Briefly, a Jubilee is a special year of prayer that a focuses on the forgiveness of sins and the associated punishment.

I have always been interested in “Last Things”, and for a Catholic, this inevitably involves the subject of Purgatory. Essentially, even though Jesus has redeemed us, Catholics believe that a final purification of the person will occur after death before one is admitted into Heaven and sees God face to face. The degree of purification is believed to correspond to how faithful you have been in following the path the Lord has set out for us. It involves some degree of suffering, and it is taught that you can do nothing to reduce this experience after you die. However, it is accepted that you can mitigate your purification by certain actions taken in this life.  A Jubilee Year provides an extra special opportunity of obtaining this mitigation, which is called an “indulgence.” By satisfying the conditions laid out, which involve pilgrimage to a Holy Door, prayer, confession, communion, and works of mercy, one can potentially obtain a partial or full remission of the punishment associated with your confessed sins.

I have sinned much, and accordingly I found this opportunity to be most welcome. I recognize that there is a fair amount of skepticism around this topic, even for Catholics, but, to be blunt, what did I have to lose?

My Preparation

I did not wait for the Jubilee Year to officially begin, and began going to Confession regularly before it started (Never put off what God’s grace might allow you to do today).  For me this was a hard step, as I had not been to confession in 20 years. However, God provided a special delivery of grace last July, and this gave me the courage to go back.  This involved a pretty detailed examination of conscience, and given the quantity of things I wanted to talk about, I forgot to mention a few things on my first trip. I went back the next day, same priest, to finish it properly.

This also involved avoidance of serious sin. For example, I took care to arrange my schedule to I could go to Mass every Sunday and the other Holy Days of Obligation, and to take Communion on each occasion when I was reasonably confident I was in a state of grace.  I also began to spend more time in prayer, and make an effort to pray the Rosary from time to time.

Fortunately for me, I live near a Cathedral that had Holy Door, and was able to participate in the diocese’s procession and ceremony when the Jubilee Year began in November of 2015.

What I learned: Main Points 

  • We must be Christocentric in our faith.  “No one sees the Father but through Me” as the Lord says. I think my early formation in faith suffered because I spent too much time thinking and pondering God the Father without developing a firm, more intimate friendship with his Son. The members of the Trinity are equal, and Our Lady, the angels and the Communion of Saints are important, but for me the establishment of bond with the Lord was a necessary foundation. In my first hour in Heaven, I would like nothing better than to rest my head on the Lord, like St. John at the Last Supper, and listen to the Metronome of the Universe that beats beneath His breast.

 

  • Follow The Rules. They work and are there for your benefit.

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While Baptism is the first Sacrament, Confession is the key that unlocks nearly everything else. Can you imagine going through a marriage without ever saying your sorry or apologizing to your spouse for anything? Nobody’s marriage would last.  But many of us rarely if ever go to Confession while still taking Communion regularly. Judas took Communion directly from the Lord’s hand, but he had not repented his treachery. It did him no good.  It gets easier the more you do it, and I go every 3-5 weeks now. I am now receiving showers of grace from making good Communions that I was not getting before

  • If you work or live in an urban area that has a nearby Catholic Church, going to an extra Mass or two during the work week is a great “low hanging fruit” to obtain.  I am lucky enough that my schedule has a regular lunch break, and can walk to a Cathedral in 10 minutes. Weekday masses are shorter, no more than 30 minutes I have found.  You can give praise  to God, obtain more grace for yourself (or ask God to donate it to someone else), and thus can better serve others. I have become acquainted with the General Roman Calendar, and am working to collect all the Feast Days, a la Pokémon Go. I find that the more I go to Mass, the more I appreciate and enjoy it.

 

  • The above is especially important, if like me, you often find yourself too tired for meaningful prayer time at the end of the day. I made many resolutions to say the Rosary on certain days, and often failed to do it because of the tyranny of schedule, family and professional obligations, etc. I have an extra Rosary at work now, and may try to fit this in over lunch. I am lucky enough to have an office with a door.

 

  • Prayer and Contemplation can be very effective when done in silence and darkness. Cardinal Sarah discusses this in God or Nothing. My prayer life up till recently had mostly been spoken, petitionary prayer. I have tried just before sleep, kneeling and emptying my mind, and just listening. I don’t hear anything, but according to Sarah and others, this provides the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in you. I often wake up in the middle of the night, and find it fruitful just to lie there and let the mind take in whatever God wants to impart. I think most of the best received stuff I have written came to me between 3 and 5 am during these interludes.

 

The Result

“Its true, all of it.” Han to Rey and Finn.

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Newton’s Third law provides that for “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” However, God is far more generous. For every movement we make to him, he advances much farther towards us, like the Father running to greet the returned prodigal son.

I think that the last 18 months has been the best “year” of my life. I had some significant personal, professional and health challenges, but God’s grace carried me through. I had my peaks and valleys, being subject to the “Law of Undulation” as C.S. Lewis describes in his The Screwtape Letters. However, I found myself much less bothered by things, less angry, more forgiving, and did not shoot anyone first, even bounty hunters!  And writing as a man, sexual temptation will always be a key struggle, but the grace I have received provided a measure of calm and peace to my carnal nature that I thought would be impossible to experience in this life.

I also found my interest in popular culture has waned dramatically. I am much less interested in watching TV, sports, movies, and listening to talk/sports radio. I am loyal to my sports teams as much as any guy, but no longer feel the compulsion to watch the games. I have also cut down on a lot of the casual fiction reading that I often did just to fill the time (“beach reads”). I was also able to tune out a lot of the election noise and political chatter over the past Spring and Summer, but did get sucked in too much in the past few months. And yes, I will see “Rogue One”, but I don’t have to go opening night.

Instead, I find that I like to do a lot of religious reading (e.g. scriptural commentaries, spiritual reflections, etc.).  I probably learned more about our faith in the last 18 months than in all the prior years. A surprising side effect is a new-found appreciation of Classical music. I do not play an instrument and have never seriously studied music, but I find that’s what my radio is set to in the car these days.

What’s Next

This blog was my attempt at performing “works of mercy” for the Jubilee Year.  It is sad to see how many people in the West have fallen away from the faith compared to prior times, and that a smaller percentage of the younger generations are being raised in the faith.  How can we communicate with people in humble way about what they are missing?

I think one way has to be stories. While the daytime soaps have faded, our imagination has been captured by cable series, Netflix, comic books, movies, music videos, novels, etc.  Even our sports and politics revolve around the story structure. There is a beginning, middle and end, with a cast of characters, various crises, and a conclusion.

I have tried my hand at short fiction over the last year or so as a means to convey my own experiences and thoughts in hopefully a humble and interesting way. This blog has a small following, but as I said in my very first post, if one person is helped, then its been worth it.

The creative well dried up over the summer, and I have gotten away from fiction and done some books reviews and spiritual reflections instead. I have tried not to force it, as most of the early stuff just came to me without a lot of conscious effort. So perhaps that’s all God intended for this effort. Also, one who tries to write for the Lord will often ask himself whether its just vanity, or really for the Glory of God. I certainly ask myself that question a lot.

So, perhaps this is the last post. If you have followed along this last year or so, thanks for your time. I will pray and reflect on this, and if it is in accord with God’s will, I may continue the blog. I would like to try more fiction, but if that’s not where the Spirit leads me, this blog may shift to doing book reviews, spiritual reflections, etc.

And no matter what happens, stay true, you will have your happy ending. This thing we call “life” is the Way of the Cross. But Time itself is subject to the Lord, and He makes all things new, and will give you true life to the fullest.

 

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Looking for Leslie Burke

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Adrienne, off to Terabithia (1918)

After writing about childhood and atheism the other day, I had a feeling it’s finally time for my Adrienne post. Specifically, Adrienne Von Speyr, the only subject I have in my blog roll. This is a very long and meandering post, as I am knitting together the threads of several different,  proto-posts that never went anywhere.

I.

I read Bridge to Terabithia when I was a boy.  I have not read it since, but it made an impression, as I could remember the story reasonably well years later. After I saw the film adaptation in 2007, fragments started coming back to me, about names that could go either way, and the feel of a sweater button pressed into your face. I would think about the book from time to time, and why I still remember it when so many other books from my youth have gone away.

In hindsight, I think it must have been the alien abduction quality of the friendship at the core of the story. Jesse Aarons, an artistic 11 year old boy, becomes best friends with … a girl, his classmate Leslie Burke.  Maybe things have changed, but based on my school experiences, I think on a subconscious level this required more suspension of disbelief by my eleven year old self than E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

It is not a casual friendship. She is the shy Jesse’s only friend, and they spend just about all their free time together. She is the more mature and developed personality. And an atheist of all things too, in contrast to Jesse’s church going family. I do not recall any sexual tension in the book, and Jesse’s budding romantic affections seem entirely channeled into a crush on his pretty art teacher, Miss Edmunds. But the friendship with Leslie, however brief, has a profound effect on Jesse. She teaches him how to love, and to live life despite its hardships.

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The book’s author, Katherine Paterson, was the daughter of Christian missionaries, and had intended to become a missionary herself before she turned to writing.In an interview she acknowledged that we live in a post-Christian culture, but that we write what we are, and so she writes stories that convey messages of grace and hope for the reading public that we have, and not the one that perhaps we would prefer.

Looking back, I feel a certain jealousy for Jesse, because I never had a Leslie Burke in my life at that age. And once a boy becomes a man, it is difficult to have a strong, platonic friendship with a woman. J.R.R. Tolkien put it very well in a letter to his son that’s worth reading if you can find it (#43). An excerpt:

This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life, when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may be accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by ‘falling in love’. But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does.”

Terabithia is Eden before the fall, when love was undimmed by lust or possession. There is no real sin in Terabithia, but Leslie suffers a fall at the end, and it means her death.  Jesse was on the precipice of puberty, and Leslie was alone at the end because Jesse chose to go on an outing with his crush. Is “growing up” a kind of death? And death a return to childhood?

 

II.

Contemporary imagination is haunted by women like Leslie Burke, impressive women who lived young, and died hard. A few examples: Bernadette Soubirous (St. Bernadette), Marie-Francoise Therese Martin (St. Therese of Lisieux), and Elisabeth Catez (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity). The Church calls them Saints, but for the Modern World they might as well be ghosts, because it does not believe in them.

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(Bernadette, Marie-Francois, and Elisabeth, before the convent life)

While there were a fair number of these young female saints in the Church of Antiquity (pre-500 A.D.) and Middle Ages (500 to 1500 A.D.), very little is known about most of them. The more famous female saints tended to be the longer lived scholars or founders and reformers of religious orders (Clare of Assisi, Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Scholastica, and Teresa of Avila).

One exception is Joan of Arc, who died at 19 in 1431. And in a way, I see her as almost a bridge from the young visionaries of the past to those of the present age. And we arguably need a bridge, because the world before Joan seems to have been more accepting of mystic possibilities.

The mystery of Joan has been on my mind the last few years. Why would God care about a dynastic conflict between two Catholic countries? There was no great religious question tied up in the 100 Years War.  And her death did not bring a swift end to the war or reconciliation between England and France.  The war continued for another twenty years, and England and France remained bitter rivals until the 20th century.

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From the French film, The Trial of Joan of Arc.

 

While I like the poster above, I think an even better portrayal of her situation is Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Jury.” I post it below to show how a contemporary image may better explain the question of Joan.

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The Jury, from Saturday Evening Post, February 14, 1959

 

The painting seems to illustrate her dilemma very well. She was pressed in on every side, with her accusers making appeals to reason, as well as appeals to authority. Today’s Christian must face the same appeals from the modern world. The reddish room and smoky air call to mind what she was threatened with in this life and the next if she did not recant. And is that the Devil on her left shoulder, all in red?

While Joan was charged with heresy, she was not executed for her visions. Technically, she was executed because she was a repeat offender against the Biblical clothing rule prohibiting cross-dressing, the only thing they could actually prove. Leslie the tomboy would smile at that.  But the major reason she was not spared was that she would not give in to the demands of her accusers. They wanted her to renounce her  visions of the saints. If she had, she would have been allowed to live. So, she was put to death for keeping faith with what Modern World thinks of as ghosts. Burnt to ashes, and cast in the river. Leslie’s sacrifice was the reverse, drowned and then cremated.

And which saints were they? None other than St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Margaret and St. Catherine, two virgin martyrs who died at 15 and 18, respectively. That’s our Church in the world’s view: Girl ghosts and invisible angels all the way down. All the way back to the Blessed Mother and the angel no one else ever saw.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

Joan’s conviction was set aside by the Church after a retrial a few decades later. Those who die for their faith are deemed to be saints, but she was not canonized until the 20th century.  But again, what was Joan’s mission?  She said it was to “Save France,” and many have puzzled over the years as to why God would care about this war. Some have theorized that by saving France, Joan preserved the Church through the struggles of the Reformation. If England had conquered France, it might have become a Protestant nation later on. Perhaps there would have been no Counter-Reformation, and none of the great French saints and theologians of the past few centuries would have come to be.

Let me suggest a set of additional or alternative missions for Joan: Perhaps Joan’s message to the world was her great “No” to secular authority, which was really a disguised “Yes” to God. Joan was trying to teach the Church how to say no to the comfortable position of political power it enjoyed at the time. The English influenced branch of the Church did not learn this lesson and killed her. Exactly one hundred years later the same branch was unable to say no to Henry the VIII (at the Convocation of 1531), and then it died.

On a personal level, she was the model for the mystics and visionaries of the Modern World, an age in which God has been declared to be dead, and even the Church rightly looks with caution on those who claim to talk to the saints. Perhaps Joan of Arc had to die so that the Church would always pause and take notice of the Maid of Lourdes, the Little Flower or a Sister Faustina before it made a decision.  Joan gave them room to breathe and be believed. Joan also gave our girl ghosts a model for courage, a pattern to follow. And hope, that even if they were killed, providence would take care of them in the end.  If Joan could do this, so can I.

 

III.

When Hans Urs von Balthasar died in 1988, his funeral eulogy was given by his friend and mentor, Cardinal De Lubac. The Cardinal, in his opening remarks, quoted theologian Ludwig Kaufman’s observation about the missing man of the Second Vatican Council:

… It is disconcerting that from the first summons of the Council by John XXIII, it did not seem to have occurred to anyone to invite Hans Urs von Balthasar to contribute to its preparatory work. Disconcerting, and – not to put a tooth in it- humiliating, but a fact that must by humbly accepted. Perhaps, al in all, it was better that he should be allowed to devote himself completely to his task, to the continuation of a work so immense in size and depth that the contemporary Church has seen nothing comparable.

Von Balthasar died two days before he was to be made a Cardinal . The theologian’s life long case of shyness had finally turned terminal. He had refused the honor before, but finally acceded out of obedience to his friend Pope John Paul II.

Who was Hans Urs Von Balthasar? Cardinal De Lubac also referred to in his eulogy as the man “most cultivated of his time.”

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An eternal child, and apparently his favorite picture of himself

He said he never planned on being a priest as a young man. His first love was music. But on a retreat in the Black Forest, the call came to him like lightning while standing under a tree. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1929 and was ordained in 1936.  He went on to become one of the most prolific Catholic theologians of the 20th century, and received many awards. He was appointed to the Church’s International Theological Commission in 1969, and founded the theological journal Communio with his friend and future Pope, Benedict XVI, in 1972.

So why wasn’t he at Vatican II?  Well, he left the Society of Jesus in 1950, and was without a job for six years. He had effectively given up what was likely to have been a very secure, comfortable and prestigious career in academia. And all over a woman.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

 

IV.

Adrienne von Speyr was born in 1902 in Basel, Switzerland into a Protestant family. Her father was a successful doctor, and she had three siblings. Her public life was very ordinary in many respects. Interesting, honorable, and marked by the kinds of hardship and setbacks that many of us face, but ordinary.

Her father died of a sudden illness when she sixteen, and the family had to adjust to a much reduced standard of living. Worn down by school and taking care of their home, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs in 1918. She spent the next three years in a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, and initially, was not expected to live. Her mother visited her one time in those three years. If you ever read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Adrienne lived that book in a way. She met a number of interesting people, and picked up Russian from the many Russian refugees in Switzerland.

After her recovery she decided to go to medical school, contrary to her mother’s wishes. She persevered, and worked her way through medical school and was admitted to the profession.  She was not supported by her family, and tutored many students to pay her way. She married a widower with two young sons in 1927, and started her own medical practice in 1931. She was a very busy, respectable physician, and much commended for her care of the poor. Unfortunately, her husband, who she had come to love very much, died in an accident in 1934. She married again in 1936. She never had any children of her own.

All this time she was searching for something, dissatisfied with her spiritual life. She had a significant interest in Catholicism, but could never find a bridge in her largely Protestant circle of friends and associates. She finally met Father Von Balthasar in 1940. She formally converted later that year under his guidance. This conversion was something of a shock to those around her, and resulted in alienation from her family and some friends. Father Von Balthasar became a good friend of Adrienne’s family, and they provided a room for him in their own home during his years in the wilderness.

Adrienne stayed very busy with her practice throughout the 1940s, but her health did not hold out. She had a severe heart attack, and then developed diabetes. By the mid-1950s, she was effectively housebound, and had to give up her medical practice. Her remaining years were marked by significant suffering. She was functionally blind by 1964, and died of colon cancer in 1967.

While her health had been declining, Adrienne had taken up the pen to write books of scriptural commentary and spiritual reflections, despite no formal training in theology or philosophy. Her first book, Handmaid of the Lord, was published in 1948 by a company, Johannes Verlag, that Von Balthasar had founded. Additional works about scripture, prayer or the sacraments were published every few years until her death. Adrienne’s published works garnered no great attention and were not widely available in English during her life. T.S. Elliott did provide a favorable jacket blurb for her Gospel of John commentary, which was published in 1949:

“Adrienne Von Speyr’s book does not lend itself to any classification I can think of…. there is nothing to do but submit oneself to it; if the reader emerges without having been crushed by it, he will find himself strengthened and exhilarated by a new sense of Christian sensibility.”

 

V.

The thing about giving your consent to God is that He will pay you the compliment of accepting and running away with it for the rest of your life. You will find yourself dragged along, no matter how tired you get.   You might find yourself, like Adrienne, writing pages and pages of a letter, and mailing it off to a friend, not realizing that the ink had run out because you were blind.

Blindness to hope can also lead a soul to a very dark place. You might find yourself, like Adrienne in her younger days, staring into the beckoning depths of Rhine River from a railway bridge at the darkest moments of your life.

Despite all this, she was described by Von Balthasar as a lively, cheerful and fearless woman:

She was marked by humour and enterprise. She was like the boy in the fairy tale who sets off to experience fear. At her mother’s instigation she had to leave high school but secretly studied Greek at night by the light of a candle, so she could keep up with the others. In Leysin she learned Russian. After her transfer to the high school in Basel, she quickly learned German and at the same time took a crash course in English to catch up with the rest of the class. As I said, she paid for her medical studies by tutoring. Then there is her courageous readiness to stand up for justice. When a teacher struck a boy in the face with a ruler, she rushed forward, turned the teacher to the face the class, and shouted: “Do you want to see a coward? Here’s one!”

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

After she died, Father Von Balthasar gradually revealed the mystery of his own career path for the prior twenty years, and the mystery of Adrienne’s life. What was learned was a great surprise to her family, friends and the larger world.

Adrienne wrote a partial biography of her life through her first 24 years, in which she revealed she had visions of the saints since she was a child. She had experienced significant emotional turmoil, and considered suicide twice, once over her family relationship, and the second time after the death of her first husband.

She had suffered stigmata on a regular basis after her conversion, and she had dictated about sixty works of scriptural commentary and spiritual reflection to Father Von Balthasar between 1945 and 1953. He had published only a small portion of her output during her life, and the ones that would be the least controversial.

Her mystical experiences had increased tremendously after her conversion in 1940, and Von Balthasar had attempted to have the Society of Jesus take over the mission of evaluating and caring for her mission. For reasons too complicated for me to explain, they refused, and he was given a choice of either staying in the Society or leaving to be her personal spiritual director. He felt that Adrienne had been called to a special mission by God, and left the SJ in 1950 to be her confessor and publisher for the next seventeen years.

After her books became better known, some in the Church were impressed enough that a scholarly conference was held in her honor in Rome in 1985, at which Pope John Paul II spoke approvingly of her work. But overall, there was no groundswell of acceptance for her work between her death and Balthasar’s in 1988.  However, he maintained to the end the importance of her influence on his own theological output in various statements:

“[O]n the whole, I received far more from her, theologically, than she from me.”

“Today, after her death, her work appears far more important than mine.”

He wrote his last book about her, Our Task: A Report and Plan, with one purpose: “… to prevent any attempt being made after my death to separate my work from that of Adrienne Von Speyr.”

While Von Balthasar received great praise in the last few decades of his life, and which has endured to the present day, he is not without his critics. His theology has offended and been subject to criticism from various points on the x, y, and z axis of the theological spectrum.  I am not a scholar or theologian, so I have no opinion worth mentioning on these issues.

Nor has his endorsement of Adrienne been widely accepted, at least publicly. I once read a 400+ page review of his theology that included eighteen different chapter commentaries by theologians of various denominations.  In the introduction, the editor warned that one must come to terms with Von Balthasar’s insistence that his theology was derived from hers. The vast majority of the contributors proceeded to ignore that guidance, and the few that mentioned her gave her only passing references.

There have been three books written about her, a number of Ph.D dissertations, and a large number of scholarly articles in various journals. Yet, for me at least, the silence speaks volumes.  With a handful of exceptions, you will not find any Cardinals, Bishops or famous theologians opining favorably about her work. Possibly its polite embarrassment. A number have openly said they have no idea what he saw in her work.  A more benign view is that the Church is, like Mary did once, keeping “all these things within her heart,” and watching to see whether any fruit ripens.

There are certainly very public negative criticisms of her work and her relationship with Von Balthasar, and they are easy to find. And in this age of scandal, it should not be a surprise that they are made against a man and woman who spend such a large quantity of time in each other’s company, even when there is no evidence of any impropriety.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

 

VI.

One of the benefits of being a sinner, layperson, mediocre Catholic and anonymous blogger is that you have no great reputation that needs regular care and maintenance. So I am free to offer my non-scholarly and uninformed endorsement. Adrienne has made a big difference in bringing me back to the Church, and if you are looking for something, perhaps she will help you too.

If you are curious, I would recommend The Passion from Within as a good starting point. Adrienne was relentlessly Christocentric, and you may find yourself developing a closer connection with the Lord after reading it.

You might even think about going to confession again (if you have not been), and even on a regular basis (not yearly, slacker!). Her book on this topic, Confession, is very insightful.

The magnum opus is the four volume commentary on the Gospel of John. This is a line by line exegesis, and her longest work. All the themes of her bibliography are touched  on in way one or another there.  Fair warning, it can be a heavy read, and you will want to take breaks regularly.

Lastly, I will mention the Book of All Saints.  This book is about the contemplation and prayer life of the saints, and Von Balthasar called it a “great gift to the Church.” I think it is the book that will ultimately make or break many people’s view of Adrienne.  I will quote from the section about Joan of Arc, as she was at the end:

She is soft and gentle and bears what is given to her to bear: before, she had borne things for the Christian king; now she understands that her mission is expanding and that she has to bear things for all believers. The end is not “heroic”, but completely pure, without blemish, as simple as only a childlike faith can be, and perfectly trusting. 

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

A veil is always drawn over a confessor and the sinner, and a spiritual director and his charge.  While there is some portion of her work that remains to be published, a large share of Adrienne’s mission will have to remain a mystery to us.

And there will always be doubt about its authenticity. If you listen, you can almost hear the sigh of disappointment from many of the learned and wise in the Church:

“Hans, Hans, why did you have to run off to Terabithia with that girl?  You were meant to be the great navigator for the Church between the bastions of the past and the shoals of modernity. And yet, like Odysseus, you seem to have tied yourself to the mast to listen to the siren call of some mystic. Why, why?”

And if you listen closely, you might hear the answer, however partial and incomplete:

“She was my friend.”

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Witness for the Prosecution

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From Inherit the Wind

 

One of the more interesting things to observe on social media, often not in a good way, is the interaction between believers, atheists and agnostics. There is certainly tension present. Some atheists and agnostics show great frustration with Followers of the Way*, and they do have good cause to be disappointed.

Georges Bernanos captured this dynamic very well in his essay, The Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese.  In this essay, written in 1938, Bernanos conveys the point of view of an imaginary agnostic who has been given the opportunity to deliver a sermon to a parish of self-satisfied and mediocre Catholics. Bernanos was a Catholic novelist and essayist, and it was considered a sign of his great integrity that he was far harder on the Church and his fellow Catholics than on anyone else.

From the outset, his narrator pulls no punches:

“Ladies and Gentlemen”, he would begin, “I don’t share your beliefs, but I probably know more about the history of the Church than you do, because I happen to have read it, and not many parishioners can say that.”

“… Who among you is capable of writing twenty lines about his or her patron saint?”

Lesson one, don’t BS or condescend to an atheist or agnostic. They have probably come by their position the hard way, either through formal education or long life experience.  Their common sense may exceed yours, and they may very well know philosophy, theology, the history of the Church or the Bible better than you.

Despite this, some will make time for us, even when we ignore them:

For though you’re not interested in unbelievers, unbelievers are extremely interested in you. There are a few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there  … the faintest chance of your being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch closely and try and fathom you.

Lesson two, you will have some opportunity to demonstrate or discuss your faith with them, whether you intend to or not. Be ready.

But we are often not:

“Yes, we were drawn to you. But now we’ve decided that you’re not very interesting after all, and it’s rather disappointing. And we hate to think what fools we were, ever to have hoped in you, and to have doubted ourselves, our own unbelief.”

Lesson three, we may be accountable to some degree for their lack of faith. Jesus says woe unto those who are a stumbling block to children. But is he just speaking of physiological age? What if its spiritual age as well? We will have to account for the atheists and agnostics we disappointed by our bad example.

For example, do we take the Sacraments seriously? Bernanos’ agnostic suggests we often don’t:

When you come out of the confessional, you’re in a ‘state of grace.’ A state of grace … are you sure? Can you blame us if we don’t believe it? We’re wondering what you do with the Grace of God. Should it not be shining out of you? Where the devil do you hide your joy?

Lesson four, as Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, save us from gloomy saints.” Behave like your faith matters more than the world

Instead, we seem to put too much faith in politics or money, not God:

But what surpasses the understanding is that you habitually reason about the affairs of the world in exactly the same way as we do. I mean, who’s forcing you? … But when your fathers profess the pitiless economics of Mr. Adam Smith, or when you give solemn honor to Machiavelli, allow me to say that you cause us no surprise – you simply strike us as odd, incomprehensible fellows.

Lesson five: If you make an idol out of your politics, possessions, or career, why should atheists take you seriously about the Good News?

Despite any frustration we have with atheists or agnostics, we must never judge them for their profession of faith. A scientist once calculated that about 150 billion humans beings have been born on planet Earth since homo sapiens came into existence (I have no issue with the concept of the evolution of human beings over many thousands of years, in a manner consistent with the will of the Father. Nor does the RC Church). Billions lived and died before the Incarnation, never knowing the Good News. Billions have lived and died since without being baptized or even being preached to.

For whatever reason, one of the mysteries of Salvation history is that only a vanishingly small number of human beings encountered Jesus in person, and a minority, even through today, have ever been formally inducted into the faith through baptism. Most of the people who have been born went to their deaths knowing nothing of the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Most people did not believe Jesus during his day, so perhaps it is appropriate that most of humanity not believe his followers.

Peter Kreeft has suggested that one of the purposes of the Communion of Saints is for those of us who are wealthy in life to share with those who were not in the next. When you lay up treasures in heaven, it may be for those who were never graced with any spiritual treasure in this life.

Does Bernanos’ narrator offer any advice for today’s Christians? His narrator prophesies our present,  and says we must become children again:

Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants terribles. Your only way out is to become children yourselves, to rediscover the heart of childhood. For the hour shall strike when questions hurled at you from all points of the earth shall be so direct, that you will not be able to answer except by yes or no.

Lesson six, social media places our Faith under the microscope like never before. And we will be questioned by the orphaned children of our age, who will not defer to us or accept the things we take for granted. They find much of the world rather absurd, and laugh at it. And Bernanos advises that we will never respond adequately to their laughter except through the childlike heroism of a Joan of Arc before her accusers.

Christians who listen to me – that is your peril! It is difficult to follow up a society that has foundered in laughter, because even the fragments will be useless. You will have to build it all up again. You will have to build it up under the eyes of children. Become as children yourselves. They have found the chink in your armor, and you will never disarm their irony save by simplicity, honesty and audacity.

You will never disarm them save by heroism.

Lesson 7, argument is of limited value. Apologetics has its place with those who are eager to believe, and need guidance or encouragement. Our Lord had little success with argument with those disinclined to believe him. Do we expect to do any better than Him? While we have a duty to be honest when the question is put to us, we will best persuade through our heroic example, which may include prayer and fasting, and all the ordinary or anonymous sacrifices we are called to make every day.

When I die, I want Jesus to call some of these formerly hard nosed atheists from the far reaches of eternity (Heaven) or temporality (Purgatory). They can be His prosecuting attorney against me in my final confession. Did I ever impress or convert a one by my example, or my prayers? Up to this point in my life, I cannot say with any confidence that I have. I would have to plead guilty to every charge they might make, a witness for the prosecution.

 

P.S. If you wish to read more Bernanos, many of his writings have been translated into English. Unfortunately, much of it is out of print and hard to come by at a reasonable price. The essay I have quoted from is available in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories by George Bernanos at a reasonable price in e-book form.

* As Christians were apparently known in their early years. The French writer Fabrice Hadjadj has suggested, half-seriously, that Christians go back to using that description, as it sounds far more mysterious and intriguing.

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He’s Already Won

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Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, with the serpent beneath her feet

One way the late, great Rene Girard described Jesus’ great victory was in terms of forcing the world to see the innocence of the scapegoats we so often make of others.  This message was not readily accepted, and even for Christians it has taken many years to be absorbed. Mr. Girard passed away last year, about a week before the Paris attacks, and perhaps it was a mercy he died then. Or perhaps he was a mini-Katechon of sorts, and for the sake of one very good Frenchman, some portion of evil was held back?

But despite all the attacks of the last year or so in Europe, there has not been a single instance of significant retaliation. While that may change, this would probably seem unthinkable to the Europeans of a few hundred years ago, where ethnic and religious pogroms were the norm. And there have been almost no retaliatory attacks in the U.S. despite 9/11 and the more recent incidents.

And these are in cultures where Christian faith is in decline. So even the atheists and agnostics of Europe and the U.S. have been converted to this norm. Do they even know why they believe scapegoating is wrong?

All that remains is for the Lord’s enemies to be humbled and made a footstool.  Mary is building this footstool from the bones of the serpent that she crushes. We must endure the thrashing of its dying body.

Bishop Fulton Sheen once wrote that Mary would play a particularly important role in converting the Islamic world. While we are tempted to wrath after what happened in a small corner of Normandy today, let us pray to her that she will open the hearts of the Muslim world to her Son.

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The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Christ

Arc Two

Lately I have taken more notice of the expression “the arc of history.” I had been half-aware of this saying or versions of it for some time, but only closely examined it in the last few days.

The quote we are familiar with is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice.” This particular form was coined by Martin Luther King in the context of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Now it seems to have been borrowed for whatever the issue of the day is.

But I wonder, is this arc of justice supposed to be ascending or descending?

The original source for this expression was the 19th century American minister Theodore Parker.  The first recorded version follows:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

Parker was speaking of justice in terms of punishment or retribution, not reconciliation or goodness. The people who use this quote now think in terms of the correct end to a particular question or debate, or, more generally, the perfect “end state” of human society.

The popular use and application of this quote is incorrect. The arc of the moral universe, or better yet, of history, bends toward Christ.

And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.

John 12:32

And it is a short arc, not long.  No farther than from John and Mary on Golgotha, the infant Church, to Christ up on the Cross.  Christ of course is justice, but even more so mercy. The perfect blend.

And what is man’s justice?

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35

I would prefer to be on the ascending arc toward the font of mercy. I do not want the justice of man that we seem to promise, with a hint of menace, to those we disagree with on the issue of the day. I hope no one using this expression would want justice if they truly knew what they were asking for.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beta Testing

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Deja Vu? The program has been altered.

Elon Musk  said several weeks ago that we are all probably living in a computer simulation. That what we experience is not “base reality.”

So, how did this happen? Whose program is it?

Perhaps humanity rejected the original program, and instead decided to write its own. However, we can’t seem to work out the bugs, and thus never truly “go live.”

This world is a perpetual beta test that we insisted on trying on for size.  And we have forgotten that we are the coders of our own misery. Every new dance craze  (Democracy, Free Markets, Communism, Environmentalism, Feminism,  Libertarianism, Transhumanism, etc.) promises a utopia, but one that is always receding into the horizon.

We might call this simulation Shadowlands 1.0.

The solution does not lie within our script writing or life hacking skills.  The beta test continues, for now.  While we each must endure our own beta release, you can step away from the latest dance craze and try something else. Chess perhaps?

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Don’t be someone else’s cannon fodder

Now, you will lose your game of chess. But all the moves you make belong to you alone, not someone else. There is a personal encounter and response to every move.  And no one will gloat over your defeat at the end. Quite the contrary.

 

chess

Your true opponent always has time and a smile for you

 

 

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So Near, So Far

For your discernment:

One concept I struggled with over the years is the distinction between “nearness of appearance” vs. “nearness of approach” in our journey to the Lord. I have read a number of descriptions of the idea, but I had trouble putting it all together.  I found the use of images helpful in wrapping my head around this, and am sharing it with anyone who might read this who has had the same struggle.

Let’s consider the image below, a photograph of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil:

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This picture is from some distance away, and the statue appears rather small, almost human sized. You could even hold up your hand and block the image entirely.   Jesus Christ does not look that different from me when viewed this way, especially for someone indifferent or lukewarm to their faith. This is what I will refer to as nearness of appearance.

But this is an illusion of course.  But in a way it is a good illusion, as it doesn’t scare us away.  Jesus has cloaked his majesty in flesh to make himself accessible to us.

And now the soul responds, and begins its journey. You have to drop a lot of baggage to get through the rough terrain in the picture. No heavy clothing, suitcases, big egos, etc.

And after some time, you get closer. The people who get really close, which we call saints, have described the experience in their writings.  Consider the next image, which is true nearness of approach:

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Photograph By Mike Vondran, some rights reserved.

Whoah … He’s a lot bigger up close. The closer one gets, saint or not, the more apparent the “ever greater” nature of Jesus and the Father through him becomes. We are nearer, but ever more aware that we are not like the Son or the Father. We are not God.  If you put your nose right up against the statue, all you would see is a wall of stone. Instead of covering the image with your hand, His hand covers you.

And so the experience of Moses comes to mind:

But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”

Exodus 33:20-23.

The little statue you could cover your hand with in the first photo is now the Lord that can cover you with his hand. And when I think about the “dark nights of the soul” described by some mystics, I wonder if it may be the shadow of the Lord, protecting them from a glory they could not see and live.

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