Archive for the 'Holiness of Life' Category

Understanding Sex

Alice von Hildebrand has recently taken issue with the way Christopher West explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Alice von Hildebrand is someone I greatly admire and respect, so when she speaks I listen. I know many others feel the same. Her main concern with West seems to be his lack of reverence when discussing something as “intimate” and “extremely serious” as sex. Von Hildebrand is also concerned that West does not respect the tremendous danger posed to us by concupiscence. Read the CNA article

Recently, West, in an interview with ABC, made remarks suggesting that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes what was good in the sexual revolution a step further. West sees an explicit and “profound” conncection between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II. Both saw that sex was good and natural, but only one (JPII) saw how sex can be sanctified. There is a good point to be made here, but it does lack reverence. But I think this is exactly what West is trying to do. He is trying to use “the language of the world” in order to show the world a “better way”, like a Trojan horse of Holy Love Making in the temple of the Aphrodite. This is fine as far as it goes, but I do share von Hildebrand’s concerns. If sex is sacred, it should be talked about with reverence. If sex is beautiful then it should be talked about in the language of beauty. This was something her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was very concerned with. He wrote that one of the greatest sins that go unnoticed in our world is irreverence. Giving a proper response to value is what makes us human and a proper mark of reverence. An improper response to value belies irreverence. It seems this understanding of irreverence in response to value is what underlies Alice von Hildebrand’s concerns with West’s approach to sex. I tend to agree with her. Let us not be prudish Puritans, but lets us not be Holy Playboys either.

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The Catholic Conscience

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus always has some interesting things to say in his “While We’re At It” section of First Things. The tidbit below is regarding the role the conscience plays in the Catholic mind, and comes with a book recommendation. These words are forever timely as there is perhaps no other word in the English language that is more misunderstood than the word “conscience”.

Fr. Neuhaus from the January 2009 issue of FT:

You may have run into the claim that the Catholic teaching on conscience is is really quite circular: You must act according to conscience; your conscience must be rightly formed in accord with truth; the Church teaches the truth. Thus the upshot is, critics say, you must do what the Church tells you to do, and so much for all the fine talk about conscience. There is indeed much confusion about conscience. Some think of conscience as a little built-in moral regulator that scolds you when you do wrong and commends you when you do right. Much like the cute cartoons in which a little angel is seated on one shoulder and a little devil on the other. Others confuse conscience with sincerity. To act in conscience is to determine your deepest feelings on a matter and to act accordingly. Rather, conscience is a God-given capacity and desire to seek the truth and, working together with the gifts of reason and will, to act on the truth. What then is the role of the Church’s teaching? The answer has to do not so much with conscience as with faith. If one believes that, as Jesus promised, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in her teaching, the Church is an indispensable source of truth, including moral truth. If one does not believe that, one is, to that extent, not a Catholic Christian. Conscience does not establish truth—whether by automatic moral monitor or by sincerity of feelings—but enables us to discern and respond to truth. It is not simply a matter of doing what the Church tells you to do. It is a matter of acting in conscience, in the hope that one’s conscience is formed by truth. These are among the questions very deftly and persuasively treated by Fr. Thomas Williams in his new book, Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience. Reading it is time spent in good conscience

Protectors of the Flock

From today’s second reading of the Divine Office; some pastoral advice by Pope Saint Gregory the Great:

A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favour of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.

The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark. On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord. To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defence of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.

When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel. Therefore, the Lord again says to his unfaithful people: Your prophets saw false and foolish visions and did not point out your wickedness, that you might repent of your sins. The name of the prophet is sometimes given in the sacred writings to teachers who both declare the present to be fleeting and reveal what is to come. The word of God accuses them of seeing false visions because they are afraid to reproach men for their faults and thereby lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Because they fear reproach, they keep silent and fail to point out the sinner’s wrongdoing.

The word of reproach is a key that unlocks a door, because reproach reveals a fault of which the evildoer is himself often unaware. That is why Paul says of the bishop: He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. Finally, that is also the reason why the Lord warns us through Isaiah: Cry out and be not still; raise your voice in a trumpet call.

Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? It was to bring this home that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues on the first pastors, for he causes those whom he has filled, to speak out spontaneously

Let us pray for such pastors who will be fearless in protecting the sheep from the wolves.

Intercessory Prayer

Taken from today’s second reading of the Divine Office: Saint Catherine of Siena from her Dialogue on Divine Providence,

My sweet Lord, look with mercy upon your people and especially upon the mystical body of your Church. Greater glory is given to your name for pardoning a multitude of your creatures than if I alone were pardoned for my great sins against your majesty. It would be no consolation for me to enjoy your life if your holy people stood in death. For I see that sin darkens the life of your bride the Church – my sin and the sins of others.

It is a special grace I ask for, this pardon for the creatures you have made in your image and likeness. When you created man, you were moved by love to make him in your own image. Surely only love could so dignify your creatures. But I know very well that man lost the dignity you gave him; he deserved to lose it, since he had committed sin.

Moved by love and wishing to reconcile the human race to yourself, you gave us your only-begotten Son. He became our mediator and our justice by taking on all our injustice and sin out of obedience to your will, eternal Father, just as you willed that he take on our human nature. What an immeasurably profound love! Your Son went down from the heights of his divinity to the depths of our humanity. Can anyone’s heart remain closed and hardened after this?

We image your divinity, but you image our humanity in that union of the two which you have worked in a man. You have veiled the Godhead in a cloud, in the clay of our humanity. Only your love could so dignify the flesh of Adam. And so by reason of this immeasurable love I beg, with all the strength of my soul, that you freely extend your mercy to all your lowly creatures.

Suffering and Providence

From Saint Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God:

Considered in themselves, trials certainly cannot be loved, but looked at in their origin – that is, in God’s Providence and ordaining will – they are worthy of unlimited love…

The Stoics, particularly good Epictetus, placed all their philosophy in this: to abstain and sustain; to forbear and to bear up under; to abstain from and to forbear earthly pleasures, delights, and honors, and to sustain and to bear up under injuries, labors, and troubles. Christian doctrine, the sole true philosophy, has three principles on which it bases all its practices: self-denial, which is far more than to abstain from pleasures; to carry Christ’s cross, which is far more than to lift it up; and to follow our Lord, not only in renouncing self and in carrying His Cross, but also in whatever belongs to the practice of every kind of good work. Still it is evident that there is not as much love in self-denial and such deeds as in suffering. In fact, in Sacred Scripture, the Holy Spirit points out that the climax in our Lord’s love for us is the Passion and death He suffered for us.

To love God’s will in consolations is a good love when it is truly God’s will we love and not the consolation wherein it lies. Still, it is a love without opposition, repugnance, or effort. Who would not love so worthy a will in so agreeable a form?

To love God’s will in His commandments, counsels, and inspirations is the second degree of love and it is much more perfect. It carries us forward to renounce and give up our own will, and enables us to abstain from and forbear many pleasures, but not all of them.

To love suffering and affliction out of love for God is the summit of most holy charity. In it nothing is pleasant but the divine will alone; there is great opposition on the part of our nature; and not only do we forsake all pleasures, but we embrace torments and labors.

The Necessity of Prayer for Contemplation

So if contemplation is so important for our lives, indeed it part and parcel to our transformation in Christ, how is it to be done? Dietrich von Hildebrand answers:

The true Christian must at any cost conquer a place in his life for contemplation. He must firmly refuse to let himself be dragged into a whirlpool of activities in which he is driven incessantly from one task to another, purpose succeeding purpose, without a pause. The present period of perpetual unrest, in which the machine has come to be the model, the causa exemplaris, of well-nigh all things, in which everything is caught in a process of instrumentalization, in which Leistung (“achievement”) with the emphasis on quantity and mere technical perfection, has assumed priority over being in a substantial and meaningful sense – this period of shallow hyperactivity is only too apt to drag us into that whirlpool of outward preoccupations.

All our actions, even those with a religious or moral importance, which therefore essentially appeal to the contemplative attitude, we tend to perform in the manner of discharging a duty or of acquitting ourselves of a task – not to say, of turning out the required output. We live in uninterrupted tension, never ceasing to be conquered about what has next to be settled; and many of us no longer know any alternative to work except recreation and amusement.

I believe this is what I called “noise”. So how are we to overcome all this noise and achieve a contemplative frame of mind1? von Hildebrand answers:

First, we should consecrate every day a certain space of time to inward prayer. There must be such a fraction of the day, in which we drop all our topical or habitual concerns before God, facing Him in complete emptiness, so as to be filled by the holy presence of Christ alone.

Yet, we must guard from performing the inner prayer as though we were dispatching a business among others, assimilating it to the rhythm of current tasks. We must really loose the spasm of activity and be dominated by the consciousness of departing in our inward prayer towards the superior realm of ultimate being, in radical transcendence of the aims and concerns which habitually rule the course of our thoughts.

All these we must leave behind, pronouncing a nescivi (“I have forgotten”)….

Inward prayer is the utmost antithesis to all tense activity: we cannot practice it fruitfully unless we succeed in extricating ourselves from the rhythm of affairs to be settled. To preserve that pragmatic attitude during our inward prayer is to falsify the latter’s essence to the point of absurdity.

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1 This is not to say our entire lives are to be spent in perpetual contemplation. Dietrich von  Hildebrand makes a sharp distinction between recollection and contemplation.  In Recollection “we become or make ourselves empty of pragmatical concerns, directing ourselves to the absolute…. In this respect, recollection is a preamble to contemplation…. Whereas our earthly life could not be purely contemplative, it should always remain recollected.”

On Contemplation and Beauty

Our old friend, Dietrich von Hildebrand again. This time on the subject of contemplation. From Transformation in Christ, Chapter 6:

In order that contemplation may bring out its full meaning and attain its perfection, another feature must be present. The object must affect us not only with its isolated specific content, it must elevate us into the world of valid and ultimate reality. We must, in contemplation, meet that world as such, so as to acquire suddenly a comprehensive new attitude towards all things.

Who of us does not know the supreme moments when a great truth, a glorious beauty of art or of nature, or the soul of a beloved person manifests itself to our soul with a lightning-like splendor, gracing our eyes with a vision of ultimate reality and prompting us to exclaim, “O Lord, how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!” (Ps. 8:10)?

That other feature of contemplation which must be present, to which the feature noted above is an addition, is the sense of timelessness. In contemplation proper, we are taken up out of the world of time, or rather, the temporal world around us ceases to exist.

In regards to the question in the second paragraph quoted above, I am afraid of the great awkwardness with which many people in 2008 would answer such a question. Dietrich von Hildebrand was by all accounts a highly cultured and educated man with a supreme appreciation for beauty, whether it be found in nature, art, or music. Perhaps only he could ask such a question with child-like naivete. He may have been unaware that not everyone has the gift of being able to appreciate beauty or even recognize it as he did. Nevertheless, I will trust, or at least hope, that everyone has had the kind of “supreme moment” noted above; if not a full realization of such contemplative joy, at least a hint of it.

However, if there are many who have not had such an experience, it is certainly because of the noise that fills our world. Without silence of heart and soul, contemplation is impossible. Our soul needs silence so that it can hear the voice of its maker.

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)

Compounding the problem of our inability to assume a contemplitive posture, we appear to have also lost a true appreciation for beauty. We are not sure why we need to study poetry anymore, or why we should care about making art that elevates the soul, or why we should care about the great works of Mozart and J.S. Bach. We can’t even agree about what is beautiful. I suppose even a trash can full of shit can look beautiful if you’re depraved enough to see it. Have you seen what counts as art these days?

I am reminded of the famous words of Fyodor Dostoevsky through his great character Prince Myshkin: “beauty will save the world.” It would seem so. Beauty will save the world because it will draw us back into contemplation. When authentic beauty is appreciated and reverenced in our culture, it is a sure sign that our souls have once again found value in silence and can once again hear the voice of God.

Imagine a world in which beauty is reverenced. What place would there be for war? How could rape or any sort of violence against a human being exist when the essential beauty of each person is apprecated in its fullness? How could pornography exist in a world that honors true beauty? Of course, sin will always be a reality of our world, but if our culture, with all its great power to influence and shape minds, would only embrace goodness, truth, and beauty, what a different place this world would be.

Indeed, beauty just might save the world.


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